The Civil War in Letterkenny

The Civil War in Letterkenny

In the last post we saw how the War of Independence affected the town and how ambushes ceased following the Truce and signing of the Treaty. Not everyone agreed with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty however and it split the Sinn Féin party down the middle resulting in an outbreak of Civil War in Ireland in 1922. The Treaty debates split Nationalist opinion, even within families, with the result that Pro-Treaty supporters faced off against Anti-Treaty supporters in towns and villages throughout the country. Letterkenny was no different.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning 27th April 1922, one month after the handing over of the barracks in the town, No. 1 barracks (next door to the Courthouse) was attacked by rifle fire from the Anti-Treaty IRA with a bomb blowing out the glass windows. Shots were also fired at No. 2 Barracks (where the Wolfe Tone Bar is today) and a dance in progress in the Literary Institute was entered and searched but nothing was found. The Free State patrol remained on the streets until 6 a.m.

Rockhill House and Ballymacool House were both occupied by the Anti-Treaty forces in June of 1922. Rockhill was empty at this time making the takeover relatively straightforward but Col. John Boyd and his wife were forcibly removed from Ballymacool. On 22nd June 1922, an attack was launched on both houses by Pro-Treaty forces under the command of Lt. James McMonagle. The Anti-treaty forces in both houses were caught by surprise in the dawn attack and Lt. Daniel Harkin was fatally injured on the front lawn of Rockhill. In July 1922, almost 100 Anti-Treaty Volunteers took possession of the Schoolhouse, the old R.I.C. Barracks and a number of houses at Knockbrack, near Letterkenny but then moved away in the direction of Glenveagh Castle which was to become GHQ for the Anti-Treaty forces in Donegal.

Also that month, an Anti-Treaty garrison had taken control of Skeog House, near to the border with Derry. After five and a half hours resistance, 41 Anti-Treaty prisoners were captured by Free State forces and brought to Letterkenny Courthouse. Shortly after their arrival, in the early hours of the morning the prisoners started to wreck the interior, smashing the front windows and throwing out portions of the gallery, judges’ bench, solicitors’ table, and books and papers containing the record of the court for the previous 100 years. By noon smoke was seen at the front of the building, and shortly afterwards flames engulfed the building as prisoners stood at the windows and waved the tricolour and called for cheers for an ‘Irish Republic’, singing the ‘Soldier’s Song’. Eventually they came out to the street, and were surrounded by the Free State troops, who lined them up on the footpath. The Fire Brigade arrived and the fire was brought under control but not before considerable damage was done.

By August 1922, many Anti-Treaty forces were captured in the areas surrounding Letterkenny. On Wednesday 2nd August, Free State troops under Lieutenant Martin encountered Anti-Treaty forces on Cark Mountain, three miles from Letterkenny towards Drumkeen. Shots were exchanged and a running fight ensued for over two hours. The Anti-treaty force then made signs to surrender but as they advanced towards the troops they opened fire before retreating towards Drumkeen where they were rounded up, thirteen of whom were taken prisoner. Two days later, John Mullan from Glendowan, a member of the Letterkenny Rural District Council, Mr. O’Hare, a clerk in Belfast Bank in Letterkenny, Hugh Murray of Termon and Seamus O Griana (who would later write the Irish novel Caisleáin Óir) were all arrested in Letterkenny for Anti- Treaty activities.

On the 19th August, six prisoners who had been caught in Glenfin escaped from No. 1 Barracks by using a piece of steel which they fashioned into a saw. The prisoners cut through the iron bars of the cell and made an opening large enough to pass through. Once outside they covered the barbed wire with their blankets and gained access to the adjoining premises and made their escape.

At 1.45am on 16th January 1923, a Free State military patrol was passing Hegarty’s Hotel at the Market Square, when they believed shots were fired on them from the elevated area on the height of Mount Southwell Terrace. The patrol returned the fire for about fifteen minutes. The family of Patrick Dawson at Mount Southwell had a narrow escape as the bullets struck inches from the windows and also near the front door. No one was injured but one of the telephone wires across the Main Street at the Square was cut in two by a rifle bullet.

After the gunfire had ceased the military were called out of the barracks and made a thorough search of the neighbourhood but no evidence of activity could be found. People going to the early mass in the Cathedral were stopped and questioned but again any would-be shooters could not be identified.

By now, though, the Civil War was starting to peter out. More and more victories for the Free State forces throughout the country eventually brought the Anti-Treaty forces to their knees and a ceasefire was called at the end of April 1923. But it was not without its consequences. It resulted in an irrevocable split in Sinn Féin with the Pro-Treaty element becoming first the Cumann na nGaedheal party and later Fine Gael while the Anti-Treaty supporters would eventually form the core of the Fianna Fáil party under DeValera in 1926. Former Sinn Féin comrades in the War of Independence were now split in this new political atmosphere. For example, Dr. J.P. McGinley, former President of the Letterkenny Sinn Féin Cumann and who welcomed DeValera to the town in February 1918 voted in favour of the Treaty while Sam O’Flaherty former Brigade commander in the Letterkenny district voted against it. This split in political ideologies would affect the governance of the country, both locally and nationally, for decades to come.