Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Riot in Athy 19th July 1919

The members of Athy Sinn Fein Club met on 17th July 1919 to make arrangements to mark the release from prison of Sean Hayden of Offaly Street, a prominent Sinn Fein member who had been arrested for possession of Sinn Fein documents and sentenced to six months imprisonment in Mountjoy. Sean Hayden was scheduled to arrive in Athy by train on Saturday 19th July, the day before the Feis Mór Cill Dara was to take place in the local showgrounds. Saturday was also Peace Celebration Day which was intended to be marked by ex-soldiers throughout Ireland. However, the peace celebrations were abandoned in Athy as was the comrades marathon race scheduled for the same day. At about 7.30 p.m. on Saturday the St. Michaels Fife and Drum band, commonly known as the Leinster Street band, headed by a large banner inscribed ‘Poblacht na hÉireann abú’ paraded through the town before marching to the railway station. Outside the Post Office, where a Union Jack had been raised in anticipation of the Peace Celebration Day, a scuffle broke out between some ex-soldiers and Sinn Fein supporters. Afterwards the band and the Sinn Fein supporters proceeded to the Railway Station to meet Sean Hayden. The band on leaving the Railway Station lead a parade down Leinster Street and Duke Street and turned around at the top of Duke Street to return to the Square. The released prisoner, Sean Hayden, was seated in a motor car with two men carrying Sinn Fein flags bringing up the rear of the parade. The ex-soldiers and their supporters booed the Sinn Feiners and attacked the flag bearers at Duke Street, capturing one of the Sinn Fein flags. Uproar ensued and fist fighting broke out with the Sinn Fein supporters calling out ‘Up the Republic’, with the ex-soldiers answering back ‘Up the Khaki’. The melee continued for a time until the Sinn Feiners regrouped and marched to Emily Square having recovered the Sinn Fein flag. Sporadic fist fights took place during the remainder of Saturday evening. Next day the County Feis was held in the local showgrounds, during which a football match was played between Dublin and Kildare. The Feis organised by a local Feis committee under the chairmanship of Fr. F.J. Sheridan C.C. Castledermot passed off without incident. However, later that evening the soldiers band, commonly known as the Barrack Street band, headed by a large number of shouting women and children and followed by many ex-soldiers armed with sticks and waving Union Jacks, marched through Athy’s main streets. However, there were no major disturbances that night. On Monday evening about forty ex-soldiers and their supporters attacked Mrs. Daughen’s house at the top of Duke Street where the local Sinn Fein club rooms were once located. The front door of the house was battered in and the cycle shop on the ground floor rented by J.B. Maher was destroyed. J.B., better known to later generations as ‘Bapty’, was a prominent Sinn Fein member. The rioters reassembled and marched towards Leinster Street lead by a local man carrying a long eel spear. Spanning Leinster Street, outside the home of Bridget Darby who was secretary of the local Gaelic League branch, was a banner erected in connection with the County Feis. The banner included a scroll with the mottos ‘Gan teanga gan tir’ and ‘go maríodh ár nGaeilge’. The banner was torn down by the eel spear carrier and set alight before being carried aloft towards Barrack Street. On the way the rioters halted at Duke Street and held what we are told were hostile demonstrations outside the homes of prominent Sinn Fein members. The local papers reported the weekend events under the headlines: ‘Disgraceful riots in Athy’. The Urban District Council held a special meeting the following morning for the purpose of taking steps to preserve the peace and protect the property of the town against further disturbances. The Councillors with Thomas Plewman dissenting passed a resolution calling on the ‘well disposed citizens of Athy to enrol themselves immediately with the Town Clerk in his office, into a volunteer force to preserve our peace and property and civil liberties’. The minutes of subsequent Council meetings do not disclose any take up of the volunteer resolution. It was perhaps not required as the riot was an exceptional outburst by ex-British soldiers who had enlisted at a time when there was no Sinn Fein club in Athy. On their return from France and Flanders they found Athy practically a Sinn Fein stronghold and as the press speculated ‘it only required some overt act to bring the parties into collision’. Councillor Martin Doyle at the special Council meeting rather strangely claimed that ‘Hayden was the cause of it’. Interestingly Councillor Martin Malone, a publican of Woodstock Street in response to Doyle’s claim stated ‘I was looking at the commencement of it and it was caused altogether by the actions of a woman’.

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