MULLINGAR IN 1920 ~JANUARY- APRIL PART ONE (8 min read)
The year 1920 was a dramatic one in the history of Mullingar. The escalating War of Independence increasingly impacted on the town as the year progressed,with shootings, armed raids on trains and the arrests of many local republican activists. The Local Government elections saw gains for Sinn Fein and Labour in the town. Streets were re-named in honour of Irish patriots and the Tri-colour was flown from the County Buildings. Amidst the political turmoil,however, normal life continued, Teachers went on strike for higher pay;local drama groups staged plays in the County Hall, a Choral Society was formed;the Roman Catholic Bishop of Meath denounced “immoral” fashions among women and the Town Commissioners planned to make public baths available for the men and women of Mullingar,
On New Year’s Day,shots were fired at a couple of cars at Clongowney just east of Mullingar, One of the cars belonged to Captain Batton, Director of the Mullingar Motor Company of Castle Street. The other car belonged to Messrs Daly of the Daly Brothers Company in Dominick Street, No-one was injured in the attacks, although Mr Broderick, who was driving the Daly Brothers car had a lucky escape when a bullet lodged in his coat sleeve. The bullets smashed the windows of both cars.
A week later shots were fired at a car belonging to the prominent Mullingar businessman and local councillor,P.J Weymes,as he was being driven along the Dublin Rd. The occupants of the car escaped injury as bullets entered the windows and lodged in the car seats. The attacks on the cars were apparently carried out by local republicans as part of a campaign to stop drivers taking out British car licenses. At a meeting of Mullingar Rural District Council,Cllr Lennon-a Sinn Fein supporter, declared that those refusing to take out motor permits were “making a grand fight for Ireland”.
On January 15th,Mullingar voters had the first opportunity to use the PR system of voting when elections took place to Mullingar Town Commission. Twenty-three candidates ran for the fifteen seats,with the town divided into North and South urban districts. The electorate totalled 1449. All the candidates were male.
Before the election a big meeting was held in the County Hall by Mullingar Trades Council in support of the Labour candidates. The meeting was preceded by a march from the railway station (where the President of the ITGWU and the President of the Railway Workers Union were welcomed to Mullingar) through the town led by three bands. At the meeting,Mr John McKeon,President of the Mullingar Trades Council,declared that while there had been progress in securing the rights of workers in Mullingar,there was “room for greater improvement in workers pay and conditions”
T.J Redmond,the Secretary of the Trades Council, referred to his great-great grandfather,who had been killed in the battle of Vinegar Hill in 1798. Miss Hoyne of the Irish Womens Workers Union also spoke. She was described as “a prepossessing young lady of some 25 summers,who immediately captured the hearts of her audience when she made an eloquent appeal to the women to stand by the men,in the fight for democracy.”
A number of Mullingar men were arrested and tried by military court as the army and police sought to crush the escalating republican campaign. Terence Smyth and Patrick Byrne were arrested at their homes in Patrick Street and were brought to Dublin to be tried at Ship Street barracks. They were accused of possession of ammunition. They refused to recognise the court.
They were convicted and sentenced to terms of one and two years imprisonment with hard labour. Another Mullingar man,Michael McCoy was also arrested. He was tried in Mullingar and sentenced to prison in Mountjoy.
All three men were members of the Mullingar Battalion of the IRA. A raid was also carried out on the bakery and confectionary business owned by the Leonard sisters in Earl (Pearse) street. Nothing incriminating was found but the sisters were leading members of Cumann na mBan. in Westmeath.
The Manager of the Mullingar Motor Company,Lt Delamere,was held up by armed men near the Military Barracks. They searched him for weapons but when they found none,they returned his keys and money to him,tied him up and then let him go unharmed,
At a meeting of Mullingar Town Commission,a rate of 1s/5p in the £ was set for the coming year. An extra 15p in the rate was to be used for the building of up to 200 new houses and an extension to the sewerage system.
In a sermon in the cathedral,Bishop Laurence Gaughran denounced “immodesty and extravagence in women’s dress.” He urged women to adhere to the modesty and purity long associated with Irish womanhood.
At a meeting of Westmeath County Council there was discussion of a proposal from the County Surveyor that the Council should purchase a motor lorry. Some councillors were opposed to the suggestion because it would put the council carters out of work and it was decided not to go ahead with the purchase.
At the monthly meeting of the Asylum Committee,it was stated that there were a total of 976 patients in the asylum as of February 1st. New blankets were required for patients. The contract for supplying tea to the asylum was awarded to Mr John Coleman of Austin Friars Street.
It was reported that a total of £119.00 had been raised in the Parish of Mullingar for The starving children of Europe Appeal and for The Conversion of the Nigerians.
A Mullingar Branch of the Comrades of the Great War Association was set up following a meeting in the County Hall. A total of 200 members were enrolled. The Chairman of the Branch was Mr O McLoughlin from Patrick Street. The Treasurer was Captain Farrell from Harbour Street and the Secretary was Mr T Gaffney from Patrick Street.
The other Committee members were Messrs T Murray,Mill Rd,M Conlon,Springfield Terrace,M Craig,Austin Friars Street,P Callaghan,Trinity Cttgs,C Giff,Austin Friars St and M Connell, Austin Friars St.
The Westmeath War Pensions Committee (Chairman P.W Shaw) was continuing its work in 1920 of caring for the many war veterans in the county. A total of £500 was allocated by the Red Cross for orthopedic treatment for ex-servicemen in Westmeath and the Committee allocated a £28 grant and free passage to Australia for a local ex-soldier who was emigrating.
During the First World War the government had brought in compulsary tillage for farmers to ensure that people were fed during the conflict. With the war now over some farmers wished to stop tillage. The Mullingar Rural District Council was deeply opposed to this.
At a meeting the RDC called on the Department of Agriculture to “compel the graziers of Mullingar District to till the required amount of land under the Tillage Act so that sufficient food for our people will be raised and thereby avoid the threat of starvation which is racing across Europe.
A special Mass was held in the cathedral on St Patrick’s Day at which the sermon was preached in Irish by the President of St Finian’s College,Rev Maurice Weymes. The Choir was conducted by Miss Rosanne Daly of Mt Auburn House and the Mass was followed by a ceili in St Mary’s Hall. The Mullingar Branch of the Gaelic League were among a number of Mullingar amateur drama groups to stage plays in the County Hall and St Mary’s Hall during March. The other groups were the St Mary’s Temperance Club and the Workingmens Club.
A new Education Act was proceeding through the House Of Commons in the spring of 1920 and was causing much concern in Ireland because it seemed to rule out religious schools. The Act was denounced at meetings of Westmeath County Council, Mullingar Rural District Council and Mullingar Town Commission as “godless and anti-Irish” and an attack on Ireland by “a reactionary government.”
The Bishops of Ireland condemned the proposed bill and 1400 people took part in a special novena organised by the bishop in Mullingar cathedral to pray for the failure of the act.
A number of local men imprisoned in Galway and Dublin were freed during April. William Murray and Peter Tormey from Patrick St had been arrested following an incident in which shots were fired at a police patrol on Millmount Rd. When they arrived home in Mullingar they were met by local Volunteers and Sinn Fein members.
They were brought to the County Hall where a meeting of the Railway Workers Union was held in support of Mr Murray-a member of the union. A couple of weeks later,Terence Smyth,Patrick Byrne and Michael McCoy were welcomed by cheering crowds at the station. Three bands headed a massive procession through the town to the County Hall in which local Volunteers marched in military formation. At the Hall a reception was held for the three men. Those in attendance included Cllr Pat Brett and Dr Tony Stanley.
A Special meeting of the Mullingar Comrades of the Great War Association took place in the Parochial Hall to discuss the Irish Ex-Soldiers and Sailors Land Act,which proposed making land available for ex-servicemen to farm. The Mullingar men were determined to get land and looked to the local ranchers and big landowners to give up some of their extensive acres..
At the meeting,Mr Caffrey stated that “whilst Irish soldiers had stood by the Empire in its hour of need,they had never forgotten that they were Irishmen first,last and at all times. They were not going to be denied the benefits which the Land for Soldiers and Sailors Bill promised them.
The ex-servicemen had endured the unimaginable hardships of campaign on all the different war fronts and had fought on behalf of the farmers and protected them. They now wanted some land for themselves. The meeting passed a resolution calling on “the Land Commissioners to at once complete the purchase of lands under the provisions of the Land Act.”
Farmers also came under attack from Rural District Councillor,Mr Lennon-a Sinn Fein supporter. In an extraordinary speech Mr Lennon declared that he “regretted that he belonged to the farming class,amongst whom they would find the most impure and putrid members to be found in any class”. He went on to accuse the farmers of being subsidised by the British government.
At a meeting of the Town Commission a discussion was held on a proposal to supply public baths for the people of Mullingar. One Commissioner declared that “they are badly wanted in Mullingar.” Another Commissioner stated that ” the ladies should be provided for also. They would want a bath as well as the men.” It was suggested that the baths should be located at the Supply.
On May 31st ,elections were held for the County Council and Rural District Councils. Nationwide these elections were u passed off peacefully, with the Crown forces keeping out of the way.
The newly elected county and district councillors in Mullingar included Mick McCoy and Pat Dooner-both of whom were leading members of the Mullingar IRA. Also elected was Pat Brett,a local shopkeeper who had set up the first Sinn Fein club in town in 1916.
Labour candidates elected included John McKeon of the Mullingar Trades Council. Among those re-elected were P.J Weymes and P.W Shaw. No women ran for election although local Cumann na mBan activists were busy canvassing for the Sinn Fein candidates.
Shortly before the elections,the Mullingar IRA raided the council buildings and,with the help of caretaker Patrick Bailey,they took the rate books from the County Secretary’s Office and hid them under the stage in the County Hall.,where they remained until the new Sinn Fein led council took office.
There was a row at a council meeting at the start of the election campaign when the Mullingar IRA offered to patrol outside the polling stations on election day and keep order. The Secretary of the Council,John T Roche , refused the offer,saying that he was going to use “direct labour” on the day and that he did not want a political party involved in policing the polling. Sinn Fein councillor,William Gillivan accused Mr Roche of having “sworn allegiance to the King”- an accusation denied by the Secretary.
While Mullingar was becoming increasingly radicalised and opposition to the Crown forces was growing,the town remained a British garrison and many local families still had connections to the military. Throughout May advertisements appeared in the local press seeking recruits for ” His Majesty’s Army”.
There were vacancies in the Transport,Signals and Medical Corps of the Army. While the East Yorkshire Regiment were stationed in Mullingar,many local men were serving across the expanding British Empire in places such as Egypt, Iraq and India.
The new council soon began to flex its republican muscles. A resolution was passed at a Rural District Council meeting which called for the County Infirmary (then on the Dublin Rd) to remove two RIC men who were being treated in the hospital. The councillors referred to the police as the “blue coated army of occupation” and stated that the RIC had become a military force.
“They are being treated and made well so that they can go out and shoot people ” one councillor claimed. The Infirmary should refuse to treat members of “the occupation forces.” The British Red Cross symbol on the workhouse ambulance should be painted over.
The job of policing Mullingar was now increasingly being carried out by the Volunteer or Republican police.They were involved in “quelling disturbances and generally seeing to it that good order prevails. In not a few cases they have recovered stolen property.”. Some offenders were ordered out of the town and others were imprisoned in derelict houses or in old jail cells in the County Buildings complex.
On June 29th,the Mullingar IRA carried out a daring operation at the railway station. Having been informed by station employee Michael Horan that an consignment of petrol for an RAF base in Co Galway was coming by rail through Mullingar,the IRA took over the station and took the train into a siding and drained off more than a thousand gallons of the petrol. There was also a raid carried out on the National Bank in Dominick Square in which a number of weapons were seized.
Local IRA members William Murray and Peter Tormey were court-martialled in Dublin for possession of guns following their arrest at a military checkpoint in Mullingar on the Dublin Rd. The two men refused to recognise the court.
The Dail or Republican courts set up by the Dail government began to function in Westmeath in July. The first Sinn Fein Arbitration Court met in the County Buildings on July 3rd. A number of local solicitors were present and the Court was presided over by the prominent Co Tyrone republican lawyer,Kevin O Shiels. Proceedings were disrupted by the military who broke into the meeting and seized documents. However the Court soon met again and increasing numbers of people began to use it.
The Crown court was finding it difficult to function with defendants and lawyers not turning up. The Assizes could only take place on July 8th because “the Courthouse was taken over by the military .Sentries were placed in front of the building and armed soldiers were in position inside.” Local magistrates-Justices of the Peace, as they were known,began to resign their commissions.
Those who resigned included P.J Weymes and P.W Shaw. Many local RIC members also resigned-some because they were being boycotted by their neighbours and others because they refused to carry guns against fellow Irishmen. Many of the police barracks’ in the rural hinterland round Mullingar had by now been burned or abandoned.
At a meeting of the County Council,Cllr Pat Brett proposed that the council should insist,when leasing out the County Hall for a dance that “at least 50% of the dances are Irish.”
It was “time a stop was put to the jazz,two step and other English inspired dances which are included in the programme of dances held in the hall from time to time and are a disgrace to people who call themselves Irish. ” Another councillor declared that “nothing but our own good old Irish dances” should be allowed in the hall
Despite the escalating violence normal life continued in the town. July 1920 saw revival after many years of the Lough Ennell Regatta. The Midland Feis was held in St Mary’s CBS and attracted large crowds. And the summer race meeting at Newbrook Race Course was “a great success.”
Special meetings of the County Council,District Council and Board of Guardians took place in mid-August at which councillors pledged their allegiance to the Dail Government. They also agreed that they would work with the Dail Local Government department,not the British controlled Department based in Dublin Castle.
In further signs of how radical nationalism now controlled Westmeath Council,it was agreed that business should be conducted in Irish where possible and that the Council should work on Irish or Dublin Mean Time,which was 25 minutes behind Greenwich Mean Time. (Dublin Mean Time had been abolished in 1916 by the British government.)
Westmeath County Councillors also wished to erase history and expunge from the record the fact that the Council had condemned the Easter Rising. The 1916 Minute Book was placed on the table and the offending pages recording the Minutes of the post-Rising meeting and the words of condemnation were torn out and burned. This action was completely illegal and was also pointless,since the condemnation of the Rising had been reported in the local papers.!
Mullingar Town Commission and the Rural District Council were also keen to rename local streets in honour of the the dead patriots of Ireland. Without consulting the local people,they drew up a list of new names. Earl Street became Pearse St and Greville Street became Oliver Plunkett St. Harbour St was re-named after the O Rahilly and Springfield became Republican Glen.
Military Rd was re-named in honour of Thomas Ashe and Barrack St was named after the recently murdered Lord Mayor of Cork,Thomas McCurtain. Castle St became Thomas Clarke St and Blackhall Emmet Street.The Bleachyard/Jail Hill was now to be Thomas McDonagh Avenue and Valley Cottages became Larkin Cottages. Mount St was named Seery Street and Grove St became Thomas Creamer St.
In a sermon preached in the cathedral,Bishop Gaughran prayed that God “through the intercession of Mary would guide the country through the present dark and difficult times.” In the rural hinterland of Mullingar attacks on police barracks continued and a mail train was stopped at the Downs by the IRA and official letters seized. The Mullingar Branch of the Railway Workers Union supported the decision by Dublin railwaymen to refuse to handle munitions or drive trains carrying soldiers.
The County Council was in dire financial straits and was £ 50,000 in the red. There was little or no money for the wage increases sought by council staff such as the Waterworks engineer,James Raleigh (this author’s grandfather) and his colleagues. However,it was decided to go ahead with plans to build a new Vocational School for the town. The school was then based in the Governors House in the Council Buildings and had 180 full and part-time students.
At a meeting of the County Council,councillors were told that the Dail government wished local councils to give work,where possible,to men who had resigned from the RIC “and by this act of loyalty to Ireland they have exposed themselves and their dependents to all manner of hardships “. Councillors agreed to do what they could to help.
A large number of local RIC men had by now left the force. One man who remained with the police in Mullingar,Sergeant Foskin, was passing on valuable information to the IRA-including police codes. A constable who had served in Mullingar,Michael Kelly,was killed in an ambush in Co Clare in September.
A Sinn Fein arbitration court was held in Mullingar on September 20th. It was presided over by local county councillors, Thomas Noonan , N Crosbie and M.J Kennedy and TD,Lorcan Robbins. Mullingar solicitors in attendance included J.J Macken and J.E Wallace.
By now,the local Crown Courts were almost deserted. The only case heard in the Petty Sessions that month involved Thomas “the Bags” McCormack,appearing for the umpteenth time on a charge of being drunk and disorderly.
The altar servers and boy choristers from the cathedral enjoyed an excursion to the shores of Lough Ennell. They visited the grounds of La Mancha house as guests of Mr Thomas Shaw, where they played games and had a picnic. They included K Whelehan, P Shaw,F Shaw,J Jennings,J Carey and P Lynam.
Colonel Charles Howard-Bury of Belvedere House was a long way from his home in September of 1920. The explorer and soldier was in Tibet and India preparing the ground work for a reconnaisance of Mount Everest which the Royal Geographical Society planned to undertake in 1921.
Howard-Bury would lead the reconnaisance. In September of 1920,he visited the Dalai Lama and obtained his permission for the expedition to travel through Tibet. In his diary he described looking northwards ; “In the evening far away the peak of Mount Everest stood up against the setting sun.”
Meetings of the County and Rural District Councils and of the Town Commission were adjourned as a mark of respect to Terence McSwiney,following the death of the Cork Lord Mayor on hunger strike on October 25th.
Earlier in the month many local bodiies , including the councils and the Comrades of the Great War Association had passed resolutions calling for the British authorities to intervene and save McSwiney’s life. The Town Commission passed a resolution condemning the “brutality of the English government.”
The Railway workers Union had decided to refuse to handle trains carrying British soldiers or weaponry. Many workers were dismissed from their jobs as a result of their actions.
The Mullingar railway workers union branch held a meeting to discuss financial support for the sacked workers and also to discuss how Mullingar could be kept fed if the railways closed down as a result of the workers actions and continuing IRA attacks on trains.
It was decided that canal barges and cars could be used to deliver foodstuffs and other essential supplies. People were requested to make their cars or lorries available. Mullingar would become a distribution centre for the surrounding districts with food stored in the town.
The Mullingar Trades council was raising funds to support Catholic workmen expelled from the shipyards and other industries in Belfast. At a meeting of the Council, it was reported that donations received included £18 from the Walshestown area, £10 from the priests of Mullingar and £2/11s from the Railway Workers.
A very substantial donation of £50 was raised at a meeting of the local Protestant community in the Greville Arms,at which the attacks on Catholic workers was strongly condemned
The Mullingar Volunteers were increasingly taking over the task of law enforcement from the RIC. They were reported to have been “very active recently in the suppression of crime of all kinds.” In one case, a man who had tried to rape a girl was imprisoned and given 10 strokes of the birch. Another man was imprisoned after he threatened to burn his mother’s house .
Bishop Gaughran preached a sermon in the cathedral in which he condemned drunkeness.. “If the young people are filled with drink and if the old folk are also full of drink,what is to become of the country?”
A meeting of the Town Commission was told that residents in Springfield were threatening to withhold house rates because the lamps in the area were not being lit. The town lamp – lighter and the Manager of the gas company were blaming each other for the lighting problem.
There was also a problem concerning a lamp in Meeting House Lane,with confusion as to whether the lamp was the property of the Town Commission or of the Methodist Chapel,which was located along the Lane (now Indulgence hair salon).
Despite the escalating war nationwide Mullingar was still considered to be “one of the quietest towns in Ireland”. This changed on the night of November 27th when “an extraordinary and alarming incident caused great sensation and panic in Mullingar.”
A military truck passed through the town and two grenades were thrown from the vehicle as it went down Pearse Street. A 15 year old youth,Joseph McCormack,was taken to hospital suffering from shrapnel wounds and shock. The windows of a number of business premises, including P.W Shaw Ironmongers , Porters Wine Merchants and Canton Casey’s pub were broken.
At a meeting of the County Council, Cllr Thomas Noonan noted that membership of the council “was dwindling as a result of the action of the enemy government”. One councillor (the chairman) was in prison,a second councillor had just been arrested and a third councillor “had a miraculous escape from death by shooting.”
Cllr Noonen praised his arrested colleagues because “they were living in times when every every man who called himself an Irishman was willing to suffer for the sake of his country. To be taken from their houses in the cause of Ireland was a matter of congratulations.”
Arrests of local republicans continued throughout the month. Cllr Pat Brett and Cllr Pat Dooner were among those detained following raids on their homes. Pat Byrne from Patrick Street,who had been released from Mountjoy in March after going on hunger strike was returned to jail. In the House of Commons,the Belfast Nationalist MP,Jo Devlin raised the issue of Byrne’s detention,arguing that it was unlawful.
The Council was actually unable to hold a meeting due to a lack of a quorum. The council chamber was also occupied by the police and the military raided the building and took away minute books and other documents. The tricolour which flew over the building was fired on by Black and Tans,then taken down and dragged along the street behind a military truck.
At a meeting of the Town Commission,a resolution was passed expressing sympathy to the “Lady Mayoress of Cork,Mrs McSwiney” on the death of her “martyred husband.” The Commission also passed a resolution offering condolences to the family of Kevin Barry,executed in Dublin.
The Mullingar Trades Council held a meeting in support of council outdoor staff who were seeking a wage increase. There was criticism of the councillors.
One speaker declared that:” the new councils were composed of revolutionaries , but my experience was that in their dealings with labour ,they were anything but revolutionary.” Thomas Redmond,the Secretary of the Trades Council,stated that “the councils claimed to be out for an Irish Republic,but Labour was out for one better-a Workers Irish Republic.”
The Trades Council was continuing to raise funds for the Belfast Expelled Workers Fund. Among the local donations were 10 shillings from the residents of Dominick Street and 19 shillings from the residents of Lynnbury and Belvedere Terraces.
Money was also being raised for a new Fire Brigade for Mullingar. The Brigade numbered 17 members by the end of November. Subscriptions to the fund included £5 from Colonel Batton of the Mullingar Motor Company; £ 2 from the priests of the parish, and £2 from Richard Mullally,plumber.
Arrests of local IRA members and other republican activists continued as 1920 drew to a close. Christopher Fitzsimons was detained in a raid on his father’s house. Owen Mc Loughlin was also arrested. Both men were members of the Mullingar Brigade. The house of Cllr Pat Brett was raided by police once more.
Members of the County Council arrived for a meeting to find Head Constable Kidd and six other policemen in occupation of the council meeting rooms. It once again proved difficult to get a quorum for the meeting. When the meeting did get underway,the main item for discussion was the demand by council outdoor staff for a wage increase. The council was not in a position to grant such an increase as it was nearly bankrupt.
A club house for the Mullingar Comrades of the Great War Association was opened by Colonel Cooper of Dunboden. The club was located close to the military barracks in Patrick Street. The British Army was still a strong presence in Mullingar and an advertisement in local papers sought magazines and books for the Soldiers’ Home at the Fair Green. The home had opened in 1906 and was designed as an alcohol free recreation centre for the soldiers stationed in the town.
The Mullingar Motor Company was advertising cars for sale at prices ranging between £625 and £800 .The types of car on offer included the Talbot and the Alvis.
The Company was expanding at its premises on Castle Street,with Managing Director, Colonel Batton declaring that the business would be selling products ” which would be among the best in the United Kingdom.”
Other shops and businesses in the town in 1920 included Days Bazaar; Weirs’ Medical Hall; Dave O Callaghan’s cycle shop: the Arcade Ladies Drapery; T L Hutchinson Drapery;Coyne’s Forge and Brophils Hotel.
By Historian RUTH ILLINGWORTH ©