Seán Mac Eoin (centre), watching the Leinster senior hurling final between Dublin and Kilkenny alongside Michael Collins in September 1921. Photo: National Library of Ireland

Day of drama: when Seán Mac Eoin was captured in Mullingar

Last month marked the centenary of the Clonfin ambush in Longford, when IRA men under Seán Mac Eoin killed four British auxiliaries in a fierce firefight. Weeks later, Mac Eoin was captured in Mullingar. Paul Hughes looks at this dramatic event 100 years ago this week, when Crown forces finally caught up with one of their most wanted men

It was March 2, 1921, and a crowd of rail passengers lined up on a siding platform off the main Midland and Great Western line at Mullingar railway station.

Among the passengers was Seán Mac Eoin, the storied commandant of the IRA’s North Longford Flying Column and a man with a substantial price on his head. Across from the throng of travellers was a party of police and military hoping to capture him and any of his accomplices.

The famed ‘blacksmith of Ballinalee’ had left Dublin that morning after being called for an interview by the revolutionary First Dáil’s minister for defence, Cathal Brugha. Brugha was impressed by the endeavour Mac Eoin had shown in ambushing a column of the Royal Irish Constabulary’s Auxiliary Division at Clonfin on February 2, killing four of them. Now he had other ideas for the midland guerrilla leader – an assignment in London, in which Mac Eoin would lead a team of gunmen to assassinate members of the British cabinet.

Mac Eoin was more put off by the logistics of the plan – a long-term preoccupation of Brugha’s – than its nature. “[A] man of the country,” wrote his biographer, Mullingar man Pádraic O’Farrell, “[he] had difficulty finding his way around Dublin, let alone London”.

He needn’t have worried. When Mac Eoin told Michael Collins of the initiative, the ‘Big Fella’ was incensed. Despite nominally being Brugha’s subordinate in the IRA, Collins was president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and very much the mastermind of the guerrilla war; in the eyes of many in the IRA’s rank and file, he was the ultimate authority. Collins overruled Brugha and sent Mac Eoin and his travelling companion, James Brady, back to Longford.

Mac Eoin was barely on the night mail train back to the midlands when he got straight back to work. The Ballinalee native eyed up a party of soldiers who boarded his carriage, and briefly slipped out to a refreshment stand to buy two bottles of whiskey. His plan was to get the soldiers drunk and, on reaching Edgeworthstown station, have his waiting men ambush them, take their weapons and hold them as hostages.

All went well initially. Although the officer turned down a drink, he was well disposed to the ‘craic’, and his men were only too happy to sample the beverage on offer. By the time the train passed Killucan, the soldiers were merry. The conversation was jovial and robustly anti-Sinn Féin; little did the British officer know who was actually in his company.

Mac Eoin had it in mind to hop off the train at Mullingar for another bottle of whiskey in order to keep spirits high en route to Edgeworthstown. But here, his venture hit a snag. Rather than staying on the tracks for Longford, the train pulled into a siding, where passengers witnessed a large force of police and military.

Mullingar Railway Station.

All civilians were ordered off the train and told to line the platform, where they were scanned at close quarters by military and police brass. It turned out that the authorities were well aware of Mac Eoin’s excursion to Dublin, and were watching return trains closely to see if they could nab a high-value IRA prisoner. According to Mac Eoin, police insiders had got word to Collins that his friend was to be intercepted at Mullingar, and orders were sent to Michael McCoy of the IRA’s Mullingar Brigade, to stop the locomotive further down the track to enable Mac Eoin’s escape. However, on the night before Mac Eoin’s arrest, McCoy was taken into custody, and the IRA’s planned intervention foiled.

In early 1921, the Volunteers suspected that the RIC had an informer working on the ticket desk at Mullingar railway station. The rail employee was the son of an ex-policeman, and was regarded by the local IRA as a “bad pill”. That he was a native of Longford might have made him ideally placed to pick a man like Mac Eoin out of a crowd. On this occasion however, his services weren’t required.

Instead, the investigating officers on the stand trusted their own powers of recollection. For some of them, it failed. Three policemen inspected the line of passengers without once recognising Mac Eoin.

“As the fourth man approached, I set my teeth,” Mac Eoin told the Bureau of Military History years later. “He was one of those whom I had known a few years ago. He looked at me, and was about to pass on to the next, when he halted, gave me a much more searching glance than the first, and then passed. As quietly as I could, I drew a breath of relief.”

General Seán Mac Eoin at the British surrender of the military barracks in Athlone in 1922.

However, next in line was one Head Constable Kidd, who had dealings with Mac Eoin in the past. Kidd recognised him and demanded his name, with Mac Eoin replying that he was J J Smith of Aughnacliffe, in Co. Longford. The moments that followed showed the extent to which the IRA had infiltrated the police locally. Kidd called upon his superior officer, District Inspector Harrington, to confirm his identification of Mac Eoin. Harrington, favourably disposed to the IRA, had according to Mac Eoin “regularly supplied information to Michael Collins”. He told Kidd that he had the wrong man. Another policeman named Dunne, who knew Mac Eoin well, was summoned by Harrington and promptly denied it was him.

However, Kidd stood his ground. He seized Mac Eoin by the left hand, “pushing up my sleeve well, revealing the many white burnt spots that are to be found on every blacksmith’s arm, as a result of the hot sparks falling when he is beating the red hot iron”.

“If that isn’t a blacksmith’s arm,” Kidd told Harrington, “I am a liar! I declare him to be Mac Eoin, and if you do not arrest him, I will report you in the morning.”

Mac Eoin continued to protest, insisting that Kidd was drunk. He demanded that he be taken to Edgeworthstown station. Here, he told Harrington, he knew “several police” who would confirm that he was in fact J J Smith. The truth was that he knew that his men in the Longford Brigade would be lying in wait to rescue him.

However, Mac Eoin was held in custody while a sergeant from Aughnacliffe was called to Mullingar to identify him. The police dismissed the military and decided to remove their captive to their barracks at Bishopsgate Street. Marching across the Green Bridge, Mac Eoin spotted a fleeting opportunity to escape in the dim light.

Chase

On reaching the canal side of the bridge, Mac Eoin, now handcuffed, managed to give the police escorts on his right and left two almighty digs in the ribs, winding them, before he took off in the direction of Dominick Street. A chase ensued, with bullets flying around the escaped prisoner’s ahead, and the constabulary’s efforts made all the more difficult by the darkness.

Mac Eoin then made what he later told the Bureau of Military History was a “fatal mistake”. Had he continued down Dominick Street, he said, he would “almost certainly have found means of getting away”. Instead, he crossed the main thoroughfare and darted into the side street near Brophil’s Hotel (now Coppola’s takeaway), which runs into Grove Street. Here, Mac Eoin encountered two policemen, who were on patrol and were roused to action by the sudden eruption of gunfire on the Green Bridge. Though the constables drew their pistols, Mac Eoin resolved that the best thing to do was charge at them. A couple of shots were discharged, and although the escaped prisoner broke through the police ranks, he had been struck in the chest, and fell to the ground due to the “smothering of blood”.

Having regained his footing, Mac Eoin charged on to the end of the street, but with his lung punctured, he fell again, was surrounded by the RIC and taken to their barracks.

Already in need of urgent medical attention, Mac Eoin was nevertheless subjected to some robust mistreatment by his captors. He was beaten with rifle butts, and but for the arrival of Harrington, he believed he would have been killed. According to Pádraic O’Farrell, Mac Eoin had a revolver pressed to his face while the police jeered: “Mac Eoin the murderer, we have you at last!” Harrington saved his life again on a subsequent occasion, when the Black and Tans arrived to take him to Mountjoy gaol.

Mac Eoin was examined at the police barracks by Dr Patrick Keelan of Greville Street (Oliver Plunkett Street), who determined that the bullet which had hit the prisoner missed his main artery by a shade. Mac Eoin was still in danger of death, however; there was a lingering chance that his wound might turn septic. Fr Joseph Kelly, administrator of Mullingar Parish, was called to attend to him, but Mac Eoin, ever aware of the potential for losing his life in the execution of his revolutionary duties, had already gone to Confession at Whitefriars Church before leaving Dublin the previous day.

When his condition stabilised, Mac Eoin was moved to Mountjoy pending his eventual trial, with a death penalty all but inevitable. The IRA in Mullingar – pressed into action by Collins, who was beside himself at Mac Eoin’s capture – concocted an elaborate plan to rescue the guerrilla leader at Kinnegad en route to his trial in Dublin. However, Mac Eoin’s convoy instead went to the city via Athboy, and the plan was abandoned.

After many petitions for his release, the ‘blacksmith of Ballinalee’ was eventually freed after Collins applied the requisite pressure on the British side during the 1921 peace negotiations, and went on to many decades of service to the Irish state.

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