The prelude to the Easter Rising was as confused in Galway as it was elsewhere. Although the officers of the Irish Volunteers who were also members of the IRB had known about the planned insurrection for some time, the events of Holy Week created an air of confusion as to when the rebellion was to take place.
On the Monday before Easter, Eamon Corbett, a small farmer from Killeeneen and prominent member of the Galway IRB, attended a meeting of the Military Council in Dublin at which he was told the Rising would begin on Easter Sunday in the evening at 7.30. However, a series of contradictory messages were subsequently received, and on Easter Saturday a meeting of all the Galway officers was held at George Nicholls’s house on University Road at which it was decided to send John Hosty to Dublin to clarify the position. The following day, Hosty met MacNeill in Dublin who said that ‘he had already sent out countermanding orders calling the mobilisation off’. Hosty then conveyed this information to Lardner at Athenry and Nicholls in Galway, both of whom had already heard ‘that things were off’.
The plan for the Galway Rising had initially been that the Irish Volunteers would assemble after second mass on Easter Sunday (at which they were to receive communion and go to confession ) for three days of route marching, drilling, and manoeuvres. The insurrection would then begin that evening. It should be borne in mind that it was only the officers of the Irish Volunteers and senior members of the IRB who knew that an insurrection was planned. The rank and file were informed only that they were meeting for a few days of military training, and the intention was that they would be told of the planned insurrection only when it had already begun.
German guns to be
distributed at Gort
The plan was that on Easter Monday rifles from the German gunboat the Aud would be distributed by rail from Tralee to Volunteer companies throughout the west. The Galway Volunteers had been instructed to attend a parade at Gort on Easter Monday, at which the German rifles were to be distributed. But MacNeill’s countermand (published in the Irish Independent on Easter Sunday ) undermined these plans and left the Irish Volunteers in a state of disarray, and many Volunteer companies that had been mobilized on Easter Sunday morning were dismissed that evening. This confusion was further intensified when the Aud was captured, and the proposed Gort meeting called off. On the evening of Easter Sunday it was uncertain that any rebellion in Galway would take place.
As events unfolded, the leaders of the Galway Volunteers were forced to reassess their objectives. At the outset, the aim of the western Volunteer officers was to take control of their counties, and to hold a line along the Shannon. In early 1916, Pearse had visited Lardner at Athenry and told him that when the Rising took place he should ‘hold a line on the river Suck near Ballinasloe’. John Broderick, a building contractor and officer of the Athenry Irish Volunteers, recalled that the ‘original plan was that each Company was to attack and capture all police Barracks in its area’.
In Galway city, Nicholls also planned to ‘take a few prominent men— Martin McDonagh (Máirtin Mór ), Joe Young, etc., and to occupy the Post Office’. However, the capture of the Aud meant that the Galway Volunteers were insufficiently armed to engage the British forces and the RIC, and an alternative strategy needed to be devised. The possibility of a limited rising was developed by Mellows who evolved a plan of beginning the insurrection in the Athenry-Loughrea-Gort-Kinvara-Oranmore area with the rest of the county giving it initial support by the cutting of railway lines, the blocking of roads, the destruction of bridges, and other acts of sabotage. He believed that starting with the proposed area, the rebellion would increase by concentric waves which could conceivably spread throughout the province. It may be that it was this strategy that was in his mind when the insurrection began on Tuesday 25 April.
"Didn't hope to
do anything big."
Alfred Monaghan recalled in 1939 that ‘when they went out’, the Galway Volunteers ‘did not hope to do anything big. Badly armed as they were their only hope was to bottle up the British garrison and divert the British from concentrating on Dublin.’ In these circumstances, the Galway Rising could easily have been called off. Tom Kenny, who had met with Clarke and MacDermott on Easter Sunday, ‘was against it . . . he believed the time was not ripe’, and that a serious military defeat for the rebels (that seemed likely ) would destroy the Republican movement that he had carefully built up over the previous ten years. Larry Lardner at Athenry (whose wife was pregnant ) was ‘funking it’ and – understandably – suffering from nervous exhaustion. Mellows, however, was determined on revolt even if he had only Clarinbridge to follow him.
At about one o’clock on Easter Monday, a Miss Farrelly brought a message from Pearse to Lardner at Athenry, ‘We are out from twelve o’clock today. Issue your orders without delay. P.H.P.’ Frank Hynes, who was at home on his lunch break, ‘got a message to call down to the hall. When I went down Larry was there and his face was a placard in which trouble could be read easily. He handed me a despatch from Pearse—“Going out today at noon; issue your orders”. There was a kettle of fish! What were we going to do? We notified all the companies we could get in touch with.’. Two hours later at about 2 o’clock on Easter Monday, Father Feeney rushed into Walsh’s with the news that Dublin was out since 12 noon. Mellows, who was reading. jumped to his feet and dashing his book to the floor, directed: ‘Call out the lads and put a guard around the house’. However, the first mood of elation changed when Lardner’s despatch was fully digested. Dublin was ‘out’ certainly but the likelihood of the whole country rising was very poor. The pros and cons were discussed by Mellows and his friends but no decision could be arrived at. The arrival of Mattie Neilan settled the matter. Having listened for a few minutes to the outline of the dilemma, he interrupted Mellows saying: ‘Listen, Liam! Whatever you’re going to do, do it now!’
‘What do you think yourself, Mattie?’ asked Mellows. ‘I think we should go out’, was the reply.
Mellows - 'Mobilise your men'
Mellows immediately issued instructions to all Volunteer captains to mobilize their men. The Clarinbridge Volunteers were told to gather at Killeeneen school house that evening. Patrick Callanan was sent to mobilize the Volunteers at Maree, Oranmore, Claregalway, and Castlegar. Michael Kelly delivered a dispatch to Peter Howley at Ardrahan, instructing him to mobilize his company and ‘take it to Tullyra, where we were to remain and guard the Galway/Ennis road’, and also asking him to mobilize the Ballycahalan company. Gilbert Morrissey received a dispatch on Tuesday morning telling him that there was fighting in Dublin and to mobilize the Rockfield company. Pádraig Ó Fathaigh was sent to Kinvara to mobilize the company, and to bring Father O’Meehan to Killeeneen, but he was arrested before he could do so. The Kinvara company was later mobilized by Father O’Meehan. On Wednesday morning, Thomas McInerney, the brigade scout, visited the companies at Gort, Kiltartan, Ballycahalan, Kinvara, and Ballinderreen, and ‘found them all mobilised and standing to arms in their respective areas’. However, due to both the countermand and the poor communications of the time, a number of companies received no word from Mellows. At Mount Bellew, Loughrea, and Mullagh, the Volunteers awaited instructions, but to no avail. Similarly, no message was conveyed to the Volunteers west of Spiddal, as Peter McDonnell recalls: ‘During Easter Week 1916 West Galway was completely cut off from the rest of the country, and no information—except rumour—could be had as to what
was happening, and no instructions were received.’. Other companies did receive instructions, but did not act. At Moycullen, Pádraig Thornton could not be persuaded by Patrick Callanan and Brian Molloy to mobilize his men, complaining, ‘what’s the use against the army without guns’.
And although both George Nicholls and Mícheál Ó Droighneáin in the city received a message from Pearse on Easter Monday afternoon instructing them to ‘carry out your orders’, they ‘decided that we would do nothing until we got more information’. A few hours later, they were both arrested and escorted to a naval mine sweeper, the Laburnum, in Galway bay, so that they could not easily be rescued.
On Easter Tuesday morning, Liam Mellows led the Clarinbridge Volunteers from Killeeneen to Clarinbridge, where they mounted an attack on the police barracks. Mellows selected twelve young men to lead the attack. His plan was to form up the attacking party in two groups of six each on the green opposite the barracks. At a given signal they would leap the walls, rush through the door, which then lay open, and seize the barracks. The Volunteers gained access to the barracks, but once they had done so, they found themselves caught in the cross-fire as the police on the second floor opened fire on the Volunteers outside, so that around the interior walls of the stone-built barracks the bullets screamed and ricochetted, wounding Michael Callanan. The young and inexperienced Volunteers then backed out on the street for instructions as to how they should deal with the situation, and as they did so the police rushed down the stairs and bolted the door. When Michael Kelly arrived in the village a short time later, he observed that ‘The whole company was there, all firing at the barracks at a range of about fifty yards.
There was a barricade on the Oranmore Road made of mineral water boxes, with Volunteers behind the barricades to prevent reinforcements from reaching the barracks. All the approaches to the village were barricaded and all traffic held up.’ However, the police were barricaded inside the building, and the rebels were unable to take the barracks by force.
During the attack, the local parish priest, Father Tully, spoke to them and told them the curse of God would be on them if they used any violence, and demanded that they call off the attack. Mellows refused to do so unless the R.I.C. surrendered. He asked Fr. Tully to call on the police to surrender. Fr. Tully did so, but they refused, and we resumed the attack. After a few hours, Mellows called off the rebels, and ordered his men to march towards Oranmore, with the intention of attacking the barracks there. There was only one casualty at Clarinbridge, as Martin Newell recalls: ‘Shortly after the attack had started, a policeman cycling from Clarenbridge to Kilcolgan was called on by the outpost to halt and put up his hands. He made an attempt to draw his revolver and one of the outpost—my brother Ned—opened fire on him and wounded him.’ Constable David Manning was wounded on the nose and was taken prisoner by the rebels until 29 April.
The Galway Rising had begun and the Galway rebels had already distinguished themselves as one of very few groups of provincial Republicans to take up arms against the British state. Even so, the first attack of the Galway Rising was not successful and questions might be asked about the failure of Mellows and his men to capture the RIC barracks at Clarinbridge. But the Rising was only just beginning, and Mellows was determined to lead an attack on the barracks at Oranmore, and the next article will tell the story of what happened when Mellows took the rebel army to meet the Oranmore rebels.
Dr Fergus Campbell is Reader in Social and Cultural History. He was educated at St Margaret Mary's school, Carlisle, the Newman school, Carlisle and at the universities of Oxford and Bristol, and has lectured in both British and Irish history at the Queen's University, Belfast, and the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on Irish social, cultural and political history between the Great Famine (1845-9 ) and the Celtic Tiger (1994-2004 ), and he has written three books and a number of articles on various aspects of modern Irish history.