The burning of the Westmeath Independent’s offices and the associated print works in November 1920 was an extraordinary and distressing incident in Athlone’s history, with ramifications across the Midlands. In this edition of the blog, we provide a brief overview of the events surrounding the destruction of the paper, events which are discussed in more detail in the 16-page supplement published by the Westmeath Independent on 11 November 2020.*
In the early morning of 3 November 1920, the Crown forces attacked the Athlone Print Works and the adjoining offices of the Westmeath Independent. Masked men threw incendiary bombs through ground floor windows while others knocked a hole in the roof, from where they dropped more bombs into the building. By morning, the business, which had employed well over 100 people, was gone. How did it come to this? Why had the print works been attacked and why did the Crown forces regard the Westmeath Independent as an enemy of British rule in Ireland?
The Westmeath Independent and the print works were owned by Thomas Chapman, who had purchased the businesses in 1883 after moving to Athlone from Dublin. Limerick-born Michael McDermott-Hayes became editor of the paper in the early 1900s – a position he would hold until 1921 – having previously worked with a range of newspapers from the Limerick Leader to the Daily Express in Dublin. Despite his initial support for Irish recruitment to the British army, McDermott-Hayes would become increasingly critical of both the British government and the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) after the 1916 Rising. McDermott-Hayes was particularly enraged by what he considered as the IPP’s failures with regard to the treatment of interned republicans and the growing prospect of partition.
By the time of the Conscription Crisis of 1918, when the British government tried to impose compulsory enlistment in Ireland, the Westmeath Independent took a leading role in local efforts to defeat what the paper described as a ‘blood tax’ on the Irish people. This editorial policy did not go unnoticed by Dublin Castle and, in April of that year, it ordered that the paper be shut down for supposedly contravening the censorship regulations. In the early hours of 5 April, a party of British soldiers entered the offices of the Westmeath Independent and began to dismantle the printing machinery. This work took two hours, enough time for a crowd to gather in the vicinity and they ‘indulged in hissing and booing’ when the soldiers departed carrying boxes of disassembled printing equipment.
On the day after the suppression, which would last for two weeks, the Irish Independent interviewed Thomas Chapman. He declared that the Westmeath Independent had not received any caution from Dublin Castle, nor had the printing works published any pamphlets or literature that could be considered seditious. Apparently, the only explanation provided by the Castle was a terse note which stated: ‘Matter was published in the Westmeath Independent which was not submitted to the Press Censor, and infringed the Defence of the Realm Regulations.’
Chapman suggested that his paper was targeted by Dublin Castle not because it had broken any regulation but because it ‘pursued a strong political policy, demanding a settlement of the Irish question on independent national lines.’ Chapman was referring to his, and his editor’s, attitude towards Sinn Féin. By this stage, the paper was widely seen not only as a critic of the IPP but as a supporter of the republican party. This support extended beyond the pages of the paper since both chapman and McDermott-Hayes had become committee members of Sinn Féin’s Athlone branch in August 1917. Two months later, an editorial in the paper declared that Sinn Féin policies were the ‘only effective weapon to save the Irish nation’. Indeed, by the time of the local elections of June 1920 the paper was running banner headlines such as: ‘Sinn Fein is the Nation – Vote for the Nation’s Candidates’.
During 1920, McDermott-Hayes used his editorial platform to condemn British policy in Ireland with David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, being a particular target. He was, the paper editorialised in June of that year, ‘the greatest trickster of his age, an over-rated poltroon … whose love of office and power has made him a renegade …’ During the summer of 1920, when national newspapers were printing the outlines of a possible settlement for Ireland, the Westmeath Independent judged that republicans were correct to be wary of Lloyd George: ‘They have as much confidence in his word as they have in the promises of the ladies of the street’. When it came to a settlement for Ireland, the paper went further than many of its contemporaries. Whereas others pushed for full Dominion Home Rule for Ireland, the Westmeath Independent’s editorials hinted at a desire for outright separation from the British Empire.
The Westmeath Independent was thus one of the county’s most obvious critics of the Crown forces and British rule in Ireland. Yet it had always remained within the boundaries of the law, a point that was made by Frederick Roberts, MP for West Bromwich and a member of the Typographical Union, when he defended the Westmeath Independent in the House of Commons during 1920: ‘It may be that they have been critical of the Government, and rightly so, but I do not think it can be claimed that they have in the least degree abused the freedom of the great profession with which they are associated…’
While the Westmeath Independent remained within the boundaries of the law, the same could not be said of the Crown forces. The print works, as discussed in an earlier blog, was first attacked by the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary on 16 October 1920. They set fire to the building, causing much damage to the ground floor, although the rest of the premises was saved by Ellen Chapman and her maid. The events of that night were described by the Westmeath Examiner as an ‘outbreak of terrorism’ and the residents of Athlone were stunned and outraged by what had transpired.
The first attack on the print works marked the beginning of a short but intense period of violence in the county. A week after that attack, a section of the Crown forces carried out reprisals in Moate and in Athlone, where they shot and fatally wounded Michael Burke, a former town councillor. Despite the fevered atmosphere, the Westmeath Independent advised its readers, in an editorial on 23 October, that it would not change course:
All we can surmise is that the attack on our works was because of the publication of some article or item of news. Our paper has always been for a peaceful settlement, and has denounced, and will continue to denounce the awful misrule under which the country has been driven to the verge of the madness, and will aim at reflecting the opinions held by over 90 per cent of the people of the area over which it circulates. There is no bravado in this. We know the danger in which our property stands, and the material loss its destruction would mean for the owners. Our workers, too, are alive to the serious loss it would mean to them and to the town…
This was a courageous defence of free speech. Just over a week later, the Auxiliaries returned and launched their second attack. This time they destroyed the print works, silencing a newspaper they considered to be an enemy.
Cork Examiner, Freeman’s Journal, Irish Bulletin, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see: John Burke’s Athlone 1900-1923: Politics, Revolution and Civil War (The History Press, 2015); Ian Kenneally, The Paper Wall: Newspapers and Propaganda during the War of Independence (Collins Press, 2008); 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 (Cork University Press, 2017); and Ian Kenneally’s ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013.
*See the Westmeath Independent supplement, published on 11 November 2020
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 20/11/2020
This article was published on: 20th November, 2020
Filed under: Decade of Centenary