The drift towards civil war in Offaly in 1922. Specially contributed by Offaly History members to mark the Decade of Centenaries.

The split in the IRA over acceptance of the treaty had been simmering since January 1922. The outcome of the Dáil vote and the June elections (58 seats to pro-treatyites and 36 to anti-treatyites, others 34) did little to dissuade those who believed they had taken an oath to secure a republic and that the stepping stone approach was unacceptable. De Valera and Harry Boland made this abundantly clear in their addresses to the electors in Tullamore in April 1922 (see the earlier blog in this series on 15 June 2022). De Valera had issued an Easter message to the Republic, in which he had asked the young men and women of Ireland to hold steadily on, and that the goal is in sight at last.[1] Tommy Dunne of Ballinagar and a member of the county council told the anti-treaty meeting in Tullamore that:

‘His chief reason for standing by the Republic movement was the construction he put upon his oath under which he felt justified in waging war against the hirelings and agents of the King of England. To recede from that position and take an oath of faithfulness to the country or King he had  been waging war against, would be an admission of defeat.    We have not been defeated in the fight which we have waged against England in this country for the last two years.  . . . Take care that the acceptance of the Dominion Status by Ireland does not have a similar result [division] and that those who are seeking to make Ireland refuse to accept this Treaty do not find themselves opposed by their own country men (cheers).[2]

In the same month of April 1922 the Four Courts was occupied by 200 anti-treaty troops led by Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows. On 1 May anti-treaty forces took more than £750,000 in raids on Bank of Ireland branches. The Offaly Independent was critical of the IRA robberies and called for drastic action to stop it.[3] Locally there were raids on the Provincial Bank in Birr and on the Ulster Bank branches in Ferbane and Tullamore. A second raid in Tullamore in early July saw the manager shot dead. The British army and RIC had departed Offaly in March 1922 and gradually not one but two IRA police forces emerged over the period to July 1922. About forty men of the no. 1 and n. 2 Offaly IRA brigades had presented themselves for police duties but up to 20 subsequently declined on hearing that their services were required for the Free State force.[4] The counties of Laois and Offaly supported the treaty and 46 percent of the electors who voted did do for the Labour candidate William Davin, thereby confirming that people now wanted progress in the country after almost five years of economic difficulties. This was a point often made by the editor of the Midland Tribune, James Pike. The Offaly Independent, back in print from February 1922, was strongly pro-treaty as were the bishops at Maynooth. The Offaly clergy, with the exception of Revd J.H. Burbage, C.C., Geashill and Fr P. Smyth in Rahan, were pro-treatyite. This included Fr Magee of Tober who had been very supportive of Sinn Féin during the War of Independence. Cumann na mBan had rejected the treaty in February 1922 and this led to the setting up a pro-treaty women’s grouping known as Saoirse with branches established in Offaly. Do any minute books survive?

The courthouse and jail occupied by British military up to March 1922. Destroyed in civil war July 1922

Michael Collins had tried to assuage the concerns of the anti-treatyites but the pressure from the British on the Free State government, especially after the assassination of Wilson in London, led to the ultimatum to the Four Courts garrison on 27 June and the opening of the bombardment on 28 June. Ernie O’Malley has given an insider account of his involvement at the Four Courts and in the civil war (The singing flame, 1978). The sense of defeat, frustration and futility is palpable both in his memoir and that of Sean O’ Faolain, Vive moi! (1993). Locally, the War of Independence veteran Martin Meleady may have had a similar experience.[5] Others, such as Sean McGuinness, a local IRA commander were more buoyant.

This week marks the abandoning of the Four Courts by the Republicans and the huge explosion that destroyed so much of the records of Irish history on 30 June 1922. Offaly would have the same experience on 20 July with the destruction of the courthouse (blog coming up) and the loss of records, only some of which have been replaced with copies from elsewhere. The IRA in Offaly established its headquarters in the vacated County Infirmary in Church Street, Tullamore in early February 1922.[6] Within the week the Birr Barracks was handed to Commdt Gen. McCormack, 3rd Southern Division IRA. The Offaly Chronicle noted that:

The barrack is now occupied by Divisional Officers and their attendants, to the number of about 50. Birr is to be the headquarters of the division named, and is at present being used as a depot for the training of Cadets. The South Offaly No. 2 Brigade is still quartered in Birr workhouse.[7] Also in the same week about 20 recruits departed from the infirmary building for training in the Free State army.[8] At the same time RIC members were leaving Tullamore. In early March about 25 members of Offaly No. 1 Brigade left Tullamore for training at Birr Barracks.[9] One who died in June was Ferbane man, Francis Donlon, the result of an accident at Ferbane railway station. He had served forms of imprisonment in Tullamore, Mountjoy and Dartmoor.[10]

Birr Barracks about 1900. Courtesy of Stephen Callaghan

Several Crossley tenders laden with R.I.C. and their luggage passed through Tullamore during the week on their way to an unknown destination. The Crown forces halted in William Street for refreshments when passing through on Wednesday. They carried rifles and appeared ready for any emergency. Their demeanour, however, was more docile than it was in the pre-truce days. While a funeral was passing the Blacks stood to attention, some giving the salute.[11]

The robbing of banks had already started and IRA members guarded the Tullamore banks on the Fair Day in late February.[12]

In early March shots were fired at the infirmary with Sean McGuinness narrowly escaping. These shots may have come from aggrieved RIC. No injury was done to the IRA men or to the tuberculosis patients at the rear of the infirmary building. Shots were also fired at Daingean IRA barracks.[13]

Signs of the turmoil that was to engulf the midland towns until IRA Republican forces retreated in the face of Free State forces in late July can be seen in the abrupt closure of the ‘British quarter sessions’ in the Tullamore courthouse in early April.

The army and RIC barracks, Tullamore until March 1922. Destroyed by departing Republicans, July 1922

Vice Commandant Morris, I.R.A. accompanied by a number of Republican police officers entered the Courtroom. Approaching the well of the Court the officer who was in uniform and armed with a revolver the butt of which projected from the holster attached to his belt, asked His Honor if he had the permission of the County Council to sit there? The County Court Judge replied that he had not, but added that he was engaged in hearing a case in which the County Council was represented both by Solicitor and Council. The I.R.A. officer then intimated to the Judge that he could not allow him to proceed with the case, and that the whole lot of them would have to get out.  While Mr. Rogers intervened with the remark that he was instructed by the County Council to appear there in cases in which claims for Compensation for malicious injuries were being made. The officer hesitated for a moment then replied, “you can carry on some where else if you wish”. But, said Mr. Rogers, “His Honor has almost finished the case.” The Officer repeated that he could not allow him to proceed further. His Honor then asked him if he would allow him to sit there on Tuesday to hear some cases which had been adjourned from the previous court and the Vice Commandant replied “No”.  Mr. Goodbody asked the officer with whom he seemed to be acquainted to allow his Honor to finish but he declined, adding “As far as I am concerned I cannot allow you to go on”.  His Honor said he would have to yield to superior force. He would not do any more business as the Officer had objected on behalf of the County Council. Mr. Rogers then asked Vice Commandant Morris if it was on behalf of the County Council he object to which he replied, “not altogether, you have not got permission from us.” “Whom do you represent?” asked Mr. Rogers. The Officer was understood to say that he represented the 1st Batt. Offaly No. 1 Brigade, I.R.A., by whom the Courthouse had been handed over to the County Council. Mr. Rogers said he was the solicitor to the County Council and it was the first intimation he had had , that there was any objection to His Honor the Judge sitting there and he was sure it was the first intimation that the Judge had either.[14]

In the shops the Belfast Boycott was rigorously enforced with Tullamore shopkeepers ordered to dispose of Belfast goods. ‘Armed men seized a quantity of Belfast soap in a local factory, and at Kilbeggan several tins of petrol were stolen because they came from the North.’[15]

In May ‘shots were fired in O’Moore St. and Harbour St., Tullamore, on Tuesday night. Many residents say that firing was continuous in various parts of the town from 1 to 4 o’clock a.m.’[16] In the same month the IRA went into occupation of Geashill Castle.[17]

Shots were fired at the infirmary in 1922

The conflict between the IRA groupings came to a head in Daingean in late April with the IRA of IRA staff officers:

Sensation was caused in Daingean on Saturday last when it was learned that a number of young men who had been staying in Mr. McCann’s Hotel were arrested during the early hours of the morning. About fifteen men fully armed, visited the hotel shortly after three o’clock and having been admitted searched the premises. They formed Brigadier A Gallagher, Staff Capts. R. Forrestal, J. Drum and O’Donnell, all of Tullamore and belonging to G.H.Q. Beggars’ Bush in the hotel and placed them under arrest. They were conveyed to Tullamore in a lorry and subsequently to Crinkle Barracks where they were placed under detention pending enquiries by the Army Council of which Mr. R. O’Connor is the head. It is expected that the four young men who were popular in Tullamore will be shortly released.[18]

The house in Daingean occupied by Free State forces from March 1922

Coming up:

  1. The evacuation of the barracks in Offaly
  2. The takeover by GAA members of the sports field at Spollanstown
  3. The burning of the Tullamore courthouse, jail and barracks
  4. The burning of the ‘Big Houses’.

[1] Offaly Chronicle, 20 Apr. 1922.

[2] Offaly Independent, 22 Apr. 1922

[3] Ibid., 6 May 1922.

[4] Midland Tribune, 18 Mar. 1922.

[5] Valerie Cox, Independence memories (Hachette, 2021), p. 124.

[6] Offaly Independent, 11 Feb. 1922

[7] Offaly Chronicle, 16 Feb. 1922.

[8] Offaly Independent, 18 Feb. 1922

[9] Ibid., 11 Mar. 1922.

[10] Midland Tribune, 15 July 1922 with thanks to Aidan P. Doyle for assistance here.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 25 Feb. 1922.

[13] Ibid., 4 Mar. 1922; Midland Tribune, 11 Mar. 1922.

[14] Offaly Independent, 8 Apr. 1922.

[15] Offaly Chronicle, 13 Apr. 1922.

[16] Ibid., 6 May 1922.

[17] Midland Tribune.

[18] Offaly Independent, 22 Apr. 1922.