The prelude to civil war in Westmeath: the Protestant experience

by Dr. Paul Hughes

Between the Irish censuses of 1911 and 1926, the Protestant population of Westmeath – that is, people living in the county who professed the creeds of ‘Protestant Episcopalianism’ (Church of Ireland/Scotland/England), Methodism and Presbyterianism – fell by 49.4 percent.[mfn]Census of Ireland reports, 1911 and 1926 (available at[/mfn]  According to figures cited by Andy Bielenberg, Westmeath’s decline represented one of the largest in the twenty-six counties of the Irish Free State, exceeded only by falls in Kildare and Galway.[mfn]Andy Bielenberg, ‘Exodus: the emigration of Southern Irish Protestants during the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War’ in Past and Present (Feb. 2013), p. 205.[/mfn] Of those Protestants who left Westmeath between 1911 and 1926, Bielenberg finds that just under half (21 percent in total) were born in Ireland.

Identifying the reasons for such a decline has stimulated much lively debate, and has forced historians to confront the emotive and controversial topic of sectarianism. Between April and June 1922, especially in the greater Mullingar area of Westmeath, there was a sharp increase in non-fatal violence, intimidation and property destruction against members of the broader Protestant community. In particular, events from c. 9-15 June 1922 would suggest that when this pattern was at its most intense, there was an element of co-ordination to it. While the facts of the privations suffered by Protestants, outlined below, are not up for debate, the motivations behind such a campaign are open to question. According to one analysis, southern Protestants were intimidated into becoming ‘an insignificant silent, even silenced, minority’, disintegrating in the face of an emerging Catholic state which wielded religion, agrarianism and Gaelic culture as weapons against them.[mfn]Robin Bury, Buried lives: the Protestants of Southern Ireland (Cheltenham, 2017), p. 11[/mfn] However, in her 2020 study of the fate of southern Protestants in Longford (1919-23), Marie Coleman has cautioned against the ‘reductive’ but oft-floated argument that Protestants were targeted for violence and intimidation purely because of their religion, advocating ‘a wider understanding of sectarianism which recognises it as a “complex of problems” built around ideas, behaviours and structures’.[mfn]Marie Coleman, ‘Protestant depopulation in County Longford during the Irish Revolution, 1911-1926’ in The English Historical Review, cxxxv (Aug. 2020), p. 935.[/mfn] Importantly, Coleman has also questioned why ‘discussion has focused on explaining the decrease in Protestant numbers between 1911 and 1926, rather than on the obverse question of why those who remained did so’. As will be outlined in this essay, with few exceptions, this was the case for those who were subject to intimidation and violence in Mullingar in the months leading up to the outbreak of civil war in Ireland.

On 24 March 1922, a group of gunmen, later suspected to be members of the Ulster Special Constabulary (the infamous ‘B’-Specials), broke into the home of a Catholic family, the McMahons, on Belfast’s Kinnaird Terrace. All eight males in the house were shot; six of them died. The killings, the latest bloody entry in a catalogue of violence which had gripped Belfast since 1920, sparked outrage throughout the island of Ireland. One of the most vocal groups against what Brian Feeney and other historians have defined as a ‘pogrom’ against northern Catholics were those Protestants who, post-partition, found themselves on the southern side of the border.[mfn]Brian Feeney, Antrim: the Irish revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin, 2021), pp 146-8.[/mfn] Days after the McMahon killings for example, George Rea, a Mullingar-based furniture dealer and auctioneer born to a Church of Ireland farming family in Hopestown, Ballinea, wrote a lengthy and considered letter to the Westmeath Examiner urging a negotiated settlement of the border question. He also appealed for calm in a country where sectarian violence reigned on one side of the border, and a spiral towards civil war on the other. He stated:

As a Protestant who can testify to the tolerance of my Catholic fellow-countrymen, from whom I have always received good will and support, I lift my voice in protest against the extermination of the Catholics of Belfast. I ask every Protestant South of the Boyne to do likewise. I feel it is our duty to do so in return for the freedom we enjoy.

Westmeath Examiner, 1 Apr. 1922.

Enclosed with his letter was a declaration which he urged his fellow Church of Ireland adherents, and members of other Protestant confessions, to sign and present to the parliament of Northern Ireland. The declaration accused northern unionist leaders of abusing their powers at the expense of a minority, creating the conditions for a ‘sad Chapter of Murder in Belfast’. Five weeks later, the representative church body of All Saints Church of Ireland parish in Mullingar echoed these sentiments with an unequivocal resolution ‘deplor[ing] most vigorously the cruel murders that are committed in the North-Eastern area of our beloved country’.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 6 May. 1922[/mfn] In passing the resolution, the Church of Ireland community was eager to place on record the most cordial relations between all sections of religious thought in this district, a spirit of friendly co-operation prevailing, and all working in harmony for the promotion of philanthropic and charitable objects for the benefit of the people and the town.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 6 May. 1922[/mfn]

These statements are evidence that the Belfast killings, coupled with the deteriorating political situation in the south which was epitomised by the violence in Mullingar throughout April, created palpable anxiety among Protestants living in Mullingar, who were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the nascent Irish state, which claimed the allegiance of all creeds living in its jurisdiction. With many of them Irish by birth and rooted in their communities, that allegiance came naturally, though it would be severely tested by the events of the spring and early summer of 1922. 

Course of events: April to June 1922

On the same week that George Rea sent his letter to the Westmeath Examiner, the I.R.A. responded to continuing attacks on Catholics in Belfast by intensifying their boycott of goods and services coming from the northern city. Through 1920 and 1921, the republicans had become adept at enforcing the boycott in Mullingar town, by frequently destroying Belfast-manufactured goods arriving at Mullingar railway station.[mfn]Paul Hughes, ‘Guerrilla activity at Mullingar Railway Station, 1921’,[/mfn] In early April 1922, the focus of the boycott, now directed by anti-Treaty republicans, moved to Castlepollard. Here, the incoming manager of the local Ulster Bank branch arrived with his belongings, which were transported by removal vans from Belfast. To enforce the boycott, the I.R.A. prevented the vans from returning to Portadown with the ‘goods and chattels’ owned by the bank manager’s predecessor.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 8 Apr. 1922[/mfn]

The republicans continued to press the boycott in the greater Mullingar area throughout April, perhaps as a practical way of demonstrating residual power in the wake of their unsuccessful attempt to occupy Mullingar military barracks midway during the month.[mfn]Paul Hughes, ‘Ten days: the barracks, the standoff and the bloodshed’,[/mfn] Days after this abortive takeover, a ‘uniformed officer’ of the republican forces handed in a notice to the offices of the Westmeath Examiner, announcing a reprisal policy connected to ongoing events in Belfast. ‘We have decided that for every further casualty in Belfast which is a direct outcome of the pogrom,’ the note stated, ‘every supporter of the pogrom in the Mullingar area will be fined £50, which fine will be personally collected by us’.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 22 Apr. 1922.[/mfn] The note, signed by ‘Anti-Pogromists’, said that the order would come into force on Monday, 17 April. Meanwhile, the Belfast News Letter claimed that anti-Treatyite reinforcements from Offaly and Tipperary, who arrived in Mullingar in subsequent days, had commandeered ‘large quantities’ of bedding, blankets and provisions ‘from Protestant merchants in the town’.[mfn]Belfast News Letter, 24 Apr. 1922[/mfn]The Examiner also reported this, without reference to the religion of the affected traders, adding that a deputation of local businessmen and public figures, headed by the Catholic administrator of Mullingar parish, Fr Joseph Kelly, met with both sides and were happy that there was ‘no inclination... towards hostile or aggressive action’.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 29 Apr. 1922[/mfn]

Porter, Sons and Co., the grocery owned by Protestant businessman Charles Vicars Porter, was among those businesses from which goods were requisitioned by the republicans. In a report to the Dáil on 26 April, the Provisional Government’s Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy, cited the seizure of goods from Porter’s as an example of how ‘the seceding section of the Army… [had been] raiding monies, commandeering goods, interfering with the press, [and] commandeering buildings.’ Much of this activity, Mulcahy added, was pursued ‘under cover of the declaration of the Belfast Boycott’. Porter’s had lost £150 worth of stock as a result of the raid. ‘The shop was completely denuded of sugar and butter, and Messrs. Porter threatened to close down if such acts continued,’ the minister added.[mfn]An tÓglach, 6 May 1922.[/mfn]

By 3 May, the anti-Treatyites, under the I.R.A.’s 1st Eastern Division OC, Dr Andy Cooney, had abandoned their headquarters at Mullingar’s vacant R.I.C. barracks, having also withdrawn from the courthouse, the county hall and the nearby technical school. The previous week, clashes in the town led to the deaths of one I.R.A. man, Joseph Leavy, and a National Army soldier, Patrick Columb. Days before these incidents, in the midst of an already tense situation, a spirit of ecumenism prevented a nasty situation from developing on Mullingar’s Church Avenue. Members of the Church of Ireland community attending a concert at the parochial hall, next door to All Saints church, were roused by armed men and marched across to the road to the Masonic Lodge. They were ordered to empty the building of its furniture and contents as the prelude to a bonfire after which, it was expected, the lodge itself would be burned. The Westmeath Examiner’s report of the incident suggested that, despite the historic tensions between Catholicism and Freemasonry, only the intervention of local priests stopped the burning from going ahead.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 29 Apr. 1922.[/mfn]

Some weeks later, on 12 May, a night-time raid took place on the rectory in the Church of Ireland parish of Moyliscar, to the south of Mullingar. The incident bore all the hallmarks of opportunistic crime, as opposed to being an action driven by political or sectarian motives. The rector, the Rev. Albert Erasmus Crotty, was attending a synod meeting in Dublin when a party of armed and masked men knocked on the door of his home, rousing servants from their sleep. They then ransacked the rectory and rifled through desks, forcing open strong boxes containing savings belonging to some of the servants. Menacingly, the departing raiders threatened the servants with dire consequences if they raised the alarm before a certain amount of time had elapsed.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 13 May 1922[/mfn]

Thereafter, the pattern of intimidation and violence tailed off until it reached a crescendo on the week commencing the night/morning of Sunday/Monday, 11/12 June. The destruction of two Protestant-owned country houses – Tore House, near Tyrrellspass, and Littleton House, near Glasson – was followed by an outbreak of gun violence against Protestant-owned properties in the town of Mullingar. During the early hours of 12 June, the sound of crashing glass woke residents of the town when shots were fired into the windows of a number of establishments, including the two outlets owned by drapery firm T. L. Hutchinson and Sons of Greville Street (now Oliver Plunkett Street); the grocery, Porter, Sons and Co., John Connolly’s drapery, Parsons’ boot store and the saddlery operated by Edward Loftus, all on Earl Street (now Pearse Street).[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 13 May 1922[/mfn] Compensation claims totalling £228 (nearly £9,100 in today’s money) were lodged by three of the businesses in the wake of the incidents, though none of the businesses’ stock was destroyed.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 17/24 June 1922[/mfn] Newspapers north of the border, keeping a close eye on passing events in Mullingar, remarked that in the aftermath of the attacks, the town’s main thoroughfare gave ‘the appearance of one of the devastated districts of Flanders during the Great War’.[mfn]Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 17 June 1922.[/mfn] The same publication speculated that the intimidation was designed to oust Protestants from Mullingar in order to source accommodation for Catholic refugees coming from Belfast. 

Coverage of the incidents in Mullingar was, curiously, far more colourful and detailed in northern unionist newspapers than it was in the Dublin dailies or the local press in Westmeath. The Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, for example, claimed that notices to quit land and property had been served on Protestants across Westmeath, and their Catholic staff warned to leave their employment or risk being wounded in forthcoming ‘storming operations’.[mfn]Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 17 June 1922.[/mfn] Another example is the case of the land steward of Mullingar Asylum, William Chambers Allen, whose story was widely reported in northern newspapers and even as far afield as Scotland, but received little or no coverage south of the border.[mfn]Northern Whig, 13 June 1922; Dundee Courier, 10 June 1922.[/mfn] Allen, a Presbyterian originally from Donegal, lived on the asylum grounds with his family, and on the evening of 9 June received a knock at his front door. When the knock went unanswered, shots were fired into the house. One of Allen’s sons gave chase and shot at the raiders, who disappeared into the night. According to one account, the genesis of the raid was an accusation that Allen’s son had joined the ‘B-Specials’, and had recently been spotted leading a group of Protestant men in drilling outside Mullingar.[mfn]Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 17 June 1922. Allen’s property was again raided by armed men in September 1922 (Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 23 Sept. 1922).[/mfn]

Meanwhile, in Killucan on the night of Tuesday, 13 June, further incidents were recorded. Moore’s grocery, drapery and licensed premises, which was managed by a member of the Church of Ireland, was broken into, while the home of the Williams sisters in the centre of the village was also damaged after an attempted break-in.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 17 June 1922.[/mfn]

During the early hours of the morning of Wednesday night, 14 June, an incident similar to that which took place in Moyliscar a month earlier occurred at Clondriss House, Killynon, Mullingar, the home of retired British Army major John Purdon and his brother, a retired colonel. Armed and masked men knocked on the front door of the house, gained entry and handcuffed the brothers, demanding they hand over whatever money was in the house. After a search, the raiders departed with £6, some cigarettes and other trifles. The Purdon brothers had a much less menacing experience than the staff at Moyliscar rectory. When they were finished their search, the raiders removed their captives’ fetters and ‘insisting on shaking them by the hands, wish[ed] them “good night” and departed’.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 17 June 1922.[/mfn] The incident at Clondriss was not the last to take place in the immediate area that week. The following day, gunmen returned to Killynon and fired shots at the home of a Protestant farmer, Richard Reynell, chairman of the Westmeath Farmers’ Association, smashing a number of panes of glass. Reynell, who was at home when the attack occurred, returned fire at the assailants, who withdrew after a lengthy exchange.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 17 June 1922.[/mfn]

Apportioning blame

An opinion piece in the Freeman’s Journal, published the day after the spate of incidents on 11/12 June, exonerated ‘all sections of the I.R.A.’ from blame for the ‘outrages’ in Mullingar and its surrounds.[mfn]Freeman’s Journal, 13 June 1922.[/mfn] The writer speculated that the attacks bore ‘all the features of the work of the agent provocateur’. The Westmeath Examiner emphasised what it understood to be the random and criminal motivation behind the attacks, claiming that they were ‘all apparently unauthorised and without any military or political direction’.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 17 June 1922[/mfn] However, the Church of Ireland Gazette saw it differently, linking the spate of attacks on Protestant businesses and landowners directly to news of the pact agreed between pro-Treaty leader Michael Collins and his anti-Treaty counterpart, Éamon de Valera, in the run-up to the 16 June general election.[mfn]Church of Ireland Gazette, 16 June 1922[/mfn] The pact, it was argued, had emboldened republican extremists who were now indulging in sectarian violence. A similar line was taken by the Ulster Association for Peace with Honour through the pages of the Northern Whig. The unionist organisation argued that the Provisional Government in Dublin had stoked violence against Protestants in Mullingar by circulating ‘grotesque statements’ about the treatment of Catholics in Belfast.[mfn]Northern Whig, 16 June 1922[/mfn] It cited, without attribution, a story about a Protestant householder in Mullingar who was ‘pulled out from his breakfast’, had a sack put over his head and was ‘taken down to the bog and put into it’ before being forced to leave the district immediately. ‘Will Mr. Churchill get an assurance from Mr. Collins or Mr. Griffith, provided they are able to give it, that these outrages on Protestants will cease?’ a spokesperson for the Association asked.

In Mullingar, many of the traders and landowners who had been targeted rushed to debunk a series of wild rumours which they believed fuelled the attacks. On 12 June, brothers William and Edward Murray, both members of the Church of Ireland who farmed at Barrettstown, Ballinea, wrote to the Westmeath Examiner to put paid to a ‘report’ that they had sent £100 to Belfast in support of the pogrom against Catholics. ‘The only subscription having anything to do with Belfast given by us was one for the relief of Catholic workers,’ the brothers stated, stressing that if anything, they had joined in the I.R.A.’s boycott: ‘Moreover, we have had no commercial transactions with Belfast for some time.’[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 17 June 1922[/mfn]

Thomas and Lewis Hutchinson, patriarch and heir respectively of the Mullingar drapery family who ranked among Westmeath’s small Methodist community, staked similar claims of support for Belfast Catholics. They had heard rumours that not only were they offering financial support to Loyalist gangs in Belfast, but also that they had taken part in anti-Catholic protests there, and had members of their staff engaged in paramilitary drilling. ‘We are glad to be able to state that these rumours are utterly false and without the slightest colouring of truth,’ they said.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 17 June 1922[/mfn] The Examiner published similar statements from C. V. Porter of Porter, Sons and Co., and the farmer F. W. Mitchell of Robinstown, Mullingar. Porter insisted that he had ‘always been non-political and non-sectarian’ in his views, and cited the fact that seventy-five percent of his staff were Catholics as evidence that he would be the last person supporting anti-Catholic pogroms in Belfast.

Thomas Hutchinson, meanwhile, had rarely involved himself in political affairs in Mullingar. One of the few occasions he put his head over the parapet was in May 1910, when he sparked controversy after calling for the closure of businesses following the death of the British sovereign, Edward VII.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 14 May 1910.[/mfn] Before the British evacuation in early 1922, Hutchinson maintained a close relationship with the British garrison in Mullingar, offering the wives of soldiers from the East Yorkshire Regiment generously discounted materials for the production of garments to be sold for the benefit of regimental charities.[mfn]The Snapper: the journal of the East Yorkshire Regiment, xvi (Aug./Sept. 1921), p. 95.[/mfn]

Hutchinson and the Purdons were not the only ones of those targeted who had connections to the British military. On the same night as the gunfire in Mullingar, to the south of the town at Dunboden Park estate in Gaybrook, decorated British military officer E. J. Cooper was given a fortnight’s notice to leave his property. Cooper was a major-general from a renowned military family who served in the Boer War and China, before commanding at brigade and divisional level during the Great War, after which he retired to Dunboden. In the days after receiving the anonymous notice to quit, Cooper took out an advertisement in the Westmeath Examiner notifying interested parties of a massive clearance sale at Dunboden, including livestock, horses, farming implements, household furniture and garden contents, to take place between 26 and 28 June.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 24 June 1922.[/mfn] The general and his wife Effie subsequently moved to The Abbey, a property in the centre of Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England.[mfn]‘Maj.-Gen. Edward Joshua Cooper’ at The Peerage ([/mfn] Whether the Coopers’ decision to leave Dunboden was predetermined, motivated by the prospect of civil war in Ireland or linked specifically to the notice to quit they received is not clear. 

Eugene Dunne, in his study of the decline of aristocracy in Westmeath (1879-1923), has identified an agrarian motive behind many of the attacks in June 1922. Given his strong military affiliations, Cooper could well have been viewed as low-hanging fruit for an agitation by the land hungry. The same is true of Col. H. L. Pilkington, whose mansion in Tyrrellspass, Tore House, was burned to the ground in one of the more violent episodes of the night of 11/12 June. The Pilkingtons had established an estate in Tyrrellspass as early as the seventeenth century, but before the First World War, Col. Pilkington had moved to London and leased Tore House to a local farmer, Henry J. McKenna; the McKennas were also members of the Church of Ireland. Dunne argues that ‘the motive [for the burning] seems to have been agrarian’ – the endgame in a series of agitations against the McKenna family dating back to 1914.[mfn]Eugene Dunne, ‘The experiences of the aristocracy in County Westmeath during the period 1879 to 1923’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Maynooth University, 2016), pp 325-7.[/mfn] In the weeks before the burning, on 22 April, a number of men called to Tore House and mistreated McKenna and his son, following which a party of Provisional Government soldiers were posted to guard the house – not unlike the Royal Irish Constabulary patrols sent to guard the McKennas during earlier agitations. Similarly, Dunne detects a strong hint of agrarianism in the burning of Littleton House near Glasson on the same night. Like Tore House, Littleton was the property of a Protestant landowner, Henry Napier Magill of Kinnegad, who had leased it to large tenant farmers, causing much resentment among locals who hoped it would be divided and sold under the terms of the Land Act.[mfn]Eugene Dunne, ‘The experiences of the aristocracy in County Westmeath during the period 1879 to 1923’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Maynooth University, 2016), pp 325-7.[/mfn] The Irish Times reported that on 12 June, one hundred armed men descended on Littleton and exchanged fire with a party of National Army soldiers guarding the house, before burning the mansion to the ground.[mfn]Irish Times, 17 June 1922.[/mfn]

The dramatic events at Littleton, and the sheer numbers of armed men involved, played into a narrative being fostered by the Provisional Government and its supporters to the effect that anti-Treaty forces were engaged in deliberately targeting of the Protestant population. On 20 June, the anti-Treatyites in Mullingar were forced to produce what the Westmeath Examiner called a ‘strong reply’ distancing themselves from the previous week’s events.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 24 June 1922.[/mfn] Their response was precipitated by an article in the pro-Treaty organ Free State, which cast an unflattering reflection on Mullingar, accusing the town of degenerating into sectarian violence as a result of ‘national indifference, national unworthiness’, and in doing so, ‘assist[ing] national defeat’:

It is likely that its example will soon be followed by some of the neighbouring villages which have always looked up to it as a sort of metropolis. Castlepollard, Delvin, Killucan, Collinstown, Clonmellon may soon be in a blaze of what will doubtless appear to each and all of them as a thoroughly righteous sectarian anger.[mfn]Free State, 17 June 1922[/mfn]

Free State attempted to pin the blame for the attacks on the anti-Treaty I.R.A. in Mullingar with an oblique reference to the local brigade’s failure to engage the police and the military during the late guerrilla war:

Mullingar has led the way. The minority they will have to attack is such a minority as to ensure that their campaign will provide perfectly safe and easy opportunities for the kind of bravery which has always had the strongest local appeal. A complete negation of national thought will succeed in causing this example of Mullingar to wear some of the glamour of the war which never gained much popularity in this part of the world.[mfn]Free State, 17 June 1922[/mfn]

There was a real chance that some of this mud thrown by Free State might stick. The anti-Treatyites had, after all, enforced the Belfast boycott with great gusto in April, and had commandeered goods from Protestant businesses. Then there was the fact that the vast majority of attacks on Protestant interests had taken place in the greater Mullingar area, as opposed to Athlone and south Westmeath, which was less fertile ground for the anti-Treatyite cause. However, the republicans took umbrage at Free State’s assertion that the ‘hooligan of Mullingar’ was out to prove he could be ‘as big a ruffian as the Orangeman of Belfast’. Writing to the Westmeath Examiner, an unnamed anti-Treatyite said that while it was undeniable that Protestants had been targeted for whatever reasons, both the National Army and the anti-Treaty I.R.A. were, to ‘their eternal credit... sent out each night to protect the places attacked’.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 24 June 1922.[/mfn] The writer insisted that no I.R.A. veteran, some of whom ‘fought right through the trouble from 1916.... harbour[ed] any antagonism towards their fellow Protestant townsmen’.


While prominent Protestants living in the greater Mullingar area clearly suffered increased intimidation and attacks on their property in the months leading up to the Irish Civil War, there is no evidence of any explicitly sectarian campaign at work, and certainly nothing directed centrally by I.R.A. officers. However, the republicans’ aggressive enforcement of the Belfast boycott, coupled with the decision to commandeer goods from Protestant businesses in April 1922, left them wide open to such charges by the Provisional Government and its supporters. From the government’s perspective, this was as much to paper over their lack of infrastructure to investigate the nature of crimes, as it was an attempt to motivate public opinion against the anti-Treatyites (the Civic Guard, for example, did not become established in Westmeath until September 1922). While the ‘Executive’ forces in Mullingar were unequivocal in distancing themselves from the violence, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that, given the chaotic nature of the times, men with I.R.A. affiliations acted outside of command structures, driven by agrarian or even criminal impulses. Eugene Dunne has argued that agrarianism was the probable motivating factor behind the burnings of Tore House and Littleton House; such agitations had, in the past, rarely discriminated on the basis of religion. Incidents such as the robbery at the Church of Ireland rectory in Moyliscar and the hold-up of the Purdon brothers at Clondriss, meanwhile, were more redolent of opportunistic crime. Crucially, in the vast majority of cases, these indignations did not compel those targeted to flee the country.

Both Marie Coleman and Gemma Clark have noted that while Protestant depopulation has been the subject of much debate and controversy, the question of why so many Protestants chose to remain in Ireland – even though some had been targeted for violence or intimidation – is worthy of further analysis.[mfn]Coleman, ‘Protestant depopulation’, p. 935; Gemma Clark, Everyday violence in the Irish Civil War (Cambridge, 2014), pp 147-9[/mfn] With one or two exceptions, this was almost uniformly the case for those businessmen and landowners in the greater Mullingar area who were targeted in the build-up to the civil war. T. L. Hutchinson and his son remained in the town and grew their drapery and clothing business. When the family patriarch died at the age of eighty-five in February 1938, the Westmeath Examiner described Hutchinson as being ‘highly respected’ throughout the county; his ‘reputation for strict integrity’ and support for the wider community was noted.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 19 Feb. 1938; civil marriage/death records available at[/mfn] Likewise, grocer C. V. Porter lived in Mullingar until his death in 1943, as did boot merchants Joseph and Mary Speer (who ran Parsons’ boot store, and died in 1938 and 1959 respectively).[mfn]Civil marriage/death records available at[/mfn] Richard Reynell, who had shots fired at his home in mid-June 1922, continued to live and run a business from his home in Killynon, Mullingar until his death at the age of seventy-seven in 1958. His Examiner obituary fondly remembered him as ‘a man of simplicity and honest principle’ who maintained a ‘childlike interest’ in local affairs.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 11 Jan. 1958.[/mfn] W. C. Allen, the land steward who was on the receiving end of various threats throughout 1922, was still employed by Mullingar Mental Hospital as of May 1930.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 17 May 1930.[/mfn] The Rev. A. E. Crotty, whose rectory was robbed in May 1922, served at Moyliscar until his retirement in the autumn of 1925; he died in Wales in late 1936.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 10 Oct. 1925; Offaly Independent, 2 Jan. 1937[/mfn]. Major John Purdon, whose home was invaded in a similar manner the following month, continued to live at Clondriss House until his death in April 1933.[mfn]Civil marriage/death records available at[/mfn] Even members of the aristocracy who had left Westmeath, such as Lady Levinge of Knockdrin Castle, returned in May 1923 to ‘gauge the mood of the local populace’; on the approach to the castle, they were greeted by ‘triumphal arches’ erected by local residents, tenants and employees.[mfn]Dunne, ‘The experiences of the aristocracy’, p. 341.[/mfn]

The individual stories of Westmeath Protestants who suffered intimidation and violence in the early months of 1922, and yet remained in Ireland to see out their days – farming, running thriving businesses and contributing to local life – suggest that there is a more complex explanation as to why the county’s Protestant population fell by almost half in the space of fifteen years. On closer examination of primary source material, the much-vaunted ‘ethnic cleansing/sectarian’ narrative starts to crumble. This is not to suggest that sectarian views were non-existent in Westmeath; for example, in June 1922, it was reported that ‘prominent customers’ of the Hibernian Bank in Castlepollard blocked the appointment of a Protestant bank official, F. G. Phillips, as manager of the branch owing to his religion.[mfn]Westmeath Examiner, 10 June 1922; Meath Chronicle, 3 June 1922.[/mfn] If sectarianism or politics compelled some Protestants to leave, it was one of many factors explaining their migration between 1911 and 1926. The fact that both Mullingar and Athlone were garrison towns, accommodating many Protestant soldiers and their families, goes some but not all of the way to explaining the decline. John Burke, in his recently published history of Roscommon, has cited this and several other reasons – ‘the disbandment of the RIC, natural attrition, fatalities in the First World War, lower birth rates and voluntary emigration’ – as explanations for the decline, while Marie Coleman has discovered that many Longford Methodists migrated within Ireland, largely for economic reasons.[mfn]John Burke, Roscommon: the Irish Revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin, 2021), p. 143; Coleman, ‘Protestant depopulation’, pp 945-6.[/mfn]

An example of the complex nature of Protestant decline can be extrapolated from a cursory glance at the 1911 census. When that survey was taken, 176 Methodists living in Westmeath when the census was taken, the majority of them living in Athlone; by 1926, that figure had decreased to 149 (15.4 percent).[mfn]Census of Ireland reports, 1911 and 1926 (available at[/mfn] Among the local Methodist community in 1911 were the Canfield family of 5 Goldsmith Terrace – parents, Thomas and Annie Canfield, and their five children Edwin, Norman, Annie, Ruth and Muriel, ranging in age from nineteen to newborn. By the early 1920s, the Canfields had disappeared completely from Athlone and indeed Ireland. Thomas Canfield, and four of his children, were natives of Huddersfield in the west riding of Yorkshire. His wife Annie (née Broadbent) was a daughter of a Methodist family from Athlone. Their fifth child, Muriel, was born in Westmeath, where Thomas had secured a position as a shipping manager on the staff of the Athlone department store, Burgess and Son Ltd. Between then and 1919, the family of seven was impacted by a number of tragedies and life changes. Muriel, the youngest child (aged four), died of enteritis in November 1914, shortly after her brother, Edwin, left for European battlefields; he survived the conflict, having served with the Royal Irish Rifles and the Machine Gun Corps. In March 1915, the younger Canfield brother, Norman, emigrated to Canada, where he later served with the Canadian armed forces in the First World War, before marrying in Winnipeg in 1919. Nearly three and a half years after the death of Muriel, further tragedy befell the Canfields in April 1918, when the eldest daughter, Annie, succumbed to heart disease at the age of just eighteen. Less than a year later, her mother (aged forty-eight) died of a brain haemorrhage. By the time Thomas Canfield and his surviving daughter Ruth emigrated to Canada, the War of Independence had barely taken off in Westmeath.[mfn]Biographical details of the Canfield family sourced from the Westmeath Independent; 1901 and 1911 census returns (available at, civil marriage/death records (available at and shipping manifests/marriage records sourced at[/mfn]

The Canfield family represents just seven of over five thousand Protestants, Methodists and Presbyterians resident in Westmeath at the time of the 1911 census. Their story, and indeed this essay, merely scratches the surface of the Protestant experience of war and revolution in Westmeath. With a surfeit of source material available, discovering precisely why their numbers fell by half over the subsequent fifteen years is eminently possible, and a worthwhile endeavour for future historians of the county.[mfn]For further reading, see: Lesley Whiteside, ‘Church of Ireland parish and people in Westmeath, 1897-1996’ in Seamus O’Brien (ed.), Westmeath, history and society: interdisciplinary essays on the history of an Irish county (Dublin, 2022), pp 551-76.[/mfn]


[1]    Census of Ireland reports, 1911 and 1926 (available at

[2]    Andy Bielenberg, ‘Exodus: the emigration of Southern Irish Protestants during the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War’ in Past and Present (Feb. 2013), p. 205.

[3]    Robin Bury, Buried lives: the Protestants of Southern Ireland (Cheltenham, 2017), p. 11.

[4]    Marie Coleman, ‘Protestant depopulation in County Longford during the Irish Revolution, 1911-1926’ in The English Historical Review, cxxxv (Aug. 2020), p. 935.

[5]    Brian Feeney, Antrim: the Irish revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin, 2021), pp 146-8.

[6]    Westmeath Examiner, 1 Apr. 1922.

[7]    Ibid., 6 May 1922.

[8]    Ibid.

[9]    Paul Hughes, ‘Guerrilla activity at Mullingar Railway Station, 1921’,

[10]  Westmeath Examiner, 8 Apr. 1922.

[11]  Paul Hughes, ‘Ten days: the barracks, the standoff and the bloodshed’,

[12]  Westmeath Examiner, 22 Apr. 1922.

[13]  Belfast News Letter, 24 Apr. 1922.

[14]  Westmeath Examiner, 29 Apr. 1922.

[15]  An tÓglach, 6 May 1922.

[16]  Westmeath Examiner, 29 Apr. 1922.

[17]  Ibid., 13 May 1922.

[18]  Ibid., 17 June 1922.

[19]  Ibid., 17/24 June 1922.

[20]  Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 17 June 1922.

[21]  Ibid.

[22]  Ibid.; Northern Whig, 13 June 1922; Dundee Courier, 10 June 1922.

[23]  Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 17 June 1922. Allen’s property was again raided by armed men in September 1922 (Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 23 Sept. 1922).

[24]  Westmeath Examiner, 17 June 1922.

[25]  Ibid.

[26]  Ibid.

[27]  Freeman’s Journal, 13 June 1922.

[28]  Westmeath Examiner, 17 June 1922.

[29]  Church of Ireland Gazette, 16 June 1922.

[30]  Northern Whig, 16 June 1922.

[31]  Westmeath Examiner, 17 June 1922.

[32]  Ibid.

[33]  Ibid., 14 May 1910.

[34]  The Snapper: the journal of the East Yorkshire Regiment, xvi (Aug./Sept. 1921), p. 95.

[35]  Westmeath Examiner, 24 June 1922.

[36]  ‘Maj.-Gen. Edward Joshua Cooper’ at The Peerage (

[37]  Eugene Dunne, ‘The experiences of the aristocracy in County Westmeath during the period 1879 to 1923’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Maynooth University, 2016), pp 325-7.

[38]  Ibid., pp 327-8.

[39]  Irish Times, 17 June 1922.

[40]  Westmeath Examiner, 24 June 1922.

[41]  Free State, 17 June 1922.

[42]  Ibid.

[43]  Westmeath Examiner, 24 June 1922.

[44]  Coleman, ‘Protestant depopulation’, p. 935; Gemma Clark, Everyday violence in the Irish Civil War (Cambridge, 2014), pp 147-9.

[45]  Westmeath Examiner, 19 Feb. 1938; civil marriage/death records available at

[46]  Civil marriage/death records available at

[47]  Westmeath Examiner, 11 Jan. 1958.

[48]  Ibid., 17 May 1930.

[49]  Ibid., 10 Oct. 1925; Offaly Independent, 2 Jan. 1937.

[50]  Civil marriage/death records available at

[51]  Dunne, ‘The experiences of the aristocracy’, p. 341.

[52]  Westmeath Examiner, 10 June 1922; Meath Chronicle, 3 June 1922.

[53]  John Burke, Roscommon: the Irish Revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin, 2021), p. 143; Coleman, ‘Protestant depopulation’, pp 945-6.

[54]  Census of Ireland reports, 1911 and 1926 (available at

[55]  Biographical details of the Canfield family sourced from the Westmeath Independent; 1901 and 1911 census returns (available at, civil marriage/death records (available at and shipping manifests/marriage records sourced at

[56]  For further reading, see: Lesley Whiteside, ‘Church of Ireland parish and people in Westmeath, 1897-1996’ in Seamus O’Brien (ed.), Westmeath, history and society: interdisciplinary essays on the history of an Irish county (Dublin, 2022), pp 551-76.