Fate and the killing of Sergeant Cronin of Tullamore in October 1920 during the War of Independence: release of Brigade Activity Reports from the Military Archive. Michael Byrne

Two memorial cards: :Terence McSwiney and Henry Cronin. One was killed in retaliation for the death of the other.

Most people will readily agree that good fortune in life is dependent on hard work and luck. Getting a break can make all the difference. Policeman Sergeant Henry Cronin was shot at Tullamore’s Henry Street (now O’Carroll St) on 31 October 1920 and died the following morning. Now those who shot him that night have been identified in the release of the latest batch of records from the Military Archive. It was a case of bad timing for Cronin as he had been sent to Tullamore only four years earlier in 1916 to replace Sgt Philip Ahern who was injured in the Tullamore Incident and was retired in September of that year.

001064 Industrial Distute-Henry St. Tullamore-1984
The terrace at Henry/O’Carroll St., Tullamore where the Cronins lived and where Sgt  Cronin was shot outside of his house on 31 10 1920.

The Military Archive unlocks its secrets

Several members of Offaly History attended a seminar on 23 February 2019 where archivist in charge of the project at the Military Archive, Cécile Gordon, explained the background to the release of the Brigade Activity Reports. The lecture by TCD’s Ann Dolan on the hit men run by Michael Collins on Bloody Sunday morning in 1920 showed how difficult it was for men to come to terms with their war-time career in later life. It also confirmed that these records need to be handled sensitively. The newsletter of the Decade of Centenaries has conveniently summarised the newly released data as follows:
‘The release of archival material retained by the Military Archives has revolutionised the study of the 1916-23 period, and on Saturday 23 February 2019 the launch of the latest tranche of material took place at at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Rathmines, Dublin 6. The Brigade Activity Reports series of the Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection took place reports were compiled from 1935 onwards to assist in the verification of individual applications for pensions; nearly all of the reports include brief descriptions of particular operation undertaken or planned; the date of the operation and its location; and the identity and role of those who participated. A new publication, a Guide to the Brigade Activity Reports was also be released along with the collection; a copy can be downloaded here free of charge.’ This report contains useful essays together with listings of Brigade activity in Offlay, the diversionary attack at Geashill, the killing of Sgt Cronin and the death of Matthew Kane, IRA Volunteer.’

Henry Cronin, just four years in Tullamore – Fortune did not smile for him
Henry Cronin, the RIC man killed in Tullamore, was originally from Cork and had come from Moneygall in 1916 to replace Ahern who was injured in the Tullamore Incident in March that year –just a month before the Rising (hence the claim that Tullamore was where the first shot was fired). Soon after fifteen men and boys were charged with the attempted murder of Ahern. They were released from military custody in late June 1916 (for more see Tullamore in 1916) without any criminal conviction while Ahern died two years later and his successor Sergeant Cronin two years after that. Fate took a hand and decreed a sad end for both men.

The Romans call it Fortuna, as she was the goddess of fortune and the personification of luck. Like Justice she could be represented as veiled and blind and she came to represent life’s capriciousness.

Sgt Ahern injured in 1916, killed in a motor accident in Banagher.
The trial of the Tullamore men was delayed for almost two months while waiting for Ahern to recover. The court-martial procedure was adopted in the aftermath of the Rising. Ahern survived this first knock and the men were released in late June by order of General Maxwell and with Prime Minister Asquith’s approval. Ahern’s evidence at the court martial may not have done the prisoners any harm as he was said to have indicated that he was shot from underneath in the struggle. The implication being that it was unintentional or accidental. Ahern returned to Tullamore in September 1916. The local press commented that Sergeant Ahern was said to be looking well and that his friends were glad to see him. It was in the same week that Seamus O’Brennan, one of his assailants, visited the town in connection with a National Aid tournament. Ahern had now retired but soon after Daniel E. Williams, or his son Edmund, employed Ahern as a caretaker in the Tullamore Laundry (located where the new Lidl is under construction) and not long after that he moved to the Williams-owned Banagher Maltings. In early May 1918 he was killed in a motor accident while apparently holding on to a Williams lorry while it was making its way up the hill in Banagher. True to form a witness at the inquest said that Ahern acknowledged before he died that it was his own fault and that ‘he had done what he had no right to do’. He had let go his hand from the lorry and lost his balance and in doing so fell under a wheel.

051494 Barrack Street, 1916 demolished 1922
Barrack Street now Partrick St. with a Killeavy butcher stall stll on right in foreground and the barracks of 1716-1922 in background.

And so it was for Philip Ahern and for Henry Cronin. Sergeant Henry Cronin was said to have been playing snap-apple with his children on Halloween of 31 October 1920 when, on leaving his house for duty at the police barracks, he was shot by the IRA (successor to the Irish Volunteers) and died the following morning. Those involved in the killing are named in the BAR reports as Sean Barry and Sean Killeavy and that it was in retaliation for the death on 25 October of Sinn Féin lord mayor of Cork, Terence McSwiney. Young Kevin Barry was executed on the same morning as Sgt Cronin died.

The inquest on Cronin – lets get back to business ASAP
At the inquest Dr Timothy Meagher (who had fought in the First World War and decorated) said he found six bullets wounds in Cronin, three in and three out. One wound on the neck at the top of shoulder blade, a second in the stomach and the third in the right forearm. District Inspector Rosse said it was a foul murder and that Cronin did not get a dog’s chance. The jury under foreman W.C. Graham, a Methodist with a grocery in Patrick St., confirmed the medical evidence and went on to ‘strongly condemn such an outrage being committed in our midst’. The jury brought to the attention of the District Inspector the reprisals going on from the Black and Tans and to intervene so that the town might return to a prosperous, commercial business condition. Fr E. Daly C.C., of war chaplain experience, deplored the tragedy (as did the parish priest Fr Callary who was no friend of Sinn Féin) and condemned such violence from wherever it came. The parish had been exceptionally free of such acts, he said, which were to be deplored from whatever source. Sympathy was extended to the family and the people of the parish who had suffered in the reprisals for a deed that was likely to be done by people from a distance.

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Died after 74 days on hunger strike in October 1920

Aftermath of the shooting and death – attacks on Sinn Féin supporters. Escape of O’Connor
The Foresters Hall was burned on the same night as were the shops of well-known Sinn Féin sympathisers Mrs Wyer and O’Brennan’s of Church Street and the hairdressing establishment of James Clarke in William/Columcille Street. Houses visited by the Black and Tans included that of Whelan’s in O’Connell Street, Mrs Mooney, Crowe Street, Barry’s in O’Moore Street, Taylor in the same street, Kelly’s in High Street, Daly’s and Digan’s in Cormac Street. James O’Connor, the town councillor and president of the local branch of the Transport Union was resident in Mrs Heavy’s in Harbour Street and having been seized by the police was lucky to escape. The following night it was the turn of Clara where Leo White (who had served in War 1) and brother of Michael White, was seriously injured by a police raiding party. On 3 November 1920 the premises and business of the Athlone Printing Works including its Offaly Independent were destroyed.
Thirty-five years later his son, Patrick Cronin, as a newly consecrated bishop, received a huge welcome in Tullamore. In 1989 the now archbishop recalled in a letter to a friend that evening in 1920 when Fortuna intervened with lasting consequences. At the time of his father’s death he was just seven years old.

032604 Bishop Cronin & Sister Ignatus.
Bishop Cronin on the occasion of his 25th anniversary with Willie Dunne, Mrs Dunne – and Sister Ignatius, about 1980.

Bishop Cronin  recalls  his father’s death 
From Irish Times, 2 Nov. 2000. A Hallowe’en killing on the streets of Tullamore during the War of Independence has been described in detail by the victim’s son, in a letter which has been seen by The Irish Times. The official version, which was starkly recorded in Richard Abbott’s recent publication, Police Casualties in Ireland, 1919-1922, tells little of the terror surrounding the event. It records: “31st October, 1920, Tullamore, King’s Couny. Henry Cronin, Sgt. 56371. The sergeant was shot and wounded three times near his home in Henry Street, Tullamore, as he was leaving to go to the RIC Barracks. He died on 1st November, 1920, at 7.45 a.m. in the county infirmary. “After the shooting, the sergeant’s wife ran out into the street and met her husband who fell into her arms saying: `I’m shot.’ It was later found that he had been shot at very close range as his clothing showed signs of having been singed.” When the editor of The Irish Times, Conor Brady, who grew up in Tullamore, reviewed the book in this newspaper on September 2nd last, he recalled as a child welcoming Archbishop Patrick Cronin, Sgt Cronin’s son, back to the town. He was one of the hundreds of people who lined the streets for the visit of Archbishop Cronin, of the Columban Fathers, who was ministering in the Philippines. No one had told the young Brady what had happened to the archbishop’s father in 1920 on the same street through which his son moved almost 40 years later. The publication of that review sparked a controversy which was fanned by further examination by Irish Times colleague Kevin Myers of the legitimacy of this and other similar killings of RIC men. Letters came from a grandson of the victim and a son of one of the IRA men who had been involved in carrying out the killing on the direct orders of Michael Collins. However, within the last week, The Irish Times has seen a further letter, this time from Archbishop Cronin, who died in 1992, written to friends of the Cronin family. Dated October 31st, 1989, it was penned on the 69th anniversary of the shooting from the archbishop’s house in the Philippines. The text ran:
“Dear XXXX,
“Many thanks for your recent letter. I am happy to know that both XXXX and you are well. I have been thinking and praying about my late father who was (shot/died) [both words have been scored out] on this day in 1920, and died the following day.
“The events of the night on which he was shot are vivid in my mind, as if it only happened yesterday. We had been playing games with my father as it was Hallowe’en evening. At about 9 p.m. he left us to return to the barracks, where he should have been before sunset.
“But he was over-confident. He knew and was friendly with everyone on the way.
“Almost as soon as he left our house there was a volley of gunfire and my mother said in alarm: `Do you hear that?’ and `My man has just gone out.’
“She left in haste only to find my father almost at our doorstep lying in his blood. He was dying. There were nine bullets in him, all in his stomach. He was brought to the Old Infirmary which still stands, almost a ruin. There he died about 2 a.m.
“I have forgiven those who shot him, even though they were our neighbours – but I can never forget. Today, I pray that the shooting and killing will come to an end in Northern Ireland. But the men who order these killings do not listen to me, or anyone like me.
“They are self-anointed, as our leaders and the lives of many of our friends are in their hands.
“Before I close let me thank you for your great kindness to me,
“Yours sincerely,
“Patrick Cronin.”

072512 (Aged18) Kevin Barry - (Executed 01-11-1920) Mountjoy Prison
Executed by the British on 1 November 1920 – was at school to Belvedere where his school cap is on display and other memorabilia. ‘Just a lad of eighteen summers’.

The autumn of 1920 was a time of ‘murder and mayhem’ with up to 117 RIC killed since Soloheadbeg in January 1919. Some saw Soloheadbeg as an unauthorised attack while others such as Martin Mansergh (History Ireland, March-April 2019) are more sympathetic and critical of ‘lingering metropolitan resentment’ by which he probably means comments of Fintan O’Toole (Ir Times, 12 Jan. 2019) that ‘Soloheadbeg gave sanction to a fatal belief that would remain in place for much longer; that anyone with a gun could claim the authority of the Irish republic’.

Next week: what happened to the men who killed Sergeant Cronin and to the civilian population of Tullamore and Clara in the aftermath of that fatal attack?

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