The Irish Volunteers were formed at a public meeting in the Rotunda, Dublin on 25th November 1913. This followed a meeting in Wynne’s Hotel Dublin eleven days previously when a provisional committee headed up by Eoin MacNeill was appointed. Included on that committee were The O’Rahilly, Bulmer Hobson, P.H. Pearse, Sean McDiarmada, Eamon Ceannt, Sean Fitzgibbon, J.A. Deakin, Pierce Beasley and Joseph Campbell. The initial meeting was called in a response to an article by Eoin MacNeill in which he called on Irish Nationalists to arm themselves in defence of Home Rule. It was also a response, not unexpected, to the earlier arming of the Ulster Loyalists in opposition to Home Rule.
The volunteer movement developed quite rapidly and so far as I can ascertain the first volunteer group in County Kildare was formed in Athy on 9th May, 1914. Volunteers had formed in Carlow town on 30th April and in Portlaoise, then Maryborough, just six days before the Athy group was formed.
Monasterevin and Castledermot volunteer groups followed later that same month and before long every area in South Kildare had a company of Irish Volunteers. The books of reference prepared by the Department of Defence in 1949 for use by the investigation staff of the Bureau of Military History confirms the formation of Irish Volunteer companies in Wolfhill on the 6th of June, Vicarstown on the 2nd June and Ballitore on the 7th of August, 1914.
A report in the Kildare Observer on 8th April 1914 gave a detailed account of Irish Volunteers from South Kildare on manoeuvres.
‘Athy Battalion accompanied by St. Michael’s prize band and St. Patrick’s Band, a mounted troop, ambulance and nursing corps held a route march on Sunday last. Leaving Athy about 3 o’clock 500 strong the four companies under Captains Bergin, Doran, Glespen and O’Brien marched to Moone. On the way Bert, Narraghmore, Foxhill, Kilmead and other units joined the Battalion. A short rest was permitted at Birtown. On arrival at Moone, Castledermot, Belan and local sections received the visitors. A meeting was held subsequently and speeches delivered.’
The occasion appears to have been the recent formation of the Irish Volunteers in Moone and on arrival in the village a public meeting was held chaired by the local curate, Fr. Francis O’Donohue. Fr. O’Donohue, who was ordained two years previously, served as curate in Moone from 1913 to 1921 and died aged 49 years in 1935. Addressing the assembled volunteers he spoke of the spirited enthusiasm in the parish of Moone and how the splendid gathering of volunteers gave an impetus to the volunteer movement. J.B. Deegan of Athy also spoke, warning that the volunteers would get more rifles in spite of the government and ‘when all of the volunteers of the country were armed they would know what to do.’
W.G. Doyle, whom I believe was a school teacher who retired in the late 1950s as principal of Moone National School, welcomed the volunteers. Referring to the Howth gun running following which British soldiers shot and killed a number of civilians on Dublin Quays Mr. Doyle said ‘the lives of three Irish people were lost a few days ago in Dublin by being murdered by Scotch soldiers who should be called the Kings own butchers.’ Concluding Mr. Doyle expressed the hope that his words would have the effect of helping the volunteers to stand together and if necessary ‘to die together in the glorious cause of freedom of Ireland.’
The four volunteer companies from Athy were led by Captains Bergin, Doran, Glespen and O’Brien. Captain Bergin was J.J. Bergin of Maybrook. Glespen was undoubtedly a member of the Glespen family of Duke Street but he has not been positively identified. As for O’Brien I hazard a guess that it was Stephen O’Brien of Emily Square. Doran may have been employed by Minch Nortons and was I believe heavily involved in the local G.A.A. Club. If anyone can confirm any of these details I would be delighted to hear from them.
The Irish Volunteers in Athy not only had infantry corps but also a mounted company as befitting a part of the country where horses were an important part of farming life. Indeed the Volunteer Cavalry Corps of 1914 followed the example of the Volunteers formed in the 1790s when Athy again had a cavalry corps under the leadership of the Duke of Leinster and Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine House.
Athy’s involvement in the Nationalist movement of the pre 1916 period was not limited to the Irish Volunteers. A branch of Cumann na mBan, which was an auxiliary female corps to the Irish Volunteers, was formed in Athy in July 1914. On the following 23rd of August a Fianna Eireann branch was also set up in the town. This was a Nationalist youth organisation first organised in 1909 by Countess Markievicz. Unfortunately I have been unable to get any detailed information on either of these two groups.
I feel that there must be records or documents relating to the local Volunteers, the Cumann na mBan or Fianna Eireann to be discovered in Athy. I would love to hear from anyone who can add to the available knowledge of these nationalist groups who played their part in the events which led to the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921.