In earlier posts, we discussed the development of the IRA in Westmeath and the creation of brigades in Athlone and Mullingar. Here, we focus on the Mullingar Brigade. During 1920, that brigade struggled to arm and organise its battalions, leaving it ill-equipped to carry out offensive actions against the Crown forces.
Throughout 1919, the IRA in Westmeath was structured, nominally at least, as a single brigade covering the entire county and comprising the following battalions: 1st Battalion, Athlone area; 2nd Battalion, Drumraney area; 3rd Battalion, Summerhill area; 4th Battalion, Mullingar area. In practice, it proved difficult to co-ordinate actions between Athlone and Mullingar and for a few months in early 1920, the IRA in Mullingar and the surrounding areas received their orders directly from IRA General Headquarters (GHQ).
This was not a long-term solution, merely transferring the problem of directing operations from Athlone to Dublin and so GHQ decided, probably during August 1920, to create a new brigade. The Mullingar Battalion was no longer attached to Athlone and instead formed the lead battalion of the new brigade, which also had battalions in the areas around Loughnavalley, Kinnegad and Castlepollard.
David Burke was the brigade’s first O/C (commanding officer) but he resigned after a short period due to ill health. According to John Macken, the commander of the Castlepollard Battalion and one of the most active volunteers in the area, GHQ arranged a meeting of brigade officers in Mullingar to appoint a replacement O/C. GHQ was represented by Fionán Lynch and, perhaps, Tom Cullen and this meeting resulted in Patrick McCabe of Castlepollard becoming the new O/C, with James Maguire as Vice O/C.
The Mullingar Brigade faced many of the same problems as its counterpart in Athlone: primarily, a shortage of weapons. Macken recalled that: ‘We had no rifles in the battalion just shotguns and a small number of revolvers; of different types, only a couple of which were service weapons.’ The situation in the Mullingar area was similar with Michael McCoy, a local volunteer, stating that only a few rifles and ‘a fair sprinkling of revolvers of different types’ were available to the battalion. Some of these meagre supplies had come from disgruntled British soldiers in Mullingar, who, when heading to England on leave, sometimes sold their rifles to local volunteers.
When possible, the brigade supplemented its stock via opportunistic raids, such as that on the National Bank in Mullingar in late July 1920 through which it acquired four sporting rifles, four shotguns and three revolvers that were being stored on the premises. Later that summer, according to Patrick McCabe, GHQ ordered ‘a general raid for arms’, although the brigade obtained only a few weapons: ‘We collected an assortment of shotguns of all types, quite a lot of which were unserviceable, and a small supply of shotgun cartridges. We also got a couple of miniature rifles, but no service weapons of any type.’
Before the Mullingar Brigade’s creation, local volunteers participated in the IRA’s nationwide mobilisation during Easter 1920 when hundreds of abandoned RIC barracks and other public buildings were burned down. As we have seen in an earlier edition, the RIC abandoned many barracks across the county, such as those in Fore, Collinstown, Coole, Finea and Crazy Corner. This gave the local IRA more freedom to operate, especially in rural areas where they took on the role of policing during the summer of 1920. Patrick McCabe later stated that ‘the main work being carried out by the Volunteers at this time was police-work.’ However, GHQ expected the new brigade to more directly engage the Crown forces.
In October 1920 the Mullingar Brigade decided to kidnap Maxwell Moore, a resident magistrate who had been transferred to Westmeath after first serving in Monaghan. John Macken attended a meeting in the village of Fore with Patrick McCabe and James Maguire at which Moore’s kidnapping was planned. Maguire would bring three volunteers from Glenidon, near Collinstown, while Macken would bring three men from Castlepollard, ‘one of which would be a motor driver’. The ability to drive a car was a relatively rare skill among IRA volunteers in Westmeath with the neighbouring Athlone Brigade, for example, containing only three or four drivers.
According to Macken, Moore was targeted because he was ‘still holding the British courts’. This was a time, as we have seen in previous blogs, when Dáil Éireann was building a republican counter-state to replace British rule in Ireland. One consequence of the RIC’s abandonment of so many barracks was that it cleared the way for the expansion of Dáil Éireann’s rival system of governance and administration. A key element in this counter-state was the Dáil’s court system. During the summer of 1920, the courts established themselves as an integral part of the civil and commercial life of local communities, while the civilian population dealt the previous court system a devastating blow by refusing to appear as jurors. The Unionist Irish Times warned the British government of the significance of these developments:
The most serious feature of the current unrest in Ireland is the gradual suppression of British Authority by Republican Authority in all the matters that concern the general government of Ireland. Sinn Féin courts are elbowing the Four Courts and the County Courts into a brief-less desuetude.
As the Dáil courts gained in influence and popularity the number of resident magistrates declined. Between April and October 1920, according to a statement in the House of Commons, 1,069 magistrates out of a total of 5,000 resigned their commissions. In Westmeath, newspapers reported that Maxwell Moore was one of only a few magistrates still operating in the county. By kidnapping Moore, the Mullingar Brigade hoped to further destabilise the existing court system.
At about 10 am on 14 October 1920, Moore left Mullingar to attend the petty sessions court in Castlepollard. Moore, who was driving his own car, was accompanied by Gustavus Hyde, a justice of the peace who was described in newspapers as ‘a large landowner’ living a couple of miles outside Mullingar. Further along the road to Castlepollard, a small unit of IRA volunteers were preparing to ambush the vehicle – according to a later brigade activity report the group comprised, apart from Macken and Maguire, James and Mathew Bruton, Thomas Cunningham, James Murray, James Nea, John McLoughlin, James Kennedy, and perhaps one or two others, including Christopher Flynn. Macken and Maguire chose a spot near Crookedwood, blocking the road shortly before the arrival of the magistrate’s car. Moore and Hyde, in Macken’s words, ‘protested at being held up very strongly’ but they were blindfolded and forced into the back seat of the car.
The kidnappers may have hoped for a quick getaway but they were frustrated by the IRA driver’s inability to start the car, which was, apparently, an unusual model that he had not encountered before. Maguire ordered Moore to tell the driver how to start the engine but, as Macken put it, the magistrate ‘was not very helpful’. A frustrated Maguire threatened to shoot Moore who eventually said that the motor’s starter was on the steering wheel. Moments later the driver started the car, with Maguire joining him in the front seats. Before departing, the volunteers ‘put women’s hats’ on both the prisoners in what Macken described as a means to ‘disguise them in case we met police or military en route’. Fortunately for the IRA volunteers in the car, this disguise was not put to the test and they avoided patrols while making their way to a disused house in ‘the Ballymanus area’.
That afternoon, the Crown forces in Mullingar became aware that Moore and Hyde had gone missing, a development they correctly attributed to the IRA. A large force of police and military travelled to Castlepollard, where many houses and businesses were searched over subsequent days. The Crown forces paid particular attention to Kennedy’s Hotel, whose owner was described in the Sunday Independent and many other newspapers as a ‘prominent Volunteer’ (and perhaps related to the James Kennedy who took part in the kidnapping). Despite their suspicions, the Crown forces seemed to find little of value here, with many newspapers concentrating on the fact that the hotel was then occupied by the ‘Verdi Opera Quintette’ whose members had, according to the Westmeath Examiner, ‘delighted Mullingar and Castlepollard audiences’.
Such raids were accompanied by a more sinister occurrence, with notices being posted on walls across Castlepollard warning locals of what would follow should Moore or Hyde not be released from captivity:
Whereas, Maxwell Scott Moore, R.M., and Gustavus Hyde, J.P., were kidnapped between Mullingar and Castlepollard on the 14th inst., the people of Mullingar, Castlepollard and intervening country are hereby required to return these gentlemen unharmed to their homes 24 hours from 11 a.m. on the 15th. This is final.
Soon after new notices appeared, presumably posted by a local volunteer, warning the Crown forces that ‘if the town were injured the captives would be similarly treated.’ Later, as reported by the Westmeath Examiner, ‘a small number of Mullingar folk including Sinn Feiners received pencilled notices’ threatening that ‘their house would be gone and they themselves gone’ unless the captured men were released.
When planning the kidnap, McCabe and his fellow officers perhaps believed that it would be a relatively risk-free endeavour that would demonstrate the Mullingar Brigade’s abilities while also frightening Moore into ceasing his work. According to Macken, for example, ‘it was never the intention’ to hold the prisoners for ‘more than a few days’ and the brigade’s officers were unprepared for the response given by the Crown forces, large numbers of whom were sent to Castlepollard to conduct raids ands arrests. Nor were they prepared for the threats which sections of those forces aimed at the people of Castlepollard. There could be no doubt that, given the reprisals carried out elsewhere, the town was in grave danger. So, the IRA decided to release Moore and Hyde. It is not clear who gave the order but it was likely to have been McCabe.
The two men were set free on Friday night. There are various versions of when, and how, they were released but the Westmeath Examiner’s Castlepollard correspondent reported that, at about 8 pm, Moore and Hyde were blindfolded and placed at different points on the road. They eventually met one another and made their way to Castlepollard, reaching the town at 1.30 am. Their release may have spared Castlepollard and Mullingar from reprisals but, as we shall see in our next post, it marked the beginning of a disastrous period for the local IRA.
Bureau of Military History Brigade Activity Reports; Bureau of Military History Military Service Pensions Collection; Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; Hansards House of Commons Archive; RIC Inspector General’s Reports; Belfast Newsletter, Cork Examiner, Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Sunday Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see: Liam Cox, Moate – County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Athlone, Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013; and Russell Shortt’s, ‘IRA Activity in Westmeath during the War of Independence, 1918-1921: Parts One and Two’ in Ríocht na Midhe: Records of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, 2005 and 2006.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 23/11/2020
This article was published on: 23rd November, 2020
Filed under: Decade of Centenary