Early on Easter Monday morning, April 24 1916, the Galway Volunteers sprang into action. It was a chaotic beginning to the rebellion which hoped to see a nation-wide rising of fully armed and committed men and women seizing control of the country. We know, however, the capture of the ship Aud, with its weapons, explosives and ammunition, off the Kerry coast on Good Friday, prompted the Dublin leadership to cancel the Rising. The order was ignored by Padraic Pearse and others, who had the benefit of arms imported into Howth two years previously. They took over key positions throughout Dublin city, which they held for six days.
Galway had no such benefit from the Howth gun-running. Some 3,000 rifles from the Aud were destined for the Galway Volunteers, which of course never arrived. But in a moment of feverish patriotism, and under the inspired leadership of the young Liam Mellows, some 500 men and women ‘came out’ in east Galway. Apart from a few shotguns, and some revolvers, many of them were unarmed. Military speaking it was an action of great foolishness, even madness, but in the spirit of the time, it was seen, by a few, as the fulfilment of an historic struggle.
It fizzled out at Moyode Castle in the cold, early hours of Saturday morning, when, at the approach of a large military force, reality finally dawned. The men went home, deserting a broken Mellows, who was tortured by his sense of failure, and angry at the Dublin command for the confusion surrounding the cancellation order.
Having escaped to New York, and embraced by the old Fenians, especially John Devoy, Mellows was welcomed as the leader of the ‘1916 Exiles’. He hid his frustration and despondency, and wrote instead a glowing and romantic account of the Galway rebellion in Devoy’s newspaper The Gaelic American. Sometimes he gave factual details, but even these were dressed in the language of an adventure story for boys.
Describing the capture of the Clarinbridge RIC barracks, Captain Eamonn Corbett, ‘who volunteered for the job, had to rush up under the windows of the barracks, under fire and throw the bombs inside…This he did successfully six times. While this was being done..barricades of trees and stones had been thrown up at each end of the village, and several police scouts captured. One of these did not surrender quick enough, and promptly received the contents of a shotgun in the face..’ At Oranmore barracks, despite a sustained attack over several hours, the attack was switched to the Midland Great Western Railway, where several policemen were taken prisoner. ‘One of them, a plain clothes man, went out of his mind the next day, probably with fear.’ Mellows concludes the ambush at Carnmore crossroads where Constable Patrick Whelan was the only fatality of the Galway Rising, with ‘the enemy retreating headlong followed by a volley from the shotguns of the little group of Rebels.’ Close to Athenry the police fled back to the town ‘as fast as they could run’, persued ‘by a flying column of Rebel motor cars’.
Gave them their blessing
‘Everywhere the people received our men with pride, while information of every kind was brought hourly by women and girls of events happening in their different localities.’ About 30 girls, members of Cumann na mBan, accompanied their brothers-in-arms the whole week. ‘Their spirit and determination was wonderful.’ The girls baked bread, and rations were issued to the men. ‘One of the cooks developed a genius for making stew, and his quarters was generally invaded about meal times…attracted by the savoury smells…’
‘Everywhere the people showed the greatest kindness to the Volunteers; gave them their blessing and wished them success…. songs and recitations could be heard on all sides when resting. Laughter and fun never deserted them.’ During this week, Mellows boasted, all central and south Galway was ‘free territory, with the exception of the town of Athenry.’
‘Until the bitter end’
When the final decision came to disband early Saturday morning, Mellows states that without proper arms, and Dublin surrendering, and the south not fighting, it was felt by most of the officers that it would be ‘pure slaughter’ to keep on. ‘A couple of the officers fought vigorously against the disbandment, protesting that it would be better to fight on until the bitter end..’
Fr Thomas Fahy, who had been with Mellows all that week, later told the Bureau of Military History, that Mellows had tried to convince the group to fight on come what may, claiming ‘it would be better to fight it out now as their lives were all forfeit anyhow’. Overruled by his officers Mellows refused to the end to give the disbandment order. One Volunteered explained: ‘He begged myself to do so, saying he was reluctant to ask a single one of them to go away. I then addressed the men, telling them the decision, and advising them to break up immediately and save their equipment for another day. Mellows did not address the men. He was very depressed; the news from Dublin had upset him greatly.’
Knowing how he had embellished the story of the Galway Rising for the Gaelic American Mellows left the article unsigned.
Next week: A bitter row with John Devoy, arrest and imprisonment in New York.
NOTES: I am taking the article from the Gaelic American from Conor McNamara’s excellent Liam Mellows - Selected Writings, published by the Irish Academic Press 2019, on sale €18.95.