Thursday, August 16, 2007

Fr Patrick Doyle and the story of an Irish prison break

Many years ago I came across a book of essays written by Fr. Patrick Doyle, the Parish Priest of Naas. 'Gleanings from Dawn to Dusk' was the title so far as I can remember, but unfortunately I cannot now find the book to confirm the title. It was not however the Naas pastor's only foray into book publishing. At the height of the War of Irish Independence a 36-page booklet was published with the somewhat lengthy title, 'In Maryboro and Mountjoy, the Prison Experience and Prison Breaking of an Irish Volunteer.' The author was not named, the only indication given was that it had been penned by 'an Irish priest'.

The booklet was printed by An t'Oglach, the official periodical of the Volunteers. It was only a few weeks on sale in some Dublin shops when a bookseller was imprisoned for three months for offering what the authorities regarded as seditious material for sale. The remaining copies of the booklet were seized and destroyed, which is why only a few rare copies of 'In Maryboro and Mountjoy' have survived to this day.

A second edition appeared in America sometime afterwards, this time under the title 'The Escape from Mountjoy' with the subtitle 'And Other Prison Experiences of an Irish Volunteer' and the author given as 'The Rector of an Irish College'. The Rector in question was Fr Patrick J Doyle and the college was Knockbeg College Carlow. The American edition, which I have before me, claims to be a first edition but in fact it followed the earlier Dublin edition. Reprinted by The Friends of Irish Freedom Inc. with an address at 280 Broadway, New York, the booklet dealt with the prison experiences of Laois man Padraic Fleming.

Fr Doyle in his statement made to the Bureau of Military History in 1952 explained how he first met Fleming. Knockbeg College was a safe haven for volunteers on the run and following a prison breakout from Mountjoy in March 1919 Fr. Doyle was advised to expect an important visitor. This is how he recalled the visitors arrival.

'About midday on that day I saw a car driving rapidly down the college avenue. I went down to the hall door to meet it and saw a lady stepping from the car. Before this I had not the pleasure of knowing this distinguished lady. While she was introducing herself to me as Mrs. Gavan Duffy I observed another lady in the back of the car attired in a luxurious fur coat, with fashionable toque and struggling desperately with a complication of rugs. Finally the rugs were cast aside and a tall gaunt figure stepped from the car, the upper part of which was wrapped in the fur coat and the rest in male attire and then I was introduced to the man who became one of my greatest friends, Padraic Fleming'.

Fleming was a native of the Swan, that part of Laois, which, during the War of Independence, came under the jurisdiction of the Kilkenny IRA Brigade. His brother Eamon who had been a pupil of Thomas McDonagh, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, was a captain in the Dublin Volunteers. It was Eamon Fleming who came down to Laois on Good Friday 1916 with a dispatch from Padraig Pearse asking the local volunteers to be ready for the Rising and to destroy the railway tracks at Colt so that British troops could not travel from the south to Dublin.

It is claimed that the first shots of the Easter Rebellion were in fact fired at Colt during that particular operation. Padraic Fleming was the commander of the 3rd Battalion of the Kilkenny Brigade which was centred on Castlecomer and included The Swan. Following the Easter Rebellion Fleming was questioned by the RIC and before long he was arrested at Kinsale in County Cork and court martialled. Charged with possession of seditious literature and attempting to procure arms he was convicted and sent to Maryboro Jail Prison for five years.

In September 1917 Irish Republican prisoners initiated a policy of agitating for treatment as political prisoners. Following Thomas Ashe's death on 25 September the prisoners' demands were largely met except in the case of Padraic Fleming and two other prisoners serving sentences of penal servitude in Maryboro Prison. Fleming thereafter refused to submit to the prison authorities and his subsequent degrading treatment was the subject of Fr. Doyle's booklet. After spending some time on hunger strike Fleming was released under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act on 20 November 1917.
He continued his involvement with the Volunteers until he was re-arrested in May 1918, with many other leading Republicans during 'The German Plot' scare.

Imprisoned again in Maryboro Prison, the impasse between himself and the authorities continued, resulting in the Laois man being put into iron manacles and a body belt by which his manacled wrists and upper arms were tightly strapped to his body.

He again went on hunger strike and while he was hospitalised the prison authorities constructed a special cell to confine Fleming who was regarded as a most troublesome prisoner, and who although restrained still required two wardens to constantly monitor him 24 hours a day. Between periods in hospital, the punishment cell and the specially built cell Padraic Fleming spent 7 months in Maryboro Prison on this his second term of imprisonment, having spent 9 months there during his previous incarceration.

On 1 January 1919 Padraic Fleming was transferred to Mountjoy Jail where shortly afterwards he was elected Commandant of the Irish political prisoners. A campaign of non co-operation was again initiated under Fleming's leadership, while at the same time plans were put in place for a mass breakout from Mountjoy Jail. The escape took place on 29 March 1919 when twenty Irish Volunteers including Padraic Fleming and Piaras Beaslai escaped over the prison walls using a rope ladder. Soon thereafter Fleming arrived in Knockbeg College where he remained for several weeks, slowly regaining his health, thanks to Fr Doyle and his brother, Dr L Doyle of Carlow who took care of his medical needs.

Towards the end of the summer 1919 Michael Collins arranged for Padraic Fleming to join Eamon de Valera in America where he would spend almost the next two years organising branches of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. He travelled to America via Wales where he spent some time with his sister who was married and living in Loyd George's country.

He was not long back in Ireland when the Treaty and the anti-Treaty split took place. He took the anti-Treaty side and was twice imprisoned in Kilkenny Jail, on each occasion managing to escape only to be recaptured and imprisoned in Kilmainham. He was eventually released under the General Amnesty of 1925. Interestingly his brother Eamon took the Treaty side.

In civilian life, Padraic Fleming worked as a director of the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes before setting up Flemings Fireclays at the Swan with his brothers. He married Marguerite Farrelly and was survived by his widow and four children, John Mitchell, Thomas Davis, Mary and Catherine when he died on 5 December 1952. His burial in the family plot at Clough was attended by President Sean T O’Ceallaigh and many leaders of Church and State. The graveside oration was given by Thomas O'Deirg, the Minister for Lands.

Fr Patrick Doyle who wrote of Padraic Fleming's prison exploits did so not only for their propaganda value, but also for their historical value. ' wrote Fr Doyle in 1952. ‘I went to Dublin and had a talk with Michael Collins about the matter. He said the story must be told and sI insisted that it was a national duty to put it on record, but Padraic pleaded his absolute incapacity to commit the story to writing'o the collaboration with Padraic Fleming began.’

Fr Doyle’s booklet is an important piece of historical work, detailing as it does the prison experiences of a man who Judge James Comerford of New York described in his own account of his Kilkenny IRA days published in 1978 as 'a man who left behind him in the annals of the IRA a record of personal courage, by his defiance of British Rule, that belongs to the classic struggle of people in all countries who have fought for their freedom.'

It was Fr Patrick Doyle, the parish priest whom once I regarded as austere and authoritarian, who recorded for posterity the prison exploits of Padraic Fleming. The austerity of old age successfully concealed the courage of the younger priest who did what he could to help the cause of Irish Freedom during the difficult years which ended with the Treaty.


mayoexile said...

god rest the good men and women who fought suffered and died they gave people like me who came after them the chance to live in peace as independent irish people only for our leaders??? of today to slow but sure selling us down that dark road again.

mary said...

Thank you for posting this as he was a relative of mine.