ROINN COSANTA.

BUREAU OF MILITARY HISTORY, 1913-21.

STATEMENT BY WITNESS.

DOCUMENT NO. W.S. 1060

Witness: Seamus Finn, Athboy, Co. Meath.

Adjutant, Meath Brigade, 1916-17, Vice 0/C and Director of Training, 1st Eastern Division

Activities of Meath Brigade 1920-'21.

File No. S.2160. Form B.S.M.2

STATMENT BY MR. SEAMUS FINN, Athboy, Co. Meath

Dail Courts

 

The withdrawal of the police from the smaller places to strengthen the garrisons, in the towns was in consequence of the capture of Ballivor Barracks by Comdt. Mooney and the men from the 2nd Battalion, and all south Meath, except Longwood, was evacuated in the spring of 1920. This move was to some extent helpful to us as it gave us more freedom to move around openly in our organising and training work, and gave an opportunity to the Brigade Staff and some Battalion officers to evade capture by the enemy forces. Any of us who had been prominent had been marked down and were being zealously sought out by them, and our friends in the police made it known to us that some of us would have to face murder charges should we fall into their hands. However, this did not worry us unduly as the work of keeping our organisation intact had to go on. We decided to destroy all vacated barracks and make it more difficult for the enemy to re-occupy the villages which they had left. A complete list was compiled at a Brigade Council meeting held in John Newman's, Bohermeen and each Battalion Comdt. received instructions to have them burned during Easter Week. This operation was a complete success and, with the exception of Longwood in South Meath 2nd Battalion area and Crossakiel in North Meath 5th Battalion, all police forces were concentrated in the towns and the barracks were barricaded and surrounded by barbed wire. We were at a loss to know why Crosskiel had not been evacuated, but as it had also been strengthened, we surmised that its location was responsible. It was about half way on the route from Athboy to Oldcastle and, as Clonmellon and Delvin had been closed, was the only link between Kells and Mullingar. The village had direct telephonic communication with Kells. Its normal strength was three-four constables and a sergeant, but this had been doubled and the precincts protected. One result of these concentrations of police in bigger towns was that police duty as applies to civil offences ceased completely and some lawlessness made its appearance.

The Dáil, realising the seriousness of this, set up Courts throughout the country and with the co-operation of the Volunteers helped to combat this menace. While it did Inconvenience us in our other work, it gave our lads something to do, but we realised that it would be necessary to detail certain men in each battalion to carry out this work. Incidentally, battalion staff and company officers were asked not to do it themselves but appoint lower ranking officers. Even in the enemy occupied areas this work fell on us. The police just looked on and then tried to arrest any of our men who were known to have done this duty. It is to be regretted that our instructions regarding battalion officers were in some cases ignored and some of our best officers undertook to deal with the more serious cases themselves.

 

To ensure that the orders of the Dáil Courts would be carried out we found it necessary to look for likely places that could be used as detention posts for prisoners while they were being tried and afterwards detained until the sentences were carried out. These sentences varied from fines to deportation to England and these places became known as "Unknown Destinations” and mention of them was often enough to force a confession from a wrong-doer. These Unknowns" were a worry to us as it meant that we had to guard and feed our prisoners and maintain guards for them while under our charge, and all while the enemy police were scouring the countryside trying to find their locations. As far as my memory serves, only two of them were found and then after our men had set their prisoners free and evaded capture.

....The Christmas of 1920 was uneventful in Meath, both sides seeming to concentrate on the festivities. There were no family reunions for some of us, but we had good friends and we got through all right. Soon after the festive season we were back in harness again and our first task was not a nice one. From several areas reports had been reaching us of people who were helping the police by handing on any information which they got. Some of this information was very correct and was responsible for arrests of prominent men and officers - in many cases key men. We knew there were no deliberate leakages from our ranks but there was a possibility that loose talk might have given clues to these touts who had intelligence enough to size it up and sometimes arrive at a correct conclusion.. This was very serious so we took steps to put a stop of it. Whether these spies or informers were doing this work for payment or to prove their loyalty to Britain made no difference to us. In other parts of the country there had been executions of such people, and their bodies were usually left in prominent places with a label attached on which was printed in block letters "SPY". EXECUTED BY I.R.A.". This did not seem to deter those who were acting in our area so our men had to take similar action to stop it. Careful watch was kept on the movements of these people and in some cases they were actually seen to contact the enemy. Raids were made on the mails and certain sources of information were tapped in an effort to get complete evidence in each case. Our agents in the P.O. service were very helpful in this respect. Not until the evidence was very clear did our men act. These executions were not too numerous but what we had of them had the desired effect. They were the hardest operations which our men were asked to carry out and taxed their courage and discipline to the limit. For obvious reasons I cannot pay tribute in this work to these men, but they can feel sure that their efforts saved the liberty and the lives of many of their comrades. In all there were ten individuals executed in the brigade area, while about twelve others who were under suspicion continued to live, principally because of the lack of conclusive evidence against them. A couple succeeded in getting out of the country. In all cases of execution confirmation was obtained from G.H.Q. before the sentence was carried out.

It was while laying in wait for an alleged spy that we lost a very good lad. G.H.Q. intelligence sent us word that our headquarters at MacCarthy's, Dunboyne, was becoming dangerous and to be on the lookout for agents direct from the Castle who, it was thought, would be sent down to try and uncover our headquarters A special squad was picked and, posted around MacCarthy's. For a few nights the vigil was kept and it was no easy task to lie quietly in the severe cold of these winter nights. Orders given to each man taking up his position were very strict, and above all no man was to leave his position until the whistle sounded which called off the job each night. On this night the cold was intense and we could feel the frost eating through clothes, boots etc., and it was difficult to refrain from moving or getting up to stamp around to keep the blood in circulation. So we lay for hours and then some thought or idea must have prompted one of the lads. Whatever it was he left his position and began to move around. He was challenged and failed to reply. Then a shot rang out fired by one of our men and we heard a thud. The whole party converged on the spot where we imagined the shot came from and after a few minutes we found the body of one of the lads – a young lad named Barney Reilly. He was one of our best young lads and always anxious and willing to undertake any task he was asked. We were stunned by this occurrence but immediately rushed to get the priest and doctor, who came at once. After some discussion with them we agreed to the removal of the body to his home. Next day Dunboyne was surrounded by enemy forces who held an inquiry into his death, after which we buried him close to where he had been killed, paying him his due tribute.

In different areas in the brigade there were individuals who were suspects, but we could not get sufficient evidence to carry out executions in all cases. There were some clear ones and these met their due reward. In one case though there was an extraordinary sequel. The convicted spy was taken out and the execution party fired and, to all appearances, shot him dead. Imagine our very great surprise when we later learned that he had not been killed but survived the bullets which entered his body. The enemy police found him and as usual we were treated to another surge of raids, questionings and detentions. But in all other instances these people were dealt with effectively and there arose a greater disinclination to give information about our men. There were some who escaped paying the penalty but they can owe their luck in this respect to the fact that we were very scrupulous and conscientious in this matter and the case had to be clearly proven before the death penalty was sanctioned. Some who deserved this fate also escaped because we could not get a suitable opportunity of capturing them - fortunes of war I suppose.