On Tuesday April 26 1916, 95 years ago this week, many people in Galway town were gripped by rumour and hysteria. Rebellion in Dublin had been the sole source of conversation the evening before, but now telegraph lines were cut down, no trains were running, and news that rebellion had broken out in Oranmore, Clarinbridge and Athenry, brought events closer to home. All roads out of the town were considered too dangerous to travel. All shops and factories closed. People stood in small groups discussing the situation. There were fears that the rebels were approaching the town.*
That afternoon a public meeting was called by the urban district council in the townhall. More than 100 people also squeezed into the building to hear what was going on. Local businessman Mairtín Mór McDonogh chaired the meeting. Mairtín Mór was a legend in his ownlife time, an owner of one of the biggest hardware and fertiliser businesses in the country, and a very persuasive man. He declared that the meeting was now a ‘committee for public safety’. Citizens were urged to enrol as special constables to assist the Crown forces in this crisis. The local post office was placed under armed guard. It was agreed that notices of martial law would be posted stating that ‘all licensed premises in the urban district of Galway were to remain closed forthwith, and all persons were to remain indoors between the hours of 5pm and 8am’. The meeting was told that the country had been plunged into a civil war. Public offices as well as the post office had been taken over in Dublin. The question was asked ‘What on earth effect could that have in 10 or 20 years as regards the government of this country?’
Suddenly near panic erupted at the boom from the great guns of the HMS Gloucester, which had sailed into the bay, and opened fire along the coast line as a deterrent to rebel forces.
A special edition of the Connacht Tribune was published the next morning. Its editor Tom Kenny assured its readers that ‘the citizens can now rest in perfect security ....This vessel could easily turn its guns, not only on Oranmore, but on Athenry, with the most effective results.’
The shelling provoked terror in the small fishing villages around the bay. People abandoned their homes, and left for the safety of the town. The Galway Express reported: ‘Even as we write, streams of peasant refugees are fleeing from their once peaceful homes in the tranquil countryside from Oranmore to Castlegar and vicinity to seek the shelter denied to them by the folly of their own friends and neighbours.’ The paper later reported that Oranmore ‘is being gradually deserted until now it is a veritable wilderness’. As the week progressed, more British naval ships arrived in the bay.
The explosion of the shells could be heard hitting the shore by Liam Mellows and his rebel army of about 600 men 12 miles away in east Galway. His men feared that Oranmore and other ‘rebel villages’ were being bombarded. Another rumour that a naval battle was taking place between German U-boats and the British fleet, was widely believed. Liam Mellows led a band of almost 100 Volunteers early on Tuesday, and attacked and captured the RIC barracks at Clarinbridge. A similar attack on the Oranmore barracks was beaten back by sustained gunfire from the building. The next target was the barracks at Athenry but at Carnmore the rebels met a strong force of police who ordered them to surrender. During this engagement Constable Whelan was killed.
The Rising in Galway followed a series of dramatic events elsewhere which ensured that it could not have been successful. Victory totally depended on the successful delivery of 20,000 German rifles being transported to Ireland on board the Aud, disguised as a Norwegian fishing vessel. The Galway volunteers were to wait with others along the Limerick-Galway railway line to receive their supply of weapons. They were then to neutralise the police (RIC ) barracks in the surrounding villages, before proceeding in a strong force to capture Galway.
However, British intelligence discovered the plot to land the guns; The Aud was intercepted and scuttled, while the enigmatic Roger Casement, who organised the shipment, was arrested, after he was droped ashore at Tralee Bay by U-boat.
With insufficient weapons the cause was hopeless. Attempts were made to cancel the Rising. But it went ahead in Dublin, Cork, Ashbourne, Enniscorthy and parts of Galway. Liam Mellows men were armed with shotguns, pikes and a few rifles, which were no match for police weaponry or the four inch guns of the HMS Gloucester.
. The rebels hearing the shell bursts, and the rumour that a large force of British troops were on their way to confront them, retreated south to Limepark, to decide their next move.
The greater issue
Galway was generally fiercely opposed to armed rebellion of any sort. It was a garrison town, which had been subjected to a series of intense recruitment drives for its young men to join the British armed forces from the beginning of World War I. The Irish parliamentary party, led by John Redmond, convinced most Irishmen that following an exemplary service by the Irish for the British Empire in its armed forces, Home Rule would be granted to Ireland. The people of Galway generally accepted that the German threat was the greater issue to overcome.
And Galway was not alone in that belief. In Craughwell, Turloughmore and Loughrea people came out to aid the local RIC against the rebels of Easter Week. In Galway, however, the opposition to the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Féin was often vicious. One night in October 1914, following widespread rioting, republicans and their supporters were literally beaten along the streets by an angry crowd. The event was described by the Connacht Tribune as ‘guerrilla warfare on a small scale’, and climaxed in attacks on the homes and businesses of known republicans. Sinn Féin’s constant disruption of recruitment meetings in the town provoked the following remarks from the Connacht Tribune: ‘Sinn Féin has hitherto been treated with generous tolerance in the city...that tolerance has reached its limit. The puny plotters have only themselves to blame.’
The Galway Express on a similar line, noted: ‘Sinn Féin cannot be tolerated; they must be absolutely put down if traitors are in the country, and they can only expect the fate of same.’ Volunteer Thomas Courtney remembered: ‘Thinking back over the years, I have come to the conclusion that Galway town was, and in my opinion still is, the most shoneen **town in Ireland.’
More next week
* I am leaning heavily on an interesting article in History Ireland (Vol 19, No1 ) : ‘Galway in 1916’ by Conor McNamara, history lecturer in St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. His book The Irish revolution in the west of Ireland: Galway 1913 - 1921 will shortly be published by Four Courts Press.
** Shoneen? means an Irishman who imitates English ways...