Early in 1916, Pádraic Pearse visited Athenry to discuss plans for the Rising. He wanted the Volunteers to hold the county at the River Suck at Ballinasloe, to capture Galway city, and then, if possible, to march on Dublin. There were several variations of this strategy, but whichever plan was finally agreed, its success depended on the Volunteers receiving modern weaponry. Up to then the men had been rehearsing with shotguns, and sticks. Pearse assured them that small arms, including assault rifles and machine guns, were on their way. They would arrive in Gort, and be distributed from there.
We know, however, that the weapons never arrived. On April 20 Sir Roger Casement, who had organised the arms shipment, was arrested as he was put ashore by a German submarine at Tralee Bay. The Aud, which contained the arms and ammunition, was intercepted by a British gunboat. The collapse of this vital chance for any kind of success immediately led to confusion. The familiar story unfolds. The Dublin Rising was cancelled, but Pearse chose to ignore the order and went ahead. On Easter Monday, April 24, his small army seized key locations in Dublin, and incredibly held out for seven days against vastly superior British forces.
Despite being doomed from the start, once Liam Mellows* heard that Pearse was ‘ out’, he led about 200 Galway Volunteers in open rebellion against RIC stations at Clarenbridge and Oranmore, desperately trying to capture arms. They achieved only modest success. Eventually they retreated to Moyode Castle, Athenry, and disbanded. Widespread arrests followed. Men were sent off mainly to Frongoch internment camp in Wales, which became known as ‘ The University’ because prisoners quickly learned to network with others from other counties, and plan further battles. The Rising was not popular with Galway people generally. As prisoners were being escorted to ships in the docks they were booed and heckled by the ordinary people.
We know this story, and I have written about it before. Some details of the Galway Rising are beginning to emerge from historians Fergus Campbell, and others**. Yet despite the appetite for more, it is surprising that no over-view of Galway in the lead up to the Rising, the events of Easter Week, its aftermath and subsequent Civil War has been published before. The Galway Rising history has elements, such as World War I recruitment, land grabbing and other agrarian issues, which are of national interest. Now a very welcome short book, Galway: Politics and Society, 1910 - 1923,** successfully brings together for the first time the complicated threads of human aspirations and conflicting loyalties that existed here during this turbulent time.
County Council minutes
Despite the initial burst of enthusiasm from Mellows and his followers, Galway was not a hotbed of rebellion. There were shocking atrocities, tit-fot-tat murders, beatings, torture, and house burnings, but nothing on the scale of Cork or Dublin. One reason why the lid was kept firmly on nationalist ambitions was the sheer number of Crown forces in Galway city, the military HQ for the region. There were at lest 2,000 soldiers quartered here. The Black and Tans were stationed in Eglinton Street, Dominick Street, the docks and Salthill. The Auxiliaries were in Lenaboy Castle, Taylor’s Hill, and The Retreat, Salthill. A battalion of 4th Worcesters were stationed at the Workhouse, the 17th Lancers at Earl’s Island, and the Connaught Rangers at Renmore barracks, “ making”, the author tells us, “the armed British presence in the city suffocating”.
With such a strong military presence over the years, there must have been a natural intermingling of townspeople and the military at social and sporting events of the time. There were many marriages.
Change, which followed the Rising, must have been difficult for many Galwegians. The minutes of the County Council tell the story of changing loyalties. Initially Galway County Council had unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Rising. At the Urban Council Máirtín Mór McDonogh condemned the Rising but appealed for clemency for the ringleaders.
By August 1917 the County Council sensed a change of mood. It attempted to rescind its earlier resolution condemning the Rising. The vote was 11-11. The resolution remained unchanged.
In the 1918 local elections Sinn Féin swept into power. Out of 40, 496 votes cast in Galway, 31,271 or 77.22 per cent were cast for Sinn Féin. In the elections in 1920, Sinn Féin won control of both local councils, and rescinded the original motions condemning the Rising. The County Council ‘emphatically protested’ against treatment of political prisoners in Galway gaol. It stated that it was aware that ‘ Messrs. Hoey, Staunton, Doherty, and Jordan were deprived of their clothes, and bed-boards, and were manacled and kicked in their cells.’ Furthermore it agreed to pay IRA police out of funds used to pay British forces.
Elected councillors now became targets for arrest and search. On October 19 1920 Urban Councillor Michéal Breathnach was taken out of his home at High Street, and pushed down to Long Walk where he was shot dead.
It’s difficult to pick out which atrocity shocked people most. There were many, and yet IRA headquarters urged Connacht to do more. Following the execution at Mountjoy gaol of young Thomas Whelan, a native of Clifden, an RIC man was shot dead on the main street of the town, his colleague seriously wounded. The Black and Tans responded by burning the principal buildings in the town killing an ex-sergeant major, and injuring another man.
There were two major events in 1921, shortly before the Truce. Following a tennis party at Ballyturin House, near Gort, District Inspector Cecil Blake, his pregnant wife, and two British Army officers, Capt Cornwallis, and Lt Mc Creery, were ambushed and shot dead. Mrs Robert Gregory (Lady Gregory’s daughter -in-law ) was the only survivor.
Four masked men walked into the city hospital and shot dead ‘two sick police sergeants’, and injured two others. A similar murder took place in St Bride’s Nursing Home on Sea Road.
Funerals allowed the general public express their outrage at events. On September 8 1920, a gun battle erupted at the city’s railway station. Edward Krumm, a Black and Tan officer and a notorious drunk, and two Volunteers, Seamus Quirke and Seán Mulvoy, were shot dead. The city was immediately placed under curfew. The funerals of the two Volunteers were the biggest the city had seen to that date. More than 40 clergy presided over the Mass. The Black and Tans went on the rampage, burning the Sinn Féin hall, and the offices of the Galway Express. Other houses at Bohermore which were thought to harbour men sympathetic to the Rising, were raided and burnt.
The following November a popular young priest in the city, Fr Michael Griffin, was kidnapped by the Black and Tans and murdered. Griffin, a known IRA sympathiser, was taken in response to the disappearance of Patrick Joyce, the principal of Barna school. Joyce’s letter to Dublin Castle containing information on local Volunteers was intercepted by the IRA. He was shot and buried in the Spiddal bog, and not discovered for decades.
Fr Griffin’s body, however, was found in a shallow grave a week after his disappearance. There was a huge outcry, both throughout Ireland, and in the British House of Commons. David Lloyd George assured the House that no Crown forces were involved in Griffin’s murder. On the orders of Michael Collins a local investigation was carried out. It found that an Auxiliary named Nicholas was the man responsible.
Fr Griffin’s funeral was immense. An estimated 12,000 attended - a remarkable figure given that only 14,000 lived in the city at the time.
Next Week: A brief look at Galway during the Civil War.
NOTES: * Liam Mellows, an English-born Republican, was sent to Galway in 1915 to organise the Irish Volunteers. Because of his English accent and small stature he was initially treated with suspicion by some of the nationalist leaders, notably by Tom Kenny, Craughwell, and Larry Lardner. But he quickly blended in, winning respect for his leadership skills, and his total commitment to the cause.
**Galway: politics and society, 1910 - 23 by Tomás Kenny, published by Four Courts Press on sale at €9.95. Up to now information has been scarce. In the past I have used Land and Revolution - nationalist politics in West of Ireland 1891 - 1921, by Fergus Campbell, essays by Mattie Neilan in the 1966 Capuchin Annual, and by Martin Dolan in the Capuchin Annual 1970, and an article in History Ireland (Vol 19, No I ) by Conor McNamara. I am aware that the family of Tom Kenny of Craughwell, one of the leaders of the Galway Rising, is not happy with how their relative is being portrayed in the history books to date. .