Military archives: Pension files highlight role of women in Irish wars and IRA’s 1922 massacre

Cécile Gordon, Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection senior archivist and project manager at the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin.

A collection of military archives containing more than 4,300 new military service pension files have been released today. Niall Murray reports

Role of women in wars detailed in pension files

The stories of 600 women’s roles in the War of Independence and Civil War feature in the latest release of military service pension files.

The files relate to 1,442 people who took part in the events and are accessible from this morning on the Military Archives website.

They form part of the Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection (MSPC) project which began a decade ago to make available the records that help piece together events being remembered in the ongoing Decade of Centenaries.

The people whose files go online today include 82 who died between 1919 and 1921, whose families were entitled to payments if they could prove their dependence on them.

The 603 women whose files are being released bring to nearly 1,500 the number of female applicants whose activities are now detailed at the MSPC web pages.

There are now 8,005 people whose files are online, out of an estimated 80,000 applicants for pensions or other payments under laws passed from 1923 to the 1970s.

Some files run to hundreds of pages and many had multiple files.

MSPC archivist Niamh Ní Charra said the latest online release highlights the hardships faced by women who regularly sheltered gunmen on the run from British Crown Forces.

Ennis woman Delia Begley, for example, suffered a nervous breakdown after attending men wounded while making explosives in 1919.

Later life saw her in the care of the Sisters of Charity when she was applying for a military service pensions application more than a decade after hostilities ended.

“Miss Begley had no estate, in fact, she was destitute, she fought bravely for her country, but when she became helpless no one wanted her, not even her relations,” Reverend Mother Sr Pascaline wrote in support of her application.

While most women may have been members of women’s auxiliary organisation Cumann na mBan, others were affiliated directly to the Irish Volunteers/IRA, some as officers in charge of communications or intelligence in their local areas.

Key Cumann na mBan officers in Cork City, including Eileen Barry and Peg Duggan, feature in the list of women whose files are released today. They are among around 350 men and women from Cork City and county of the 1,442 people whose records have been added to the MSPC site.

Files in respect of 262 people who served in the National Army during the Civil War are among those released today, including three National Army members who died during the period.

The collection is highly valuable to historians and to descendants piecing together the events of 1916 to 1923. It also reveals social conditions through the 20th century as veterans’ circumstances had to be detailed to satisfy means testing associated with some payments.

Files shine new light on secrecy over IRA’s 1922 massacre

Efforts to keep secret the details of who took part in one of the IRA’s worst civilian killing sprees in 1922 are revealed in the military pensions files of several participants.

Six Protestants were killed when an IRA unit of around 20 men crossed the new northern border from Co Louth to Altnaveigh and Lisdrumliska in South Armagh in the early hours of Saturday, June 17, 1922.

The files covering claims for military service pensions of several men who were there are contained in the latest release from the Military Archives’ Military Service Pensions Collection.

There have been differing explanations for the massacre over several decades as historians and commentators debate the motive.

Some suggest the attacks were a sectarian reprisal for the shooting of two Catholic men in the area days earlier. Others take the view that this and a separate attack on the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), often referred to as B Specials or ‘B men’, on the same night were connected to the sexual assault earlier in the week on two women by Crown Forces in a pub run by a republican family in the same district.

Most accounts in the newly-opened files point to the Altnaveigh massacre being a reprisal for previous killings of local Catholics or IRA members. But efforts to keep details secret are highly revealing of the sensitivities that surrounded that night, even decades later.

The townland of Altnaveigh overlooking Newry is home to a small cluster of Protestant families, surrounded by a mostly Catholic population.

One participant in the attack, whose 1952 statement to the Bureau of Military History has been accessible to researchers for over 15 years, suggested inhabitants of Altnaveigh were Orangemen and members of the USC B Specials. But while there was suspicion that members of the community gave information about local IRA movements, there is no known evidence that residents were USC members.

The victims who were killed included John Heaslip (50) and his 17-year-old son Robert, and Joseph Gray (also 17). Thomas and Elizabeth Crozier, a couple, are believed to have been killed because they recognised the attackers. Several houses were burned and the incident left local Protestant communities in the border region hugely fearful of similar attacks.

In his Military Service Pensions Collection file, published on the Military Archives website today, James Marron recounted in December 1940 how word reached IRA men in Dundalk before the attack that “two of our men were done to death outside Newry”. He said local IRA battalion commander Mick Fearon asked if he would go as one of a party of 30 men to carry out a reprisal.

“I accepted as it was past the time for us to get some of our own back,” he recalled.

The attack took place not long after the creation of the border between the two newly-formed states in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Treaty being ratified by Dáil Éireann in January 1922. It was a four-mile walk from an IRA camp at Ravensdale in Co Louth to Altnaveigh.

“It was a strong hold of the B Force Murder Gang, the crowd who done in our two men. Our orders were to burn every house and shoot dead every male we could get,” Marron recalled in a 1940 statement in support of a claim for disability allowance for trouble with his stomach and his nerves.

“We burned 12 houses to the ground and shot dead 8 of the B men. But the unfortunate part of it all was we shot dead one woman (accidently [sic]) the head of a large family,” he said.

Thomas Kinney briefly referred to his participation in a claim for a military pension:

Carried out reprisals at Altnaveigh for murder of four IRA soldiers. 6 shot and house burned.

Patrick Loughran similarly referred to participating in “the Altnaveigh Reprisal — for four of our men who were executed”.

“...on the night of the Reprisal, we attacked and practically cleaned out all the armed B. men in the district,” he stated in a typed pension application.

The reference to four IRA men could be seen to point to the wider campaign of tit-for-tat shootings taking place between the IRA and Crown Forces in the border region during the period. Two Catholic men had been abducted and shot in the area just a few nights earlier, but neither was said to be involved in the republican movement, although one had a brother in the IRA.

However, Matthew Lewis’s 2014 book on the IRA’s 4th Northern Division commander Frank Aiken’s Irish revolution actions points to the possible link between Altnaveigh and a much earlier incident. Four members of the Corrinshego IRA company, whose area encompassed Altnaveigh, were shot dead and their bodies dumped on the roadside by the USC in July 1921.

Frank Aiken

Thomas Kinney was a member of the same Corrinshego company, and he could have been referring to those much earlier deaths when he spoke about Altnaveigh being a reprisal for four IRA deaths.

The new files do not appear to shed any new light on Aiken’s direct role in ordering the attacks at Altnaveigh and the neighbouring townland of Lisdrumliska. It is widely accepted, however, that as divisional commander, he must have sanctioned the Altnaveigh attacks.

He is known to have been involved in a separate foiled ambush on a USC patrol earlier the same night. The attack was launched from the McGuill’s pub in Dromintee where the owner’s wife and a woman servant were sexually assaulted the week before and possibly raped, with IRA suspicions falling on constables from a nearby USC barracks.

Although James Marron had mentioned taking part in a reprisal raid in Altnaveigh in his written application in December 1934 for a military service certificate, which would qualify him for a military service pension from the Free State, he did not bring it up when formally interviewed on his claim a few months later.

In a 1941 appeal against the pension he had been awarded, Marron said that Mick Fearon who had led the operation spoke to him the day both were interviewed in connection with their applications in April 1935.

He claimed that Fearon told him not to let the committee put anything in writing about Altnaveigh, and that Fearon said he was doing likewise.

“We had a talk over it and we came to the conclusion, that if it was ever known, that our lives would be in danger. And we had no guarantee that it would not be known,” wrote Marron.

“Now I do not want to be misunderstood, I am not casting reflection on any one. We just had that feeling, natural instinct I suppose, and he lived near Altnaveigh and so did I.

We knew the people and saw them every day. We were well disguised on the job and are not known as yet to have been on it, that was the main reason why we gave as little information as we could to the Board regarding this job,.

The advisory committee’s discussion with Fearon about the period around June 1922 was extremely short. He was not asked about the “special job” which he alluded to in his written application.

A similar approach appears to have been taken by John McEnerney. Although he mentioned taking part in the Altnaveigh attack in his written application in December 1935, he was wary of elaborating when given the opportunity in 1938 to give details of his various military actions in support of his claim.

Referring to the period in early summer 1922, he said IRA active service units were started to take action against the very active “Northern Government forces”.

“I was in the fight at the attack at Jonesboro and two days later at Dungooley. As regards the special jobs, if I have to give any more information I will do so. But I think it will be understood as far as I have stated my case in my application form,” he wrote.

During the decade from 1934 when participants in Altnaveigh gave varying levels of detail in military pension and other applications, Frank Aiken was Minister for Defence at the department deciding those claims.

He told one man that his position precluded him from providing a reference to any old IRA members. But a referee for one claimant told the pensions board he had consulted Aiken to help verify one man’s account of his War of Independence activities, suggesting he was familiar with what incidents men were referring to in their submissions.

In his 1940 claim for a disability allowance, Marron stated that the killing of Elizabeth Crozier “got on my nerves and preyed on my mind... and for a long time I could not sleep thinking of the woman and the others we shot”.

He and many of those involved left the area for England, Canada, and the United States for varying periods after, perhaps to escape the memory, or to avoid possible vengeance.

Whatever the motivations for their actions, they were never forgotten locally and Altnaveigh remains a hugely sensitive topic when it comes to sectarian tensions in the border region almost a century later.

Teacher trained pupils to make roadblocks

A Co Clare schoolteacher trained her pupils to block roads and do sentry duty while IRA men sheltered and recovered from wounds in her house.

The military service pension file of Eibhlís Lyne reveals the dangers faced by young teenagers but also the community support required to keep up the armed struggle against Crown Forces.

She began her Cumann na mBan service in Listry near Milltown, Co Kerry before the conscription crisis in early 1918.

In September 1919, she took a teaching job in north Clare and soon joined Cumann na mBan in the Ballyvaughan area.

Evidence on Eibhlís Lyne's file of the role her Co Clare school pupils played in the War of Independence. Picture: Military Service Pensions Collection, Military Archives

She lived in a house near Corkscrew Hill National School, on the main road between Lisdoonvarna and Ballyvaughan.

Eibhlís and another young woman brought an Irish Volunteers officer to the house to recover from wounds suffered in a December 1920 ambush.

“There we sheltered him under grave difficulties, endangering profession, and gave him and his men personal attention — food and all the facilities possible,” she wrote in a 1945 military service pension application.

She described her home as being a holding place for documents, a meeting venue and halfway house for IRA men.

Other veterans of the period later divulged how her school pupils also supported the military campaign against Crown Forces.

Ms Lyne’s house was described as a headquarters by local IRA battalion commander, Seán McConmara, the wounded officer who found refuge there for over a fortnight in early 1921.

“I was just able to get about on crutches. The children came out from school and they did sentry on both sides; and I came out and stayed among the children, and stayed there,” he told the pensions referee.

Around May 1921, an attack on Royal Marines which the local IRA wanted to carry out for some time finally took place.

Seán McConmara told the pensions referee it was facilitated by intelligence that Eibhlís Lyne discovered through her pupils going into Ballyvaughan to pick up information about their movements.

Evidence on Eibhlís Lyne's file of the role her Co Clare school pupils played in the War of Independence. Picture: Military Service Pensions Collection, Military Archives

He also credited her with having “a better head” and “more organising ability” than some of the other claimants for service with Cumann na mBan in the area. He said one of the ladies who assisted him with Ms Lyne was one of her pupils.

“I suppose she would be 14 or 15 [at the time]. We had the children at the school trained to such an extent that they were able to barricade the roads so that we would never be surprised,” he said.

“They did it as well as any [Volunteers company] could do it,” he said.

Mr McConmara said most rates money collected by Irish Volunteers for the republican-controlled Clare County Council was brought to Ms Lyne’s house, and she also helped transfer it.

Yes, and carried thousands of pounds and got some of the pupils to carry them very long distances, sometimes as much as seven or eight miles across the country.

“We couldn’t come across country and they just got away with it in school-bags,” he told the interviewers.

Party loyalties not yet set in stone, files reveal

Newly revealed pro-Treaty military activities of the fathers of senior Fianna Fáil figures Charles Haughey and Patrick Hillery challenge traditional views that 20th century Irish politics were fought entirely along Civil War lines.

Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC) archivist Michael Keane said it will come as a surprise to many to learn that two quintessential Fianna Fáil men came from homes with pro-Treaty National Army service.

The MSPC files being released today include several in relation to John Haughey, an IRA member in south Co Derry during the War of Independence.

“About August 1922, he joined the National Army and he continued to serve with the National Army and the Defence Forces reserves until 1938, when he had to retire completely due to ill health,” said Mr Keane.

Charles Haughey’s father John received a military pension for service in the pro-Treaty National Army, helped by a reference from Fine Gael’s first leader, Eoin O’Duffy

John Haughey was completely incapacitated by a degenerative condition then known as ‘disseminated sclerosis’. Our understanding today of what we know as multiple sclerosis (MS) might have meant it was unsuccessful, but Haughey applied and received a disability pension as the cause was partially attributed to conditions he lived in as a National Army soldier in the Civil War.

One of his commanding officers wrote in support of the claim with a description of the temporary headquarters occupied by Haughey and others in the Mayo County Jail in Castlebar from around April 1923.

“This building consisted of approximately 100 cells with no heating or lighting accommodation and not a pane of glass in the windows. There was no dining hall, recreation rooms or bathing facilities,” wrote Commandant Fitzpatrick.

The disability and service pensions he got up to his death in 1947 went in some way to ease the hardship which his wife and seven children endured.

Ironically, his service pension was awarded partly thanks to a reference from the first president of Fine Gael, Eoin O’Duffy.

“I regarded this applicant as one of best Volunteers in the area,” O’Duffy wrote in 1941.

Following his senior roles in the War of Independence-era Ulster IRA, O’Duffy was leader of the Blueshirts before a brief stint in 1933 and 1934 as the founding leader of Fine Gael.

Mr Keane said:

So you’ve got the ultimate Blueshirt happily giving a very good reference for the father of what many people would call the ultimate Fianna Fáiler.

The future taoiseach’s mother, Sarah Haughey, got a military pension of £8 a year from 1941, in respect of her Cumann na mBan service in Swateragh from early 1921 through the latter stages of the Civil War in early 1923.

Like John Haughey, the father of future president of Ireland Patrick Hillery also served in the National Army during the Civil War.

Dr Michael Joseph Hillery joined the IRA in his late 20s in 1917 or 1918, and became medical officer to its Mid-Clare Brigade in 1919.

He was divisional medical officer (M/O) in the newly formed National Army’s 1st Western Division in early 1922, and continued in that job until the end of August 1922, around the height of the Civil War.

“On formation of command, I ceased to be Div[isional] M/O but still attended National troops in Miltown until they evacuated and during the truce, attended occasionally at Kilrush up to the present year,” he wrote in his December 1924 pension application.

His son Patrick was born eight months later, and would go on to be a Fianna Fáil TD, minister, European commissioner, and Ireland’s sixth president.

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