Earlier this month, the 50th anniversary of the repatriation of Peter Barnes and James McCormack was remembered in Mullingar, organised by the Barnes/McCormack Commemorative Committee.
James McCormack was reared at 7 Canal Cottages, Mullingar, by his sister, as both of his parents had died when he was a young boy.
Devoting his life to the Republican cause and volunteering for active service at the early stages of the IRA’s 1939 campaign in England, James McCormack arrived in England at the end of May or the beginning of June of that year, and took up lodgings with the Hewitt family from Belfast.
While delivering an oration at his re-interment, James O’Regan described him as an outstanding volunteer and was impressed with his efficiency and reliability. At the time of his arrest, James McCormack was operations officer for the English Midlands.
He was arrested under the name, James Richards, for having purchased a bike that transported the bomb.
It was by means of the phrase “common purpose” that James was executed for an act that he had no intention to be part of. In fact, when he heard of the fatal incident, he did not connect it with any of his actions. His only connection at that time was “under orders” to collect a bicycle from a shop, not knowing the purpose for which it was to be used.
He did see a device being prepared but believed it was intended for an attack against a power station. Both Peter Barnes and James McCormack were charged with the intended murder of a young woman, Elsie Ansell (21).
Guilty before the verdict was delivered, both Peter and James were themselves victims of the British desire to extract their pound of flesh. Unwitting accomplices connected only in the remotest possible way, they paid with their lives, a punishment disprortionate to their involvement and intentions.
His sister, Mrs. P. Casey visited just two weeks before the fateful day. He had accepted his sentence philosophically and asked for his comrades and friends in the town of Mullingar.
Peter Barnes from Banagher, Co. Offaly, was regarded by all who knew him as a man of the utmost kindness and was married to Eileen Gorman in 1931. Tragically, Eileen passed away just seven years later from TB. Peter had nursed her through her long illness with devotion and love, as he was a gentleman who knew no other way, having grown up surrounded by a loving and proud family who remained as such to the very end.
Before going on active service to England (Peter volunteered in place of his good friend and comrade Jim Kelly), he went to see Walter Mitchell from ‘The Lock’, Rahan. Walter considered him “a security risk, although a good soldier but a bit of a devil-may-care type”. Peter spent his last night in Offaly at Walter Mitchells, who was then the local Battalion Adjutant. He arrived in England in early August.
An experienced and capable volunteer and despite the fact that police had no idea of Peter’s presence in England, his capture was the result of betrayal by an informer who later betrayed four more of Peter’s comrades.
Though nothing had been found on Peter that directly connected him with the explosion in Coventry, circumstantial items were contrived to secure his conviction. In fact, there was alibi evidence to disprove much of the Prosecution’s case. Peter’s mother had correspondence, which had not been considered during the trial, that would have proven his innocence.
So debased was the Prosecution, that it called as a witness on its behalf, Miss Sarah Keane, fiancée to Peter, who was a native of Banagher but living in London at the time. According to O.J. Flanagan TD, three people had come forward on his behalf, but their evidence had not been accepted. Peter Barnes was judicially murdered in the interests of revenge and not justice.
His sole part in the fatal incident was a vague possibility that he may have provided materials. The persons who did in fact make and plant the bomb came forth anonymously and are reported to have said, “I felt awful sorry for poor Peter – an innocent man who had to go to the gallows for something he knew nothing about.”
On Sunday, 7 July, the repatriation of Peter Barnes and James McCormack was remembered at the Republican plot in Ballyglass Cemetery.