Following the news of the Rising in Dublin on Easter Monday April 25 1916, Galway was in the grip of rumour and anxiety. The Galway ‘rising’, consisting of about 600 men led by Liam Mellows, but poorly armed, was creating mayhem in the county. Police ( RIC ) stations were being attacked, telegraph poles were cut down, and trains were not running. Galway was virtually cut off from news of developments elsewhere. Then panic ensued when on Tuesday a British warship, HMS Gloucester, steamed into the bay and indiscriminately opened fire into the coastline, and further inland. Refugees began to arrive in the town.
The rebels planned that once they had subjugated the police stations in the surrounding villages, they would attack the town. They had intended to take the main post office, and hold some of the town’s leading business figures, including Mairtin Mór McDonogh and Joe Young, as hostages. When this possibility became known an emergency meeting of the urban district council was called at the town hall. The council immediately turned itself into a ‘committee for public safety’. A citizens militia was set up, known as the National Volunteers, under Captain J P O’Neill. The army provided them with rifles and bayonets, and they patrolled the streets in a military fashion. Meetings were held every day during the week to review the evolving situation.
Anxious people found themselves drifting towards the Square and looking in the direction of Oranmore’.
As the week progressed, police reinforcements, who had evacuated the surrounding countryside, poured into the town. Cars arrived from Belfast carrying an additional 150 RIC men. The Galway Express, in an article entitled ‘OUR CITIZEN ARMY’ reported that: ‘One of the brightest spots in the present lamentable affair is the manner in which Galway civilians have risen to the occasion. A fine citizen army of special constables, dispatch riders, assistants in first aid, etc, have cheerfully given their service to the local authorities in their hour of need’... The defences of the town were further enhanced by the arrival of two groups of 100 marines sent ashore from the HMS Gloucester, and up from Queenstown, Co Cork.
A company of Royal Munster Fusiliers arrived by boat and were given an official welcome by members of the ‘committee for public safety’, accompanied by cheers from a grateful townsfolk. The ‘committee’, no doubt feeling far more secure than it had done on Tuesday, now called for the ‘authorities and the people of Galway to crush by every means possible, the efforts of the disaffected fanatics and mischief makers’.
Nor was Galway alone in its condemnation of the Rising. There was similar support for the local RIC at Craughwell, Turloughmore, and Loughrea. Forty local men manned the Craughwell RIC barracks, and remained there throughout the week. The Tuam Herald commented on ‘the Craughwell men’s loyalty to Ireland’, and claimed that the locals ‘knew well little mercy would be shown some of them, if those lunatics got into the village’. The paper concluded that the rebels had been frightened away by the loyal Craughwell men, as ‘cowardice would not allow those German hirelings enter where they knew a warm reception awaited them’.
The rapid response by the British authorities, and their lack of any kind of proper weaponry, forced the Galway Volunteers to review their situation as they assembled on Thursday morning at the deserted Moyode Castle, owned by the Perrsses, at Limepark. An intense argument broke out as to what they should do next. Their leader Mellows was all for striking out, and linking up with the Clare volunteers to continue the fight in the south. The local leadership, particularly Tom Kenny of Craughwell and Martin Finnerty of Gurteen, urged Mellows to disband the force ‘to live and fight another day’.
Liam Mellows, a deeply committed revolutionary of the republican Left, and close to James Connolly, just could not do it. This was his destiny, and he was determined to fight to the end.
He was born in Lancashire, the son of a British soldier, who was posted to Dublin in 1895. As a young man Mellows joined the Fianna Éireann (the republican boy scouts ), and from there the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He immersed himself in the labour struggle, and was in and out of prison. On one occasion, in Mountjoy, he met Seán Mac Dermott, one of the leaders of the Easter plot. Revolution was in the air. He was sent to organise an armed volunteer movement in east Galway. This time the authorities were fed up with him. He was again arrested, and deported back to England. However, one month before the Rising he returned to a raucous welcome at Athenry disguised as a priest. Padraic Pearse had previously visited the Galway Volunteers and told them that when the rebellion starts they are to ‘hold a line on the river Suck, near Ballinasloe’. All this was now impossible; and like the people of the towns, the rebels were subject to rumour. There were reports that a large force of British troops was approaching. There was a sense of impending doom at Moyode.
Only sensible thing
Two priests, Fr Tom Fahy and Fr O’Farrell, arrived on the scene saying that they had heard that the rebellion in Dublin was over. The Dublin volunteers had surrended. Now the British were free to exert all its forces on Galway. Fr Fahy tried to reason with Mellows that the only sensible thing was to disband his men, otherwise they were likely to be surrounded and caught. ‘To march out was certain death.’
Mellows refused. He would fight to the end. ‘These men,’ he said, ‘had joined him voluntarily and he would never ask them to go away.’ At first Mellows refused to allow the priests address the men directly, but after prolonged argument he relented.
‘Fr Fahy then addressed the 350 remaining men, gathered on the lawn in front of the Big House, telling them that if they did not disband they would be killed by the advancing British forces: They had made their gesture,’ he told them, ‘and now they must preserve their lives for the next fight.’
On Saturday April 29, five days after the Galway Rising had begun, the remaining rebels returned to their homes, while Mellows and the other leaders went on the run. Mellows, who had a penchant for religious disguises, escaped to America dressed as a nun.
Next week: Arrest, and the anger of the townsfolk, but was Mellows the real leader of the Galway Rising?
NOTES: I am leaning heavily on two sources: Conor McNamara’s interesting article from the citizens, point of view in History Ireland (Volume 19 No 1 ), and Land and Revolution - National Politics in the West of Ireland, by Fergus Campbell, published by Oxford 2005.