The Rover Type: Peadar O’Donnell and the War of Independence in Donegal and Derry, 1919-1921

‘Sublime in Theory’

For good or bad, Peadar O’Donnell never failed to leave an impression on people.

During the lull in the war between British authority in Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Todd Andrews – not even twenty years of age and already a seasoned combatant – was ordered up from Dublin to Dungloe, Co. Donegal, to take charge of an IRA training camp, sometime in the latter half of 1921. A city-slicker, Andrews knew little about the county, only that it had felt its fair share of the conflict: shootings, house-burnings, attacks of police barracks, and ambushes on British troop-trains.

IRA training camp, West Waterford, 1921

It thus seemed like an obvious place to invest some time and guidance into. ‘Advancing under fire’, ‘organisation of intelligence units’, ‘use and care of small arms’, along with night-marches and how best to make use of cover – these were among the subjects Andrews prepared to drum into the fifteen men gathered before him in the Dungloe village hall. He had his doubts, however, as to how much he could get through to them, the jackeen prejudice against culchies as slow-witted and thick-tongued being hard to shake off.

Peadar O’Donnell

Besides, Andrews was painfully aware of his own deficiency, namely his rawness as a teacher, and it was with trepidation that he opened with a lesson about unit structure and communication. When this was done, he scanned the group, hoping for someone who could help turn the lecture into a dialogue, and asked the man who appeared older than the rest – at twenty-eight – for his thoughts:

He stood up immediately, pouring out a stream of words arranged in fluent, well balanced sentences full of striking imagery and laced with quotations from James Connolly.

This was rather more than Andrews had been expecting or, indeed, wanted, for if this was the standard of the class, what need would they have of him as an educator? Thankfully:

As it turned out I had no need to feel inadequate because the speaker was Peadar O’Donnell who was to become one of the most remarkable men of our generation.[1]

Tom Barry

Some acquaintances were less enthralled. Michael O’Donoghue and Tom Barry were among the Corkmen who, like Andrews, were sent to Donegal; in their case, it was in mid-1922, in order to continue the campaign against the remaining British presence in what would become Northern Ireland. O’Donoghue was to reminisced about the “lively and protracted discussions on religion, sin and nationality” between the Cork and Donegal officers. As the two eldest members, Barry and O’Donnell tended to take the lead in these IRA symposiums and were consequently held in awe by the others, including O’Donoghue.

To him, O’Donnell’s:

…vocabulary was vast and his speech eloquent, and it was a pleasure and an education to hear him airing his views on a variety of subjects.[2]

But, if O’Donnell was a jack of all trades, he could be a master of none, at least where it counted, being:

…a revolutionary thinker and writer, was of the rover type, too volatile for an efficient Volunteer officer, sublime in theory – military, economic, social, political – but in practice a wash-out. He had no control over the IRA under him and was constitutionally unfit for military campaigning of any kind, guerrilla above all.[3]

O’Donnell would have been the first to agree. “I must say I was not the military type,” he later said in an interview.[4]

‘Four Glorious Years’

Peadar O’Donnell in later years

It would be easy to take such self-abasement at face value, given how little O’Donnell is known as a soldier. As a writer and a political activist, yes, he was to have prolific careers as both in the years to come. But about his IRA service, he seems to have worked his hardest to obscure it. Not for him the reminiscences of Tom Barry, Todd Andrews or Dan Breen, whose tales of daring-do in their memoirs were to keep their names visible to contemporary times.

“It is difficult to persuade Peadar O’Donnell to talk about his military career,” noted historian Michael McInerney. He had the advantage of interviewing O’Donnell but even that familiarity yielded scant insight into what his subject had been doing during the War of Independence: “He was reluctant to talk of his own part in the national struggle until convinced that the interest in the subject was as much general as particular.”[5]

s-l300Those days were possibly still too raw to approach easily, for while “talking to Peadar O’Donnell about the ‘Four Glorious Years’ of 1918-22, one senses a deep, almost bitter disappointment in the words at the outcome of those years.” Though there was “also an exultation as he remembers the heroism and the ‘sheer genius of a whole people in action’,” O’Donnell stayed tight-lipped about his own actions.[6]

Maybe O’Donnell was just a modest man. Or perhaps that time had been too complicated to fully – or easily – explain.

Be that as it may, there was nothing of the shrinking violet or indecisive intellectual when, in December 1920, O’Donnell spoke at the Shamrock Hall in Derry. His intent, he told the IRA Volunteers who used the building as their base, was to find recruits and bring them over the county border to his native Donegal as a flying column.[7]

At least one man present, Seamus McCann, had met O’Donnell before, when the latter worked as an organiser for the Derry branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), back in 1918. “We knew he was alright,” recalled McCann; after all, he and O’Donnell had cooperated in smuggling weapons for the national cause, starting with two pistols and a few bags of gelignite at McCann’s shop in 1919. Though nothing came of a plan of O’Donnell’s in 1920 to rob a police patrol of their guns, he continued using McCann’s premises as a stash-house:

Detonators and gelignite came to my place for him from Scotland; I’d say three times in all, the last being in a suitcase of stuff around the end of 1919 or early 1920.[8]

By IRA standards, O’Donnell was a well-travelled man, as recognised by Joe Sweeney, a Donegal IRA commander, who used him to transport munitions. On one such occasion, late in 1919, it was bombs from Dublin to Donegal, and on others:

Early in 1920 I asked him to go to Scotland to organise the help which Donegal men in the mines there were attempting to give in the way of explosives. I sent him across three times, I think, around St Patrick’s Day 1920 and the last certainly in July 1920.

“His work was extremely useful,” Sweeney added. O’Donnell had earned his trust when, at the end of 1920, he suggested returning to Derry, whose revolutionary landscape he was familiar with, and coming back with a unit of his own to Sweeney’s territory in West Donegal. Sweeney gave this idea his blessing, and off O’Donnell went to turn theory into practice.[9]

Derry City

The Column Forms

O’Donnell’s recruitment drive in the Shamrock Hall paid off in the nine Volunteers who offered themselves for his venture. As part of a flying column, they would be expected to bear the brunt of the fighting against the Crown forces in Ireland but, then, Derry already was a warzone.

The city had not exactly been peaceful before, but things escalated with an ambush of two policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) at the General Post Office in November 1920, wounding one. The resulting stop-and-searches of pedestrians by police and British soldiers grew into arson and shootings, and were matched by IRA reprisals of a similar nature.

Irish civilians held up by Black-and-Tans

“There was the wildest scenes of terrorism and destruction yet experienced in parts of Derry,” reported one newspaper under the headline DERRY NIGHT OF TERROR.[10]

Perhaps the Derry men who agreed to go to Donegal did so for an escape as much as anything.

First, they were careful to take with them the necessary tools, as O’Donnell described: “In December 1920 we brought 22 rifles out of Derry. We dug them up in a briar in a city. They were in quite good condition with 200 rounds for each of them.”

One presumes permission was obtained from the Derry IRA command; certainly, of the accusations to come against O’Donnell, none involved theft. O’Donnell was characteristically modest when recalling the inauguration of the column, saying that “it shows how hard up they were for leaders when they had to send a man like me out in charge of a column.”[11]

Maybe. In the months to come, O’Donnell’s credentials would be a matter of controversy. All the same, a rifles was a prized weapon, and ammunition of any kind a valuable resource, so this contribution by Derry showed considerable investment in the new column, as well as faith in its commandant.

The Column Departs

Seamus McCann

For now, any doubt lay in the future, and the only question worth asking was how to get out of Derry. This was not a simple matter, as British soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment were guarding the roads leading out of the city. The IRA men were able to sneak out during the night, though three of them – McCann, James McKee and Tom Sullivan – got lost in the dark. Separated from the rest, the men, as McCann recalled:

…tramped near the main road until we came to near Letterkenny. It was now beginning to get clear in the morning so we went into an old coal shed near the Post Bridge and left our rifles down and rested on some straw for a short while.

McCann ventured out to Letterkenny and made contact with a friend and fellow rebel there, who arranged for a car to pick up the stray trio and drive them to the family in whose house the rest of the column had stopped. After spending the following night there, two cars were procured for the rest of the way, though they were delayed at Glendowan by its ruined bridge. The IRA in this instance had become a victim of its own success:

At this time many bridges on main roads were blown up by the IRA and trenches were also cut in the main roads to obstruct motor traffic by crown forces.

There was nothing else to do but disembark from the vehicles and march through the pouring rain, ignoring as best they could the growing blisters on their feet, until they came to the village of Derryhenney. There they stayed the night before finally reaching West Donegal, on the night of the new year, the 1st January 1921.[12]

Dungloe, Co. Donegal

While resting their legs in an old house in Dungloe, the men received word that a stranger – always a source of interest – had arrived by train and was now staying in a local hotel. It was a good enough cause for action, according to McCann:

Three members of the column then proceeded to Sweeney’s Hotel [no relation to Joe Sweeney, presumably] and brought this man to where we were billeted. The stranger turned out to be a British military officer. He was carrying a gun which we took from him.[13]

The man had attempted to draw this pistol when the three men – including Frank O’Donnell, Peadar’s brother – approached him during lunch, but he was quickly disarmed and hauled away for questioning. After claiming to be a harmless civil servant, he admitted his true identity as an enemy officer while insisting that he was only in the area to investigate claims made against the British garrison. Whatever the truth, he was released that night when a Unionist businessman intervened to the IRA authority on his behalf.[14]

Sweeney’s Hotel (today), Dungloe, Co. Donegal

Things were not so ruthless in Donegal for prisoners to be killed in cold blood, even if there was a war on. Indeed, Frank O’Donnell preferred disarming policemen of their guns than shooting them. His approach required more courage, he told the others.[15]

The Column Begins

After their arrival, the column had three days of rest at the townland of Crovegh, four miles from Dungloe, before news reached them, on the 4th January 1921, that a squad of Black-and-Tans were heading towards Dungloe. As it was market day, the column members, joined by the domestic IRA company under the command of Joe Sweeney, cleared the village streets and took up position. Two women kept the men going with hot tea as they waited, guns at the ready, day turning into the night, but the Tans never showed.

IRA members (in training session)

A second report, this time of Tans coming from a different direction, prompted the column to set up an ambush along the road from Dungloe to Crolly’s Bridge. It was raining heavily, but there the men remained for the whole day until, with the foe again nowhere to be seen, they withdrew to O’Donnell’s family home at Munroe. His mother gave them the consolation of a warm meal and a place by the turf-fire to dry off.[16]

Todd Andrews was also to meet Brigid O’Donnell and paid tribute to her as “a woman of very fine quality, shrewd and full of common sense, who was content with her life despite what must have been a hard struggle to rear her children.” It was easy, Andrews thought, to see where her son had obtained his intelligence and charm.[17]

Country homes, Co. Donegal

Later that month, on the 11th January 1921, the column was preparing for sleep in their assigned shack when its commander came in with a surprise. “Boys, put on your boots,” O’Donnell announced. “A troop train is on its way to Burtonport!”

It was just one of the many quirks of the war that, after the wasted efforts on seeking an ambush, opportunity had fallen into their laps. As McCann noted:

In the other attempted operations where we lay an ambush, we had taken considerable pains in planning the layout of the scene of the operation but, in the case of the train ambush at Meenbanad, we had no time to prepare plans.

Arriving in Dungloe, the column were met by Sweeney’s men – once again, this was to be a joint operation. They hurried together, stopping at a spot about 150 yards from Meenaband Railway Station. The usual method of train-attacks was to lift the rails beforehand but, lacking the time, they instead loaded large stones on to the tracks and then lined up on either side. The Donegal men had shotguns, while the Derry column members carried the more prestigious rifles and hand-grenades, a sign of the elevated status such units had in the IRA, as compensation for the hardships and risks undertaken.

IRA Flying Column

The Column Fights

The train rumbled into sight and range before too long and the ambushers opened fire, the ones with bombs endeavouring to lob them through carriage-windows. Soldiers on board returned shots, forcing the assailants back, and the train broke through the obstacles in its path.

The sole loss to the column, besides spent ammunition, was Willie Cullen, who became separated his comrades in the retreat and was picked by a British patrol. He was arrested but saved his rifle by hiding it in time, the weapon being gratefully recovered afterwards – rifles were a valuable commodity, after all.

Despite this lacklustre result, the column pulled off a second ambush of a train soon after. The men had moved from Crovagh, across the mountain to Loughkeel, where they stayed with a family. Without such hospitality, the war would have ground to a halt long ago. Hearing of the troop-train to West Donegal, O’Donnell brought his men to Crolly Railway Station, and arranged them on the hills overlooking it. A scout was sent out to the station to ascertain if there were civilians on board the incoming train.

Gweedore Railway Station, Co. Donegal

When the agreed signal for a negative was received, the operation could go ahead:

As soon as the train arrived within effective distance for rifle fire from our positions, we opened a rapid fire on the train. This fire was maintained until the train had passed through the hill from which our men were firing.

The column moved base again, this time up the mountains to reduce the chances of discovery. After two ambushes in quick succession, the pace slowed to a crawl again. Attempts to waylay British patrols on the road came to nothing when the targets failed to appear. Two months passed and the column made a move on Falcarragh RIC Barracks in March 1921.

The former RIC barracks in Falcarragh, Co. Donegal (now a visitors’ centre)

In preparation, a gun-cotton charge of explosives was created and attached to a wooden frame. Under O’Donnell’s direction, the column waited until dark and then surrounded the stronghold. Two men were sent ahead across the wall, into the yard, with the explosives passed over to them. The frame was placed against the gable and lit, the resulting detonation causing a lot of noise but little damage.

The Volunteers proceeded anyway with their assault as they opened fire on the still-intact building, while the defenders returned the shots and sent up Verey lights to call for reinforcements:

The exchange of fire lasted for about 30 minutes and then we withdrew from the attack, as rifle fire was an ineffective means of forcing the surrender of the barrack garrison.”

From there, the column moved to a number of different sites before ending up at their old digs in Crovegh. With three operations under their collective belt, the men could congratulate themselves on a respectable run and O’Donnell on a promotion to O/C of the Second Donegal Brigade, giving him authority over the north-west quarter of the county as well as Derry. Perhaps it was to assert himself over his latter responsibility, or because he was itching for a change, that O’Donnell left for Derry at the end of March 1921, taking McCann with him as his right-hand man.[18]

A Bloody Night

Getting to the city was delayed by the same problems as when they left: the damage done to the routes by the guerrilla campaign, from collapsed bridges and trenched roads, meant that O’Donnell and McCann had to go by foot until the final stretch, where they were able to obtain a pair of bicycles.

The walls of Derry City

O’Donnell wasted no time once in the city: the following night, on the Friday of the 1st April, he met the men of the Derry IRA, again in the Shamrock Hall. Guns and grenades were allocated to the assembled Volunteers, the strategy being to being to spring simultaneous assaults in different parts of the city. With orders to shoot any RIC personnel on sight, McCann set forth, accompanied by a second Derry native:

We had walked up to the top of Great James Street where I noticed the RIC man for whom I was looking coming walking meeting me, along with a civilian. I waited for him at Creggan Street where I shot him with my .45 revolver. He was Sergeant Higgins.[19]

The assassin was described by the Derry Journal as “a very respectably dressed young man, wearing a raincoat and cap” who fled the scene. Aid was called to the stricken Higgins as he lay in a pool of blood, his brain visible through the hole in his head. Though the policeman was carried to hospital, he died three hours later without regaining consciousness.

Creggan Street (today), Derry

At the same time as Higgins’ mortal wounding, bombs were hurled at the army post by the City Electrical Station, wounding three soldiers on duty, with two sufficiently injured to be removed for medical care, to be joined by Patrick Lafferty. The 34-year-old shipyard worker had been shot in the left knee in Asylum Road, though why he was targeted is unclear.

Almost immediately after these triple strikes, more gunshots and explosives were heard coming from Leckey Road, where the police barracks came under attack in an exchange of bullets between the garrison and assailants that lasted for three quarters of an hour, in contrast to the previously swift hit-and-run incidents. Constable Michael Kenny was critically injured by a bullet passing through the window on the barracks’ first landing, while a bomb fragment wounded Constable McLaughlin.

Two RIC policemen

Throughout the night, other shots were fired in different parts of the city. Two more casualties, both inadvertent, were reported: an army private, wounded in the wrist while reaching for his rifle, with another private, J. Wright, fatally shot from behind by a panicky colleague.

Recovering from their surprise, soldiers and policemen soon flooded the streets, holding up passers-by to search for incriminating arms. Determined not to repeat Friday’s debacle, the military laid out barbed wire coils across Shipquay and Castle Streets, while soldiers patrolled the streets, reinforced by a pair of armoured cars. Though gunfire and explosives were heard throughout that Saturday night, the carnage of the evening before was not repeated, save in Leckey Road again, which suffered two fires at different times, one in a painters’ shop and then the other in a marine store.

Property damage aside, the losses of Friday night were two dead and seven wounded, two of the latter tally being civilians. By Monday, the Derry Journal was able to report that “the city was peaceable last night.”[20]

Crowds Trying to Force Barricade
British soldiers and Irish civilians

After shooting Higgins, McCann had rejoined O’Donnell in the Christian Brothers School where the latter was hiding. Others arrived to report to O’Donnell on the success of the multi-pronged operation, and to warn about the increased British presence outside. Despite the added danger, O’Donnell and McCann were able to slip out of Derry, back to their column in Donegal.[21]

O’Donnell was to return to a considerable amount of hot water. He had struck a bloody riposte against the enemy, and no one would be more enraged than his own side.

Unclean Air

Gearóid O’Sullivan

Gearóid O’Sullivan, as Adjutant-General of the IRA GHQ in Dublin, was to have his hands full in dealing with the flow of accusations coming out of Donegal and Derry. “I have your report re suppression of Commandant O’Donnell,” he wrote to Frank Carney on the 24th May 1921. “I regret very much that I have been sorely disappointed in the turn which things took in that area since you took over command. However, all these matters will be investigated at a later date.”

Carney had been promoted to O/C of the First Northern Division, giving him overall control of the Donegal-Derry units, but this good fortune was followed by bad when he was arrested. “I am sorry for your ill luck – getting into the hands of the enemy,” O’Sullivan added.[22]

In light of this reversal, Carney’s post would be filled by Joe Sweeny, who was already O/C of the First Brigade in north-west Donegal. To Sweeney, O’Sullivan wrote:

I have received an extensive amount of correspondence on the position in the 1st Northern Division, resulting in disagreements between the late O/C [Carney], Commandant of Derry City and the Commandant of the 2nd Brigade [O’Donnell].

Sweeney was informed that he was to replace Carney, with O’Donnell remaining in charge of the Second Brigade, including authority over the Derry battalion. Meanwhile, GHQ would be sending up an officer to Derry to untangle the situation as best he could.[23]

O’Donnell had already dispatched a letter of his own on the 15th May to present his side of the story. The source of the friction between him and Carney was another dispute, this one in Derry, where the women of Cumann na mBan and Patrick Shiels, the Derry O/C, were at loggerheads. Hoping to “clean the air”, as he put it, O’Donnell approached both sides for a hearing.

Cumann na mBan members

Although initially bias towards Shiels, perhaps as one male IRA commander to another, his sympathy turned in favour of the women. Cumann na mBan had a safe-house in Derry for medical treatment, yet when one of O’Donnell’s men was wounded in the hand, none of the other Volunteers would take the victim there, so deep was the divide. Their own attempts at first aid were so inept as to be akin to torture. Surely cooperation between the men of the Derry IRA and the women of Cumann na mBan could only be in everyone’s best interest, and O’Donnell hoped he could bring about a fresh start.

To the contrary, Shiels complained to Carney, then at liberty, about what he saw as O’Donnell’s meddling. When O’Donnell wrote to Carney with a request for guidelines on how Cumann na mBan should be treated, he received no answer, only a curt summons to Derry. Ill with a chill – which he attributed to crossing a river at night for an ambush – O’Donnell delayed until he could drag himself out of bed to make the journey.

Donegal mountains

While en route to Derry:

I attempted it but ran into a party of military, was spotted by a peeler, and refused to halt and broke off through the fields with a party of military in pursuit. My companion was captured. I was shot through the right shoulder and left hand and I had my right arm broken but managed to escape.

Finding himself suspended from command on Carney’s orders, bereft of explanation, O’Donnell could only plead to Dublin for a fair hearing: “It certainly will mean much to the Volunteer organisation in the county if GHQ will investigate facts and decide which of us is in the wrong.”[24]

Doing an Act

Joe Sweeney

O’Donnell was to receive this investigation; unfortunately, it only made things worse for him. When Liam Archer arrived in Derry on behalf of the Dublin leadership, he arranged to meet Sweeney and O’Donnell at the village of Churchill, Co. Donegal. Sweeney was already present when Archer came at 5 pm, while O’Donnell did not appear until an hour later, his excuse being a detour he had had to make to avoid a RIC patrol. Not that Archer believed this, as there had been no such sign of enemy presence in the area, so one source told him.

As Archer had to be back in Derry by 8 pm, he did not have a lot of time to ask questions, much to his annoyance. O’Donnell pleaded ignorance about the present controversy, again pointing to his efforts at mediation between Cumann na mBan and the Derry Volunteers as its probable cause. Again, Archer was not buying it. “There is no evidence that this has anything to do with the recent trouble,” he wrote in his report to GHQ, on the 3rd June:

On the other hand the grounds for dissatisfaction existing among the other officers I met are very definite. It is felt that this man was appointed to his present position by HQ owing to a complete misapprehension. As I cannot know whether HQ is conversant with this man’s story, it will be necessary for me to recount it as recd., from Comdt Sweeney and the O.C. Derry.

While working in Derry for the ITGWU, O’Donnell had apparently tried to form his own Irish Citizen Army (ICA), to the point of poaching IRA members. This only went so far before O’Donnell decided to throw his lot in with the IRA instead.[25]

As the ITGWU and the IRA were not always on amiable terms, this was a serious charge. In his commentary on Archer’s findings, O’Sullivan recalled the past rivalry in Derry, and that “if O’Donnell was the man who was mixed up in this trouble I can understand how the difficulty has arisen.”[26]

Group photo of ITGWU officials, including James Connolly (far left, standing) and Jim Larkin (front row seated, second from right)

Interestingly, there is another account of O’Donnell attempting the same, except in a different Northern county, which ended in much the same way as in Derry:

A small section of the Citizen Army was in existence in Monaghan town in 1920 for some time. Peadar O’Donnell was in Monaghan in 1919 in connection with Labour trouble, and I think it was Peadar who organised the Citizen Army then. This section of the Citizen Army came over to the Volunteers in a body one night and were accepted by us.[27]

Fittingly for a man who would become known for his socialist writings and advocacy, O’Donnell had been a class warrior long before fighting for Ireland, which he attributed to the example of an uncle in the ‘Wobblies’ (Industrial Workers of the World) while overseas in the United States. Despite his later commitment to the example of James Connolly, O’Donnell was not impressed on both occasions of seeing the great man in Dublin, where O’Donnell was training to be a teacher.[28]

James Connolly

Each time, Connolly had been in the centre of trouble; the first, being jeered at with other ICA men on North George Street by some women, the second when speaking in Phoenix Park in favour of suffragettes when a group of women – again – pelted him with rotten fruit. Undeterred by this sort of challenge, O’Donnell would drop his teaching post – which he disliked anyway – and apply for work at Liberty Hall. His role as a full-time union organiser took him to counties like Derry and Monahan, giving credence to the stories about his ICA activism.[29]

“Early in 1919, I left my job as a trade union organiser,” O’Donnell later wrote. “I became fully committed to the Volunteers.”[30]

It was in Monaghan that O’Donnell proved this dedication in the attack on Ballytrain RIC Barracks in February 1920. He contributed a case of revolvers from Derry – which had perhaps been stored in McCann’s shop – as well as his own prowess, being part of the team that dug beneath a gable for a mine to be inserted, forcing the police garrison to surrender before detonation. After this baptism of fire, O’Donnell turned his attention back to Donegal.[31]

Wrecked interior of Ballytrain RIC Barracks, Co. Monaghan

Already he had had a career with a lot of twists and turns, as befitting his nature as the ‘rover type’. Little wonder, then, that by the time Michael O’Donoghue met him in mid-1922, “Peadar…was accounted ‘Red’ in Ulster” and not always taken entirely seriously:

His assertion that he always said his night prayers, or rather, endeavoured to direct his mind towards God and heaven each night, met with some incredulity. Peadar was a jocular dissembler and it was never easy to detect when he was ‘doing an act’.[32]

It was not all fun and games. According to some, O’Donnell’s promotion to O/C of the Second Battalion was owed to him ‘doing an act’, an allegation that Archer took the time to detail at length in his scathing report.

A Jocular Dissembler?

O’Donnell had suggested to Sweeney, sometime in late 1920 – so the story went – that he could obtain munitions in Dublin through his ICA links. Sweeney provided an address in the city to contact GHQ, which O’Donnell used to attend a high-level IRA meeting and pass himself off as the official delegate from Donegal. This was enough to get himself promoted to command of the Second Brigade, something not intended by Sweeney.

If true, and Archer seemed to believe it was, it was understandable that the rest of the Donegal-Derry officers would feel:

…that an injustice has been done, by that appointment to this position, of a man who is only some six months a member of the IRA; who was an organiser for an organisation regarded as being unfriendly to the IRA; who possesses little volunteer experience, and whose ability has not yet been proven.

Archer listed other complaints: dispatches intended for the First Brigade that passed through the Second’s area would arrive opened, something which O’Donnell professed himself unable to explain. Even if that was not O’Donnell’s fault, his recent work in Derry in April 1921 undoubtedly caused resentment as he had apparently not consulted Shiels beforehand.

In addition, Volunteers under O’Donnell’s authority had robbed a couple of banks in response to Carney’s instructions to raise funds by ‘collection or otherwise.’ The men who committed these thefts had placed a wide interpretation on the words ‘or otherwise’. O’Donnell defended the robberies by saying that he had understood the orders in the same way.

IRA men

Even O’Donnell’s wounding on active service was held against him in Archer’s narration:

The fact that the O/C Bde was shot, running away from an enemy patrol of six private soldiers, without any attempt at a fight on the part of him or his two companions, has seriously damaged his reputation as a commander.

As if calling witnesses for the prosecution, Archer quoted the opinions of others involved. The Derry officers regarded O’Donnell as “untrustworthy and incompetent, and matters have now reached a point where, if he remains in command, the O/C Derry will probably refuse to serve under him any longer and request transfer to another area.” Sweeney was only a little more lenient in his assessment that O’Donnell was “well-meaning but is impractical.”

In all this, O’Donnell had only himself to blame, according to Archer:

Owing to the short space of time I had with O/C No 2, and to the attitude of ignorance he adopted with regard to the cause of the trouble, I have heard practically nothing in his defence. He had held no Brigade council since he entered his duties, and it is probable that a lot of the existing trouble is due to a lack of contact between the O/C and his officers.

Sweeney had suggested that the Derry battalion be treated as a separate unit for the time being, though Archer was to advise against that in his communique. Instead, O’Donnell should be replaced by Shiels, who Archer considered “a much superior man” in terms of ability and personality. Hierarchy in general should be tightened, with the confusing tendency for one man to do the work of several posts to be stopped.

IRA members with rifles

As to whether these reforms would be implemented, Archer was cautious, showing more than a hint of the big city man looking down on bumpkins: “In making the above recommendations, I would draw to your notice that I have little experience of country officers and I may be expecting more than is the rule.”[33]

Question Marks

Ernie O’Malley

One detail Archer forgot to mention, or thought it unimportant, was that Sweeney and O’Donnell were second cousins. Judging by the former’s remarks about the latter, nepotism did not appear to be one vice practised by the Donegal IRA. The kinsmen were close enough to be interviewed together by Ernie O’Malley in 1949 but, despite such familiarity, a certain contempt laced their words about each other.[34]

That the two men chose opposing sides in the Civil War did not help. O’Donnell had even been a prisoner of his cousin during this turbulent period, detained in Finner Camp which came under Sweeney’s authority in Donegal. A captive O’Donnell had been terrified of Tom Glennon, a hard-edged warden in the camp, comparing Glennon’s brutish ways with Sweeney “whose nature, while it was thin in feeling was clean in its hardness,” a backhanded compliment if there was ever one.[35]

For Sweeney’s part, he blamed O’Donnell for the failure to take Glenties RIC Barracks on two separate occasions. The first, in April 1921, almost ended in disaster, as Sweeney recounted to O’Malley:

Peadar O’Donnell had got hold of an old cannon. He had arranged that a blacksmith…make cannon balls for this. The cannon was brought into position with a donkey and cart. It was to blow in the front door of the barracks, but when fired it blew itself to pieces and blew the walls backwards. Luckily no one was killed or injured.

The second attempt, in May, failed on account of O’Donnell’s warning his friends in Glenties village beforehand, with the leakage making its way to police ears.[36]

RIC Barracks (Boyle, Co. Roscommon)

And yet, according to McCann, O’Donnell was not in Donegal at the time of the April attack, having temporarily left for Dublin. Sweeney had been in charge and it was his idea to mount a Colt machine-gun on a tripod for added firepower. When Sweeney gave the order to attack, the machine-gun failed to work, and the remaining rifle-fire from the IRA was not enough to subdue the barracks.[37]

Two similar stories, with one major difference in regards to responsibility.

Given the contradictory versions in regards to O’Donnell’s conduct, it was unsurprising that, after reading Archer’s summary of his time in Donegal, the IRA Director of Organisation, Eamonn Price, would admit bewilderment on what to think of it all:

I do not find it very easy to make up my mind from the report as to what would be the best thing to do. The whole difficulty is that O’Donnell’s appointment appears to have been a mistake. That is true, whether the statements regarding his record are correct or not. He does not appear to possess the qualities necessary for dealing with a Brigade command.[38]


I am inclined to discount some of the things that are said against the O/C of the 2nd Brigade. The Officer from Headquarters [Archer] appears to have been prejudiced against him from the beginning owing to his unpunctuality and possibly owing to having heard the other side of the story.[39]

As for the most serious allegation, that O’Donnell had essentially conned his way into command, Price was inconclusive: “The statement…as to how O’Donnell got in touch in Dublin I am not in a position to appraise.”[40]

Price decided to wait for a fuller picture before rendering final judgement. For now, a compromise: O’Donnell was to continue as O/C of the Second Brigade, albeit over a diminished area, as the Derry battalion was to be a standalone unit as proposed. Both O’Donnell and Shiels were to report separately to Sweeney as Divisional Commander, which would at least keep them out of each other’s way.

“This is to be only a temporary arrangement pending further developments,” Price wrote in correspondence with his Chief of Staff, Richard Mulcahy, on the 21st June 1921.[41]

Red Peadar

Todd Andrews

Nonetheless, that was how the situation stood when, less than a month later, the Truce on the 11th July 1921 permitted a breathing space in the war. O’Donnell remained in charge and in Donegal, during which time he attended the officers’ training camp where he made the acquaintance of the Dublin envoy sent to tutor them. It was the start of a lifelong friendship between Todd Andrews and O’Donnell, despite the age gap of over eight years, when the latter “with his great kindness and comprehension took me in hand over any difficulties I encountered,” allaying his nerves and enabling him to finish the course as intended.

After which, the pair toured the countryside in a car, allowing Andrews to catch a glimpse of rural life, in the cultivated fields between stone walls and the homes of friends that O’Donnell dropped in on:

We were invited into the tiny kitchens for the ritual cup of tea with home-made bread. The people were obviously very poor but it was a different kind of poverty from what I was so familiar with in Dublin. However small and sparsely furnished the kitchens, which also served as living rooms, they were clean and tidy.

Compared to the slums of his home city and the hopelessness they bred, “what struck me most forcefully was the atmosphere of independent self-reliance,” though Andrews did not doubt that the means of these country people were also very scant.

Man and donkey carrying turf, Co. Donegal

It was an insight into a part of the country in whose name Andrews had been fighting, but which, in retrospection, he knew little about. O’Donnell endeavoured to fill in these mental gaps while proposing some solutions of his own, peppering his talk with phrases like ‘uprising of the masses’, ‘the gathering together of the workers’ and ‘the expropriation of the landlords’, the novelty of which left Andrews bewildered – and intrigued. Here was a way of looking at the national question he had never considered before.

What I heard from Peadar depicted in my mind at least an alternative future for Ireland which someone might want to create. While it lasted and while Peadar’s spell was on me, I was fascinated by these ideas.

While it lasted’ – this enthusiasm remained only until the two men parted company at Letterkenny Station, and Andrews took the train back south. Gone was the class warrior O’Donnell had tried to mould, and his pupil reverted to being, first and foremost, a soldier for Ireland. O’Donnell always made an impression, even if, however sublime the theory, leaving an impact was more complicated.[42]


[1] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Cork: Mercier Press, 1979), pp. 196-8

[2] O’Donoghue, Michael (BMH / WS 1741, Part 2), p. 95

[3] Ibid, p. 108

[4] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 24

[5] McInerney, Michael. Peadar O’Donnell: Irish Social Rebel (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1974, pp. 31, 41

[6] Ibid, p. 31

[7] McCann, Seamus (BMH / WS 763), pp. 10-1

[8] Military Service Pensions Collection, MSP34REF60300, ‘O’Donnell, Peadar’, p. 16

[9] Ibid, p. 28

[10] McCann, pp. 6-8

[11] O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), pp. 23-4

[12] McCann, pp. 11-2

[13] Ibid, pp. 12-3

[14] Breslin, Patrick (BMH / WS 1448), pp. 19-20

[15] O’Malley, p. 25

[16] McCann, pp. 13-4

[17] Andrews, p. 199

[18] McCann, pp. 14-8

[19] Ibid, pp. 18-9

[20] Derry Journal, 04/04/1921

[21] McCann, p. 19

[22] UCD Archives, Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, p. 324

[23] Ibid, p. 328

[24] Ibid, pp. 329-33

[25] Ibid, pp. 346-7

[26] Ibid, p. 344

[27] Donnelly, Thomas (BMH / WS 519), p. 3

[28] MacEoin, p. 24

[29] Ibid, p. 22

[30] Ibid, p 23

[31] MSP34REF60300, pp. 16, 33

[32] O’Donoghue, p. 95

[33] Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, pp. 348-51

[34] O’Malley, p. 22

[35] O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 104

[36] O’Malley, p. 30

[37] McCann, pp. 21-2

[38] Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, p. 344

[39] Ibid, p. 345

[40] Ibid, p. 344

[41] Ibid, p. 322

[42] Andrews, pp. 198-200



Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Cork: Mercier Press, 1979)

MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

McInerney, Michael. Peadar O’Donnell: Irish Social Rebel (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1974)

O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

Bureau of Military Statements

Breslin, Patrick, WS 1448

Donnelly, Thomas, WS 519

McCann, Seamus, WS 763

O’Donoghue, Michael, WS 1741


Derry Journal

 UCD Archives

Mulcahy Papers

Military Service Pensions Collection

O’Donnell, Peadar, MSP34REF60300

Dysfunction Junction: The Rising That Wasn’t in Co. Kerry, April 1916

‘Richard Morton’

It was just another morning for Constable Bernard Reilly as he waited out his shift at Ardfert Station, Co. Kerry, on the 21st April 1916, Good Friday, when a man came by to report a boat seen down by Banna Strand. Reilly passed this on to his superior, Sergeant Tom Hearne, who went to investigate with Constable Robert Larke.

All three were members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the police force tasked with upholding law and order throughout Ireland – British law and order, that is. It was a centuries-old state of affairs that some, unbeknown to Reilly and his colleagues, were planning to change and soon – within the next few days, in fact.

RIC Barracks, Ardfert, Co. Kerry

Hearne and Larkin returned to the station at 11 am with a horse and cart, on top of which was a boat. As well as the abandoned vessel, the two RIC men had found on the beach three Mauser pistols, some ammunition, two or three signalling lamps and several maps, including one of the locality. Talk about town was of three strangers seen walking inland from the direction of Banna Strand, presumably having come in off the boat in question.

Sergeant Hearne sent a report via the Ardfert post office to the RIC headquarters in Tralee and then took Larke and Reilly to search for the rumoured trio. After fruitlessly knocking on the doors of houses in the vicinity, Hearne, accompanied by Reilly, decided to give McKenna’s Fort a try. While the sergeant treated himself to a smoke outside, Reilly entered the Fort, if that was not too grand a name for the overgrown, long-abandoned rath.

Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916). Mckenna''s Fort Where Casement Was Captured. He Was Hanged For Treason.
McKenna’s Fort, Ardfert, Co. Kerry

As he did so:

…a man approached me from the shrubbery. He was a tall gentleman. He looked foreign to me and not generally the type one meets in a street. There was nothing unusual about his clothes. He wore a beard and had more or less an aristocratic appearance.

This regal-looking individual introduced himself as Richard Morton, a writer from England who was in Kerry researching for a book he was writing on St Brendan the Navigator, a local celebrity from antiquity. As he spoke, Morton fiddled with a sword-stick, drawing the blade in and out, while glancing over his shoulder as if looking for someone.

So that there would be no misunderstanding, Reilly advised the other man to refrain from unsheathing his weapon or else he would shoot with his own. Actually, the rifle Reilly carried was unloaded but there was no need for the twitchy visitor to know otherwise.

‘Richard Morton’

When Sergeant Hearne appeared, Morton repeated his story to him. Not wholly convinced by this, Hearne asked him if he could come with them to the station, to which the self-proclaimed Englishman agreed. He had probably guessed he had little in the way of choice on the matter.

The two policemen and their surprise acquaintance walked to the public road, about seventy-five yards from the fort, where they came across a boy called Martin Collins, who was driving a pony and trap. Commandeering a ride, if temporarily, Reilly put Morton on the trap and, sitting firmly beside him, rode off, with Hearne and Collins waiting behind.

Reilly took him to a farmhouse where lived Mary Gorman, who had first spotted the three mystery men leaving from Banna Strand while she milked the cows. After Gorman identified Morton as one of the trio, Reilly returned with him to where Hearne and Collins were waiting.

Mary Gorman and Martin Collins at the trial of Casement in London, May 1916

The RIC men gave the pony and trap back to the boy, who, his curiosity piqued, followed the small group of Hearne, Reilly and Morton as they walked the mile back to Ardfert Station. It was by then midday. Collins handed a slip of paper to Reilly, which their new friend had dropped. Written on it was part of a code – useless in itself, but something which would later serve as evidence in a trial that resulted in the sentence of death for ‘Richard Morton’ or, rather, Sir Roger Casement.[1]

Germany Calling

For Casement, it was a strangely anticlimactic end to an adventure that had promised so much at the start. “At last in Berlin! The journey done – the effort perhaps only begun!” he wrote in his diary in October 1914. “Shall I succeed? Will they see the great cause aright and understand all it may mean to them, no less to Ireland?”[2]

Berlin, 1914

The answer, initially, was ‘yes’; his new allies did indeed see the worth of the mission Casement brought before them. A succession of German officials listened sympathetically as he spoke of his dreams of enlisting their nation’s help in securing the freedom of his own, though their sanguinity could give even him pause. When Casement warned Baron Wilheim von Stumm that Britain had the means to prolong its current war with Germany for years, the Director of the Political Department at the Foreign Office laughed.

“What can she do to us?” von Stumm replied. “Her fleet is become a laughing stock.”[3]

By April 1916, almost two years later, Casement was straining to escape his host country. “My last day in Berlin! Thank God!” Even a possible fate at the end of an English noose did nothing to deter him. “Oh! To see the misted hills of Kerry and the coast and to tread the fair strand of Tralee!”[4]

Roger Casement at leisure

He had already been informed, on the 30th March, about the planned uprising in Ireland. As the Germans initially declined to provide any weapons or men to help, Casement could foretell only disaster. “I said I could guarantee no revolution and that I sincerely hoped there would be none!”[5]

The next day, he was wheezing in bed, struck down by a lung congestion, but no less committed to returning, if only to put a stop to this rebellion-in-the-works. That the Germans had at last consented to provide help, in the form of a steamer loaded with weapons for Tralee Bay, on Easter Monday, but only on condition of the Irish rebels being out in the field already on the Sunday, was enough to send Casement into a rage: “The utter callousness & indifference here – only seeking bloodshed in Ireland.”[6]

The only thing left for him to do was board the submarine provided for him and put Baron von Stumm’s lofty dismissal of the Royal Navy to the test.

Casement in the tower of the German U-boat, with crew

Casement was not looking forward to the journey – twelve days, he reckoned, inside a stinking, suffocating confinement – but it would be worth it once he reached his homeland. He had been assured they would make it in time but Casement nursed his doubts: “My first fear is that we shall never land – but be kept off the shore until the ‘rebellion’ breaks out.”[7]

And that was the last line in his diary, though there was still much to happen. Too much, and also too little.


Accompanying Casement on his return home were Captain Robert Monteith and Sergeant Daniel Bailey. The former had come to Germany to assist Casement with setting up the ‘Irish Brigade’, made up of Irish POWs, while the latter was one of these said recruits, before the project was set aside as a failure.

casements-ncosThe Germany Navy had at least rowed back on its original demands for an Irish rebellion to have broken out the day before the weapons shipment landed. Instead, a vessel was now set to arrive between Holy Thursday, the 20th April, and Easter Sunday, the 23rd, the window of four days being regarded by the German planners as sufficient to account for the vagaries of weather. As the insurrection was timed for the Sunday, according to the missives from the revolutionary leadership in Dublin, the haul of 20,000 rifles should arrive in time for the rebels to be thus equipped for when they set forth.

As he listened to these arrangements being laid out at the Admiralty in Berlin, Monteith was dismayed at what he considered to be a pitifully inadequate donation of weapons, and said as much. It was brutally clear, however, that that was all the Irish cause could expect from its ‘gallant allies’. At least a bedridden Casement was elated when Monteith brought the news to him – any development was better than none at this point.[8]

Nonetheless, the three Irishmen found much to brood over as the U-boat took them over the northern tip of Britain and down the Irish west coast. They had been away for so long that they knew little about how things stood in their country. Nor could they be sure about the Aud – the steamer carrying the rifles – arriving in time, if at all, and whether the rebellion Casement dreaded would happen regardless.

When the U-boat passed the mouth of the Shannon, on the evening of the 20th April, the trio watched from the conning tower, peering into the starless night for the pilot boat that was due to guide them but its twin green lights – the prearranged signal – never materialised.

Other lights came and went but never the ones they so desperately sought. Neither did the Aud appear, though the Irishmen had spotted it earlier in the day. Finally, the submarine captain announced that they could wait no longer and set the course for full speed towards Tralee Bay. As the three Irishmen prepared to disembark, Monteith loaded his pistol, and then tried teaching Casement how to use his.

“It is quite possible we may either kill or be killed,” Monteith warned but Casement had never handled a gun before and, besides, he appeared too sick to be of any use in a fight. Monteith suggested some sleep but, what with all the worry, that was also unlikely to happen.

Casement (second from the left) onboard the German submarine, with Bailey (left) and Beverley (third from right)

Instead, they gloomily discussed their odds. While they had evaded British patrol ships, Casement did not think the German steamer would be so lucky. Other than the loss of the much-needed weaponry, such a find, Casement feared, would almost certainly put the authorities on their guard.

Further talk was curtailed by a German officer telling them that it was time to go ashore. When Monteith saw the size of the boat that was to carry them, he had the presence of mind to request three lifebelts. Casement sat in the stern, Monteith the bow, and Bailey in between as the boat was lowered onto the lazily rolling waves. Its duty done, the submarine receded into the dark, leaving the three companions to face the unknown.[9]

Hunting for Help

As the captain had refused them a motor, lest the sound betray the German presence – concern for the Irishmen was not so forthcoming – the tiny crew had to make do with rowing. Somehow they avoided drowning, though just about. A landlubber at heart, Monteith pushed his oar too deeply and went overboard, head first, before Bailey hauled him back.

The boat Casement, Monteith and Beverley took to Banna Strand (now in the Imperial War Museum, London

When they were close enough to shore, Monteith jumped out, standing up to his waist in the water while Bailey unloaded, first their equipment and then Casement, who was practically an invalid by then. Monteith tried scuttling the boat but the wood was too hard for his knife, the only tool he had at hand, and so he abandoned the task.

But the wretched tub was not yet finished with me. As I was about to leave, a wave struck it, and drove it sideways on top of my right foot. This wrenched my ankle, adding a little to my general discomfort. I scrambled away, and went up to the beach.

All three men were stretched out on the sand, soaked to the skin, bereft of sleep and food save for the little they could keep down during the past few days of seasickness. Casement looked the worst, being barely conscious, and Monteith had to make him move about so as to restore some semblance of circulation to his limbs.

Banna Strand, Co. Kerry

With dawn fast approaching, the trio knew they had to act. Given the perilous state of Casement’s health, it was decided to leave him in hiding while the other two walked into Tralee, their plan from there being to procure a motorcar for Dublin. So as to not stand out when reaching civilisation, they buried their Mauser pistols, ammunition belts, field glasses and the rest of the equipment, save their overcoats, in the beach.

Striking inland, they stumbled into some bogland, as if they were not damp enough already. Sunrise gave them some comfort, as well as a better view, and, coming to firmer land, they found a ruined old castle which they had been considering as the best place to leave Casement. Seeing it in the cold light of day, however, the group were forced to rethink that plan – Monteith did not think the castle large enough to hide a cat – and so it was agreed to keep going and find a better site.

Irish bogland

As they passed a farmhouse on the road:

Looking over the wall, we saw a young girl, her hair tousled and untidy, blinking at the sun and leaning on a half door. She saw us, and stared in a manner that showed it was unusual for strangers to pass along that road so early in the morning.

Considering their bedraggled state, it was hardly surprising that they would attract attention, from Mary Gorman or anyone, at any time of the day. The trio were more careful when a cart rumbled their way on the road. Crossing the fence to the side, they hid among the bushes until the cart passed, its two passengers seemingly none the wiser.

Half an hour later, they had a second bit of good fortune when finding the remnants of an ancient hill-fort, thick with shrubbery. That seemed an opportune place to leave Casement, better than the previous choice in any case, and so the other two pressed on while their comrade recuperated as best he could.[10]


Following the shore road, Monteith and Bailey were able to cover the eight miles to Tralee in good time. Carefully avoiding the RIC station at Ardfert – whose occupants would soon be paying a visit to Casement in McKenna’s Fort – they saw no one except a surly farmer, who did not bother to return their greeting, and then a sole policeman, who took one look at the pair before continuing on his way. The two men breathed a sigh of relief at this timely piece of official negligence.

It was 7 am on Good Friday morning when they reached Tralee. There were some people about but no shops open, save for a few newsagents. Both Monteith and Bailey were so ignorant of the area that they decided their only chance lay in finding someone who wore a tricolour or, failing that, a newsagent that sold the more radical papers in the hope that their sympathies were as republican as their stock.

Tralee, Co. Kerry (1905?)

They had no such luck until coming across a hairdresser’s saloon, with posters outside of The Irish Volunteer and The Worker’s Republic, exactly the sort of titles they were seeking. The saloon was not open but the neighbouring door was and so the pair took the chance of accepting the invite of a shave from the man standing there:

We entered and found ourselves in a news agent’s shop, which was lighted by the doorway only as the shutters were not yet off the windows. The proprietor, whose name was [George] Spicer, informed me that he worked both the news agent’s and hair dressing shops, and that his son would be down in a minute to shave me.

Having gone too far to back away now, Monteith asked Spicer for the name and address of whoever led the Irish Volunteers around there, adding that he and his companion were on important business concerning them. As proof of his urgency, he pointed to their wet clothes.

austin_stackAfter thinking it over, Spicer called his son down and told him to go fetch Austin Stack, the commander in question. All Monteith and Bailey could do in the meantime was wait: “We were counting the minutes as we thought of poor Casement away out in the old fort, wet, cold and hungry, waiting for a car that never came.”

When Stack arrived, he was accompanied by his aide, Con Collins, who had met Monteith before and was able to vouch for him to his commandant. Monteith gave them the basic details of Casement’s plight, including his need to go to Dublin and get in touch with the leadership of the Irish Volunteers there. Stack promptly dispatched a man to find a motor car for that purpose.

When Monteith asked after the German ship with the arms, Stack replied that his orders were that the vessel in question was not due to reach Tralee Bay until Easter Sunday, in two days’ time:

He had no information of the ship being already in the bay. I urged that he send a pilot out at once and told him what the ship carried. I told him there was no artillery coming, neither officers nor artillery men. Stack made no comment beyond saying that as far as his orders went, the ship was not to come in until Sunday night.[11]

In fact, there had been talk of a strange vessel sighted off Fenit Point on the previous day, Thursday, leading to a trusted Volunteer, William Mullins, being sent there to investigate. After talking to a few locals, Mullins returned to Tralee to report his belief that the rumours had been entirely spurious.[12]

The Aud, the German ship carrying the rifles

The Larger Project

And now these two outsiders had appeared out of nowhere to tell Stack that his orders from Dublin were wrong. That they were there at all put him in an awkward position, threatening as they did, with their mere presence and unsolicited updates, the plans for the Rising in Kerry.

For Stack, the event had been a long time in the making, ever since he was summoned to Dublin, sometime in late 1915 or early 1916, for an interview with Patrick Pearse, on the grounds of the latter’s school of St Enda’s. Accompanying Stack was Alf Cotton, a Belfast native who had been sent to Kerry by their mutual superiors to help Stack lay the groundwork for….something.

St Enda’s School, Dublin

That something was revealed by Pearse to be a full-scale insurrection of the Irish Volunteers throughout the country, timed for the Easter Week of 1916. A series of parades would provide cover for the different units to muster, after which they would act on their respective instructions.

Those for the Tralee Company were more elaborate than most. Besides the usual targets – such as the RIC barracks, the post office and the train station – the Kerry Volunteers were to greet a ship carrying German arms at Fenit Pier and then help with the logistics of transporting the cargo, via commandeered trains, along the west of Ireland, where the Volunteer companies on the route would take their share.

Irish Volunteers

Concerned about the difficulties the vessel in question would face, from the dangers of fog or storm, to running the blockade of British warships, Cotton suggested alternatives, such as landing the supplies in smaller amounts at different points, or even the use of Zeppelins to bypass the Royal Navy altogether, but Pearse insisted that the arrangements had already been set in motion.

Patrick Pearse

Pearse also stressed the need for absolute secrecy. Information was to be limited to a select few, only when necessary, and never more than needed. Previous rebellions had floundered from a fatal leakage of intelligence, a negligence which Pearse was determined would not be repeated this time.

“Secrecy was to be preserved up to the very last minute,” as Cotton described. “Much depended on the element of surprise both for our local activities and for the larger project.”[13]

Pearse reinforced these instructions on a visit to Tralee, three or four weeks before Easter Week. In particular, Stack was to keep his men on a tight leash, at least until Easter Sunday, the designated date, lest any premature deed tip their hand to the British authorities.[14]

‘The Game is Up’

This was something Stack kept at the forefront of his mind during those hectic hours, when he struggled to fulfil the duties bestowed on him by Pearse, while juggling with the sudden demands thrust on him by Monteith and Beverley. As his widow put it:

Austin was blamed by some for not trying to organise a rescue of Sir Roger Casement and I know he felt very sore about it, but he always said his orders were definite that no shot should be fired before the start of general hostilities on Easter Sunday and he knew well that any fracas that might take place in Tralee would frustrate all the plans made for the Rising.[15]

But first Stack made an attempt to retrieve Casement from where the newcomers said they left him. When the car Stack requested pulled up outside, he and Collins got in, along with Bailey, while Monteith stayed behind. As a guide, however, Bailey left something to be desired, ignorant as he was of the locality, with only the information that Casement was “somewhere on Banna Strand” to offer.

Which was better than nothing. Stack recruited Maurice Moriarty, a Tralee Volunteer, to put his profession as a chauffeur to use in driving him, Collins and Bailey to Banna Strand, taking care to avoid the police base at Ardfert. When they came across a horse and cart, managed by two RIC men from the opposite direction, Stack asked Bailey if the boat on top was his.

When Bailey replied that it was the same, Stack could only exclaim: “Oh, God, lads, the game is up.”

RIC men with Casement’s boat from Banna Strand

Worse, there were about twenty policemen posted about Banna Strand, obviously on the lookout. Finding Casement suddenly became the least of their concerns. “The game is up,” Stack repeated, according to Moriarty. “What are we going to do now?”

As a RIC officer, Sergeant Daniel Croly, came their way, it was quickly agreed inside the car that they would pose as innocent sightseers. It was then that one of their tyres burst, prompting the startled sergeant to accuse them of firing a gun at him. The police were clearly on edge, though how much the authorities knew was yet uncertain.

Bluffing and Brazening

When Croly had calmed down:

He then got curious and demanded an explanation of our presence on the Strand. I [Moriarty] told him my passengers were visitors on holiday, they wished to travel along the sea coast, and that I was under the impression it was possible to get to Ballyheigue by following the beach.

The sergeant did not seem wholly convinced by this but left them alone long enough for the four men to change their tyre and drive away to Lawlor’s Cross. Croly followed them there on a bicycle and continued his questioning, such as whether they had heard anything about a boat landing that morning.

When Stack replied that he did not, Croly continued: “Yes, we got the boat and we got our man, too.”

When the policeman next asked what he would do if put under arrest, Stack threatened to make a fight of it. After some more verbal toing-and-froing, Croly finally searched the car and, finding nothing of note, let them go. Even that was not the last the Volunteers saw of the sergeant, for when they drove on to Ballyheigue – to go anywhere else would have only incited more suspicion – and called into a pub:

After we were there some time I [Moriarty] saw Sergeant [Croly] going into the Post Office. I called Stack’s attention to this and Stack said, “Yes, I saw him. I suppose he is ‘phoning all over Ireland. We are done now.”

Stack’s gloom seemed justified when they travelled on to Causeway village, to be confronted by an RIC patrol on the alert for their car. Collins was searched when he got out and taken away to the barracks when a Webley revolver was found on him.

Webley revolver, of the type used in 1916

Stack made a tougher show of it, admitting that he had a loaded automatic, along with spare ammunition and some documents, but that, when asked if he had the paperwork for the gun: “No Irishman needs a certificate these days to carry firearms.”

When the sergeant in charge weakly admitted this was the case, Stack boldly went to the barracks, gun still in hand, and came out a few minutes later with Collins. Stack had brazened his way and that of his comrades out of trouble but it was clear now that the risks of keeping Bailey, a stranger to the area, around for any longer were too great. After they drove out of Causeway, they stopped at Ballymacaurin village to leave Bailey at the house of a Volunteer.

Con Collins

The remaining three returned to Tralee, their journey done, with Stack warning the others to deny anything if asked. As Moriarty left to park the car, he noticed an increased RIC presence on the streets. He had just finished dinner at home when another policeman came to ask about his passengers that day. Moriarty stuck to his script and insisted that the others had merely been tourists.[16]

Austin Stack

Stack and Collins were likewise questioned together at the former’s house by a constable, with Stack waxing indignant at how their trip that morning had been ruined by intrusive peelers. After sharing a light meal, Collins left to see a friend in town, while Stack went to the Rink, a hall rented by the Irish Volunteers for their activities.

Stack had previously called a meeting for there, ostensibly to organise a parade, set to be held on the Sunday, in two days’ time. In reality, the event was intended only as an excuse for the Volunteers to muster, just before the Rising was due to begin, a motive Stack had been keeping to himself. True to his instructions for absolute secrecy until the last possible moment, he continued the charade as he sat down to work out the details of the phoney parade with the other officers in attendance.

Irish Volunteers

The session was almost concluded when Collins’ friend in town, Michael O’Flynn, came in to take Stack aside. O’Flynn told him that he had been with Collins when the RIC came to arrest the latter, and he was now passing on the other man’s request for Stack to see him in the station. Stack agreed to do so and returned to the meeting, when another piece of bad fortune arrived, courtesy of a Volunteer who had come from Ardfert on a bicycle:

I saw this scout immediately and the news that he had for me was to the effect that the Ardfert police had brought to the barracks, as a prisoner, a tall bearded man. At once I knew that this was Sir Roger Casement.

When Stack broke this news to the others in the Rink, the immediate response was a call to attempt a rescue. It was not something Stack could allow, given his orders – as he now revealed – to keep everyone quiet until the appointed time on Sunday. After dissuading the rest from taking any rash action, Stack next arranged for two couriers to be sent to inform Dublin of the developments, from Casement’s arrest to the premature arrival of the German ship.

The latter was a particular problem in Stack’s mind:

I had the view that it would be almost impossible for the vessel to escape on account of the capture of Sir Roger Casement, as the English were now certain to be keeping a sharp look-out everywhere about that part of the coast.[17]

The two messengers knew exactly where to go when they reached Dublin. Eoin MacNeill may have been Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers but the true power of the forthcoming revolution had gathered inside Liberty Hall.

James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke and several others listened as one of the Kerrymen, William Mullins, delivered his report about Casement’s arrest and how, according to Casement, there would be arms coming from Germany but no soldiers. Mullins knew nothing about any uprising, though he must have suspected something upon seeing about sixty or seventy men in a room inside Liberty Hall, busily preparing gun cartridges.

Armed men standing to attention outside Liberty Hall, Dublin

If his listeners were fazed at the news, they did not show it. “There will be no change in the original plans,” Pearse told Mullins to pass on back to Kerry.[18]


Stack, meanwhile, had gone to the RIC barracks as requested, where he asked to speak to Collins. The constable on duty excused himself after asking the visitor to remain in the room, and there an unsuspecting Stack was waiting when, a few minutes later, the constable returned with several of his colleagues to put him under arrest.[19]

It is unlikely that the police were aware of how effectively their capture of Stack had decapitated the Kerry Volunteers, the vast majority of whom were only dimly aware, at best, that anything was in the works. “Apart from rumours and whisperings of things to happen,” remembered Peter Browne, captain of the Scartaglin Company, “the average Volunteer had no official inkling of anything big coming off.”

The man best positioned to take over from Stack was Alf Cotton, the Volunteer organiser from Belfast, but he was nowhere to be found. Browne believed he had returned to his home city earlier in the year, apparently to take care of his sick mother. Cotton would be accused of being intentionally absent by Paddy Cahill, who, despite being next in line as battalion adjutant, knew only a little more than the rank-and-file.

Irish Volunteers

When Browne interviewed him as part of a history project, “Paddy Cahill told me that he had no knowledge of the major plans for Kerry when Stack was arrested.” While Cahill knew there were weapons being shipped in, he had believed, like Stack, that they would not be due until Easter Sunday.

“It later transpired that the sinking of the Aud had completely upset the plans locally and nationally,” Browne wrote. “What the plans for this were never came to light.”

It says much about the confusion surrounding the Easter Week of 1916, even years later, that when Browne suggested he write up his version of events, Cahill replied that he had done so already and sent it to Stack’s widow for the book she was writing about her husband. Browne asked Winifred Stack about it, shortly after Cahill’s death, only to be told that she had not received any such information from him.[20]

Hiding Out

Monteith was better informed than most in Kerry; he, at least, knew there was supposed to be a Rising. But, in other respects, he was as woefully ignorant as any.

Eoin MacNeill

When the two messengers went to Dublin, Monteith assumed they were making for Eoin MacNeill as Chief of Staff. It never occurred to him that the couriers would go instead to Liberty Hall and bypass the chain of command as he knew it. Nor did his Kerry compatriots make any effort to bring him up to date.

He was a man groping in the dark, as he later described it, a fact that continued to rankle by the time he put pen to paper for his memoirs: “These men with me knew that my life was not worth a moment’s purchase, yet they did not enlighten me.”

By Friday night, Monteith had learnt from the evening papers about the arrests of Stack and Collins, along with the discovery of the boat by which he and the other two had left the U-boat. “It was a peculiar report to read of one’s own adventures,” he mused.

With little else to do until the big event on Sunday, Monteith laid low in a friendly house. That the Volunteers had thought to post an armed guard inside was of some comfort, though otherwise the news on Saturday morning was hardly reassuring: British soldiers had come into Tralee by train, while armed RIC men stalked the streets of the town.

British army patrol

Several times, an enemy patrol would pass by the house, with Monteith watching anxiously from behind a window curtain until they had gone. When he finally ventured out, on Saturday night, it was in a workman’s garb, complete with a greasy cap over his head and chimney soot on his face.[21]

“If the police stop us or try to arrest you,” said one of the Kerrymen to their charge, “we will open fire.”

He meant it as a reassurance, but Monteith was unimpressed. He had not made it thus far without appreciating the virtue of caution, after all. “I am the officer. I have more authority,” he replied tartly. “There is to be no firing.”[22]

Assuming Command

Robert Monteith

Around a dozen other men were waiting for them at the Rink, standing to attention and under the command of Paddy Cahill. At least, Monteith assumed Cahill was in charge, until the Kerryman told him that the authority was now his. Orders had come in to that effect, said Cahill, though he was coy when asked on whose authority. Monteith tried to talk himself out of it, arguing that he knew nothing about Tralee, either the area or its men, but Cahill was adamant.

Finally, Monteith gave in and assumed responsibility, however flabbergasting he found it. “Here was an amazing situation,” he wrote in his memoirs. “An officer, my senior, ordering me to take command, while he reverted to the ranks.”

At least he had his experience as an officer in the British Army to fall back on. Unfortunately, as he talked to his new subordinates in the Rink, it was apparent that the rest of the Irish Volunteers had not had the same level of training. Neither did they know much about what was to be done besides a vague notion of seizing the military barracks, RIC station, telegraph office and train station, before marching to the coastal village of Fenit and unloading the promised German arms from there. Any further details had been known only by Stack, and he was gone.

And then there was the issue of numbers. Monteith estimated he would have three hundred men at his disposal, of which only two-thirds were armed. Word was that reinforcements would join them from Dingle but no one could confirm this. Against them would be five hundred British soldiers and about two hundred policemen, and now with the advantage of surprise lost.

“I knew I had a full day’s work ahead of me,” Monteith recalled laconically.[23]

British soldiers at a checkpoint

Easter Sunday

Monteith sent the officers home for the night while he stayed in the Rink and brooded on what to do. Holy Saturday passed into Easter Sunday, the day set for the Rising, and Monteith received word that at least one of the companies outside Tralee – he spared naming the unit in question for posterity – would not be making the rendezvous with destiny, the Volunteers having decided among themselves that, in light of the absence of German assistance, there was little point in continuing.

Not so doleful, Monteith yet had hope, however slim, in the arms-ship reaching them. To that end, he sent out scouts to Fenit Point, where the vessel was to come – if at all – and another in a car to Killarney in the hope of coordinating with the Irish Volunteers there should the arms arrive and, if so, with the aim of opening the way to their comrades in Limerick. “The Limerick men, I had been told, were to hold the line of the Shannon, what section I did not know, nor for what reason.”

And these questions were to remain unknown, for the messenger to Killarney never returned. The Fenit scouts did, to report the presence of two Royal Navy warships in the bay. So much for the German vessel then, for there was no hope now of it breaking through.

James Connolly

At least the two messengers had reached their destination of Dublin, as shown by the return of a verbal message from James Connolly, to the effect that everything was alright and to continue as planned. What these plans were, however, remained sketchy, a situation his Kerry subordinates were of little help in remedying, often seeming to regard him with suspicion, to judge from their evasive, distinctly unhelpful responses to his queries.[24]

In that regard, Monteith was not imagining things. “Cahill did not trust Monteith as he or none of us knew anything about him,” remembered one of the men at the time.[25]

‘The Most Wonderful Part’

A glimmer of hope came with the only-half-expected Dingle contingent, at about 11 am, whose Volunteers had walked the thirty to forty miles to Tralee. Next were the Ballymacelligott men, adding their forty numbers to the Dingle hundred and twenty, while women from Cumann na mBan joined them to prepare some breakfast. Monteith now had about three hundred and twenty men to his command, although only two hundred were armed, either with a rifle or revolver.

Irish Volunteers

Still, despite his professional misgivings, Monteith could not help but be touched by the display:

The most wonderful part of the whole thing, and perhaps the most tragic as I saw it, were boys of fourteen to seventeen years of age, marching in without as much as a walking stick with which to defend themselves, but all in the sure and certain hope of gaining a glorious victory over the usurping English.

Monteith told the Dingle captain to send out his charges with money to purchase supplies, enough for two days, and then be back at the Rink for 1.30 pm, half an hour before they would begin the Rising that would shake an empire. When Monteith asked if they were ready, the Dingle man replied: “Yes, in more ways than one, they have all been to the altar.”

It had started raining by the time a stranger, his face obscured by his collar upturned against the downpour, arrived at the Rink. When Monteith got a better look, he recognised him as Patrick Whelan, an acquaintance of his from their time together in the Limerick Volunteers. Monteith was eager to ascertain how things stood in Limerick but Whelan – after his surprise at seeing Monteith, thinking him still in Germany – brought word that abruptly rendered their plans irrelevant: all operations were to be cancelled. The Rising was over before it had even begun.

“Here was a pretty mix-up,” as Monteith put it, with masterly understatement.[26]

The countermanding order that cancelled the Rising, as published in the ‘Irish Independent’

The End of Easter Week

After all the drama and tension of the past few days, Easter Monday was oddly quiet. By the evening, word of fighting in distant Dublin had begun to circulate, galvanising some of the Kerry Volunteers into mobilising that night, at the Rink again. Even then, caution ruled and most of the attendees were dismissed, with only twenty remaining to guard the hall for the night and to receive the scouts who were bringing messengers from the other units around Kerry.

With no one aware of the situation or sufficiently placed, after the loss of Stack and Cotton, to know what to do, all the men could do was wait…and wait.

“Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday passed off quietly,” remembered Peter Browne. “The Rink was full of Volunteers at all times and wild rumours were afloat about Dublin and other places. On Friday there were rumours of a surrender in Dublin.”

These defeatist reports were initially dismissed but, later in the day:

They were confirmed at Volunteer headquarters on Friday night. A meeting was arranged between the local British military officers and some Tralee citizens, including the clergy, which was attended by Volunteer representatives who agreed, in order to avoid arrests, to surrender all arms and ammunition to the military on or before Saturday.

At least the Kerry Volunteers, when this requirement was announced to them on parade on Friday night, could take some measure of defiance in denying the enemy the use of their weapons as the men grabbed hammers or sledges to smash the barrels of their guns. Browne was an exception as he instead smuggled his rifle out of the Rink beneath his coat. Four years passed before he could finally put it to use, in 1920, during an attack on a RIC barracks.[27]

RIC Barracks

‘One Great Tragedy’

But, for now, it looked as if the movement was beaten. If the Kerry Volunteers had assumed that rolling over in submission would be the end of it, they were rudely disabused the following week, when it was reported, on the 11th May:

A Tralee message says that wholesale arrests of prominent members of the Sinn Fein organisation were effected throughout Kerry on Tuesday [9th May]. In Tralee, cavalry, infantry, and police turned out and halted opposite each house where arrests were made. Excitement ran high, but there was no disturbance.[28]

Such coordination by the RIC and British military showed that the authorities were taking no chances. When William Mullins saw a woman curse some prisoners being led away by British soldiers, he grabbed the Union Jack from her hands and tore it to pieces. He was arrested the next day, and taken to join the other detainees in Tralee Jail.[29]

Crowds Trying to Force Barricade
British soldiers in Ireland, with civilians

By then, Stack and Collins had already been removed from the gaol. Since his confinement there on Easter Saturday, Stack had remained out of the loop, save when two friends visited him on Monday to inform him of the cancellation order, leaving Stack to assume that that was the end of their venture.

He was still oblivious when he and Collins were ordered out of their cells on Easter Wednesday, marched to the train under heavy escort and transferred to Cork, and then Queenstown (now Cobh), before taken by steamer to Spike Island. The next three weeks were spent in the purgatory of solitary confinement, ignorant of the world beyond until, on the 13th May, the pair were transported to Dublin.

British soldiers marching prisoners from the Rising through Dublin

While en route, their train stopped in Cork. The previously empty carriage they were held in was soon filled with prisoners from the Cork Volunteers. From them, Stack and Collins were able to learn of how rapidly the revolution had moved in their absence:

We were told of the Rising which had taken place in Dublin, Galway and Wexford, and which lasted until the following Sunday, and of the trials and executions…The burning of the GPO and other buildings in O’Connell St., Dublin, and many other details were discussed by our companions and ourselves.

To Stack, his head spinning at these revelations, “the whole thing at the moment seemed to be one great tragedy.”

Failure and/or Success

Terence MacSwiney

More prisoners from Kerry and Limerick were added on board when the train paused at Mallow. Upon arrival in the capital – or what was left of it – they were marched en masse to Richmond Barracks, When locked in for the night, Stack and Collins found themselves in distinguished company, in the form of Arthur Griffith, Terence MacSwiney and Pierce McCann, and about thirty others, all crammed in a room meant for twelve, lacking blankets and with only the floorboards to sleep on.

Though conditions remained wretched and the rations no better, Stack was able to converse with MacSwiney, an old friend and the commander of the similarly ill-fated Cork attempt:

We compared notes as to the Insurrection which had taken place, and from the news which had begun to come to us from our visitors, we began to have hope that the people of the country had had the spirit of Nationality re-awakened in them.[30]

Such revived patriotism was on full display on the 31st August 1917, fifteen months after the Rising, at Caherciveen, where five hundred Kerry Volunteers assembled to welcome Stack, now a freed man, his life sentence having been revoked as part of the general amnesty. After a parade through the streets, the Volunteers drew up before a platform in the town square, from which a number of speakers, Stack among them, spoke to mark the forming of the local Sinn Féin Club, one of many which had been springing up all over Kerry and the rest of the country. The Caherciveen one alone could boast of two hundred members inducted on its opening day.

Sinn Féin postcard, 1917/8

Stack had earlier attended, on the 28th July 1917, the Listowel Feis, as part of the promotion of the Irish tongue. After a lengthy address by Count Plunkett, whose son had been among those executed after the Rising, Stack next took the stage, appearing almost bashful before the crowd.

“Women and men of North Kerry, I can’t account for the fact that I am here today,” he began:

Or that I should be welcomed by you because, personally, I know I have done nothing to merit your kind reception. The little I had got to do in the matter of 1916 was, shall I say, somewhat of a failure.

This self-deprecation was met with cries of “It was a success!” When Stack continued, stating that he was no orator, nor intended to ever become one, a voice from the crowd suggested something better – “You’re a fighter!” – to general applause from an appreciative audience.[31]

Hard Facts

Austin Stack

Regardless of what others said, Stack held no illusions as to whether the Rising in Kerry had been a success. Nor was he inclined to spare himself reproach. “I tried to keep it a one-man job,” he bemoaned in private, “and it was too much.”[32]

Stack had kept the plans so secret that his subordinates had been left floundering in his absence. His importance was singled out by County Inspector Hill, when testifying, on the 27th May 1916, to the Royal Commission, set up to investigate the disturbances of the month before:

Austin Stack was in charge of everything, and when he was arrested the Irish Volunteers who were assembled in Tralee became nervous. Those of them who were from the country districts gradually left for home.

This lack of coordination came under particular scrutiny by Sir Mackenzie Chalmers, one of the three members of the Commission, when he reviewed the checkmating of the Aud. Intercepted by British warships, the German vessel had been scuttled by its crew, who had then been taken into captivity.

Sir Mackenzie Chalmers: The German ship intended to land at Tralee?

Hill: Yes, by force.

Chalmers: There was not much preparation to receive it? Only two men in a motor car?

Hill: There was a large number in Tralee. My idea is that the ship came in a day or two too soon. She was unpunctual.

Another person of interest, Robert Monteith, was noted to be still at large.[33]

illuminations-captain-robert-monteith-aAfter the countermanding order had arrived at the Rink, Monteith decided that, since there was no further use for him with no Rising, the only thing he could do was run. The RIC were still on the lookout for the third man off the submarine, after all, and a strange face like his would be easy to pick out.

As a cover for his escape, it was arranged for him to leave after dark, amidst the Ballymacelligott Company while pretending to be just another local man. True to the secrecy that had characterised, and hamstrung, the Kerry Volunteers, only the Ballymacelligott captain and two others knew of Monteith’s identity.

These pair were put on either side of him as the company marched out of the Rink. A gas lamp lit up the area outside, allowing the police posted outside a good look at the departing Volunteers but the pace of the step, coupled with a downpour, allowed Monteith to escape undetected, hidden in plain sight.[34]

From there, Monteith fled, first to Limerick and then Liverpool, before finally reaching sanctuary in New York. He remained active in his country’s cause, via the Irish-American lobby, and later penned a memoir which captured the Rising-that-was-not in Kerry, in all its confusion.

“If there be readers who think I have been harsh, or unfair, or unduly severe,” he wrote in the preface, “I am sorry; but, I have to deal with men and hard facts.”[35]

Roger Casement Memorial, Banna Strand, Co, Kerry


[1] Reilly, Bernard (BMH / WS 349), pp. 2-6

[2] Casement, Roger (edited by Mitchell, Angus) One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement, 1914-1916 (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2016), p. 41

[3] Ibid, p. 57

[4] Ibid, p. 232

[5] Ibid, p. 199

[6] Ibid, pp. 201, 221-2

[7] Ibid, p. 233

[8] Monteith, Robert. Casement’s Last Adventure (Chicago: Privately published, 1932), pp. 134-5

[9] Ibid, pp. 146-50

[10] Ibid, pp. 150-9

[11] Ibid, pp. 159-63

[12] Mullins, William (BMH / WS 123), p. 3

[13] Cotton, Alfred (BMH / WS 184), pp. 9-12

[14] Stack, Winifred (BMH / WS 214), p. 3

[15] Ibid, pp. 3-4

[16] Moriarty, Maurice (BMH / WS 117), pp. 2-4

[17] Stack, pp. 5-6

[18] Mullins, pp. 4-5

[19] Stack, p. 7

[20] Browne, Peter (BMH / WS 1110), pp. 4-5, 7-8

[21] Monteith, pp. 164-6

[22] Doyle, Michael (BMH / WS 1038), p. 6

[23] Monteith, pp. 166-7

[24] Ibid, pp. 171-2

[25] McEllistrim, Thomas (BMH / WS 275), p. 4

[26] Monteith, pp. 170-4

[27] Browne, pp. 8-9

[28] Irish Times, 11/05/1916

[29] Mullins, p. 4

[30] Stack, pp. 10-11

[31] Kerryman, 04/08/1917

[32] Lynch, Eamon (BMH / WS 17), p. 5

[33] Irish Times, 29/04/1916

[34] Monteith, pp. 175-6

[35] Ibid, p. xiv


Bureau of Military Statements

Browne, Peter, WS 1110

Cotton, Alfred, WS 184

Doyle, Michael, WS 1038

Lynch, Eamon, WS 17

McEllistrim, Thomas, WS 275

Moriarty, Maurice, WS 117

Mullins, William, WS 123

Reilly, Bernard, WS 349

Stack, Winifred, WS 214


Irish Times



Casement, Roger (edited by Mitchell, Angus) One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement, 1914-1916 (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2016)

Monteith, Robert. Casement’s Last Adventure (Chicago: Privately printed, 1932)

Rebel Runaway: Liam Mellows in the Aftermath of the Easter Rising, 1916 (Part III)

A continuation from: Rebel Captain: Liam Mellows and the Easter Rising in Galway, 1916 (Part II)

A Black Outlook

For Liam Mellows, failure on Easter Week 1916 was not an option. While Galway had had a late start on the Tuesday, the Irish Volunteers there having dispersed the day before due to the confusion over orders, reports that their compatriots in Dublin had gone ahead in rebellion spurred them into doing their part after all.

After some skirmishes with the police, Mellows had led his forces away from the impending British counter-attack, taking shelter in Limepark House. It was no more than a temporary respite, for the Volunteers fully intended to continue the struggle – that is, until the arrival of a pair of priests on Friday evening, bringing word that Dublin had surrendered – erroneously so, but close enough, given the battered state of the city – forced the Galway officers to face the unpalatable reality that their localised insurrection stood alone.[1]

Officers in the Galway Volunteers

After months of preparation, the Rising in Galway had barely last five days. For Alf Monahan, one of Mellows’ right-hand men, the disappointment was made all the more crushing by how he had dared to believe:

Although we had not any hopes of doing anything big when we went out…our hopes began to brighten during the week when we heard the guns booming in Galway Bay, and the rumours of Dublin were heartening too – up to Friday night. Certainly the outlook appeared black on Saturday morning.

It seemed too much like history repeating itself, with the future balefully uncertain. “England had won again and no one knew what was in store,” Monahan lamented. He and Mellows urged for them to fight on, but the other officers had already made up their minds. All that was left to do was break the news to the rest of the men.[2]

A whistle-blast summoned the Volunteers to the front of Limepark House, where Mellows and Father Thomas Fahy were waiting on the front step. With Mellows standing silently by, the clergyman addressed the assembled ranks, informing them that their position was hopeless.

Instead of a fruitless sacrifice, he continued, they should instead disband and wait for a better time in which to offer the country their services.[3]

Irish Volunteers, standing to attention

Confronted with such bald words, the Volunteers took heed and prepared to return to their homes. But not Mellows, who had decided to survive as best he could on the run. Joining him in this venture were Monahan and another of his leading officers, Frank Hynes from Athenry.

Mellows bore the rest of his short-lived army no ill will, shaking the hands of the men in turn as he bade them farewell. “We were very brónach [sad] in parting with the leaders who had been with us, training and advising us for the Rising,” remembered one man:

We knew that neither Mellows nor Monahan did not like to give the order to disband and I am sure they knew that the men would have followed them to the bitter end, but as the priests who had come there, had advised against further bloodshed and as Mellows and Monahan considered themselves responsible for all our lives, had to make a decision which they hated to do.[4]

When Mellows, Monahan and Hynes were left alone outside a now deserted Limepark House, there was nothing left to do but set off southwards. They made for an unusual little band – a Wexford man reared in Dublin (Mellows), a Belfast native (Monahan) and a local (Hynes), now cast out into wilds of Galway, trusting in nothing but luck, country charity and their own wits.

Spreading Out of Nothing

Liam Mellows

Help came in a number of sympathetic houses along the way. The first of such boltholes was the Howley farm, owned by a friend of Mellows’ whose son, Peter Howley, had only just left Limepark like the rest of the Irish Volunteers. Howley Senior chatted with Mellows as the trio were served refreshments. Only hours had passed since the close of the Rising, and Mellows was left unsure on what to do next, until Peter advised for him and his two companions to proceed to the Corless house and remain there until he picked them up at nightfall.

This was agreed on, and Mellows, Hynes and Monahan took their leave of the Howleys at around 7 am, on the Saturday morning. From then on, it would be essential to remain one step ahead of the inevitable pursuit by the authorities.[5]

The brothers Patsy and Martin Corless, a pair of elderly bachelors who lived together, quickly made the group welcome with food, as well as providing the runaways the chance for some desperately needed sleep. This they did for a full fourteen hours while Patsy made arrangements for another home, that of William Blanche. Peter Howley failed to appear but, as there was no time to delay, the three moved on regardless.

They were warmly greeted by Mr and Mrs Blanche. The former in particular could relate to their plight, being a fellow Volunteer despite his advanced years and thus vulnerable to arrest himself without distinction as to whether or not he had been part of the Rising. As well as refuge, the Blanche house provided the chance for Mellows to overhear some flattering talk, as Monahan remembered:

A girl visitor called to see Mrs Blanche and she was bursting with news and the three rebels in the bedroom had the pleasure of hearing this young lady’s first-hand information about Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], what he had done and what he intended to do in the future.

It is marvellous how quickly rumours grow out of nothing and spread all over the country. This young lady told Mrs Blanche that Liam Mellowes was escaping out of the country disguised as a girl. “You know,” she added, “Mellowes is very goodlooking.”

It was only with effort that the three men stifled their laughter.

Less gratifying was what was overheard from another caller who castigated Mellows as a coward and a troublemaker. The temptation for Mellows to appear before him like a ghost at a feast was almost irresistible.[6]

Imperial Response

Their foes, meanwhile, were not idle. Peter Howley was about to leave for the Corless’ house as planned, when he found his own surrounded by about sixty British soldiers and policemen from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Peter was arrested, along with two of his brothers, their roles in the Volunteers making them obvious suspects.

RIC constables

The Crown forces brought the Howley boys along with them as they drove on in a small fleet of twelve armoured cars towards Limepark House. Seeing that the building was surrounded by thick shrubbery, making it an ideal place to defend, the soldiers and RIC men marched the three brothers ahead as human shields while they advanced in battle formation, firing off a few shots before they found the house to be empty.

All that was left was were discarded items such as pikes, bandoliers, detonators and bombs, as well as supplies of bacon, beef and eggs, which were eagerly consumed by the hungry men.  Pieces of linotype metal were also found, apparently to be melted down for more bullets. That so much was abandoned at Limepark spoke at the haste in which the previous occupants had vacated.

Limepark House today

Searching further, the patrol spotted two men over in a field. When called to halt, one of the pair ran, earning himself a few shots in his direction, while the other stayed rooted to the ground. He was, upon further inspection, merely a farmer who had been going about his business.

The RIC-military squad retired to their barracks with their prisoners. The Howley brothers were transferred to the military barracks in Galway town but revealed nothing about their recent guests, who were unaware of the close call they had had.

A more fruitful discovery for the RIC was of their five colleagues who had been taken prisoner during the week. Constables Manning, Malone, Walsh, Donovan and McDermott had walked all the way from Limepark to Kilcolgan village, but were less than useful in what they could tell, explaining that they had been guarded by strangers in a dark room, after being marched for miles and consequently losing all sense of direction. Recognising any of their captors would be out of the question. They had escaped, the five explained, when their guards had neglected to watch them, allowing them to creep away.[7]

This last point would have been a relief to the Irish Volunteers. One of Mellows’ arguments to Father Fahy against disbanding was that the POWs would be able to identify his men. Fahy had consulted with the RIC captives, who agreed to give no such information in return for freedom. The policemen had evidently been true to their word.[8]

The British authorities were, for the moment, largely ignorant about the whereabouts of Mellows or even that the uprising was already over. As far as it knew, the insurgents remained at large as a cohesive force. “It was estimated that the strength of the Volunteers, who had retired in a south-westerly direction, was about 500,” reported the Connacht Tribune.[9]

Rumours that some of the remaining rebels had retreated to Island Eddy, a few miles off the Galway coast, prompted a search there. When British soldiers were investigating the island, the rising tide caught them by surprise, submerging their boats and trapping them in caves. Disaster was averted when a fishing smack saw their distress signals and sent a boat to rescue the fifty men from drowning. It was not the most dignified of moments in military history.[10]

Island Eddy

Windy Hill

The day after resting at the Blanches’, Mellows, Monahan and Hynes were taken by William Blanche to an old cattle-shed on Corr na Gaithe, or ‘Windy Hill’, owned by William Hood. It was an apt name as its occupants quickly discovered but they bravely strove to get used to it, as they tried to with the rain dripping through the inadequately thatched roof or the mice who scurried in their multitudes from the frequently damp straw, over the sleeping men at night. Lighting a fire for warmth, and risking the smoke being visible for miles around, was out of the question, as was leaving the shed, even to stretch their legs.[11]

Some small relief was provided by the intrepid Blanche. On the run himself, he would hide in the furze during the day before venturing up the windy hill at night to provide the other three with whatever food he could get. Sometimes it would be a jam-jar of boiled cabbage, and on other occasions the meal was nothing but potatoes, but something was better than nothing, and the diners wolfed down whatever came, knowing that they would have to wait until the following night for anything else.

Not so obliging was the owner of the shed. Hood had not been informed beforehand about his new guests and received a shock upon discovering them. Nervous that they would be found by the authorities on his property and drag him into their troubles, Hood would visit every evening to warn of an imminent search by soldiers or policemen, only to return the next morning to find his guests inconveniently still present.

As Hynes recalled, in words laced with contempt even years later: “A few suggestions he made to us gave us to understand that if he could get us out of his shed he didn’t care what happened to us and he had not the courage to inform on us.”[12]

Galway mountains

Such warnings were not entirely the products of a frustrated host. Blanche came one night with word of an approaching RIC patrol, but that it would be better to stay put until more was known. As foretold, a police squad appeared at the foot of the hill, but the flooded footpath from the rain before kept them at bay like a moat.

“Peelers are like cats,” Blanche said sagely, “they don’t like to wet their feet.”[13]

Moving Out

The three fugitives could not rely on rain and luck indefinitely, particularly not in lodgings as loathsome as that cattle-shed. After four days, they agreed it was time to move. They stopped by the Blanche house, where Mrs Blanche fed and housed them for the night before giving them a haversack full of food for the road ahead.

Mellows had told them of an uncle he had in Scariff, Co. Clare, and with no other plan in mind, the trio struck south in that direction. They kept walking until reaching a wide river, being lucky enough to find the only bridge for miles. Eschewing roads and open spaces, they entered some woods where they had another bit of good fortune in chancing on a stream which provided the chance of a wash, the first for a fortnight.

The rest of the day was spent pouring over the map Mellows had brought for the best way to Scariff. They had finished the last of the bread in Mrs Blanche’s haversack and, after reciting the rosary in Irish, the trio took the plunge and started out across some highlands.

Liam Mellows (right) with friend

Night fell and the men found themselves tripping over roots and potholes. Mellows had an electric torch but that was soon broken and useless. A road was chanced upon but the men were unable to decide if it was one of the routes marked on their map. Seeing some cottages along the road, Monahan decided to inquire for directions.

The owner of the first house offered to walk the travellers in the right direction. When Mellows told him who they were and why they were on the road at night in the first place, the man said in a thick Clare accent: “Oh, holy smoke, sure your lives aren’t worth a thraneen. The soldiers are searching the country everywhere and if they come across you, they’ll shoot you.”

As it turned out, their cheerful guide led the three runaways to the wrong path. A generous soul, Hynes was to interpret this as deliberate in case they were caught while exposed on the public road.

After the Clare man had left them, the trio reached a crossroads and saw in the dark the shape of something lurking nearby. Mellows whipped out his revolver and crept over but soon returned, exasperated.

“Damnit,” he said, “it is only an old ass.”

“Well,” quipped Monahan, “he can be thankful for once in his life for being an ass instead of a peeler.”[14]

‘Many are Cold…’

Leaving the crossroads, they trudged uphill, through the drizzle. Weak with hunger after finishing the last of Mrs Blanche’s bread, they resorted to dragging themselves up on their hands and knees, stopping to rest between two big square rocks, the only shelter in sight. By then, they were so exhausted that they fell asleep on the ground, waking two hours later, sore all over their bodies.

“How do you feel?” Mellows asked.

“Rotten,” Hynes replied. “I am shivering with cold.”

Mellows could at least see the funny side. “Remember,” he said, parodying Matthew 22:14, “many are cold but few are frozen.”

Hynes coyly refrained from recording in his later account where he had told Mellows to go, only that it was not a cold place.

Clare mountains

At least the rain had cleared by the time morning broke. Studying the map, they found that their path was leading them away from their destination of Scariff. The one they wanted was three miles away, a daunting distance for weary men on empty stomachs.

Rummaging through his bag for any spare crumbs, Hynes found nothing more than a sole potato. Even that was better than nothing but, as he divided it three-ways, the traitorous vegetable revealed itself to be rotten in its core.

Hynes had had enough.

“Come on, lads,” he called to the other two, desperation turning into bravado. “I’m going to get breakfast if I were to shoot my way to it.”

Striking out, they came across salvation in the form of a farmhouse by the road. Venturing ahead, Hynes peered through the open door to a sight both exquisite and close to unbearable:

The table was laid for breakfast and I feasted my eyes on a most beautiful home-made cake about 15″ in diameter and 12″ high. I had to exercise all my will power to refrain the savage desire to go and grab that cake and hop it.

Instead, he asked the young woman by the hearth-fire for a cup of tea for him and his companions. She immediately went to work at providing some old-fashioned country hospitality, which included considerably more than tea:

That cake that I mentioned was a feed for six men, but by the time that we had devoured two blue duck eggs each and our share of the cake I doubt if there was enough left to give the man of the house his breakfast, who by the way came in as we were eating, and the only thing that troubled him was that we would kill ourselves eating.[15]

The travellers offered payment for the food, but the woman stoutly rebuffed them. “What did ye get but a cup of tea?” she said.

When it was time to go, the couple waved their guests off, wishing them godspeed. The man of the house had given them directions to Scariff, showing not the least bit of curiosity when asked for a short cut across the mountains, despite the impracticalities of such rough terrain.

“But he was a Clareman, and Claremen never wonder at anything,” explained Monahan.

Leaving the road, the fugitives made their way into some bogland. Heavy with food, they decided to sleep out the heat of the day and continue on after dark. After finding a patch of dry ground, on which they made impromptu bedding out of heather, Mellows, Monahan and Hynes fell soundly asleep.

The sensation of something soft and wet on his face awoke Monahan. He found himself staring into the mournful brown eyes of the pointer dog that was working its tongue on him. Sitting up, Monahan saw that Hynes was on his knees, saying his prayers with his hand ominously tucked in the pocket of his overcoat.[16]

The Royal Commission

As he reviewed the state of West Galway in May for his monthly report, County Inspector Rutledge noted how the public mood in Galway town, Gort and Tuam was “sullen and unsatisfactory”. That things were not worse were due to, in the RIC Inspector’s professional opinion, the imposition of martial law, backed by the thousand soldiers camped in Cranmore.

British soldiers posing in Dublin with a captured republican flag

As far as Rutledge was concerned, he and his employers in Dublin Castle had had a lucky escape:

It is pretty plain now that the rebellion was precipitated and if it had been deferred until later when all was ready it would not have been confined to the Districts of Galway and Gort but would have embraced the whole County and we could not have held it.

His counterpart for East Galway, County Inspector Clayton, was not quite so alarmist. Nonetheless, he also reported on the “disturbed and unsettled” conditions, particularly around Athenry, which he attributed to the rebel leaders having so far avoided arrest.[17]

Both inspectors attended the Royal Commission on the 27th May, inside the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, as the British state ponderously tried to make sense of what had happened. A succession of RIC officials spoke before a panel of Westminster-appointed worthies, headed by Lord Hardinge as chairman, testifying to the state of the country in the lead-up to the rebellion.

Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin

When the attention turned to Galway, one of the few counties where fighting had occurred, ‘William Mellowes’ was given a star role as Rutledge described how he had arrived in March 1915, setting up headquarters in Athenry, an area long troubled by agrarian unrest and thus ideal recruiting ground for Mellows and the secret society he represented.

Lord Hardinge

There had been such a sect in Galway since 1882, Rutledge explained, though he neglected to give the name of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Instead, the most common term used throughout the Commission was ‘Sinn Féin’, with its participants as ‘Sinn Féiners’, albeit more to describe a general attitude than any specific organisation.

Lord Hardinge: Do you think the fear of conscription had much effect in increasing the ranks of the Sinn Féiners?

Rutledge: I think so, amongst the ordinary village boys.

Lord Hardinge: Shirkers?

Rutledge: Shirkers. They won’t fight for England.

Father Fahy, who convinced the Volunteers to quit

The attitude of the clergy during Easter Week presented a notable dichotomy for the Commission to consider. Clayton drew attention to how a considerable number of priests had lent assistance to the ‘Sinn Feiners’. And yet it was a priest – Clayton was unsure as to his name – who ended the insurrection when he persuaded the rebels to disband, though not before he had had a contest of wills with an intransigent Mellows.

Lord Hardinge: What happened to Mellows?

Clayton: He is on the run.[18]

‘The Elusive Mellows’

And on the run he remained, his exploits rapidly elevating him into a folk hero. Even the Connacht Tribune, which had dismissed the Rising as German-inspired folly, could not help but revel in the drama with the headline: THE ELUSIVE MELLOWS – HOW HE HAS OUTMANOEUVRED THE AUTHORITIES – STORIES THAT READ LIKE A ROMANCE.

“Romance, comedy and tragedy are strangely blended in the stories of the Rising in County Galway,” continued the newspaper:

Whether it be that Captain Mellows and the last of his army got beyond the cordon, I know not. Stories here are in abundance, but it is difficult to trace them to their sources.

I heard, for instance, that Mellows had a particularly fast motor vehicle, which he used to effect, and which has since been captured; that he escaped to Connemara in a turf boat; that the police are looking for a honeymoon couple, the bride being no other than one of the most daring of the leaders; that the insurgents escaped over the mountains, got out to sea by the Shannon, and were now on their way to the States; and a thousand other yarns of a similar flimsy texture.[19]

As it turned out, the article would prove to be remarkably prescient on a number of points. Perhaps not about the honeymooners or the boat trip to Connemara, but Mellows would indeed go about in feminine guise as part of his flight out of the country to the New World.

Others were not so fortunate. Michael Kelly was part of the Clarinbridge Company of the Galway Volunteers, and as such had been present at the abortive assaults on the RIC barracks at Clarinbridge and then Oranmore. While marching out of Moyode Castle with the rearguard, he had happened upon two priests cycling in the same direction, desperate to talk to Mellows.

Moyode Castle

Kelly sat on a windowsill inside Limepark House, listening in as Fathers Fahy and O’Farrell did their best to persuade Mellows and the other officers to give up in the face of insurmountable odds. When the orders were finally delivered to the assembled ranks to scatter, Kelly had been among those who quietly slipped back home.[20]


The hopes that that would be the end of it were dashed when, four days later on the 3rd May, Kelly was arrested at his house and taken to the nearby RIC barracks. A day later, he was moved to Galway Jail and forced to share a packed cell with his former comrades-in-arms. After ten more days of this, the prisoners were marched through Galway, jeered at by onlookers, to the station, and then taken by train to Dublin.

Prisoners from the Rising being marched by British soldiers through the ruins of Dublin

In contrast to Galway, the prisoners received a jollier reception from the Dublin crowd. Not that it made a difference, as they were taken to Richmond Barracks, where they were again forced into overcrowded cells, sometimes twenty-four of them to a room. Three or four days later, they were put on a cattle-boat, the subsequent journey being a fraught one for some, as they feared they would be sunk by a German U-boat. Other prisoners made the best of their plight, singing and dancing to while away the time.

Upon arriving in Glasgow, they were separated into two batches. Kelly was in the one to be lodged in Perth Jail, along with some Wexford men from their own failed Rising. As they arrived in Perth Railway Station, a crowd there “thought we were deserters from the British Army and boohed us.”

The prisoners were undaunted: “We returned the boohs with a vengeance.”

Kelly remained in Perth for two months until he was moved to Frongoch Camp, and then again to Wormwood Scrubs, where he was startled at the amount of information the authorities had on him:

They knew every move I made for the twelve months previous to the Rising. They knew all about the dances I attended, the girls I was friendly with, and that I carried a gun in Galway on the St. Patrick’s Day Parade 1916.

They asked me did I know what I was going to do when I was called out on Easter Week. I answered that I did, and that I was looking for the freedom of my country as any decent man would do in an unfree country.”

Kelly was fortunate in that he was released at the end of August and could return to Ireland. Others continued to languish in their respective gaols, unsure as to what the future held for them.[21]

Prisoners at Frongoch Camp

Found in Clare

Elsewhere, in Clare, Michael Maloney set out one morning in May in order to search for a filly of his that had jumped out of its paddock the evening before and escaped into the Knockjames Mountains. Accompanied by his greyhound, Maloney had travelled a good distance into the highlands when he spotted his filly in the distance. As he headed towards it, he came across three men kneeling on the grass as if in prayer.

When Maloney bade them a good day, one of the strangers rose to his feet and returned the greeting in a Dublin voice. Despite the incongruous accent, Maloney sensed that the troika were refugees from Galway where the Rising had broken out on the previous month. He assured them that, as an Irish Volunteer, he was one of them. The Dubliner asked if he knew a Seán McNamara of Crusheen, to which Maloney replied yes, he was his superior officer.

With that, Mellows was able to relax, as were the other two, Monahan and Hynes. Maloney directed them to an old hut nearby, where he brought them food. Leaving his guests there, Maloney went to McNamara with his discovery. Unlike in Galway, the Clare Volunteers had not been out during Easter Week, deterred by the contradictory orders and the confusion they had engendered, but their companies had not fallen apart afterwards either. They continued to meet and drill, taking care to do so in remote locations, away from the prying eyes of the RIC.

Irish Volunteers

McNamara was able to collect some money from his subordinates. He contacted Father Crowe, a sympathetic priest, who also raised funds from amongst his fellow clergymen. These amounts were handed to Maloney who brought them up to lamsters in the mountains.

Also of financial assistance was Michael Colivert, the leader of the Limerick Volunteers and a notable IRB figure. While passing through Clare, he was alerted to the presence of Mellows and company. Colivert arranged to meet McNamara at the train station the following day, where he told him to come to Limerick if he received a telegram later that evening.

When the telegram came, McNamara duly went to the city, to be handed an envelope with £100 worth of notes inside, a gift from the renowned Daly family (Ned Daly being one of the executed 1916 leaders, while his sister Kathleen was Tom Clarke’s wife). Despite the failure of the Rising, the harsh consequences of which was still being felt, the tightly-knit network of republicans and ardent nationalists, and the support it could offer, remained intact throughout the country.[22]

IRB leaders, left to right – John Daly, Tom Clarke (who married Daly’s niece) and Seán Mac Diarmada

Idling Away

The money was duly passed on to the three runaways. Not that they had an immediate need of it, stuck as they were in their mountain hut, and so it was forwarded to Hynes’ wife in Athenry, along with a message for her to take to Dublin to let their friends know they were alive. Due to the military presence throughout the country, Maloney offered to act as a courier to Galway, travelling there under the guise of attending a cattle-fair that he knew was on in Athenry.

This cover story was not enough to deter the British soldiers at Gort Station from stopping Maloney, who had to think quickly, as Hynes described:

After asking his name and a few other questions they ordered him to take off his books. “Look here, mate,” he said to the officer, “I take off them boots every night and put them on every day and that’s quite enough for me. If you want to pinch them you will have to take them off yourself.”

While the Tommies were occupied in pulling off his footwear, presumably for any dispatches surreptitiously stored on the soles, Maloney helped himself to a smoke on his pipe, burning away the slip of paper hidden there. It had been a close call, as Hynes knew: “If they found that note, they would be down on top of us before anyone could warn us.”[23]

Maloney continued on to Athenry and delivered the message to Mrs Hynes verbally instead. He took care to sign the registry at the hotel he stayed in with a false name.

For five months, Mellows, Monahan and Hynes remained on the mountainside. While a lengthy stay, it was not an unpleasant one; indeed, Monahan was to remember it in almost idyllic terms: “The three of us were never lonely or silent; we always had a lot to discuss and argue about.”

Liam Mellows (second from the right) with friends, including Alf Monahan (far right)

Topics included the nature around them, which for the city-slickers Mellows and Monahan was a novelty, and the what-might-have-beens of Irish history, as well as the possible things-to-come for their own time. The trio enjoyed a rich fantasy life, from the names they would bestow on the battleships and regiments soon to be at their disposal, to the self-deprecating predictions Mellows made for when they would be old and grey. He would be in a workhouse, he told the others, and relying on them to bring him tobacco in between their jobs as street-sweepers.

“Of course, this was all good fun,” Monahan wrote later, a sadder but wiser man. “None of us ever thought at that time that those who fought for the Republic would ever want – much less end their days in the Workhouse.”[24]

‘The Most Perfect Nun in Appearance’

When news from Dublin came in October that the remaining leadership of the Irish Volunteers wished for Mellows to go to the United States, it was treated as an intrusion rather than a deliverance, with its subject resisting as best he could. “Liam was always more anxious about his pals than about himself,” said Hynes.

Eamon Corbett

He had already declined an earlier offer in July. The places booked on the American-bound ship were instead given to Pat Callanan and Eamon Corbett. Both men had served under Mellows in Galway during Easter Week and were similarly hiding out, in their case in Co. Kilkenny. When asked, they agreed to go, and succeeded in reaching sanctuary in the United States.[25]

Mellows tried again to pass on the opportunity to someone else. He suggested Hynes but the other man refused. In any case, the orders were definite: Mellows had to go.

Maloney was able to acquire a bottle of brown hair dye for Mellows, the substance turning his distinctly fair locks a pleasing auburn. Combined with the matching suit Maloney had also procured, Mellows “looked quite the dude,” as Monahan admiringly recalled. When Maloney came by with a motor car, Monahan and Hynes waved Mellows off from the doorway of the bothan, both feeling very lonely now that their friend and commander had gone.[26]

Instructions were for McNamara to meet Mellows at Kearney’s Castle and take him to Father Crowe’s house in Rosliven, near Ennis. The priest was expecting the pair when they arrived at night and had managed to procure two nuns’ habits for Mellows and a woman who was to accompany him. Mellows had gone in clerical camouflage before as a priest. A nun would be a similar choice of disguise, if a step more audacious given the discrepancy in sex.

McNamara had left before the two ‘sisters’ departed from Father Crowe’s house the next morning, and so missed the chance to see Mellows in his habit. It was left to the churchman to fill him in, when the pair were chatting about the whole story a week or so afterwards:

[Father Crowe] said that on the morning after Mellows’ arrival in Rosliven, he was saying Mass in his house and [the door] was being answered by [the] housekeeper. The door of the oratory opened, “and, God forgive me, as I knew it was Liam and his lady friend nothing could prevent me from turning round to see what Liam looked like.”

Mellows had been, in Father Crowe’s eyes, “the most perfect nun in appearance that I ever saw.”[27]

The veil Mellows wore as part of his disguise as a nun, now in the National Museum of Ireland

Going to America

Mellows later recounted his westward adventures to a friend, Mary Flannery Woods, whose Dublin home he would often use as a hideaway in the tumultuous years to come. Driven from Scariff to Cork, he was then taken by boat to Waterford. Poor weather held him back by three weeks until he could reach Liverpool. Finding a ship bound for New York from Plymouth, he signed on as a stoker, “a job for which he was physically unfit,” according to Woods, as he would soon discover.

0619The awkward absence of union papers necessary for sailor work was sidestepped when Mellows got the man responsible for the crew’s papers drunk on whiskey while they were sharing a train-carriage to Plymouth. When the other man passed out, Mellows threw the bag containing the forms out of the window. With the mysterious disappearance of everyone’s paperwork, the ship had no choice but to sail out regardless.

Other obstacles appeared – and prevailed over. Mellows had given his name as ‘O’Ryan’ when first signing on board, only to forget it when he gave another. When asked about this discrepancy, Mellows ‘explained’ how the second name was the Irish version of O’Ryan. Mellows laughed heartily as he recounted the dodge to Woods.

Stoking was not for the faint of heart or weak in form, involving as it did the constant shovelling of coal into a raging furnace. So intense was the heat that the sweat-soaked men were forced to strip to the skin. Mellows would sometimes be so exhausted at the end of a shift that he fell asleep before washing, a negligence that resulted in the dirt and perspiration hardening all over him. Removing the layer was “like tearing off one’s skin”, as he described it to Woods, who could only regard her friend with sympathy:

Liam must have suffered terribly on that voyage. Knowing nothing about stokering and afraid to being discovered, he feverishly watched the others working in this inferno, copying their behaviour, using nautical terms, swaggering, spitting even, a habit he detested in anyone.

At least one co-worker was not deceived, and tore a huge shovel out of the hands of an undersized Mellows before showing the landlubber how it should be done, throwing in some choice and salty words as he did so. Despite the toil and embarrassment, Mellows would regard the whole experience, even the worst of it, with fondness: “Affectionately he spoke of the rough kindness and great-heartedness of this man for all his swearing.”[28]

Stokers at work

When the steamer reached New York, Mellows had one final trick to play, the last of many since the start of the journey. As he walked with the rest of his shipmates along the waterfront, they entered a pub where a fight was in progress.

“Come on, boys, let us get into this,” Mellows shouted, grabbing a chair as if for a weapon. He rushed through the bar until reaching a backdoor, whereupon he slipped out, shaking off the rest of the crew for good.[29]

Thus ended his inglorious, if necessary, career at sea, as well as an Odyssey which had begun in April from the collapse of the Galway Rising and ended in a sidestepped brawl in New York. His exile in the Land of the Free was about to begin, throughout which he would endeavour to play his part in the war for Irish liberty. Kathleen Ni Houlihan was not going to liberate herself, after all.

New York, ca. 1900

‘The Most Capable Man’

Having accepted the offer to go to America in place of Mellows, Callanan and Corbett had arrived in Liverpool, where they attached themselves to the small circle of fellow fugitives from Ireland. After five weeks, a vacancy for a sailor opened, and it was agreed upon by the group that it was to go to their most wanted member, Donal O’Hannigan. A few days later and another two such jobs opened, allowing Callanan and Corbett to sign on as coal passers on a ship bound for Philadelphia.

The journey took nineteen days across the Atlantic, made particularly tense by the threat of German submarine. As the ship approached the mouth of the Delaware, orders were given to extinguish all lights on board to make it a less visible target. After the crew went ashore in Philadelphia, the two Irishmen slipped away and travelled to New York, where they stayed with O’Hannigan, who had arrived before them.

Cunning, silence and exile had enabled the fugitives to survive. Now they were in neutral territory where a support system of like-minded expats and revolutionary brothers-in-arms awaited them in the form of Clan na Gael, an Irish-American society with a Fenian pedigree and republican aims.

Five Fenians – John Devoy, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Charles Underwood O’Connell, Henry Mulleda and John McClure – posing for an 1871 photo in America

To make their introductions, Callanan and Corbett visited the offices of the Gaelic American newspaper and met its editor, John Devoy. A leading member of Clan na Gael. Devoy was informed by his guests that Mellows was still in Ireland but due to join them soon. Satisfied, Devoy gave the pair some money, and they then waited for a week before Corbett moved to California, leaving Callanan in New York with O’Hannigan. Hearing no further news about Mellows, Callanan grew concerned – until he was awoken one December morning by someone nudging him in bed.

John Devoy

It was none other than Mellows at long last. When the reunited friends went down to the Gaelic American building – seemingly a rite of passage by now for the Irish exiles – Devoy, Callanan remembered, “was very pleased with Mellows and said he was the most capable man who had so far arrived in America.” Devoy would act as Mellows’ mentor, employer and, in time, bitter rival.[30]

December also saw the arrival in Dublin of a hundred and forty-six Galway men on the 23rd, who had been released the day before from Frongoch Camp. They were joined the next morning by the remaining three hundred inmates, upon which the former prisoners marched from the North Wall, along the quays, watched by the assembled crowds who cheered at the sight of them.

The men themselves were more subdued. Many looked pale and haggard after sustaining for months on a diet of porridge, leavened only by gifts of food from home. In addition to malnutrition, Frongoch had been stricken for the past three weeks by an influenza-like epidemic, the effects of which were still evident on some of its victims, while the temperature in their cells had varied from chillingly cold or sweltering hot, without a happy medium. Having survived such hardships, the newly-freed returnees kept their silence as they reached the city centre, save for a cheer when passing by the General Post Office.[31]

To be continued in: Rebel Exile: Intrigue and Factions with Liam Mellows in the United States of America, 1916-8 (Part IV)


[1] Kelly, Michael (BMH / WS 1564) pp. 9-10

[2] Monahan, Alfred (BMH / WS 298), p. 27

[3] Newell, Martin (BMH / WS 1562), p. 15

[4] Molloy, Brian (BMH / WS 345), p. 14

[5] Howley. Peter (BMH / WS 1379), p. 13

[6] Monahan, pp. 26-8

[7] Howley, p. 14 ; Connacht Tribune, 06/05/1916

[8] Monahan, p. 25

[9] Connacht Tribune, 06/05/1916

[10] Ibid, 20/05/1916

[11] Monahan, p. 28

[12] Hynes, Frank (BMH / WS 446), p. 20

[13] Monahan, p. 28

[14] Hynes, pp. 20-1

[15] Ibid, pp. 22-4

[16] Monahan, pp. 35-6

[17] Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8541

[18] Irish Times, 29/05/1916

[19] Connacht Tribune, 20/05/1916

[20] Kelly, pp. 6-7, 10-1

[21] Ibid, pp. 11-2

[22] McNamara, Seán (BMH / WS 1047), pp. 10-13

[23] Hynes, pp. 28-9

[24] Monahan, pp. 41-3

[25] Hynes, p. 28 ; Fogarty, Michael (BMH / WS 673), p. 9

[26] Monahan, p. 45

[27] Ibid, pp. 13-4

[28] Woods, Mary Flannery (BMH / WS 624), pp. 19-21

[29] Czira, Sidney (BMH / WS 909), p. 35

[30] Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 405), pp. 4-6

[31] Connacht Tribune, 30/12/1916



Connacht Tribune

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

Callanan, Patrick, WS 405

Czira, Sidney, WS 900

Fogarty, Michael, WS 673

Howley, Peter, WS 1379

Hynes, Frank, WS 446

Kelly, Michael, WS 1564

McNamara, Seán, WS 1047

Molloy, Brian, WS 345

Monahan, Alf, WS 298

Newell, Martin, WS 1562

Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

Rebel Captain: Liam Mellows and the Easter Rising in Galway, 1916 (Part II)

A continuation from: Rebel Scout: Liam Mellows and His Revolutionary Rise, 1911-6 (Part I)

Captain Liam Mellows – in Galway – fresh from his escape is in the field with his men.

(James Connolly, in a dispatch during the fighting in Dublin, issued on the 28th April 1916)[1]


Even in the absence of Liam Mellows, confined to England for the foreseeable future, the Irish Volunteers in Galway continued preparing for their upcoming insurrection. Plans had been announced at a convention for the Volunteers in Limerick on Palm Sunday, the 16th April 1916, when a hurling match gave the perfect cover for the delegates from the Galway, Limerick, Tipperary and Clare Volunteers to attend.

After a lengthy lecture on military tactics to put the attendees in the right mood, the Galway representatives were taken aside to a room where a map of Ireland was laid out over a table with various positions marked on it. There, it was revealed that the long-gestating Rising, the one they had been building towards all this time, was set to take place a week from then on Easter Sunday.[2]

Officers in the Irish Volunteers

Meanwhile, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was none the wiser. The Volunteers planned on keeping it that way, right up to the moment they would march in force up to the police barracks and seize them. For that, the RIC would have no one to blame but itself. Its sergeants and constables had spent the past few months idly watching the Volunteers parade and drill in their company units, rehearsing for a revolution in plain sight without a policeman lifting a finger to interfere.

They would continue to do nothing until it was too late, until the Rising was already in unstoppable motion, until Ireland stood free of foreign rule and Saxon exploitation.

It would be child’s play.[3]

And then things grew…confusing.

Plots within Plans

Patrick Pearse

Larry Lardner, the O/C of the Irish Volunteers in Galway, had reason to feel uneasy. Sometime in 1915, he had met with  a visiting Patrick Pearse while Mellows was indisposed in Arbour Hill Prison. Pearse’s purpose in Galway was to break the news about the decision to stage a rebellion. The details had yet to be formalised but would be passed on in due course to Lardner. The two had even agreed on a coded message, ‘collect the premiums’, chosen due to Lardner’s job as an insurance agent.

On Holy Monday, the 17th April, Eamon Corbett, the Vice-Commandant of the Galway Volunteers (and a future TD for the county), was dispatched to Dublin to attend a high-level meeting in St Edna’s School, which Pearse ran. Corbett returned with the orders for a countrywide uprising, to commence in six days’ time on Easter Sunday, the 22nd April. Even the precise point of 7 pm had been worked out.

Eoin MacNeill

But, despite the seemingly straightforward nature of this plan, the code phrase for Lardner to ‘collect the premiums’ had not been included, leaving him unsure. His qualms were further heightened when a contradictory order arrived the following day, on the 18th April, calling off any such rebellion. As this had been signed by Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, it was not something that could be dismissed.

Unsure on how to proceed, the Galway officers held a meeting of their own in the house of a sympathetic priest, Father Harry Feeney, at Clarinbridge. The decision was made for Lardner to head to Dublin himself and get a definite answer out of MacNeill and Pearse. Arriving in the capital on Holy Thursday, the 20th April, Lardner failed to find either man, instead obtaining an interview with the next best thing: Bulmer Hobson, the Secretary of the Irish Volunteers Executive.

Doubts and Decisions

Bulmer Hobson

Already suspecting a divergence of opinion among the leaders of the movement, Lardner tried to ascertain from Bulmer what was going on. Bulmer’s advice him not to accept any orders that had not been approved by MacNeill. Which was straightforward enough – except that, by the time Larder returned to Galway, another dispatch was already there and waiting for him. It was from Pearse, telling him at last to ‘collect the premiums’ next Sunday on Easter Week, the 23rd April, at 7 pm.

The use of the code appeared conclusive – until the following day, on Good Friday, the 21st April, saw the appearance of yet another missive, this time from MacNeill, again calling for the Volunteers to stand down and do nothing.[4]

With Lardner paralysed by doubt, the other Galway officers approached his lieutenant, Frank Hynes, to lead them instead. Being no man’s fool, Hynes was instantly wary:

I had been ignored up to this as regards meetings of the council. I said “why do you come to me at the eleventh hour. What about Larry?” They said Larry was funking it.

Unwilling to commit himself quite yet, Hynes first went to see Lardner, finding the Brigade O/C on the verge of despair, pulled this way and that by the conflicting demands. Even consulting the Dublin headquarters had only exasperated things, Lardner complained.

After listening to his tirade, Hynes asked him point blank if he would follow the rest of the men should they marched out to fight on Easter Sunday.

“Oh, I’ll go out alright,” Lardner said.

Hynes was reassured. His commander would not be funking it, after all. But the pair of them were still not precisely clear what ‘it’ was supposed to be.[5]

Stop Press

James Connolly

Mellows, meanwhile, had made good his flight from England, returning to Ireland with the assistance of Nora Connolly and his brother Barney, the latter left in his place in Leeks with no one the wiser. Despite the drama and daring of the escape, the only newspaper to show interest was the Workers’ Republic – unsurprisingly so, considering how its editor was James Connolly, Nora’s father, who had sent his daughter on the rescue mission in the first place:


We are at liberty to announce that Liam Mellows, the energetic Organiser of the Irish Volunteers who was recently deported to England, has been rescued, and is now safe back in Ireland.

Although this rescue took place more than a week ago the British Authorities have resolutely refused to publish the fact up to the present.[6]

Returning to Dublin gave Mellows the chance to catch up with friends, including Con Colbert, and they stayed up the whole night together singing rebel songs and having pillow-fights.[7]

On Holy Monday, the 17th April, Éamonn Ceannt – who would soon command the Irish Volunteers in defending the South Dublin Union – suggested to his wife, Áine, that they take their 10-year-old son, Ronan, for a trip to St Edna’s. As the school was closed for the holidays, it would be quiet enough. Besides, he had no intention of remaining where he could be found and arrested anytime by the authorities.

Éamonn Ceannt, with Áine (front)

That morning was a glorious one, with the birds singing on the branches of fruit trees in full blossom. Áine saw a smiling young man in clerical garb approach them from an avenue of trees. The ‘priest’ clasped her hand and then shook young Ronan’s.

An aithnigheann tú é [did you recognise me]?” Mellows asked the child.

Aithnighin [I did],” replied Ronan, who had been well-schooled in Irish.

Patrick and Willie Pearse soon joined them in the garden, along with their sister Margaret and their mother. A pleasant meal was then had, the talk ranging from books to music, with not a word said about the fight they all knew was coming.

Afterwards, Áine and her son were sent to wait in the front grounds while the men talked. When Éamonn rejoined them, it was to give his wife her instructions. It was then that Áine realised that the visit had been intended as much for business as pleasure. She was to accompany Mellow’s mother, Sarah, to St Edna’s under the cover of night for her to say goodbye to her son before he set off for Galway the following day, on the 18th April.

St Edna’s School

Áine and Sarah arrived at the school at about 9:30 pm, having changed trams four or five times on the way as a precaution. The building was in complete darkness, with not a light dared lit, as the two women were allowed in. Sarah found her way in the dark to the backroom where Liam was while Áine sat and waited in the pitch-black hall. Mother and son would not see each other again for the next five years.[8]

Road to Galway

W.J. Brennan-Whitmore

While moving through the country, Mellows took the opportunity to pass on instructions from Dublin to the Irish Volunteer companies he met. In a detour, he informed the Wexford men of their assigned role to keep the line of communications open between the capital and Munster. Secrecy was paramount: “None of those present were told of any specific date for a rising, but all were cautioned of the very confidential nature of the discussions.”

So recalled W.J Brennan-Whitmore, another visitor from Dublin, in his memoirs. It was late at night by the time the meeting was over and Brennan-Whitmore began the trek back to the big city, where he would command the defence of the Imperial Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. Mellows walked him to the bridge over the Slaney at the town of Scarawalsh.

Scarawalsh Bridge, Co. Wexford

“It was a beautiful night, calm and still, with a full moon riding high in the cloudless heavens,” Brennan-Whitmore remembered:

We were sitting chatting on the parapet of the bridge when the cathedral clock struck the witching hour of midnight. We decided to call it a day, shook hands and parted, he to travel to the west to take up his own command there, I to travel to Dublin. It was destined to be the last time we ever met.[9]

From there, Mellows travelled in a north-westerly direction until he reached Co. Westmeath. As in Wexford, he passed on to the waiting Volunteers their instructions, these being to blow up strategic sites such as the bridge at Shannonbridge, Co. Offaly, before advancing westwards to connect with their Galway comrades.[10]

While in Westmeath, Mellows took the opportunity to stop by the house of an acquaintance, Father Casey. Mellows had changed his usual disguise of a clergyman to that of a beggar, complete with dark dye for his distinctive fair hair. Father Casey had a nagging feeling that he knew this stranger asking for alms at his door, but it was not until his visitor had left that realisation hit him. Casey ran to the gate but Mellows was already out of sight.[11]

Return to Galway

Eamon Corbett

Later, on the afternoon of Spy Wednesday, the 19th April, the Manning family in Mullagh, Co. Galway, were visited by Eamon Corbett to tell them that Mellows would be coming to stay the night with them. Corbett had arrived on foot, his motorcar having broken down, and he was given a bicycle to ride on instead.

When Mellows arrived, he was again dressed as a priest, with some greasepaint over his face, and riding on the back of a motorcycle driven by a friend from Dublin. The friend did not stay for long, leaving Mellows to the hospitality of the Mannings.

The 27-seven-year old son of the family, Michael, had seen Mellows before when the latter arrived in Mullagh in May of 1915 to inspect the Volunteers there, of which Michael was a member. Mellows spent five or six days training the men in various forms of night attack. He had planned to return later in the summer but was imprisoned instead until November.

Mellows regaled the Mannings with a lively account of his flight from Britain, chuckling at how a dockhand in Belfast had fallen on his knees to ask for a blessing, obliging Mellows to mutter something appropriately Latin-sounding. He brushed off concerns of the RIC recognising him in Galway, saying he had passed by several police barracks already without arousing suspicion.

RIC constables before a barracks

He said nothing to the family about what he intended to do now that he was back in Galway, but the fully-loaded pistol he placed under his pillow at night and the book on military history he was carrying along with his green uniform shirt – the only luggage he had – must have given them some clue.

Liam Mellows

He did confide to Michael and his brother about the plans set for Easter Sunday. A notice to the press about a parade in Gort on the day was to be the signal for a general mobilisation of the Galway Volunteers. They would then march from Gort to Portumna, where they would be supplied with rifles sent up the Shannon from Kerry, where a German vessel was due to land with the weapons. It was a complicated plan, but Mellows was sure that their European partners would pull through for them.

Despite his cavalier attitude towards being recognised, Mellows was careful to remain indoors the following morning. He sent Michael to Loughrea with a note for Joseph O’Flaherty to alert him of his intention to spend the night there, preferably at his house. As O’Flaherty was an old Fenian and well-known to Mellows, he was delighted to oblige and sent Michael back with a message to that affect.

At the Manning household, Mellows swapped his priestly garb for an ordinary suit, given to him by Michael’s brother. As he left for Loughrea, he took an ash stick under his arm as if on his way to the cattle-fair that was occurring there the following day, Good Friday, the 21st April.

Cattle fair in town

Michael attended the fair as part of his instructions to deliver a parcel to Mellows with his shirt and book inside. After buying and selling some cattle, Michael came to O’Flaherty’s house as arranged, found Mellows in bed and handed over the parcel.[12]

Back in Galway

Tom Clarke

Other preparations were being made for Mellows’ return. On Maundy Thursday, the 20th April, Bridget Walsh, a schoolteacher who acted as a courier for the Volunteers, was sent to Dublin to bring back a message for him. She called in at the tobacco shop owned by Tom Clarke on Great Britain [now Parnell] Street.

Besides Clarke, Walsh met a number of leading figures in the revolutionary movement, such as Seán Mac Diarmada, Michael O’Hanrahan and Lardner, who was also visiting Dublin as part of his quest to find out what was going on. Larder told her that the rebellion in the works was now cancelled, throwing in some caustic remarks towards Eoin MacNeill and his incessant meddling.

After handing Clarke a couple of dispatches from Galway, Walsh received in return a package for Mellows. She assumed it contained a gun or ammunition, or perhaps both, and was only told later that it held the rest of Mellow’s uniform besides the shirt he was carrying.[13]

75 Great Britain Street, the tobacco shop owned by Tom Clarke

Meanwhile, back in Galway, Mellows was escorted from Loughrea by three Volunteers from the Clarinbridge Company, one of them being Patrick Walsh, Bridget’s brother. Each of the trio took turns to carry their guest on the backs of their bicycles until they reached the village of Killeenen, where Mellows was to remain at the home of Mrs Walsh, another schoolteacher and Bridget’s mother.

It was an appropriate choice of lodgings since the local battalion also used it as its headquarters. Mrs Walsh would be remembered as “a grand type of Irishwoman…She and her family were heart and soul with the Volunteers.” Her friendship with her guest was a strong one. “She adored Mellows and he held her on the highest esteem,” said one Volunteer.

For the next few nights, Volunteers were posted with revolvers on the roads leading to Walsh’s house, their instructions being to bar any suspicious-looking strangers. Until Easter Monday, when the need for secrecy could finally be cast aside, Mellows was careful to only venture out in disguise.[14]

Irish Volunteers with a tricolour

The Mullagh Company held a hurling match on Easter Sunday, the 23rd April, as instructed by headquarters in Athenry, in order to provide cover for an address by Mellows. As before, Mellows went dressed as a priest, complete with black hair dye. When he passed one of the Volunteers, Laurence Garvey, on the road, he went as far as to ask if he recognised him. Despite Mellows having stayed at the Garvey family house while on inspection tours, Garvey replied in the negative.

When Garvey recalled Mellows’ address to the Mullagh Company, it was notable, in hindsight, in what was not said, as Garvey was sure that nowhere was anything about an insurrection mentioned. Mellows stayed until 3 pm when he left on a bicycle, accompanied by Eamon Corbett, with his audience none the wiser.[15]

Easter Sunday

Playing it by ear, Larder and Hynes allowed the Volunteers to muster as originally planned. Without telling the Athenry Company anything else, Hynes informed them they were having a parade on the morning of Easter Sunday, before attending Holy Communion as a group. Similar orders were sent out to the other companies in Galway.

Well-trained by now, the men turned out in force as ordered, many wearing bandoliers and haversacks, although only Lardner had a uniform. Having paraded, the company was starting towards the church when a bulletin came through. It was from MacNeill, and it read: No action to be taken today. Volunteers completely deceived.

Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order, as published

After a hurried meeting by the company officers, it was agreed to issue dispatches of their own about this abrupt change of plans. There was to be no Rising after all. With that sorted, Hynes went to work the following Monday, thinking that everything had at last been settled.

Larry Lardner

He was wrong. Returning to his home for dinner, Hynes received word that he was to go to the hall used by the Volunteers. “When I went down Larry was there and his face was a placard in which trouble could be read easily,” Hynes recalled.

Lardner handed Hynes the latest written directive, this time from Pearse: Going out today at noon; issue your orders. Which could only mean one thing – the uprising was back on.

Missed Chances

At a loss for what to do, the two men ratified all the companies they could. Upon been told that Mellows was back in Galway and now staying in Killeeneen – it says much about the general state of disarray that Hynes did not seem to be aware of this already – the pair sent a message to him, asking him for instructions. His reply was that they should not do anything until he came over.

By now, everyone had heard about the fighting in Dublin. The RIC had also been caught wrong-footed but they recovered more quickly than the Volunteers. In Athenry, policemen in outlying outposts were withdrawn and concentrated in houses adjacent to the barracks, making the building too daunting to attack.[16]

The Old Barracks restaurant, Athenry, the site of the former RIC barracks

One of the leading organisers for the Galway Volunteers, Alf Monaghan, was to lament the opportunities squandered in the confusion, for the RIC:

…had apparently not suspected anything, and if the original plans had been carried out, it is probable that all the barracks in the county could have been taken without a fight. In Athenry alone all the police, except one man in the barracks were at Benediction on Sunday night, and most of them went for a stroll afterwards.

So sudden had the reversal in policy been, according to Monahan, that “it is recorded that one Company actually received the countermanding order as they took up a position around the local RIC Barracks on Sunday night.”[17]

RIC policemen, armed with rifles

In Athenry, the only thing left for the Volunteers to do was prepare themselves in case of attack, with about a dozen of them staying in Hynes’ house on Monday night. Next morning, Lardner and Hynes made the decision to move the company towards Oranmore and unite with Mellows there. Then they would leave it to him to figure out what was what.[18]

Gathering Pace

Elsewhere in the Galway, Easter Sunday had been equally anticlimactic for the Irish Volunteers. In Clarinbridge, the Volunteers attended Mass in Roveagh village, as instructed, breakfasting afterwards on the church grounds, the food cooked by women in Cumann na mBan who were accompanying their male comrades. Mellows was present, as was Father Harry Feeney, Patrick ‘the Hare’ Callanan and Corbett as the company captain.

Cumann na mBan women

After several hours of waiting around, Corbett finally dismissed the men at 3 pm, telling them nothing more than not to stray far from their homes in readiness of any further mobilisations. At least one of his listeners did not take these instructions too seriously, for Martin Newell set off the next morning to Tawin village, twelve miles from his home in Clarenbridge, to purchase some seaweed.

Newell was on his way back when he met ‘the Hare’ Callanan, the Brigade Chief of Scouts, who was cycling rapidly towards him. Callanan leapt off his bike to tell Newell to hurry on to Killeeneen, for their Dublin compatriots were already in open revolt even as they spoke.[19]

Father Feeney

It was at about 2 pm on Easter Monday, the 24th April, when it was Mellows’ turn to learn how behind in the times he was. Father Feeney rushed to the Walsh household with the news that the Dublin Volunteers had been out since noon. Galvanised, Mellows instantly sent out dispatches to as many companies in Galway as he could, ordering them to mobilise and prepare to play their part.[20]

One of the messengers sent out was Michael Kelly. He was called over to the Walsh house, where Mellows had gathered Corbett, Father Feeney and several others. Mellows asked him if he knew the area around Peterswell. When the other man replied that he did, Mellows gave him a message to take to the Ballycahan Company. Another man, Patrick Kelly (no relation), was to accompany him, each with a revolver and orders to resist should the RIC attempt to detain them.

The two men did as they were ordered, and received assurances that the Ballycahan men would be standing by. They returned to the Walsh home, only to find that Mellows and the others had already left for Clarinbridge.[21]

‘Mid Cannon Boom and the Roar of Gun

When Newell reached Killeeneen, as instructed by Callanan, he was sent by Corbett to tell the rest of the sixty-strong Clarinbridge Company to come fully armed. All the Volunteers assembled as ordered that night, with Mrs Walsh sacrificing her family’s breakfast to feed the men for supper.

At 8 am on the Tuesday, the 25th April, the Company lined up outside the Walsh house, poised on the brink of no return. Corbett performed a rousing song, with the chorus of:

Then forward for the hour has come.

To free our fettered sireland’

‘Mid cannon boom and roar of gun

We’ll fight for God and Ireland.[22]

And, with that, the men began the four mile march towards their first target of Clarinbridge. Bridget Walsh watched them as they took their leave of her mother’s house, and could not help but notice how only a few had firearms in the form of shotguns, with the rest carrying pitchforks as a primitive substitute, while uniforms were limited to a handful such as Mellows and Corbett.[23]

Irish Volunteers on the march

At least Newell was able to retrieve some stored ammunition from Killeeneen School. As he described:

We continued through the demesne and arrived at the convent gate, Clarenbridge [old spelling], where we halted and given right turn. Mellows, standing at the right-hand side of the company, addressed us. He asked for twelve Volunteers to step out. Practically the whole company stepped forward.

Spoilt for choice, Mellows picked a dozen men to act as the vanguard as the company entered the village and laid siege to the RIC barracks there. First blood was shed when a policeman was caught outside and shot when he reached for his revolver. As the Volunteers were in a merciful mood, and the county not yet embittered by years of conflict, the wounded constable was removed to the convent for medical treatment.

The attack on the barracks was interrupted when the parish priest, Father Tully, came to remonstrate with Mellows, urging him to cease and desist. Mellows refused unless the RIC men surrendered and asked Tully to convey this to the barracks. The priest did so, but the policemen inside declined and the attack resumed.[24]

Site of the former Clarinbridge Barracks, with plagque commemorating the attack next to the door


Michael and Patrick Kelly followed in their wake, meeting other Volunteers posted as sentries a mile outside the village, from where they heard the sounds of gunfire. “The attack was still going on when we arrived,” Michael remembered. “The whole company was there, all firing at the barracks at a range of about fifty yards.”

There was a barricade on the Oranmore Road made of Mineral water boxes, with Volunteers behind the barricades to prevent reinforcements from reaching the barracks. All the approaches to the village were barricaded and all traffic held up. About midday or 1 p.m. the attack was called off.

“Mellows was in full charge,” Michael stressed. Other than the constable at the start, it had been a bloodless battle: “No Volunteer was wounded. There was no RIC man wounded inside Clarenbridge barracks during the attack.”

Seeing how they were only wasting time and bullets, Mellows ordered the barricades to be taken down. The Volunteers departed for Oranmore village, where they met up with two more companies, the Oranmore and Maree ones, who had already made an unsuccessful attempt on the RIC there. As with Clarinbridge, the police garrison were holed up inside the barracks, with the exception of their sergeant, trapped in another building in the village.

Oranmore, Co. Galway, today

Mellows decided to continue the assault despite receiving news of police reinforcements on the way to Oranmore by train. He sent for Michael Kelly and Michael Cummins, assigning the former to the station to see if the enemy had arrived yet and, if so, in what strength. As for Kelly:

He sent me to the forge near the Sergeant’s house with a section of about six men with instructions not to allow the Sergeant to leave his house. The Sergeant made no attempt to leave his own house.[25]

The Connacht Tribune gave the officer in question a slightly more heroic role – unsurprisingly, given how it was Sergeant Healy who told the newspaper the story. Healy had been one of the two policemen out on patrol that morning, leaving four constables behind in the barracks.

When Healy saw the two companies of Volunteers advancing towards Oranmore, he was careful to take a circuitous route along the sea coast to avoid detection while returning to the village (the other RIC man, Constable MacDermott, being not so cautious, was taken prisoner). By the time Healy arrived, the Volunteers were already there, with his four subordinates fortified within their barracks.

RIC constables

Lacking any other options, Healy retreated to the house of Constable Smyth, opposite the barracks. He watched as about thirty-five Volunteers rushed the barracks, only to be driven back by rifle-shots from inside.

As the Connacht Tribune reported:

Immediately Sergeant Healy had got with the shelter of Constable Smyth’s house, he sent orders across to the men in the barracks as to how they were to act and communications were sent to Galway for reinforcements.

Half an hour later, one of the assailants came to Smyth’s door and demanded the surrender of everyone inside. When Mrs Smyth insisted that there was no one else present, the men grew menacing. Healy warned the messenger at the door to go or he would fire.

Instead, the Volunteers began battering at the door until Healy shot through the panels, forcing them to flee down the street. They did not return, contenting themselves instead with taking potshots at the barracks.[26]


Cummins, meanwhile, had ridden his bicycle to the station and found that enemy reinforcements had already pulled in, one of whom missing a shot at Cummins as he peddled rapidly away to warn the others. Michael Kelly later numbered the RIC to around forty. More precisely, the Connacht Tribune put the Crown relief force down to twenty-two – ten policemen under the overall command of the County Inspector, and ten soldiers from the Connaught Rangers, including their captain.

Together, they marched at a smart pace towards Oranmore, scattering the villagers who had been drawn outside their homes by the novelty of a siege. An attempt by the Volunteers to disable a bridge on the way was abandoned, the discarded crowbars testifying to the speed of their flight.

Clarinbridge today

Upon nearing the barracks, the mixed police-military force came briefly under fire by shotguns and rifles from the turn of the road leading to Athenry. This rebel rearguard then departed from Oranmore with the rest of their compatriots in commandeered motorcars.

“The whole random affair appears to have been over in less time than it takes to write it,” sniffed the Connacht Tribune.

According to Newell, Mellows:

…was the last to leave and took cover at the gable of Reilly’s public-house until the RIC arrived in the village from the station and, when they were about to enter the RIC barrack, he opened fire on them with, I think, an automatic pistol from a distance of 25 yards.

In Kelly’s version, he, Cummins and a few others had remained behind with their leader after Mellows had ordered the rest of the three companies to withdraw towards Athenry. The soldiers and policemen took cover beside the houses on either side of the road and did not retaliate, waiting instead for their assailants to leave.

Though bullet had whizzed perilously close to the County Inspector’s head, no harm was done, the only police loss being the missing MacDermott, believed (accurately) to have been captured. Not wishing to linger lest the rebels return with their superior numbers, Sergeant Healy and his remaining four constables left Oranmore by train with their rescuers after first stripping anything of value from the barracks.[27]


It was dark by the time the three Volunteer companies arrived at the Agricultural School, about a mile out of Athenry. Close as it was to a railway line by which further British forces could arrive, the School was not an ideal stop but, for want of anywhere else, Mellows decided to make it his temporary headquarters. The companies from Athenry, Craughwell, Newcastle, Derrydonnell and Cussane trickled in throughout the night, with the Castlegar and Claregalway men arriving in the Wednesday morning of the 26th April.[28]

The last two had been fetched by Callanan. After being dispatched by Mellows on Monday evening, he had been in a whirlwind of activity, successfully rousing the Volunteers in Castlegar and Claregalway, as well as those in Maree and Oranmore. Galway City was a failure, however, as Callanan was unable to get in touch with anyone from the Volunteers there. As for the Moycollen Company, its captain promised Callanan that he would mobilise his men and also pass on word to the Spiddal Company. He failed to do either, but Callanan had other things to worry about by then.

Irish Volunteers stand to attention

Callanan returned in time to find Mellows and the Clarinbridge Company marching towards Oranmore. Mellows assigned him to go back and bring the Claregalway and Castlegar men to join him in Oranmore. By the time Callanan and the two companies arrived, the Crown relief force was already present and holding the bridge, blocking any attempt to follow in the wake of Mellows’ group.

Luckily, Callanan was able to learn that the main force was in the Agricultural School. As it was too late to journey to Athenry, he billeted his men in nearby Carnmore. Having first posted watchmen on the village outskirts, Callanan settled in for the night until awoken by gunshots.

The sentries had opened fire on a convoy of six or seven cars coming from the direction of Galway City. The vehicles pulled up by the road and their RIC occupants exchanged shots with the Volunteers sheltering behind stone walls.

Irish Volunteers with rifles

Meanwhile, Callanan was hastily assembling the rest of his men, before they beat a hasty retreat out of Carnmore. The police did not pursue, instead driving forlornly back to Galway City with the corpse of Constable Patrick Whelan, a bloody hole in the side of his head, the 34-year-old native of Kilkenny being the sole fatality of Galway’s Easter Rising.[29]

The Agricultural School

A second shootout with the RIC occurred later on Wednesday morning when the sentries posted in a hut on the Agricultural School grounds were surprised to see a group of seven policemen advancing up the road with rifles primed. Alerted to the threat, Hynes set out with six others. They opened fire on the RIC who withdrew back towards Athenry, returning shots as they did so.

Hynes, Lardner and the rest of the Athenry Company had reunited with Mellows the night before at the School. When composing his story for posterity years later, Hynes would feel an acute need to address the question he was sure lurked in the heads of his readers:

Anyone reading this account would be inclined to think that we were acting in a rather cowardly manner – why did we not attack the barrack at Athenry? Why did we keep retreating, etc, etc?

The explanation he gave was that while the Volunteers numbered between five and six hundred, they had only fifty full service rifles between them, with the rest of the army having to make do with shotguns, inferior .22 rifles and a dozen pikes. Ammunition was equally scarce, and some men were not armed at all. Bombs had been made, but these were so useless that Hynes doubted they would injure a man even if they exploded in his hand.[30]

Alf Monahan took an equally sceptical view on their chances: “Over 500 men assembled at the [Agricultural School], but a great part of them had no firearms of any sort. In fact, there were only 35 rifles and 350 shotguns, all told.”

Charles Monahan

As for the plan to land three thousand German rifles in Co. Kerry, to be moved by rail and distributed all along the line to Galway to the eagerly waiting Volunteers, that lay in tatters, ruined by a fatal combination of the gun-running ship being unable to unload, the arrest of Roger Casement and the accidental drowning in Kerry of the three Volunteers (one of whom, Charles, was Alf’s brother) who were to distract the Royal Navy with fake radio signals.

Despite this grievous setback and the equally worrying paucity of weapons, morale remained high. “All were in the best of humour and full of pluck,” remembered Monahan.[31]

Some of the men present had not even been in the Irish Volunteers before but were showing their willingness to contribute, whether for the national cause or more acrimonious reasons. Bridget Walsh described how a pair of Connemara men offered their services on the grounds that: “If you are going sticking peelers [policemen] we are with you.”[32]

Moyode Castle

Lardner was present as Brigade O/C but Mellows was undoubtedly the one in command. At a council of war, it was suggested by the officers present that their small army be divided into columns with which to wage a guerrilla war, but this was unanimously rejected. Instead, the decision was made to move on to Moyode Castle, five miles away.

As they left the Agricultural School, Mellows confided to Callanan his determination to never yield, not while there was still a scrap of hope. Help was likely to arrive soon, he added, with the Volunteers of Limerick and Clare sure to rally to their aid.[33]

Practically empty save for a single caretaker, Moyode Castle posed no difficulty in capturing. It was, in Monahan’s view, “not a good place to put in a state of defence, as there were large windows all around it.” Still, it was at least roomier than the School had been, allowing for the various companies to be allocated their own quarters. They had by then collected five RIC prisoners, who were kept under watch.[34]

Moyode Castle

The next morning, on the Thursday of the 27th April, Mellows drove out with several others on a reconnaissance mission, calling on a number of houses to inquire after any enemy movements. Upon nearing the New Inn RIC Barracks, Mellows decided to risk further investigation. They found it had been evacuated except for two women, who told Mellows that they were the only ones there. When Mellows said he would give the building a search all the same, one of the women, visibly nervous, admitted that her husband, the barracks sergeant, was there after all, being ill in bed upstairs.

According to Stephen Jordan, one of the other Volunteers present (and another TD-to-be), “Mellows then requested her to go to the room and tell her husband that he wanted to ask him some questions, and to tell him not to be anxious as no harm would come to him.”

Jordan accompanied his leader into the bedroom, where Mellows questioned the sergeant about the size of the former garrison and where they would have left for. The stricken policeman replied that they had received an order to go to Loughrea and the rest had departed before daybreak, taking everything of value with them.

“The Sergeant seemed very relieved on account of Mellows’ gentlemanly manner,” remembered Jordan. “We returned to Moyode without further incident.”[35]


An incident was had, however, later that day, when Mellows assigned Jordan to lead a foraging party. They went to a farm at Rahard and were loading two carts with potatoes – with or without the owner’s permission was left unstated in Jordan’s later account – when a body of policemen pedalled into range on bicycles. Both sides reached for their weapons and opened fire, the sounds enough to reach Moyode Castle and prompt a rescue party of two or three carloads of Volunteers to drive out immediately.

RIC constables with rifles and bicycles

By the time these reinforcements, headed by Mellows, arrived on the scene, the RIC had fallen back. After Jordan delivered a brief summary of what had transpired, Mellows gathered the men back into their cars and set off in pursuit of the police, who retreated further as fast as they could, reaching the safety of Athenry before the Volunteers could overtake them.[36]

Not so easily vanquished was the booming of artillery from the direction of Galway Bay as a British battleship, the HMS Gloucester, tried unsuccessfully to fix a target on the rebel base. The sounds were heard as far as the Castle throughout Wednesday to Friday, with the Volunteers deciding that this was from a duel between the Royal Navy and German submarines. Regardless of how their ‘gallant allies in Europe’ had failed in delivering the much-missed rifles, the Galway men could still entertain the hope that they were not fighting alone.

HMS Gloucester

“The Moyode garrison was well equipped with rumour,” Monahan recalled dryly, but there was nothing known for sure about what was happening in Dublin or the rest of the country.[37]

Other than during the potato-hunting foray, there were no sightings of any police or soldiers, though that did not prevent talk of an imminent attack. Even years afterwards, that such gossip came about at all still grated on Hynes:

We will give the bearers of these false rumours the charity of our silence, but one in particular who was responsible for most of them was a very prominent republican and a member of the I.R.B. up to Easter Week. This man did his best to get us to give up and go home and have sense. He brought one particular rumour that five or six hundred soldiers were marching on us from Ballinasloe.

A meeting of the officers was called on the strength of this particular warning. Much to Hynes’ shame, one or two of those present were sufficiently unnerved to openly consider the naysayer’s advice to quit and return home, so disgusting Mellows that he handed over command to Lardner, who probably wanted the responsibility least of all.

Group photograph of Galway Volunteer officers, including Frank Hynes and Stephen Jordan (standing first and second to the left), and Larry Lardner (standing, far right)

An hour was enough for Mellows to calm down and resume authority. He made his way through the castle, talking to the men and answering any entreaties as to the situation. They could hold out for a month, he told them, by moving south to the Clare Hills.


This was too much for some. When Monahan addressed the Volunteers on Thursday night, offering anyone with second thoughts the chance to leave, about two hundred – roughly a third of the force – decided to do so. They first gave up their weapons, overcoats and anything else of use to those staying, though some of these waverers returned the following day.[38]

By then, the Volunteers had been stirred into action when a scout returned with the news of nine hundred British troops on the march towards the Castle. Unlike previous reports, this one was broadly accurate, as anyone with a copy of the Connacht Tribune would have read of how:

We regret to say that we at last (for good or ill) now approaching the conditions of a regular trial of military strength as between the Crown forces and what, we suppose, may be described as the Insurgents.

Information was vague, admitted the newspaper; indeed, it wildly overestimated the rebels to be two thousand-strong. More certain was of the aim of the British State: “It was known last [Friday] night that the authorities intended to take the initiative.” Royal Navy marines had landed in Galway Bay, their strategy seeming to be to join the rest of the military in catching the said insurgents with a pincer-move.[39]

British soldiers

There was no question inside Moyode Castle of allowing this to happen, and the debate arose again as to whether it would be better to disband or retreat in good order. The latter was decided on, and Mellows arranged the companies in marching order. Never afraid to risk himself, he took charge of the Athenry Company, alongside Corbett and Hynes, which was assigned to be the rearguard, where fighting was most likely to break out should the British forces catch up with them.

The Volunteers marched along by-roads to the east of Craughwell, making it to Monksfield by nightfall. The plan was to reach Co. Clare and obtain enough help from the Volunteers there to fight their way to Limerick, where further reinforcements hopefully awaited.[40]

Amongst the rearguard, Michael Kelly saw that they were being tailed by two men on bicycles. All he could make of them was that they were dressed in black. Kelly ordered the other men to take cover while he called on the strangers to halt. The pair were riding so fast that they sped straight into the midst of the Volunteers before they could stop.

Up close, Kelly could see that they were priests. When the two asked to see Mellows, a suspicious Kelly questioned them closely, learning that their names were Father Fahy and Father O’Farrell. He was not certain but he thought he caught something from them about Dublin.[41]

Turbulent Priests

Father Fahy

Father Thomas Fahy first met Mellows when the latter arrived in Galway, early in 1915. When Fahy, then a professor at Ballinasloe College, had asked Mellows if the Irish Volunteers really intended to fight, he was taken aback at the assurance that they did indeed. With the coming of Easter Week in 1916, the priest saw the truth of those words for himself.

Father Fahy was at home near Athenry when he heard of the Volunteers taking up arms, just as Mellows had promised. Eager to play his part, albeit in a spiritual capacity, Fahy visited the gathered men in Moyode Castle every day to hear their confessions. While doing so, he took the opportunity to talk with Father Feeney, who was accompanying the Volunteers as an impromptu chaplain.

Feeney had asked him to go to Galway City to find out the views of their Church superiors. While Fahy was not able to meet Bishop O’Dea, other priests assured him that His Grace fully approved of Feeney’s aid to the rebels.

It was while in Galway City that Father Fahy heard that the Volunteers had suddenly departed from the Castle in favour of the abandoned country house of Limepark. Joining Father O’Farrell, they cycled towards the new base to catch up with his martial congregation.[42]

The priests were taken to Limepark, where the officers heard what they had to say. Mellows was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall. He had fallen asleep and so missed Father Fahy breaking some startling news. “They had definite information that Dublin had given in and that the soldiers in Galway were aware of our movement and were marching to meet us,” Hynes described.[43]

Kelly, who was sitting on a windowsill and listening in, would recall much the same thing: “I heard one of the priests telling all the officers assembled about the surrender in Dublin.”[44]

Patrick Pearse delivering the unconditional surrender

In this, the two witnesses were either misremembering or the priests had been confused, for the Dublin rebels would not formally concede until later that day, on Saturday afternoon. Whatever the truth, the already tenuous situation for the Galway men suddenly felt desperate.

The only thing left for the Volunteers to do, Fahy urged, was to acknowledge the inevitable and disperse while they still could. Monahan stoutly insisted that they continue to resist. The others were not so sure. Unwilling to voice his own doubts, Hynes equivocated, saying that they should wake Mellows and hear what he had to say.

Hard Decisions

Liam Mellows in uniform

After Mellows had had Father Fahy repeat the latest developments to him, he apologised for having been asleep. But, he said, he had brought the men out to fight, not flee. Even if he was to disband them, what then? They would be shot down like rabbits without a chance to defend themselves.

As for him, he would hand over his command to whoever wanted it. He was going to catch up on three days’ worth of sleep until the British arrived, and then he would battle it out with them to the last.[45]

Listening to this, Hynes knew that Mellows meant every word. Father Fahy tried a different tack, suggesting that the rest of the Volunteers should have the chance to discuss their options. Mellows argued that this was not necessary, for he had already put the question of continued resistance to the men in Moyode Castle, and every one of them had agreed to persevere. Fahy pressed on, asking if the rest of the officers who were not present could be consulted. After some hesitation, Mellows gave in and agreed to this.

At the subsequent meeting, Father Fahy outlined the situation to the fourteen officers present. Mellows continued to hold that it would be better to fight it out as their lives were forfeit anyway, considering how the five RIC captives of theirs would be able to identify everyone. When asked about this, the prisoners agreed to give no such information upon release, a promise they were to uphold.

At the end, the officers voted to disband, the only dissenters being Mellows and the faithful Monahan. For an alternative, Monahan urged for the Volunteers to take to the open country and pursue guerrilla tactics, as suggested before, but nobody seemed to be listening at that particular point.


When Father Fahy asked for this to be relayed to the men, Mellows excused himself, unwilling to ask a single man to leave after bringing them this far. And so the priest took on the task instead when the men had assembled outside Limepark House. Galway had done well but since they now stood alone, he told them, there was no point in carrying on. Better for them to return to their homes quietly and prepare for another day.

“Mellows did not address the men,” Father Fahy later wrote. “He was very depressed; the news from Dublin had upset him greatly.”[46]

Limepark House, now in ruins

Despite his own low spirits, Mellows did his best to console the others, many of whom were weeping openly. Those who offered to stay with Mellows were turned down. Things would blow over, he assured them. When one man noticed how Mellows lacked a coat and offered his own, Mellows accepted it only with reluctance.

Hynes was among the last Mellows approached to say farewell. Hynes told him he was staying with him, inwardly hoping the other man would not order him away like he had done with the others.

Instead, Mellows took his hand between both of his and said: “God bless you.”

Soon, the only ones remaining were Mellows, Hynes and Monahan. They were about to re-enter the old house when Mellows announced that it would be preferable to make a running fight of it rather than remain inside to be cornered. The other two agreed, as they probably would have to anything their leader suggested, and so the three of them set out together, towards an uncertain future.[47]

To be continued in: Rebel Runaway: Liam Mellows in the Aftermath of the Easter Rising, 1916 (Part III)


[1] Martin, Eamon (BMH / WS 591) p. 18

[2] Fogarty, Michael (BMH / WS 673), pp. 5-6

[3] Hynes, Frank (BMH / WS 446), pp. 10-11

[4] Monahan, Alf (BMH / WS 298), pp. 13-16

[5] Hynes, p. 11

[6] Workers’ Republic, 22/04/1916

[7] Fahy, Anna (BMH / WS 202), p. 2

[8] Ceann, Áine (BMH / WS 264), pp. 20-1

[9] Brennan-Whitmore, W.J. Dublin Burning: The Easter Rising from Behind the Barricades (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2013), pp. 22-4

[10] Malone, Tomas (BMH / WS 845), pp. 6, 8

[11] Malone, Bridget (BMH / WS 617), p. 3

[12] Manning, Michael (BMH / WS 1164), pp. 3-7

[13] Malone, Bridget, pp. 3-4, 8

[14] Newell, Martin (BMH / WS 1562), pp. 8-9

[15] Garvey, Laurence (BMH / WS 1062), p. 5

[16] Hynes, pp. 11-13

[17] Monahan, pp. 16-17

[18] Hynes, p. 13

[19] Newell, pp. 8-9

[20] Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 347), p. 8

[21] Kelly, Michael (BMH / WS 2875), pp. 5-6

[22] Newell, pp. 9-10

[23] Malone, Bridget, p.5

[24] Newell, pp. 10-11

[25] Kelly, pp. 6-7

[26] Connacht Tribune, 29/04/1916

[27] Ibid ; Kelly, pp. 7-8 ; Newell, p. 8

[28] Kelly, p. 8

[29] Callanan, pp. 9-10 ; CT, 29/04/1916

[30] Hynes, pp. 13-14

[31] Monahan, pp. 17, 19

[32] Malone, Bridget, pp. 5-6

[33] Callanan, p. 10

[34] Hynes, p. 14 ; Monahan, p. 21 ; Kelly, p. 8

[35] Jordan, Stephen (BMH / WS 346), p. 6

[36] Ibid, p. 7

[37] Monahan, pp. 21-22

[38] Hynes, pp. 14-15 ; Kelly, p. 9

[39] Hynes, p. 15 ; CT, 29/04/1916

[40] Hynes, p. 15

[41] Kelly, p. 10

[42] Fahy, Thomas (BMH / WS 383), pp. 2-3

[43] Hynes, pp. 15-6

[44] Kelly, pp. 10-1

[45] Hynes, Thomas, p. 16

[46] Fahy, pp. 4-5 ; Monahan, pp. 24-5 ; Kelly, p. 11

[47] Hynes, p. 17 ; Barrett, James (BMH / WS 343), p. 5



Brennan-Whitmore, W.J. Dublin Burning: The Easter Rising from Behind the Barricades (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2013)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Barrett, James, WS 343

Callanan, Patrick, WS 347

Ceannt, Áine, WS 264

Fahy, Anna, WS 202

Fahy, Thomas, WS 383

Fogarty, Michael, WS 673

Garvey, Laurence, WS 1062

Hynes, Frank, WS 446

Jordan, Stephen, WS 346

Kelly, Michael, WS 2875

Malone, Tomas, WS 845

Manning, Michael, WS 1164

Martin, Eamon, WS 591

Monahan, Alf, WS 298

Newell, Martin, WS 1562


Connacht Tribune

Workers’ Republic

Rebel Scout: Liam Mellows and His Revolutionary Rise, 1911-6 (Part I)

Coming to Galway

Liam Mellows

In April 1915, the Irish Volunteers of Athenry, Co. Galway, assembled at their local train station to meet the senior officer being sent from Dublin to help organise them for a week. As the newcomer stepped on the platform, the company captain, Frank Hynes, could not help but feel disappointed, for the small, bespectacled youth fell short of what he had been expecting. This Liam Mellows appeared to be a clever lad at least, but what possible use could he be in a scrap?

The rest of the company, arrayed in parade-ground ranks, did not appear to be any more impressed. “Now, men, I was sent down to get you to do a bit of hard work,” Mellows told them, “so I want you to be prepared for a week of very hard work.”

If he caught sight of any of the poorly suppressed smirks, he gave no sign. At least the men were able to restrain themselves until the pipsqueak was out of earshot before collapsing into peals of laughter. Hard work, indeed!

Mellows began that evening with a marching exercise for the Athenry company. After a mile out on the road, with some of them were thinking it was time to turn back, Mellows instead doubled the pace. Hynes was at the front with Mellows and Larry Lardner, the commander of the Galway Brigade. Lardner was the first of the three officers to show the strain, with Hynes managing a little better while Mellows remained entirely unruffled as he pressed them on mercilessly.

Irish Volunteers

Three-quarters of a mile later and Mellows told the struggling Lardner beside him to order a quick march. Lardner could barely breathe, let alone speak, leaving it to Hynes instead to wheeze out the command. When the three looked back, they found they had lost half their company, the stragglers left strewn along the route in exhausted heaps.

“By the time the week was up we had a fair good idea of what hard work meant,” Hynes recalled dryly. At the end of the assigned period, Mellows wrote to his superiors in Dublin for an extension of another week, which grew into a full-time appointment.[1]

The Plot Thickens

Others were similarly struck. Another Volunteer in Galway recalled how Mellows:

…was very boyish-looking and full of enthusiasm for his work. He impressed us tremendously by his determination and, looking at his slight figure and boyish appearance, we wondered where all his determination came from.[2]

Mellows had his reasons for pushing himself and others so vigorously. Early in March 1916, almost a year after his arrival in the county, he told Alf Monahan to impress upon the Galway men that any attempt by the authorities to confiscate their weapons was to be resisted. Like Mellows, Monahan was a sworn initiate in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the oath-bound secret society dedicated to Irish freedom, and so privy to matters that the ordinary Volunteer was not.

A Belfast native, Monahan was fresh out of prison when the IRB dispatched him to Galway to assist Mellows. “From this it will be seen that G.H.Q. had reasons for having Galway very specially organised and equipped for the coming Rising,” Monahan later explained. When news came of the plan for a countrywide insurrection, set for the Easter Week of 1916, it was of no surprise to either him or Mellows.[3]

Irish Volunteers

Soon after arriving in Galway, Mellows went about recruiting in the eastern fringe of the county, resulting in a few new Volunteers but not enough to form a company. Despite this setback, he remained “always cheerful and happy,” according to Laurence Garvey, in whose family house Mellows stayed, saying the Rosary with his hosts every night before retiring to bed.

What Volunteers there were, Garvey included, drilled twice weekly, with Mellows often in attendance. Mellows also provided the ammunition for target practice, the costs defrayed by a weekly donation from the other men.

It was not all seriousness. For one summer week in 1915, Mellows camped in a field with a bell-tent, spending the days on his inspections and training regimes. Afterwards, in the evenings when his work was done, he invited Garvey and a few others to join him while he played the violin and they danced a few sets with local girls.

It was a change from the usual military routine, being “just a week’s holiday at Liam’s invitation and very enjoyable,” as Garvey recalled.[4]

Liam Mellows at the wheel of a car, with friends, including Harry Boland (centre back)

Optimism and Comradeship

Mellows had the knack for charming people. Another acquaintance who fell under the spell of the quiet, steely power that Mellows possessed, even at a tender age, was Robert Brennan. Like Mellows, he would be in the thick of things during the 1916 Rising, in Wexford in Brennan’s case. Five years earlier, on a Sunday in 1911, he and his wife were making their way to Mass in Summerhill, Co. Wexford, when they came across a troop of youths, their green uniforms denoting them as Na Fianna Éireann, the Fenian answer to the Boy Scouts.

Fianna Éireann on the march

At the head of the column was a lad with strikingly fair hair. Upon being introduced, Brennan found his hand inside an unusually strong grasp and himself staring into the blue eyes of Mellows, eyes that were “full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”[5]

The Brennans’ house soon became the training centre for the Fianna, with Mellows staying with the couple almost every time he was in Wexford. Robert soon saw the two sides to his young friend: “On the parade ground Liam was a stern, rigid disciplinarian. He drove the boys hard. Off duty he was a light-hearted harum-scarum practical joker and he was an inveterate prankster.”

Robert Brennan

Despite being an IRB insider for some years, Brennan was sceptical as to whether all this martial posturing would amount to anything but Mellows was adamant. They would get their chance, Mellows assured him, when Britain and Germany were at war. Brennan was not entirely convinced, but such optimism was infectious all the same.

Mellows would return the favour by hosting the Brennans whenever they visited Dublin. He lived with his parents and siblings in a small but comfortable house on Mountshannon Road, near Dolphin’s Barn. On the walls inside were photographs of Liam’s father from his days in the British Army.

It was a career William Mellows had intended for his eldest son, enrolling him in the Hibernian Military Academy with that end in mind. He was taken aback when Liam told him that he would fight only for Ireland but made his peace with Liam’s decision.

Sarah Mellows, on the other hand, declared to Brennan that, being a Wexford woman with the spirit of 1798 in her veins, she could hardly be anything else but a rebel. It was not hard to see which parent Liam took after.

The Mellows family house at 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin

Family Matters

Despite the political polar opposites under the same roof, family life was a warm one. Brennan remembered Liam tramping in with the heavy hobnailed boots he always wore and giving them a lively and light-hearted account of the day’s work with his Fianna scouts. After tea, Liam and his siblings, Barney – who would also become deeply involved in the revolution – Fred and the sole sister Jenny would play together as a quartette on the piano and strings, taking care to keep to Irish tunes in the spirit of Douglas Hyde’s ‘de-Anglicising’ mission.

Liam’s father had by then settled into an attitude of “puzzled but tolerant”, in Brennan’s words. An insight into the intergenerational dynamics came when Brennan came to Dublin shortly after the war with Germany that Liam had predicted began. Liam and his father met him at Harcourt Street Station. As they were leaving, a battalion of soldiers in the uniforms of the British Army marched by.

British soldiers in Dublin

“Now don’t you see?” said Mellows Senior.

“Yes, of course I do,” Liam snapped, before reigning in his temper and turning to Brennan with a grin. “Father thinks the Volunteers do not put on as good a show as the British.”

“You know well they don’t,” insisted William. “They haven’t the precision, the order, the bearing or anything else. Look at the way these fellows walk.”

“Wait till you see the way they’ll run,” Liam said with an affectionate pat on his father’s shoulder. The older man turned to Brennan as if entrusting him with the task of talking some sense into his cocksure progeny.

“Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the British soldiers,” William said gravely.

“He’s afraid we are going to beat them,” Mellows said to Brennan with another grin.[6]

Na Fianna Éireann

At least one acquaintance believed that Mellows had more in common with his paterfamilias than an argumentative nature. According to Alfred White: “In many traits Liam resembled his father; both of them had a rock-like uprightness, a serious minded, unflinching adherence to fundamental loyalties.”[7]

White had the opportunity to observe Mellows at work. Na Fianna Éireann was organised along military lines, with groups of boys being in troops (or sluagh) and districts divided into battalions. Mellows was captain of the Dolphin Barn-Inchicore Battalion, with White doubling as his lieutenant and assistant general secretary.

Fianna Éireann Scouts

The Fianna provided an exciting world for the young. White fondly recalled the pipers, the drills, the manoeuvres and marches, some being twelve miles out and twelve miles back – little wonder, then, that Mellows could later outpace the Athenry men. Mellows displayed a natural rapport with the younger boys, with the gift of imparting his own enthusiasm onto them. When White asked one what they liked most about Mellows, he replied that they liked the way he said ‘Ireland’.

Countess Markievicz

The Fianna already had plenty of mentors: Countess Markievicz and her attempts to introduce some high culture with paintings on the walls of the Fianna clubhouses and donations of first-edition books from her personal library; Patrick Pearse, who showed the boys the death-mask of Robert Emmet and the sword of Lord Edward Fitzgerald during visits to his St Edna’s School; Bulmer Hobson in his book-lined cottage where he tried to impart some political economic theory (of all things).[8]

More successfully, Bulmer also took the opportunity on behalf of the IRB to recruit among the boys. By 1912, he was successful enough to form a special IRB cell or ‘Circle’ within Na Fianna Éireann. Known as the ‘John Mitchel Circle’ after the 19th century Young Irelander, the group was headed by the future 1916 martyr Con Colbert, and into which Mellows was sworn during Easter 1912.

Con Colbert

The John Mitchel Circle was also the one Fianna officers in the IRB would attend if visiting from the country. This gave the group a disproportionate amount of influence among the Scouts, especially when it would meet to agree on which policies would be ‘decided’ at any forthcoming Fianna conferences.

From this privileged position, Mellows was becoming intimate with the workings of a secret society and the power it could exercise over other organisations so long as the host bodies remained oblivious. In later years, he would profess himself shocked at learning of the extent the IRB had manipulated others but, at the start, he was a willing disciple.[9]

On the Road

Liam Mellows

In May 1913, Mellows left Dublin on his bicycle to work as a roving organiser, both for Fianna Éireann and, more surreptitiously, the IRB. One of his recruits into the latter, Seán O’Neill, recalled being sworn in by Mellows on a quiet county road outside his home town of Tuam, Co. Galway. There, O’Neill raised his right hand and repeated the words of the oath as Mellows recited them to him. O’Neill would remember his initiator in glowing terms:

This kilted lad, with his saffron-flowing shawl over his shoulders, Tara brooch, green kilts, long stockings and shoes, arrived, and brought with him a ray of sunshine into our somewhat dull and drab town of that period. His name was Liam Mellows – a man who helped in no small way to change the course of history.

When one looks back and visualises the scene, the colour and beauty of such an attired lad on the stage – one wonders if it is possible that he is really dead![10]

In the space of six months, it was said that Mellows had managed to cover almost every city, town and hamlet in the country. When White saw Mellows again later in 1913, he found his friend “deeply bronzed, strong and hearty looking.”[11]

Mellows had returned to Dublin at the right time, for the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913, and Na Fianna Éireann was now not the only militant nationalist body in the country. Given their shared outlook, that only with a firm hand and a gun at the ready could the rights of Ireland be respected, it was a natural progression for Scout leaders like Mellows to join as officers and instructors for the new army, with Fianna halls used to drill the Volunteers.[12]

The compatibility of the two groups were further displayed when they helped coordinate together the twin gun-running events in 1914, both of which saw Mellows play prominent roles. At Howth, on the 26th July, the Fianna stood to attention at the mouth of the pier while the Irish Volunteers unloaded boxes of rifles and ammunition from a yacht and placed them on a trek cart. All went smoothly as the boys and men marched back towards Dublin until confronted by British soldiers.

Fianna Éireann  and Irish Volunteers transport weapons from Howth, July 1914

As a scuffle broke out between those at the front ranks of the opposing sides, some of the Volunteers wanted to break open the boxes and take out the guns but were ordered back by Con Colbert and Mellows, the officers in command of the Fianna. The two men gave the command for ‘about turn’ to the Scouts by the cart, who – in contrast to the panicking Volunteers – faithfully executed the manoeuvre and made good their escape, with the precious consignment, in the confusion.[13]

A week later, Mellows was present at the second such operation, this time in the seaside town of Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow. The Fianna boys were assigned to scout out the area and keep watch for any signs of police. Seated in a sidecar of a motorbike, Mellows would examine the maps before him in the dark with the aid of an electric torch before directing the boys to which routes to take.

The Mauser Model 1871, of the type transported into Howth and Kilcoole

Disaster seemed imminent when the charabanc carrying some of the consignment broke down while passing through Sunnybank, Little Bray, forcing its passengers to hide the weapons in a nearby house whose owner was friendly with the charabanc’s driver. Mellows went on ahead in the motorbike to St Edna’s. Alerted to this setback, the Volunteers waiting in the school grounds drove off to Little Bray to rescue the stranded munitions.[14]

Police Watch

Bulmer Hobson

His IRB contacts, along with the willingness to brave danger and a natural aptitude for hard work, ensured that Mellow’s rise in the Irish Volunteers was a swift one. When Liam Gogán, the initial Executive Secretary, proved inadequate for the role, Bulmer Hobson arranged for him to be replaced with Mellows, who proved far more satisfactory.

Mellows continued in that capacity, working in the Dublin offices of the Provisional Committee in Brunswick Street, alongside his younger brother Barney. This lasted until the autumn of 1914, when he took to the road again as an itinerant organiser, this time for the Irish Volunteers.[15]

Unsurprisingly, Mellows soon came to the interest of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). A police report, sometime in 1915, noted that he had come to Co. Westmeath in December 1914 to advise the Volunteers in Drumraney on drill and discipline, while urging them not to fight for any country other than their own. He had remained in Westmeath until mid-January and reappeared three months later in Galway where, according to a local constable, “there was a very marked bitter feeling against recruiting” for the British Army since his arrival. Mellows would make subsequent visits to Dublin, Waterford and Limerick.[16]

Tom Clarke

Such occasions allowed him to network with other leading figures in the budding revolution. While in Dublin, on the 10th June 1915, he was observed by police surveillance inside a tobacco shop at 75 Great Britain (now Parnell) Street. For half an hour, he talked with its proprietor, a certain Tom Clarke, along with Con Colbert, Éamonn Ceannt and Piaras Béaslaí. Later that day, as if to squeeze in as much contact as possible, Mellows was seen in the company of Hobson at the Volunteer headquarters.[17]

But Athenry remained his base of operations. There, Mellows would spend so many nights in Hynes’ house that the spare bedroom became known as ‘Liam’s room’. Even that was no sure refuge from prying eyes, but Mellows had become wise to the ways of his pursuers. One evening, the two RIC men assigned to watch Mellows waited outside until 2 am, when they finally realised they had been tricked, their quarry having sneaked out through the back with his bicycle to continue on his way.[18]

A Meeting in Tuam

The RIC were more forthright on the 16th May 1915 in Tuam where, for some days before, posters and handbills had been advertising a rally, calling for ‘Irish Irishmen’ not to show cowardice by neglecting to join the Irish Volunteers.

“The organisers of the public meeting were the local supports of the McNeillite Volunteers,” the Connacht Tribune wrote, referring to the recent split between the National Volunteers, with their support for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and the more independent Irish Volunteers under the leadership of Eoin MacNeill, with whom Mellows had remained. Despite its IPP sympathies, the Tribune complimented the aforementioned ‘McNeillites’ on how they had “executed themselves enthusiastically in the work.”

Market Square, Tuam, Co. Galway

The publicity had worked perhaps a little too well, for it had allowed the local IPP branch to arrange for a meeting of its own on the same day and at an earlier hour, drawing off potential audience members for itself. Still, it was a respectably sized crowd of a few hundred who gathered in Tuam square to listen to the first speaker, Seán Mac Diarmada, visiting from Dublin, with Mellows by his side, waiting for his turn.

“In the course of [Mac Diarmada’s] address,” reported the Tribune:

…he alluded to many points of the Volunteer movement…References to Ireland’s participation in the present war as distinct from England’s contribution, were made by the speaker, who criticised the Government’s attitude on the Home Rule and Ulster questions, and England’s misgovernment of Ireland in the past.

It was at the part where he said “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” that the watching RIC moved in, pushing through the crowd. At the fore was the District Inspector (DI), who mounted the platform and took the errant speaker by the arm, placing him under arrest.

“What for?” asked Mac Diarmada.

“Under the DORA,” replied the DI, referring to the Defence of the Realm Act.

“Let go of my arm, I’ll go with you,” Mac Diarmada replied.

Destroying the Evidence

Seán Mac Diarmada

Satisfied, the DI released Mac Diarmada and turned to where another policeman was picking up the piles of leaflets on the platform. Those near the stage heard Mellows whisper “don’t fire” as Mac Diarmada’s hand fluttered over the discreet bulge in his hip pocket. Thinking better of it, Mac Diarmada instead made a swift left turn while Mellows did a right one, the former covertly passing his revolver into the latter’s waiting hand.

When Mac Diarmada had been taken by the RIC about twenty yards, he stopped to say that he wanted a quick word with Mellows, who was delivering a distinctly tamer speech, restraining himself to a call for the Volunteers to reorganise. A policeman appeared at the platform to escort Mellows to where Mac Diarmada and the other constables were waiting.

According to John D. Costello, one of the Volunteers on guard by the platform that day:

The two distinguished patriots had a hurried conversation, during which a note-book containing the names of all western IRB Centres passed unnoticed from Seán to Liam. Seán then went with his escort to the barracks.

Mellows later went to the barracks to see his friend. According to Costello, Mellows was able to snatch up an anti-recruitment leaflet Mac Diarmada had hidden on himself and throw it into the fire the prisoner was sitting in front of under the guise of lighting a match, with the policemen nearby being none the wiser.[19]

This story, good as it is, assumes the RIC – slightly implausibly – would have been careless enough not to search Mac Diarmada beforehand. The anecdote evidently did the rounds, for it also appears in White’s biography of his friend: “Liam claimed an interview with him in the barracks and, by means of some sleight of hand, and a pipe which obstinately refused to get lit, got possession of or destroyed all his papers.”[20]

RIC members

In any case, the loss of such incriminating evidence was not enough to spare Mac Diarmada a six months’ prison sentence. Two months later, it was Mellows’ turn to fall victim to the DORA, when he was ordered to leave the country within seven days for an English town of his choosing or else face imprisonment.[21]

An Athenry Return

Described by the Connacht Tribune as the “local drill instructor, captain and organiser of the Volunteers,” Mellows defiantly stood his ground and served four months in Arbour Hill, Dublin. After his release in late November, he was welcomed back to Athenry by ten companies of Irish Volunteers, numbering seven hundred men, with a crowd of onlookers adding up to a total of a thousand attendees.

Athenry, Co. Galway

The Volunteers lined up at the station, armed with an odd mix of rifles and pikes, as Mellows disembarked, a free man at last. Headed by the Galway Pipers’ Band, they marched through Athenry, stoically enduring the ankle-deep mud in the streets. Upon reaching the town centre, the crowd drew up on three sides of a platform and listened as a succession of speakers took the stage.

When it was Mellows’ turn, the applause and volleys of greeting shots did not abate for five minutes. It was not an ovation that Mellows was egotistical enough to believe was for him alone, he told his audience. No, it was the cause he served. If the short time he spent as a prisoner was all Ireland could expect, then it would not be receiving much. In the meantime, Mellows urged them to continue their drill and prepare for whatever may come their way.

(Whatever, indeed…)

Irish Volunteers on parade

The meeting was marred only when the journalist from the Connacht Tribune, standing besides the platform, was told to cease his note-taking, perhaps on the suspicion that he was a police spy. When he refused, three or four pairs of hands tried to grab his notebook from him. “They did not succeed, however, in getting the book,” he wrote later with a touch of professional pride.[22]

Patrick Pearse

But the real story had already happened and behind closed doors. During Mellows’ absence in jail, Patrick Pearse had visited Galway to confer with Larry Lardner, informing him that a countrywide uprising was to take place, although the date had yet to be fixed. When Pearse asked if the Volunteers would be able to hold position at the Suck River, near Ballinsloe, he was disappointed to hear from Lardner that this was unlikely due to the poor equipment at hand. All the same, Lardner assured Pearse that the Galway men would do their best at whatever was asked and whenever.[23]


When not on the road, thwarting incompetent policemen or serving time, Mellows was occupied with his training regime, both physically and mentally, for the Galway Volunteers. As part of this, he would deliver lectures on the ideals and aims of the movement, along with practical tips such as the importance of cover, whether to hide from view or as protection against gunfire. Even a stone no larger than a fist could be utilised.

“Get your head behind it,” he advised his audience, “it may save your life.”[24]

On another occasion, he marched the Athenry Company to the village of Clarinbridge, six miles from Athenry. There, they joined up with several other units of Irish Volunteers. After some manoeuvres in a field, just as the men thought it was time to finish, Mellows divided them into two groups. One was assigned to ‘defend’ Clarinbridge and the other to ‘attack’.

Clarinbridge, Co, Galway, today

As one of the defenders, Mellows collected half-barrels, shop shutters, horse and donkey carts, and anything else not nailed down, using them to construct barricades across the streets. After an hour of this mock siege, Mellows finally dismissed the enervated men, allowing the Athenry ones to begin their six mile trek back home.

They were so drained that it was next to impossible for them to keep step in formation on the following day. That is, until they heard Mellows singing a marching song from the rear of their group.

“Up to this every man had his head down and dragging his legs,” Hynes recalled. “As soon as they heard Liam’s voice all heads went up and every man picked up the step and forgot he was weary before.”[25]

Irish Volunteers stand to attention, Co. Sligo


These mock battles did not escape notice, with a withering notice in the Connacht Tribune in March 1916 stating that:

I understand that the Sinn Feiners are going to have a sham battle one of these nights. All the “shams” are expected to turn up in full uniform, not forgetting the “bugle” which appears to be the only weapon of warfare they possess.[26]

Such sarcasm was perhaps not unwarranted. The Irish Volunteers – the ‘Sinn Feiners’ in question – were a minority compared to the National Volunteers. With the former bereft of political patronage and the finances that came with it, these differences were painfully apparent when the two militias were among those civic bodies parading for St Patrick’s Day in March 1916.

Inclining towards grey and khaki, the National Volunteers to a man bore modern rifles with fixed bayonets. Preferring a dull green in the uniforms, the Irish Volunteers were forced to carry fowling pieces when rifles were lacking and even freshly-forged pikes as if in re-enactment of 1798.

“The presence of large bodies of civilians, half attired and wholly armed as soldiers,” noted the Connaught Tribune, was no longer new, even if the novelty had not yet worn off.[27]

Advertisement for uniforms, showing the spread of the Volunteer movement

If the newspaper did not take either Volunteer faction entirely seriously, there was one segment of Galway City who did, enough at least to dislike them – the wives of men serving in the British Army. These women gave the parading Irish Volunteers “a very rough reception” at the St Patrick’s Day parade, recalled John Broderick, in whose father’s house Mellows occasionally slept when not at Hynes’.

Shortly afterwards, Mellows fell afoul of the DORA for the second time, when he was again ordered to leave the country within seven days. This time, there was no option of remaining in Ireland, even in jail, as he would be forcibly deported if he did not agree to leave.

He was served the notice at the Brodericks’ house in front of John. John later visited Mellows in the RIC barracks where the latter was taken after refusing to comply. He sat beside Mellows and, when he rose to leave, he found that the other man had slipped a revolver into his pocket.[28]

Nora Connolly

Nora Connolly

Shortly before the Easter Week of 1916, Nora, James Connolly’s daughter, was busy in Belfast gathering cigarettes to send down to the Irish Volunteers in Dublin. When she arrived home, late in the afternoon, she found Barney Mellows there, the boy having taken an early train from Dublin. He carried a note from her father: Barney will tell you what we want. We have every confidence in you.

Barney explained that his elder brother was due to be deported that night. In response, her father had tasked her with bringing Liam back in time for the planned uprising. This was a tall order, especially as no one knew where in England Liam was being sent – at most, they had the suggestion of his father’s birthplace of Leek, Staffordshire – but Nora was determined to rise to the challenge.[29]

Mellows had long been friendly with the family, having met the Connolly daughters through Na Fianna Éireann. While the family was living in Belfast, Nora would travel down to Dublin for a week or two, partly to keep in touch with the burgeoning national movement there and also as a relief from the hostility of a predominately Unionist city. Mellows would take her to Amiens Street Station, where a friend of his would sign her ticket and save her from having to spend more money to stay longer.[30]

James Connolly

Her sister, Ina, became secretary of the Belfast sluagh of the Fianna, and would praise Mellow’s gifts as a storyteller and prankster. While her father would meet through the Scouts a number of youths who would later be his comrades-in-arms during the Rising, such as Colbert and Seán Heuston, it was Mellows in particular, according to Ina, who “became firmly attached to my father and family.”[31]

The Search Begins

The trust her father had placed in Nora would have to make do in place of a plan, of which there was none. As she later put it: “They would leave it to my own good sense. They were not hampering me with any plan.”

All Nora had instead was Barney’s help, the list of helpful addresses he had brought with him, as written out by Mac Diarmada (as Secretary of the IRB Supreme Council, he was ideally placed to know who to turn to in Britain), and the promised arrival of someone who had the information as to where Liam had been sent.

Helena Molony

At 9 pm, the person in question knocked at the Connolly residence, this being Helena Molony, the republican socialist and feminist. Unfortunately, she did not know Liam’s location either. It was decided that Nora and Barney would make a start at least by going to Birmingham, to where the required information could be forwarded.

As Nora was too well known in Belfast for her liking, Molony drew upon her thespian experience and disguised her as a much older woman with the use of stage makeup. Next came the rudiments of a strategy: Nora would take the first boat to Glasgow, and Barney would follow on a later one.


When the pair reunited in Glasgow, they made their way to the first of the safe-houses. The girl of the family there knew Mac Diarmada well enough to recognise his handwriting, so she accepted the two strangers at her door at once. Nora could not recall their names by the time she recounted the story but the family were the Eakins on Cathcart Road, and the girl was most likely Maggie Eakin.

Nora and Barney decided to go to Edinburgh next instead of Birmingham directly in case they were being followed. Their cover-story was that they were brother and sister, both being teachers from Scotland who were en route to the Shakespearean Festival – Molony’s penchant for theatre having rubbed off on them – at Stratford-on-Avon.

They went to Edinburgh but a train stoppage delayed them from proceeding immediately to Carlisle. In the middle of the night, Barney awoke Nora in the hotel where they were staying to ensure she was safe, there having been a Zeppelin raid she had managed to sleep through.


The next morning, the two were able to take the train to Carlisle and then to Birmingham, where they contacted the owner of the latest safe-house on their itinerary, hoping that he had something to tell them. But:

He had no word. It was to him that Helena Molony told us they would send word about Liam’s deportation. We hung on for several days, and no word came. We were nearly demented. We were afraid we were getting ourselves recognised in the town, but what could we do? We were nearly in despair when, finally, word came that Liam had gone to Leek.

The original guess had been proven correct. Now armed with the long-sought information, the duo took a train to Crewe and then hired a taxi – due to the lack of Sunday trains – to Leek. Determined to leave the minimal of trails, Nora took up speaking duties with the driver due to her accent being less obviously Irish than Barney’s, and asked him to drop them off a distance from their destination rather than taking them directly to the house.


After asking someone for directions, they were finally at the right address:

We knocked on the door. An old man opened the door. We said we wanted to see Liam Mellows, and finally he let us in. Liam had just arrived about half an hour, or so, before.

Barney Mellows

There was little time for reunions, the plan being for the brothers to swap clothes before Liam departed with Nora, leaving Barney behind in his place. Deportees were confined to a designated area rather than locked up in prison, to be kept under continuous watch, and it was hoped that Barney could fool any surveillance, at least until he thought it opportune to head back to Ireland as well.[32]

Nora took Liam back the way she came, retracing her journey to Crewe and then to Glasgow. The Eakin family were delighted at the success of the mission, as was Patrick McCormack, a member of the IRB Supreme Council with the responsibility for the Scottish Circles.

McCormack received word from Maggie Eakin of the fugitives’ arrival at Cathcart Road. When he joined them, they discussed the best way to get Liam across to Belfast that night. Maggie suggested the aid of Father Courtney, an émigré from Co. Kerry. When he was brought over in turn, the priest was happy to offer one of his suits.

tgsa00657When the trousers proved too long – Father Courtney was over six feet in height – the padre ‘borrowed’ a spare from a clerical colleague who was closer to Liam’s diminutive stature, the complete costume allowing Liam to pass off reasonably well as a man of the cloth. Courtney even gave Liam an old breviary with instructions on how and when to read it, joking that Liam was his first ordination.[33]

With half an hour to spare before the boat back to Belfast was due, Nora and Liam took the train to Greenock, taking care all the while to sit in different parts of the carriage so as in not to appear to be together. Liam’s priestly disguise was convincing enough for some fellow passengers to apologise for any coarse language they had used in his presence.

The deference continued in Belfast, where even uniformed policemen saluted him, and he back to them, as he walked along the street, keeping separate from Nora once more as she feared she was too recognisable for them to take a train or taxi. The two adhered to a complicated leap-frogging method, each taking turns to go on ahead before slowing down to allow the other to overtake.[34]

Denis McCullough

Finally they arrived at the Connolly house at the top of the Falls Road. Nora sent a postcard to Dublin for James Connolly in Liberty Hall. It read: Everything grand. We’re back home. Peter. A postcard was unlikely to attract much notice from the censors, and she knew her father would understand the coded message from ‘Peter’, her nom de guerre.

As for Mellows, it was agreed for Denis McCullough, the most senior IRB member at hand in Belfast, to drive him down to Dublin that night. There was little time left, for an uprising was due to start, one in which Mellows was set to play a leading role.[35]

To be continued in: Rebel Captain: Liam Mellows and the Easter Rising in Galway, 1916 (Part II)


[1] Hynes, Frank (BMH / WS 446), pp. 6-7

[2] Newell, Martin (BMH / WS 1562), p. 7

[3] Monahan, Alf (BMH / WS 298), pp. 12-3

[4] Garvey, Laurence (BMH / WS 1062), pp. 4-5

[5] Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950), pp. 26-7

[6] Ibid, pp. 27-8

[7] White, Alfred (BMH / WS 1207), p. 2

[8] Ibid, pp. 5-6

[9] Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968), pp. 17-8 ; Martin, Eamon (BMH / WS 591), p. 11 ; for more information on Mellows’ attitudes to the IRB post-1916, see Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 174-5

[10] O’Neill, Seán (BMH / WS 1219), pp. 12, 18

[11] Martin, p. 6 ; White, p. 8

[12] White, p. 9

[13] Kavanagh, Seamus (BMH / WS 1670), pp. 12-4

[14] O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), p. 139 ; Holohan, Garry (BMH / WS 328), p. 44 ; MacCarthy, Thomas (BMH / WS 307), p. 9

[15] Hobson, Bulmer (BMH / WS 87) pp. 3-4

[16] National Library of Ireland, MS 31,654(3)

[17] Crowley, John; Ó Drisceoil, Donal; Murphy, Mike (eds.) Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Togher, Co. Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), p. 238

[18] Hynes, pp. 7,10

[19] Connacht Tribune, 22/05/1915 ; Costello, John D. (BMH / WS 1330), pp. 4-5

[20] White, p. 10

[21] Ibid

[22] Connacht Tribune, 17/07/1915, 20/11/1915

[23] Monahan, p. 13 ; Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 347), p. 7

[24] Kearns, Daniel (BMH / WS 1124), p. 3

[25] Ibid, pp. 7-8

[26] Connacht Tribune, 18/03/1916

[27] Ibid, 25/03/1916

[28] Broderick, John (BMH / WS 344), p. 3 ; Irish Times, 26, 28/03/1916

[29] Connolly O’Brien, Nora (BMH / WS 286), pp. 9-10

[30] Ibid, pp. 6-7

[31] Heron, Ina (BMH / WS 919), pp. 76, 89-90

[32] Connolly O’Brien, pp. 10-14

[33] McCormack, Patrick (BMH / WS 339), pp. 8-9

[34] Connolly O’Brien, pp. 14-15

[35] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 199



Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950)

Crowley, John; Ó Drisceoil, Donal; Murphy, Mike (eds.) Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Togher, Co. Cork: Cork University Press, 2017)

Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968)

MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Broderick, John, WS 344

Callanan, Patrick, WS 347

Connolly O’Brien, Nora, WS 286

Costello, John D., WS 1330

Garvey, Laurence, WS 1062

Heron, Ina, WS 919

Hobson, Bulmer, WS 87

Holohan, Garry, WS 328

Hynes, Frank, WS 446

Kavangh, Seamus, WS 1670

Kearns, Daniel, WS 1124

MacCarthy, Thomas, WS 307

Martin, Eamon, WS 591

McCormack, Patrick, WS 339

Monahan, Alf, WS 298

Newell, Martin, WS 1562

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Neill, Seán, WS 1219

White, Alfred, WS 1207


Connacht Tribune

Irish Times

National Library of Ireland

MS 31,654(3)

Understated Insurgency: The Carlow Brigade in the War of Independence, 1917-1921


When Patrick Kane sat down to give his Statement to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) in 1957, he was a man who believed he had little to show for his efforts. He had served as an adjunct in the Carlow IRA Brigade during the War of Independence – no easy task considering the difficulties which faced the brigade and the setbacks that often frustrated the best of its efforts.

Carlow Courthouse

Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he chose the losing side and was imprisoned, a misfortune which he had previously been able to avoid. Upon his release in 1924, his employment status was to follow the ebb and flow of Irish party politics. Kane had to resort to working abroad until his return to Ireland, two years after the election of his former Civil War comrades in Fianna Fáil.

For the next twenty years, he was able to work in several Irish industries until he was forced to retire. That a Fine Gael-led government was then in power made it unlikely that he would receive much support besides an inadequate pension, and so Kane faced the fraught prospect of seeking work again at the age of sixty-two. “And so, another of my ideals and ambitions has one down in dust and ashes under my feet” was the bleak verdict on which he closed his Statement.[1]

Implied Reproach?

Anyone looking at the activities of the Carlow Brigade can be prone to a similarly gloomy mood. William Nolan, a rare historian to have approached the subject, admitted that: “Carlow does not have a very active fighting story. This may sometimes have been adverted to by way of implied reproach.” As a counterbalance, Nolan reminded his readers of the leading role Carlow had played in the 1798 Rebellion, as if to reassure them that red blood did indeed run through Carlow veins, after all.[2]

Kane did not bother comforting himself with historical allusions when he retrospectively assessed the difficulties the brigade had faced: the constant flux within the Brigade leadership, the lack of weapons and ammunition, and the unfavourable nature of the local situation towards guerrilla activities, such as the intrusive presence of the Curragh Camp.[3]

Yet the grass is always greener on the other side, in war as with other things, and the difficulties that plagued the Carlow Brigade were not so obvious to its enemy. British captain E. Gerrard was in Carlow at the time of the Truce (or ‘the Armistice’, as he called it, muddling up his wars) and was struck by the level of preparation deemed necessary by the British soldiers stationed there. Every field the soldiers occupied was made into an enclosure by trees they had cut down.

Gerrard could not help but wonder what the rest of the country would be like if such defences were needed for only twenty miles from the Curragh. To Kane, the Curragh was an insurmountable obstacle for the Carlow IRA. To Gerrard, that the IRA could operate at all near the Curragh was enough to make him doubt whether the guerrillas could be defeated.[4]

British soldiers on parade, Carlow Barracks

Organising the Brigade

The use of the name of the ‘Carlow Brigade’ is something of a misnomer. The perimeters that defined the scope of its activities covered considerable chunks out of Counties Kildare and Wicklow, as well as a corridor of land from Laois along the Carlow-Kildare border, meaning that three out of the six battalion areas were outside of Co Carlow.[5]

The battalions and companies were expected to be to a degree self-sufficient. They could not turn to their parent Brigade for resources for the simple reason that there was little to give. At the same time a certain amount of discipline through the battalions was the norm, with Volunteers expected to wait for orders before acting on an idea, even if it had originated from them.

Cumann na mBan member

This was generally adhered to, however frustrating: Nan Nolan, a Cumann na mBan captain, was working as a nanny in the house of a retired British army general when her brother in the Ballon company asked her to leave open a window on a prearranged date for him and his colleagues to steal the guns kept inside. By the time official permission for this home-invasion materialised, Nolan had left the job, depriving the company of its inside-woman.[6]

Such policy bred a cautious attitude within the Brigade, discouraging risk that could lead to disaster. That two of the more ambitious attempts – the creation of a flying column, and an ambush on a RIC patrol near Barrowhouse – would result in heavy losses for those involved would serve to justify this conservative approach.

Relations between officers with their colleagues in the Kildare and Wicklow Brigades were cordial – something that could not always be said for relations between different Brigades – and they occasional worked in unison together. An attack on Auxiliaries posted at Inistioge by a Kilkenny battalion was to be assisted by men from the Carlow 4th battalion, though the plan was cancelled just as the main force had assembled. More successfully, Liam Stack, the intelligence officer for the Carlow Brigade, was able to sit in on a Kilkenny IRA military court in relation to a local dispute.[8]

Maintaining Intelligence

Carlow, Dublin St.

Volunteers recognised early on the urgency of knowing before the enemy knew, the key method of achieving this being control of the mail. Through surreptitious supervision of the post offices and the occasional direct intervention on the flow of mail through the county, Volunteers were able to forewarn other ones of impending arrests, head off leakage from spies, and allow the brigade to keep riding with the enemy punches. Without its members’ skill at information warfare, it is unlikely that the Brigade could have survived long as a functioning military force.

Kane was assigned by his Brigade superiors the task of collecting what information he could. The proactive Kane had himself been elected to the National Executive of the Post Office Clerks’ Association. This gave him the scope to travel and make contacts with sympathetic workers in other post offices around the country, and by early 1920, Kane was part of a cell operating in Carlow post office with access to postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications.

Four of them remained active up to the Truce, though the cell was not impregnable. The point-man for passing information onto GHQ in Dublin, Pádraig Conkling, was forced on the run in later 1920 after being threatened with shooting by Black-and-Tans. Another member, Michael Carpenter, was imprisoned in 1921 for being in possession of illegal wire-tapping equipment. His arrest led to raids on the homes of other post office workers including Kane’s, who from then on was frequently held up in the street by suspicious Crown patrols.[9]

Despite these setbacks and the increasingly straitened circumstances, the intelligence work continued on, leading to many a timely tip-off. Sometime in 1921 – conflicting accounts place the date in either mid-April or a few days before the Truce in July – a British army regiment entered Ballon with the aim of arresting the Volunteers in the company there. The wanted men were forewarned in time to stay away from their homes until the regiment and the danger had passed.

However, the Brigade was unable to achieve complete dominance over the flow of information. As part of the same series of raids that had unsuccessfully tried Ballon, British soldiers were able to net several arrests in the area around Rathvilly, indicating that not only did the soldiers know who to look for, but that there had been a failure in the Brigade’s early warning system.[10]

The Burning of the Barracks

The Carlow Brigade had not attempted anything of note until its enemy unexpectedly gave it an opening. As part of a countrywide policy by Dublin Castle to consolidate its police force into fewer, less exposed strongholds, a number of RIC barracks in Carlow were closed in April 1920.

Ballinree RIC Barracks, Co. Carlow

The abandoned buildings were razed by Volunteers when it became clear that their former garrisons would not be returning, giving the battalions their first taste of activity. That empty buildings make the easiest targets was an added bonus.

Even so, the campaign of destruction was not without incident: Richard Barry was badly burnt while helping to burn down Ballon Barracks. Craiguecullen Barracks was adorned by what Patrick Kane described as a “beautiful crest in cut-stone” which became a target for some Volunteers “with more enthusiasm than sense” who triumphantly hacked away at it.

A witness passed on their names in a letter to the police, though Kane, in his capacity at the post-office, was able to intercept the letter an hour later, after which the would-be informant was given twenty-four hours to leave the area. Kane described the culprit as a ‘loyalist’ though they may simply have been attempting to be civic-minded rather than political. Kane himself did not seem to have approved of the wanton vandalism but war was war.[11]



The Police Old and New


The official response was to increase police pressure. In Ballon, for example, the RIC increased their patrols to a daily basis, and were aggressive enough to threaten at gunpoint suspected Volunteers as they left Mass.[12] March 1920 saw the arrival of the Black-and-Tans into Ireland to buttress the RIC with their military experience. They were to earn a dark reputation: in one of many incidents, a group of them robbed a pub after being refused service and drove off threatening to blow the building up next time. Shots were fired over a passing civilian car on the road for good measure.[13]

Similarly, Black-and-Tans caused a scene demanding drink after-hours in a pub in Ballylinan; in the same edition of the newspaper covering this, it was reported that three RIC men had resigned, including one of three years’ service in Athy, with rumours of more to come. The RIC was a decaying force by late 1920, many of its long-standing members sloughing off and replaced by recruits of a very different temperament.[14]

In contrast, the Volunteers were thriving in the duties of an irregular police force even as the official one was forgetting its own. The Athy Battalion became the retrievers of stolen property from bicycles to timber, earning praise from the Carlow Nationalist newspaper for the “excellent manner in which they are protecting the property for the citizens.”[15] An opinion piece in the newspaper went as far as to criticise those who wanted to put “every kind of duty on to a body already overburdened by the honorary duties they have assumed.”[16]


September 1920

However excellently performed, police work was not what the Brigade had been intended for. September 1920 saw the Brigade finally stepping up its military efforts, albeit with mixed results.

Upon hearing of the Carlow DI visiting Tullow with only a driver to accompany him, a plan was hatched by the Tullow Company of the 3rd battalion to ambush him on his return route, but after two hours of waiting, the ambush team, including Daniel Byrne, was told that their target had prudently returned by a different route.[17]

Byrne was unclear in his Statement as to whether the intent was to kill, kidnap or rob the DI. The Tullow Company was able to launch an actual attack on an RIC patrol later in the month. According to Byrne, who was again involved, this was to rob the constables of their much-needed guns, though historian William Nolan was to claim that it was to kill two “particularly obnoxious” policemen.[18]

The ambushers had been forewarned that the RIC had been beefing up their security as of late, with four-strong units patrolling while armed. The advance party of the ambush also consisted of four men, with some others serving as backup. According to a witness, they numbered fifteen or more. This witness was Sergeant W. H. Warrington who provided a first-hand account of the ambush as part of his testimony at the resulting inquest.

War Comes to Tullow

Warrington had left Tullow Barracks with Constables Patrick Halloran, Timothy Delaney and John Gaughran, the first two at the front with the other pair following, when they encountered the ambush party waiting for them. There was a cry of ‘hands up’ from one of the party while simultaneously a shot was fired at the policemen, either from nerves or intent to kill.

Warrington promptly returned fire with his revolver, and in the resulting firefight, Warrington believed that between twenty and twenty-five shots were fired, the majority by the ambush party. If the ambushers had hoped that the element of surprise would overawe the policemen into surrendering, they were mistaken.

“For God’s sake, don’t shoot!” Warrington heard Halloran cry, his arm raised. When that proved futile, Halloran joined in instead with his own revolver. Warrington saw Delaney collapse, and one of the ambushers fall, rose and fell again, indicating a wound. The attackers retreated while Warrington and Halloran hurried to the safety of their barracks, from where they were reinforced by more of their colleagues.

Gaughan was found dead, his undergarments soaked in blood, in a nearby house where he had gone for cover before haemorrhaging to death from an abdomen wound. Delaney had died where he had fallen. Both revolvers of the slain men were found not to have been discharged and had remained fully loaded. Rumour was that one of the slain policemen had been in the last week of his job, having given in his resignation.[19]

Further proof of the “mischances of guerrilla warfare,” as William Nolan put it, was how the two dead men had been well-respected and liked, even by the Volunteers, while the intended targets had escaped with only minor injuries, a view supported by Nan Nolan, who remembered some of the shooters saying afterwards that the wrong men had been shot (although she was personally unsympathetic due to a earlier bout of comparatively mild questioning in the street by Constable Delaney).[20]

RIC men

A Hornet’s Nest

Byrne did not say whether the ambush party had taken the guns from the slain constables and thus could have something to show for their botched robbery, if robbery had been the primary motive. The resulting hornets’ nest astir may have made the ambush more trouble than it was worth. Two shops were burnt down in the middle of the night as a reprisal. Tullow residents heard a rifle crack, almost as if it was a signal, followed by a volley of about ten rounds in succession.

Then there was a bomb explosion, and the shop of the Murphy Brothers burst into flames, followed by the shop of William Murphy and Sons further up the road. The fire threatened to consume the rest of the street, despite the best efforts of a team of people using buckets of water, until the Carlow Fire Brigade arrived with fifty Volunteers in tow. Realising that the burning shops were lost causes, the Fire Brigade focused on containing the fire, operating the hose while the Volunteers pumped the water from the river.

Once the fires had finally died down and the damage could be assessed, it was found that in addition to the fire-gutted shops, another store had been robbed of £100 worth of goods. The damage to Tullow was more than just material: rumours of further reprisals drove almost two-thirds of the population to seek refuge in surrounding villages or country houses, making the following Friday fair the smallest on record.[21]

Numerous arrests by the RIC and British army followed, with suspects stripped to see if they had any wounds to indicate recent combat. Byrne threatened with a gun in his mouth by two constables before being released but forced to go on the run two days later upon hearing that he was still a wanted man. That was the effective end of Byrne’s time as an active combatant, for he remained a fugitive until the Treaty ten months later, and the rest of his Statement after the telling of his flight is brief.[22]

Fortune Favours the Bold?

The early months of 1921 saw another surge in Brigade activities. A flying column was formed which would be free to move through the territories of the different battalions, with the equipment necessary to take the fight to the enemy. On the 21st of April, however, the column was surprised by a Crown patrol and quickly overwhelmed with virtually all of its members captured.[23]

IRA members

Shortly afterwards, on 16th of May, an RIC patrol of four constables and a sergeant were fired at while cycling towards Barrowhouse, Co Laois, the territory of the 5th battalion. No one in that battalion would submit a Statement to the BMH, and all that Kane knew of it was that two Volunteers had been killed in what he described as a “badly sited ambush”, so we are dependent on the contemporary reporting of the Carlow Nationalist, which drew on the official reports from Dublin Castle and on what local people had heard.

Upon the first shots, the RIC patrol dismounted from their bicycles and returned fire. By the time Crown reinforcements arrived, the ambushers had been driven back, leaving behind two of their own: James Lacey and William Connor. From the nature of their wounds, death was judged to have been near instantaneous, Lacey having had a wound to his side, and Connor in the neck. Of the RIC patrol, one man had been wounded.

A number of weapons discarded by the fleeing ambushers were also found on the scene. The official version of events reported the number of ambushers to have been twenty, but people in the vicinity judged them to have been five to seven based on the noise of the guns heard.

The local mood was described by the Carlow Nationalist as having been one of consternation, as well it might. Shortly afterwards, a group of ten men, undoubtedly of the Crown forces, with their faces hidden under capes, descended on Barrowhouse, interrogating members of the Lynch family as to the identities of the ambush party, before burning down their home along with a Sinn Féin hall. That another Crown patrol would arrive later to ask for descriptions of the men involved would suggest that it had been an unauthorised action, unlike the one in Tullow the year before, where the DI displayed a marked disinterest in investigating.

The bodies of Lacey and Connor were released to their families for burial, leading the Nationalist to comment on the coincidences of two men who had been of the same age (26) and born on the same day, baptised on the same day, killed on the same day and were finally to be buried on the same day. The 5th battalion may have previously won praise for its honorary police work, but as a guerrilla force it had been a miserable failure.[24]

Lesser Battles

Both the formation of the flying column and the ambush on a decently-sized RIC patrol were risky gambits by the Brigade which showed an increasing confidence and a desire to accomplish as much as possible. However, their failures showed the dangers of pitting enthusiastic amateurs against trained soldiers, with the price paid in blood and lost weaponry.

Carlow Bridge

More successful for the Brigade were its lower-level forms of harassment. Blocking roads by felling trees across the road or damaging bridges was ideal in that it disrupted enemy patrols while avoiding dangerous contact with them. The men of the 3rd battalion were proficient at this type of work, managing one or two blockages a week, after learning when and where a Crown patrol was due to come by to maximise the frustration. Such activities were not always without consequences – the destruction of the bridge at Rathmore led to a big round-up and the arrest of a company captain – but it was preferable to the death or injury that a more direct form of warfare risked.[25]

Raids on mail trains or postmen during their rounds occurred throughout the early months of 1921 and up to the Truce, with authorities seemingly helpless to stop it. Such raids were done to check for any letters reporting to the RIC, with the bonus of police codes being found from one robbery. Often the mail would simply not be returned; in other cases, the letters would be returned after certain parts had been censored and marked ‘passed by the IRA’, helping to reinforce the sense that the guerrillas were one step ahead of anyone, whether the authorities or the public.[26]

Military barracks, Carlow

The RIC barracks remained a presence as long as their garrisons did. Outside their walls the Carlow Volunteers could be brazen, such as when a military truck waiting outside Carlow Barracks was hijacked and found burnt elsewhere. But while attacks were planned on various barracks, none were carried out. Considering the past times the Brigade had bitten off more than it could chew, that was probably just as well for it.[27]


Sergeant Boyle

Attacks on RIC personnel continued, preferably if they could be caught alone and by surprise. Even so, the targets had an inconvenient tendency to shoot back.

Sergeant Boyle was shot on the 23rd of March, 1921, while riding his bicycle back to Carlow Barracks from his residence in Graiguecullen. Boyle was hit twice, high in the back and in his left jaw under the eye, and while Kane believed that it was the wearing of a chain waistcoat that saved Boyle’s life, this armour obviously would have done nothing about the latter injury.

The wounded Boyle was able to fire back, driving off his attackers, and upon being found by sympathetic passer-bys, was transferred to Dublin Military Hospital where, so the Nationalist assured its readers, he had “every hope of a speedy recovery.” Sergeant Boyle was still alive by the time Kane submitted his BMH Statement in 1957, a tribute to either the skills of the Military Hospital doctors, the precaution of a chain waistcoat or the hardiness of Boyle.[28]

RIC men

James Duffy

A month later, thirty-year old Constable James Duffy, a Black-and-Tan, was walking with a friend, Harry James, when they were ambushed by three gunmen who had been waiting in a hedge. Two of them fired at Duffy, indicating that he was the primary target despite him being dressed in civilian attire, while the other fired at James, who fled despite receiving two wounds on his shoulder and hip. Duffy’s body was found to have been ridden with bullets, including one that had been fired under the chin at close-range, his assassins having left nothing to chance.

A son of a well-known horse-dealer, Duffy had served four years in the Royal Garrison Artillery in the First World War for which he had been decorated. The shooting occurred in the territory of the 1st battalion, during the time when the flying column was encamped in the same area, so the attack can be attributed to either of these two groups.

According to Kane, Duffy was shot because he was investigating the area, using James as his spy, while the fact that the two men had been returning from a pub when attacked would suggest that the relationship between the two was a social one – two ideas that are, of course, not mutually exclusive.[29]

Sergeant Farrell

The last attempt by the Brigade to strike a blow before the Truce was the shooting and wounding of Sergeant Farrell in Borris, June 1921. The task was assigned to John Hynes, the tough, hands-on Vice O/C of the 4th battalion. Farrell had been on the GHQ’s ‘black list’ for some time, as he was reputed to have been part of the murder of Lord Mayor Tomás Mac Curtain of Cork.

Hynes received his orders on Friday evening, giving him time to assess that the best opportunity for an attempt on Farrell’s life was in the morning when he left the improvised RIC barracks at the Protestant school, where he slept, for breakfast at his home in town. Hynes selected three men to accompany him as part of the hit squad. They were only just getting into position behind a wall when Farrell came into sight.

Hynes fired at Farrell, prompting the sergeant to shoot back before running into the cover of the wall and back towards the barracks. Farrell made to the barracks’ gate before collapsing in the road from his wounds. The ambush team retreated at that stage, either because the rest of the barracks’ garrison was returning fire at this point, according to Hynes, or because of the number of people who were heading to Mass made a clear shot too difficult (according to a second-hand account). Farrell was put on a motor car by his colleagues to the hospital where he recovered.[30]

Tough at the Top

The other casualty of the Farrell shooting was the position of the 1st Battalion O/C Pierce Murphy. He was demoted by GHQ for his “conscientious objections” in refusing to give orders to shoot Farrell, an awkward virtue in a guerrilla leader.[31]

The Carlow Brigade had a high turnover of its officers, either from insufficient aggression as with Murphy, internal politics (Patrick Kane believed Brigade O/C Eamon Malone had been retired following the Truce for not being a “complaisant yes-man”) or the ever-present danger of arrest.[32]

The last point was illustrated when the 3rd battalion O/C Michael Keating had to go on the run following the slayings of Constables Delaney and Gaughran. Keating left his Vice O/C William Donohue as the replacement O/C and promoting Matthew Cullen to Vice O/C accordingly. Both Donohue and Cullen were arrested a month later, forcing another round of rapid promotions to cover them. Little wonder, then, that Kane thought dimly of the quality of the officers left by the time the Truce came.[33]

Final Thoughts

In reviewing the Carlow parishes of Ballon and Myshall during the War of Independence, Nan Nolan felt confident enough to assert that: “Other people and places may have been lucky enough to get better headlines, but any man in Ireland who had been through these two parishes during the four glorious years spoke only the best of them.”

As an example of this, Nan Nolan related how the Ballow Company blockaded the village due to the arrival of over a hundred British soldiers in June 1921. The Volunteers were mobilised at night, and did not retire home in the early hours of the morning until all the roads had been blocked with timber and the bridges destroyed, denying entrance to Ballon by anything bigger than a bicycle. It was an undeniably impressive feat on the part of the Ballon Company in the swiftness, thoroughness and secrecy of its operation.[34]

However, it is also important to note that the blockade was done after the British convoy had already left Ballow. There was no suggestion at even a consideration to confront the enemy head-on. Going by the records of other units, it is hard to imagine any such attempt resulting in anything other than a bloody loss for the Brigade.

So there is more than a touch of the ridiculous to Nolan’s suggestion that the lack of fame for Carlow compared to that for other counties during this period can be attributed to opportune headlines. Nowhere was there anything to match the more dramatic actions undertaken by the likes of the Cork or Dublin Brigades, and nothing comparable to the Kilmichael Ambush, Crossbarry, the burning of the Customs House or Bloody Sunday.

Yet, by the time of the Truce, the Carlow Brigade was still a functioning force. How well it would have continued to be so is a debatable issue: Nolan’s optimistic take can be contrasted with Patrick Kane’s shock at the quality of the remaining officers. The Brigade had fought small, and when it had tried to fight big it had lost badly. But it had fought all the same, from the start of the War to the end, and in the most important area of accomplishment, it could boast of equal status to all the others: it had survived.

Carlow IRA veterans marching through Carlow, 1966


Originally posted on The Irish Story (24/09/2014)

See also: Bushwhacked: The Loss of the Carlow Flying Column, April 1921



[1] Kane, Patrick (BMH / WS 1572), pp. 27-9

[2] Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970, p. 582

[3] Kane, p. 13

[4] Gerrard, E. (BMH / WS 348), p. 8

[5] Nolan, Willian, p. 582

[6] Nolan, Nan (BMH / WS 1441), pp. 6-7

[7] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 1442), p. 10

[8] Brennan, James (BMH / WS 1102), p. 12

[9] Kane, p. 3, 6-7

[10] Nolan, Nan, pp. 11-12 ; Fitzpatrick, Michael (BMH / WS 1443), p. 6 ; McGill, John (BMH / WS 1616), p. 10

[11] Fitzpatrick, p. 2 ; Kane, p. 11

[12] Nolan, Nan, pp. 5-6

[13] Carlow Nationalist, 28/08/1920

[14] Ibid, 14/08/1920

[15] Ibid, 03/07/1920

[16] Ibid, 11/09/1920

[17] Byrne, Daniel(BMH / WS 1440), p. 3

[18] Nolan, William, p. 585

[19] Nationalist, 18/09/1920 ; McGill, p. 5

[20] Nolan, William, p. 585 ; Nolan, Nan, p. 7

[21] Nationalist, 18/09/1920

[22] Byrne, pp. 3-4 ; McGill, pp. 5-6

[23] Kane, pp. 16-18

[24] Ibid, p. 9 ; Nationalist, 21/05/1921

[25] Ibid ; McGill, pp. 6-7

[26] Ryan, p. 5 ; Nationalist, 09/07/1921, 02/05/1921

[27] Nationalist, 18/06/1921

[28] Kane, p. 16 ; Nationalist, 26/03/1921

[29] Nationalist, 09/04/1921 ;  Kane, p. 16

[30] Hynes, John (BMH / WS 1496), pp. 16-7 ; Ryan, p. 9

[31] Hynes, p.17 ; Kane, p. 9

[32] Kane, p. 21

[33] Ibid, p. 22 ; McGill, p. 6

[34] Nolan, Nan, pp. 11-12



Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Brennan, James, WS 1102

Byrne, Daniel, WS 1440

Fitzpatrick, Michael, WS 1443

Gerrard, E., WS 348

Hynes, John, WS 1496

Kane, Patrick, WS 1572

McGill, John, WS 1616

Nolan, Nan, WS 1441

Ryan, Thomas, WS 1442


Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970


Carlow Nationalist

Undefeated: The Attack and Defence of Clara RIC Barracks, June 1920


From the 1936 interview with Seán Robbins, former quartermaster of the 2nd Offaly Brigade:

Q. Our view about Clara Barracks is – whether we are right or wrong – that it was a major engagement for some and not a major engagement for others?

S.R. Yes.

Q. A man that was in the mill, how would he be situated?

S.R. That was one of the most dangerous positions.

Q. Was he in the actual fight?

S.R. Yes. And William’s house on the opposite side was dangerous.

Q. Was that the Sergeant’s house?

S.R. The sergeant’s house was attached to the barracks proper.

Q. Was that William’s house?

S.R. William’s house was the opposite side, the mill was in front of the barracks and the sergeant’s house was attached to the barracks proper.

Q. It would have been a bad place?

S.R. It was. As a matter of fact there were two or three men lost there, two wounded and one died. Two mained [sic] and one seriously wounded.[1]

Record of the RIC

On the night of 2nd June 1920, the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) barracks in Clara, Co. Offaly (then King’s County), was the target of a coordinated assault by several local companies of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The attack had been well-planned with a shrewd understanding in how to isolate a target beforehand and an array of sophisticated, if unsubtle, techniques against a fortified position.

The RIC, on the other hand, was finding itself to be an antiquated institution and one ill-prepared for the rigours of confronting a guerrilla war. The burden of pacifying the unruly country increasingly fell upon the shoulders of the British Army regiments stationed in Ireland.

RIC policemen

In assessing the state of the RIC by May 1920, an internal review of the Army’s performance during the Irish Troubles, Record of the Rebellion in Ireland 1919-1921 (drafted in 1922), found that its ally had:

…lost control over the population even in the towns and villages in which they were stationed, and it was becoming the exception rather than the rule for head constables and sergeants in command at outstations to do more than live shut up in their barracks.[2]

While not unsympathetic to the plight of the besieged police force, Record pointed to the excess of elderly timeservers in its ranks, men whose primary interest was their forthcoming pensions. To survive, the RIC would need recruits with the strength and vigour of youth.

Such fresh blood was to be found and would quickly taint the name of the RIC with their own: the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries. It was a policy that would go horribly right but, in May 1920, no one amongst the British forces could deny that the police were in dire need of an overhaul:

In a military sense, the RIC were untrained and thus, though no fault of their own, they were greatly handicapped. Their military training was almost non-existent, their fire discipline nil, and our officers had to go round their barracks to help them as much as possible in the effective use of the rifle…hand and rifle grenades, rockets and Verey light signals, and in the defence arrangements of their barracks.[3]

The RIC barracks were a particularly weak link in the Crown chain. Many were in unsuitable positions, having not been built to defend against an organised assault. The one on Clara Barracks was singled out by Record as an example of such an attack and a demonstration of the tactics used by the IRA.[4]

RIC police and barracks

Clara Barracks

Clara Barrack stood in the middle of the town as a small two-storied stone building with a slate roof and steel shutters over its windows. At one end, it adjoined a large flour-mill and at the other were the quarters of Sergeant Somers’ wife and children.

Somers manned the building with an addition of eight armed constables. It made a formidable target, one that required the men of the Clara, Tullamore, Rahan, Streamstown and Ballycomber companies to come out in full force.

Main Street, Clara

At midnight, the tramp of marching feet could be heard through the streets of Clara. Volunteers had already been assigned to various tasks such as stealing tins of petrol from a nearby garage, cutting telephone wires or felling trees across all roads leading to the town. Reinforcements to the beleaguered barracks would not be coming quickly, if at all.

In addition, the barracks in the nearby village of Geashill was attacked. The fight there lasted for less than an hour and the only causalities it caused were smashed windows but it had succeeded in its primary aim as a feint.

In Clara, the door to the Somers’ family quarters was kicked in. With a touch of chivalry, the wife and children of the Sergeant were taken to the safety of the post office. At the same time, the windows of William’s shop in the main street, opposite the barracks, were smashed in by rifle-butts as men took up position. There, the men barricaded the top windows as best they could with mattresses, furniture and anything else at hand. The mill at the end of the barracks was likewise occupied.[5]

Strength in Numbers?

Despite the relative finesse of the operation, it was Seán Robbins’ opinion that the IRA’s superiority in numbers had also been a hindrance:

Q. You can see the trouble about Clara Barracks attack. There was a lot of men in the attack on Clara that were not in dangerous positions?

S.R. That is what happened there were too many men there. The Brigade Commandant mobilised too many. He mobilised the first and second battalion of Offaly I and also portion of Offaly II took part. That is what happened the men were on top of one another.[6]

The numbers of the Volunteers involved is uncertain. Two contemporary newspaper accounts reported numbers of 300 and 100-200. Though Record believed the 300 estimate an exaggerated one, Robbins also judged the participants to have been up to that same number, making it the most likely.[7]

The Fight

Inhabitants of Clara and nearby towns such as Birr were awoken that night by the sounds of gunshots and lightning-like flashes. The latter were from the Verey flare guns that the RIC garrison were sending up to call for aid. They made a striking impression on Seán O’Neill, one of the participants in the attack, as he later described:

While we were in the yard showers of multi-coloured verey lights came down on top of us. When the verey lights were fired they went right into the air like a star, then spread out like miniature fiery balls of many brilliant colours.[8]

Despite such eye-catching splendour being visible all the way to Birr, the garrison was on its own. From their positions in William’s shop and the mill, the Volunteers kept up a hail of fire on the barracks with an assortment of rifles, shotguns and revolvers. Despite several calls to surrender, the besieged police responded vigorously with their own guns through the apertures of the steel shutters covering the windows.

IRA/Irish Volunteers

In order to break the stalemate, those IRA men in the Somers’ family quarters and the mill attempted to break through the adjoining walls to the barracks. Posted to the rear of the building, O’Neill could hear the sledgehammers and crowbars at work in the Sergeant’s house whenever there was a lull in the fighting.


At this point, the two main sources for the attack – Record and O’Neill – diverge (though otherwise they are notably congruent). In the former, the assailants in the Somers’ home were able to use explosives to blow a hole through the wall into the first floor of the barracks and behind where a constable was busy firing from a window. The quick-witted policeman was able to throw several bombs through the sudden hole, throwing his enemy into disarray. The IRA mole team in the mill, on the other hand, failed in their own efforts to break through to the barracks.

O’Neill’s version, however, has it that it was the Volunteers in the mill who succeeded in blasting through. O’Neill says nothing about the success of the Volunteers in the Sergeant’s quarters, only that they were able to let off an explosion in the wall which apparently went nowhere.

IRA/Irish Volunteers

One of the Volunteers in the mill, Martin Fleming – in O’Neill’s account – shouted though the gaping hole for the defendants to surrender. Fatalities at this stage in the War of Independence had been relatively light, and the intent of the Clara attackers seems to have been to secure the barracks with the least bloodshed possible; otherwise, they could have thrown bombs through the hole in the wall as soon as they could. Fleming received for his troubles a bomb of the RIC’s own which almost blew his arm off.[9]


With the attack stalled and dawn starting to break, the Volunteers decided by 3 am to retreat. They had suffered two other causalities besides Fleming, both while posted in William’s shop: Patrick Seery from a bullet to the chest and Ned Brennan in the hip. It was not surprising that Robbins would remember that position as a dangerous one.

O’Neill remembered Robbins helping Seery to a priest’s house to be anointed, the prognosis clearly a grim one. O’Neill, for his part, assisted in taking Fleming and Brennan to the same priest, an experience that was to haunt him:

It was not a pleasant scene in view of the failure to take the barracks to see the footpath strewn with the blood of our men. I shall not easily forget the condition of Seery who had a large hole in his chest and Fleming whose hand, from above the wrist, was almost completely severed.[10]

It was not until 5:30 am that Tullamore Barracks received news of the attack, and 6:30 when army reinforcements arrived in Clara, by which time the attackers were long gone.

Despite their failure to capture the barracks, the Volunteers had at least been able to isolate it, perhaps a little too well: the Birr-Roscrea train was delayed that morning by almost two and a half hours due to tampered wires, and a motorist from Mullingar crashed his car against a tree across the road. Unharmed, the driver and his passenger made the rest of the journey to Athlone by foot.

Record proudly recorded what the enemy had had to abandon in their haste to depart: “One rifle, a shot gun, several bombs, articles of clothing, full tins of petrol and a sprayer.” It was a good indicator of the armoury the Offaly IRA had at its disposal.[11]

The Westmeath Guardian told of the blood found on the scene as well as a cap with a bullet-hole found in the peak, testifying to the intensity of the fight. Another newspaper, The Leinster Chronicle, was pithier: left behind on the scene had been a “considerable quantity of arms, petrol and blood.”[12]

Patrick Seery

The RIC garrison had suffered no causalities. Of the IRA, Brennan and Fleming survived their injuries, though the latter lost his arm and wore an artificial one in later years.[13]

Seery, however, lingered on before dying in September while at the Mater Hospital, Dublin. He was 31 years old. His funeral in his native district of Tyrrellspass, Co. Westmeath, was a grand affair and a show of strength by his comrades. Thousands of Volunteers from the Offaly and Mullingar battalions joined the mile-long funeral procession, marching two deep while keeping time with the Tullamore Pipers’ Band.

IRA/Irish Volunteers

Upon reaching the cemetery, the tricolour-draped coffin was borne on the shoulders of Volunteers, and a military salute was fired over the grave. The farewell did not go entirely without a hitch. A member of the firing party was impressed by his revolver’s lack of kick, saying that he had never fired a finer gun. On closer inspection, it transpired that the revolver had not fired at all due to dud ammunition, not that anyone had noticed at the time.

While reporting on the funeral, the Westmeath Guardian neglected to mention the cause of death. The Leinster Chronicle, bolder or better informed, said that the deceased had perished from wounds received from the police, though it did not link him specifically to the attack on Clara Barracks four months ago.[14]

Those Left Behind

In death, Seery was indisputably a hero. His surviving family would not find thing so simple. In 1924, two of his siblings, Joseph and Jane, made separate claims to the new Free State government for compensation for their brother’s death.

The officer who initially investigated the claims on behalf of the Army Pensions Board came back with a strong recommendation for them to be accepted. In addition to being one of the first IRA men killed in the War of Independence, Seery had been “held in the highest esteem in his Brigade, and his death was a big loss” to his comrades.

The loss to his bereaved kinsfolk was also keenly felt, according to the investigating officer. As Patrick had been the chief breadwinner of the family, his surviving three siblings were in dire straits, not to mention poor health, without him and their father, who had died of shattered nerves three years after his son.

Eschewing subtlety altogether, the investigator appealed for the healing of Civil War divisions: “payment of a pension would enhance the reputation of the Government in an area where it has not too many friends.”[15]

Unimpressed, the Army Pensions Board complained that the initial report on the Seery family’s affairs had been contradictory and padded with hearsay. A follow-up investigation found that the family’s finances were in considerably better health than they had let on. They had not been dependant on Patrick’s earnings and none of his siblings were incapacitated through poor health. Consequently, both claims were rejected.

A later claim by a second sister, Anne, in 1934, and a second attempt by Joseph Seery were likewise turned down due to their claims of dependency being unproven. Patrick Seery may have died for a free Ireland but not necessarily a credulous one.[16]

The Crown Response

Less than a fortnight after Seery’s funeral, Somers, now Head Constable, applied to the Tullamore Quarter Session Court for compensation. The interior of his family’s quarters had been wrecked by the fighting four months ago, and furniture of good and expensive quality reduced to matchwood. Judge Fleming – any relation to Martin Fleming unknown – regarded Somers’ request for £120 as moderate compared to those claimed elsewhere from barrack attacks and generously amended the amount to £150 before awarding it.[17]

RIC policemen

Head Constable Somers was not the only one who benefitted from the successful defence of Clara Barracks. The RIC victory there had, in the professional opinion of Record, helped raise the morale of the beleaguered police force. It also sharpened the military response of the British authorities, showing them the weak spots that needed to be strengthened:

  1. The RIC to be concentrated in larger garrisons than before.
  2. Directive boards to be set up at all military look-out posts, and the firing of alarm signals from neighbouring barracks to be practised.
  3. Instructions in the care and firing of rockets and other alarm signals to be offered to soldiers and RIC.
  4. Barracks in obviously untenable positions to be evacuated.
  5. Military lorries to carry equipment that would help clear roadblocks, road trenches or damaged bridges, such as cross-cut saws, hawsers and temporary bridging equipment.

Record claimed that the repulse of the attack also had a depressing effect on the local IRA. If that was so, then there were no signs of it. Clara Barracks did not last long after its successful defence. It was one of the outposts evacuated by its garrison, and was promptly razed by the vengeful Volunteers.[18]

Unintentionally undermining its own optimistic take on the situation after the Clara Barracks defence, Record listed the Clara-Tullamore as one of the “bad districts” due to the lack of Crown forces there. Regardless of its defeat, the Offaly IRA had been given free rein. One side was undefeated but it was the other who had won.[19]

See also: Sieges and Shootings: The Westmeath War against the RIC, 1920


[1] Military Service Pensions Collection, MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 48

[2] Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009), p. 30

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, p. 31

[5] Sheehan, p. 173 ; O’Neill, Seán (BHM / WS 1219), pp. 88-89 ; Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920

[6] MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 48

[7] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 04/06/1920 ; Sheehan, p. 173 ; MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 49

[8] O’Neill, p. 89

[9] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Sheehan, p. 173 ; O’Neill, p. 89

[10] O’Neill, p. 90

[11] Sheehan, p. 173

[12] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 04/06/1920

[13] O’Neill, p. 90

[14] Leinster Reporter, 11/09/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 10/09/1920 ; Dockery, Seán (BHM / WS 1711), p. 7

[15] Military Service Pensions Collection, A11127, pp. 5, 11

[16] Military Service Pensions Collection, 1D233, pp. 3, 46, 50-51 ; 33APB49, p. 4

[17] King’s County Chronicle, 21/09/1920

[18] Sheehan, p. 173

[19] Ibid, p. 74



Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009)

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Dockery, Seán F., WS 1711

O’Neill, Seán, WS 1219


King’s County Chronicle

Leinster Reporter

Westmeath Guardian

Military Service Pensions Collection





A Clenched Fist Open: The Flying Column of the Athlone Brigade, 1920-1

Another Day in Ireland

While it was still dark on the morning of 18th October 1920, a patrol of British soldiers helped themselves to a motorboat in Athlone for use on the Shannon, their aim being to scout out some small islands upriver in Lough Ree. That they felt the need to bring along a Lewis machine gun would indicate a sense of wariness.

After all, the area had been increasingly unsettled over the course of the year, with a number of police barracks burnt to the ground and a police sergeant shot dead on the streets of Athlone. But then, these barracks had already been abandoned and the sergeant was caught while leaving a social club with barely any company to protect him. At twelve-strong and fully armed, the patrol would present a very different prospect.

Lough Ree

After finding nothing of note, the patrol began to make its way back around midday. As the boat passed through the narrows of the river, it was subjected to a broadside of bullets. Caught off-guard, the patrol stopped the motor and returned fire at the treeline along the shore where the attack was coming from. The Lewis was brought out to add to the fusillade but poor positioning – the boat was low in the water and the enemy standing on the high ground of the riverbanks – meant that its volleys went over the heads of its targets.

Upping the Ante

Exposed as they were and taking hits, the patrol had no choice but to restart their boat and withdraw as best they could. The ambushers followed along the bank, moving from cover to cover and keeping up their fire with a mix of shotguns and rifles. It was only when the boat neared Athlone with its still-functioning barracks there that the assailants broke off their attack and dispersed. The patrol limped back to safety with six wounded.

The attack had been an ad hoc affair by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The O/C of the Athlone Brigade, Seumas O’Meara, was in town to attend Mass when he heard about the soldiers who had left on a boat earlier that day. Recognising an opportunity, O’Meara gathered all the available Volunteers in Athlone and the Coosan area, near where the patrol had gone.

He had considered stringing barbed wire across the river but decided that the party lacked both a boat and the time necessary to attempt this. Hoping for as many casualties as possible, O’Meara told the others to aim for the waterline of the enemy launch before targeting the sinking men.

Despite the injuries inflicted, the Shannon ambush was not considered an unqualified success. O’Meara regretted the order to aim for the boat, believing it had wasted time that could have been spent on the soldiers. Another participant, Frank O’Connor, was of like mind, adding later in his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement that he had thought O’Meara’s instructions absurd, though it seems he had neglected to actually mention it at the time.[1]

Seumas O’Meara

O’Meara’s leadership would remain a contentious issue. While undoubtedly brave, energetic and capable of creative thinking (as his idea with the barbed wire had shown), he had already exhibited a knack at rubbing his colleagues up the wrong way.


In early 1918, O’Meara was standing in as acting O/C of the Athlone Brigade while the official one was imprisoned when he was called upon to reprimand a pair of officers who had taken it upon themselves to arrange an unauthorised raid upon a quarry for gelignite. Other than the lack of discipline, the operation had involved rowing across a lake in bad weather, putting the lives of all involved at risk.

O’Meara made it clear that any future actions would have to be cleared beforehand by the Brigade staff. Smarting from the rebuke, the two malcontents took their complaints to the official O/C, Seán Hurley, upon his release from prison.

The first O’Meara knew of the problem was when Hurley addressed the Athlone Volunteers on parade. Without mentioning any name, Hurley made it clear that he held his acting O/C in the wrong. Feeling he had no choice, O’Meara tendered his resignation. But when the subsequent brigade staff meeting decided in favour of O’Meara, it was Hurley who resigned, leaving O’Meara to become O/C in time.[2]

It would not, however, be the last time that the discipline that O’Meara so highly valued would be come under threat.

At War and on the Run

The Shannon ambush heralded a rise in activity by the Athlone Brigade in the latter half of 1920. As part of this, a flying column was created to help spearhead this surge. Though the column would not take the field until after the Shannon ambush, plans for it had been underway for some time, encouraged in no small part by the increasing number of Volunteers having to go on the run.

British soldiers, Ireland

A series of round-ups by Crown forces were disrupting the equilibrium of the Brigade areas. The wanted men who escaped arrest were threatening to be a burden on the Brigade – O’Meara had to hold a collection to raise funds for them – until a GHQ missive in September, ordering columns to be formed in all brigade areas throughout the country, turned these loose men into resources. The runaways made perfect recruits for the column, having little else to do. Included were those Volunteers willing to be absent from their home for the foreseeable future.

The first meeting of the embryonic column was held at O’Meara’s house in October where the personnel were selected. The initial numbers are uncertain, one source having the column at twenty, but others coming to more conservative estimations of between nine and twelve.[3]

IRA Flying Column

All the rifles and the best shotguns were scoured from the Brigade units to equip the new one, something that was not greeted with wild enthusiasm by those outside the column. The Drumraney Company was sufficiently aggrieved to send their O/C to Dublin. There he prevailed upon GHQ to order the Brigade to return the Company armaments although only four rifles ended up being given back.[4]

Henry O’Brien – one of the column’s original members and later a stern critic – went as far as to argue that the donations of serviceable weapons to the column was crippling to the other units, which is something of an overstatement. After all, Athlone Volunteers outside the column were able to attempt a number of ambushes, successfully or otherwise, up until the Truce. However annoying this tithe of weapons might have been, it could not have been too much of one.[5]

Too Many Chiefs and Not Enough Indians?

Also chosen was the O/C for the column. James Tormey was to be in command, a role for which he was ideally suited. In addition to having a “fine physique and of a commanding disposition”, he was one of the few Volunteers with prior military experience, having served with the British Army in France and at Gallipoli.

He had proven his mettle to his new comrades in the IRA: attempting to infiltrate the Streamstown RIC Barracks while disguised as a policeman (where he had narrowly avoided being shot) in July 1920, and acting as one of the shooters in the assassination of Sergeant Craddock in Athlone a month later.[6]

O’Meara served in the column as an ordinary soldier despite his position of Brigade O/C. Several others who held similar Brigade ranks likewise counted as regular Volunteers in the column while retaining the right to absent themselves and attend to their brigade duties when necessary. This dual membership policy would allow for the smooth running of the various IRA companies but it could create its own problems.[7]

O’Brien believed that being allowed to continue as officers made a lot of column members difficult to handle. A tendency for some to disappear without prior warning made unit cohesion a struggle to maintain and, being big fish in their own ponds, they were not as amenable to discipline as an ordinary Volunteer might be.

IRA members

O’Brien was also sceptical about the endurance of many of his peers when faced with the hardships that life in the column would entail, such as long periods of hunger and poor billeting. As Captain of the Coosan Company as well as a column serviceman, O’Brien could claim to view the situation from both perspectives; nonetheless, that was the situation the column had set for itself. There was nothing else to do but press on and do what the column had been formed to do.[8]

Opening Moves

British soldiers

The first intended operation was a surprise on a military party on its way to relieve the guards at the Athlone Workhouse. A date was set for a Monday but then the Shannon incident happened on the Sunday, heightening British security and causing the cancellation of the original plan.

Needing to stay mobile, the column assembled at Faheran on the following Tuesday and Wednesday nights, billeting in a shed owned by an obliging parish priest. Looking for another angle, Tormey, O’Meara and David Daly ventured out on the Thursday or Friday and scoped the Dublin-Athlone road as a possible ambush site before deciding on Parkwood as having the best position.

The armoury was reviewed in preparation. Upon testing, the GHQ-supplied explosives were found to be duds. Daly was sent to Dublin to replace them. Though he successfully handed in the faulty explosives he received no replacements, not that he would have made it back in time anyway for what was to be the column’s christening.[9]


The column’s ambition was modest: a single lorry, two at most. As British forces routinely used the road, it would only be a matter of time and patience before suitable prey came within range if the column waited long enough in position.

The column took up position close to the road, putting the men at virtually point-blank range as a concession to the inexperience of many of them, with the exception of a few ex-British soldiers like Tormey, at handling rifles. The bulk of the group was concentrated on one side of the road with the remainder positioned on the other to counteract any enemies seeking refuge there.

The position gave the column a clear view of the road towards Athlone. As for the Dublin side, a scout took watch with a whistle and instructions to use it upon sight of a convoy. Blocking the road was ruled out due to the amount of traffic and the lack of a mine. It was not ideal terrain as cover was scarce but, committed as they were, the column settled down as best they could behind roadside fences and waited.

When opportunity came at about 1 pm after two hours of anticipation, on 22nd October, the column almost missed it. A military tender speeded by from the Dublin direction before the ambushers were aware of it. The scout blew his whistle in time for a second tender to appear before the poised men.

The column opened fire, aiming as ordered on the lorry driver and killing 26-year old Constable Harold Briggs instantly at the wheel. The tender careered off the road and into a ditch in front of the ambushers, just as several other vehicles appeared, coming to a halt by the rear of the disabled one. Their occupants spilled out, the Black-and-Tans firing mostly in the air as they dashed for the nearest cover. Instead of the lone or double tenders the column had been expecting, they had chanced upon a whole squadron.


He Who Runs Away…

Fearing they had bitten off more than they could chew, Tormey ordered a retreat. The column moved safely away until they reached another road where they commandeered a civilian lorry. The locals they passed working on the land either cheered as the lorry passed or turned their backs, the latter O’Meara attributed to the farmers thinking they were Tans.

The column dismounted and sheltered in the woods. While the men waited for the cover of night, O’Meara went ahead to make arrangements for transport across the Shannon, all the better to throw any pursuers off the scent.

In what could have been a disaster, the column had pulled off its first ambush. With one enemy fatality, another injury and no casualties of their own, it had been a success. The reaction of the Tans, in contrast, had been so confused and their discipline so abyssal that many of the column believed that had they stayed to fight, they could have wiped the convoy out entirely like ducks in a row.

On the other hand, these same Volunteers were honest enough to admit the precariousness of the situation. If the Tans had kept their nerve or had adequate leadership, they might have inflicted grievous losses on their assailants. [10]

In the Wilderness

volunteersDrillingThe column stayed in the Summerhill area for over a fortnight where Tormey utilised his British Army expertise to put it through a training course. Emboldened by their earlier success and not wanting to rest on their laurels, the Volunteers set up three ambush positions in succession for RIC cycle patrols, only for none to show. Skirting Athlone on its Connaught side, the column packed up and crossed the Shannon, aiming to set up camp near Ballymahon.

En route, the column held a court-martial of a prisoner held by the local Volunteers acting as a makeshift police force. The prisoner was found innocent and, though O’Meara does not give any further details, it is a reminder that the role of the IRA at this time was not limited to the military sphere.

Having arrived in Ballyhamon, the column slept in a hayshed for three or four nights. O’Meara searched for a suitable ambush site on the Athlone-Ballymahon road but when that proved fruitless, the column returned the way it had come, crossing the Shannon, and tried their luck again for a few more days along the Galway road but, once again, no enemy patrol was obliging enough to show itself.

Undaunted, Tormey decided to lead his unit to Faheran, where it had originally begun, and from there to Moate. If the column could not find any enemy patrols to attack there, it would try its luck against the local police barracks, though more for the nuisance value than any realistic hope of capturing it. [11]


It was at Moate that cracks appeared in the column. The men arrived at 3 am, near the ‘Cat and Bag’ publichouse, and were detailed to neighbouring billets with local Volunteers. O’Meara, who was shouldering some of the leadership duties in the column, told the men before dismissal to assemble outside the ‘Cat and Bag’ later in the day at 7 pm.

O’Meara and O’Brien, who had been billeted together, arrived at the publichouse at the appointed time to find only one other Volunteer there. After waiting for three hours in vain for the rest to show, the trio decided to have some tea inside.

The barmaid served them their tea but with bad grace and a refusal to take payment. Puzzled by the hostility, the three men resumed the wait outside until 11 pm when Tormey and another column member, Thomas Costello, arrived to say that the ‘Cat and Bag’ had been raided the previous night for drink and cigarettes. Worse, the culprits had been members of the column and the local Volunteers.


The discipline that the column depended on was in danger of coming undone. Tormey and O’Meara agreed that reigning in the baser instincts of their colleagues would be impossible and that it would be better to split up the column for better control.

That is at least O’Meara’s version of events. The other two present who left BMH Statements for posterity, Costello and O’Brien, agree that the column was divided around this time but no such incident at the ‘Cat and Bag’ is mentioned. But then it was not something on the column’s record that anyone would find flattering. That O’Meara described it all the same gives his Statement credibility. [12]

Whatever the reason, the column was never the same after Parkwood. While the column made an effort to follow through on its initial success, it would cease to function as a whole. Volunteers outside the column saw only a lull of activity and cited disorganisation and disarray as the cause.

Upon his return from Dublin, Daly found that many of the original members were absent. In their place were newcomers who had only the credentials of being on the run but not weapons of their own in a unit already lacking in armaments. “It was more of a gathering now than a column,” Daly thought. By Christmas the unit had disbanded for the holidays with the intention of reforming in the New Year. Perhaps they would have better luck by then. [13]

James Tormey

RIC men

On 2nd February 1921, a party of eight RIC policemen on cycles were making their way up the Athlone-Ballinasloe road when they were fired upon. At the forefront of the assault was Tormey, grieving for his brother who had recently been shot dead by a sentry while in Ballykinlar internment camp. Impatience for revenge, Tormey had been leading an IRA party to Summerhill when he had spotted the forerunners of the RIC patrol coming towards them.

Accounts vary as to Tormey’s actions. One version has it that, much like the Parkwood ambush, Tormey assumed the few men ahead of him were alone and he failed to see the rest of their patrol, prompting him to shoot at what he falsely assumed would be easy targets.

In another retelling, Tormey could see the patrol in its entirety and, judging it to be too dangerous, ordered the others to hide. As the enemy passed by, Tormey, for whatever reason, broke his own instructions and his cover.

Alternatively, the ambush had been planned all along. That none of the sources – O’Meara, Daly and Thomas Costello – were present, and since Tormey never got a chance to explain, means that we will never know for sure.

A shootout ensured, with the two groups committed to a fight that perhaps neither had wanted. One of the Volunteers shot the cap off a RIC officer and promptly lost the foresights of his rifle to a return bullet – both men were otherwise miraculously untouched.

soldiersBelatedly deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, Tormey initiated a retreat, being the first into a ditch behind the ambush site. There he was shot in the head before he could realise he had been outflanked. Some of the RIC had edged down a lane that ran at right angles to the site, an opening the IRA had neglected to watch, from where they opened fire to surprise their ambushers in turn.

By the time the local Volunteers arrived and armed to assist, the ambushers and the RIC had left. Only Tormey’s dead body remained. Neither side had lingered long enough to take it. He was 21 years old. [14]


Tormey’s death left a void that the remainder of the column worked hard, though never entirely succeeded, in filling. O’Meara took charge of the unit in addition to being Brigade O/C. According to Daly, however, he was not capable of shouldering the responsibility.

For his part, O’Meara felt undermined by the unraveling discipline within the Brigade as a whole. Individual officers and even ordinary Volunteers were taking it upon themselves to act without waiting for permission. Further undermining O’Meara’s authority was the suspicion that he was blocking any operations in Athlone for fear of his property or himself being harmed by the authorities in retaliation.



A solution came in late March or early April 1921 when a representative from GHQ, Simon Donnelly, arrived in the area. O’Meara had already submitted a report to Dublin asking for a suitable newcomer to be sent to replace him as O/C. Feeling that a fresh start for the Brigade was needed, O’Meara announced his intention to resign at a staff meeting with Donnelly.

According to O’Meara, Donnelly urged him to continue on, loath as he was to lose an experienced hand, but O’Meara insisted, arguing that given the doubts about him, it was impossible to continue. O’Meara got his wish and resumed service as an ordinary member in a column whose future was looking uncertain.

volunteersTwoDespite O’Meara continuing on as an active Volunteer, there is a dearth of much further activity in his BMH Statement. When the Truce came into effect, he attended an IRA officers’ training camp where he was faced with the choice of taking up soldiering on a professional basis in an army that was to be restructured on regular lines or to return to the business he had neglected. O’Meara decided on the latter. Reading between the lines of O’Meara’s Statement, one can detect an air of exhaustion after all the work he had done and for very little reward or gratitude.

After the change in leadership, the column members were divided as O’Meara and Tormey had planned and now assigned to different areas. From there they would assist other Volunteers in their local battalions. The emphasis had shifted from a professional outfit to more part-time groups that would only assemble when needed and, hopefully, be easier to manage. The days of flying freely were over even if the War was not.[15]


The Athlone column remained scattered up to the Truce, partly because of the new policy but also due to the increased pressure from the Crown garrison. The column, in the opinion of Henry O’Brien, had not been the success many had hoped. Poor luck and the elusiveness of the enemy had hampered ambushes being attempted, and the Brigade had been unable to seize large enough caches of weapons to augment its ever-limited armoury.

O’Brien believed that forming the column had been a mistake. Far better, he thought, to have gone with what eventually happened – smaller units formed and attached to battalion areas – from the start.[16]

The column left a mixed legacy – of missed opportunities and misplaced priorities, according to some. Nonetheless, it was able to pull off an ambush, no small feat in a war in which the vast majority of such attempts were thwarted in some way. Afterwards it had avoided capture or elimination, not something every column in the War could claim.

While far from a success, the Athlone flying column was at least not a failure. That may not be a particularly heroic legacy. But, then, heroics only go so far.

War of Independence memorial statue, Athlone


See also: Sieges and Shootings: The Westmeath War against the RIC, 1920


[1] O’Meara, Seumas (BHM / WS 1504), pp. 32-3 ; O’Connor, Frank (BHM / WS 1309), p. 18 ; Westmeath Independent, 23/10/1920

[2] O’Meara, pp. 10-12

[3] Ibid, p. 34 ; O’Connor, p. 24 ; O’Brien, Henry (BHM / WS 1308), pp. 11-2 ; Daly, David (BHM / WS 1337), pp. 16-8 ; Costello, Thomas (BMH / WS 1296), pp. 15-6 ; McCormack, Michael (BMH / WS 1503), p. 17 ; McCormack, Anthony (BMH / WS 1500), p. 9

[4] McCormack, Michael, p. 18

[5] O’Brien, pp. 22-3

[6] O’Brien, p. 11 ; Costello, p. 12 ; O’Meara, p. 31 ; Westmeath Examiner, 12/02/1921

[7] O’Brien, p. 11 ; Costello, p. 16 ; O’Meara, p. 34 ; Daly, p. 17

[8] O’Brien, p. 22

[9] O’Meara, pp. 34-5 ; Daly, pp. 17-8

[10] O’Meara, pp. 35-7 ; O’Brien, pp. 12-3 ; Costello, pp. 16-7 ; McCormack, Anthony, p. 10 ; McCormack, Michael, p. 17 ; WI, 30/10/1920

[11] O’Meara, pp. 37-8 ; Costello, p. 17

[12] O’Meara, p. 38

[13] McCormack, Anthony, p. 10 ; McCormack, Michael, p. 18 ; Costello, p. 17 ; Daly, pp. 21, 23

[14] O’Meara, pp. 45-7 ; Daly, pp. 22-3 ; Costello, p. 18 ; WE, 12/02/1921

[15] Daly, p. 22 ; O’Brien, p. 24 ; O’Meara, pp. 47-8, 50 ; O’Connor, p. 23 ; McCormack, Anthony, p. 10

[16] O’Brien, pp. 22-3


Bureau of Military History / Witness Statement

Daly, David, WS 1337

McCormack, Anthony, WS 1500

McCormack, Michael, WS 1503

O’Connor, Frank, WS 1309

O’Brien, Henry, WS 1308

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504


Westmeath Independent, 23/10/1920

Westmeath Independent, 30/10/1920

Westmeath Examiner, 12/02/1921

Sieges and Shootings: The Westmeath War against the RIC, 1920

A Challenge to the People?

In Mullingar police barracks, on 4th August 1920, concerns, both personal and political, came to a head. When Constable Roarke was detailed to the four-man patrol for night duty through the town of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, he declined to carry a gun, saying that it was not necessary.

This refusal was in breach of recent regulations whereby two of the men in a patrol were to carry revolvers while the other pair took rifles. When the matter was reported to his senior officer, Roarke again abstained, explaining that for him to bear arms while on duty would be tantamount to a challenge to the people.

RIC_Enfield Rifles
RIC members with rifles

Roarke had had eight and a half years of service in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), a respectable length of time which would suggest he was not known to be of an insubordinate nature. But faced with Roarke’s obstinacy, the County Inspector told him he would be dismissed instantly unless he resigned first. Roarke responded by handing in his resignation before throwing off his police uniform.

Roarke was accompanied by a second policeman in Mullingar barracks, Constable McGovern. Being of the same view as Roarke and knowing he was detailed to the night patrol on the following night where he would be faced with the same choice, McGovern decided to cut to the chase and also resigned.

“It is also stated,” reported the Westmeath Guardian, “that further resignations are expected.”[1]

On the Outside

RIC_Group_photographThis exodus from the RIC prompted the Ballymore Council to pass a resolution at its monthly meeting on 19th August 1920, congratulating the policemen who had resigned. Its following resolution was telling: an agreement to strike a rate of pay for the upkeep of the Irish Volunteers, or the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as the organisation had renamed itself. After all, it was the IRA, not the RIC, who were now performing the policing duties in Ballymore as well as the rest of Co. Westmeath.[2]

The Volunteers who later recounted their experiences in their Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statements were sure that the redundancy of the RIC as a police force was due to the people losing confidence in them. The Volunteers, however, were able to maintain the cooperation of the public who increasingly took their disputes, mostly over land or petty robberies, to the IRA, now partnered with the Sinn Féin courts. Most work by the Volunteers throughout 1919 and early 1920 were concerned with such duties and, while tedious, they helped maintain a sense of purpose and discipline amongst the fledgling militia.[3]

The RIC seemed to assist in its own replacement by withdrawing from public duties. On 20th May, the Westmeath County Council read out a letter, received from the “Adjutant of the Westmeath Brigade of the Irish Republican Army”, offering the services of the Brigade in protecting the voting booths for the forthcoming local elections.

Most of the Council were in favour of accepting this offer. The only bone of contention was that the Council had already made arrangements with the men employed under the Direct Labour Scheme. As for the RIC, they had not been asked but as its members had refused to police the booths in other areas, there did not seem to be much point in asking. After some discussion, the Council agreed that the letter would be approved and the services of the Volunteers accepted.[4]

The election success of Sinn Féin in the June elections allowed its members to implement rebellion into policy through the local government boards that they now dominated. The newly-formed Westmeath County Council made its views clear when it passed a resolution recognising the authority of the Dáil Éireann.[5]

RIC Constables with rifles

Other boards passed harsh measures against those who still upheld Crown legitimacy. The Mullingar Board of Directors decided at its fortnightly meeting on 24th June to call on the District Hospital doctor to eject three RIC men at present in his hospital and to refuse admission under any circumstances to a member of that police force. The RIC was, after all, a “blue-coated army of occupation” which had “ceased to be a civil force, and they were now a military force.” RIC personnel needing treatment were to go to Mountjoy as “there was a military hospital where they could be treated.”[6]

Barrack Attacks

The war against the RIC in Westmeath was carried out with more than council resolutions and boycotts. The series of isolated shootings and arm-raids across Ireland snowballed into set-piece attacks and then finally a full-blown insurgency. Although never envisioned as such, this ‘gun and ballot’ approach was carried out with a success that later revolutionaries in Ireland could only dream of emulating.

Police barracks throughout the country were obvious targets for an increasingly confident and organised IRA, although the latter aspect should not be overstated at this stage given the numerous false starts that occurred.

RIC barracks

Just after Christmas 1919, Seumas O’Meara, the O/C of the Athlone Brigade, attended a GHQ meeting in Dublin. Told by his superiors that it was time for the IRA to become more active, O’Meara agreed to arrange an attack on a police barrack by early 1920. Upon returning to Athlone, O’Meara called a meeting of the other Brigade officers. It was decided that the barracks at Ballymore and Castletown Geoghegan would be targeted at night on 20th February.

Ballymore Barracks was in the territory of the Drumraney Battalion and so would be their responsibility. In this, they would be assisted by the Athlone Battalion under O’Meara’s direct command, while the Mullingar Battalion agreed to take on Castletown Geoghegan Barracks.

The Athlone Brigade

The Athlone Brigade encompassed a number of battalions: originally four before the Mullingar one was made a separate brigade, which took the Athlone battalions down to three. These in turn consisted of different companies. In theory, this gave O’Meara access to all the manpower involved. Making use of it, however, would prove to be a different matter.

Both operations withered on the vine. In preparation for the one against Ballymore Barracks, all rifles that were to be used by the Athlone battalion were forwarded to Drumraney where they would be collected at assembly points at a fixed time for the attack. The Volunteers were by now equipped with a number of shotguns and revolvers for close-up fighting but rifles were prized for the range they provided.

At the appointed date, O’Meara travelled with twenty selected men from the Athlone battalion to Drumraney and they were then guided by a local contact to their assembly point near the unsuspecting barracks. There they waited for the Drumraney battalion to arrive with the forwarded rifles at the agreed time of midnight.

No one came, however. By 6 am, the Athlone men had had enough and returned home. Without the rifles to keep the barracks’ garrison pinned down, their shotguns and revolvers would not have been enough.

Either confusion in the dark had been the cause for the no-show or, as O’Meara suspected, the Drumraney Volunteers had not wanted the trouble an attack on the barracks would bring on them.

The Mullingar men, for their part, had got drunk and managed to fell a tree to use as a road-block before calling off the mission.[7]

The Razing of the Barracks

RIC_Station_BadgeIt was not until mid-1920 that operations against RIC barracks by the Athlone Brigade were actually implemented. Even then, the majority of these were after their garrisons had been evacuated, making their destruction a relatively easy accomplishment.

One such set-piece was the razing of Brawney Barracks on 31st July along with the adjacent building that had formerly been used as a Crown courthouse. The fifteen men involved had choreographed their arson to a fine degree. Guards were placed on laneways and entrances to bar pedestrians from intruding. After entering the abandoned barracks through the back window, the Volunteers holed the roof on each side. The rafters and floor were saturated with fuel and then set ablaze. Their mission complete, the fifteen men dispersed in small groups, leaving Brawney Barracks to be thoroughly gutted by the fire.[8]

The majority of razed barracks in Co. Westmeath and the rest of the country were accomplished on Easter Sunday night in accordance to GHQ instructions. On one hand, the whole affair was little more than a propaganda exercise as the military value was negligible; after all, any country house could be converted into a replacement barracks by the Crown authorities.

But the widespread success of their operations was gratifying all the same for the Volunteers to read about in the newspapers. In any case, with the RIC in retreat, the IRA was allowed a greater freedom of movement in the country, a necessity for any guerrilla force.[9]


One of the exceptional times when a barrack was assaulted with its garrison still inside was on 25th July. Seumas O’Meara had announced at a Brigade staff meeting the need to take a more proactive approach and, after some discussion, Streamstown Barracks was decided upon as the one to attack.

A two-storey building of solid stone masonry, the barracks stood by itself beside a railway line and close to the Streamstown railway station. It had not been fortified with sandbags or barbed wire like some of the other remaining outposts but it had no windows at its rear or gable ends that could provide weak spots for an attacker and the windows at its front had recently been fitted with steel shutters. Complete with a garrison of seven constables and a sergeant, Streamstown Barracks presented a formidable challenge.

O’Meara drew up an elaborate set of plans: ladders would be placed against the windowless rear wall, by which selected men would climb onto the roof, which would be holed to allow for petrol to be poured through and set alight. The rest of the attack party would be busy keeping the garrison pinned down.

Irish Volunteers/IRA

Upon hearing this outline, Thomas Costello, the Vice O/C of the Athlone Brigade, dismissed it as convoluted. According to Costello in his BMH Statement, he proposed an alternative to O’Meara: a number of the garrison had been observed to be in the habit of leaving the barracks each Sunday for Mass. These churchgoers would be waylaid and divested of their uniforms which would be donned by members of the assault party. The rest of the party would lie in wait outside the barracks to rush the door when it would be opened for the disguised Volunteers.

O’Meara reluctantly agreed to go along with this substitute plan while keeping his original one as a backup; at least, according to Costello. Neither O’Meara nor any of the other BMH Statements that cover the assault on Streamstown Barracks mention any disagreement on strategy.

Men from the Athlone, Moate and Drumraney Companies were selected to assist the local Volunteers with the attack. A newspaper report numbered them as sixty, O’Meara said eighty, though there were only weapons for about twenty to twenty-five of them.

On Sunday morning as planned, members of the attack party mingled with people on their way to Mass and, when the three policemen came along from church, they were held up and robbed of their uniforms.

Plan A

Thomas Costello and a second man, James Tormey, put on the captured uniforms, leaving their former owners bound up in a farmhouse. When Costello and Tormey rejoined O’Meara, they found him drilling the rest of the team on the road in the open. As if this was not blatant enough, the Volunteers squandered time getting into position and, when they had done so, did a poor job of hiding by constantly peering over walls and so forth. Costello could see the steel shutters being put in place over the windows of the barracks, confirming his suspicion that O’Meara had squandered the element of surprise.

Determined to see things through to the end all the same, Costello and Tormey cycled to the door of the barracks. On finding it locked, they knocked and were answered by a voice on the other side, presumably the sergeant’s, asking who was there. Costello replied: “Police.”

When asked which barracks he was from, Costello said the Ballymore one and that his business in Streamstown was to deliver some dispatches. Asked for his name, Costello said it was ‘Curran’ as he knew there was a Constable Curran in Ballymore.

Before he could congratulate himself on his cleverness, he was pressed for his full name but here Costello had no ready reply. Immediately, there were sounds on the other side of the door of hurried footsteps, rifles being loaded and a staircase being climbed. The obviously spooked garrison were readying for a full-on assault.

Plan B

Tormey had the presence of mind to grab Costello by his uniform’s cape and drag him to cover on the railway track just in time to avoid the explosion of a grenade that had been pushed through the loophole in a steel shutter. They also narrowly avoided friendly fire when the Drumraney Volunteers, from their position on a hill overlooking the barracks, mistook the two runners for genuine policemen.

With the opening gambit blown, the Volunteers along the railway embankment reverted to their original plan and opened fire. Their shots were concentrated on the front of the barracks, where the windows were and from where any return fire would likely come.

Meanwhile, O’Meara led six or seven men to the building’s rear where the lack of windows allowed for a blind-spot. There they positioned a homemade bomb constructed out of fruit-tins filled with gelignite, hoping to blow in the wall. The bomb failed to go off, possibly due to a damp fuse.


The assault lasted between half to three quarters of an hour before Volunteers withdrew from fear of enemy reinforcements and recognition of the futility of any further attempt. The Westmeath Independent has it that the retreat was upon hearing the hum of an airplane, an explanation not mentioned in any of the BMH Statements and so it is probably mistaken.

Though Streamstown Barracks frustrated the attempts to break it, its position was decided as untenable and its garrison was withdrawn to Mullingar the next day. Streamstown suffered the fate of all other exposed barracks and was razed later that day by the local Volunteers.

Ruined RIC barracks

There were no fatalities on either side, though a member of the garrison was wounded and the Volunteers rued the loss of valuable ammunition. Costello was sufficiently outraged by what he saw as poor planning on O’Meara’s part that he submitted a detailed report to GHQ, sparing his O/C no mercy. According to Costello, the report was enough to have O’Meara suspended and replaced as O/C of the Athlone Brigade by Costello.

However, other sources make it clear that O’Meara’s demotion did not occur until 1921 and for reasons unrelated to the Streamstown attack. It can only be concluded that Costello was confused on this particular point.[10]

Not another Mail Raid

On 2nd August, the mail trains were raided at Fossagh Bridge on the Athlone-Moate line. In what was described as resembling a ‘Wild West stunt’, masked men loaded the mail onto motor cars and drove away. By itself, this was nothing new, the Westmeath Independent exuding an air of languid boredom in its coverage:

The raiding of mail trains and the confiscation of official correspondence has latterly become so common in Ireland as to excite nothing beyond a mere passing interest.[11]

What was a novelty, however, was how the hijackers had managed to raid not one but two trains. That there was only an interval of ten minutes between the trains as they passed in the opposite directions – the first from Dublin to Galway, the second being the Galway-Dublin one – allowed both to be robbed in quick succession.

The stolen mail was transferred to a safe location, after which it took a week to censor all the letters, each one being marked with ‘Passed by I.R.A. Censor’ before being dumped at Ballinahown Post Office.

There were two main points of interest uncovered. The first were the numerous letters to RIC members from their relatives, appealing to them to resign, which revealed the strain the force was now under.

The second was a dispatch from RIC Sergeant Thomas Martin Craddock, a mainstay of Athlone Barracks who was on temporary assignment to Mount Temple. Craddock had not been idle with his time. In his letter addressed to the head constable in Athlone, Craddock gave a survey of the whole position of the area, accompanied by a proposal on the best ways to combat the ongoing insurgency.[12]

Enemy Number One

Craddock was already known to the Westmeath IRA as a determined foe. To Seumas O’Meara, Craddock was a brute who would hold a gun to the heads of suspected Volunteers with the threat to shoot them if they did not talk. However, the one example we have of Craddock interrogating a suspect – a man attempting to smuggle a rifle under his coat for the IRA – was performed professionally enough.[13]

Irish Volunteers
Irish Volunteers/IRA

One incident which Craddock could not have been responsible for was the maiming of Joseph Cunningham. According to O’Meara, Cunningham and some other Volunteers had ejected a number of the RIC from a pub in Mount Temple as part of the policing duties the IRA had undertaken. O’Meara claimed that some nights later, Craddock led an RIC posse in the beating of Cunningham and his brother, reducing Joseph to a “wreck of a man for ever afterwards.”[14]

A newspaper account dates the incident to 27th August. For reasons that will become clear, Craddock could not have been party to it. In other ways, the newspaper confirms details of O’Meara’s version. Cunningham, identified as an officer in the local Volunteers, was supervising the area when he ordered four men out of a pub. Cunningham was about to make his way home by bicycle when the four evictees knocked him down and kicked him unconscious. O’Meara was correct about the brutality of the assault and the damage done to the victim, Cunningham being left in a critical condition with the fear he would never walk again.

But the newspaper made no mention of the assailants being RIC men; indeed, it is unlikely that a sole Volunteer (there is no mention of anyone else with Cunningham) would have been enough to overawe a group of RIC men, however demoralised the force. The group of men also attacked immediately after they were forced from the pub, indicating that they were acting on a spur-of-the-moment vindictiveness with no great length of time in between as in O’Meara’s version.

Cunningham’s story is a warning about the dangers of community policing, especially with inexperienced officers but it is perhaps also a testament to Craddock’s status as the number one menace that, years later, his enemies would confuse him with having a role in any ill that had befallen a Volunteer.[15]

Sergeant Craddock

Forty-seven years of age and unmarried, Craddock had practically been born in the RIC, being the son of a head constable, and had given twenty-five years of service in addition to being a veteran of the Boer War.

Michael Collins

His return from Mount Temple to Athlone, and his transfer to the Crimes Special Headquarters there, was unsettling enough for O’Meara, in an interview with Michael Collins, to try talking his way out of an order to target the leading intelligence officer in the Athlone garrison by painting a grim picture of what Craddock would do in retaliation.

Collins’ characteristic suggestion was to shoot Craddock first and anyone else later. To hammer the point home, Collins appointed O’Meara the Competent Military Authority for Co Westmeath, enabling O’Meara to order anyone to be killed without needing permission from GHQ first.[16]

Thus empowered and under pressure to accomplish something, O’Meara assembled a hit-team consisting of five or six Volunteers, including himself and Thomas Costello, for Craddock. Things were complicated by police patrols having been strengthened from four to eight, and by how cautiously the sergeant moved around Athlone. O’Meara counted six occasions, and Costello four, when the hit-team waited to ambush Craddock, only to be left disappointed when the sergeant never came.

This was typical enough in the War of Independence, where the tedium of waiting and the come-down of false starts were more the norm than the deeds of derring-do which would later fill the history books.

A Lucky Break

Another opening to catch Craddock on patrol on 21st August seemed a dud as he was to be leading a squad of eight, the sort of numbers that the hit-team did not care to risk confronting. As the team made their way back home, Craddock was spotted entering the Comrades of the Great War Club on King Street, Athlone, at 11:45 pm.


Thomas Costello was in the shop where he worked when another Volunteer dropped by to tell him where Craddock was. Costello immediately gathered the rest of the team except for O’Meara, and they lay in wait outside the Club, armed with revolvers.

Craddock indulged himself with a few drinks at the Club bar while he watched a billiard match. Half an hour after midnight, he decided to leave with a colleague, Constable Denis Mahon. Mahon was first through the door. The moment Craddock stepped out onto the street, a shot rang out in the dark, followed by several more. The two men rang up the street in the direction of the nearby military barracks, Craddock making a few paces before falling to the ground under the hail of bullets.

To the Bitter End

Though in great pain, the bloodied-but-unbowed sergeant drew his revolver from where he lay and fired at the retreating backs of his assailants as they made their escape up King Street. It was later estimated that Craddock had managed three shots as a bullet was found in the wall of a gable of a barber’s shop, another had passed through a window and a third had had the force to penetrate the door of another hairdressing establishment where it was found lodged in the woodwork of the interior.

Other bullet-marks found on the buildings in the street indicated that the assassins had fired back in reply while in flight. Other than a bullet through the trousers of one of the gunmen, the team got away unscathed.

Mahon went looking for help while others from the Club did all they could for the wounded man. Craddock was carried to the military barracks where he died half an hour later with Mahon by his side.

The coroner found a number of wounds on the body: one from a bullet on the right side of the abdomen, superficial burns on the front of the abdomen from the same shot and two holes on either side of his shoulder from where a second bullet had passed cleanly through. The bullet that had entered the abdomen was found in the left side of the pelvis where it had fractured the bone and it was this that had caused Craddock’s death from shock and haemorrhaging.

Athlone Barracks

Mahon was unharmed from the fray. According to Costello, he had been left alone as the team had nothing against him. O’Meara, however, has it that one of the shooters had aimed three times at Mahon, only for the gun to jam. Either way, Costello was to regret that Mahon was untouched as the constable “turned out to be a right villain and excelled himself in ill-treating people by beating them up.” After the trauma of watching his companion die, this maliciousness on Mahon’s part is perhaps unsurprising.

Craddock’s murder made a total of seven RIC men killed over the weekend throughout Ireland. The fatalities came from all ranks: DI Oswald Swanzy (targeted for his suspected role in the slaying of Tomás Mac Curtain), two sergeants and four constables.

The jury at the inquest into Craddock’s death expressed their heartfelt sympathy to his relatives but otherwise delivered only a muted verdict of “death…by persons unknown.”[17]

The Changing of the Guard

Reflecting upon the rapidly changing situation in Ireland, the Westmeath Independent offered guarded praise for a police force whose time had come to an end even if the force itself had not:

Even the Irish police, where they can, have hurried out of the service. With all that may be said against it, up to now it was, anyway, an Irish service, manned by Irish men instinct with Irish feeling though often obliged to undertake work through mistaken loyalty that was painfully disagreeable. Still they managed up to now, not withstanding the violence of many agitations, to remain on fairly good terms with their countrymen.

It is an Irish service no longer. It is being daily recruited from England. The Irishmen in the service feel the change. They remain only until they can get out.[18]

The new blood in the RIC alluded to were the influx of ex-soldiers that would become known as the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries. While they succeeded in stiffening the spine of a beleaguered RIC, they also hastened its end as a community police force and its transformation into a nakedly militarised one. But while it removed any moral authority from the RIC, it was also to make life a lot harder for the Volunteers.


Under the renewed pressure, the policing by the Volunteers came to an end.[19] Survival became the priority. More Volunteers went on the run to avoid the round-ups and mass arrests as well as responding with an increased level of violence of their own.

It was not to be the end of the War in Co. Westmeath. It was, however, the end of the RIC of old.


Originally posted on The Irish Story (03/09/2015)


See also: A Clenched Fist Open: The Flying Column of the Athlone Brigade, 1920-1



[1] Westmeath Guardian, 06/08/1920

[2] Westmeath Independent, 21/08/1920

[3] Costello, Thomas (BMH / WS 1296), p. 7-8 ; Lennon, Patrick (BMH / WS 1336), p. 5 ; McCormack, Michael (BMH /  WS 1503), pp. 12-3

[4] Westmeath Examiner, 22/05/1920

[5] Westmeath Independent, 12/06/1920

[6] Ibid, 26/06/1920

[7] O’Meara, Seumas (BMH / WS 1504), pp. 19-20 ; McCormack, Michael, p. 14

[8] Westmeath Independent 07/07/1920

[9] O’Meara, pp. 20-1 ; Costello, p. 7

[10] O’Meara, p. 25-7 ; Costello, pp. 10-2 ; O’Connor, Frank (BMH / WS 1309), pp. 12-4 ; Daly, David (BMH /  WS 1337), pp. 13-5 ; McCormack, Anthony (BMH / WS 1500) ; McCormack, Michael, pp. 15-6 ; Westmeath Independent 31/07/1920

[11] Westmeath Independent, 07/08/1920

[12] Costello, pp. 12-3 ; O’Meara, p. 25 ; O’Connor, pp. 11-2

[13] O’Meara, p. 28 ; McCormack, Michael, pp. 13-4

[14] O’Meara, p. 28

[15] Westmeath Independent, 28/08/1920

[16] O’Meara, p. 29

[17] O’Meara, p. 30-31 ; Costello, p. 13 ; Westmeath Independent 28/08/1920

[18] Westmeath Independent, 31/07/1920

[19] Costello, p. 8



Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Costello, Thomas, WS 1296

Daly, David, WS 1337

Lennon, Patrick, WS 1336

McCormack, Anthony, WS 1500

McCormack, Michael, WS 1503

O’Connor, Frank, WS 1309

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Westmeath Examiner


Westmeath Guardian


Westmeath Independent








Bushwhacked: The Loss of the Carlow Flying Column, April 1921


On the 21st of April 1921, Patrick Kane, an adjutant in the Carlow IRA Brigade, received news of the worst kind and hurried to where the Brigade O/C Eamon Malone was staying. Kane’s expression alone was enough for Malone, who had been settling down with a cup of tea, to ask: “What disaster has happened now?” It was an apt response to a catastrophic intelligence failure and a crushing defeat.[1]

From its formation in 1917 and the triggering of the War of Independence in early 1919, the Carlow Brigade had struggled with the same difficulties that had beset many of the others throughout the country: maintaining manpower and morale against constant shortages of weapons and ammunition, while surviving the attentions of an entrenched British army and the ever-present Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

Auxiliary RIC on a Crossley tender

The Brigade responded with a cautious approach, with planned operations cancelled at the first hint of unexpected difficulty. For example, in June 1920 a three-man team from the Tullow Company was to meet up with their commanding officer before holding up the RIC at the nearby barracks, but when the officer failed to show, the attempt was called off.[2] Similarly, a proposed assault by several battalions on Bagenalstown Barracks in early 1921 was aborted when poor coordination and planning made the possibility of success unlikely.[3]

Crown forces adopted a wariness of their own: the men of the 1st battalion lay in ambush along the back road between Carlow town and Bagenalstown for an anticipated enemy patrol, but after hours of waiting the target never came.[4] Likewise, an attack planned by the 4th battalion in Borris in September 1920 was thwarted when the targeted RIC patrol broke its usual routine and did not come as expected.[5]

Forming the Column

It was to break this impasse that the flying column was formed as a small, dedicated body of men who would be well-armed and mobile enough to take the fight to the enemy. As many of its members were already on the run, they would not have had to adjust their lives by much. Leading the column was Laurence O’Neill, a Tipperary émigré who had already held a number of ranks in the Carlow Brigade and was thus considered experienced enough.

IRA members

The newly established column began its training in the area near Killeshin, on the borders of Leix and Kilkenny. The hilly and uninviting terrain would help deter unwanted attention while the column based itself in an empty farmhouse, relying on local people for food.

It was at this time that a Black-and-Tan named James Duffy was shot at while leaving a pub in plainsclothes and with a civilian companion, Harry James. Duffy was killed and James badly wounded. The assumption was that Duffy had been investigating the area with the other man as his guide and spy. It is unknown whether the men of the column had been the ones who had killed Duffy but, as they were residing nearby at the time, it is a strong possibility.[6]

Preparing the Column

The column had hoped to christen its campaign with an attack on Bagenalstown Barracks, which had only recently avoided an earlier assault without knowing it. The attack was to be in unison with men from the 4th battalion, with the 1st and 3rd battalions assisting in securing all roads to Bagenalstown in order to stave off any enemy reinforcements. As with many of the proposed operations by the Carlow Brigade, it was cancelled, this time due to the inopportune arrival of British reinforcements in Crossley lorries before the roads could be blocked, prompting the column and the battalions to prudently withdraw.[7]

According to Kane, the column planned another attack on Bagenalstown Barracks. But with the lack of explosives with which to breach its walls and in the absence of an expert to make them, the plan was yet again called off, making Bagenalstown one of the luckiest barracks in the War. However, it is uncertain as to whether Kane was confusing this foiled attempt in his Statement with the one above.[8]

The column moved north to the townland of Mullinagown on the 19th of April, in the territory of the 4th battalion of the Carlow Brigade, where it billeted in an unoccupied house. From there, the column intended to join up with its North Wexford counterpart, then in the neighbouring Blackstairs Mountains, and sent two scouts ahead to make contact, but fog made that task impossible and ensured that the Column would remain by itself.[9]

Losing the Column

What happened two days later was headlined in The Carlow Nationalist as: ENGAGEMENT IN CO. CARLOW – FIVE STATED TO BE KILLED. Quoting a report from the British military GHQ:

A patrol of Crown forces surprised an armed party of civilians drilling near Ballymurphy, County Carlow, on Monday evening. An engagement ensued resulting in some (believed to be five) of the rebels being killed, two wounded and six captured.

Eleven rifles, one shot-gun, several revolvers, a quantity of rifle and dun-dun ammunition.

The Crown forces suffered no causalities.[10]

In fact, four had been killed. One member of the aforementioned armed party, Michael Fay, had previously served in the British army for three and a half years, having seen action in France. He had lived with his parents in Rathvilly for some years after moving there from Dublin, and was described by the article as “very popular in the district.”

His funeral was to receive a considerable turnout by Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and ex-servicemen. In keeping with the diverse range of people Fay had known, his tricolour-draped coffin was borne by both Volunteers and ex-servicemen.

Fay was the only one of the dead who had been definitely connected with the day’s fighting. Of the other three, all unnamed in the article, one had been an old man of sixty-two. It was unknown if the remaining two had been with the armed party, but they had been running with them at the time of their deaths.

On a seemingly unrelated note, another article in the newspaper was titled: SHOCKING AFFAIR NEAR MOUNTRATH – YOUNG MAN SHOT DEAD – ROBBERY THE ALLEGED MOTIVE. It was not a story that was obviously related to that of the previously described engagement, and was treated by the Nationalist as entirely separate. Only decades later would there be a direct connection made openly between the two.[11]

The Court-Martial of the Column

It would not be until July, over two months later, that the court-martial for the prisoners took place. Held in the Curragh, it centred on the testimony of an (unnamed by the attending Nationalist reporter) British officer who had been leading the Crown forces in the capture of the column. It is the only first-hand account of what happened. As it was tailored to be heard in court, it is far from a complete source, but it does provide a solid, step-by-step version of events.

The eight men in the dock were facing six separate charges relating to possession and use of illegal firearms, and so the testimony at the court-martial took the time to focus on details such as when the suspects were believed to have opened fire, the number of weapons found on the scene, the state of the guns as to whether or not they had been recently fired, and other points relating to the charges.[12]

Unfortunately, no surviving member of the Column submitted a Statement to the BMH, depriving historians of an insider’s perspective. The closest we have are the BMH Statements of Patrick Kane and Thomas Ryan, an intelligence officer in the 4th battalion, which flesh out a number of details. Neither was present at the scene, and both were presumably reliant on hearing about it from the survivors afterwards.

However, the two of them match each other and the court-martial account in such details as the Column being surprised as it was drilling in a field. Incredibly, no one in the Column had thought to post sentries. Historian William Nolan felt the need to offer “extenuating circumstances for their apparent negligence,” in that the Column men had been anticipating the arrival of a GHQ representative “and could reasonably expect the whole area to be on the alert.”[13]

Reasonably or otherwise, the Column members were to be very much mistaken in their complacency.

The Fight of the Column

The Crown force consisted of six soldiers and seven Black-and-Tans along with two officers, one senior and the other junior. Driving in on the scene on two Crossley lorries, the patrol rapidly disembarked and opened fire on the Volunteers, about 200-250 yards away, who fled without returning fire.


The Crown forces gave chase in two squads and, after 100 yards, the squad with the lead officer spotted the Column men moving along a hedge, presumably for the cover, and opened fire again. The lead squad advanced up a laneway where they re-joined the other group, catching sight of the suspects from time to time who were making no attempt at that stage to shoot back.

Upon reaching a certain point, the senior officer saw the IRA men split into two groups moving in opposite directions, at which point the Crown forces followed suit and continued the chase, one squad for each half of the Column. The lead British squad opened fire again, and the officer was sure that the suspects were returning fire this time, for he “could hear the crack of rifles which [he] knew did not come from behind [him].”

Emboldened by the poor aim of the enemy, the lead squad pressed on, coming across four of the suspects – Patrick Gaffney, Patrick Fitzpatrick, James and Michael Behan – lying on the ground with their hands up, their rifles discarded nearby, with two more men – Laurence O’Neill and Thomas Behan – in a similar position of submission. Upon taking these six men prisoner, the squad met up with the other, who had two prisoners of their own: Michael Ryan and William McKenna.

Two other Column members, William Gaffney and a Fitzpatrick (first name unknown) were able to escape in the confusion, making the total number of the column at the time of its loss to have been eleven men: eight captured, two escaped and one killed.[14]

Webley pistol

The captives were transported under guard to Borris Barracks on the Crossleys where O’Neill and McKenna received treatment for their injuries. The victorious patrol then returned to the scene of the fight and uncovered a number of rifles, Webley pistols and shotguns with their accompanying ammunition in the house next to the field where the suspects had been found drilling. Explosive substances and an unexploded bomb were also found in the house. Clearly, the column had been hoping to make up for its past failed attempt on Bagenalstown Barracks.

Michael Fay

Three dead men were found on the scene, according to the officer’s testimony, two in a house and the other in a field, the latter identified in court as Michael Fay. He had been killed by shotgun wounds, according to an earlier Court of Inquiries, though Thomas Ryan was to describe in his BMH Statement that Fay had been bayoneted to death while on the ground, already wounded from gunshots, so that “several parts of his hands and his teeth were scatted round.”[15]

This was to become a sensitive point for the senior officer under testimony, with him denying that he had seen any bayonet wounds on Fay’s body, either at the scene or later, upon being asked about it by the counsel for the defence, A. Wood. Sensing an opening, Wood pressed the officer over whether the wounds on Fay’s arm were caused by gunshots or a bayonet, with the officer maintaining the former.

When it was his turn to testify, the junior officer denied seeing how Fay died, only that the squad under his command had found Fay when he was already dead, the implication being that he had been killed at a distance in the firefight, and not up close while already wounded as the counsel was clearly implying.

Counting the Dead

Of the three other dead men, none were mentioned at the court-material, presumably because their deaths were not relevant to the trail of the accused. According to Thomas Ryan, two of them had been brothers, James and Peter Farrell, and both had been shot and bayoneted near where the Column had been overwhelmed.

In Ryan’s version, they were sowing corn in their field when the fight began, and had been attempting to reach the Column in order to warn them – to Ryan, that was the only explanation, as they would have had no other reason to go in that direction, it being opposite from their home. According to Patrick  Kane, both brothers had no relation to the fight and were innocent victims of circumstances.[16]

In either case, there was no question as to the harmlessness of the third bystander, identified by Thomas Ryan as 62-year-old Michael Ryan (no relation, presumably). According to Thomas Ryan, Michael’s son John was a Volunteer who was leaving home with IRA dispatches to his company captain when he was chanced upon by one of the patrol squads, who opened fire and forced him back in. Ignoring his son’s warning to stay inside, Michael Ryan went out for a bucket of water and was found dead by John at the pump with a bullet-wound to the face.[17]

It is unclear as to whether the Farrell brothers and Michael Ryan were killed deliberately, perhaps mistaken for members of the fleeing Column whose lack of uniform would have made unlucky civilians indistinguishable from combatants, or if they were gunned down by soldiers whose blood was up. Either way, the testimonies of the two officers at the court-martial, which strove to portray the conduct of themselves and their men as models of cool, dispassionate efficiency, only told part of the story.

Memorial to the Dead

The Fall-Out from the Column

Two days after the disaster of the Column, on the 23rd of April 1921, Michael Byrne, a man in his early 30s, was shot to death while returning home from visiting neighbours. The best motive that could be guessed at for anyone wanting harm on a member of a “very popular” farming family was robbery, as he had recently come into possession of £100 and was known to have kept the money on him.[18]

Writing over thirty decades later, both Patrick Kane and Thomas Ryan told of the death of a spy they blamed for exposing the Column to ambush and defeat. In Ryan’s BMH Statement, his name had been Finn, and he had led the British patrol to the site of the Column. Finn had disappeared shortly afterwards and, after initial failed attempts to find him by the IRA, had been captured and taken to an old house. From there he had escaped, and was heading for the safety of Borris Barracks when he was caught again and finally executed after an improvised trial. A large amount of money was said to have been found on him, presumably the reward for his spying.[19]

Kane’s version is broadly similar, in that a spy had guided the British to the Column, and afterwards had been captured and detained near Borris. It diverges from Ryan’s in that there had been no escape or second arrest, the spy’s name is not given, and in how the spy had been shot dead while trying to overcome his guard as opposed to executed. Strikingly, Kane gives the value of the money found on the dead man as £100, the same amount the Nationalist reported as being in the possession of Michael Byrne.[20]

It is possible, then, that Byrne was killed on the 23rd of April 1921 as a result of being suspected as the spy who had doomed the column. There are a number of problems with that theory, however:

  • Ryan got his name wrong, unless ‘Finn’ was a nickname.
  • The two days in between the wipe-out of the Column and Byrne’s death seems rather brief to fit in the drawn-out tale of capture, escape, recapture, trial and execution that Ryan offers.
  • That Byrne was en route from a social call to neighbours would indicate he did not drop out of sight immediately, as Ryan described, after the column’s loss.

Kane’s briefer account fits better into what it is already known from the Nationalist, though his description of spies travelling the countryside while dressed as tramps seems overly outlandish, considering how Byrne was a local man and presumably would have needed no excuse to be in the area.

Neither Ryan nor Kane give a reason as to why Byrne would have been suspected so quickly after the column’s end, despite both being well placed to have known, given Ryan’s rank as a battalion intelligence officer, and Kane’s work as an IRA mole in the Carlow post office amongst the hub of police reports and official mail.

The exact circumstances over Byrne’s death must thus remain a mystery. He may have been a spy, or suspected as one at a volatile time for the Carlow IRA. Or his death could have been over a robbery as originally reported, with Kane and Ryan confusing a death from decades ago as a causality of their war by the time they gave their Statements.


Due to a spirited defence by A. Wood, the eight men from the column were found not guilty at their court-martial of the first two charges arrayed against them: endangering the safety of Crown personnel by the discharge of firearms, and the aiding of such an act. The other four charges, all relating to the owning of contraband such as guns and explosives, were to be announced later.[21]

According to Kane, the prisoners ended up receiving lengthy prison sentences, though the forthcoming Truce would nullify all such judgements. The erstwhile column leader, Laurence O’Neill, would go on to marry the former fiancé of Dick McKee, the Dublin Brigade commandant killed on Bloody Sunday, and raise a family.[22]

Kane would recall Brigade O/C Eamon Malone’s distress at the loss of the rifles rather that of the men in the column. Kane was not unsympathetic – he too agreed with Malone’s assessment that the Carlow Brigade had the men to spare but not the equipment, certainly not enough for a successor column. There would be no further attempt at a flying column for the duration of the War.

That the column had been crushed so effectively with no loss to the enemy, despite the two sides being roughly even in numbers and weapons, inadvertently justified the cautious approach taken by the Brigade battalions. The unspoken view had been that head-on confrontations with British army or RIC forces would invite disaster, and there could be no better illustration of this than how the Carlow Brigade risked much in forming a column and lost accordingly.


Originally posted on The Irish Story (03/09/2014)

See also: Understated Insurgency: The Carlow Brigade in the War of Independence, 1917-1921



[1] Kane, Patrick (BMH / WS 1572), pp. 17-8

[2] Byrne, Daniel(BMH / WS 1440), p.2

[3] Kane, pp. 13-4

[4] Doorley, Michael (BMH / WS 1509), p. 4

[5] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 1442), p. 9

[6] Kane, p. 16

[7] Doorley, pp. 4-5 ; Hynes, pp. 15-16

[8] Kane, p. 17

[9] Ibid, pp. 16-8 ; Ryan, pp. 7-8

[10] Carlow Nationalist, 23/04/1921

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid, 09/07/1921

[13] Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970, p. 587

[14] Ryan, p. 11

[15] Ibid, p. 8

[16] Ibid ; Kane, p. 17

[17] Ryan, p. 7

[18] Carlow Nationalist, 23/05/1921

[19] Ryan, p. 9

[20] Kane, p. 18

[21] Hogan, Louise (17/05/2012) ‘Relatives wear 1916 medals with pride at Arbour Hill’, The Irish Independent (Accessed 03/08/2014)

[22] Kane, pp. 17-18



Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Byrne, Daniel, WS 1440

Doorley, Michael, WS 1509

Hynes, John, WS 1496

Kane, Patrick, WS 1572

Ryan, Thomas, WS 1442


Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970


Carlow Nationalist

Online Article

Hogan, Louise (17/05/2012) ‘Relatives wear 1916 medals with pride at Arbour Hill’, The Irish Independent (Accessed 03/08/2014)