One hundred years ago, on 3 January 1921, Michael Mullin from east Galway died in hospital while a prisoner of the British military. From a Republican family, Mullin was a Gaelic footballer with Mountbellew, who represented his native county in the 1910s. Apart from Michael Hogan of Tipperary, killed in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, Mullin was the only intercounty GAA player to die in the War of Independence.
Michael Mullin was born in the townland of Annaghmore East, near the village of Moylough, Co. Galway on 11 August 1889 to Simon Mullin and his wife, Mary (née Devally). Known as Malachy, he was the third oldest of a farming family of eleven children, five boys and six girls.
A strong and quick youth, Mullin was a member of Springlawn’s famed tug-of-war team and also excelled at the 880-yard, or half-mile, race. Described as being ‘well known in Gaelic circles’, he was a ‘prominent member’ of the Mountbellew Emmets GAA club – founded in the late 1880s and named for Robert Emmet, the Irish republican who led an ill-fated rebellion against British rule in 1803. The club had had contested the 1914 and 1919 Galway senior football finals, losing out to Ballinasloe on both occasions.
Mullins was also selected to represent Galway at intercounty level on a number of occasions throughout the 1910s. During that decade, Galway football was dominated by three clubs: St Grellan’s of Ballinasloe, which won seven successive Galway senior football titles between 1913 and 1919, the Tuam Stars and the Dunmore MacHales. Consequently, it was difficult for players outside of those three clubs to make the senior county panel. So the fact that Mullin managed to catch the attention of the Galway selectors during this period is a real testament to his footballing talent.
In one of his final intercounty games, in January 1918, he helped Galway to victory over Roscommon in the Connacht semi-final of the National Aid tournament, the funds of which were used to support the families of Irish republican prisoners. The fundraiser would have been close to his heart as the Mullin family were actively involved in the national struggle.
During the revolutionary period, the Moylough-Mountbellew area was a hotbed of republican activity. An Irish Republican Brotherhood circle, organised by James Haverty of Springlawn, had been active since 1910 – its members would later form the backbone of the local Volunteer movement. In his statement to the bureau of military history, Sean O’Neill would recall that when he arrived in Mountbellew at the start of the Great War the local IRB circle was ‘as good as perhaps could be found anywhere else in Ireland’, before naming Michael Mullin and his older brother Patrick, or Paddy, among its stalwarts. Both Michael and Paddy were members of the Mountbellew Company of the Irish Volunteers, which mobilised for action in 1916. Later, Paddy served as Quartermaster of the Mountbellew Volunteers and both brothers were active during the War of Independence.
From the summer of 1920 onwards, violence between Republican and Crown forces escalated throughout Ireland. As the Irish Republican Army, backed by Sinn Féin and Dáil Éireann, intensified its campaign against Crown forces, the British Government responded with the internment, or imprisonment, without trial of known or suspected republicans. Following Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920, when Michael Collins’s ‘squad’ assassinated twelve suspected British intelligence agents in Dublin, the British authorities in Dublin Castle ordered wholesale arrests and internment under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act. As a consequence, between November 1920 and the Truce of 11 July 1921, the British army imprisoned almost 4,500 men. To cope with the rapid influx of prisoners, temporary internment camps were hastily opened across Ireland.
A week to the day after Bloody Sunday, on 28 November, Michael Mullin was arrested at his home and taken to a military camp at Garbally, Ballinasloe. It is thought that Paddy – the more active of the brothers – was the actual intended target.
In early December, Galway Town Hall was commandeered by the military for use as a temporary detention camp, thus depriving the Galway urban council of its meeting rooms. The building was crammed with more than 100 prisoners and around 40 military personnel. Having spent three weeks in detention at Garbally, Mullin and his fellow internees were transferred to the town hall. Did they know that the Pearse brothers (Patrick and Willie), Éamonn Ceannt, Seán Mac Diarmada, Éamon de Valera, Thomas Ashe, Countess Markievicz, and many other future revolutionary leaders had gathered within those very same walls for the Gaelic League’s Ardfheis in the summer of 1913?
Years later, Liam Ó Briain, Professor of Romance Languages at University College Galway, who spent a combined two years of his life in British and Irish jails between 1916 and 1921 for his republican activities, wrote that the town hall internment camp ‘was awful, the worst ever in my experience’. Another former captive referred to it as the ‘town hall poison den’. According to Ó Briain, the military officers were harmless, their only concern being ‘that no one should escape’, but the ‘soldiers were pleasant one minute and hard the next’. Ó Briain also left a vivid account of the cramped and insanitary conditions within the camp: ‘Members of the Boarder Regiment were on guard there. They gave us a rough and raucous welcome they opened the door of the long room and shoved us inside. The room was full to bursting. One would imagine that a great Céilí was being held, that the music stopped and that they were waiting for it to start again. The floor was filthy. The blankets were laid out along the walls of the room. up to forty were lying on the stage. The two rooms at the far side of the stage were just as crammed; and the others slept around the hall our only activity during the day was a walk around the room. Once every three days or so we were brought out for twenty minutes onto the streets on our return the street mud from our shoes was added to the dirt which was already on the floor and we had no opportunity at all to clean nor to wash’.
Health concerns aside, republican prisoners were exposed to other deadly dangers. One IRA Volunteer, John Hosty, claimed that the Black and Tans had planned to visit the Galway Town Hall around Christmas 1920 with a ‘faked order’ to transfer prisoners, who would then be shot dead while ‘attempting to escape’.
On 29 December, Mullin complained to Dr Thomas A. Heneghan from Ballindine, Co. Mayo – a fellow internee – of a headache and slight cold. The following morning, Dr Henghan re-examined Mullin, who was now sweating profusely, and found that he had a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius. The doctor concluded that he was suffering from influenza, which was a serious cause for concern. The ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic of 1918 and 1919 had devastated Ireland – with 800,000 infections and more than 20,000 deaths. Other prisoners began reporting symptoms. Ó Briain recalled that ‘in the morning we used to count the number who could not rise from the floor’ as a result of the outbreak. On New Year’s Day, nineteen-year-old Patrick Walsh from Hollymount, Co. Mayo became the first prisoner to succumb to the virus.
Mullin’s condition worsened and he was taken by stretcher to the Isolation Hospital on Renmore Point, at the eastern entrance to Lough Atalia. A former cholera hospital, the building had been taken over by the military in order to treat sick and contagious prisoners. It seems that the conditions there left much to be desired. One contemporary wrote that ‘the tide comes up to the door, and the place is infested with rats’.
Dr Heneghan was permitted to accompany and stay with Mullin. The Mullin family were notified of his weakening state, and one of his sisters travelled to Galway to be near him. On the afternoon of Monday 3 January, Michael Mullin passed away, aged just thirty-one. According to Dr Heneghan, Mullin ‘contracted pneumonia in both lungs before his death, I did all I could to help him but he was in bad physical condition having had pneumonia three times before’. It was a frighteningly rapid decline, as he had been well enough to play football in the town hall the previous Monday.
Mullin’s body was carried from the Isolation Hospital to the mortuary at Renmore Military Hospital by his fellow prisoners, accompanied by a military guard. From there, his remains were returned to Moylough and buried at Eskerstephens Cemetery.
Ó Briain wrote that his death ‘gave a jolt to the army crowd. Senior doctors from the Curragh in Kildare came to see us and our place of detention. They were very flustered’. Soon, all of the town hall prisoners were inoculated to prevent the spread of influenza. The military also took over the adjacent Protestant hall as additional accommodation, installing barbed wire barriers at both ends of the little street between the halls, Court Avenue, so that prisoners could get more fresh air and exercise.
A military court of inquiry into the circumstances of Mullin’s death took place on 8 January 1921, which concluded that he died ‘from pneumonia in both lungs following influenza and that death was caused by purely natural causes’. There was no mention of the fact that the overcrowded and insanitary conditions in the internment camp were contributing factors.
Michael Mullin was one of fifty-six people who died in Co. Galway between January 1920 and July 1921 as a result of the War of Independence. Nationally, apart from Tipperary’s Michael Hogan, he was the only intercounty GAA player to die in the conflict.*
This post is part of a series researched and written by Brendan McGowan, Education Officer at Galway City Museum, to mark the Decade of Centenaries. Special thanks to the Mullin family; Jim Carney (Séamus Ó Cearnaigh); Eunan O’Halpin, TCD; Daithí Ó Corráin, DCU; and Paul Rouse, UCD for their assistance. If you have any information, stories or photographs relating to the War of Independence in Galway, please contact Brendan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Register of Births, Deaths & Marriages; Census of Ireland, 1901 & 1911; Bureau of Military History, Witness Statements; Military Court of Inquiry (Michael Mullen ); Mary Mullin & Maria Gordon (2016) The Springlawn Volunteers, 1916-2016; William Murphy (2017) ‘Imprisonment and the War of Independence’ in Atlas of the Irish Revolution, pp. 437-443; Joost Augusteijn (2017) ‘Military Conflict in the War of Independence’ in Atlas of the Irish Revolution, pp. 348-357; ‘Commandeered’, Connacht Tribune, 11 December 1920; ‘A Prisoner’s Death’, Freeman’s Journal, 5 January 1921; ‘Conditions of Galway Prisoners’, Freeman’s Journal, 24 January 1921; ‘The Second Death’, Connacht Tribune, 8 January 1921; ‘Second Victim in Galway Prison’, Tuam Herald, 8 January 1921; ‘Galway Man’s Story of Events in Ballykinlar’, Freeman’s Journal, 17 October 1921; James Durney (2019) Interned: The Curragh Internment Camps in the War of Independence. William Henry (2012) Blood for Blood: The Black & Tan War in Galway; Liam Ó Briain (2019) ‘Life in Galway Gaol, 1920-21’ in Essays by an Irish Rebel: Revolution, Politics & Culture (translated from the Irish by Eoin Ó Dochartaigh), pp. 102-110 ; Eunan O’Halpin & Daithí Ó Corráin (2020) The Dead of the Irish Revolution’ Conor McNamara (2018) War and Revolution in the West of Ireland: Galway, 1913-22