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08 Aug 2022

THE BIG READ: Offaly's first Civil War fatality - the killing of the manager of the Ulster Bank in Tullamore

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The Ulster Bank premises at its location in Tullamore in 1922 when the killing took place


SPORADIC violence erupted in the midlands before the pro-Treaty National Army shelled the IRA occupied Four Courts in Dublin, officially starting the Civil War on 28 June 1922. The most serious incident occurred in Athlone on 25 April 1922 when George Adamson, a National Army commander, was controversially shot and killed in a skirmish with South Offaly Brigade IRA officers. The exact circumstances of Adamson’s widely publicised death, and who killed him, is still unresolved. His death, whether accidental or otherwise, exacerbated the polarisation sparked by the Anglo-Irish Treaty and precipitated the slide to armed conflict in the midlands.

ARRIVAL OF IRA LEADER TIMOTHY BUCKLEY

Timothy Buckley, the newly appointed Quartermaster of the anti-Treaty IRA’s 3rd Southern Division (covering Laois, Offaly and North Tipperary) organised the fateful trip to Athlone. He had accompanied three South Offaly Brigade officers and their driver. A farmer’s son from Caherbarnagh in County Cork, Buckley fought with the famed North Cork No. 2 Brigade from 1919-1921.

Pro-Treaty forces had provocatively seized the IRA’s car in Athlone prior to the shooting of Adamson. Buckley recalled: “I could not understand the cause for [the National Army] stealing our motor [car], holding us up afterwards, and trying to disarm us.” He later gave evidence at a joint military commission of inquiry in Dublin that concluded Adamson’s death was not premediated and there were “indiscretions on both sides.”

Crinkill Barracks, Birr, was the headquarters of the IRA’s 3rd Southern Division since March 1922 when North Tipperary Brigade IRA Volunteers disarmed and expelled National Army troops stationed there. A propaganda coup for the IRA, the loss was humiliating for the National Army and a significant setback for their then tenuous presence in Offaly. The arrival of the uncompromising Buckley coincided with the IRA consolidating their control of much of Offaly.

Violence was narrowly averted in Kinnitty. A tense stand-off between the two rival armies resulted in the withdrawal of twenty-six National Army soldiers to Portlaoise after they attempted to commandeer a house in the village. The IRA arrested four National Army officers in Daingean and briefly imprisoned them in Crinkill Barracks. The officers endured a four day hunger strike before the IRA released them.

Since March 1922 the pro-Treaty Provisional Government defunded IRA units deemed disloyal. In May 1922 the cash strapped IRA instigated a spate of raids on Bank of Ireland branches across the country. Branches in Offaly were not targeted. Instability and lawlessness worsened. Individuals engaged in opportunistic crime often masqueraded as the IRA. In February 1922 the IRA apprehended four men who robbed the Bank of Ireland branch in Birr. The IRA recovered most of the stolen cash (£393). In May 1922, £13 was robbed from the Ulster Bank in Ferbane. The IRA arrested the ringleader and he appeared before a Republican court.

THE IRA’S FIRST RAID ON THE ULSTER BANK IN TULLAMORE

The 3rd Southern Division’s financial plight was acute by the time the National Army bombarded the Four Courts. Debts were owed to shops in Birr that supplied the IRA in Crinkill Barracks. The fundraising drive was entrusted to Buckley. He resolved to raid the Ulster Bank in Tullamore.

In 1920 Dáil Éireann declared a boycott of Belfast-based banks and goods in opposition to partition, loyalist violence, and the expulsions of Catholic workers from the shipyards. The Midland Tribune backed the boycott: ‘If Belfast wants to politically cut itself off from Ireland, Ireland will reply in the economic field. Belfast can have “Partition”, but it cannot also have the trade of Nationalist Ireland.’ The boycott was intensified in 1921 when the Offaly IRA confiscated embargoed Belfast goods from shops, railway stations, and canal boats. Ulster Bank depositors in Tullamore received warning letters to withdraw their savings.

Enforcing the ‘Belfast Boycott,’ the IRA raided the Ulster Bank in Tullamore on 20 May 1921 when the bank had considerable cash for the cattle fair day. Six masked IRA Volunteers held up the accountant and cashier. The manager, Thomas Mitchell, surprised and grappled with the IRA who shot him in the left arm and retreated. No money was taken.

The grateful Ulster Bank directors donated £250 to Mitchell for frustrating the raid. While on a leave of absence, recovering from his gunshot wound, the bank directors advised him to transfer to another branch. He refused, mistakenly believing the raiders were strangers to Tullamore. He insisted on continuing his work in the town, where he was popular and respected.

From County Tyrone, Mitchell was the first manager of the Ulster Bank’s Tullamore branch since 1892. Bespectacled and moustachioed, kind and generous, he helped the underprivileged in the community. During the Great War he subscribed to the Leinster Regiment’s prisoners’ relief fund, bought comforts for wounded soldiers and supported the Red Cross. Liberal in outlook, a lover of literature and cricket, he was a devoted member of the Presbyterian Church.

THE FATAL RAID

Aware of Mitchell’s resistance to the IRA’s miscarried raid in 1921, Buckley carefully planned the fundraising operation from Crinkill Barracks. Buckley expected enhanced security at the bank. The local IRA in Tullamore co-operated with him. They were to occupy the Post Office, guard bridges, cut trees and trench roads to the approaches of the town to prevent the possible intervention of pro-Treaty forces from County Westmeath. The IRA Brigade Activity Reports (BAR), released by the Military Archives in 2019, revealed Tullamore natives Michael Galvin, Edward O’Brennan, and Patrick Egan, participated in the raid. They were the Commander, Vice-Commander and Adjutant respectively of the IRA’s North Offaly Brigade. Buckley likely handpicked them for their experience, local knowledge and senior IRA rank. Their precise tasks in the raid was not disclosed. The BAR files also named John Hughes, Christopher Tyrrell and James Whelan on outpost duties.

At about 2.20 p.m., on Monday, 3 July 1922, Buckley’s IRA unit drove up in a Crossley tender to the Ulster Bank. Mitchell, standing outside the counter, observed an estimated fifteen Volunteers, wearing overcoats, enter. He walked to his office desk and grabbed a revolver from the drawer. He then confronted the IRA and pointed his revolver at them. Without hesitation Buckley, armed with a rifle, shot Mitchell beneath the heart. Dr George A. Moorhead was summoned. Arriving swiftly, the doctor examined the unconscious Mitchell who died in two minutes.

The bank janitor and other employees carried the corpse upstairs to rooms inhabited by Mitchell. The IRA then ordered the staff to put their ‘hands up’ and removed them to the street. The vicinity of the bank was cordoned off by the IRA. Hundreds of people witnessed the raid from a distance. Fr Thomas O’Keefe remonstrated with the IRA who ignored him. At subsequent Masses in Tullamore the Catholic Church claimed “the callous crime of blood-shed and robbery, committed in broad daylight, shocked and shamed every member of the community.”

Maintaining their composure, the IRA methodically searched the bank. They seized the tiller’s cash (£294), but failed to find the keys to unlock the two safes. An IRA engineer, said to be named McMunn, used explosives to blow open a large safe in the strong room, causing substantial damage. The concussion shattered windows, walls, ceilings, furniture, and fittings, which later required extensive repairs. The cashier noted: “The explosives mutilated the inside of the building to a great extent and practically reduced everything in the strong room to ashes. The accounts, current and deposit ledgers, along with other up-to-date books being in the office, were left intact. I am getting the windows boarded up…”

Unable to blast open the smaller Milners’ safe, the IRA levered it out onto the street, lifted it into their lorry and returned to Crinkill Barracks. There they exploded the safe containing cash, valuables such as jewellery, and securities. In total £3,874 (approximately £225,000 today) was taken in the raid which lasted over three hours. The IRA also commandeered Mitchell’s Overland car. On the same day, the Ulster Bank in Ferbane was held up and £68 was taken from the cashier’s desk, probably organised by Buckley.

MEMORIAL TABLET UNVEILING

Mitchell, aged 59, a widower with no children, was buried in St Catherine's Cemetery, Clonminch. The Offaly Independent reported: “His action…although plucky, was considered a most fool-hardy one, inasmuch as the raiders were numerous and determined.2 An IRA leader reflected: “In business he was a well-meaning man, but his doggedness to IRA troops carrying out orders cost him his life.” Mitchell was the sole civilian killing by the IRA in Offaly in the Civil War. In contrast the Offaly IRA killed seven suspected informers and two militant loyalists in 1921 during the more lethal War for Independence. The day after Mitchell’s death, a National Army soldier, John Blaney, was shot dead in an IRA ambush near Ferbane. The soldier was the first of six military fatalities inflicted by the Offaly IRA in the Civil War which was relatively restrained in the midlands.

In tribute to Mitchell, the Northern Ireland Minister for Commerce unveiled a bronze memorial tablet in the Presbyterian Church at Moy, County Tyrone, in 1928. The inscription reads: 2This tablet has been erected by the Directors and Committee of Ulster Bank Limited, in honoured memory of Thomas Mitchell, son of Thomas and Elizabeth Ann Mitchell, his wife, of Culrevog, Moy, in the county of Tyrone, who, after an honourable career of forty-one years in the service of the bank, during thirty of which he held the office of manager of Tullamore branch, was killed there by armed raiders on 3rd July, 1922, while gallantly defending the trust which had been confided in him. Born 29th March, 1863. Died 3rd July, 1922. Faithful unto death.”

TIM BUCKLEY’S IRA RECORD

The IRA’s 3rd Southern Division, with the influential Buckley as its Quartermaster, had a decisive impact on the course of the guerrilla warfare in Offaly. The Division authorised the torching of the police barracks, courthouse and jail in Tullamore; barracks in Crinkill and Banagher, Castle Bernard in Kinnitty, and Leap Castle, to deprive enemy troops from garrisoning these locations. On the IRA Chief of Staff’s orders, the Divisional leadership supervised the burnings of several loyalist mansions in Laois and Offaly in 1923 in retaliation for the executions of IRA prisoners.

Buckley was frequently mentioned in National Army intelligence reports: ‘The Leix and Offaly [IRA] Columns are covering ground very quickly and have taken full advantage of Buckley’s recent training in secrecy, silence, and vigilance.’ He was considered ‘capable,’ toughminded, and a strict disciplinarian. His status as a stranger, with close ties to IRA GHQ, meant he was ‘a serious proposition to deal with.’

NENAGH BARRACKS ATTACK AND KILBEGGAN BANK RAID

On 14 August 1922, Buckley was involved in a bungled attack on the National Army barracks at Kenyon Street in Nenagh, detonating a mine at the entrance. James Nolan, an IRA officer, was hit with shrapnel and killed instantly.

Paying the backlog of IRA expenses rapidly depleted the money seized in the Ulster Bank raid. The lack of IRA funds was a recurring problem for Buckley. He appealed to the Quartermaster General at GHQ for assistance. The IRA was in “a very bad way” financially, compelling Buckley to temporarily suspend the flying columns.

On 18 November 1922, Buckley was responsible for a nocturnal raid on the Bank of Ireland branch in Kilbeggan for the upkeep of the hard-pressed North Offaly Brigade. He forced staff at gunpoint to unlock the safe and seized £823. Bearer bonds in a separate box were also taken. The IRA dismantled the telephone in the Post Office and requisitioned clothes and food from shops.

CAPTURE OF BUCKLEY

On 7 March 1923, Buckley was among seven IRA Volunteers captured when troops surrounded an isolated safe house in Tullamoylan, near Nenagh. After an intense shoot-out, lasting over three hours, the besieged IRA men surrendered having expended their ammunition. Joseph Mangan, an IRA commander from Moneygall, was mortally wounded.

Buckley was interned at Newbridge internment camp where he was named on a list of “dangerous prisoners.” In November 1923 he was threatened that unless he betrayed the locations of IRA arms dumps, hidden in different areas, he would be charged with the Ulster Bank raid and Mitchell’s killing. He refused to be blackmailed.

The Civic Guards wrongly blamed Sean McGuinness for the fatal shooting of Mitchell. McGuinness, the Commander of the local IRA’s 1st Battalion at the outbreak of the Civil War, was not involved. The National Army’s Director of Intelligence refuted the Civil Guard’s accusation and confirmed McGuinness was not implicated. However, McGuinness, by his own admission, was linked to the foiled Ulster Bank raid in 1921 when Mitchell was wounded. The IRA Volunteer who shot Mitchell in the arm on that occasion has yet to be identified. The Civic Guards also unsuccessfully sought to prosecute Edward O’Brennan and Patrick Lynch, a prominent IRA officer from Croghan, for the deadly raid. In 1924 the Free State’s Executive Council announced a Civil War amnesty in “the highest interests of the State.”

RETURN TO CIVILIAN LIFE

Buckley was eventually released unconditionally. It is understood his application to be reinstated to his job, as a railway clerk, was rejected. Facing economic hardship and political hostility, he emigrated to the USA. Returning to County Cork, apparently in the late 1930s, he settled in Mallow and worked in the Irish Sugar Company factory. He married a Cumann na mBan veteran in 1942. They had three daughters. He died of cancer in 1965, aged 66. No obituary was published. There was only a terse reminder of his Civil War past in an Irish Press death notice with a reference to him having been the “Quartermaster, 3rd Southern Division, Old IRA.”

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