The Easter Rebellion of 1916 is today regarded as one of the more important, if not the most important event in Irish history. It was not always so. When Pearse and his colleagues marched through Dublin and seized the G.P.O. and other buildings, they did so despite confusion amongst the ranks of the Irish Volunteers and lack of support from the general public. The rebellion was initially condemned by most of the public bodies in Ireland, as well as by the Irish Hierarchy. On Sunday, May 7th, days after eight of the rebel leaders had been executed, the Archbishop of Cashel, Dr. Harty, addressing the congregation in St. Michael’s Church in Tipperary was moved to say, “Our country has passed through a time of great sorrow and I am especially glad to find that the people of the whole Archdiocese of this town of Tipperary in particular, showed great common sense and great patriotic judgment and that they did not allow themselves to get mixed up in anything that was against the interests of the country. We all know the people of Ireland at large do not want any revolutionary measures.” On the following Friday, 12th May, James Connolly and Sean McDiarmada were the last of the rebel leaders to be shot by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail. With their deaths a total of fourteen men, including Thomas Kent at Victoria Barracks in Cork, had paid the ultimate penalty for their involvement in the rebellion.
The British Intelligent notes for 1916 stated:- “The main result of the Rebellion, so far as County Kildare was concerned, was the stoppage of recruiting ………before the rebellion recruiting was very fair and some districts decidedly credible, after the Rebellion it was distinctly bad.” The reference here was to recruitment for the British Army to fight overseas in the 1914-18 War.
The minute book of Athy Urban District Council makes no reference whatsoever to the events in Dublin over Easter week but significantly just weeks previously on 3rd April 1916 the Council by six votes to three passed the resolution “that we have absolute and entire confidence in Mr. John Redmond, the Irish leader and the Irish Parliamentary Party.” Following the rebellion the Athy Board of Guardians on the proposal of Thomas J. Whelan, Chairman, seconded by T. McHugh, resolved:- “That we the members of Athy Board of Guardians, while condemning the recent revolution in Dublin, wish to record our opinion that a sufficiently deterrent example has been set by the executions already carried out and now that the country has settled down we are of the opinion that trial by civilian laws should be resumed and we appeal for clemency for our misguided fellow countrymen.” At the same time the Naas Board of Guardians unanimously passed a resolution expressing strong condemnation of “the revolt against the legally constituted authority of the country”.
The Leinster Leader of 6th May, 1916 reported:- “People met in the streets of the town and discussed the situation with all the seriousness which the situation warranted, and alarm was the prevailing feeling manifested.” I have not found any reference to the involvement of Athy men or women with the Irish Volunteers in the Easter Rebellion in Dublin and there is no record of any military-type activity in the South Kildare area during that period. William Keegan of Ballyroe Lodge, Athy was however involved in the Rising as a member of the Officer Training Corps attached to Trinity College Dublin. One local wag has suggested that while there was no Athy men in the G.P.O. it is quite possible that given the high level of local recruits for the British Army from August 1914 onwards that there may have been several Athy men in British uniforms shooting into the G.P.O.
The first evidence of republican activity in South Kildare was noticed when flags mysteriously appeared on telegraph poles in the area following the release of prisoners from Frongoch and from Lewes Prison in December 1916. Local Sinn Fein sympathisers put on a concert in the Town Hall on 18th January 1917 to raise funds for the family of men “who without being charged were torn from their homes and interned”. The following month a local drama group called “Athy Hibernian Players” made their first stage appearance with the play, “The O’Carolans”, and significantly the players and audience stood to attention at the end of the performance for the singing of “A Nation Once Again”. This was clearly a public identification with the Republican cause and the drama group included John Colman, Joseph Murphy, J.B. Maher, Michael May, Joseph May, Joseph Whelan, W.G. Doyle, T. Corcoran, Robert Webster, J. Webster and C. Walsh.
On Thursday, 19th July 1917 the local Sinn Fein Club which had been established in June held a concert in the Town Hall in aid of the families of those killed during the Easter Rebellion. Arthur Griffith, paying his first visit to Athy, addressed the audience. Just days previously J.J. Bergin, a long time member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, announced he was a supporter of Sinn Fein and claimed that Sinn Fein was the only hope for Irish Nationalism. Towards the end of 1917 the Pipers Band, organised by J.J. Bergin just before the commencement of the World War, became embroiled in controversy following the bands involvement in a local Sinn Fein Rally. The band had always had use of the A.O.H. premises in Duke Street for band practice but were asked to move out when the local A.O.H. took exception to the bands involvement with Sinn Fein. The secretary of the A.O.H., Peter P. Timmons, made clear the division between the A.O.H. and the developing Sinn Fein organisation when he wrote to the local newspaper:- “The A.O.H. as a body refuses to be identified, even in the most remote degree with the republican lunacy.”
The threat of conscription in the early months of 1918 brought many more recruits into the ranks of Sinn Fein. Not all however were imbued with the convictions of those who had started the organisation and as soon as the fear of conscription passed, so too did their involvement with Sinn Fein. The organisation however continued to flourish and in June 1918 it held a public meeting in Emily Square to protest against the arrest of the Sinn Fein leaders. Presiding at that meeting was Michael Dooley of Duke Street who was one of the principal organisers of Sinn Fein in the locality. Another man who was to play a prominent part in Nationalist politics at local level was James Joseph O’Byrne of Duke Street. A school teacher married with four children, he was arrested on 16th August 1918 for the reading of a Sinn Fein statement at a public meeting in Emily Square the previous day. The statement issued after the Cavan by-election victory under the name of Michael O’Flanagan, Vice President and Acting President of Sinn Fein, claimed that both sets of belligerents at the Versailles Peace Conference would have to support self determination for Ireland “which has at last emerged into the full sunlight of national consciousness and no power on earth can drive us back.” The arresting officer, Sergeant Heffernan of the local R.I.C., at O’Byrne’s subsequent court martial in Maryborough gave evidence that on 15th August he saw a group of men, numbering about 200 in Emily Square, addressed by J.J. O’Byrne who stood up on a chair. For about fifteen minutes O’Byrne read from the statement which had been circulated by Sinn Fein headquarters in Dublin and which all local Sinn Fein organisations were required to read at public meetings throughout Ireland. O’Byrne, who had come to Athy approximately two years previously to teach in the local Christian Brothers school, was sentenced to one year in jail. Other men from Athy who were imprisoned for involvement with Sinn Fein during the War of Independence included J.B. Maher, Joe May and Eamon Malone. J.B. Maher will be remembered as “Bapty” Maher who married a sister of the Irish patriot, Kevin Barry. Joe May of Woodstock Street was imprisoned in Ballykinler Camp. He later worked in St. Vincent’s Hospital and died in April 1961. His wife, Hester, was a daughter of Michael Dooley of Duke Street, who was one of the principal organisers of Sinn Fein in this area during the War of Independence. Another of his daughters married Eamon Malone who for a period was Officer in Command of the Carlow Kildare Brigade of the I.R.A. Malone was imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail.
The names of those men from Athy who participated in the War of Independence have not to my knowledge been positively identified or recorded. My own research over the past 20 years or so has identified the following but there may be many more whose names should also be included.
John and Paddy Hayden of Offaly Street
Joe May and Jack Bradley of Woodstock Street
Paddy Keeffe and Billy Browne of Ardreigh
Mick Carroll of Shrewleen Lane
Jack Delahunt of Chapel Hill
Mick Curtis of Castlemitchell
Peter Lamb of Blackparks
Jim Bradley and Joe Walsh of Barrack Street
Bill Nolan of St. Michael’s Terrace
Michael Dunne of Barrow Quay.
I have not included the names of the Barrowhouse or Ballylinan men, nor those from Kilmead, Kilcrow and elsewhere in South Kildare but will do so in a later article.
I end this article with the names of the men killed in action in this area during the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War.
John Byrne, Gracefield, Ballylinan - died in Luggacurran R.I.C. Barracks on 20th April 1920
John Lacey and William Connor, Barrowhouse - killed at Barrowhouse on 16th May 1921
Thomas Dunne, Carlow Gate, Castledermot - killed at Castledermot on 16th June, 1922
Sylvester Sheppard, Monasterevin - killed at Levitstown on 4th July 1922
Laurence Sweeney, Stillorgan, Co. Dublin - killed in Castledermot on 5th July 1922
Edward Byrne, Hacketstown and Patrick Allison, Carlow and James Murphy of Baltinglass - killed at Graney on 24th October 1922
I understand that on Sunday, 30th April an Easter rebellion commemoration ceremony will take place in Emily Square at 3.00 p.m. Last weeks article showed two photographs from the commemoration held in the same Square in 1966. None of the veterans who were then on parade are alive today but we can do justice to their memory and those of the men of 1916 by recalling and celebrating their involvement in the cause which gave us the freedom we enjoy today.