'If one policeman is shot here up goes the town'

British Army and RIC burned houses, assassinated suspects, and planet a bomb in Galway city in February 1921

By early 1921 Britain’s war in Ireland was not just a moral issue, but a financial one. The sheer expense of solving 'The Irish Question', considering financial reparation for the loss of civilian life and destruction of private property, along with the price tag of the Crown Forces’ operations in Ireland, was staggering.

British Labour MP, JR Clynes, an outspoken critic of the British prime minister David Lloyd George, claimed in February 1921 that “the Government were spending a million and a quarter a month to settle the Irish Question by force”. That is equivalent to £5,000,000 today. Britain was still reeling from the cost of WWI, disquiet across the colonies in India and Egypt, unemployment was rising across the Empire, and there was war in Ireland. The share value of 'The British Empire Ltd' was decreasing.

War and emigration

In Ireland the term “gone to America” was now not just a covert way of saying someone was on the run, or had been shot by the IRA, but a more literal term as emigration again became a major factor. As The Freeman's Journal of February 1921 stated: “The office of the American Consul in O’Connell Street, Dublin, and its vicinity presented scenes yesterday which showed that the tide of emigration from Ireland to the United States has set in with a considerable flow.”

Ireland was at war and there were huge socioeconomic consequences. In 1919, 2,975 people left Ireland and by 1920 it had jumped to 15,531 with 12,288 opting for a new life in America. For those who remained, war continued relentlessly.

On February 6, four IRA men from the 3rd Battalion West Connemara Brigade were crossing by boat from Letterard to Roundstone to attend a battalion meeting when a storm blew up across Galway Bay. All four were drowned. They were Seosamh Ó Caola, Seosamh Ó hUaithnín, Páraic Ó Cualáin, and Séamas Ó Fearráin.

Houses in Castlegar burned

Back in north Galway the shockwaves of the Kilroe ambush were still being felt. On the night of February 6, several masked men, armed with revolvers and petrol, smashed the door of Thomas Duggan sr’s farmhouse in Rosshill, Castlegar. They ordered the occupants out, doused the premises and the barn with petrol, and set it all alight. Duggan claims he saw two motor vehicles down the boreen, it appears they were looking for Duggan’s son Thomas ‘Baby’ Duggan [pictured above] who was on the run after the Kilroe ambush.

On the night of February 7, masked men burst into the house of Martin Coyne, Castlegar, where Mrs Fran Hardiman and her sister were the sole occupants. They were told to get out of the building which was then set on fire. From there the raiding party called to the house of Mr W Mulryan of Kiltullagh, Castlegar whose house, along with some haggards belonging to Thomas Fallon of Two Mile Ditch and Luke Ryan of Castlegar, were burnt to the ground.

'The bomb exploded causing some damage, demonstrating the IRA knew where those responsible for the recent spate of house burnings started their journey from'

The night of February 13, Bridget Quinn’s farmhouse in Kinvara was raided. Several men dragged the male occupants out; they were stripped and flogged. The raiding party then set the house ablaze along with the barn, its contents and farm machinery, they then made their way to Patrick Glynn’s house.

The Connacht Tribune of February 19 claims: “The men were ordered to stand up...they were marched about one and a half miles to where two lorries were situated, and compelled to sing 'God Save the King'...they were then told to 'clear off,' several shots were fired after them”.

Meanwhile a jubilant David Lloyd George [pictured above] proclaimed: “The organisation of the IRA which was so perfect six months ago is now shattered.” However, on the night of February 16 a bomb was placed in the garden of a house in Mary Street in Galway. The house had been commandeered by the RIC as a depot for their lorries. The bomb exploded causing some damage, demonstrating that the IRA knew that those responsible for the recent spate of house burnings started their journey from there.

Assassination of John Geoghegan

However, the East Connemara Brigade of the IRA was to be dealt a devastating blow with the killing of their Intelligence Officer (IO ) John Geoghegan from Moycullen.

Geoghegan was a farmer, the son of a retired RIC man, and had won a seat for Sinn Féin in the 1920 election as a Rural District Councillor representing Moycullen. It is believed he was one of the men who abducted, court-martialled, and executed Padraig Joyce, the school teacher from Barna, for being a spy.

Geoghegan as IO was responsible for the collection and distribution of messages from IRA HQ in Dublin to his Brigade Officers. On the night of February 20, two men with Irish accents called to his mother’s house. Geoghegan’s sister Maggie describes the event:

“As we were lighting the candle I could see that one of them had a mask on, also that he wore a policeman’s cap and a black coat, the other was in khaki...we were told to go to our room...we heard a lot of talking. After a while we heard some shots fired...they had taken John out, we went into the street and saw my brother lying outside the gate shot...”

John was shot at least six times at close range, and in a sinister move one of his killers slipped a note into his pocket which read “Yours Faithfully, M Collins”. John had recently received a message from HQ in Dublin with instructions from Collins for his brigade and it was this message that his assassins were looking for. John managed to inform his brother Michael, before he was taken out, that he had hidden it in the nearby haggard.

Violence by Crown Forces in Galway

Finally on the night of February 26, the houses of Sinn Féin councillors M Finnegan and CJ Kennedy were bombed by the Crown Forces in Dunmore. Remarkably no one was hurt. The windows of the Town Hall were smashed and the following was painted on a shop gable, “If one policeman is shot here up goes the town.”

Eglinton Street RIC barracks.

As horrific as all these incidents were, in the eyes of the law they were totally justified. For the Empire the stakes could not have been higher in February 1921. As the last Chief Secretary to Ireland Sir Hamar Greenwood stated in justifying such actions: “It was the policy of the assassins that we are fighting, and it is watched by sinister eyes in Great Britain, in Egypt, in India and throughout the world. Its success would mean the break-up of the Empire and of our civilization.”

Damien Quinn is a military historian specialising in Irishmen in the service of the British Crown Forces. He studied politics and history as an undergraduate, and gained a Masters of Literature in History from NUI Galway.


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