The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 brought an end to the War of Independence. In Ireland people took sides some for the treaty and some against. In Meath the two local newspapers, The Meath Chronicle and Drogheda Independent came out in favour of the Treaty. The County Council ratified its support for the Treaty as did the local Urban and Rural Councils. The local Sinn Féin party also supported ratification. An election was scheduled for June. According to one person a meeting of all the IRA in Meath resulted in ten times as many supporting the Treaty as those who opposed it. Notable IRA opponents of the Treaty were Seán Farrelly, Carnaross, Paddy Stapleton, Commons, Navan and Mick Hilliard, Navan. Cathal Brugha, who was Anti-Treaty, spoke to a meeting of more than four thousand in the Market Square, Navan, in April.[i]
Two hundred Anti-Treaty IRA militants, led by Rory O’Connor, occupied the Four Courts and several other buildings in central Dublin on 14 April 1922. The election on 16 June with agreed Sinn Féin candidates resulted in the Pro-Treaty side securing 239,193 votes to 133,864 for Anti-Treaty side. A further 247,226 people voted for other parties, most of whom supported the Treaty. In the Louth-Meath constituency the four pro-treaty Sinn Féin candidates received 46% of the vote with the sole anti-treaty candidate receiving 16%. The election result re-enforced the pro-treaty side and with increased pressure from England they were forced to act against the Four Courts. Bombardment of the building began on 28 June and the republican garrison held out until 3 July, when the Four Courts is overwhelmed by flames. Pitched battles continued in Dublin until 5 July. Hostilities break out around the country; clashes occur between pro- and anti-Treaty forces in Kerry, Donegal and Sligo, amongst other places
The outbreak of the Civil War forced activists to choose sides. Supporters of the treaty came to be known as “pro-treaty” or Free State Army, legally the National Army. The opponents called themselves Republicans and were also known as “anti-treaty” forces, or Irregulars. As it was very early in the Civil War when the Curraghtown battle took place the Meath Chronicle labelled the Anti-Treaty forces as the “Executive forces” while the pro-Treaty side were labelled the “Dail forces.” [ii]
On Sunday 23 April, rival Meath groups clashed over the possession of the former RIC barracks in Slane. The following day a Free State officer was wounded in a shooting in Dunshaughlin. The following Sunday a gun battle was fought for possession of the RIC barracks in Athboy.[iii]
George McDermott, the first child of James McDermott and Mary, nee McArdle, of The Commons/Boyerstown was born on 2 August 1887 and baptised the following day in the church in Navan with James Murray and Mary Anne McDermott as sponsors. George was named after his paternal grandfather, George McDermott. James was an agricultural labourer. The family lived in the crowded Commons area in a two roomed mud walled thatched house, sometimes the address is given as Boyerstown in baptisms. A couple of doors away lived James McArdle. According to the 1911 census there were six children in the family and the six were living at the time of the census. George had younger brothers and sisters, Julia, Eugene, John, Catherine and another unidentified child. James was in America when Eugene was born in 1890 and he is listed as a farmer at the births of Eugene, Julia and John.[iv]
In 1901 George was a live-in farm worker at the house of Anne Murtagh and her son Thomas who farmed at Knockumber, Navan. Another servant at the same house was Peter McArdle, a relative from his mother’s side of the family. By 1911 he and Peter had returned to the family home at the Commons and both were working as agricultural labourers.[v]
George McDermott served throughout World War 1 in the British Army. He seems to have joined up in 1914. There are a number of George McDermotts listed as serving in the British Army in World War 1 but unfortunately none of the surviving records give enough information to pinpoint which are the records relating to George McDermott of Navan. There is a George McDermott serving in the Leinster regiment, the local regiment to Navan, in France in 1915. Listed as Soldier Number: 1282, Rank: Private, Corps: Leinster Regiment. There were also George McDermotts who served in other Irish regiments such as the Irish Guards and the Inniskilling Fusiliers but there were other George McDermotts who served in other British based regiments. There is a George McDermott of the right birth year who served in the Royal Air Force.[vi]
George McDermott returned home to Navan and subsequently joined the I.R.A. He served with the IRA from 1920 onwards and during the War of Independence, Truce Period and Civil War. In 1922 he was a farm labourer employed by James Dowdall, Knockumber, Navan. He took part in a number of engagements and his soldiering ability was recognised by his superiors. He played football with Commons F.C.[vii]
Curraghtown House was located to the west of Navan on a back road to Dunderry. Curraghtown was home to the Charlton family and is where the Charlton fund originated. Captain William Charlton of Curraghtown, alias Mount Charlton, Co. Meath died in 1737 and was succeeded by his son, Thomas, born 1702 and died unmarried 1792. The Charlton Bequest began in 1792. Thomas Charlton was buried in Ardbraccan graveyard. By Act of Parliament in 1800 the estate was vested in Trustees. In 1836 Captain Charlton lived in the old mansion house in Curraghtown. In 1906 the trust’s property at Curraghtown was sold to the four resident tenants. The property was acquired by John McDermott.
Mick Hilliard and his anti-Treaty Active Service Unit took over Curraghtown House on Tuesday 4 July 1922. His unit had thirty four members including himself. As news of the action spread others came to support Hilliard and his men. Hilliard listed thirty four men in his active unit and fifteen others. About half of the group to first occupy the house were from the Navan Company with the remainder from companies from Kilberry, Rathkenny, Clongill and the Commons. Two cars were commandeered to bring the men to Curraghtown. Owen Heaney, a Volunteer from Kilberry, said the group were “reasonably well armed but organisation was slack and we had no scouts out.” The house was large, double storied, old and ruinous. The house had been used previously by the IRA as a meeting place and place of detention. The building was approached by a short avenue but was well hidden from the public road and surrounded by trees and shrubs. Loop holes were created in the house and sandbags filled for defence. [viii]
At about five o’clock the following day, Wednesday 5 July, a small detachment from the First Eastern Division of the new Free State Army arrived under the command of Commandant Kelly of Navan. These were subsequently reinforced by men from Kells, Trim and Mullingar. Mick Hilliard said that the Free State forces approached the area and instead of calling for a surrender or parlay began immediately firing on the defenders. He said the defenders had the attackers at their mercy and could have shot first and killed some of the attackers but did not fire. [ix]
George McDermott was serving as a Section Leader. According to Owen Heaney “Paddy Stapleton, Christy Cregan and George McDermott were sent out to parlay” with the Free State side “but they were shot at and McDermott killed instantly.”According to Mick Hilliard Stapleton stayed with McDermott as he died an hour and half later.[x] The Free State side counter-claimed that McDermott had been shot for ignoring a warning to halt. Mick Hilliard said that the Free State forces had opened fire on his scouts without calling on them to surrender and said that McDermott’s killing could easily have been avoided. George McDermott died early in the engagement. According the Drogheda Independent McDermott was crossing a gap when he was struck in the legs and as the firing was so fierce no one could rescue him. Shot in the legs one of his arteries must have been cut and so he bled to death. His death certificate gives the cause of death as gunshot wounds in both legs. The Chronicle has the same story. It described McDermott as “a very young man and he and his family are well known in Navan as respectable and hard-working people.” He left behind him an aged mother and siblings. The remains were removed to the mortuary chapel in Navan and there was a large attendance for the removal of the remains and the funeral. The main mourners at his funeral on the Saturday in Ardbraccan were his brothers, John and Eugene, sister, Katie, step-brother, Peter McCann and cousin, Joe Flood. A volley was fired over the grave and a large number of wreaths were placed on the grave. In 1954 his sister, Julia Croke, made an unsuccessful application for a military pension as a dependent of George McDemott.[xi]
Vice Commandant Sean Nolan of the Free State Army was killed by gunfire from the house. Mick Hilliard said Nolan was killed on the morning of Thursday. Nolan was based in Kells and in charge of the 3rd Brigade. Charlie Conaty who was serving on the Free State side said Nolan “was not cautious enough. He was shot as he tried to throw a grenade while clambering over a gate.” The Meath Chronicle has a similar story with Nolan shot while attempting to throw a grenade at the building. According to the Chronicle he was accompanied by Patrick Clerkin, an officer on the Brigade staff. The wounded man was removed to a house in the vicinity and he received medical and spiritual care but died twenty minutes later. According the Drogheda Independent Nolan was trying to establish communications between two brigades when he was shot in the body while crossing the avenue while attempting to get to the shelter of a tree while another report in the same papers says he was shot in the head. A different paper said he was shot through the lungs. Rev. Fr. Ellis C.C. Dunderry ministered to him but he died shortly afterwards. Nolan’s remains were brought to St. Colmcille’s Church, Kells. Crowds of people visited to pay their respects. His remains were then removed to Kildare and his cortege was accompanied by the local Kells band playing “The Dead March” All the local businesses in Kells closed during the funeral. The local urban council passed a vote of sympathy to the relatives of Nolan and McDermott. Sean Nolan was aged twenty four and from Kildare. He had served during World War 1. A large number of people attended the funeral on Sunday. Six hundred Civic Guards under Commandant P. Brennan attended the funeral. Both the Army and Civic Guards fired three gun volleys salutes over the grave. A tribute was also paid by the members of the I.T. and G.W. Union of which Nolan had been a member. His remains were buried at the Grey Abbey, Kildare, and the inscription reads “In loving memory of Vice-Commandant Sean Nolan, Kildare who fell in action 6th July 1922, at Curraghtown House, Kells; aged 24 years. Of duty mindful to his last drawn breath he to his country his young manhood gave. Alone he walked to danger and to death and won what he had craved – A Patriot’s Grave.” [xii]
The fire fight continued through the night and into the next day. One of the defenders was a very accurate sniper and ensured that the attackers kept their heads down. Armed with a mauser rifle he was able to be accurate over a half mile distance. Thousands of bullets were fired. Rev. Fr. J.J. O’Connor CC Navan went to the defenders and appealed to them to surrender but he was told they would “fight to the last man.” Early Thursday morning a ceasefire was arranged by Fr. J. Kilmartin CC Navan and Fr. T.H. Ellis CC Dunderry for the removal of the dead bodies. Fr. Ellis had been in the area in a car bearing a white flag and a Red Cross flag. The two bodies were brought by the County Hospital Ambulance to Navan. The surrender of the Irregular forces was signed by Mick Hilliard on a half page of note paper. [xiii]
The defenders were lightly armed and surrendered eleven rifles, seven guns, some small arms and a good supply of ammunition at the ceasefire. According to Mick Hilliard the thirty one men had nine rifles, six shotguns, one a revolver and the rest had no arms. Divisional Commandant Sean Boylan sent a message to Commandant Kelly of Navan “Congratulations to forces engaged at Curraghtown. Regret loss of gallant Vice-Comdnt Nolan.”[xiv]
Following the ceasefire the members of the unit surrendered and marched to the avenue where they were taken into custody. “Friends from either side recognising one another shook hands.” All seemed delighted at the peaceful outcome. The Meath Chronicle reported that the defenders were taken by lorry under heavy escort to Navan. The reporter said the men were cheerful and shouted “Up the Republic” and “Up Rory”. Nurse Fox and Nurse Crahan from the County Hospital were awaiting them to carry out first aid and provide refreshments for both sides. The Irregulars were taken to detention to Navan where a large crowd of sightseers greeted the men. The arrival of the men caused great excitement in Navan. As most of the men were local and well known to the crowd handshakes and greetings were exchanged. On alighting from the lorries Patrick Stapleton gave the order to form fours and quick march into the barracks. From Navan the men were transported under heavy escort to Trim where they were put in detention in the bridewell of the old Trim Gaol. There they broke windows and partitions and hailed people who were passing bye. One night they set the place on fire. They also seem to have passed the time making silver rings.[xv]
The Meath Chronicle listed the named those involved in the defence of the house as: Donal Quinn, Christopher Cregan, Mick Hilliard, Edward Cahill, John Farrelly, Nicholas Naulty, Thomas Kinsella. Laurence McGovern, John Gaynor, Michael McKeown, Joseph Egan, Richard Doran, James Boylan, William Sullivan and Donal O’Sullivan (all from the Navan company); Owen Heaney, James Heaney, John Shiels, Peter Shiels and John McKeown (Kilberry company); Patrick Boyle, James Byrne, Patrick and Laurence Stapleton and William McGuirk (Commons Company); Michael Swan and James Hoey (Clongill Company); James and Mathew Ginnity (Rathkenny Company); George Cudden (Cross Guns); Gerald O’Reilly (Bohermeen Company) and C. Fagan. The Drogheda Independent suggested that the Irregulars were in action for the first time, in other words had not taken part in any previous engagements, many of them “boys”. Mick Hilliard provided a list of those Anti-Treaty IRA members to the County Library in 1935. He included the names of J. Sweeney, J. McLoughlin, J. Lear and P. Whyte and not the names of Val Stapleton, C. Fagan and Peter Shields. [xvi]
The two commandeered cars belonging to Mr. Sheridan and Mr. Matthews which had been in the courtyard of Curraghtown House were riddled with bullets. At the next County Council meeting a vote of sympathy on the death of the two men, “killed in action” was passed. Regret was also expressed by the people of Bailieboro where Nolan had previously been in charge of the camp.[xvii]
Mick Hilliard, the commandant of the Irregular forces wrote to the Meath Chronicle from the prison in Trim to put his side of the action at Curraghtown. [xviii] After two weeks in Trim the men were transferred to Dundalk jail. On the 27 July a huge hole was blown in the jail wall and about two hundred prisoners escaped including those from Curraghtown. The IRA unit took their last major action with an attack on Athboy Barrack in September 1922.[xix]
In late July Solicitor A. Steen applied to the Navan Rural Council on behalf of John McDermott for compensation of £1200 for damages to Curraghtown House, its outoffices and garden. McDermott eventually received £459 in compensation a year later. Navan Engineering claimed £359 15s 3d for the damage done to a motor car which was removed from its yard on the 4 July and recovered on the 6th. Mr. J.E.P. Roundtree of Stackallen was awarded £50 for damage to his car during the battle of Curraghtown. [xx]
Mary, George’s mother, died within a few months of his killing at Curraghtown.[xxi] When the second anniversary of the killing of George McDermott was commemorated at his grave in Ardbraccan in 1924 Michael Hilliard gave the oration and said he felt “pride that McDermott and men like him were ready to tread the narrow and rocky path, the pathway of patriotism, leading to the prison or the grave.”[xxii]
Michael Hilliard joined the IRA’s Navan Company in 1919 after leaving school at the age of 16. He had an active career in the IRA, rising quickly through the ranks to become company adjutant. After taking the Republican side in the Civil War he went into action at Curraghtown. Hilliard was taken prisoner and spent some time in Trim and Dundalk jails. After his escape through a hole in the wall in Dundalk jail he was recaptured in January 1923, taken back to Trim and almost sentenced to death by a military court. Having spent several months in solitary confinement in Trim, he was moved to The Curragh, where he went on hunger strike for 26 days. In 1932 the IRA Army Council sent out an instruction to the area commanders that they should make themselves available at Fianna Fail constituency headquarters throughout the country for the general election of that year, which brought the party to power for the first time. Mr Hilliard joined the party and gave his full assistance at the 1932 election and every subsequent election.
In 1933 Hilliard became a constituency delegate to the Fianna Fail National Executive and was also a member of Navan Urban Council from 1934 to 1942. He stood as a Dáil candidate in 1943 and was returned at his first attempt as TD for Meath-Westmeath.
In 1958 Hilliard was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, Sean Lemass. The following year when De Valera was elected President and Lemass became Taoiseach, Hilliard became Minister for Posts and Telegraphs. He established a national television network and the RTE authority. He also set about modernising the telephone system and introduced the advisory commission on stamps.
In 1965, Hilliard became Minister for Defence, but in 1969 he asked not to be considered for further ministerial service. He was one of the first members of the European Parliament and retired from active politics in 1975. Michael Hilliard was returned in every general election in Meath from 1943 to 1973 and Hilliard acted as director of elections in Meath for the Sean T. O’Ceallaigh and Eamonn de Valera presidential campaigns. He died in 1982. [xxiii]
Matthew Ginnitty died while interned at the Curragh during the Civil War and was buried at Gernonstown.[xxiv]
John McKeown escaped through a hole in the Dundalk prison wall. Captured again, he escaped from Navan barracks with Owen Heeney, Kilberry, and the Michael Farrelly, Clonagrowney, Carnaross—again through a hole in one of the walls. After, the cease fire McKeown was employed as a fitter at Merville Dairies, Finglas, and worked there until he retired in 1969. He died a year later on a plane going to America while going to visit his daughters.[xxv]
Mr. James Heaney, Proudstown, died in Our Lady’s Hospital Navan, in 1969 from injuries received when his car was in collision with another car at Proudstown. On the advent of the “split” he took the Republican side and remained an ardent Fianna Fail supporter. Heaney played football with the Kilberry team in his youth and in later years was a committee member of that club.[xxvi]
Gerald O’Reilly from Durhamstown Bohermeen emigrated to the USA in the 1926 when he was released from internment. Here he played a major role in the formation of the Transport Workers Union of America along with his colleague from Kerry, Mike Quill, in 1934. He died in 1990. [xxvii]
Bobby Byrne and Johnny Bennet who fought on the Free State side were so upset and saddened at what happened at Curraghtown that they left the army and returned to civilian life. [xxviii]
A new council housing development at Parnell Park, Navan “McDermott Villas” was named in McDermott’s honour in 1938.[xxix] Curraghtown House was covered in bullet holes and demolished in the 1970’s.[xxx]
So the questions remain. Did the Pro-Treaty side come across the Anti-Treaty side by accident and rush into combat or did they expect to find the Anti-Treaty side and ignored the rules of fair combat and rush in all guns blazing or did both sides surprise each other? We will never know and perhaps it is as well. We should remember two young lives given for their country – one on each side of the Treaty and mourn both as lives lost to what Ireland could have become. The Civil War was won by the pro-treaty Free State forces, who benefited from substantial quantities of weapons provided by the British Government. The conflict claimed more lives than the War of Independence that preceded it, and left Irish society divided and embittered for generations. Today we should remember all those who were killed or suffered in our Civil War, a war of brother against brother.
Soldiers of the National army on outpost duty guarding the railway bridge on the main road leading into Trim from Navan. Irish Independent 10 July 1922
Photo of George McDermott from Royal County Autumn/Winter Edition Vol. 1 No.2. Meath G.A.A. courtesy of Meath County Library and with thanks to Stephen Ball for finding the photograph.
[i] Oliver Coogan, Politics and War in Meath 1913-23 (Naas, 1983) pp 297 – 309.
[ii] Meath Chronicle 8 July 1922, p.1.
[iii] Politics and War in Meath 1913-23, pp 313-4.
[iv] Baptism Records, Parish Register, St. Mary’s Church Navan; Birth Certificate 1887, Marriage Certificate 1886, Registration of Births, Navan District, General Registry Office Births Deaths and Marriage.
[v] 1901 Census, National Archives, Dublin; 1911 Census, National Archives, Dublin.
[viii] Politics and War in Meath 1913-23, p. 315.
[ix] Drogheda Independent 8 July 1922 p. 4; Meath Chronicle 15 July 1922, p. 1.
[x] Politics and War in Meath 1913-23, p. 315.
[xii] Politics and War in Meath 1913-23, p. 315; Meath Chronicle 8 July 1922, p.1; Drogheda Independent 8 July 1922 p. 4, 15 July 1922, p. 6; Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal 15 July 1922, p. 2.
[xiii] Drogheda Independent 8 July 1922, p. 4, 15 July 1922, p.6; Meath Chronicle 8 July 1922, pp1,5; Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal 15 July 1922 p. 2.
[xiv] Meath Chronicle 15 July 1922 p.1, 22 July 1922 p. 5;Drogheda Independent 15 July 1922, p.6.
[xv] Drogheda Independent 15 July 1922 p. 8; Meath Chronicle 8 July 1922 p.1, 15 July 1922 p. 5; Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal 15 July 1922 p. 2.
[xvi] Meath Chronicle 8 July 1922 pp1; Drogheda Independent 15 July 1922 p. 6; Oliver Coogan, Politics and War in Meath 1913-23 (Naas, 1983) p.316.
[xvii] Meath Chronicle 15 July 1922 p 3.
[xviii] Meath Chronicle 15 July 1922 p. 1.
[xix] Politics and War in Meath 1913-23, pp 316-7.
[xx] Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal 9 September 1922 p. 3; Drogheda Independent 22July 1922 p. 6, 27 October 1923 p. 4, 1 December 1923, p. 3.
[xxi] Meath Chronicle 21 October 1922, p. 1.
[xxii] Meath Chronicle 12 July 1924, p. 1;
[xxiii] Drogheda Independent 13 August 1982, p. 8, Marie Coleman, ‘Hilliard, Michael Leo’ in James Maguire and James Quinn, Dictionary of Irish Biography (Dublin, 2018)
[xxiv] Meath Chronicle 2 April 1932, p. 1.
[xxv] Meath Chronicle 9 May 1970, p. 9.
[xxvi] Drogheda Independent 3 October 1969, p. 4.
[xxvii] St. Ultan’s Historical Society website
[xxviii] Politics and War in Meath 1913-23, p. 316.
[xxix] Drogheda Independent 23 April 1938, p. 7.
[xxx] Henry Callaghan in Dund’ry A Folk History Ed. Johnny Keely (Trim, 2014 ) p.42