On the 9 March 1922, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) handed over its city barracks to officers of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and 268 RIC constables and officers departed Galway by train. Less than a week later, in an act of senseless revenge, two unarmed RIC sergeants – Tobias Gibbons from Co. Mayo and John Gilmartin from Co. Leitrim – were shot dead in their hospital beds at Ely Place, Galway. Later that same evening, an official of the Congested Districts Board – Patrick Cassidy from Co. Mayo – was shot dead at the Galway Workhouse Hospital. The gunmen were never identified.
Following the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in January 1922, an agreement was reached by the British and the newly-formed Provisional Government to disband the RIC, the police force of the British Administration in Ireland. Throughout March 1922, the RIC were steadily withdrawn from most of the twenty-six counties, their final parade taking place in the Phoenix Park Depot in Dublin on 4 April. The force had borne the brunt of republican violence throughout the War of Independence. RIC historian Jim Herlihy estimates that ‘a total of 442 RIC men were killed as a result of political violence and 725 were injured from January 1919 through truce in July 1921 and up to 28 June 1922’.
At 10am on 9 March 1922, 260 men and 8 officers of the RIC – all Irishmen bar one – gathered in formation outside the Eglinton St Barracks in Galway. They then marched to the train station, ‘amidst cheering, handshaking and booing,’ and boarded a special train at 11am for Dublin, from where they proceeded to Baldonnell for disbandment. Prior to their departure, the five police stations in the city (Eglinton St Barracks, Dominick St Barracks and the house opposite, ‘Motorville’, and the house occupied by District Inspector John McGlin on St Francis St) had been formally handed over to local IRA officers. Over the following three days, barracks Loughrea, Athenry and Ballinasloe at were also evacuated.
At midday, 200 members of the Galway Battalion IRA marched from Lenaboy Castle on Taylor’s Hill, headed by the St Patrick’s Brass Band, took possession of the central station at Eglinton Street and ‘hoisted the tricolour amidst scenes of unbounded enthusiasm’. Completed in 1888, Eglinton St Barracks (on the corner of Eglinton St and Daly’s Place, roughly where Cafe Roscoe’s is today) had been the centre of the RIC in Galway, housing the county inspector, district inspector, head-constable, sergeants and constables. During the War of Independence, many republicans had been remanded at Eglinton St before being imprisoned at Galway Gaol, Earl’s Island military camp or the Town Hall, so its handover to the IRA was hugely symbolic. The significance, it seems, was not lost on Galwegians. The ‘Connacht Tribune’ reported that ‘the crowd in the vicinity of Eglinton-st., had swollen to enormous dimensions The scene was one such as never hitherto been witnessed in the capital of the West, and the crowds along the route realised that they were witnessing history in the making’.
Though the RIC was poised to leave Galway, never to return, there were some who wanted to take a final parting shot at their former nemeses. On the morning of the day before the RIC evacuation, Mrs Keane – wife of RIC Sergeant Keane, who had been stationed in Galway for a number of years – went to answer a knock at her front door on Prospect Hill, when a revolver was put through the letterbox and fired. The bullet grazed her forehead and she was rushed to hospital, but her injuries were not serious. About the same time, a shop and public house on Eyre Street that belonged to Maggie Fitzgerald (née Reilly), wife of RIC Constable Daniel Fitzgerald, was attacked and a number of shots were fired through the keyhole. At the time, there were upwards of 30 members of the RIC on the premises, gathering to mark their imminent departure from Galway. Shots were also fired at police standing outside the gates of the County Infirmary on Prospect Hill.
A week later, about 9.30pm on the evening of 15 March, four masked and armed men entered St Bride’s Home, a small private hospital at Ely Place (Sea Road) that was operated by Dr William A Sandys, medical officer to the RIC. The intruders entered room 21, in which there were two men, one of whom was RIC Sergeant John Gilmartin. The men asked Gilmartin if he was a policeman; he replied that he was but not now. Having searched his bed and bag, Gilmartin was told to pray an Act of Contrition. Gilmartin said “Oh, God, sure you are not going to do this?” They then opened fire, killing him.
Dr Sandys, two priests, some nurses and hospital staff were having supper in the dining room when they heard the disturbance. Unsure of the cause of the commotion, they rushed to the room. While they were examining Sergeant Gilmartin, they heard the sound of several shots from another part of the building. Soon after, four men were seen running through the hall and out the door of St Bride’s. It was then discovered that the gunmen had visited room 17, occupied by Sergeant Tobias Gibbons and Constable McGloin, killing the sergeant and seriously wounding the constable. Dr Sandys reported that ‘the room was full of smoke and smelt of powder’ and that he ‘had to retire from the room the smoke was so bad’.
From Co. Leitrim, John Gimartin (c. 1873-1922) had joined the RIC in 1893 and first served in Co. Mayo, where he married postmistress Delia Hannon in April 1909. Shortly afterwards, he transferred to Galway and was stationed at Eglinton St, Kilkerrin, Moycullen and latterly Oughterard. He was promoted to sergeant in December 1910. Suffering from congestion to the lungs, Gilmartin was admitted to St Brides on 9 March, the day the RIC evacuated Galway. He left behind a wife and two children.
From farming stock, Tobias Gibbons (1868–1922) was born at Devleash East, near Killawalla, Co. Mayo. He joined the RIC in 1902, briefly serving in Tipperary North Riding, before transferring in Galway West Riding in 1904, being stationed at Tuam for about 16 years – where he acted as a ‘special’ on the trains – and latterly Gort. He had been promoted to sergeant in August 1920. Gibbons was admitted to St Bride’s on 24 February suffering from chronic nephritis, and his death was expected within six weeks. He was unmarried.
A half hour or so later, about 10pm, three masked men entered the Galway Workhouse Hospital on Newcastle Road and made their way to Patrick Cassidy’s bed. A married farmer and long-time official of the Congested Districts Board, Cassidy was recuperating having been shot and seriously wounded at his home at Crossard, between Aughamore and Ballyhaunis in Co. Mayo, on 7 March. The ‘Western People’ reported that the Crossard shooting was ‘said to be connected with incidents arising out of the reign of terror in the district last April ‘. When the gunmen in the hospital confirmed Cassidy’s identity ‘they fired two shots at him, one entering the head, the other entering the throat’; he was discovered by the matron ‘lying at the foot of the bed in a pool of blood’. Afterwards, his co-patients were ‘in a state of horror’.
The attacks were immediately reported to the republican police headquarters at Eglinton St, and Capt. Patrick Kilkelly – chairman of Gort Rural District Council and a Galway County Councillor – went to St Bride’s Home with a party of eight men and searched the neighbourhood, but to no avail. The IRA at Renmore Barracks were also notified and patrols were placed on the streets of Galway throughout the night. The following evening, 16 March, an inquest into the killings of Gibbons and Gilmartin took place at St. Bride’s Home, which concluded, rather inconclusively, that the men had been murdered by persons unknown. McGloin described the assailants as four boys or young-looking men, wearing overcoats and armed with revolvers. One witness was questioned as to the accents of the culprits; he replied “they were not Galway men.”
So who were the gunmen and what motivated them to brutally murder three unarmed men, one of whom was terminally ill, in their hospital beds? The Mayo businessman and republican, Patrick Moylett – who knew Gilmartin ‘very well for a good number of years’ – told the Bureau of Military History that the sergreant ‘had a very bad record in the district. He protected the Auxiliaries while they flogged a number of boys and disembowlled one of them with a bayonet in front of his mother. After the Truce he went into Galway Hospital for protection, but some men went into the hospital and shot him’.
If revenge was the motivation for the killing of Gilmartin, the attacks on Sergeant Gibbons and Constable McGloin may have been opportunistic – a case of being an RIC man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Historian Dominic Price has speculated, however, that Gibbons may have been targeted because he was stationed at Tuam in July 1920 when the town was sacked by the RIC in one of the first major police reprisals of the War of Independence; Gibbons was promoted to sergeant soon afterwards.
In an interesting aside, Seán Mac Diarmada – signatory of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, who was executed for his part in the Easter Rising – visited Tuam in May 1915 and, sharing a platform with Liam Mellows, appealed to the young men to join the Irish Volunteers and to thwart British efforts to recuit in Ireland. As a result, Mac Diarmada was arrested and taken to Tuam RIC station, where he was placed under the guard of RIC Constable Tobias Gibbons. In a statement to the Bureau of Military History, Liam Langley, who visited the detained MacDiarmada, would later recall: ‘When brought upstairs I was astonished to find Seán all wrapped-up in bed. I understood he had some kind of a seizure which necessitated medical attention and Constable Gibbons had made him comfortable in his own bed. They were chatting away when I entered and the constable was retiring when Seán called him back assuring him that we had nothing to talk about that he couldn’t hear. Having delivered my message I bade Seán good night, wishing him ‘happy Dreams’ and promising to return in the morning. I called shortly after breakfast on the following morning to find Seán just finishing a shave and wash, getting ready escort to Dublin soon afterwards. He gave me to understand that Constable Toby Gibbons had been very kind to him and that he considered him one of the finest men he had ever met in that uniform’.
In the case of Cassidy, Dominic Price suggests that it may have been carried out by those who had shot and wounded him at his Mayo home on 7 March, who were afraid that he could identify them to the authorities.
Shocked by the murders and concerned for the safety of ‘servants’ and ‘loyalists’ in ‘Southern Ireland’, on 20 March, two Conservative MPs questioned Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, in the House of Commons about the incidents and the proposed response by the British Government. Churchill responded: “I have as yet no information as to the circumstances of these terrible and atrocious murders beyond that which has already appeared in the public Press. The two sergeants and Cassidy were deliberately shot dead in bed by four masked men. Both sergeants were seriously ill at the time, and one of them was not expected to recover, while Cassidy was suffering from wounds inflicted upon him a short time previously by unknown men. All three were powerless to offer any resistance. The coroner’s jury found a verdict of wilful murder by persons unknown, and expressed sympathy with the relatives of the victims. This exhibition of savagery has aroused universal horror and indignation in the neighbourhood, and, indeed, I believe, throughout the greater part of Ireland, and it has been condemned in the very strongest terms by the Bishop of the diocese and by the local clergy in sermons preached on St. Patrick’s Day. The Provisional Government, I am assured, are making every endeavour to trace and apprehend the criminals, and in this they are receiving support and assistance from the inhabitants of the district; but I regret that it has not yet been possible to make any arrests. I need hardly add that all information in the possession of the police and the British authorities has been placed at the disposal of the Provisional Government, but it does not at the moment appear that there is any further assistance which can be rendered to them.”
‘The fine barracks, situate at Eglinton-street, is now almost complete, and in a very short time will be occupied by the Constabulary. The workmanship is of the best description, and in the construction of the building the greatest attention has been paid to everything which may tend to the comfort of the occupants. The officer’s quarters are replete with every modern improvement, while the several apartments are composed of kitchen, pantry, scullery, bathroom, parlour, drawing-room, bed-rooms, with spare rooms which may be converted into any use which the will of the occupant may deem most expedient. The sergeant’s apartments are equally well looked after. Each sergeant will be provided with two splendid rooms and a kitchen, with range and all other latest improvements. Every room is provided with a ventilating flue. The staircases and landings are built of concrete, sheeted over with timber, so that should a fire break out the stair-way will still remain intact. The bed-rooms for the use of the men and also the dining and day-rooms are large, airy, and well lighted. They have also a large kitchen with double range and boiler for cooking purposes. From the boiler extend large heating pipes, which pass up through the floors of the second and third stories to the store room intended for the safe keeping of the men’s clothing. A pantry and scullery are also attached. On the same floor are situate the offices, where accommodation s provided for the county and district inspectors, as also the head-constable. The windows are provided with what are known as rule-jointed shutters, a perfect novelty in themselves. In fact the whole establishment is such as to create no small pride in the mind of those to whom the credit of its perfect execution is due. […] In addition to what we have already mentioned in connection with the new barracks, there are several out-offices and small store houses, besides a coach house and stable for two horses for the use of the officer, as also accommodation for six horses for the use of the cavalry, all provided with every necessary. For the accommodation of offenders, there are no less than three strong rooms, more familiarly known to a certain class as “the lock-up”.’ (Galway Express, 31 March 1888)