Whose Law and Whose Order: Courts and Policing in Westmeath

A stamp released by An Post in September 2020 to commemorate the Dáil Éireann Courts. The republican court system, which posed a direct challenge to British control of Ireland, was particularly active during 1920.

In earlier posts, we discussed the retreat of the RIC from large areas of Westmeath, particularly during the first half of 1920. As British authority declined, republican alternatives emerged to take its place.

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. Indeed, the historian Russell Shortt has calculated that half of the barracks in Westmeath were abandoned by the end of the War of Independence. The RIC barracks that remained occupied were no longer a part of the local community but had become socially isolated fortresses. This was a direct result of policies pursued by the Dáil and the IRA, although their consequences were initially disregarded by the British Government despite warnings from within Ireland. The Unionist Irish Times, for example, repeatedly counselled the government on the vital need to support the police militarily and also to re-occupy the empty barracks. As the Irish Times saw it, ‘if the police go, everything will go’.

Rival governments

Another consequence of the abandonment of the RIC barracks was that it cleared the way for the expansion of Dáil Éireann’s system of governance and administration, such as the Department of Local Government created in January 1919. Such departments were part of the Dáil’s effort to establish a republican counter-state that would replace British rule in Ireland. This republican counter-state faced immense challenges, especially after Dublin Castle, the centre of British rule, declared the Dáil an illegal organisation in September 1919. Another impediment for republicans was that Sinn Féin was not yet in a majority in any major council and most of them refused to transfer their allegiance from the Dublin Castle government to Dáil Éireann. Westmeath County Council, which we will discuss in more detail during a later blog, was still controlled by the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Council was reluctant to support the Dáil. Also, it was openly critical of the violence carried out by the IRA as can be seen in a resolution passed in August 1919:

That we condemn in the strongest terms language can afford, the murders and other outrages that have been occurring in various parts of the Country. We consider every one of these crimes as a stain upon the National character of the Country. We believe that they are engineered by dangerous pests of society, who have not the slightest sympathy with the welfare of the Country. We hope that the solemn warnings of the members of the Irish Catholic Hierarchy, who have expressed condemnation, will have the desired effect in putting an end to such outrages in the future.

By invoking the Irish Catholic hierarchy, the drafters of the resolution perhaps hoped to align themselves with those bishops who had made public condemnations of violence during 1919. They may also have been aware of the sentiments of local clergy. For example, the historian Brian Heffernan has listed Roman Catholic parishes in and around Athlone and Mullingar as locations in which there were clerical condemnations of IRA violence during the War of Independence.

Nevertheless, as can be seen in contemporary newspapers such as the Mullingar-based Westmeath Examiner and Athlone-based Westmeath Independent, the Council became increasingly antagonistic towards Dublin Castle and the British government during 1919 and 1920. This process replicated the general contraction of so-called ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ in response to the coercion policy of Dublin Castle and the increasing lawlessness of the Crown forces. The public attitude was reiterated in the urban and rural local government elections of January and June 1920 during which Sinn Féin and its Labour allies led the polls.

‘the gradual suppression of British authority’

Most of the newly elected local authorities gave their support to the Dáil, as did the council in Westmeath whose members agreed to work under Dáil Éireann's Department of Local Government. Over the following weeks the council made a series of decisions that demonstrated its new attitude, such as an order forbidding any officer of the Council from giving information to the income tax authorities and the issuing of proposals that all legal work in the county should be carried out under the auspices of Dáil Éireann.

In Westmeath, daily life for the population presented a new reality: the police were largely confined to barracks and the offices of local government were no longer supportive of Dublin Castle. The third pillar in Dáil Éireann’s counter-state would prove to be the court system. Arbitration courts had periodically existed in many counties before the War of Independence and a Dáil committee in 1919 concluded that a standardised system of arbitration courts should be established in every county, since the existing Sinn Féin arbitration courts were independent of Dáil authority. Despite the committee’s recommendations, it would be mid-1920 before the Dáil took control of the system.

According to the Westmeath Independent, the first local court ‘under the auspices of Sinn Fein’ was held in Moate on 3 June 1920. The first ‘Sinn Fein court’ to be held in Mullingar was on 21 July 1920. The session was dispersed by a force of police and military as an illegal assembly. A similar court session in Athlone town was likewise raided by the police days later although the Dáil courts continued to function. Local people of ‘good-standing’, acted as judges, while solicitors followed the clients and the fees over to the new court system which was given full coverage in both the Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner. The Independent was particularly supportive and predicted that what it called ‘the people’s courts’ were ‘likely to play a very big part in the future administrative life of this country’.

The IRA in Westmeath played a role in these developments, acting, as we have seen in an earlier post, as a police force which replaced the RIC, especially in rural areas. They also maintained what could be described as detention centres, usually abandoned houses in rural areas. Here they would hold those charged with crimes, often theft, until their case was heard before a Dáil court. Such prisons were located at Clonown, Drumraney, Ballynacargy, Castlepollard and elsewhere in the county as well as Summerhill in Roscommon. Patrick Lennon, an IRA volunteer in Athlone, described how those prisoners who were convicted ‘were made to work on the farms or bogs until their charges were disposed [of]’.

During this period, the courts established themselves as an integral part of the civil and commercial life of local communities. The civilian population in Westmeath also dealt the previous court system a devastating blow by refusing to appear as jurors. Again, The Irish Times warned the British government of the significance of these developments, claiming that:

The most serious feature of the current unrest in Ireland is the gradual suppression of British Authority by Republican Authority in all the matters that concern the general government of Ireland. Sinn Féin courts are elbowing the Four Courts and the County Courts into a brief-less desuetude.

Yet the high-point of the courts system was the summer and autumn of 1920 before its work was badly disrupted by the Crown forces. In August 1920 the British government introduced the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act which, along with the continuing militarisation of the police, marked an intensification of the War of Independence. Soon after, in September 1920, the police and military raided the courthouse in Athlone along with two other sites in the town, arresting over forty people, including prominent solicitors from the locality. An increase in the number of raids forced the courts into sitting at night or in rural areas, although working under such constrictions proved unsustainable and many courts stopped functioning. Those raids were one example of escalating activity by the police and military, activity which foreshadowed a period of violence in Westmeath.


Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; 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); Gretta Connell’s ‘Westmeath County Council and the struggle for independence, 1916-1922 in Seamus O’Brien’s (Ed) Post-Famine Mullingar: a town in transition (Rathlainne Publications, 2007); 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); Ian Kenneally's, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013; and Mary Kotsonouris, Retreat from Revolution: the Dáil Courts, 1920-24 (Irish Academic Press, 1994).

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 22/10/2020