The Offaly Heritage Office and Amanda Pedlow have been working with Dr Maebh O’ Regan…
Contributed by Offaly History to mark the Decade of Centenaries
The burning of Tullamore courthouse, jail and the former military barracks on 20 July 1922 was one of those momentous historic occasions the impact of which had an almost a numbing effect on the people of Tullamore and the county. The completion of these buildings in 1716, 1830 and 1835 were all major steps in the progress of Tullamore. Now all were destroyed in one night for no tangible military benefit by the departing Republican IRA.
We saw in previous articles in this series the lead up to the civil war notwithstanding the outcome of the general election in June in which the vote was substantially in favour of supporting the acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. In Laois-Offaly all four pro-Treaty candidates were elected with Labour, who preferred to look at the social rather than the Treaty question securing almost fifty percent of the vote. But among the soldiers of the IRA, particularly in Offaly, there was a reluctance to accept the Treaty outcome. Some were of the view that the people would follow where the military led.
People like Tommy Dunne of Ballinagar, a member of the county council and its chairman at the time of its dissolution in 1924, could not countenance going back on his oath to the Irish Republic. He warned, at the April 1922 public meeting of the anti-Treatyites in Tullamore at which de Valera and Boland were the guest speakers, that war might follow with their former colleagues. Dunne said
‘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 countrymen (cheers).
The nuances of de Valera’s ‘Document no. 2’ and the possibility of some kind of external association with the British Empire (achieved by de Valera after 1932 with the same treaty that he had refused in December 1921) were not developed at that April meeting in Tullamore and were lost on Rory O’Connor, the leader of the two hundred anti-Treatyites who took over the Four Courts, Dublin in April 1922. It was the commencement of the shelling of that building by Treaty/National Army on 28 June that led to the full-scale civil war. The fighting in Dublin was all but over in terms of the outcome within a week. In Offaly the war had also begun, and apart from isolated attacks was over by the end of July. The destruction waged by the anti-Treatyites locally was carried on with serious economic consequences until May 1923 with Rathrobin and Durrow Abbey houses, being the last of the ‘Big Houses’ in Offaly to be destroyed.
The conflict between the young Republicans and the generally older Establishment figures was evident from the attendance at meetings on the Treaty in Tullamore, Birr and Daingean. It came very much to the surface in April 1922 when the anti-Treaty IRA expelled court officials and solicitors from the quarter sessions court in Tullamore James Rogers, who had heroically represented many Sinn Fein activists in the 1916–21 period, was pro-Treatyite and was also representing the county council (containing many anti-Treatyite members) at the time. The council had fallen out temporarily with its former solicitor Tom Conway. The historian Diarmaid Ferriter often speaks of the complexity of the civil war and avoids getting into the blame game. That complexity be seem in Offaly too where Rogers’ partner from the mid-1920s, James A. Ennis of the Rhode family (see an earlier blog), was very pro-de Valera and had been a student in UCD when the Treaty debates started at the Mansion House.
The county courthouse in 1904. The picture was taken by Middleton Biddulph of Rathrobin who was high sheriff in 1901. Biddulph and spouse fled to England in June 1921. His home at Rathrobin, Mountbolus was occupied by McGuinness’s flying column after the burning of the courthouse. It was destroyed by McGuinness and his grouping in April 1923 as the civil war was coming to a close
Bank Raids by the anti-Treatyites began in earnest in May 1922 with raids on branches of the Bank of Ireland on 1 May and £750,000 taken. Hundreds of post offices were robbed. In Offaly there were raids on Ulster Bank’s branches in Ferbane and Tullamore. On Monday 3 July Ulster Bank, Tullamore had its second raid in a little over a year. This time the over-protective manager was shot dead. The shooting was condemned the following Sunday at all masses with the people asked to pray that the ‘terrible orgy of crime which now disgraces the country may cease’.
After the evacuation of Tullamore by the British military and RIC forces at the end of February 1922 the anti-Treaty wing of the IRA secured control of the jail, courthouses and the old military barracks. Both the jail and courthouse had been occupied by the British military since early in in 1921, while the RIC had taken over the disused military barracks in 1899. The Royal Scots Fusiliers regiment vacated the jail and courthouse and a detachment of the Third Southern Division IRA marched in on Tuesday 28 February.
About 11.30 a detachment of the 3rd Southern Division, I.R.A., arrived in a lorry and, under the command of Brigade Commandant Burke, entered the prison, which had been previously handed over at 10.30 to Lieut. MacNeill, General H.Q. Staff, I.R.A., accompanied by Commandant Lawless of the Divisional Staff, and Capt. Grogan, Liaison Officer. The detachment was paraded outside the prison before entry, and as the Republican tri-colour was hoisted they presented arms. The huge prison gate then swung open, and the detachment marched in . . .
Courthouse, jail and warders’ houses in about 1910. The King’s Arms on the building were said to have been dumped near Annaghmore (information to MB from PL).
Tullamore was in a state of fear from early July 1922 with no adequate police force and frequent raids on traders for goods. Geashill Castle, then owned by Lord Digby (non-resident) was occupied by the IRA in late May. The administration of law at this time was complicated with ample confusion about jurisdiction. When P.J. Egan’s house at Annaghmore was raided on 31 January 1922 it was a Republican special court held in June 1922, before Messrs James O’Connor, chairman; Messrs P Hogan and J Doyle, who were to determine if Wm Rynne, former Secretary, Transport Workers, Tullamore, would be sent for trial to the circuit court, charged with conspiring to raid the Hibernian Bank, Tullamore and demanding a motor car, value £700, from P J Egan, chairman of the Tullamore Urban District Council and a major employer. O’Connor was on the anti-Treaty side and in late July he was locked up for a short time in the damaged Tullamore jail by the National Army. So also was Martin Poland of Church Street. Both were later released on parole.
In this period before the arrival of the pro-Treatyite forces in Tullamore on late Thursday 20 July reliable news was hard to come by. Few had telephones, newspapers were censored, roads blocked with trees cut down Trains were often unable to move. Of Daingean on 15 July it was reported that
People of all classes in Daingean were very anxious to get a glimpse of a paper containing the latest news from the seat of the war during the week, and although it might sometimes be late in the evening when the news would arrive, no day passed without at least one copy of a Dublin newspaper making its way into the town, and generally by a devious route. Some persons, more interested and more energetic than others, tried every means of procuring a paper, and they invariably succeeded while those who might be expected to take a real interest in the business, made no attempt to get newspapers to the place. A special edition of the “Westmeath Independent” reached the town on Wednesday morning, and was eagerly bought up.
Events in Banagher, Birr, Roscrea and Nenagh
Banagher bridge connecting Offaly and Galway was set on fire on Saturday. Free state troops, who arrived from the Galway side on Monday, set about repairing the connection, and having done so, entered Banagher. A Free State despatch rider was fatally ambushed at Ferbane. Notices posted up in Tullamore, Banagher and Birr warn persons of the penalties they incur by giving information of Republican defences, etc. Railway communication between Birr and Roscrea has been cut off by the partial de-railing of an engine and four (empty) carriages near Sharavogue. Roads are blocked on almost every side of Birr by means of felled trees. According to the Irish Independent an attempt was made to hold up a goods train between Nenagh and Roscrea. A big Irish Class arranged for Tullamore, at which 70 or 80 National Teachers were to attend, was abandoned as no professors attended and only a few teachers owing to dislocation of railway service.
All three local papers were able to carry reports of the burning of the public buildings in Tullamore. The Birr courthouse escaped as did those in Daingean and Edenderry. Untroubled by pro-Treaty forces those in possession in Birr and Tullamore had ample time to ready up the buildings for burning. From early July Tullamore had been completely isolated from the outer world, without railway, postal, or telegraphic communication.
The County Courthouse, Tullamore Jail, and old RIC Barracks, were burned down by I.R.A. early on Thursday morning. They evacuated the town while the place was still aflame. . .so reported the Midland Tribune in its issue of Saturday 22 July – probably written up at midday on Thursday 20 July.
The Courthouse was one of the finest buildings of its kind in the county. The Courthouse is completely gutted. The jail, which stands nearby, escaped the havoc of the flame to a great extent, but the old RIC barracks is a smouldering mass of ruins. … The poorer classes were all the morning removing sticks and fittings from the burning buildings. At the time of writing Free State troops were expected at any moment. . . .. Large crowds spent the day viewing the burning remains of the buildings and visiting the interior of the prison. Very few heard anything unusual last night and it was only about 6 or 7 a.m. this Thursday morning the destructive ravages of the fire became generally known. People living in the vicinity of the old R.I.C. barracks however heard the breaking of glass all night last night and came to the conclusion that something was going to happen, but what it was they could not form an opinion until the morning light laid bare the scene. The I.R.A. was on duty last night in town, as was the custom for some time back, armed and in large numbers, … They continued until they left, and when the evacuation took place the people flocked to the scene of the conflagrations. When the I.R.A. were on the street very few ventured out. On evacuation they took with them a lorry belonging to J.&A. Tarleton…….. It was stated this morning that the IRA had not gone far out of town in a southern direction [to Rathrobin House, then unoccupied and in good condition]. As a result of the sparks flying from the courthouse flames the roof of the house of Mrs Adams, Charleville Parade, took fire, but Mr P. F. Adams, UDC, Mr Holohan and others were on the scene and extinguished the fire before it had taken any hold. [Now the Billy Delaney house]
Only the walls of cut stone of the courthouse survived
‘The county jail did not fare so badly as the courthouse, and while the governor’s house and administrative portion of the building suffered seriously, the cells’ wings were not much damaged.
The old RIC Barracks in the centre of the town, were completely gutted. Here there were several buildings, with large parade ground in front, and enclosed by a high wall. It was originally a cavalry barracks.
The irregulars left the town after they burned the buildings, and according to news which reached town, took up positions in rural areas quartering themselves on the farming population.
Though all preparations – sandbagging the jail front, laying mines, etc, had been made, no fight took place, the National army entering to town in small numbers, and without any opposition from irregulars, who had left some hours previously.
The enthusiasm with which the people of Offaly’s capital received the National army was remarkable, and when a further party of them entered the town on Saturday night, there was a revival of popular rejoicing.
They have been since very active day and night patrolling the streets and roads, and their presence has created a feeling of security among all classes, who are giving them every assistance and cooperation.
While in Tullamore irregulars were constantly seizing food, clothing, and articles of all kind, from shopkeepers, who have lost heavily as a result.
The repairing of the bridges and roads is a serious problem involving an enormous sum. On some of the bridges broken down, re-construction work was being caried on as they had suffered during the war with the [British].
The Chronicle found its voice a week after the burning and described the scene in Birr and Tullamore
Enthusiastic Scene in Emmet Square.
Notable Tullamore Buildings Destroyed.
The advance party of the National troops arrived in Birr from Roscrea on Thursday evening [20 July], and was followed next day by lorry loads of men from the main body, their arrival being signalised by scenes of great enthusiasm in the Square. Tullamore has been evacuated by the Irregulars, who hold no positions of importance in the Midlands. Before retreating on Thursday morning they burned down the barracks, the county Courthouse, and the jail, much to the amazement of townspeople. They entered several lorries and left the town in different directions.
The Arrival in Birr of the Free State army on 20 July
Considerable excitement prevailed in Birr on Wednesday evening, when a number of persons who had motored from Roscrea related that National troops were operating towards Birr, and had cleared the road as far as Sharavogue. … On Thursday evening, however, an advance party, numbering about 50, in command of Capt. Heffernan, arrived – their unexpected advent occasioning a surprise that almost compensated for the disappointment caused by their non-arrival on the previous day.The party, conveyed in a couple of lorries and accompanied by an armoured car, immediately advanced at the double on the police barrack, but the building was, of course, found to be unoccupied. All doors being closed, the back entrance was promptly negotiated by means of crowbars and sledges, with which the troops were abundantly equipped; while the from door, after three bullets had been fired through the lock, responded to a little pressure from the back of a hatchet, admitting the troops to the accompaniment of vociferous cheers from the large crowd of spectators which had gathered on their arrival. Another section of the party set out for the Castle, and before billeting there for the night searched the grounds for members of the opposing force, who were supposed to have gone into occupation of that building on the previous night. None were, however, discovered, and nothing untoward happened in any part of the town where representatives of all sections of the community, young and old, devoted the evening to watching the movements of the troops. On Thursday night a considerable picket moved in open formation through all the streets halting and searching belated motorists and pedestrians, and nightly the challenge “Halt” Who goes there?” sings out in all quarters. On Friday morning investigations were prosecuted in a few local houses, including a garage in Connaught-St., where ammunition was found and an arrest effected. Later the same evening several lorry loads of troops arrived from Roscrea, and were accorded an enthusiastic reception from the large crowd that had again gathered in the Square. This party had two prisoners, picked up in the course of their operations en route. The party were followed by numerous lorries having bedding and miscellaneous kit, and a section of the latest arrivals marched into occupation of the workhouse. Pending the establishment of a regular commissariat the troops were fed in the local hotels, each concern catering for parties of fifty of sixty. . .Comdt. J. Collison’s greeting, which we print in this issue, was distributed through-out Birr in handbill form on Thursday. The troops who “took over” in Birr on Thursday have since gone into occupation of Banagher, (where the bridge across the Shannon is controlled by National troops stationed in the old towers on the Galway said), their place being taken in Birr by other soldiers, who are quartered in the Barracks, Workhouse and Castle.
The burning of Tullamore’s public buildings was said later by local Republican IRA commander, Sean McGuinness, to be on the general orders of the leader of the anti-Treaty forces leader, Liam Lynch. Lynch was distrustful of politicians and felt the military should give the lead. He is said to have remarked. ‘We have declared for an Irish republic and will not live under any other law’. Lynch was an idealist and not a practical soldier. Intractable on ending the civil was it came to an end in May 1923 after Lynch’s death in the fighting.
New Garrison quarters in Tullamore for the Free Staters/National Army in High St.
The residence of Mr Edmund Williams in High St. Tullamore [now Donal Farrelly, solicitors] was taken over by the military authorities as quarters for the garrison who were, on their arrival in town, quartered in the male hospital building in the prison. These latter quarters were found to be most unsuitable and unhealthy, and consequently they were vacated as soon as the new quarters were obtainable. Mr. Williams’ house which was formerly occupied by the late Mr. James Hayes. Hotel of Hayes Hotel (died 1913) is one of the finest houses in the town, admirably named as a barracks, and capable of accommodating a large number of men. It has a very commanding position. Military were very active during the week holding up and searching motor cars passing through the town. Home houses were also visited, and enquiries made about persons “wanted”.
The Republican IRA burns the courthouse, jail and barracks
The report compiled about 1940 by former commandant of the IRA Peadar Bracken (an active participant in Dublin in 1916) is light on detail as to the burning and other events post the Truce of July 1921. The burning of the iconic Tullamore buildings are simply referred to as ‘posts’. At the time of writing Peadar Bracken would have known the old jail well as he lived in one of the warder’s houses since since 1922, having secured the house from the county council when it informally (at that point) took over the jail after the warders and RIC departed in late February 1922. Bracken was appointed Tullamore District Court Clark in 1923 having worked with the Republican courts in 1922. He recounted some of the events of 1922 as follows:
January [March] 1922 R.I.C Barracks, Tullamore, Daingean, Kilbeggan, Rochfordbridge, Jail and Courthouse, Tullamore and Geashill Castle taken over and occupied by forces Offaly No 1 Brigade.
April 1922 Mullingar – armed party sent from forces in Tullamore Barracks: M Galvin, F Mooney, M Killeavy, Ed memunn, F Neville, P Egan, W Mooney, M Lynam, Wm Piggott, E Brennan, A Grennan.
July 1922 Instructions from Div. H.Q., all posts held by our forces to be demolished. Orders carried out. [OH emphasis]
July 1922 Silver River and Joughin;s Bridges blown up: M Galvin, E Memunn, [McMunn] M. Lynam, F. Mooney, and J. Killeavy. Daingean Co Raided for arms: M. Galvin, J Whelan.
August 1922 Land mines laid Tullamore, Clonmore, and Geashill: M Galvin, P Egan, E. Brennan, M Poland, M. Killeavy, and Leo Leonard. Attack on Free State Patrol Kilbeggan Bridge, Tullamore: M Galvin, John Conroy, Jack Conroy, Ned Conroy.
The account of Sean McGuinness O/C Offaly No. 1 Brigade
The Offaly anti-Treaty IRA were mostly young men under 30 and one of their greatest soldiers was Sean McGuinness (1899–1978). He was the O/C Offaly No. 1 Brigade, aged 23, during the civil war period of 1 July 1922 to 31 March 1923 he ‘waged active warfare against the Free State forces’ (his own words). From April to July 1922, he was in charge of the jail garrison in Tullamore as well as being Battalion O/C. ‘Acting on instructions I and my men destroyed the jail and courthouse garrisons while the Brigade staff and garrison located in the R.I.C. barracks destroyed that building in July 1922.’ The joint garrisons then proceeded to Kilcormac and Rathrobin where they divided up into Flying Columns. McGuinness took charge of a column of about sixteen men. Remarkably, especially when contrasted with the 1922 general election, McGuinness and a Republican colleague, Laurence Brady, were elected on in the August 1923 General Election. McGuinness did not, of course, take his seat. He came third in that election in order of first preferences, following on from Davin and Francis Bulfin. In all McGuinness spent twelve years on the run, four periods in jail and four hunger strikes. His own statement in support of his pension application is remarkable and we plan to make it the subject of a blog shortly.
In a later blog we will look at the loss of council records due to the fire, the aftermath and the rebuilding of the courthouse in 1927. It was a remarkable period in Irish history and a difficult one. As with P. Bracken there was some reluctance to spell out the details of the destruction that night in Tullamore 19 July 1922, and the following morning. The councillors, now without offices or meeting place did not probe it; neither did the press, other than as a news story in the days that followed.
The courthouse in 2007 following major improvements.
In one listing of his war activities McGuinness simply refers to it as ‘Burning of Three Tullamore I.R.A. garrisons’ – appropriately highlighted in red ink.
This Saturday: the burning of Tullamore jail and its afterlife. Later in this series the destruction of Tullamore Barracks
 Offaly Independent, 22 Apr. 1922
 See earlier blog in this series or the lead up to the civil war; Offaly Independent, 8 Apr. 1922.
 Offaly Independent, 4 Apr. 1922.
 Midland Tribune, 27 May 1922.
 Midland Tribune, 17 June 1922.
 Midland Tribune, 29 July 1922.
 Offaly Independent, 15 July 1922.
 Offaly Chronicle, 20 July 1922.
 Offaly Chronicle, 20 July 1922.
 Midland Tribune, 29 July 1922
 Offaly Chronicle, 27 July 1922
 Offaly Independent, 5 Aug. 1922
 Brian Walker, Parliamentary elections results in Ireland, 1918–92 (RIA, Dublin, 1992), p. 112.
 Military Archive: MSP34REF4688 Sean McGuinness, see pages 23-6 of the pdf, not otherwise paginated.