‘The IRA was formed in my grandad’s sitting room’
Victor Fagg, ‘a Protestant IRA man’, played host to a significant meeting 50 years ago
The house formerly owned by Victor Fagg in Athlone where the Provisional IRA was founded December 23rd 1969, according the BBC documentary Spotlight On The Troubles. Photograph: BBC NI
Step inside my parent’s home on the outskirts of Athlone, Co Westmeath and you’ll probably be presented with a cup of tea and some kitchen-baked scones but this former guesthouse offers up more than just bed-and-breakfast.
Built as a farmhouse by my grandfather Victor Fagg in 1949, it plays centre stage in an historical event that has been hidden from my family for nearly 50 years.
The first episode of a new BBC TV series on the Troubles, to be broadcast on Tuesday, reveals that the Provisional IRA was formed on December 23rd 1969 in the same sitting room where I grew up watching TV. To say it was news to us is an understatement.
Des Long, a senior figure in Republican Sinn Féin, told the programme he attended the meeting a few days before Christmas 1969 at my grandfather’s home where a “Provisional army council” of the IRA was formed. It was claimed about two dozen republicans gathered for the meeting, checking in at 8pm and checking out at 8am, as though they were a group of holiday-makers on a seasonal getaway to the midlands.
Long described Victor Fagg as “a Protestant IRA man” but the truth was a bit more complicated. Born in July 1906 at Blacksod Bay Coast Guard Station, near Belmullet, Co Mayo, his republican interest dates back to an event in 1921 when - during the War of Independence - Major-General Thomas Stanton Lambert was assassinated by IRA members in Athlone.
Victor saw the staff car speeding off with the general’s body after the ambush but refused to answer questions when British troops threatened to shoot and kill him about what he had seen.
My grandfather was the son of a sailor who served on board ships like the HMS Gannet and, as such, he would have been no stranger to the British military but I imagine the soldiers serving in Ireland in 1921 were not the most disciplined bunch.
The British forces retaliated to the ambush by burning down a number of farmhouses. The Black and Tans were known for their cruelty, and the incident made a lasting impression on the 14-year-old Victor but it would not be the last violent act he would see.
Victor died without writing memoirs and when my mother asked why, he told her that 'there was wrong on both sides'
According to the Republican newspaper Saoirse, Victor Fagg joined the Irish Republican Army a few years later and “was as a member of the Guard of Honour when the bodies of 20 republican soldiers executed by the Free State Army throughout its western command were handed over to relatives and comrades at the main gate of Athlone Barracks in October 1924”.
In 1938, he was one of 12 men nominated for the IRA executive council at its general convention, two of whom Seán McNeela and Tony D’Arcy died on hunger strike in 1940. All 12 men would later be interned in the Curragh during the Emergency where I understand Victor witnessed the killing of another friend, Barney Casey, who was shot by Free State guards.
My grandfather was one of very few Protestants interned in the Curragh in 1940 and in 1943 he converted to Catholicism when he married Una Daly who was herself a captain in Cumann na mBan.
Victor Fagg was well respected in the midlands where he operated the agricultural store and was secretary of the co-operative committee. My grandparents loved horses and were involved with the Glasson Farmers Hunt and Victor was part of the Athlone Show committee for many years.
A local historian’s notes on the setting up of the creamery in 1961 highlight its importance to the Athlone farming community and Victor was apparently gifted in bringing different people together and organised the forming of the creamery committee of which he became secretary. It was the same networking skills that perhaps made him a natural host for the secretive meeting in December 1969.
Victor Fagg died in on March 6th 1988, aged 81. He received a republican funeral, with a tricolour draped across his coffin in the Catholic side of Cornamagh Cemetery. Ruairi Ó Brádaigh, president of Republican Sinn Féin, which was formed in 1986 following a split in Provisional Sinn Féin, gave an impassioned eulogy describing him as a quiet and unassuming Irishman whose “family background was one of service in the British forces but he was brought face to face with the realities of British rule in Ireland at the early age of 14 years”.
Not far from his grave, in the Protestant side of the cemetery, his parents and my great grandparents are buried. Two years later, my grandmother died and was buried by his side and my parents inherited their farmhouse which they later transformed into a guesthouse.
Northern Ireland’s religious war has always confused me. I knew my grandfather was originally from a Protestant household and his conversion to republicanism was never fully explained. He died without writing memoirs and when my mother asked why, he told her that “there was wrong on both sides”.
The first episode of Spotlight On The Troubles: A Secret History will broadcast on Tuesday, September 10th, at 8.30pm on BBC1 Northern Ireland and BBC4
Morgan Fagg is an English teacher and writer, based in Madrid, Spain