This edition of the blog will consider reaction to the Treaty in Mullingar and its locality, following on from the previous edition when we discussed Athlone.
The July 1921 Truce between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British Crown forces was welcomed by people in Mullingar with local newspaper reports giving a sense of relief and optimism for the future.
The Westmeath Examiner, in comments that were echoed by many papers and public bodies, wished Éamon de Valera well in his forthcoming peace conference with David Lloyd George, the British prime minister. The paper continued: ‘Force has had its trial now on both sides and it must be the fervent hope of every lover of peace and good-will as well as every advocate of freedom that this long drawn-out quarrel between two nations may be brought to a conclusion on principles productive of lasting peace and reconciliation…’
In Mullingar and its hinterland, markets, fairs, sports and social gatherings were organised and there were many public events in support of local republicans during the following months. In August 1921, Sinn Féin county councillor Patrick Brett was released by the Crown forces after nine months’ internment in Ballykinlar. He was, the Weekly Freeman’s Journal reported, ‘accorded an enthusiastic public reception’ on his return to Mullingar. Brett thanked those in attendance, saying that ‘he had great hopes, that the negotiations now in train would lead to a happy and honourable settlement’: a statement that was met with applause from the crowd.
In September, Mullingar’s county hall hosted a public reception for Seán Mac Eoin, Dr Ada English, Joseph McGuinness and others. The banquet was followed by what the Westmeath Examiner described as ‘the most brilliant and well-attended ceilidh ever held in Mullingar’, with IRA and Cumann na mBan members prominent among the crowd. During the ceilidh, Mac Eoin, in IRA uniform, delivered a speech ‘on behalf of himself and all soldiers of Ireland past and present’ thanking the crowd for their support. According to the Examiner, Mac Eoin ‘received quite an ovation’ in response to his speech.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on 6 December 1921 and there were many indications across the county of support for the agreement. In Athlone, as seen in the previous edition of the blog, newspapers welcomed the Treaty, as did local politicians and Sinn Féin branches. The response in Mullingar followed a similar pattern.
On hearing news of the Treaty, the Bishop of Meath, Dr Laurence Gaughran, offered Mass in Mullingar Cathedral ‘in thanksgiving for the blessing of peace’. Interviewed by the Examiner, the bishop told the paper that ‘our country owes a deep debt of gratitude to its plenipotentiaries’. The Westmeath Examiner, edited by John P. Hayden, a former home rule MP, welcomed the Treaty, saying in the edition of 10 December that its terms ‘were such as to cause profound satisfaction’. Those terms, he wrote:
…establish a permanent Peace between two Nations divided for centuries and between whom there stood a great barrier of wrong and injustice upon one side and of bitterness and hostility, combined with a deep longing for Freedom, upon the other. It is permanent because it is based upon the recognition of Ireland's right to nationhood, and because it confers real Liberty upon the people, and is a full and complete recognition of the dignity and status of this country amongst the Free Nations of the Universe.
Hayden claimed that the ‘position of Ireland as a Free Nation in the Community of Nations which constitute the British Empire, into which she enters of her own free will, is as great as she could enjoy if the claim she had made of being a separate and independent Republic had been conceded’. His editorial acknowledged ‘one serious defect’ in the terms of the Treaty: ‘the right given to the North-East corner to contract itself out of the Irish Free State’. However, he judged that ‘no blame can be cast upon the negotiators’ since this ‘was inevitable from circumstances which are a direct creation of British Government in Ireland’. At this time, Hayden saw little controversy ahead, believing that ‘it can scarcely be doubted’ that the Irish and British parliaments ‘will endorse the actions of their Representatives, after which lovers of Freedom all the world over will wish God-speed to the Irish Free State’.
In the following week’s edition, the Examiner published local opinions on the Treaty. Patrick Weymes, who contested North Westmeath for the Irish Parliamentary Party against Sinn Féin in 1918, expressed his delight with the agreement, telling the Westmeath Examiner that ‘the gratitude and appreciation of all liberty-loving Irishmen, the world over, was due to the men who so patiently, skilfully, and effectively acted for Ireland in the negotiations’. He added: ‘I rejoice as an Irish Nationalist’, who had ‘always done my little best in the long struggles and sacrifices of the men and movements of the past, now gloriously ended by the work of the men of to-day’.
According to the Examiner, Sinn Fein’s Patrick Brett expressed his ‘joy at the prospects of peace and prosperity for Ireland’. Brett would put his words into action by advocating support for the Treaty in meetings of Westmeath County Council. However, his party colleague and Dáil Eireann TD Laurence Ginnell quickly emerged as a forthright opponent of the Treaty. Ginnell was then in Argentina, along with his wife Alice King, where they were working on behalf of Dáil Éireann in an effort to gain support for an Irish republic. King also opposed the Treaty, noting in her diary on 8 December: The more I think of these terms the more I dislike them and that it would now be time for L.G. to withdraw from public life or at any rate not to take the oath to the King. It is either that the delegates have been tricked or that the treaty was signed so that the Dáil could reject the terms and that de Valera could recommend them to reject them.’ On 20 December, Laurence Ginnell sent a cablegram to Dublin containing the succinct message: ‘I vote against ratification’. In April 1922, the couple would leave Argentina and return to Ireland.
As Dáil Éireann prepared to vote on whether or not to approve the Treaty, numerous local groups called for ratification. On New Year’s Eve 1921, a meeting of Westmeath farmers was held in Mullingar. This meeting, which newspapers described as being attended by a large crowd, adopted a resolution calling for ratification. The following day, Bishop Gaughran urged the congregation in Mullingar Cathedral to pray for the Treaty’s ratification and, days later, Westmeath County Council adopted the following motion: ‘That whilst experiencing our fullest confidence in An Dáil we request Deputy Ginnell and Deputy Robins [Lorcan Robbins, a Sinn Féin TD], the Dáil representatives of the County to support by their vote and influence the ratification of the Treaty signed by the plenipotentiaries of Dáil Éireann...’ The Treaty was ratified by Dáil Éireann on the 7 January 1922: sixty-four votes for and fifty-seven against.
That month, a large detachment of the British army’s East Yorkshire regiment left Mullingar for Dublin, from where they sailed to Britain. It was a clear sign of the changed circumstances brought about by the Treaty and such departures were part of the process that would culminate with the handover of the country’s military barracks from British to Irish forces. By then, it was apparent that there was widespread opposition to the Treaty among IRA brigades in Munster and Dublin, with units elsewhere across Ireland increasingly divided on the issue. In the Mullingar Brigade, James Maguire, one of the most prominent IRA officers in the area, opposed the Treaty and the divisions in the county were becoming clearer. Seán Mac Eoin, a vocal advocate of the Treaty, had been appointed commander of the IRA in Westmeath and other midland counties. Based in Athlone, Mac Eoin was making efforts to organise pro-Treaty IRA forces in the region.
The divisions in the previously united IRA could be seen on the streets of Mullingar as both pro- and anti-Treaty forces sought to control the town. By April, Seán Mac Eoin, who had been lauded in Mullingar months earlier, was receiving threatening letters from an anti-Treaty IRA unit that had taken over the town’s county hall. One letter warned Mac Eoin to ‘withdraw your forces’ or ‘there will be blood on shirts’. Mullingar, as with Ireland, would soon be in the midst of a civil war.
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; Mullingar Public Library Archives; RIC Chief Inspector’s monthly reports for Westmeath; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Midland Reporter and Westmeath Nationalist; 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); Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 2004); Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 2002); Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013; and Seamus O’Brien’s (Ed), A Town in transition: Post Famine Mullingar (Mullingar, 2007).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 13/12/2021
This article was published on: 13th December, 2021
Filed under: Decade of Centenary