Fascinating Adventures Of A Patriotic Band-Leader

FASCINATING have been the exploits of all-rounder, the late Tommy Mulligan, - musician, sportsman, market-trader and Old IRA veteran. He was involved in the birth and growth of Sinn Fein in the pro-British frontier town, and also played his part in the War of Independence.

Main achievements included training or conducting many of the bands in the region; founding the first Newry Mitchels GFC; erecting the first stall at Omeath and on Warrenpoint beach, as well as Newry Market on Saturdays.

In an autography, just released by his family, Tommy made the amazing revelation that the three IRA Volunteers, - Canning, O’Hare and Shields, - commemorated on the new Republican Monument at St Mary’s Cemetery in Newry, were not killed by British soldiers at the Egyptian Arch in 1921.

“There have been a lot of stories about the Egyptian Arch ambush, but the truth is, - the whole thing went wrong! The attack on Camlough Barracks was simply to draw the Black and Tans up the Camlough Road, and about 30 Volunteers would be based on top of the arch. But something went wrong; the guns and grenades did not arrive, so most of the men were sent away, leaving less than a dozen.

“William Canning pulled the pin of his grenade too soon, with the result that it killed himself and wounded Volunteer O’Hare and Shields, who afterwards died. The Tans claimed that they had shot Canning and the others; but the truth is that a Tan bullet never hit any of our men.”

When Tommy Mulligan had arrived back home in 1917, after some years in the USA and Manchester, he was surprised to find so many Union Jacks flying in the frontier town. Large crowds were attending public meetings, which promoted recruitment to the British Army in the First World War. Nationalist politicians and Catholic clergy would be on the platform, draped with Union Jacks.

“The vast majority of Newry people were pro-British. Young people would be urged to join up and fight for `poor little Catholic Belgium, and the freedom of small nations.’ Of course, poor little Ireland would get Home Rule when the Germans were beaten. My two brothers were among the 100,000 fine young men, who joined the British Army in the belief that they were fighting for Ireland.

“But there were other young men in Newry, who had no trust in English promises. They knew that, since the Treaty of Limerick, the English had never kept any promises they had made to Ireland, and that, if the Irish were to regain their independence, the battle would have to be fought on Irish soil.

“At one meeting in Newry Town Hall, members of Sinn Fein rushed the platform. Paddy Rankin, who had fought in the Dublin GPO during Easter Week, addressed the crowd, appealing to young men to join the IRA and `fight for Ireland in Ireland.` He had some impact, because quite a few did join Sinn Fein.”

Tommy Mulligan recalled how the situation, when he returned home in 1917, had been similar to ten years earlier, when Sinn Fein leaders held a meeting at the Carstands in Newry, in a bid to establish the party in the town. They had “got a poor reception, when trying to address the crowd, - the organisers being called `foreigners, rainbow-chasers and communists,` and chased along Hill Street.

A few weeks later, Sinn Fein held another meeting, this time at the Faugh’s GFC Hall in Hyde Market, now St Colman’s Park. But a crowd came in, smashing the windows and lighting. When some youths seized hurleys which were on display, the main speaker, executed 1916 leader Sean MacDiarmida, called out: “Leave them alone, - one day they will come to our way of thinking.”

In 1917, Tommy Mulligan started a shop at William Street in Newry, next door to the Sinn Fein Hall. He sold newspapers, books and fancy goods. Many of his customers were Sinn Fein sympathisers. Later he installed a billiards table, “a great meeting-place for the few IRA men who were in Newry.” Sinn Fein had made little progress, having only about 100 members.

Tommy joined the party, selling Sinn Fein song-books, photographs of executed 1916 leaders, as well as Sinn Fein newspapers. The party started to do well, with a public meeting addressed by party leaders, as well as a prominent local solicitor John Henry Collins. But Tommy was coming to the attention of the police, who raided his shop in search of seditious literature.

“A sailor on the ship `Iveagh,` Pat Larkin, smuggled quite a lot of revolvers and ammunition from England. I had lots of the stuff hidden in the shop, - the bullets mixed with sweets, and the revolvers in the walls. One day the military searched the shop but found nothing.

“An officer asked my little son: `Don’t you know where your daddy keeps his guns?` The boy replied: `Yes, sir. I’ll show you.` I thought he might have seen me hiding some guns, and the game was up. The officer with soldiers and police followed him up the stairs, to a room where I stored my goods. Pointing to a wall where some toy-guns were hanging, he said: `There are my daddy’s guns.` What a relief, - my first narrow escape!

“There was an Italian called Charlie, who had an ice-cream shop on Hill Street. He occasionally gave me shotgun cartridges and rifle ammunition. On evening, he came into the billiards room, and put some bullets in my coat pocket. Before I had time to hide them, someone shouted: `There’s a raid!` I had a bucket of wet slack, put half of it on the fire, emptied my pockets of the ammunition, and put the rest of the slack on top. The raiding party found nothing!

“Once Commander Casey told me to take six revolvers in the bottom of a child’s pram to Monaghan Row corner, where a few men would be waiting. I was to stay overnight in my father’s house in Edward Street, after the delivery. There were two children in the pram, and when we reached Monaghan Street, we met five soldiers, who started to play with the children. One fellow wanted to lift a child, and I was afraid he would find the goods.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008