T HE historian, Dominic Price, has recently predicted that in the run-in to the centenary of the founding events of the State, many half forgotten incidents will, for good or bad, once again come under the public spotlight.
Foremost of those will be the murder in Westport of Resident Magistrate, John Charles Milling, one of the first political assassinations - if indeed, such it was - of the War of Independence , and a crime for which the perpetrators were never brought to justice.
Milling, who lived just around the Mall corner on the Newport Road, was shot dead in the front room of his own home on a March night in 1919. His killing remains a matter of mystery ever since, and with all of the main protagonists now long gone to their eternal reward, it is unlikely that the answers will ever be found.
The Resident Magistrate had been appointed to Mayo in 1914, and had enjoyed a warm welcome back to the town of his birth. As a magistrate, he was seen as fair and compassionate, even benign, with little more than petty crimes to deal with during his working day. All that was to change, however, in the aftermath of the Rising. Suddenly, militant nationalism and opposition to British rule began to assert itself; in Westport, the execution of Major John McBride fanned the flames of resentment, and Milling found himself having to impose prison sentences on those brought before him on charges of membership of the Volunteers or the IRB.
In truth, Milling had little hesitation in applying the letter of the law. When it came to what he saw as seditious activity, he was a hardliner, and among the many he committed to prison were Joe Ring and PJ Doris, editor of The Mayo News. When he began to receive threatening letters, and his racing yacht was burned at Westport Quay, he decided to move house from Rosmailley into the town, where he could be afforded better protection. But the threats must have continued, because shortly afterwards, he applied for a transfer to Ballymena, and it was while he was awaiting a reply to that request that he met his death.
The reaction to Milling’s murder was, to put it mildly, somewhat ambivalent. It was denounced immediately at Mass in St Mary’s Church by Fr Canavan, the Administrator. Dr Gilmartin, Archbishop of Tuam, roundly condemned those responsible. And at a public meeting in Castlebar Town Hall, convened by Archdeacon Fallon, a motion was passed expressing abhorrence at the ‘dastardly outrage’. However, there was no such public outcry in Westport. The inquest jury of 14 men were split on the wording of the verdict, only reaching agreement when the coroner threatened to keep them there for a week, if necessary. And when Westport Urban Council called a special meeting on the day after Milling was laid to rest in the Church of Ireland cemetery, only five of the nine members were in attendance.
In spite of a huge RIC and British Army crackdown in Westport, and the imposition of martial law causing severe hardship, nobody ever stood trial for Milling’s murder.
Local Republican lore had it that the ‘three Joes’ were involved in the murder. John Curry, who wrote an article on the incident for the Cathair na Mart journal, said that there had even been some confusion as to who the three Joes were, but he cited the late Jarlath Duffy as having the view that the trio were Joe Ring, Joe Walsh and Joe Gill. But since the first two were soon afterwards killed in the Civil War and Joe Gill joined the French Foreign Legion, never to be heard of again, the story was allowed to go unchallenged.
Whether, 100 years later, any new facts or evidence emerges, is now hardly likely.