I attended a number of lectures organised by the County Kildare Federation of Local History Societies last weekend. One of the lectures dealt with the Emmet Rebellion of 1803 and the part played by men from our county in that debacle. Athy’s contribution to Emmet’s attempt to overthrow English rule in Ireland was minuscule, even if the man appointed by Emmet to be overall leader of the county’s rebels was based in the south of the county. He was Nicholas Gray, an attorney originally from county Wexford who in 1803 was living in Rockfield House on the outskirts of Athy. Gray played little or no part in the events of July 1803 and in that regard mirrored what may have been his contribution during the 1798 Rebellion. Richard Madden in his history of the United Irishmen writing of the Battle of Ross described how General Bagenal Harvey “and his aide de camp Mr. Gray, Protestant Attorney, remained upon a neighbouring hill, inactive spectators during ten hours incessant fighting”.
Gray, appointed as General in command of County Kildare by Robert Emmet was expected to march at the head of the Kildare rebels into Dublin when the rebellion broke out. He set out from Athy with his man servant and proceeded as far as Johnstown from where he turned around and came back to Athy. The failure of the Kildare men to respond in sufficient numbers to the call to arms might perhaps be excused on account of Emmet’s inadequate planning and the insufficiency of arms for those expected to participate. For whatever reason Gray felt it appropriate to abandon his responsibilities and the so called `Emmet Rebellion` petered out.
While listening to Seamus Cullen’s lecture I was prompted to think of the men and women from the county who played a part in the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. Some weeks ago I wrote briefly of some of the activities of the Carlow/Kildare Brigade in the south Kildare region. It is a topic I hope to return to again if for no better reason than to reduce to print whatever information on the events of those days is known to the generation which followed.
I have before me a sheet of headed notepaper printed “Oglaigh na h’Eireann” with the partly printed address “5th Battalion Head Quarters, Carlow Brigade, Military Barracks, Athy.” The sheet contains a manuscript letter signed by Thomas Finn Commandant and the date 8th July 1922 indicates that the letter was written three months after the anti-treaty forces under Rory O’Connor established their headquarters in the Four Courts, Dublin. Thomas Finn who was from Ballinabarna, Kilmead had been a captain in the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence.
Another sheet of paper before me, this time a photocopy of a newspaper extract is headed “Court-martial results” and was taken from the Leinster Leader of 21st May 1921. It reads, “Michael Duffy, Poplar Hall, Inchaquire, Co. Kildare. On 25th October 1920 his premises were searched and in a stable a packet of seditious papers were found. These were :- copy of An Toglagh dated 15th August 1920; instructions from Brigade Adjutant IRA and letter from O.C. Carlow Brigade containing appointment of Mr. Duffy as O.C.E. company. In a trough 19 rounds of revolver ammunition and five 12 bore cartridges were found. Accused’s defence was that the trough in which the ammunition was found was outside Poplar Hall and was accessible from the outside. He was found not guilty of having ammunition but was sentenced to two years with hard labour.”
Michael Duffy was one of the small number of men chosen by Eamon de Valera to be officers in the National Army when Fianna Fail went into government for the first time in 1932. De Valera feared that the Army might not look too favorably on the defeat of the outgoing government and immediately sought to draft into the army a number of handpicked followers to bolster support for his government. Michael Duffy entered with the rank of Captain and so far as I can find out his army career was spent as a recruiting officer.
During the Civil War the area around Baltinglass was the centre of much activity and that activity spilled over into the Castledermot area with harrowing results. On 16th June 1922 Thomas Dunne of Carlow Gate, Castledermot, a member of the irregulars or anti-treaty side was killed. Less than three weeks later another two members of the irregulars were killed in action in Castledermot. They were Laurence Sweeney of Stillorgan, Co. Dublin and Sylvester Shepperd of Monasterevin, both of whom died on 5th July 1922. I have an extract from a newspaper which is undated but of some age with a photograph of volunteer Sylvester Shepperd over a report that “on Sunday at 3.00 o’clock a stone will be unveiled at Monasterevin to the memory of Sylvester Shepperd, IRA who was killed in action at Castledermot, Co. Kildare on July 4th 1922.” The best information available to me however indicates that Shepperd and his companion were killed on 5th July.
Another ambush which I have heard of, but as yet cannot get any information on, is reputed to have taken place on the Levitstown/Kilkea road. I am told that on the roadside there was a memorial erected to the memory of those involved but a recent inspection of the site shows no such memorial. There were clues that a memorial of some sort was there at one time, but to what or whom I cannot say. My informant told me that a number of IRA men raided a local big house for arms and afterwards walked along the railway track towards Levitstown. They were accosted on the Levitstown/Kilkea road, with what result I cannot say. I would welcome any information in relation to this incident.
Some years ago an interviewee referred to an ambush at Maganey but had no information as to when it occurred or who was involved. Was it by any chance the same event as believed to have occurred on the Levitstown to Kilkea road? Maganey did figure in a tragic accident involving an IRA officer but that was after peace had been restored to Ireland. Tommy O’Connell was Commandant of the IRA Brigade located in Carlow town and was responsible for organising the Carlow Brigade Flying Column. O’Connell died tragically in a road traffic accident at Maganey after his car had a tyre blowout causing his vehicle to overturn.
The O’Rahilly who died during the 1916 Insurrection visited Athy and delivered a splendid speech in the Town Hall on 9th May 1914 following which the Irish Volunteers were formed in the town. Thomas McDonagh, poet and author, another man to die following the 1916 Insurrection also addressed the Irish Volunteers in Athy. The Volunteers were formed in Ballitore on 7th August 1914, just days after the start of World War I and at a time when many men from that area and other parts of South Kildare were enlisting to fight in France and Flanders.
It would be wrong to presume that men who enlisted in the British Army and those who stayed behind and subsequently joined the National struggle for independence constituted two separate and distinct strands of Irish society. Despite the formation of the Volunteers in Athy and Ballitore in 1914 there was not then a clear consensus as to Ireland’s future whether as an independent state or as a member of the British empire. Those who fought for independence chose the path which differed initially at least from that of the majority of the population but in time the majority view changed. The Sinn Fein election successes of 1917 marked a watershed in the changing attitudes of Irish people. The likes of John Finn of Ballinabarna, Paddy Fleming of The Swan and Michael Duffy of Inchaquire made a major contribution to the course of Irish history but so did those unfortunate local men who died in foreign battles during World War I.
Our history is full of such contradictions but all of us who have benefited from the sacrifices made by men and women of an earlier generation have an obligation to acquaint ourselves with the lessons of the past. For that reason I would like to hear from anyone who can help me fill in the missing pieces regarding the Volunteer movement in South Kildare during the years 1914 - 1923.