In our previous post, we discussed the assassination of Thomas Craddock in August 1920 and the escalation of the IRA’s campaign in Westmeath. In this edition, we discuss events in and around Athlone during subsequent months.
During the first half of October the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) carried out many raids around Athlone, both in Westmeath and Roscommon. In Cornafulla, at least some of these raids were carried out by a group of men whom locals described in the Westmeath Independent as being ‘of military bearing’, with ‘some dressed in fawn trench coats and grey caps, while others wore black coats’. According to a series of interviews carried out by the paper, this group smashed in the doors and windows of a small building that served as the local Sinn Féin hall before raiding the houses of the Macken, Naughten, Keena, Tyrrell, Hynes and Lennon families. In the Naughten household, the occupants were forced to kneel on the kitchen floor, while one of the raiders threatened to shoot them. One of the Macken household, with a gun pointed at his forehead, was forced to call out ‘God Save the King’.
The raiders were not looking for information but were giving a warning to the IRA. Most of the above families were republican, with members who were active in Sinn Féin or the IRA. Patrick Lennon, for example, was a leading volunteer in the local IRA, although he was away from home when this raid occurred. In each instance, the men warned the families that, if there were any attacks on police in the locality, then they would return to inflict revenge.
These ‘uniformed men’ were members of the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary, more commonly referred to as the Auxiliaries, and they, along with the Black and Tans, had gained a reputation for violence against civilians and businesses. During the previous March, new recruits to the RIC begin to arrive in Ireland as part of the British government’s plan to bolster the police. Due to a shortage of the regular RIC uniforms, the new recruits were provided with a mixture of police and military clothing, earning the nickname, ‘Black and Tans’. From July 1920 the RIC received an additional supplement in the form of an Auxiliary Division, a heavily-armed and elite corps of ex-British army officers. It was October 1920, however, before they became a visible presence in Westmeath.
At that time there may have been confusion in Westmeath as to the differences between the various elements of the police. That partly explains the euphemism ‘uniformed men’ when discussing the actions of groups such as the Auxiliaries. The use of this phrase also offered newspapers a small measure of protection, meaning that they could avoid explicitly blaming the police or the British army in cases where they had carried out acts of violence – a useful option at a time when newspapers remained under the threat of suppression from Dublin Castle or reprisal from the Crown forces.
One section of those ‘uniformed men’ would arrive in Athlone on Saturday 16 October, causing mayhem in the town. During the previous week, the town’s Victoria Barracks had received regular convoys of lorries carrying troops and supplies of various kinds. Newspaper reports suggest that many people were unnerved by this activity but there was no sense that the Crown forces were going to direct these resources against the town. For much of that day, the town was quite but ‘On Saturday evening, “Auxiliaries” arrived’. These new additions to Athlone were, according to the Westmeath Independent, 'not under rigid discipline' and there was a growing restiveness among townspeople, a sense ‘that normal conditions had been somehow disturbed’.
Later that night Athlone suffered what the Westmeath Examiner called ‘an outbreak of terrorism’ when, before midnight, groups of uniformed men began firing weapons in the centre of the town. A few houses, such as the home of a well-known republican Seán Hurley, were raided. While these raids were in progress there was a series of ‘loud explosions on the Leinster side of the town’. This was the sound of an incendiary bombs being thrown into the premises of the Westmeath Independent and the Athlone Print Works. When this attack had started the building was occupied by only two people: Ellen Chapman, the wife of the paper’s owner, and a maid. The two women fled the building, outside of which Chapman could see twelve armed men ‘moving away from the burning’.
Chapman headed towards Church Street and the houses of some of the paper’s employees but her progress was stopped by a military party. She implored them to aid in quenching the fire but the soldiers did nothing. Chapman returned to the print works, where she could see that ‘a quantity of printed matter that supplied the original flames had burnt itself out’, although other sections of the ground floor remained ablaze. Chapman, along with her maid, displayed remarkable determination by re-entering the printing works to fight the flames. Their task was aided by the fact that the attackers had not tampered with the building’s water supply and they were able to avail of ‘a plentiful supply’ to quench the fire, although a substantial portion of the ground floor was damaged and two printing machines were destroyed. According to the Freeman’s Journal, ‘petrol cans and portions of hand grenades were found about the works’.
The Westmeath Independent and many other newspapers gave detailed report on those events, describing the sense of shock that pervaded the town in the days after. That paper described the general reaction among locals to the night’s events: ‘they were in a state of wrath that they had been victims for no reason whatsoever’. Prior to this, the paper stated, ‘relations between the people and the forces of the Crown of all grades were not unfriendly’. The town’s citizens had ‘made it a subject of congratulation that Athlone was immune from the tragic happenings taking place elsewhere…’ All this ‘good standing of long duration had been swept away’ the paper warned.
In its editorial the Westmeath Independent had made the point that, during the time of the attack on its premises, the town was legally under the control and protection of the military since it occurred during the curfew hours of 10.30pm to 5.30am: ‘At the time the attack was made the streets were patrolled by the regular military, an armoured car was not far away and the men who sought to set fire to and destroy these works had the protection and support of mighty England…’ The paper reiterated this point, declaring that the it did not matter which branch of the Crown forces had carried out the attack for they were all complicit in what had occurred.
The following day the IRA decided to retaliate against the Crown forces, launching an attack on a military patrol travelling by boat on Lough Rea. In forthcoming posts, we will discuss that ambush and the changing relationship between the people of Athlone and military barracks, as well as incidents in Mullingar and elsewhere during a chaotic time for the county.
Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner. For more detail, see: John Burke’s Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); 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; Ian Kenneally, ‘Irish newspapers during the War of Independence’ in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy, with associate editor John Borgonovo (Cork University Press, 2017); David M. Leeson, ‘The Royal Irish Constabulary, Black and Tans and Auxiliaries’ in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy, with associate editor John Borgonovo (Cork University Press, 2017) and Russell Shortt’s, ‘IRA Activity in Westmeath during the War of Independence, 1918-1921: Part Two’ in Ríocht na Midhe: Records of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, 2006.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 03/11/2020
This article was published on: 3rd November, 2020
Filed under: Decade of Centenary