Pilkington, William (‘Liam’, ‘Billy’) (1894–1977), republican activist and Redemptorist priest, was born 2 June 1894 in Abbey St, Sligo town, eldest among ten children (eight boys and two girls) of John Pilkington, a postman, and his wife Margaret (née Torsney), a native of Ballintogher, Co. Sligo. He was educated at the Marist Brothers’ school and the Day Trades Preparatory School, Sligo. Later he was a student at the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction forestry college at Avondale, Co. Wicklow, and came into contact with Liam Mellows (qv), who initiated him into the IRB. On the outbreak of the Great War the college was closed and Pilkington returned to Sligo, where he secured employment with Wehrly Brothers Ltd, jewellers and watchmakers.
He joined the Irish Volunteers on their formation in Sligo (1913), and became OC Sligo Brigade in 1917 when J. J. O'Connell (qv) joined Volunteer headquarters. Pilkington came to police attention that year for several instances of illegal drilling but was not charged, although described by the British major-general for the area as ‘a most aggressive Sinn Féiner’ (quoted in Farry, Aftermath, 109). He assisted Sinn Féin candidates in the December 1918 election, assisted in forming a new Sinn Féin club at Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo, and was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly after occupying Sligo town hall on 3 March 1919. Refusing to recognise the court, he was sentenced on 14 April to one month in jail. On 3 April 1920 he was responsible for the destruction of income-tax records in raids on Sligo customs house and local collectors. On 12 May 1920 Strandhill, Rosses Point, and Drumcliffe police barracks were attacked and left unfit for habitation. Along with Seamus Devins, he planned and led the rescue of Frank Carty (qv) and others from Sligo jail on 26 May 1920. He also led an attack on Fivemilebourne RIC barracks, Co. Leitrim (2 June 1920); it failed but resulted in the abandonment and burning of the barracks shortly after.
He was elected a member of Sligo county council in June 1920 and shortly after was appointed one of three arbitrators in the Sligo borough parish court. Further organising work in the county for the rest of the year led to greater IRA activity, notably the Moneygold ambush (25 October 1920), where four RIC were killed. Due to an injury received while evading arrest, he did not take part in the failed large-scale ambush at Carrignagat, near Colloney, shortly after, led by Frank Carty. Arrested at Vaughan's Hotel, Dublin, on the weekend of Bloody Sunday (21 November), he was held for a while in Dublin castle with Conor Clune, Peadar Clancy (qv), and Dick McKee (qv) (later murdered), but managed to escape from Beggars Bush barracks, to which he had been transferred. Tactics of the highly mobile Auxiliaries led to the formation of flying columns in Co. Sligo at the end of 1920, one of which he led; though the capture of its arms while being transported was a setback. He escaped arrest in the 22 December raids in the Sligo area; his brother John was arrested instead, as was his other brother, Fred, a month later.
Stung by Michael Collins's (qv) remark that Sligo had done very little, he led an attack (20 March 1921) on Collooney RIC barracks, which also failed. In a train holdup at Ballisodare station, which he led, two RIC agents were taken off and executed by his men (19 April). Selected as a candidate in the May 1921 elections to the second dáil for the Sligo–East Mayo constituency, he withdrew in favour of Frank Carty. After the truce, his backing of the IRA in local government matters led to further criticism.
Following a GHQ inspection report which described him as a ‘promising type’ and a ‘good militarist’, he was appointed OC 3rd Western Division on its formation in October 1921, with the divisional staff drawn almost exclusively from the Sligo Brigade, including Brian MacNeill, son of Eoin MacNeill (qv), as adjutant. With most of his officers he vigorously opposed the treaty. On 11 January 1922, with other dissident high-ranking officers, he called for the separation of IRA GHQ from the dáil (on the grounds that the treaty had disestablished the republic) and for the convocation of an army convention, held later on 26 March despite being banned by the provisional government. At this he was elected a member of the temporary executive, whose task it was to frame a constitution for the anti-treaty IRA, but did not become a member of the sixteen-man executive elected at its next meeting on 9 April. His proclaiming, without HQ approval, of the meeting of Arthur Griffith (qv) in Sligo on 16 April led to further criticism from both Free State and British government opponents and from some of his own senior officers, especially when he backed down. Michael Hopkinson later concluded: ‘Because of later civil war animosities, Pilkington's inadequacies were probably exaggerated’ (Irish war of independence, 137).
At the outbreak of the civil war he opposed some senior officers’ suggestions of attacking provisional government forces in the Sligo area, in favour of attacking British forces on the border instead. His 1st Brigade captured Ballaghameehan barracks on the Leitrim–Fermanagh border, held by provisional government forces in July. Later that month he came in conflict with the local bishop, Bernard Coyne, who refused to leave the provisional government-held Sligo courthouse, thereby thwarting a republican attack. Having vacated Sligo town, his forces met with success in the summer and went on to capture Dromahaire and Drumshanbo barracks in September, but he was soon pinned in by provisional government forces advancing from the north and east under Gen. Joe Sweeney (qv) and Gen. Seán Mac Eoin (qv), who failed to capture the republican columns in the area. The killing, in doubtful circumstances, by provisional government forces on Ben Bulben of Brian MacNeill, Brigadier Séamus Devins, and four others in the same month led to much criticism. After Michael Kilroy's arrest (November 1922) Pilkington attended the meeting in Leenane, Co. Galway (23 February 1923), where the Western Command was reorganised. After the death of Liam Lynch (qv), he was appointed to the IRA executive at its meeting in Poolacappal on 20 April 1923 and voted in favour of ending resistance on republican terms only. He was then appointed to a three-man army council with Frank Aiken (qv) and Tom Barry (qv), which met with Éamon de Valera (qv) and representatives of the republican government on 26–7 April, after which the ‘cease fire and dump arms’ order was issued (effective 30 April). Though opposed to it, as was his division, he carried out the order. At a later meeting of the IRA executive on 11 July he was elected to the IRA army council, along with Aiken, Quirke, Rice (qv), and Ruttledge, and was appointed QMG, although it is unlikely that he functioned in that capacity. He failed to get elected to the dáil for the Sligo–Leitrim constituency at the general election of August 1923, where the republicans got more votes than all other parties combined. His capture on 14 August 1923 ended his position on the IRA executive. Interned in Mountjoy, he was moved to Arbour Hill on 22 September. On 5 October 1923 he was transferred back to Mountjoy and on 24 October to Kilmainham. Though opposed, he joined the ultimately unsuccessful hunger strike, after which his two brothers, Frank and John, were released on 22 December 1923. On 3 January 1924 Liam was transferred to Hare Park internment camp, the Curragh. Among the last 100 held, he was released mid July 1924. He rarely spoke about these years afterwards.
A vocation to the religious life led him to try to join the Irish Redemptorists in Dundalk, but he was refused on account of his republican history and was advised to join the English province. On 21 November 1924 he entered the Redemptorist congregation at Bishop Eton, Liverpool, but was obliged to undertake further studies before admission to the noviciate on 14 August 1926, in Perth, Scotland. He was ordained (15 September 1932) at the Redemptorists’ major seminary, Hawkstone Hall, Weston, between Whitchurch and Shrewsbury, England. At the urging of the Irish provincial he was refused permission to accept an invitation from the mayor of Sligo to attend for a special presentation on his ordination and was banned from saying mass in Sligo cathedral until 1950. He spent the next seven years in further training and giving missions in England. In 1939 he was posted to South Africa as a missionary priest. A member of the Heathfield community in Cape Province, he was appointed in charge of two smaller missions in Retreat and Grassy Park, where he was well liked by the poor, mixed-race ‘Cape coloured’ population, who were despised by Africans and Europeans alike. About 1946 he was sent to Pretoria in the Transvaal and was again back at his favourite work of preaching missions and retreats. In early 1950 he was appointed rector at Heathfield. He returned to England in 1953 and held various appointments. In 1963 he was once more on the staff of St Benet's, Sunderland, and some time later was sent to Hawkstone Hall as confessor to the students, a post which signified the confidence of his provincial. He was held in high regard by many of his English confrères, who were in awe of his capacity to forgive his former enemies. His last appointment was at Bishop Eton, Liverpool. Injured in a lift accident in 1976, he died 26 March 1977 at Bishop Eton, where he is buried.