In this Centenary Year of the 1916 Rising, the Spirit Of Irish Freedom Society Westmeath are continuing their initiative to commemorate the men and women from Westmeath who gave their lives defending the All-Ireland Republic proclaimed on Easter Week 1916 and ratified by the First Dáil on 21st January 1919.
Over fifty people assembled at the Irishtown Roundabout in Mullingar before marching to Republican Plot in Ballyglass Cemetery, where two IRA Volunteers, Peter Barnes and James McCormick, who were hanged in Winson Green Prison, Birmingham on 7th February 1940, are buried. The two men were charged with taking part in an IRA bomb blast in Coventry in 1939.
The number of people present from all across the Midlands, who braved very bad weather, reflects the dedication of republicans to their Fallen Dead. A Colour Party from the Tomas Allen Society in Meath led the cortege to the graveside of the two men, where proceedings were Chaired by Alan McCabe, Castlepollard, from the North Westmeath Dermody/Leavy Cumann.
He began by welcoming all present before calling on Laura Kelly from Mullingar to read the 1916 Proclamation. There then followed a wreath-laying ceremony, with Bernard Flood from Castlepollard laying a wreath on the grave of Peter Barnes and with Ciaran Doherty from Mullingar laying a wreath on the grave of James McCormick. National Organiser of the 1916 Societies, Paul Scallon, then laid a wreath on behalf of the 1916 Societies.
Following on, Gerry Farrell from Moate and a member of the South Westmeath Sloane/Tormey Cumann read the Westmeath IRA Roll of Honour. A brief history of Barnes and McCormick was then given by Peter Rogers, Rathowen and member of the Dermody/Leavy Cumann. He explained how Barnes, from Banagher in Offaly, and McCormick from Mullingar, had both volunteered for Active Service on the British mainland as part of the IRA’s ‘S-Plan’ campaign in England, which began in early 1939.
He went on to outline how the two men had played minor roles in the events leading to the botched bomb blast outside Astley’s Shop at the Broadgate Centre in Coventry on 25th August 1939. Five people were killed and many more injured when a bicycle with a bomb in its basket was left standing against a kerb, where it exploded prematurely with devastating consequences.
It was acknowledged throughout the men’s trial that they didn’t actually make or plant the bomb. They were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging anyway. After the execution they were buried in the prison grounds with plain crosses, only their initials marking their graves. It took nearly thirty years before relatives were allowed to reclaim their bodies and bring them home to Ireland for burial.
The man who made and planted the bomb, believed to be Joby O’Sullivan from Cork, admitted to carrying out the bombing in an interview with RTE journalist Mick Burns in 1969, stating that the intended target was a police station in the town but that the wheels of the bicycle had got caught in the tram tracks and was thus abandoned. The bodies were brought back for burial in Mullingar that same year.
The re-interment on 6th July 1969 was attended by an estimated 15,000 people. The Funeral Mass was said in Irish in the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar, before the Tricolour draped coffins were brought to Ballyglass Cemetery for burial. A four-man Firing Party, as a final salute to their two brave comrades, fired a volley of shots over the coffins before they were lowered into the ground.
The funeral of Barnes and McCormick is also notable for the controversial graveside oration given by Belfast republican Jimmy Steele. In his speech he denounced the political direction being forged by the IRA leadership at that time, his remarks proving a harbinger for the split in the Republican Movement which followed a few months later.
There then was a reading of the last letter Volunteer James McCormick wrote to his sister, Mary Casey, just before his execution, which was read by veteran republican Richard Behal from Kerry, who himself was celebrating fifty years since his jail-break from Limerick Gaol. There then was a minute’s silence and the lowering of the flags in respect of the two dead Volunteers.
In conclusion, Alan McCabe thanked all who had braved the weather to be present for the ceremony. He emphasised the importance of remembering these men and to highlight how the British judicial system have jailed and even executed innocent Irishmen and women down the years.
McCabe then announced that the Spirit of Irish Freedom Society would be unveiling a new Memorial in the month of April to another Westmeath Volunteer, Patrick Thompson, who was shot dead by the RIC in the village of Finea on 6th October 1921. The ceremony ended with all present singing Amhrán na bhFiann.
Other News: Mock Referendum in Mullingar
On Saturday 27th February members of the Westmeath Society carried out a mock referendum on Irish Unity on the Market Square in Mullingar. Other 1916 Societies across the 26-Counties carried out similar polls on 26th and 27th February. With one hundred ballot papers used in Mullingar the result of 91 percent in favour was similar to the results in other areas. All-in-all it was a huge success and a thoroughly enjoyable venture for those who took part.