The Killing of Sergeant Peter McArdle
Introduction from Chronology
RIC Sgt Peter John McArdle was shot in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon on the night of January 5th 1921 and dies on January 30th in Dublin.
Both Abbott and Herlihy say that Sgt McArdle was killed at the Fourmilehouse ambush near Ballinderry – See Oct-12-20/1. O’Halpin and Ó Corráin say that he was shot on January 5th.
Research by Dr Kay MacKeogh, which draws on RIC records, BMH statements, the proceedings on the Military Court of Inquiry into Sgt McArdle’s death (held in Lieu of an Inquest) and contemporary newspaper reports, confirms that Sgt McArdle was shot in Strokestown on January 5th. Her research also reveals a number of unanswered questions surrounding the killing of Sgt McArdle
Peter John McArdle was born in Ballincollig Co. Cork on 25th April 1878 to RIC Constable Michael McArdle and Jane Agnes Joyce (See https://civilrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords/images/birth_returns/births_1878/02958/2083689.pdf ).
He enlisted in the RIC on 15th Sep 1896. On enlistment, he was aged 18yrs 4mths, he was a Catholic, 5ft8ins in height and his previous occupation was shop assistant. He was born on Cork but joined the RIC from Mayo [his father was in the RIC and moved around]. He was assigned to Limerick on 1st July 1897; the RIC Depot on 16th Dec 1899; the Reserve on 11th Jan 1904; Limerick on 18th Aug 1905 and Roscommon on 14th Feb 1915. He was promoted to sergeant on 1st Feb 1905.
Sgt Peter J McArdle married Mary (Mollie) Curran on 28th Oct 1914 in St Finbarr’s Church in Cork City. (See https://civilrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords/images/marriage_returns/marriages_1914/09868/5584538.pdf )
In 1917, Sgt McArdle was active in monitoring Sinn Féin activity and even provoking some controversy. He was stationed in Athleague, Co Roscommon when a Sinn Féin procession and demonstration took place after a Mission in the town. There was an inquiry into the event to which he provided a report on the names and actions of those involved. It was decided that there should be no prosecution under the Defence of the Realm Act [Files on Civilians Tried by Court Martial held in UK National Archives WO 35/97/4].
In March 1917, according to a letter written by J. O’Sheehan to the Sligo Champion, Sgt McArdle was on protection duties at a concert in Roscommon town given by O’Sheehan and his band when an incident occurred with an obstreperous soldier who refused to pay his entrance fee and who was accosting female members of the audience. O’Sheehan was incensed that Sgt McArdle refused to take any action against the soldier and appeared to be trying to provoke a riot by jumping on stage and defending the soldier’s actions. (Sligo Champion, 7th April 1917, pg 1). Sgt McArdle again came to notice when he led a group of RIC who raided The O’Rahilly Club in Roscommon in April 1917 and tore down a scroll (Dublin Daily Express, 30th April 1917, pg 3).
2. Killing of Sergeant McArdle
Sgt McArdle appears to have led a quiet life until 1921 when he next came to public notice after being shot not far from the RIC Barracks in Strokestown Co Roscommon on 5th January 1921. He received two bullet wounds in his leg, and suffered a broken femur. The attack was reported in various newspapers. For example, see Belfast News-Letter, 7th January 1921, pg 5 and the Freeman’s Journal on the 15th January, pg 2. (Interestingly, both the Belfast News-Letter and the Freeman’s Journal reported that his wounds were not dangerous.)
Sgt McArdle was brought to Dr Steevens Hospital in Dublin where he died on 30th January 1921. According to the record of his death, cause of death was “pneumonia death accelerated by the bullet wounds” (See https://civilrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords/images/deaths_returns/deaths_1921/05105/4402886.pdf ).
3. Military Court of Inquiry into Sgt McArdle’s Death
A Military Inquiry was held on 8th & 9th February 1921 in HQ of Dublin District (of British Army in Ireland) – the following witness evidence was heard:
Dr R.J. Ogden recorded having seen Sgt McArdle on 7th January 1921 when he had two bullet wounds to the leg and a fractured femur. He developed bronchitis and then pneumonia on 34th [sic] January 1921 and he died 30th January 1921. Dr Ogden performed a post mortem & concluded that death was due to pneumonia suffered on account of the bullet wounds.
Mary Adye Curran S.N. agreed with the evidence on the cause of death.
RIC Sgt Murphy identified Sgt McArdle;
RIC Sgt John Cawley gave the following evidence: “At Strokestown Co. Roscommon, on the 5th January 1921, I was present with the deceased, Sergt Peter McArdle in the Sergeant’s Office of the Police Barracks. At about 2000 hours the deceased left the office and went downstairs. At about 21.30 hours I heard the report of several shots which appeared to be fired in the vicinity of the barracks. I immediately went out with several constables to visit the constables who were in town to see if they were safe. About fifty yards from the barrack door I found the deceased, Sergt McArdle lying wounded on the ground. I assisted to carry him into the barracks and had him medically attended. He was suffering from a bullet wound in the right leg. He was in uniform and on duty. The deceased stated that he was fired at “In the archway near the barrack”. It is not known who fired the shots.
Constable John Webb, RIC gave the following evidence: “At Strokestown, Co Roscommon on 5th January 1921, I was in the Police Barracks. At about 21.30hours I heard firing in the vicinity of the barracks. I went out with Sergt Cawley and found the deceased Sergt McArdle, lying on the ground about forty yards from the barracks. I assisted to carry him into the barracks where he received medical attention. The deceased stated that he did not know who had shot him. He was in uniform at the time and was suffering from a shot wound in the right leg.
The finding of the Court of Inquiry was: “The Court, having carefully considered that evidence before it, is of opinion that the deceased, Sergt Peter McArdle, Royal Irish Constabulary, Strokestown, Co Roscommon, died at Dr Steevens Hospital Dublin on the 30th January 1921 from pneumonia, and that his death was accelerated by a gunshot wound (received on 5th January 1921, the deceased being on duty at the time) fired by a person or persons unknown and return a verdict of wilful murder.
Signed at DUBLIN this ninth day of February 1921; President A. Earle, Capt, 1/80 Lancs Regt; A.F. Smith Lt, 1st P of W Vols; R.C.D. Oliver, Lt, 2nd the Royal Berkshire Regiment.
4. Evidence from BMH Statements
A number of Bureau of Military History (BMH) witness statements mention the killing of Sgt McArdle, although they provide somewhat conflicting accounts.
Martin Fallon (who was O/C of the Flying Column of the 3rd Battalion of the North Roscommon Brigade of the IRA and whose BMH Witness Statement is available here: http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1121.pdf ) states that the shooting of Sgt McArdle was a case of mistaken identity and it was Sgt Hopkins, rather than Sgt McArdle who was the intended target.
Fallon said: “Around this time there was stationed in Strokestown a Sergeant Hopkins of the R.I.C. Hopkins was a much-wanted man by our side and we were all anxious to get a shot at him. He had made himself notorious by his ill treatment of our members that were made prisoners by his side. He was wont to beat and kick them unmercifully and there are many men in the Strokestown area who still bear visible marks of his evil doings. I know Hopkins – he was a man of 40 years of age, 6ft, or over in height. He had steel-grey hair and a moustache. One night while I was away in Ballinameen some of the column, with my consent, went into Strokestown to see if they could get Hopkins. Jim Casey took charge of the party and, on entering Strokestown, they split up in parties of two of so to scout the different streets and premises for their quarry. Volunteer Brehon, who accompanied Casey, went into a public house next door to the barracks. This was at 8p.m and curfew was at 9p.m. Brehon spotted a sergeant of the R.I.C. in the public house. He looked at him and decided he was the man they were looking for. Brehon called for a drink and, having consumed it, came over to Casey and told him that a man answering to Hopkins’ description was inside. Casey said he would know him when out the door walked the man. Casey said “It is him all right”. There were no lights on the streets at this time. They opened fire on the man and shot him dead against the wall, just as he was going to enter the barracks. It was the wrong man they had shot. It was a Sergeant McArdle who had only come to Strokestown a short while before and against whom nothing out of the ordinary was known [emphasis added]. Strange to relate, Sergeant McArdle answered the description of Sergt. Hopkins in every way except that he was at least 10 years older and, stranger still, the R.I.C. or Tans did not carry out any reprisals for his death. Hopkins was never got and served on until the R.I.C. disbanded”.
Sean Leavy (who was O/C, 3rd Battalion, North Roscommon Brigade and whose BMH witness statement is available here: http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0954.pdf states that: “On the same night [5th January 19121] the remainder of the Colum went into Strokestown under the Battalion O/C, Doherty, and I accompanied this force. It was our intention to hit up a lorry load of enemy who usually went out of barracks and would be returning about this time. We had information that the lorry was out and expected to have a crack at it. We posted our men in the different streets and also men to go into the public houses and shoot the British that might be in them and collect what arms they had on them. We had only just arrived in the town when the lorry arrived before our men could get into position. We opened fire on it as it went through, but I doubt with any effect. Sergeant McArdle of the R.I.C. lived next door to the R.I.C. barracks and apparently, on hearing the firing, left his house to enter the barracks. As he had his hand on the barrack door, one of our lads went up to him and shot him. We now had to get out of the town as quickly as possible. Had the military lorry been three minutes later, it would have made all the difference. Next day the Auxiliaries, military and Tans and R.I.C. raided the area around here. They arrested two Volunteers whom they abused badly. They broke all their teeth and kicked them and beat them up so much that they had to be taken to hospital for treatment.”
Luke Duffy (who was V/C of the Flying Column of the 3rd Battalion of the North Roscommon Brigade of the IRA and whose BMH witness statement is available here: http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0661.pdf ) gives a brief account of the killing of Sgt McArdle: “A few nights before the previous incident I had helped to organise an ambush on a patrol of R.I.C. at Strokestown. This took place also on the night of 6th January. One of our men – Gibbons – was there. The ambush took place in Elphin Street. One policeman, Sergeant McArdle, died from wounds received in this ambush. None of our fellows was hit in the encounter and all got away safely.” [Strangely Duffy says that that he was V/C of the Flying Column of the 3rd Battalion of the South Roscommon Brigade.]
From the above, it would seem that the members of the local IRA were firmly of the belief that one of their members had shot and wounded Sgt McArdle. However, it is noteworthy that, of the three members of the IRA who gave BMH statements, only Leavy says that he was present in Strokestown at the time of the killing. In addition, Leavy does not say explicitly that he seen Sgt McArdle being shot – rather he says “one of our lads went up to him and shot him”.
In addition, there are a number of inconsistencies both within the BMH statements and with the evidence given to the Military Court of Inquiry. One major inconsistency regards where Sgt McArdle was shot. Fallon says that Sgt McArdle was shot just as he was about to enter the RIC barracks. Similarly, Leavy says that Sgt McArdle was shot “As he had his hand on the barrack door”. However, both Sgt Murphy and Constable Webb gave evidence to the Military Court of Inquiry that Sgt McArdle was found some forty to fifty yards from the barracks. It is highly unlikely that Sgt McArdle would have crawled forty to fifty yards away from the barracks after being shot twice in the leg and with a broken femur.
5. Strange Entries on the Files in the Archive
The inconsistencies between the accounts given in the BMH statements and the evidence given to the Military Court of Inquiry would probably not be significant if it was not for some strange entries in the files held on this case in the archives.
As noted above, following Sgt McArdle’s death, a Military Court of Inquiry was held by on 8th and 9th February 1921. The Index of Cases heard by the Courts (held in the UK National Archives WO 35/162, No. 33022/321) confirms cause of death “gunshot wounds pneumonia inflicted by P.U. [persons unknown]” but adds a note in red ink says “Ruling: Accused persons entitled to copy of Courts held in lieu of inquest contained in this file”.
The Freeman’s Journal had reported on January 10th that three arrests had been made in connection with the shooting of Sgt McArdle (and another RIC constable in Elphin) and the prisoners removed to Roscommon. The note on the index refers to various correspondence and notes on the file about whether suspects can have access to the evidence before the inquiry. These appear to suggest that the suspects were members of the RIC. The following is one of the notes: “With reference to your 2/33022/3216 while it is agreed that it would be, generally speaking, undesirable that copies of the proceedings of Courts of Enquiry should be given to the police in cases where members of the force are under arrest awaiting trial, [emphasis added] it is presumed that the practice whereby copies of these proceedings are sent to this Department will continue in these as is all other cases. T Whickers 18/3/21”
A number of other letters discuss the provision of evidence to accused persons and there is a strange annotation, handwritten in pencil, on one note relating to whether an accused person could have access to the file which states ‘bury in file’. In addition, from reviewing the documents, it would seem that not all the relevant correspondence is present in the files.
Despite the reference in the Inquiry file to pending trials, I have not found any record that anyone was brought to court and charged with the killing of Sgt McArdle.
6. Questions Arising
Arising from the above, a number of perplexing questions emerge from the killing of Sgt McArdle. Further investigation is needed into a number of issues such as:
(1) Why Sgt McArdle was so prominently involved in anti-Sinn Féin activity in 1917 but it would seem that he had little involvement thereafter?;
(2) Why has his death been associated with the Four Mile House Ambush by two prominent scholars of the RIC?;
(3) What role, if any, did the RIC have in his killing? and
(4) Why were there no major reprisals after the killing of Sgt McArdle (like there was after the Scramogue ambush some ten weeks later – see Mar-23-21/1)?
Kay Mac Keogh
21st April 2020