The killing of Sergeant Henry Cronin in Tullamore on Sunday 31 October 1920 and the consequences in Tullamore and Clara. By Michael Byrne

Killings such as that of Sergeant Cronin were rarely spoken of in Tullamore in the years from 1920 to the 1990s. As to who shot Cronin there were so many suggestions – men from out of town, a policeman siding with the I.R.A. and so on. Like the Spanish Civil War there was a pact of forgetfulness (olvidados) for those who were there. When Peadar Bracken made the Offaly I.R.A. Brigade return in 1940 (filed in confidence for over seventy years) in connection with service and pensions for those who had fought in the 1916–21 period he described the Cronin killing outside Cronin’s house in Henry/O’Carroll Street as

 ‘31st Oct., 1920 – Sergeant Cronin ‘wounded returning to Barracks, at Tullamore. Died subsequently.’

Today we know that the causes, course and consequences of any national struggle are complex and that the results can be not what was anticipated. In Ireland it became a Free State with a Civil War that set back the country for many years. Perhaps until after the emigration of 400,000 in the 1950s.

Sergeant Henry Cronin (aged forty-six) was shot at Tullamore’s Henry Street (now O’Carroll Street and then better known as the Pig Market) at about 7.45 p.m. on 31 October 1920 and died in the county infirmary nearby early the following morning. He was the second policeman to be shot and killed in the county during the War of Independence when one includes the Parkwood attack (via Athlone I.R.A. forces) and excludes Maguire and that in Lorrha in 1919 (part of North Tipperary, but then under Offaly I.R.A. command). Was Cronin ‘a secret agent and a spy’. Yes in that every policeman had that role. If he was so important and dangerous would he have dared to walk from his house to the barracks in the week that was and when so many policemen had already been killed?

The barracks in Barrack/Patrick Street c 1914

Cronin was said to have been playing snap-apple with his children on that fateful Halloween when, on leaving his house for duty at the police barracks, he was shot by the I.R.A. (successor to the Irish Volunteers). Those involved in the shooting were named in the Military Archives BAR reports as Tullamore men Sean Barry and Sean Killeavy. The killing was in retaliation for the death on 25 October of Sinn Féin lord mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney. Young Kevin Barry was executed on the same morning as Sgt Cronin died. And so the cycle of violence, which apparently meant so little to war-hardened Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, would have its local as well as its national impact far into the future. In Tullamore the Cronin killing was long remembered for the reason that it was largely an isolated incident in the War of Independence in Offaly and the fact that members of Sergeant Cronin’s family were prominent in Tullamore in the 1950s and 1960s, in particular, his son Archbishop Patrick Cronin and his daughter Peggy who worked for many years in Hoey & Denning, Solicitors.

October 1920 was a wicked month for the Offaly R.I.C. First, there was the death of Sergeant Maguire arising from a raid on Claffey’s of Ferbane when, it appears, he was shot by accident by his own comrades. He died soon after and was buried in Clonminch cemetery, Tullamore. On 22 October a Constable Briggs was killed in an attack on the R.I.C. and Black and Tans at Parkwood near Moate. The third policeman to die in Offaly that year was Sergeant Henry Cronin.

Peadar Bracken in his contribution to the Brigade Activity Report states that the attack on the R.I.C. in Tullamore on 31 October 1920 was by way of reprisal and that it was intended to kill two policemen. Men were concentrated at Boland’s (the 26th canal lockhouse) to assist.

Terence MacSwiney died on hunger strike 25 October 1920

As a reprisal for the death of the Lord Major of Cork an attack was planned on the most prominent of the R.I.C. who had to deal with the criminal and political side of their duties. In Tullamore R.I.C. Barracks, two men were picked out and a number of our men detailed off to deal with them. Sergt. Cronin left his house to return to the barrack at 7 p.m. and he was dealt with at point shown [on a map with the report] in Henry St, by – Sean Barry (deceased) and Sean Killeavy, both of Tullamore. The other R.I.C. man [Gibson] returned to Barracks about 10 or 15 minutes, earlier than usual and so escaped. Remarks- A large number of men were mobilised at a place called “Round Lock” about one mile from town to counteract any reprisals by R.I.C. or Tans, but the man who had custody of the guns was held up in Tullamore after the shooting of Sergt Cronin and It was too late to do any good when he got clear. – One R.I.C killed.

Cronin was attacked at about 7.45 p.m. on 31 October and died at about 4 a.m. in the nearby county infirmary. At the inquest his wife, Mrs Mary E. Cronin, reported she thought she heard four shots and according to the inquest Cronin was hit with three bullets – two in the stomach, one in the chest and his right arm was shattered. Dr Timothy Meagher (who had fought in the First World War and was decorated) said he found six bullets wounds in Cronin – three entry and three exit from shots fired at close range.  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 Street, confirmed the medical evidence and went on to ‘strongly condemn such an outrage being committed in our midst’. The coroner stated that the deceased had never interfered unduly with the civilian population, but simply did his duty. Cronin had been stationed in Tullamore since the autumn of 1916. 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 Eugene 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 Cronin inquest jury deplored the incident and noted that hitherto Tullamore had been quiet and peaceable. Fr Daly deplored all violence in remarks at Sunday mass and said that the incident was likely to have been done by people not from the town. Sgt Cronin was buried in a military-style funeral on the following Wednesday in the presence of a large crowd from Tullamore including Ulster Bank manager Thomas Mitchell who was shot dead in 1922. Fr Callary P.P. condemned the killing as the work of ‘misguided fanatics’ from out of town. 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.

Foresters Hall, Harbour Street in 1918, on site of what ins now a youth club in a new 1931 building

Nights of destruction in Tullamore and Clara in the aftermath of the Cronin attack

After the news of the shooting many people in Tullamore fled their homes. The Foresters’ Hall was burned on the same night as were the shops of well-known Sinn Féin sympathisers – Mrs Teresa Wyer (chair of the board of guardians), O’Brennan’s of Church Street and the hairdressing establishment of James Clarke in William/Columcille Street. Also damaged were the offices of the Offaly Independent, the Sinn Féin rooms overhead and the Transport Workers Hall. 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’s 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. On Wednesday night it was the turn of Clara where Leo White (an officer who had served in the Great War and was a lieutenant in the Dublin Fusiliers) and brother of Michael White, was seriously injured by a R.I.C./Black and Tans raiding party.  Other houses in Clara visited that night included Mrs Dignam, Mrs Berry of Church Street and Mrs Weir in River Street. On 3 November 1920 the premises and the business of the Athlone Printing Works including its Offaly Independent were destroyed. Curfew was imposed in Tullamore during darkness and searchlights were in operation. Black and Tans behaved in lawless fashion in many of the midland towns, even Birr much to the surprise of residents there.

An attack on the military at Raheen was also reported on. This was organised on the night of 1 November and involved Sean Barry who was placed in charge of the column after the ambush as Peadar Bracken confirmed in a letter to the press in 1954.

The aftermath of the Cronin killing?

Aside from the immediate violence in Tullamore and Clara the Cronin family were compensated for their loss in money terms. The Foresters lodged a claim for £15,000 and the others affected £4,000. The Foresters built a new hall from the award of €13.000 incorporating part of the James O’Connor Co-Operative bakery and had the successful Grand Central Cinema (now Characters) and their clubrooms. Of the two men who shot Cronin Sean Barry joined the Free State army and Sean Killeavy the Republicans. Friends and comrades in the War of Independence must have fallen out in the course of the Civil War. It will be remembered that it took fourteen years for the two sides to come together in silence to unveil the memorial in front of the county courthouse in 1953.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Rebellion in 1966 was a time of quiet celebration. Perhaps in more ways than one. The long and dreary aftermath of the civil war (one could say from 1923 until 1960) was over. The economy was lifting under Lemass and the tide of emigration (400,000 in the 1950s) was reducing.

Sean Barry

The country was modernising and so were the women. One of these was none other than the widow of Sean Barry, now remarried as Mrs Hochstrasser. She was better known as Nurse Barry and had delivered many a child in Tullamore. Her first husband, Sean Barry, had died in 1931 at the age of thirty-two at Earl/O’Moore Street. He got a glowing obituary but little money by way of invalidity pension. This had dried up with his death. His obituary in January 1931 noted that:

He was a staunch and courageous follower of the movement, and those who were associated with him bear testimony to the fact. He was imprisoned for his activities, and was one of those who in Belfast jail, under the leadership of Austin Stack, fought against the tyranny of the Belfast prison authorities. He also spent long terms in the internment camps. He endured great hardships in the campaign, but carried on valiantly to the end. He subsequently joined the ranks of the National Army and held the rank of Lieutenant.

His widow, Nurse Barry as she was affectionately known (for she had been a midwife for many years and at a time when home births were much more common), died in 1982. Her second husband, Frank Hochstrasser, had predeceased her by twenty years.

Sean (John) Killeavy

Sean Killeavy was from William/Columcille Street, Tullamore and was a son of Henry and Catherine Killeavy. The family were victuallers and John’s brother Michael (died 1975) fought in the Great War and the War of Independence, and was chairman of the town council in the 1960s. John rose to the rank of Captain Tullamore Coy. Old I.R.A., fought on the Republican side in the Civil War, and was interned for a time in the Curragh. Soon after the Truce he emigrated, but was back in Ireland in the mid-1930s and took a part in the reorganising of the old I.R.A. He later became a civic guard and served in the north-west. He retired in the 1960s he died aged eighty-two in 1980 and is buried at Durrow. He was survived by his wife, four daughters, his sister Kathleen and his brothers Joseph and Frank Killeavy.

Archbishop Cronin in the 1970s

Cronin Family

Henry Cronin’s son, the archbishop, is well remembered in Tullamore as is his sister Peggy who worked in Hoey & Denning.  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 tragedyintervened with lasting consequences. At the time of his father’s death Patrick Cronin was just seven years old.

Kevin Barry died by hanging on the same morning as Sergt Cronin in county infirmary

Sad times for so many but out of it came independence that could have been offered (without six-county Ulster) from June 1920.