The Intelligence War in Westmeath, 1920-21 - Part One

Part of a communication from Michael Collins to Con Costello, Athlone Brigade IRA, on 4 November 1920, criticising the brigade for being unaware that the Divisional Commander of the Royal Irish Constabulary was moving about undetected in their brigade area (source: Collins papers, Irish Military Archives).
Ballynacargy’s Susan Goddard (née Poole), seen with her husband, the retired military officer H. G. G. Goddard, in a photograph published by the Irish Press (19 August 1955).

Ian Kenneally, who will be Westmeath County Council’s Decade of Centenaries Historian in Residence from August to December 2021, takes a look at the IRA’s intelligence war in Westmeath during 1920 and 1921, focusing on the south of the county.

Earlier editions of this blog charted the development of the IRA’s Athlone and Mullingar brigades, discussing topics such as organisation, weaponry, flying columns and attacks on the Crown forces. Both brigades suffered from a shortage of weapons and each was dependent upon a relatively small core of Volunteers. Another similarity between the two brigades was that they struggled to develop and maintain an effective intelligence network. Here, we will discuss the IRA’s efforts to gather intelligence and the response of the Crown forces, particularly the British army.

The IRA and its sources

After the War of Independence, Seamus O’Meara, one of the Athlone Brigade’s commanding officers (OC) recalled that: ‘Our intelligence service in the area never reached the high level of organisation desired.’ O’Meara’s statement was backed up by fellow officers, such as Henry O’Brien, a captain in the Coosan Company and a member of the brigade’s flying column. He was one of the IRA’s most active officers, taking part in high-profile incidents such as the Parkwood ambush in 1920 and the burning of Moydrum Castle in 1921. Yet he later stated that: ‘I have no knowledge of how our intelligence system in the area was worked other than that we were all supposed to be intelligence agents and to report everything we observed and heard about the enemy forces.’

During the conflict, Director of Intelligence Michael Collins was frustrated with the Athlone Brigade’s intelligence operation and its OC’s lack of attention to detail when returning reports. In November 1920, he admonished O’Meara for not directing communications to the correct department in IRA GHQ. Four months later, Collins wrote to the brigade, saying that ‘he was anxious to know what you are doing about intelligence work in Athlone’. It is clear from the Collins Papers in the Military Archives that Collins did not receive regular or, from his perspective, satisfactory intelligence reports from Athlone. The Mullingar Brigade similarly struggled to gather intelligence, with Patrick McCabe, brigade OC until his arrest in late 1920, saying that: ‘Intelligence officers existed in the brigade and battalions but were not of much value except for local intelligence purposes.’ Bartholomew Flynn, a Coralstown-based brigade officer, recalled that the brigade’s intelligence officers ‘lacked training’ and were ‘not very useful in the military sense’.

While the county’s IRA did not have a structured intelligence service, it did have access to a variety of sources through which to gather information. One such source was the British army. During 1919, the IRA made contact with British soldiers stationed in Mullingar and Athlone from whom they were able to obtain small numbers of weapons and it seems that a similar arrangement, at least in Athlone, persisted throughout 1920 and 1921. O’Meara stated that the IRA were in contact with ‘soldiers from the barracks who would leave messages with my brother’. Those soldiers were ‘always compensated’ for their information, which usually consisted of ‘impending raids and round-ups’. Frank O’Connor, a Coosan-based officer in the IRA’s Athlone Brigade, described how ‘some of our men actually worked in the military barracks and were able to get information sometimes about impending raids, particularly when big round-ups were being planned. They could see transport and other equipment being mobilised.’

The IRA also had contacts within the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Frank O’Connor stated that, in the Athlone area, there were ‘a couple of R.I.C. men who were inclined to be friendly and to pass out little bits of information about people who were on the wanted list and suchlike’. Elsewhere, snippets of information came from sympathetic policemen such as: Constable Guinan in Castlepollard; Constable Kelly in Kinnegad; and Constable Woods in Mullingar; among others.

According to many later accounts – witness statements, pension files, newspaper articles – Cumann na mBan was one of the Westmeath IRA’s most successful sources of intelligence and its members were routinely tasked with ferrying documents between IRA battalions. Unfortunately, many of the details of Cumann na mBan’s work were never recorded, particularly with regard to intelligence gathering. David Daly, a volunteer who was based in Athlone and later Mullingar, stated that intelligence work in the county was done ‘verbally’ since ‘records were a dangerous thing to keep’. Patrick Lennon, a member of the IRA’s Athlone Brigade, named Nellie Galvin, Cissie Tully and a Miss Connolly as particularly important to the IRA in the Summerhill and Athlone areas: ‘They often carried dispatches for us and were able to get through hold-ups and cordons of the enemy.’

Mary Halligan, of Carricknaughton near Athlone, was another who took on this role, as did her sister. According to Mary’s obituary in the Westmeath Independent in 1954, she ‘was a most active member’ of Cumann na mBan, who ‘risked her life on many occasions carrying dispatches.’ At times, Cumann na mBan members were deployed as scouts and Bridget Reynolds from Athlone later stated that, in October 1920, she helped volunteers escape capture by the Crown forces after an IRA unit had attacked a military patrol boat on the Shannon. Annie O’Connor (later Dowling), noted for her skills as an organiser, was another on whom the Athlone Brigade relied upon to gather intelligence, transport weapons and scout enemy forces.

Post offices, priests and Susan Poole

The IRA had some success in establishing links within post offices. Frank O’Connor recalled that a clerk in Athlone’s office ‘used to tap the code messages passing through to the enemy posts and send them to G.H.Q.’ However, Thomas Costello, who replaced Seamus O’Meara as the Athlone Brigade’s OC in early 1921, was dismissive of this source, saying that the deciphered messages ‘were always so outdated that they were of no value’. Kinnegad was similarly unproductive as the post office there was run by an ex-RIC constable who was hostile to the IRA. Mullingar’s post office was a more fruitful source for the IRA. James Hynes, a clerk in the office, regularly deciphered messages which he passed to David Burke and other members of the local IRA. However, the Mullingar Brigade was not always able to act on the intelligence provided by Hynes, as can be seen in the events leading to Sean Mac Eoin’s capture by the Crown forces in 1921. Hynes discovered that the Crown forces were aware that Mac Eoin was travelling by train from Dublin and that they were making preparations to arrest him. Although Hynes informed the local IRA of what was about to happen, they proved unable to prevent Mac Eoin’s capture.

The IRA was always on the lookout for new sources of intelligence and Seamus O’Meara stated that the Athlone Brigade was ‘able to pick up useful bits of information through the clergy’, although he did not provide more details. It is not clear which clergy members provided the IRA with information, although there are some documented examples of Catholic priests offering assistance to the Athlone Brigade. O’Meara stated that the brigade’s flying column was ‘billeted in a shed, the property of Father McGee [John Magee, local parish priest] at Tober’ in the days before the Parkwood ambush of October 1920. Magee was not the only priest in the area to provide material support to the IRA. The historian Brian Heffernan has listed Thomas Langan of Moate as another member of the Roman Catholic clergy who provided such assistance. Perhaps those priests, or others in the locality, were the intelligence sources mentioned by O’Meara.

A notable, albeit atypical source was Susan ‘Susie’ Poole in Ballynacargy. Both James Maguire, OC of the Mullingar Brigade, and Michael Murray, a captain in the brigade’s Ballynacargy company, stated that she provided useful information to the IRA. Poole was married to a British army officer named H. G. Goddard, although she was, apparently, eager to extricate herself from that situation. Maguire claimed that she ‘wanted to get her husband shot, and wanted the I.R.A. to do it, and was willing to do anything she could do in return for this favour’. Poole was in regular contact with high-ranking British officers including Lieutenant R. R. Money, who was the British army’s local intelligence officer attached to the 1 East Yorkshire Regiment in Mullingar, and Lieutenant (later Captain) C. C. Wallace, who was an adjutant in Mullingar Barracks.

Through information obtained from these contacts, Poole, according to Michael Murray’s account, was able to alert the IRA to forthcoming raids by the Crown forces. Murray was impressed with Poole’s work and he introduced her to Harry Conroy, an IRA intelligence officer in Mullingar who worked directly for Michael Collins. Eventually, after Conroy had made a report to GHQ, Susan Poole travelled to Dublin to meet with Collins. According to Murray, Poole remained in Dublin where ‘she entertained high-ranking Army and Police Officers of the British Forces’ although he had ‘no knowledge of what type of work she was doing for Collins’.

The second part of this blog post, including sources consulted, will be published next week, and will deal with more aspects of the intelligence war in south Westmeath, including the IRA’s shooting of the Baylin farmer George Johnston as a spy in 1921.

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 14/05/2021