On Tuesday 25 April 1916, Galway became the only county outside of Leinster to take up arms against the British state during the Easter Rising. In fact, only three parts of provincial Ireland participated in the Rising: Enniscorthy in county Wexford; Ashbourne in north county Dublin; and county Galway, where several hundred rebels took over 600 square miles of the east of the county between Tuesday 25 April and Saturday 29 April. Commemorative documentaries and history books pay little attention to the Galway Rising with the focus tending to be on the more dramatic events that took place in Dublin, but Galway’s Rising was an important part of the story of the Easter Rising; and the story of the hundreds of brave Galway men who stood up to the British Empire in April 1916 deserves to be told in detail. In this series of five articles, FERGUS CAMPBELL will explain why Galway rose when so many other parts of provincial Ireland did not, and he will also tell the story of what happened in Galway during the Rising, and the impact that the Rising had on Galway society. This account is based on many documents, police reports, newspaper accounts and memoirs but most of the quotations are derived from the witness statements that Galway rebels made to the Bureau of Military History during the 1940s and 1950s, and these can be read online.
Perhaps the story of the Galway Rising might be said to have begun on 8 June 1882. On that day, five members of the Galway IRB ambushed unpopular landlord Walter Bourke at Castledaly. Bourke was about to evict tenants from his estate at Rahassane, near Craughwell, and the IRB wanted to stop him from doing so. As Bourke and his military guard, Corporal Robert Wallace, returned by sidecar from Gort to Rahassane, the five Galway IRB members opened fire on the two men from behind a stone wall at Castledaly and killed both Bourke and Wallace instantaneously.
They had to make their escape quickly but before they did so one of the IRB men had the presence of mind to steal the Winchester rifle that Corporal Wallace carried, knowing that it could be used in some future battle with Irish landlords or the British state. In the event, that rifle kept in a barn in Carrigeen for almost 34 years did see active service once again when the Galway rebels at Killeeneen used it to attack Clarinbridge barracks on Tuesday 25 April. It may not have been of much use, dated and old as it was, but given that weapons were in short supply during the Galway Rising, it was carried by one of the rebel fighters who departed Killeeneen National school at dawn that Tuesday under the leadership of Liam Mellows as they marched to Clarinbridge.
The Winchester rifle, kept by the Galway IRB for all those years, might also be regarded as a symbol of the Galway Rising and of its origins more generally. For it was the presence of a well organised secret society associated with the IRB and strongly involved in land agitation that provided the rank and file of the rebel army when Galway rose in 1916. Major John MacBride and Sean MacDermott, in particular, were aware that the IRB was perhaps better organised in east Galway than any other part of provincial Ireland during the first decade of the 20th century. When plans were made to stage a rebellion, then, MacBride and MacDermott were keen to make sure that the Galway IRB would participate. Both MacBride and MacDermott visisted Galway frequently in the years before the Rising when they met with Tom Kenny, the Craughwell blacksmith, who was the leader of the Galway secret society at that time. Liam Mellows, a young man of 22 years with some military training, was later sent to organise the Galway IRB for rebellion and he arrived at Athenry in the spring of 1915. Initially, he did not make much of an impression on the hardy Galway small farmers, tradesmen and labourers that he first met in Athenry in the spring of 1916. Frank Hynes, the Captain of the Irish Volunteers at Athenry, later recalled that:
‘I think it was in January, 1915, we got word from Dublin that an officer was being sent down to organise and train the Volunteers in County Galway. He was to be with us for one week only. We all were very excited over the matter. When the night arrived, Larry Lardner told me to call the company on parade while he went to the train to meet the officer. When he arrived I was introduced to a little fellow with glasses. My impression of him was that he may be a clever lad—he was about 22 years—but couldn’t be much good at fighting. His name by the way was Liam Mellows. He came in when the men were lined up, six footers most of them. Liam addressed them ‘Now men I was sent down to get you to do a bit of hard work, so I want you to be prepared for a week of very hard work’. I could see the faintest trace of a supercilious smile on some of the men. When he was finished talking Larry and himself went off to arrange about digs. Then the smiles broke out to laughing.
‘Who is the ladeen?’, asked one fellow, ‘who talks to us about hard work’.
The ‘ladeen’, however, soon won the support and admiration of the Galway men as Hynes observed, ‘before the first night under his command was over they loved and respected him.’ However, the local separatist leaders, notably Tom Kenny and Lawrence Lardner, were less inclined to welcome the new leader. Kenny, in particular, resented Mellows, who gradually replaced him as the most influential separatist in east Galway. In part, this was because Kenny lacked military training and was, therefore, unfit to hold any rank in any one of the companies he had helped to create. Mellows, on the other hand, arrived in Galway with a knowledge of drill and arms far beyond that of anyone there and this knowledge gained him his commanding position among the Volunteers while Kenny’s stock declined accordingly. Later, Kenny would allege that Mellows was an inadequate military leader, and write, ‘Fairheaded Bill you are good for nothing only drinking tea over at Walshe’s of Killeeneen, and going up to Pádraig Fahy’s, Ballycahalan.’.
There was also a certain amount of tension between Mellows and Lardner. This arose largely from the ambivalence of Mellows’s position in Galway. Although Lardner was the commanding officer of the Galway brigade, Mellows was generally known as the ‘Captain’ and had the backing of the Volunteer Executive thereby giving him authority over Lardner. He had, too, the respect and admiration of the ordinary Volunteers and the Volunteer officers (most of whom were members of the IRB ) who looked upon him as being the superior officer of the county. Consequently, there was constant friction between Lardner and Mellows and the former was kept very much in the dark at times.
Even so, the Irish Volunteer force that was established in Galway at a meeting at the Town Hall in December 1913 rapidly expanded after Mellows’ arrival. Following John Redmond’s Woodenbridge speech in September 1914 where he offered the support of the Volunteers to the British war effort the Volunteers split into two sections: the National Volunteers, who were pro-War and pro-Redmond, and the Irish Volunteers that were opposed to involvement in the Great War and some of whom were members of the IRB. It would be these Irish Volunteers – who numbered only about 10,000 men throughout Ireland and about 1500 in Galway – who would become the footsoldiers of the Easter Rising in Galway and elsewhere.
Throughout the winter of 1915 and the spring of 1916, Irish Volunteer organizers including George Nicholls, Patrick Callanan, Stephen Jordan, Lawrence Lardner, Pádraig Ó Fathaigh, and Liam Mellows travelled around the county forming new companies, and teaching basic military procedures including drilling, target practice, and conducting ‘sham’ battles.
On the eve of the Easter Rising, there were 1,070 Irish Volunteers in west Galway, and 721 in the east of the county. Interestingly, the Irish Volunteers won the support of a significant number of young curates in east Galway. No less than ten priests shared a platform with the Irish Volunteers at a meeting in Athenry in November 1915 at what is now Kenny park. Two of the most influential separatist priests in pre-Rising Galway were Father John William O’Meehan, a native of Clarinbridge and the curate at Kinvara, and Father Henry Feeney of Castlegar who was the curate at Clarinbridge. At Kinvara, O’Meehan was responsible for recruiting Irish Volunteers, distributing separatist newspapers, and teaching Irish classes. Consequently, he was regarded by the local Volunteers as ‘an inspiration to us by his addresses . . . and lectures’. Father Feeney was equally influential at Clarinbridge where ‘he threw himself wholeheartedly into the advancement of the Volunteers and did everything in his power to encourage us. Meetings of the officers were held in his house, and even bombs were manufactured there.
He always attended our parades.’Given the origins of the Irish Volunteers in the anti-clerical tradition of the secret society, the IRB and the anti-War Volunteers the involvement of these priests in the separatist movement was unusual. However, it reveals that the younger priests were more radical and inclined towards Republicanism than their parish priests. This also reveals that there were a number of diverse groups involved in the Galway Rising with different ideas and agendas, and so there was the possibility that even among the 600 or so men who participated in the Galway Rising there was likely to be some disagreement as events developed.