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22 May 2022

Trip Through Time: The handover of Aiken Barracks

Looking back at Dundalk's past, with former Democrat editor Peter Kavanagh

Trip Through Time: The handover of Aiken Barracks

Standing in Aiken Military Barracks on Wednesday of last week during the ceremony to mark the centenary of the last British troops to leave Dundalk and its occupation by forces representing the Provisional Government on April 13, 1922, I was left wondering 'What went wrong 100 years ago'?

I was quite proud to have lived to see that anniversary but also a little sad to recall what happened afterwards in Dundalk which led to such bloodshed that had occurred during the ensuing Civil War!

I was reminded of the words of Dr. Rory O'Hanlon, Carrickmacross, with whom I was privileged to have shared a primary school class in St. Mary's College, Dundalk, when he remarked while speaking at the launch of a book about events in Monaghan at that time, 'I was born within touching distance of the Revolution'!

Well, he is a few months older than I am but not much and I hope that we may both live just a little longer.

The reason I mention Dr. O'Hanlon was that his father was one of the Michael Collins squad, known as 'The Twelve Apostles', that was involved in the execution of British spies in Dublin on that fateful day in November 1920 that came to be known as 'Bloody Sunday' and afterwards supported the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War.

My own father was an ardent Collins supporter whose nearest in age sister was shot at the start of the Civil War , one of the two first civilian casualties, and, presumably as a result, he joined the National Army in support of the Treaty!

Attending that centenary ceremony I could not help but reflect that a very similar situation is unfolding in the Ukraine at the present time and wondering how it might effect the people of Ireland?

It seems that there was no formal hand-over ceremony on that day in April 1922 and, according to Sergeant Ricardo Lucchesi, curator of a museum at the Aiken Barracks, the British actually cut down the flag-pole before they left!

The other thing that came to my mind was that, while I thought I knew quite a bit about the history of the start of the Civil War in Dundalk, speaking to a number of people there, I realised that I might have got a lot of the facts wrong!

Some things I will not mention here, in case it might offend some of the descendants of those involved who are still alive.

First, however, I would like to correct an error I made in connection with the man who was Frank Aiken's second in command of the 4th Northern Division of the I.R.A. at the time.

I referred to him as 'Frank McCoy' from Mullaghbawn while, if fact, he was John McCoy. I had been told that his statement to the Bureau of Military History was one of the most definitive records of the events of the time and, having read it more than once, I have to agreed this it is!

I had understood from it that he must have been one of the volunteers who took over the Barracks in 1922, however, having read it again, I wonder if I was mistaken because, in his statement, says that he had moved his military activities from Newry to Dundalk and that the Barracks had been taken over in March 1922.

Surely, if he had been present, he would not have made that mistake?

McCoy did not make his statement to the Military Tribunal until March 1951 and was then living in Kill, County Kildare, so that his memory at that stage might have been faulty. He was, however, the person that the Government trusted to witness many other statements, including that of the Editor of the Democrat, Frank Necy, who submitted one in relation to his part in the 1916 Rising.

I might add that I have a great admiration for John McCoy and consider that he was a person who may not have got credit for this part in the establishment of our State to which he was entitled.

He certainly worked hard to prevent the Civil War occurring and, like Frank Aiken, tried to maintain a neutral position, which proved to be untenable!

One of the other interesting parts of his statement that I note is that he says that his mother was an O'Hanlon and, as such, probably was a relative of Dr. Rory O'Hanlon, whom I mentioned previously, who was from the same County Armagh district.

My own mother, who is mentioned in at least one of the Military History statements, always maintained that women did not get as much credit as they were entitled to for their part in the Fight for Independence - and I believe that she was correct!

There are many more interesting details in John McCoy's fairly lengthy statement which will probably come to light when other events in Dundalk in 1922 are being remembered and I look forward to learning more about them.

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