First political murder in Irish War of Independence drew muted reaction

John Charles Milling, a Resident Magistrate, was assassinated in Westport, Co Mayo, on March 29, 1919
John Charles Milling, a Resident Magistrate, was assassinated in Westport, Co Mayo, on March 29, 1919

Historian Gordon Lucy recalls the assassination of Resident Magistrate John Charles Milling 100 years ago

On the evening of Saturday March 29 1919, John Charles Milling, a resident magistrate, became the first victim of the Irish War of Independence in Co Mayo.

According to the 1911 census John Charles Milling was a 38-year-old district inspector in the RIC and living on the Upper Newtownards Road in Belfast.

He had been married to Lilla for 14 years and they had had three children, only two of whom were still living.

By denomination, John was Plymouth Brethern but his wife and children are recorded as being Church of Ireland.

The census informs us that he was born in Co Westmeath, his wife was born in Co Carlow, his 12-year-old son in Co Armagh and his four-year-old daughter in Ballymena.

The birth places of his wife and children are almost certainly reliable indication of where his career in the RIC took him.

Fast forward to 1919, and John was a resident magistrate in Westport, Co Mayo, and he and his wife have had another son. John had been appointed resident magistrate to Co Mayo in 1915.

He had been delighted with the appointment because he had grown up in the town as his father Oliver Milling had served there as the county inspector of the RIC.

Milling’s grandfather had also served in the RIC and had been awarded the Constabulary Medal for Gallantry during the Fenian rebellion of 1867.

John Milling was a kindly and hospitable man. He was not an unduly harsh RM.

A review of the cases which came before him between 1915 and 1919 reveals that he was much more lenient than the district justices appointed by the Irish Free State after 1923.

As Milling believed that Ireland’s best interests lay within the United Kingdom, he was opposed to those wishing to establish an Irish republic but it was also his duty as a magistrate and loyal subject of the king to frustrate their efforts.

After the insurrection in Dublin at Easter 1916, leading members of the Irish Volunteers were arrested on the orders of Milling and District Inspector Shore of the RIC.

They also drew up the list of Irish Volunteers to be deported to Frongoch and elsewhere. Milling and Shore were an effective and formidable combination in neutralising the Volunteers in Mayo.

Milling was shot by two men using revolvers through the front window of his house on the Newport Road in his home town in March 1919, when he entered the dining room to wind up the clock and adjust it to British Summer Time before going to bed.

Milling did not die immediately of his wounds. Despite being tended to by a specialist doctor from Dublin and two local doctors he died the next day because he had lost too much blood.

Although Milling’s murder was condemned by Archbishop Gilmartin of Tuam and other Roman Catholic clergy, the overall response to the murder was decidedly muted or even ambivalent.

At a public meeting in Castlebar Town Hall, convened by Archdeacon Fallon, a motion was passed expressing abhorrence at the ‘dastardly outrage’.

The inquest jury of 14 men could not agree on the wording of the verdict and they only reached agreement when the coroner threatened to keep them there for a week, if necessary. 

Westport Urban Council called a special meeting on the day after Milling’s funeral but only five of the nine members turned up.

This was indicative of changing attitudes towards politically motivated violence in Ireland.

The Soloheadbeg ambush in January 1919 occasioned almost universal revulsion, being roundly condemned by local priests, politicians and the local nationalist newspaper.

Archbishop Harty of Cashel had denounced the deaths of the two policemen as ‘a crime against God’ and ‘an offence against the fair name of our country’, a point reiterated by other clergy.

The attempt to rescue Robert Byrne, a wounded prisoner, in Limerick workhouse hospital in April 1919 resulted in the death of the prisoner and a RIC man.

It was the Volunteer’s funeral, not that of the Constable Martin O’Brien, which attracted large crowds, accompanied by clergy, the mayor and members of the corporation.

Although not appreciated at the time, there is now widespread acceptance that Byrne’s death was attributable to his intended rescuers rather than RIC.

No one was ever brought to justice for the murder of Milling but local tradition attributes it to ‘the three Joes’.

In the 1950s Thomas Heavey, a member of the IRA’s West Mayo Flying Column, named ‘the three Joes’ as Joseph Ruddy, Joe Gill and Joe Walsh.

At the time senior RIC officers recommended examining Joe Ruddy, his parents and two brothers who had served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

An article in ‘Cathair na Mart: Journal of the Westport Historical Society’ by John Curry in 2002, acknowledged that there was some confusion as to the identity of ‘the three Joes’ but Curry cited a Jarlath Duffy, another local historian, as identiying them as Joe Ring, Joe Walsh and Joe Gill.

Joe Ring was the very active O/C of the Irish Vounteers in Westport.

By 1917 the RIC had compiled a very thorough file on him and his activities. Michael Ring TD, the current Irish minister of rural and community development, is his great nephew.

Ring and Walsh were killed in the Irish Civil War. Gill joined the French Foreign Legion and was never heard of again.

So who was responsible for Milling’s death is likely to remain at least a partial mystery.

Dominic Price, a history teacher and a former officer in the FCA (the Irish equivalent of the Territoral Army), has written a fascinating book entitled ‘The Flame and the Candle’ detailing the course of events in Co Mayo between 1919 and 1924.

On reading Price’s book, former taoiseach John Bruton observed: “This is a sad and salutary tale of idealism perverted by the supposed ‘necessities’ of war. It is a period to be remembered rather than celebrated.”