Ten days: the barracks, the standoff and the bloodshed

Left: Longford native and National Army soldier Patrick Columb, who was killed in violent pre-civil war incidents in Mullingar on 27 April 1922. Right: A headline from the front page of Cork’s Evening Echo, 22 April 1922.

Ten days: the barracks, the standoff and the bloodshed

Just over one hundred years ago, on Tuesday, 18 April 1922, Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) personnel from Westmeath and surrounding counties left the military barracks at Mullingar. It was the beginning of the end of a protracted handover of the barracks to the new Irish Provisional Government, which began on February 13 with the departure of troops of 1st Battalion, the Royal Sussex Regiment.

On that occasion, the barracks was presented to what still then, nominally, the Irish Republican Army (IRA). James Maguire, the Glenidan-born officer commanding the IRA’s Mullingar Brigade, received the facility from the Sussexes with an officer from the Dublin Brigade, C. S. ‘Todd’ Andrews. A veteran of the War of Independence, Andrews went on to serve the state in many capacities after the Civil War and became the patriarch of a political dynasty, as well as grandfather to the host of ‘The Late Late Show’, Ryan Tubridy.

In his 1979 autobiography, Dublin Made Me, Andrews recalls the initial Mullingar handover in vivid detail. Despatched to the midlands by high-ranking IRA GHQ officer Emmet Dalton, Andrews was met with “chilly politeness” by the major in charge of Mullingar barracks and oversaw an inventory of items being left behind by the departing British forces. He recalled that British officers and men had an “utter indifference to Army property” and left behind in Mullingar a “very fine hospital with a well-equipped operating theatre and a fully stocked pharmacy”.

The barracks, Andrews added, was “clinically clean”, with a luxurious officers’ mess. In spite of the plush digs, Maguire couldn’t find enough men to garrison the barracks, with the result that “some had to be sent down from Dublin, including an officer” to take charge of the facility. The subsequent reoccupation of the barracks by the RIC for the next two months initially alarmed the people of Mullingar – always proud and covetous of their barracks – but their fears were soothed when reassured that this was a temporary measure to provide for the police force’s demobilisation.

Andrews’ account leads us to believe that he left Mullingar at this stage and did not return. “The local IRA visited the pubs and held up the RIC men, taking possession of their rifles and revolvers,” he states. “It was not a very high-minded effort. I certainly could not do anything to prevent it.”

The autobiography refers to Dr Andy Cooney’s ascent as “Commandant of the [IRA’s] First Eastern Division” after the March 1922 Volunteer split. By April, there were two military forces vying for supremacy in the jurisdiction of the Irish Free State – the pro-Treaty National Army, loyal to the Provisional Government and decked out in new green uniforms, and the largely plain-clothes anti-Treaty IRA, a smaller but zealous and well-armed force. Strategically important police and military barracks became bones of contention, and Mullingar became central to this pattern of confrontation in the provinces.

In Dublin Made Me, Andrews omits his part in the intrigues that followed in Mullingar, but the ensuing crisis is outlined in detail in Michael MacEvilly’s superb 2011 biography of Andy Cooney, entitled A Splendid Resistance.

Cooney identified Mullingar as a strategically important location for a number of reasons. It was an important railway hub and the well-appointed military barracks could cater to a thousand men. The town was also a gateway to the west and south, and being in the electoral constituency of National Army general and TD, Seán Mac Eoin, the capture of the barracks, and by extension the town, would be an important prize for the anti-Treaty side. For that reason, Mac Evilly writes, Cooney set up an IRA Divisional GHQ at the former RIC barracks on College Street – now Mullingar garda station. From this position, Cooney and Andrews hoped to take charge of the lightly-defended barracks “by a ruse”.

On 18 April 1922, Andrews and a small squad of Volunteers took over a telephone exchange near Mullingar Railway Station, and told the small Mullingar barracks garrison that he had been ordered by Provisional Government forces at Beggar’s Bush, Dublin, to take charge of the facility (Andrews believed that a number of National Army soldiers in Beggar’s Bush were sympathetic to the anti-Treaty cause). Reports in the Westmeath Examiner dated 22 April suggest that the “ruse” amounted to more than just a deceptive phone call; telegraph wires around the town of Mullingar were cut, and obstacles were placed on roads surrounding the town, in order to slow down the expected arrival of Provisional Government forces.

However, it appears that the government was well appraised of the plot and moved quickly to occupy the barracks with its own troops. National Army officer Captain Hugo MacNeill – a nephew of the Gaelic scholar Eoin MacNeill – had already arrived in Mullingar on the previous day (Monday), and received the barracks from the departing police contingent. On the Tuesday, the same day as the deception planned by Andrews and Cooney, pro-Treaty general J. J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell arrived in Mullingar with a small force to bolster MacNeill’s. O’Connell was a pre-1914 veteran of the US Army’s 69th (New York) Infantry Regiment, known as the ‘Fighting Irish’, and brought back to Ireland what he had learned, serving with the Irish Volunteers and later the IRA through the Rising and War of Independence periods. Director of Training for the IRA during the War of Independence, he had a sharp military mind, and understood the urgency of what was happening in Mullingar, and as MacEvilly points out, feared the consequences of the town becoming an anti-Treaty bastion.

The Westmeath Examiner reported that the “entire transfer” of the barracks was “carried out in a very smooth manner, and everything was quite peaceful in the town”. Large crowds gathered in the streets to greet the Provisional Government soldiers, the report continued, congregating on the Green Bridge, the Fair Green and outside the barracks itself.

By late on the afternoon of Tuesday, 18 April, the barracks was well manned, with a detachment of pro-Treaty General Seán Boylan’s 1st Eastern Division arriving at the facility, by which time any hopes of a takeover by the republicans were scotched. A coat belonging to Boylan – father of the famous and eponymous Meath football manager – was among the artefacts on display at the museum of Columb Barracks before it closed its doors in 2012.

The arrival of MacNeill, O’Connell and Boylan heightened tensions rather than dissipating them, especially when O’Connell moved to arrest five anti-Treaty republicans near the old Longford Road while on a tour of inspection. Negotiations followed, and James Maguire, holed up with Andy Cooney at the old RIC barracks, managed to secure their release.

The ambient level of confrontation ratcheted up further when in a bid to forestall any interruptions to their communications, Provisional Government troops occupied Mullingar Post Office and reinforced the rear of the building with sandbags. To the rear was a yard which was the only border between them and the anti-Treaty positions in the RIC barracks on the other side of the yard. The Irish Independent reported that there were parleys between both sides, but there were no eruptions of violence.

The republican response comprised the arrival of reinforcements from Tipperary and Offaly, which allowed them to spread out and set up positions in the County Hall, Mullingar courthouse and the technical school, which today houses Áras an Mhuilinn and part of Mullingar Arts Centre. The Belfast News Letter reported, without any evidence, that the incoming republican forces “commandeered” provisions, blankets and bedding from Protestant merchants in Mullingar, before stealing 300 cans of petrol from the Shell Company’s stores at Mullingar Railway Station.

Events in Mullingar were viewed with concern nationally, with the atmosphere of foreboding amplified by the Bishop of Meath, Dr Laurence Gaughran, who made an urgent call for unity in a homily at Mullingar Cathedral. Provincial papers spoke of Mullingar being “invaded” by both republicans and Provisional Government troops ahead of an expected clash.

The seriousness of the standoff is underlined by the elite nature of the Provisional Government military units coming to Mullingar. Among them was a detachment of troops under Lt Frank Teeling, a member of Michael Collins’ ‘Squad’ which eliminated a British intelligence detail in Dublin on Bloody Sunday. Teeling, MacEvilly writes, was followed to Mullingar by members of the Dublin Guards, a battle-hardened section of the Provisional Government forces drawn from old IRA units loyal to Collins.

The ‘Staters’, as they were known to the republicans in the RIC barracks, made several attempts to intimidate Cooney, Maguire and their men to clear out of Mullingar. Cooney, MacEvilly states, was held up by a soldier one evening and warned to pull his Divisional HQ out of Mullingar by 6pm or face an attack, with Teeling itching for a fight. However, due to the intervention of Fr J. P. Kelly, the administrator of Mullingar parish, cooler heads prevailed.

The time for cool heads was drawing to an end however, and on 23 April, a provocative rally was held on Mullingar’s Market Square, with Éamon de Valera and Harry Boland among those promoting the anti-Treaty message (the ranking anti-Treaty TD in the constituency, Laurence Ginnell, had not yet returned from Argentina). Two days later, an incident in the south of the county created the conditions that ended the uneasy peace in Mullingar.

‘Tragedy and shadow’

The immediate path to violence in Mullingar on 27 April 1922 – the sort of violence unheard of in the town, even at the height of the War of Independence – began in the south of the county on two days earlier.

George Adamson, a brigadier in the National Army and a native of Moate, died in strange circumstances after being shot in the head after a confrontation with armed men on the streets of Athlone. Unnamed members of the anti-Treaty IRA were immediately blamed for the murder, but the facts of the case were shrouded in mystery, and Rory O’Connor, a senior anti-Treaty IRA leader, would later implicate another high-ranking pro-Treaty officer, Seán Mac Eoin, in Adamson’s demise.

Though Adamson (25) had been schooled in the ways of the British Army and served with distinction in the First World War, winning a Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous bravery, he had long since renounced his British connections and his war pension. He became a respected and popular IRA officer during the War of Independence, and the logic behind his becoming a putative target for assassination by the anti-Treatyites at that stage in 1922 is difficult to follow. Nevertheless, his comrades in the National Army pursued that line vigorously, and Mullingar became one of their first ports of call in exacting retribution.

The departure of ‘Ginger’ O’Connell and Hugo MacNeill from Mullingar to attend to other National Army duties meant that command of Mullingar military barracks fell to a Captain Peadar Conlon. Michael MacEvilly, in his biography of IRA officer and future chief of staff Dr Andy Cooney, states that Conlon decided to “take matters into his own hands” as news of Adamson’s death filtered through on 25 April. He despatched Provisional Government troops to the streets of Mullingar, and they arrested two officers from the anti-Treaty garrison as hostages in light of Adamson’s death.

This brought about a severe escalation in tensions in Mullingar, and as MacEvilly states in his account, resulted in a visit to Mullingar barracks by General Seán Mac Eoin on the night of 25 April. The next day, the situation became critical when Cooney’s men apprehended five Provisional Government troops – three of them members of the elite Dublin Guards – and held them hostage as a counterweight to Conlon’s action. A military confrontation now seemed inevitable, as Cooney awaited an attack on the RIC barracks by Provisional Government forces.

National Army reinforcements arrived from Athlone in the early hours of Thursday, 27 April, under the command of Commandant-General A. T. (‘Tony’) Lawlor. The adjutant of Athlone Command, Lawlor had previously served in Britain’s Royal Air Force, disappeared for two years and then became an officer in the IRA’s Dublin Brigades in March 1921. Eager to prove himself in the ‘Free State’ ranks, he arrived in Mullingar and issued a stern ultimatum to Cooney’s garrison, promising a swift attack if the prisoners were not released. However, MacEvilly – drawing on newspaper reports and the Ernie O’Malley notebooks at UCD Archives – writes that the standoff was briefly defused when both sides agreed to a prisoner exchange. De-escalation also included the anti-Treaty side’s abandoning of Mullingar courthouse, the County Hall and the nearby technical school, and a retreat to the old RIC barracks.

The anti-Treatyites were in the process of moving materials from the courthouse to the RIC barracks before dawn on 27 April when all hell broke loose – scenes which the Westmeath Examiner later that week described as “tragedy and shadow”. National Army troops under orders from Lawlor approached the RIC barracks via Mary Street to make a final demand for the release of their men being held hostage. Their own account of the incident stated that they encountered a lorry at the top of Mary Street, from which they were fired upon by armed men. Patrick Columb, a company adjutant based in the military barracks who hailed from Columbkille, Co. Longford, was hit in the fusillade, and later died of his wounds.

A subsequent inquest heard claims from the anti-Treaty side that they were in the process of moving bedding to their new quarters at the RIC barracks, when Provisional Government troops ordered them to halt at gunpoint. When the driver of the lorry transporting the bedding – Ned McMunn – put the vehicle into reverse, he was shot at by the National Army troops, forcing the anti-Treatyites to return fire. McMunn was badly wounded, and according to a Sgt Willis of the National Army, Columb was hit when the anti-Treatyites returned fire from the police barracks.

Meanwhile, a number of republicans were arrested by Provisional Government troops and led down Mary Street. On reaching the junction of Dominick Street, gunfire erupted, and an IRA officer from Gaybrook, Joseph Leavy, was said to have been fatally shot by rounds fired from pro-Treaty positions at Mullingar Post Office. Provisional Government forces insisted that the firing that killed Leavy, who had been shot in the back, came from his own side, while the republicans viewed his death as an execution by pro-Treaty forces in retribution for the shooting of Columb.

A subsequent commission of inquiry into the events of 27 April failed to determine who fired the first shots of the affair, and such was the conflicting nature of the evidence given, the full truth may never be known. While the details of Leavy’s death certainly made uncomfortable reading for the Provisional Government, for the anti-Treatyites in Mullingar, it signalled the beginning of a retreat. By the end of the first week in May, they withdrew to the countryside east of Delvin after blowing up the RIC barracks in Mullingar; the same week, troops under Captain Conlon also drove them out of the vacated police barracks in Kinnegad and Ballynacargy.

‘I always regret that I didn’t dig into his story a bit more’

Mel Columb was about six or seven years of age when he first learned about his famous uncle – famous, that is, in the annals of Irish military life and above all, to the people of Mullingar.

“There was a long lane into our house in Dernaferst,” said Mel, referring to the townland at Lough Gowna on the Longford-Cavan border, where he, as well as his father, John James Columb, grew up. “The postman would come to the end of the lane and blow a whistle.

“We’d run out to try and be first to get the letters. On this particular day when I was six or seven, I was first, and I met a man in a duffle coat. He was doing temporary relief for our usual postman. I think his name was Cullen; I think he had been in the army.

“He said to me, ‘Do you know the army barracks in Mullingar is called after your uncle?’ Of course I hadn’t heard of this before. People didn’t talk about those kind of things in our house.

“So he told me a bit of the story, and that was the first I heard of my uncle, Patrick Columb. I ran back in to tell everyone the news, which, of course, they knew anyway. My family elaborated on it a bit more, but not a whole lot; it just wasn’t talked about.”

Mel said that his uncle’s importance in the story of the build-up to the Irish Civil War only “clicked” with him as an adult.

“The most I know about him is what I’ve read in the papers. His death is something my father never discussed. It kills me to think I let the time pass without querying it more. I didn’t get the inside story,” he said.

Some details of Patrick Columb’s life are known. Though they came from Dernaferst, within the borders of Cavan, the Columb family are more strongly associated with the Columbkille area of Longford. Patrick attended Pulladoey National School, and then enrolled at the Latin school in Moyne.

“The school in Moyne was the remnant of a hedge school, and the Community School as it is today sprang from it,” Mel explained. “I went there myself. Historically, people who went there usually went to learn Latin and Greek to become priests.”

Instead of joining the priesthood, Patrick went on to work as what Mel understands to be a sort of rate collector, or someone who served notice on behalf of the authorities. As a 22-year-old, at the outset of the War of Independence, he became involved with the Columbkille/Aughnacliffe Company in Seán Mac Eoin’s fabled North Longford IRA, although appears to have had a more background role compared to that of his brothers, John James (Mel’s father) and Frank. In 1922, he was encouraged by Mac Eoin to join the National Army, and so in April of that year found himself in Mullingar, where his fate awaited.

Unsure of Patrick’s exact rank, Mel has often seen his uncle described as everything from a private to a company adjutant, with the latter indicating he was an officer. “That he had a Sam Browne belt would suggest to me that he was an officer,” Mel explained. “It was around our house for years. I often played ‘Cowboys and Indians’ with it.”

Much to Mel’s annoyance, the belt has since disappeared; it was, for a time, on display in the old museum in Longford, which closed during the 1990s.

Just over ten years after the barracks named after his uncle closed its gates and surrendered its military functions, Mel and his family visited the facility to lay a wreath in his memory.

Over the last year, he has been working closely with Cllrs John Shaw and Bill Collentine, Mullingar Tidy Towns and historian Jason McKevitt to organise a small and solemn commemoration to mark the centenary of Patrick Columb’s tragic death, which took place on Sunday, 24 April.

“We’re glad to do something to recognise him, and his connection with the barracks,” Mel added.

‘My son fell in the first hail of bullets. He was the only support I had’

The plight of the family of Joseph Leavy, the member of the anti-Treaty IRA who was gunned down in the violent incidents of April 1922, was laid bare in a tranche of the Military Archives’ Military Service Pensions Collection files released in 2017.

The family, specifically Leavy’s mother, Sarah, were denied gratuities by the Irish Free State, after the Army Pensions’ Board found that none of them were dependent on their late son and brother.

On 27 April 1922, in the midst of tensions in Mullingar, Leavy was arrested by the National Army while moving military stores between the anti-Treaty IRA’s 1st Eastern Division HQ at the old RIC barracks (now Mullingar Garda Station) and their outpost at Mullingar Garda Station. Pro-Treaty soldier Patrick Columb had been killed in clashes in the same area of the town.

“[They were] marched out on the street [Mary Street, onto Dominick Street], their hands up and ordered to run. With machine guns blazing into them, they dashed for shelter. But my son fell in the first hail of bullets. He was the only support I had,” Mrs Leavy stated in her dependants’ gratuity application.

Mrs Leavy applied for a pension in 1933, a year after the ascent of the first Fianna Fáil government, which was led by former anti-Treatyites. Her son, John, and daughter Mary also sought gratuities. The latter claimed that her brother Joseph “always helped us to plant crops, cut turf etc from January 1919 right up to his death in April 1922”, and that he had often provided her with a “cash allowance from his wages”.

Joseph Leavy, who was 36 when he died, was originally from Belfield, Gaybrook, Mullingar. He was a member of 3rd Battalion of the IRA’s Mullingar Brigade during the War of Independence, which had its headquarters in Kinnegad. He was attached to the Milltownpass Company as a lieutenant at the time of the Truce in July 1921. He was laid to rest at Enniscoffey graveyard, Gaybrook on 30 April 1922 after a showpiece IRA funeral.

Despite continued claims by members of the Leavy family well into the 1950s, no dependants’ gratuity was ever awarded.
This piece was originally published as an article in the Westmeath Examiner, April 2022


Westmeath Examiner; The Belfast News Letter; Irish Independent; Michael MacEvilly, A splendid resistance: the life of IRA Chief of Staff Dr. Andy Cooney (Dublin, 2011); C. S. Andrews, Dublin made me (Cork, 1979); Military Service Pensions Collection files, Bureau of Military History witness statements (Irish Military Archives); Uinseann MacEoin, Survivors (Dublin, 1980); interview with Mr Mel Columb, nephew of Patrick Columb, 18 February 2022.

The above article is a slightly amended version of material which was published in the Westmeath Examiner dated 23 April 2022

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 27/04/2022