The Dublin journalist who came to Mayo on a specific assignment almost a century ago could hardly have predicted how much he himself would become part of the story.
Michael Tobin had been sent to Westport by the Freeman’s Journal, then the leading Irish daily newspaper, to report on a sermon to be given by Dr Gilmartin, Archbishop of Tuam, in St Mary’s Church.
The Archbishop’s visit of January, 1922, had been prompted by a number of disturbing incidents that had caused anxiety in the town, and Dr Gilmartin had been asked by clergy and laity to intervene. Only weeks earlier, British rule in Ireland had come to an end, leaving the West Mayo IRA Brigade the sole military and civil authority in the area.
The incidents that Dr Gilmartin was to investigate were threefold. One was that a young IRA member, who disobeyed an order from a superior officer, had been captured and chained to the railings of the church. The youngster was released by Fr Gibbons, on his way to say morning Mass, and who with the assistance of some parishioners, managed to cut the chain. As a result, it was said, Fr Gibbons received a threatening letter from the IRA, warning him against such interference in the future – the second cause for complaint.
The third complaint was that the IRA, in order to replenish its funds, had called a meeting of the town’s publicans, where it was agreed to levy a tax – swiftly dubbed ‘the porter tax’ – on every barrel of stout sold and remitted to the IRA. Despite claims that the publicans had agreed freely and voluntarily with the plan, there were many who held otherwise.
Such was the situation when His Grace ascended the pulpit of St Mary’s, but he had good news to impart. He had, he said, on the previous evening met with Commandant Michael Kilroy, O/C of the West Mayo Brigade IRA, who he described as ‘a Catholic, a gentleman and a soldier’. Kilroy had assured him that there would be no repeat of the railings incident, that he had censured the writer of the offending letter and that the porter tax had been discontinued.
That should have been the end of the matter, except it was not. When Tobin’s report appeared in the Freeman’s Journal the next morning, it deeply annoyed the local IRA officers.
Tobin found himself taken from his lodgings at the West Hotel and conveyed to Westport workhouse, then in use by the IRA as a barracks. The next day, he was brought before a tribunal of IRA officers and charged ‘with malicious intent, to have published certain statements prejudicial to the maintenance of army discipline’. In addition, he had ‘misrepresented and altered statements made by the Archbishop for the purpose of creating disaffection between the civilian population and the Army’.
Tobin stood his ground, and was released eventually and sent back to Dublin, but the media furore was far from over. In a subsequent article, he wrote that in a long and active career as a journalist, his personal liberty had never been interfered with until the Westport event. The national media railed against the suppression of press freedom, and the Journal warned of the encroachment of militarism by the new government.
Dr Gilmartin expressed his horror at Tobin’s treatment, and, tellingly, went further by describing Tobin’s report as an accurate and fair account of his sermon.
Back in Westport, things settled back into semi-normality. An uneasy accommodation between clergy and army was disturbed only slightly with a demand from the latter for a return of the lock and chain appropriated by Fr Gibbons. And the price of porter came back down by a penny a pint.