The Capture of General Sean MacEoin In Mullingar 1921

By
Jason McKevitt B.A. (Hons) H-Dip. F.Ed.
©
(Local Historian)

Wednesday the 2nd of March 1921, and it’s a bright, cheery spring evening at the Midland Great Western Railway terminus at Broadstone in Dublin. Two young country lads are making their way to catch the Sligo bound 7:30pm Mail Train, one laden with a parcel, both beholden with the emotions of anxiousness, eagerness and relief. However, these young men are not going all the way to Sligo, but after an eventful time in Dublin, are instead eager to reach their own home destination of County Longford, which lies roughly midway between Dublin and Sligo.

Just as both young men settle into their seats, having placed the parcel upon a rack, a group of British soldiers led by an Officer, enter the train carriage and sit across from both men and within touching distance of the parcel. They are full of high spirits and bravado, as they too were going on a journey westwards. At this stage, one of the young men thinks to himself, that these soldiers might come in very handy for future plans that were held deep within his most inner thoughts.

It was with this in mind that he decides to go to the refreshments room and purchase two five-naggin bottles of whiskey which would greatly assist in further engaging with these soldiers. The plan works, and the soldiers, delighted by the friendly offer of whiskey, become best of pals with both young men. The Irish War of Independence is at its height, but on viewing this scene, one would be forgiven for assuming otherwise.

Who are these two young Country lads?

As the train rolled out of Broadstone railway terminus, both young men wryly smile to each other, glad that they were not recognised by their new imperial friends, as they look forward to reaching home turf!! The taller of the two young men, Commandant Sean MacEoin is Officer Commanding the North Longford Flying Column IRA/ Óglaigh na hÉireann, but was more commonly referred to as “The Blacksmith of Ballinalee”. This is due to his civilian occupation as a Blacksmith in a village of that name in Longford. The British authorities view him as a murderer and the notorious leader of the North Longford Flying column of the I.R.A., one of the most successful I.R.A. units on the island of Ireland.

The young man, who accompanies him on the train journey, is I.R.A. flying column volunteer, James Brady from the Edgeworthstown area of Longford, who had travelled to Dublin with MacEoin hoping to secure ammunition for the North Longford IRA. This ammunition was now upon the rack enclosed in a parcel. MacEoin ever the cunning leader sits back and thinks of ways in which these soldiers can become his prisoners, but he has to reach Edgeworthstown, County Longford first, where his flying column will be waiting to greet their commander on his return.

 Death of District Inspector McGrath

Sean MacEoin and his North Longford Flying Column were one of the most active IRA units outside of Munster throughout 1919 and 1920, and absolutely dreaded by the British Forces in Ireland. Engagements by MacEoin and his North Longford flying column with British Forces included, the previous November 1920, when they were engaged at the Battle of Ballinalee. MacEoins troops successfully defeated and forced the retreat of RIC and British Army troops from this small Longford village.

However, British forces, angered by this defeat, now intensified their aim of destroying the North Longford Flying Column and capturing its leader The Blacksmith of Ballinalee, Sean MacEoin. MacEoin however, was not going to make it easy for the RIC and its support troops of the Auxiliary Division and Black and Tans. He ensured that he kept a low profile and made use of safe houses in the area. One of these safe houses was the home of the elderly Martin sisters on the outskirts of Ballinalee; both sisters, who were spinsters, were sympathetic to MacEoin and the cause of an Irish Republic.

It was at the Martin sisters’ cottage that in early January 1921 tragic events were to unfold that would have serious repercussions for MacEoin for the remainder of 1921. The local RIC led by District Inspector Tom McGrath and accompanied by a contingent of the special reserve, Black & Tans, on hearing that MacEoin was in the locality, decided to carry out a raid at the home of the Martin sisters. As the arrived at the door of the cottage, they began to shout out the name of MacEoin who was inside.

 MacEoin not wanting the women of the house to get hurt made a dash for it firing back at D.I. McGraths raiding party, and thus ensuring that the gunfire which was becoming intense was now aimed in his direction. While The Blacksmith of Ballinalee managed to escape his captors, D.I. McGrath lay dead having been hit during the gunfight, MacEoin was now to be wanted more than ever.

The following month in February 1921, MacEoin now on the run and wanted for Murder was the subject of Police Hue and Cry posters which were now scattered all over Ireland. However, for Sean MacEoin, the fight for Irish freedom remained paramount in his thoughts. The 2nd February 1921, was chosen as the date that MacEoin and his men would once again strike fear into the patrolling RIC and Black & Tans. At Clonfin, Co Longford, an ambush was laid in which mines and intense fire power took out the oncoming forces.

The RIC and Black & Tans were astounded be the intensity of the ambush leading to success for MacEoins forces. Indeed, at this ambush, MacEoin was also noted for his chivalry and compassion towards the dying enemy troops and for ordering first aid for the wounded.

MacEoin summoned to Dublin by Cathal Brugha

It was these recent events that saw MacEoin being summoned to Dublin and ordered to attend an important meeting with Cathal Brugha, Minister for Defence in the 1st Dáil Éireann. Brugha was greatly impressed by the leadership shown by MacEoin and his North Longford flying column during the Clonfin ambush and now had a new mission for “The Blacksmith of Ballinalee”. This mission envisaged MacEoin leading a 22 man IRA Active Service Unit to London with the aim of executing the entire British cabinet including Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Later in the day MacEoin met with his friend and senior Officer, Michael Collins. On hearing the reason why MacEoin had been summoned to Dublin, Collins was astounded as it was the first he had heard of such plan. Collins cancelled Brugha’s order and instead instructed MacEoin not to go to London but to inform the IRA Chief of Staff, General Richard Mulcahy and return to his command of the North Longford IRA at once. It appeared Collins felt that the situation in the heavily garrisoned area of Longford/Westmeath was more pressing at this stage of the ongoing War, than any mission to London.

Sean MacEoin and his comrade, James Brady made their way to Broadstone Railway terminus to take the next train back to Longford. As they proceeded to make their return home, IRA GHQ in Dublin following information received from a source in Mullingar, instructed the IRA Brigade in Mullingar to halt the 7:30pm train and take MacEoin and Brady off before it arrived in Mullingar Railway Station.

MacEoin in later years during an interview with the Irish Defence Forces Bureau of Military History stated that this tip-off initially came from a Republican sympathiser within the RIC in Mullingar, and none other than its senior officer, District Inspector Harrington, who was secretly working for Michael Collins.

Unfortunately, the local Mullingar Brigade was having its own problems at this time. Following a tip-off regarding a major weapons dump at McDonnell’s Bakery in Dominick Street, Mullingar, three lorry loads of Black & Tans raided the premises finding nothing, only one rifle and a detonator from a previous arms dump, thanks to the clever concealment by the Bakery foreman and IRA Brigade Quartermaster, Terry Smyth from Patrick Street.

However, the RIC arrested Smyth and also began rounding up other leading IRA members including Captain Michael McCoy. Consequently, amid all the confusion, the local IRA volunteers were in no position to carryout the order to halt the train.

        Return to the country

It was with this background, that the 7:30pm mail train to Sligo trundled its way westwards towards Mullingar with The Blacksmith of Ballinalee in a carriage full of unlikely companions. The train now began to reduce its speed as the night lights of Mullingar came into view. MacEoin now content that his next stop after Mullingar would be in his beloved County Longford began to settle and take heart that he was now in home territory. But this sense of contentment was not to last long.

Alarmingly, MacEoin noticed that the train was now taking slight detour than normal and instead of drawing alongside its usual platform beside the refreshment’s room; it gently guided itself into a siding where a large contingent of Soldiers and RIC were standing on the platform. As soon as the train came to a halt the now eager Soldiers and Police began peering into the carriages. Suddenly, a deafening roar echoed around Mullingar Railway station, “All Civilians out on the Platform”.

MacEoin and Brady, knowing that these police and soldiers outside were looking for them, now tried subdue their presence by heartily re-engaging with their military travelling companions. This plan almost worked as their new friend, the young Army officer, poked his head out the carriage window and shouted to his military and RIC colleagues on the platform “all right in here”.

However, an RIC Constable on seeing the two civilians in the carriage instructed them that they must get off. Indeed, such was the intensity and vigour of the RICs need to halt the train and extricate the passengers they were looking for, that the local Westmeath Examiner newspaper reported three days later on Saturday 5th March 1921, that on Wednesday night, the Military was stationed fully armed at the Green Bridge, Scoutail Bridge and indeed at other bridges around Mullingar where the 7:30pm mail train was to pass. A serious situaon was now becoming a matter of life or death for both men, as they exited their carriage.

  Arrest and capture in Mullingar

MacEoin was arrested on the platform on the Left side of the picture

As they now stood upon the platform, they were feeling very thankful that they had taken the advice of Michael Collins and no longer had their revolvers upon their person or indeed the parcel which Brady had placed upon the rack, and now thankfully due to the commotion, remaining unnoticed in the carriage with the their military journeymen.

All the civilian passengers were now placed in rows along the platform and made ready for inspection by the RIC in the hope that they would find Sean MacEoin, the suspected killer of their colleague, D.I. McGrath a number of weeks previously. Policemen paced up and down looking into the faces and asking questions of the passengers including MacEoin and Brady, but the coolness of both men ensured that they did not give anything away that could make them look suspicious.

Suddenly, an old adversary of MacEoin arrived at the platform, Head-Constable Kidd who had previously escorted MacEoin to Sligo jail in 1919. Head Constable Kidd than began to inspect each passenger before arriving at a nervous MacEoin and Brady, he was about to move off when he returned to MacEoin and looked him in the eye again and asked him for his name to which MacEoin replied, “my name is J.J. Smith from Aughnacliffe”.

Head-Constable Kidd however, recognised him straight away and roared “you lie, you are MacEoin”. MacEoin still maintaining his surprise and innocence refuted this accusation. But Head-Constable Kidd was having none of it and summoned his superior officer, the aforementioned, District Inspector Harrington.

D.I. Harrington recognising MacEoin, tried to overrule Head-Constable Kidd, but to no avail. This is MacEoin shouted Kidd, to which Harrington replied “he doesn’t look like the man we want”. Kidd then demanded Constable Dunne be brought forward to help identify MacEoin as he also knew what he looked like, having been previously stationed in Ballinalee.

But while Dunne recognised MacEoin straight away, he informed DI Harrington that “I never saw him before” to which Harrington replied “I thought so”. A furious, Head Constable Kidd now tore at the shirt sleeves of MacEoin and raised his left arm and exposed the white burnt spots and welts of his lower arm, which was the hallmark of a blacksmith,

“Look” he declared, “If this isn’t a blacksmiths arm, then I am a liar, if you do not arrest him I will report you in the morning”. Harrington on hearing this had little option but to agree to the arrest, much to the protestations of the Blacksmith of Ballinalee.

               Escape and recapture

James Brady who accompanied MacEoin on the train journey, when questioned by the RIC gave the name of Richard Bower and luckily for him was not recognised, allowing him to continue on his journey to Edgeworthstown and alert the rest of the column. However, another innocent passenger of the similar name of Edward Brady was initially arrested instead.

This created a bit of humour for MacEoin, especially when Head Constable Kidd informed him that “I now also have your pal Brady”. The soldiers on the platform were now dismissed and returned to the nearby Army Barracks on the Fairgreen as this was now a police matter.

It was well after 9pm at night as two large columns of RIC Police Constables now formed up with their prisoners. The police escort left the railway station and then began to march up the slight hill towards the Green Bridge with the plan to then take an immediate right at the bridge and proceed down Dominick Street on their way towards the RIC Barracks in College Street.

However, MacEoin knowing what possibly lay ahead,   had his own plans and was prepared to die escaping rather than die at the hands of his captors.It was at the top of the Green Bridge that a now handcuffed MacEoin decided that he was going to make a break for his freedom and swung around and lunged at the policemen closest to him in which a number of them fell over each other during the commotion.

many years later , MacEoin points to the place where he tried to gain entry to a safe house in Mullingar while trying to escape.

He ran down towards Dominick’s Street as the Police began to fire shots at him, he looked to his left and noticed two large wooden gates that allowed access to the rear of McDonald’s Bakery yard, which had premises on both sides of Dominick Street (today 2021, Bill Collentine’s yard/The Old Stand Pub yard).

MacEoin knew that if he could only get into the yard behind these gates, he would be in friendly territory as a number of leading members of the Mullingar brigade IRA were employees here, albeit, unknown to MacEoin at the time, some now in custody themselves.

Seeing that the two gates were closed, MacEoin kicked and punched the gates to try and gain access but to no avail, the Police were now beginning to reform and close in on him. MacEoin than ran across the road towards Brophils Hotel (today 2021, Joe Coppola’s) and down along the lane leading into Grove Street.

. But unfortunately, two policemen who were walking over the pedestrian railway bridge at the rear of the station, known locally as the Scoutail Bridge, noticed him and opened fire hitting him in the chest. MacEoin being a very determined person carried on running for other 10 or so steps before crumbling to the ground severely wounded.

As he lay in agony on the ground he was beaten with the butts of rifles by a contingent of Policemen who had now caught up with him. Suddenly the commanding roar of D.I. Harrington ordered everyone to cease their attack and stand clear, MacEoin had just been saved from being killed.

  Captivity in Mullingar RIC Barrack

MacEoin now found himself in the Day-room of Mullingar RIC Barracks having being carried there by two RIC Sergeants under the protection of D.I. Harrington. The local Priest, Rev Fr Kelly was summoned along with the notable Mullingar surgeon, Dr P.J. Keelan, as it was feared that MacEoin was dying.

. On seeing Fr Kelly, MacEoin asked him to convey a message to his flying column and to his Mother informing them of his capture, Fr Kelly knowing that he was being overheard refused point blank to MacEoins request. However, ever the cunning clergyman, on leaving MacEoin, Fr Kelly then paid a visit to Captain Michael McCoy of the Mullingar Brigade IRA and informed him of MacEoins situation.

    Beating by the Black & Tans

Next to visit MacEoin was Dr Keelan who stripped him down to his pants and inspected the wounded area where the bullet had penetrated. He then placed some iodine and lint on it, treating it as best he could under the circumstances. Dr Keelan felt that time was running out for MacEoin as he was bleeding profusely and informed him that he had only hours to live.

 As soon as Dr Keelan left the Police Barracks a mob of RIC Special Reservists more commonly known as the Black & Tans charged through the building and began to beat MacEoin as he lay helpless on the ground in the day-room. Once again, Michael Collins RIC inside man in Mullingar, District Inspector Harrington, saved MacEoins life and ordered the Tans off MacEoin; he then instructed that MacEoin be sent to Mullingar Army Barracks, where ironically he felt MacEoin would be safer.

 


Mullingar Army Barracks and the move to Dublin

The Guard Room at Columb Barracks Mullingar where MacEoin was held .

The night was now moving into the early hours of the morning as the lorry laden with a seriously wounded Sean MacEoin and his escort of Black & Tans passed through the main gates of the local Army Barracks overlooking Mullingar’s Fair Green. The Lorry travelled towards the Officers Mess and out under the archway to the Military Hospital block at the rear of the Barracks adjacent to the Military Prison.

Two medical orderly’s with a stretcher than carried MacEoin into the hospital block where he was treated as a first response before his inevitable transfer to the King George V Military Hospital in Dublin later on. (Today 2021, St Bricins Military Hospital, Irish Defence Forces/ Óglaigh na hÉireann). He was then moved to S-Block in the Barracks, where a number of local republican prisoners were being held at His Majesty’s Pleasure!!

The British, fearing some sort of rescue attempt by the IRA, moved MacEoin again, this time to the more secure location of a cell in the Barrack Guardroom where he lay for the remaining early hours of the morning on planks with an old army blanket thrown over him. This cell would later become known as “MacEoins Cell” when it was later occupied by the Irish Defence Forces.

The Blacksmith of Ballinalee was now under the watchful eye of the heavily armed sentries of the 1st Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, This was a very wise move by the British, as indeed there was a rescue attempt being put in place, and currently being orchestrated on the eastern edges of Mullingar town, ordered by non-other than Michael Collins, who himself, often stayed in safe-houses in the town.

This cell would later become known as “MacEoins Cell” when it was later occupied by the Irish Defence Forces.

Collins on hearing the news became greatly upset that his close friend was now in the hands of the enemy. As a response, and knowing that it would be only a matter of time before MacEoin was moved to a more secure location in Dublin, before standing trial, Collins ordered at least three ambush parties east of Mullingar.

These sites included the Mullingar to Dublin Road, The Downs and also on the Killucan-Ballivor Road. But the British authorities were taking no chances. At 11am the next morning MacEoin was taken from the Guardroom and brought back to the hospital block for further medical treatment before the next stage of his journey began.

MacEoin was then loaded up into an inconspicuous Red Cross Ambulance instead of an Army ambulance, which would draw attention from IRA observers. It then drove towards the barrack gate with an armed escort of RIC Policemen and an Army officer, who pointed a pistol at MacEoins head informing him that he would shoot him dead if a rescue attempt was made.

The British, obviously becoming aware of the possible ambushes that were now lying in wait on the eastern edges of Mullingar, created a different route plan to get MacEoin to Dublin.

As the ambulance went out the main gate of the barracks and onto the Fairgreen, it immediately took a sharp left and travelled out towards Ballynacargy leaving Mullingar behind and of course possible rescue attempts and ambushes. The Ambulance then reached MacEoins home territory of Co Longford and preceded its course via Trim, Co Meath before finally reaching its destination of the King George V Military Hospital in Dublin.

 Indeed on receiving this information on MacEoins transfer, it was a very frustrated Michael Collins who made the following concluding remark when corresponding later with the Cork No 2 Brigade IRA on the 7th March, by stating “Cork will be fighting alone now”.

Concluding legacy of General Sean MacEoins capture in Mullingar

The capture of the Blacksmith of Ballinalee in Mullingar was to have lasting impact for the remainder of the War of Independence and indeed the truce declared later on the 11th July 1921. Upon his arrival in King George V Military Hospital and his subsequent operation to remove the bullet, MacEoin refused to undergo a general anaesthetic to relieve the pain on the operating table.

His reasoning for this was that he was terrified of being interrogated by the British while he was under its influence and thus providing valuable information. There were more rescue attempts for MacEoin after he was transferred from the military hospital to Mountjoy prison, including an attempt led by Emmet Dalton which almost succeeded.

In May 1921, Sean MacEoin was elected from his prison cell to the 2nd Dail as the T.D. representing Longford/Westmeath. The following month in June, he stood trial for the murder of DI McGrath and was found guilty and sentenced to death. However, his loyal and trusted friend, Michael Collins was to remain committed to his release no matter what.

When talks began between the British and the Irish to bring hostilities to an end and organise a truce. Michael Collins insisted that there would be no truce unless Commandant MacEoin was freed.

Indeed, MacEoin himself when speaking to the Bureau of Military History a number of years later, confirmed this and also provided another aspect of the story around his eventual release. MacEoin explained that the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George was relaxing in his garden with his grandchild when he was approached by officials and informed of the position of Michael Collins regarding a possible truce in Ireland.

The child unaware of the serious nature of the conversation, grew impatient and yelled “Granddad, come on and play”, to which he responded that he could not as he was deciding if a man should live or die. The child is said to have responded “let him live granddaddy!!”

” The British Prime Minister turned to his officials and quietly said let MacEoin live, which led to the Truce and subsequent end of the Irish War of Independence on the 11th July 1921.

Sean MacEoin along with his great friend Michael Collins accepted the founding principles of Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 viewing it with the future possibilities it held for Ireland. Sean MacEoin married the love of his life, Alice Cooney in St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford on the 21st June 1922 and amongst those who attended was his great friend General Michael Collins TD accompanied by Arthur Griffith TD.

 During the subsequent Irish Civil War he sided with the Pro-treaty IRA which after the Civil War was re-organised as the Irish Defence Forces/Óglaigh na hÉireann. In 1929, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General and its Chief of Staff. Later, MacEoin resigned from this position to focus on his career as a politician.

He became a leading member of the Fine Gael party serving in several Irish Governments, including as Minister for Defence and Minister for Justice. He also ran unsuccessfully for the Irish Presidency being defeated by Eamon De Valera in 1959.

In 1965 he retired from public life, however, the events of that March night in Mullingar in 1921 were to have a lasting impact on his health. On the 7th of July 1973 at St Bricins Military Hospital, the very hospital where he had previously been held in 1921,

General Sean MacEoin, The Blacksmith of Ballinalee passed away and into the annals of Irish History in 1973. As the crowds gathered at the funeral of General Sean MacEoin in his native Ballinalee, his coffin draped in the National Flag of Ireland slowly moved its way into the graveyard upon a Gun Carriage, of the 4th Field Artillery Regiment, Columb Barracks, Mullingar, poignantly, the very same barracks in which he had beenimprisoned back in March 1921.

Indeed, the Officers, NCO’s and Gunners of this proud Mullingar Regiment formed up as part of a Guard of Honour for their former Chief of Staff. Ballinalee and indeed Longford will always be bound as one when the Blacksmiths story is told. But Mullingar will forever hold a special place in its heart and its history, for the Great Irish Patriot that was “The Blacksmith of Ballinalee” General Sean MacEoin.

Sean macEoin in uniform and Michael Collins in civvies

IMG_20210224_122855

The westmeath Examiner reported it in their paper in 1921

IMG_20210224_122820

the Longford Leader , led with the story on their front page as MacEoin was from Ballinalee Co Longford


research of article ,Bibliography ,Primary Source
Bureau of Military History Witness Statement 1716, File Number S.557. (1955) General Sean MacEoin
Bureau of Military History Witness Statement 1610, File Number S.2917. (1957) Captain Michael McCoy
Longford Leader Shot trying to escape: elaborate preparations for the arrest of Ballinalee Sinn Feiner, Saturday 5th March 1921, p. 1
Westmeath Examiner, Sensation in Mullingar: Arrests at Railway Station, Saturday 5th March 1921, pg 8.
Secondary Sources
Daly, Leo. (1992). The Eagle has Landed-Well Almost: A Fresh Look at the capture and Wounding of General Sean MacEoin, in the Westmeath Examiner Commemoration Booklet (Mullingar).
General Sean MacEoin: The Blacksmith of Ballinalee Official website, (2021), Accessed 17th January 2021 (https://www.seanmaceoin.ie/).
O’Farrell, Padraic. (1993). Sean MacEoin: The Blacksmith of Ballinalee (Mullingar).

 

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