The first week of the Irish Civil War in Westmeath: part one

by Dr. Paul Hughes

One hundred years ago last week, in the early hours of Wednesday, 28 June 1922, the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army Executive’s headquarters at Dublin’s Four Courts was attacked by the National Army with two eighteen-pounder guns, which had been placed across the Liffey. This action, vividly recreated in Neil Jordan’s 1996 biopic Michael Collins, is traditionally viewed as the first shots of the Irish Civil War.

What followed in the capital of the fledgling Irish state was seven days of death and destruction on a scale unseen since the Easter rising of 1916. After 24 hours of shelling, Provisional Government troops stormed the eastern wing of the Four Courts complex on 29 June, and following intense fighting, the building caught fire. On 30 June, hours before the remnant of the IRA’s Four Courts garrison eventually surrendered, the Irish Public Record Office – located in the building’s western wing – was the centre of a massive explosion, when fires from the shelling ignited a munitions cache. This tragedy, housed within the broader unveiling tragedy of civil war, destroyed most of Ireland’s historical records dating back to the Norman conquest. While some of the IRA garrison in the Four Courts surrendered, others escaped to the countryside, or joined the fighting elsewhere in Dublin. The anti-Treatyites – described by the Provisional Government and the press as ‘Irregulars’ – occupied hotels and other prominent buildings on O’Connell Street and the surrounding area, holding out amidst fierce fighting until 5 July, when a senior republican figure, Cathal Brugha, was mortally wounded. At the end of the ‘battle of Dublin’, nearly eighty civilians and combatants had died, and over 450 anti-Treaty republicans taken prisoner, amid severe material damage to the centre of the city.

Mullingar and north Westmeath

So what was the first week of civil war like in Westmeath? In Mullingar, the most prominent story occupying the headlines was not the looming threat of fratricidal conflict, but an investigation into the murder of an elderly woman, Mary Keane, at her home in Monilea, near Crookedwood. Once the shelling of the Four Courts began however, the impact of the deteriorating national situation was immediately felt. As was the case during the Easter rising, Midland and Great Western Railway trains were prohibited from travelling beyond the station at Mullingar. As Mullingar, like Athlone, was a garrison town, movements of soldiers and military equipment intensified and a war situation was palpable. The departure of six lorries from Mullingar military barracks, reassigned to support Provisional Government troops in Dublin and Drogheda was widely reported. Among the troops were what the Belfast News Letter described as five ‘mutinous Mullingar men’, who refused to fight their fellow Irishmen and were subsequently arrested and court-martialled. The brigade activity reports in the Military Archives’ extensive Military Service Pensions Collection suggest that the IRA, under Tullamore native and Mullingar Brigade officer Harry Killeavy, formulated a plan to liberate the mutineers from the cells of what is now Columb Barracks. It was claimed that as a result of the plan, three of the soldiers managed to escape, and joined an IRA flying column subsequently formed by Killeavy.

Morale and discipline was not at an all-time high among the National Army troops in Mullingar; as well as facing the prospect of fighting their own countrymen and former comrades, the Westmeath Examiner reported that there had been a sharp increase in the number of Mullingar-based soldiers being ‘accidentally killed through their discharge of firearms’. Republican forces attempted to feed into any perceived weaknesses in the garrison by posting handbills around Mullingar encouraging soldiers to desert and join the anti-Treaty side. The leaflets warned troops that if they did not, ‘in a very short time they would find themselves in deadly combat with their brother Irishmen’.

On 28 June, remaining Government forces moved quickly to secure various public buildings in Mullingar, fearing a reaction from anti-Treaty forces in a town of strategic importance. Despite their urgency, the reality was that with the destruction of the IRA’s headquarters at the old RIC barracks, the republicans had little in the way of a strong presence in the town. Their divisional HQ left for Drogheda in early May, while some retreated to the countryside and, in particular, an IRA holdout at Rosmead House, the former home of the French nobleman Alexis Huchet, Marquis de la Bédoyère and his wife, Mildred (Marquise de la Bédoyère, née Greville-Nugent of Clonyn Castle), outside Delvin.

‘Rumours and reports’

Other IRA officers, like James Maguire – who ended the War of Independence as Mullingar Brigade OC – remained in the town, relying on friends for food and lodging. ‘When the Four Courts was attacked we had no information as to what was happening at all, we had merely rumours and reports,’ the Glenidan native later told the army pensions board. The line of communication with the IRA’s 1st Eastern Division headquarters in Drogheda was poor, and Maguire summed up the anti-Treaty presence in Mullingar as ‘disorganised’. On the morning of 28 June, he recalled that ‘18 or 19’ of the republicans presented themselves on the public square in Mullingar and laid down their arms. There was no amnesty, however, for Maguire and his fellow officers, who either planned to retreat to the countryside or follow an order to join the fighting in Dublin. On emerging from a motor garage in Mullingar, Maguire and three of his IRA comrades were surrounded, arrested and taken to the military barracks in Athlone. The intervention of a priest, the Westmeath Examiner stated, prevented the confrontation from taking a violent turn. In August, Maguire escaped from custody in Athlone and resumed his IRA activities. In the interim, Harry Killeavy took command of the IRA force in north Westmeath and divided it into two sections, including a flying column operating in rural north Westmeath.

By the following Tuesday, 4 July, Provisional Government forces made further arrests in Mullingar and had, according to the National Army journal An tÓglach, established a firm hold over the whole of County Westmeath. Mullingar remained the terminus for the Midland and Great Western Railway line, and all routes in and out of the town were held by government troops. Telephone wires were cut and all communications, barring those used by the National Army, were severed. On 4 July – a fair day in Mullingar – residents looked on with interest as troops erected barricades at the Green and Dublin Bridges, and using various materials, built a cordon across Earl Street (modern day Pearse Street) from P. W. Shaw and Co.’s to the Greville Arms Hotel, stopping traffic as it passed.

With Mullingar in hand and relatively calm, the National Army’s attention turned to outlying districts in the north and east of the county, particularly Castlepollard, Tyrrellspass and Delvin. The Westmeath Examiner reported that a skirmish in Tyrrellspass led to two civilians named Fox and Kiernan being wounded. In Castlepollard, as well as Ballymore and Rochfortbridge, the IRA burned old police barracks occupied by Provisional Government troops, and in the case of Castlepollard, a small outpost of soldiers was compelled to surrender by the IRA, who relieved them of their weapons and various military stores. Newspaper reports suggest that the National Army under Seán Mac Eoin moved quickly to recover the barracks and the material taken by the republicans, who were under the command of Harry Killeavy.

‘It’s no go, Joe…’

Provisional Government forces then turned up at Delvin, with the IRA section camped at Rosmead House within their crosshairs. On the evening of Monday, 3 July, a column of troops marched down the main street of the village when they were fired upon from the upper windows of a business premises. The Irish Independent reported that ‘rapid fire’ was returned and after a fifteen-minute fusillade, the republicans responsible for the initial gunfire surrendered. However, some of the IRA men appeared to escape capture, and in doing so, took two National Army soldiers – an officer named Byrne and one of his privates – as prisoners, returning to Rosmead. Provisional Government troops, led by Captain Peadar Conlon, followed the IRA to a field near Rosmead House, and after an intense exchange of fire the IRA section was forced to surrender and release the captured soldiers. The Meath Chronicle stated that the republicans also gave up a motor car, thirty hand grenades and other explosives, ammunition and some rifles, revolvers and shotguns. Six men were arrested, including future Fianna Fáil TD and minister Michael J. ‘Joe’ Kennedy, a long-time Sinn Féin organiser in Castlepollard, and Michael Ginnell, a nephew of the anti-Treaty TD, Laurence Ginnell.

The Chronicle correspondent claimed that in an attempt to evade capture, Kennedy ‘was attired in women’s apparel when arrested. One of the guard[s] having peered into Joe’s face is reported to have remarked on recognising him: “It’s no go, Joe.”’ And on that humorous note on an otherwise grave week for the country, the opening week of the civil war in north Westmeath came to an end.

How the first week of the Irish Civil War impacted on Athlone and south Westmeath will be examined in our next blog post.

Selected sources

Westmeath Examiner, Meath Chronicle, Irish Independent, Belfast News Letter, Westmeath Independent; An tÓglach; brigade activity reports and individual pension applications from the Military Service Pensions Collection (Military Archives).