An Englishman’s walk through Birr, Kilcormac and Tullamore in mid-1921, as the War of Independence intensified. By Michael Byrne

An Englishman, Wilfrid Ewart (1892-1922), walked from Cork through the Irish midlands to Belfast during the War of Independence in April-May 1921. His book A Journey in Ireland 1921 (London, April 1922) was his account of that dangerous journey through the Irish heartland. Ewart commenced his journey on 18 April 1921 and finished it on 10 May.  How did he escape abduction or shooting as an English spy? He might have come close to meeting death near the Blue Ball. Ewart was born in 1892 and died in 1922 – the year of the publication of his book, killed by a stray bullet in Mexico city on New Year’s Eve 1922. So Ewart lived dangerously as is clear from his passage through County Offaly the year before his death. His account is one of the best we have of feelings in Birr during the height of the War of Independence and on the eve of the killings at Kinnitty and Coolacrease, not to mention so called spys.

The jacket of the first edition of 1922

Ewart was possibly near death at the Blue Ball and surprisingly escaped that fate. He must have had great connections and credentials from both sides in the War of Independence to escape a violent death. He was surprised at how normal life was in Birr and contrasted the scene with the situation in Tullamore, where curfew had lately been imposed. Shots had been fired at the RIC and Black and Tans in the town of Tullamore in early April and one volunteer killed.  In making the trip Ewart was out to discover for himself just what justification there was (if any) for British actions in Ireland.

In Birr Ewart met Archdeacon John Ryan who succeeded in 1917 on the death of Dean Scanlan in December 1916 and was parish priest there for 31 years until his death at the age of 96 in 1948. Ewart in his 1921 interview with Ryan described him as:

One of the most picturesque personalities I came across in this part of Ireland was Archdeacon Ryan, of Birr. Indeed, there was not a little in common between this fragile-looking, shy-mannered and unworldly priest and the steel-fibred leaders of Sinn Fein whom I had talked with in Cork.  There was the same – how shall one say? – delicate adjustment of mind, softness of voice and manner, strain of poetry, faint perfume of idealism which mollifies, or appears to, the rigid nationalism.

Ewart went on to note that Archdeacon Ryan considered the IRA to be motivated by pure patriotism. Ewart in his interview with John Dooly did focus on the immediate cause of Dooly’s removal from the chair of the King’s County Council in June 1918, but perhaps ought to have got a lot more. The change in public mood in the county did not affect Dooly’s standing in Birr and he continued to be elected as chair of the Birr Urban District Council up to his death in 1924, a record of twenty-four years. Ewart met three other people perhaps including the agent to the Rosse estate. What was emphasised was how law abiding the town was. The county was at that time outside of the martial law area and the markets were functioning. In neither Birr (nor Tullamore, though described as hotter that Birr politically) did Sinn Féin have an outright victory in the urban elections. 

Birr’s Emmet Square post 1915 with the vacant column of the Cumberland memorial

Ewart commenced his visit in Dublin with a visit to AE (George Russell) and later left for Cork where his walk took him via Mallow, Thurles and Limerick to Birr, Kilcormac, Tullamore, Horseleap, Castletown, Mullingar to Dundalk and Ulster.

The extract from the Journey relating to the midlands

Market Day in Birr

April 30th [1921] was market-day in Birr.

And from about ten o’clock onwards small donkey-carts driven by ragged-looking peasants and containing poultry, vegetables, a calf, potatoes, eggs, a pig, came bowling into the little town. There were farm-wagons laden with hay, seed-corn, roots and other produce, there were governess-carts driven by farmers’ wives, and motor-cars; there were bicyclists. Altogether Birr presented a lively appearance.

The heat-wave continued. The sun scorched the Duke of Cumberland’s column in the centre of the square, that column which everybody told you was any day likely to tumble down. [The statue of the duke had been taken down for safety reasons in 1915.] The roadway was an inch deep in dust; they had pulled down the blinds in the County Club [the King’s County and Ormond Club, later Eddie Enright’s]. Two or three sleepy Black and Tans lounged on the steps of the yellow building opposite which was their home. .  . A couple of soldiers stroll by, a couple of R.I.C. men. People look curiously at you sometimes, make remarks to each other about you. You find yourself counting the number of green ties, green scarves, green costumes.

The market-luncheon begins at two. There assembled in the dining-room of the inn [probably Dooly’s Hotel] a young Church of Ireland clergyman, two farmers, a commercial traveller. All know each other, all are evidently in the habit of meeting weekly. They reply to your “good morning” – and regard you with suspicion.

Conversation dwindles, then ceases altogether. Essays upon the weather, the market, the future of the crops, and the architectural peculiarities of Birr – with special reference to the Duke of Cumberland – meet with monosyllables. Thwarted and still-born, you retire: silence reigns except for the glad symphony of eating.

“This is a Constitutional island in a sea of Sinn Fein,” remarked a citizen as we strolled along the quiet road that leads to Galway under the walls of the castle in the cool of the evening. “Birr and the district around it have always been loyal, chiefly, I suppose, because it’s been a garrison-town since time immemorial, because a lot of the soldiers – and officers, too – have married and settled down here. The town has not suffered in any way – touch wood! – our local Black and Tans are a well-behaved lot, and we’ve never so far had curfew. At the Local Government election, out of twenty-one elected candidates, only four were Sinn Feiners. You can’t say that of many towns in Ireland!”

I agreed.

“But,” he went on, “it’s only like that in Birr itself and within a radius of two or three miles. Tullamore you’ll find a much warmer spot. The political change there has only come about in the last few years though. In 1914 North Tipperary was so pro-British as to be positively Jingo. Hundreds of men volunteered to join up – and were told to go home again. Now all Tipperary, as you know, is red-hot Sinn Fein.”

“What are the chief reasons for the change?” – a usual question.

“The blunders of the Government. If the Asquith Act [Home Rule] had been applied in 1914, even though Ulster had fought for it, all this trouble would have been avoided. War or no war, it would have been worthwhile.”

“And then?”

“Well, the Easter Rebellion, and the executions after it, brought the whole country to its feet. Coming to later days, the repeated executions – in Cork and Dublin – and the rule of the Crown Forces have made for greater and more bitter resentment every day.”

By ‘Crown Forces’ I suppose you mean the Black and Tans?”

“The whole country is up in arms against them, but in Tullamore and Mullingar you’ll find there’s feeling against the Regulars too. . .

While we were discussing the difficulties of a good relationship being established between England and the United States with the Irish Question still “in the air,” a lorry-load of soldiers singing and shouting, with rifles levelled, approached at furious speed and dashed by in a cloud of dust.

My friend, who had shown signs of uneasiness, said,

“You’ve got to be careful of these gentry when they’re like that.” I questioned him about the economic condition of the countryside.

“King’s County, of course, is mainly tillage and therefore prosperity is less conspicuous here than in dairy countries, but still it’s been very great.”

There was, so far as he knew, no Sinn Fein propaganda in the schools and no Russian money behind the Sinn Fein movement.

“But,” he added, “there’s plenty of American.”

John Dooly, chair of Birr UDC, 1900 to 1924 and of the county council, 1912-18. He represented the county at the Irish Convention, 1917-18.

My next conversation at Birr was with a certain John Dooley [sic], member of the King’s County Council and of the 1917 Convention.  He began to speak at once of this abortive but significant event of recent Irish history.

“The result of the Convention split on a hair. Apart from the Nationalists, who wanted an immediate grant of fiscal autonomy, only the Ulster lot stood out of the agreement. . .

“Ulster remains as ever, the crux of the question. . .

“What in your opinion is the shortest way to peace?”

“Raise Martial Law and remove military government. Give us fair treatment, I say, and the present bitterness will soon be forgotten.” . .

Every Unionist of note in this district for instance, has become a Constitutional Nationalist. The old Nationalists have become Sinn Feiners.” . .

On the subject of local conditions, he said:

“Farmers are well-off enough. There is no emigration, so their families do the work free. Unemployment is about normal, but the working classes are badly off really, for work is spasmodic. There’s very little buying and selling. Shopkeepers want to keep their retail stocks low.”

A noticeable characteristic of this placid oasis in the heart of stormy Ireland was its normal daily and social life, the apparently well-to-do contentment of its inhabitants. In the market-square of an evening there was always a busy going to-and-fro. Black and Tans played football with the local youths, young ladies in white tennis frocks might be seen riding homeward on bicycles or starting up their cars. Cows strolled casually through the streets after milking.

I called upon a local squire, and found a charming country place with its equipment of lawns and gardens and a park, permanently inhabited. Nowhere in the country districts did the landed gentry appear to be disturbed in their normal habits by local conditions.

A well-known resident of the district drew my attention to the record of Birr in the war. Birr contributed a higher proportion of volunteers to the Army than any other town in Ireland. “Early in 1914,” he said, “twenty-six out of thirty-seven of my employees joined the Army.” . .

But,” he added, “hostility to England is growing, though not in this district. The Black and Tans have been quiet here, but unless they are brought under discipline elsewhere there can be no peace in this land.”

One of the most picturesque personalities I came across in this part of Ireland was Archdeacon Ryan, of Birr. . .

“Look back at our history – have we much to thank you for?”  These were the Archdeacon’s opening words . .

Archdeacon Ryan’s words grew in intensity as he went on.

“If Irishmen thought they could get a Republic now, they would be glad of it. Given a free election, the majority of the people would undoubtedly vote for remaining outside the British Empire. Not that there is any personal dislike of Englishmen, but there is – and always has been – hatred of British rule. We are a separate nation. Wouldn’t you like to be master in your own house?  …. If English people want to understand us, they ought to read more history.”

He paused. Then:

“Nobody trusts the present Government. The Partition Act is a useless farce; nobody wants it. A terrible account lies at Sir Edward Carson’s door.”

“But the country has prospered under the Union – is probably better off now than it has ever been?”

“Farmers and shopkeepers are well off here in King’s Co., not the common people.”. .

“The first step to peace is the control of the Crown Forces. If you let loose a lot of young men without character or control to do as they will, of course they get out of hand and break the law.”

“But the I.R.A.?”

“The I.R.A. is inspired by pure patriotism. The ideals of the After-War were largely responsible for the rapid evolution of Sinn Fein from the old Nationalism. Those ideals England has forgotten. But those are our ideals still.”

Archdeacon Ryan’s last word was:

“You cannot kill the soul of a people. You can no more do so than I can kill your soul.”

The Tullamore Road and perhaps death in the afternoon

A May Day sun baked down upon the market square of Birr. It was early yet, and Sunday; the square was empty but for a few stray folk on their way to Mass. I hoped to walk the twenty-two miles to Tullamore by tea-time and, allowing for accidents, to cover at least half the distance in advance of the noonday heat.

The whitewashed and dun houses, the new-looking church on the first straight stretch out of the town were quickly left behind.

Three miles out a wide, deep trench had been dug across the road – a trench just wide enough and just deep enough to wreck any vehicle that should attempt to compass it.

The chief characteristic of the remaining seven miles to Kilcormac was their extreme loneliness.

Kilcormac village with its Williams’ branch shop on the right with lamp, c 1910

A group of young men standing in the sunny Kilcormac village street eyed me suspiciously. I stopped at the inn, the landlord of which, to my surprise, served me with a will, pressed me to sit down and rest in his cool stone parlour, and finally refused my offer of payment.

I decided, after a quarter of an hour’s rest, to press on and break the backbone of the journey. After crossing a bridge that spanned a gurgling rocky stream [the Silver River], signs of Republican activity became more apparent. Trees recently felled lay by the roadside, some trenches that had been dug up had evidently been filled in. . .

My feet began to blister, thirst increased, and the heat raised a mirage over everything. Another four miles brought me to a public-house at cross-roads. Half a dozen youths leaning against the wall of the inn [at Blue Ball] cast anything but friendly glances at me and answered my question as to the distance to Tullamore gruffly. At this moment five young men on bicycles rode up from a side-road and, dismounting, joined in conversation with the original group. From the lowering glances directed at me, I realised that I was the object of their attention, but decided that there was no use in hanging about. After walking a few hundred yards, I had an instinctive intimation of someone following. Sure enough, as I looked over my shoulder, a man came into sight round a bend in the road. I waited for him to come up. A middle-aged peasant, he spoke with an air of surly suspicion and inquired sarcastically whether I had had much difficulty in getting along the road. I replied that I had encountered – obstacles. We walked alongside for nearly half a mile, speaking laconically of the crops and the weather. He then turned into a field and left me with, as I thought, a rather sinister grin. Feeling certain now that something was “in the wind,” I plodded on apprehensively, not looking back. Another half-mile brought me to a place where a large fir-wood on one side of the road faced a bog on the other. I suddenly heard the rustle of bicycle-wheels close behind and, looking round, was confronted by the five young men.

The inn at Blue Ball in more recent times

“Stop! Hands up!”

They leapt off and laid their bicycles by the road. The leader of the party, a dark, gipsy-faced fellow of about twenty-two, with a mop of matted hair and a somewhat ferocious expression, seized my arms with a policeman’s grip, while another, who closely resembled him, dragged off my rucksack with no light hand and passed it to his companions. All the young men wore caps and dark suits of clothes. My pockets were turned out, my purse, containing several £1 notes and other trifles, being taken. I was then ordered to sit down by the roadside.

The half-hour that followed was much less than pleasant. Innocuous tourist though I was, friend of Ireland though I believed myself to be, the little slip of  paper with which I had armed myself down-country along seemed to stand between me and a peremptory fate. For to the rest of my identifications and references, which filled a large envelope, my captors paid no attention whatsoever. My eyes wandered repeatedly to the bog and my thoughts to the number of people who had lately been found in bogs with brief notes attached to them. On a parallel road just a week ago (I graphically recalled) a police inspector had been kidnapped and had not been heard of since.

Meanwhile the five Republicans were busying themselves with my mundane possessions. The contents of the rucksack lay in the road, my papers (and incidentally my pyjamas) were being dismembered. I could hear one of the party (who seemed to be a sort of Intelligence Officer) reading aloud the wording of my precious slip of paper. Another seemed profoundly interested in Justin McCarthy’s Outline of Irish History; a third was perusing the hieroglyphics in my note-book. A long muttered conversation followed, during which the only words that caught my ear were “man” and “road.”

At last the leader turned from the group. “I think the man’s all right.”

I was thereupon handed back the contents of my pockets and curtly told to count my money, which out of politeness I omitted to do (but which I afterwards did and found correct). I now noticed that the three subordinate members of the party were decent, respectable-looking youths of ages between eighteen and twenty-one. They helped me to put my things together and lifted my rucksack onto my shoulders.

We parted with mutual “good afternoons.”

Two miles short of Tullamore, the bridge spanning a swift-flowing little river [the Clodiagh atMucklagh] had been blown up – so thoroughly demolished at the centre, in fact, as to leave a chasm too wide to jump. The only alternative was to wade the stream – no unpleasant task for swollen feet – and to make a detour through some birch-woods to a point where it was possible to join the road again.

That was the last physical obstacle. But, walking into Tullamore rather conspicuously dusty and a traveller, battery after battery of coldly hostile glances were directed at me by men who scowled as I passed, scowled after me, scowled up at the window of the inn where I sat at dinner. Everybody seemed to see in an English stranger a potential spy. . .

Charleville Square before 1926 – probably 1922-23 with Gladiator Bus Company bus outside G. N. Walshe

Ewart soon departed Tullamore where he noted that because of a recent outrage curfew was at 9 p.m. ‘Up to within a few minutes of this hour the streets were full of people taking the air. When, however, two lines of Black and Tans appeared advancing concentrically along the principal streets with rifles at the trail everybody fled homeward. Only here and there impudent young women defied the  majesty  and might of the Crown up to and even beyond the last moment, answering stern admonitions to “get home in quick time” with laughter and sallies of wit. That it was not altogether a laughing matter, however, the sharp “crack” of a rifle presently attested.’

‘On Monday May 2nd, I took train to Clara, and thence resumed the road to Mullingar. .’

The full version of this piece was published in Offaly Heritage 11 (Tullamore, 2020), 440 pp €15, available from http://www.offalyhistory.com books on line for sale and click and collect at Bury Quay Tullamore from Thursday 6. The largest history bookshop in the midlands will be open again on 17 May.

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