Today’s post, from the project’s Helen Ford at the Modern Records Centre, looks at a particularly difficult part of Ireland’s past: the lead up to partition 100 years ago. Railways have long been political, but in this case, they were an active site of contest, involving attacks on infrastructure and people – with tragic results.
Importantly, this is being acknowledged at one of the locations that became notorious at the time: Mallow. Irish Rail have commissioned a plaque in memory of all railway workers killed in the line of duty in the period up to 11 July 1921, the date of the truce in a bitter fight. The plaque will be at Mallow station, where four railwaymen were killed by the Royal Irish Constabulary in January 1921.
‘Gunshot wounds’ – not the words one usually expects to see as the cause of death of members in the NUR annual reports. The year was 1921 and the members were listed as belonging to the Cork branch of the union.
The two men who died were Richard Arthur (aged 45) and John Sisk (49), both employees of the Cork, Bandon & South Coast Railway Co. Their deaths occurred two days apart but were connected to the same incident, an ambush of a train at Upton station, co. Cork. Nine civilians died including the two railwaymen.
The details of the events are available in local newspaper reports of the time and sadly the NUR records do not provide the context or detailed information about the employees we would like. However, the Legal Cases in the NUR volumes do start to reveal a set of political and military events in which a number of unfortunate railway employees were caught up – the partition of Ireland on 3 May 1921.
Charles Daly of Cork, “while following his duties as a porter… was accosted by three masked men, who took him into a tunnel and shot him dead”. The local newspaper reported this death as part of a bigger incident involving several soldiers at the Great Southern & Western Railway Station in Cork.
Some railwaymen were suspected of playing a part in attacks against the British. We find brief references to M. Byrne and M. O’Neill, members of Kingsbridge (co Sligo) branch who were arrested by the military authorities “in connection with some equipment deposited in the cloak-room”. J. Whelan, also of Kingsbridge was arrested and charged with involvement in the burning of three wagons of military stores, though he was later acquitted and released.
The most famous incident directly involving railwaymen took place at Mallow railway station, near Cork on 31 January 1921. Again, we have only brief entries in the NUR Executive reports, but we also hold a series of transcripts of legal cases and appeals for compensation, one of which was the case of Patrick Devitt, signalman at Mallow.
On the evening of 31 January, a group of 9 railwaymen working at Mallow station were ambushed by ‘uniformed policemen’ and held at gunpoint. After being rounded up and held on the platform for a brief period, they were taken to the station entrance and told to run for their lives. They were then fired on as they ran away. Devitt was shot three times and died on 13th February from his wounds.
Patrick Devitt was a signalman for the Great Southern & Western Railway Co. He was 38 years and old and the father of seven children, the eldest 11, the youngest 10 months. His widow Mary Anne Devitt appeared before the Recorder at Mallow Quarter Sessions alongside several of the surviving railwaymen who gave evidence of the events. The court hearing was to recover compensation arising out of ‘unlawful assembly’ and her statement was based on her brief conversation with her husband just before he died. Mrs Devitt was awarded £2000 in compensation and each of her 7 children £100.
Two other men died from their injuries that night, Daniel O’Mullane and Denis Bennett (18 years old). Their fathers appeared at the same hearing to recover compensation. Geoffrey O’Mullane and Edward Bennett were both awarded £1000 for the loss of their sons.
The other men who were injured but survived the event were Peter Morrissey, train examiner, Michael Mahoney, steam raiser, Patrick Maher, engine driver, Patrick Howe, driver, Joseph Greensmyth signalman and Mathew Cronin.
Peter Morrissey’s statement provides more details of the events: he heard shooting from station building around 10.30 pm, passed by the signal cabin and saw Devitt and Greensmyth inside and joined them… “I was only after entering the cabin sir, when the shooting outside became very intense”.
“Did the three of you lie on the floor of the cabin? … Yes sir, we thought we would be safer…as the bullets were flying all round the place”.
He then reported ‘about thirty men in policemens’ uniforms’ ordered them to open the door and forced them down the steps and towards the station platform. However, Greensmyth, aged 66 had been pushed down the iron steps of the signal box and was lying on the ground injured. According to his evidence, he challenged the gunman about the possible dangers of trains arriving and was ordered to return to the signal cabin.
Morrissey was shot in elbow and remained in hospital until 11 March. He was awarded £350. Greensmyth’s back injuries left him incapacitated and he was awarded £700 in compensation.
Michael Mahoney a steam raiser, was working on an engine in the loco sidings and after being forced to join the others was wounded in the right knee. He was married with 4 children and was awarded £400 compensation.
Patrick Maher, was a widower and a father of three children (aged 12, 14 and 16). His injuries were severe, and he was unable to continue working. He was awarded £2000 in compensation.
Patrick Howe was shot in the back but fell and crawled away into hiding for several hours. He received £175.
Mathew Cronin, one of the five ASLEF members was shot in the spine and received £1400.
The lead up to the partition of Ireland was a period of increasing violence and danger for civilians, with enormous disruption to everyday life including the railways. It is interesting that even the smallest entries in a register of union payments -‘Gunshot Wounds’- can remind us of the context of the records and open up other avenues of investigation.
Helen has been an archivist for over 30 years working variously in local government archive services and business archives. She’s been the manager at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick for 14 years and has recently been involved in getting some of the thousands of trade union membership records added to FindMyPast. Raising awareness of the value of union records for historians is an important and enjoyable part of her job.