Historian Ian Kenneally continues his study of the intelligence war between the IRA and Crown forces in Westmeath (1920-21), with a special focus on south Westmeath and the fate of Baylin farmer George Johnston, who was identified by the IRA as a spy in 1921.
As discussed in earlier blogs, the destruction of RIC barracks by the IRA during Easter 1920 was a pivotal moment in the War of Independence, one which hastened the decline of RIC authority. In Westmeath, the force abandoned many rural barracks, which were often hard to defend and vulnerable to attack. The RIC barracks that remained occupied were no longer a part of the local community but had become socially isolated fortresses. As the RIC retreated from the countryside, its ability to monitor and counter the IRA was diminished for the remainder of the conflict. The RIC Inspector General’s report for August 1920 admitted that in Westmeath, ‘the scarcity of police’ meant that many incidents and developments ‘were not reported at all.’ Indeed, as demonstrated in Michael Hopkinson’s book The Irish War of Independence, the British army came to realise by 1920 that the RIC could give little reliable information about republicans.
In Westmeath, the British army attempted to fill the gaps in its local knowledge through the use of intelligence officers. A central figure in these efforts was Captain Claude Tully, a military intelligence officer for the British army’s 13th Infantry Brigade, headquartered in Athlone’s Victoria Barracks. Tully regularly accompanied British army raiding parties and, to judge from contemporary accounts, he developed a network of contacts in the region. Frank O’Connor described Tully as ‘a very daring man’ who ‘went around on a motor cycle with two guns - revolvers - strapped to him, and was reputed to be a first-class shot with either hand’. Contemporary documents and later recollections from members of the Athlone Brigade are replete with similar descriptions of Tully, who reputedly wore chain mail or some type of body armour.
In O’Connor’s account, Tully ‘struck terror into people wherever he went’ and, files in the Collins Papers show that, in November 1920, Seamus O’Meara wrote to Michael Collins describing Tully as ‘the worst in the Barracks’. A number of contemporaries describe him as threatening to shoot prisoners and there is at least one account of Tully using a civilian as a human shield when travelling with other officers (discussed below). Tully’s activities made him a prime target for the Athlone Brigade and O’Meara claimed that Collins ordered the brigade to assassinate the British officer. Tully, however, would prove to be a shrewd adversary. Unlike high-profile figures such as RIC sergeant Thomas Craddock and Colonel-Commandant Thomas Stanton Lambert of the 13th Infantry Brigade, both of whom were shot dead by the IRA’s Athlone Brigade, Tully was never negligent when it came to his personal security. Although he made many motorcycle journeys through the countryside, Tully did not have a regular travel pattern, thus frustrating IRA efforts to lay an ambush. Thomas Costello recalled that: ‘We laid ambushes for him, in all about 15 times, but he always succeeded in evading us by returning by another route.’ In urban areas, Tully rarely travelled alone and was usually accompanied by other officers – a practice that stymied at least two IRA ambushes.
Tully seems to have been an effective intelligence officer. Anthony McCormack, a captain of the IRA’s Tang Company, was arrested by the Crown forces in January 1921 and taken to the barracks in Athlone for interrogation by Tully. McCormack later recalled that he was ‘astonished’ that Tully already knew the whereabouts of an IRA arms dump used by the Tang Company. Michael McCormack, an adjutant in the Drumraney Battalion of the IRA’s Athlone Brigade, was captured by the Black and Tans in late April 1921. He recalled that he, and his fellow prisoners, were beaten by their captors before being taken to Ballymore RIC barracks for identification. From there, they were taken to the army barracks in Athlone, where ‘there was a big number of prisoners’. After being held in Athlone for about three weeks, McCormack was brought before Tully for interrogation. On this occasion, Tully focussed on national rather than local issues, asking the prisoner if he would ‘accept anything less for the country than a Republic’ such as ‘a status of that of Canada or South Africa’. McCormack, who replied that only a republic was acceptable, believed that ‘Tully was really sounding the prisoners to find out what their feelings regarding a settlement were’.
According to Michael McCormack, the closest that the IRA came to killing Tully was in July 1921 near Drumraney Church. Three IRA Volunteers in the area (not including McCormack, who was still incarcerated) encountered a ‘large motor car halted on the road, containing a number of British Military Officers including the famous Captain Tully’. The IRA regularly cut trenches and created road blocks in the area, one of which had stopped Tully’s party. McCormack stated that the British soldiers had a hostage in the car, a man named William Moran, whom they were using as a means to discourage an IRA attack on the vehicle. The three Volunteers could see the hostage and so withdrew to ‘the old school beside Drumraney Church’, which was located on higher ground. After some time, Tully departed the vehicle and walked in the direction of the old school, giving the IRA a clear view of the intelligence officer. A Volunteer fired at Tully ‘and apparently hit him as he fell backwards, but he was quickly up again and under cover’. For the next twenty minutes, the IRA and the British officers exchanged gunfire until both sides withdrew without suffering casualties. McCormack concluded that Tully’s survival unscathed despite seemingly being hit by a rifle shot ‘tends to confirm the belief which then existed that he always wore some type of armour’.
It is not surprising that Tully was repeatedly targeted by the IRA. British army intelligence officers such as Tully were vital sources of information for the Crown forces. However, the system was dependant on individuals and was vulnerable to disruption in the event that those officers were killed. In Dublin, for example, the IRA had targeted individuals in the intelligence gathering section – the ‘G’ Division – of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), causing immense damage to that organisation. If the Athlone Brigade had managed to kill Tully, or otherwise remove him from active service, it would have undermined the Crown forces in the region.
One important feature of the intelligence battle between the IRA and the Crown forces is the issue of spies and informers. In an earlier blog, we discussed in detail the shooting of alleged spies by the IRA in Westmeath: Martin Lyons, James Blagriff and a man named Maher. Each of these people were assassinated by the Athlone Brigade during 1920, although it is often hard to untangle the details of those events. For example, in the case of James Blagriff, at least some local IRA officers doubted that Blagriff was a spy.
Another supposed spy was George Johnston (sometimes referred to as Johnstone), a farmer in his mid-thirties who was shot dead by the IRA in Baylin near Athlone on 11 April 1921. Johnston was Protestant but the other three alleged spies mentioned above appear to have been Roman Catholic and there is no evidence of sectarian motives in the IRA’s targeting of Johnston. He was described by contemporary newspapers such as the Westmeath Examiner as ‘an extensive farmer’, which leaves open the possibility that a land dispute lay behind the attack. Frank O’Connor recalled that Johnston ‘had been a gamekeeper in earlier years and, as such, was responsible for a number of prosecutions against individuals.’ Perhaps some local people held a grudge against Johnston but this is speculation and such agrarian conflicts may be entirely unconnected to the events of April 1921.
According to Seamus O’Meara, an investigation was made of Johnston and the decision to execute him was made after a brigade council meeting. As in other cases, intercepted letters from IRA raids on mail trains were used to implicate Johnston as a spy. Thomas Costello stated that one such raid uncovered a letter to ‘the British Intelligence Authorities which seemed to indicate that he was the principal Intelligence agent for the county’. Johnston, stated O’Meara, was also in regular contact with Captain Tully. There is no evidence to prove or disprove these claims. However, Tully could not have carried out his intelligence work without maintaining a network of contacts in the region and Johnston may have been one of those people from whom he obtained local information on IRA activities and personalities. Whatever the reasons behind the attack, a contemporary account of Johnston’s shooting makes for grim reading. It was described by Henry O’Brien who was part of the execution party:
We went to his house, but he was not at home. A local boy told us that he was in the house of a neighbour. We went to this house and asked for him. When he heard his name being mentioned he made an attempt to get out by the back door of the house, but one of our fellows grabbed him before he could get out of the kitchen. He struggled violently, tearing one of our men’s coats right off him and fought like a tiger. It was apparent that he realised he was for it and he fought with all his power to get away. We were compelled to shoot him in the kitchen of the house where he was. We took his body some distance from the house and having put the usual label, as was done in some cases, on it, left him there.
The usual label that O’Brien referred to was a card bearing the line: ‘Spies and Traitors beware. I.R.A.’
Throughout the War of Independence, the IRA was constantly fearful of the damage that could be caused by spies and informers. For example, it is likely that the Mullingar Brigade was compromised by informers within its own ranks. During October and November 1920, that brigade was weakened when the Crown forces carried out a series of mass arrests following the IRA’s kidnapping of a Resident Magistrate and a Justice of the Peace. Many of the brigade’s leading officers were arrested and brigade members continued to be arrested during the remainder of the War of Independence. For example, in April 1921, David Daly of the Athlone Brigade was sent to Mullingar with orders to get the IRA ‘actively going in that area in order to draw off the enemy pressure on ours.’ Daly had little time to make a difference as he was captured during a raid by Black and Tans while approaching Mullingar. The timing of Daly’s arrest suggests that the Crown forces had ample intelligence on local republicans, some of it perhaps gathered from informers within the IRA. James Maguire, O/C of the Mullingar Brigade, later voiced his suspicions: ‘It often struck me that someone was giving information to the enemy in our area.’ Maguire was probably correct in this suspicion although, as is often the case when discussing aspects of the intelligence battles during the War of Independence, the documentary evidence does not provide a conclusive answer.
Bureau of Military History Brigade Activity Reports; Bureau of Military History Collins Papers; Bureau of Military History Military Service Pensions Collection; Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; RIC Chief Inspector’s monthly reports for Westmeath; UK War Office Armed Forces (General Administration) Files; Freeman’s Journal, 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); Liam Cox, Moate - County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); Brian Heffernan, ‘The Catholic Church and 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); Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence (Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 2002); 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); Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013; Seamus O’Brien (Ed), A Town in transition: Post Famine Mullingar (Mullingar, 2007); Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin, The Dead of the Irish Revolution (Yale University Press, 2020); and Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, ‘Spies and Informers Beware!’: IRA executions of alleged civilian spies 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).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 19/05/2021
This article was published on: 19th May, 2021
Filed under: Decade of Centenary