Last week in anticipation of the 1916 commemoration lectures which start this Tuesday, 22nd March, in Athy Community Arts Centre I wrote of the activities in this area of Irish Volunteers from Portlaoise. Despite the fact that many families in Athy and south Kildare were linked by service and by financial dependency on the British Army, the growth of Irish Nationalism in the years preceding the Easter Rising found a ready response in the town.
On 9th May 1914 a local branch of the Irish Volunteers was established in Athy. Within two months Cumann na mBan had a branch in the town and on the 23rd of August 1914 Fianna Eireann was set up in Athy. Not since the days of the 1798 Rebellion had there been such a public display of Irish nationalism in the onetime garrison town.
The First World War and the subsequent split in the Irish Volunteers following John Redmond’s speech in Woodenbridge in September 1914 effectively put a halt to the emerging local Irish Nationalist movement. The attention of church and civic leaders in Athy was concentrated on encouraging the recruitment of young men to join the colours and fight overseas. Indeed in June 1915 Athy Urban District Council directed that a ‘roll of honour’ was to be compiled of the local men who had enlisted in the British Army.
It was no surprise to find that the Easter Rising, which commenced with the seizing of the Dublin G.P.O. on 24th April 1916, was condemned by most public bodies in Ireland as well as by the Irish Hierarchy. Athy’s Board of Guardians in May 1916 passed a resolution ‘condemning the revolution in Dublin’. It was the subsequent execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising which led to a change in the public’s attitude. Another contributory factor was Lloyd George’s Home Rule Bill which was accepted by the Ulster Unionists on condition that six northern counties were excluded.
The public’s response to the release of the 1916 prisoners in December of that year provided further evidence of the growth of support for the Irish Nationalist cause. Republican flags mysteriously appeared on telegraph poles in the South Kildare area following the release of the Irish prisoners from Frongoch and Lewes prisons. On 18th January 1917 a concert was held in Athy Town Hall to raise funds for the families of men ‘who without being charged were torn from their homes and interned’. This coupled with the earlier display of republican flags was the first indication of the existence of a group of Sinn Fein supporters in Athy.
In February 1917 Athy Hibernian players put on a play in the Town Hall and the subsequent press report gave the names of those involved whom it was stated stood to attention at the end of the performance for the singing of ‘A Nation Once Again’. Those named were the first publically identified nationalist sympathisers in Athy and many of them figured prominently in the local Sinn Fein club which was formed in June 1917. They included John Coleman, Joseph Murphy, Bapty Maher, Michael May, Joseph May, Joseph Whelan, W.G. Doyle, Tom Corcoran, Robert Webster, Jack Webster and C. Walsh.
On Thursday 19th July 1917 Athy’s newly established Sinn Fein club organised a concert in the Town Hall in aid of the families of those killed in the Easter Rising. The audience was addressed by Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein. Following the concert rival parties of females shouting ‘up the rebels’ and ‘up the khaki’, the latter being British soldier dependents, paraded through the town displaying Republican flags and the Union Jack. The local press reported on the subsequent scuffles during which a shop window in Duke Street was damaged.
The strength of the local Sinn Fein club was made public when a report of its AGM held in May 1918 was published in the local papers. One hundred members were present to elect Michael Dooley as President, William Mahon as Vice President, P.P. Doyle as treasurer and Joseph May as Secretary.
South Kildare’s involvement on the rebel’s side in the 1916 Rising was marked by the presence of Mark Wilson and Francis Lawler, both of whom were part of the Four Courts garrison under Commandant Edward Daly. Mark Wilson was born in Russelstown, while Frances Lawler lived in Castleroe, Maganey in the post 1916 period. I am uncertain if he was a native of that area and I am awaiting confirmation as to his pre 1916 connections with Castleroe.
On Tuesday 22nd March at 8.00 p.m. in Athy Community Arts Centre James Durney will give the first of the series of lectures organised as part of Athy’s 1916 commemoration. The lecture commences at 8.00 p.m. and admission is free.
Next week I intend to deal in some detail with Mark Wilson and Francis Lawler who fought with the rebels in 1916 and a third Athy man who was on the other side of the armed conflict in Dublin.