The War of Independence Exhibition will open in the Heritage Centre in Athy on Easter Monday, 13th April to coincide with the anniversary of the start of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. It was the coming together of the Irish Volunteers under Padraig Pearse and the Irish Citizen Army under James Connolly in the action centered on the G.P.O. Dublin which in retrospect can justifiably be viewed as the start of the Irish War of Independence. The action of Dan Breen and his colleagues, in shooting to death two middle-aged members of the R.I.C. while they were escorting explosives at Soloheadbeg in Co. Tipperary on 21st January 1919, is usually regarded as the start of the independence struggle. Parliamentary methods had been to the forefront following the debacle of the planned Fenian rising and for 50 years or more a succession of Irish leaders culminating in John Redmond had pursued a non violent approach to Ireland’s call for independence.
The failure of the 1916 rebellion might have remained just that if the English authorities had not executed its leaders. In doing so the English authorities inflamed Irish passions and effectively drove a hitherto docile people to question the right and wrongs of the Irish question. The resulting shift in public opinion, from one of indifference to the demands of the 1916 insurgents to uncritical support for Sinn Fein was a starting point for what was to follow. The Irish War of Independence had started, even if in its early manifestation it merely consisted of meetings, enrolments, drilling and military style manoeuvres. The bloodshed would not come until January 1919 but all that went before was a preparation for the war which would engulf the country from January 1919 to June 1921.
Athy, which had sent so many of its sons to the World War after Kitchener’s call for volunteers in 1914, was not the most likely place to find men willing to join the Irish Volunteers in the fight for Irish independence. A breakaway volunteer group had pulled away from Redmond’s Volunteers, declining to take part in the overseas fight for small nations while their own country was denied Home Rule. The re-grouped Irish Volunteers in South Kildare were included in the newly formed Fifth Battalion Carlow Brigade of the Republican Army I.R.A. which also took in some parts of County Wicklow.
The names of the men from South Kildare who were members of the Irish Volunteers and who played a part in the hostilities during 1919/1921 have not been identified to everyones satisfaction. I am very conscious that some of those who claimed involvement played little or no part, while many who did so did not receive the credit they deserved. One man whose involvement is not in question was John Hayden of Offaly Street, described in the following way in the Nationalist Newspaper after he was sentenced to six months imprisonment in February 1919 for breach of the Defence of the Realm Act. ‘One of the most brilliant pupils turned out by Athy C.B.S. He won a County Council Scholarship – instead of taking his degree as the professional man he has taken out his degree as a rebel.’
It was probably John Hayden’s release from jail the following July which led to a riot in Athy involving demobilised soldiers from the Great War. The Leinster Leader under the headline ‘Disgraceful Riots in Athy’ reported:- ‘His friends organised a reception (for the released prisoners) and he was met at the train by the Leinster Street Band. The temper of demobilised men manifested itself after Sinn Fein held a meeting in the Square. The Union Jack flew over the Post Office and a pony and trap drove through the town decorated with British colours. After this meeting ex soldiers tried to capture the Sinn Fein flag. In less than 5 minutes the town was in an uproar. As many as five or six encounters went on simultaneously with cries of “up the rebels” and “up the khaki” filling the air.’
The following day the holding of a Feis in the Showgrounds Park was the occasion of another riot when some shop premises were damaged, including the cycle shop of Sinn Fein member, J.P. (Bapty) Maher. A banner with Irish lettering erected across Leinster Street for the Feis was taken down by the rioters and brought back to the town Square where it was ceremoniously burned according to a local newspaper ‘to the cheers of the ex soldiers and their wives and children.’ Many years ago when I interviewed a number of local people about this incident there was a marked reluctance to talk of what happened that day. This was because of the alleged sacrilege committed when a badge of the Sacred Heart was committed to the flames with the Feis banner. Indeed a newspaper report of the day confirms that this did happen.
The difficulties facing local men wishing to be involved with the Irish Volunteers can be readily understood but despite this the Volunteer Corps was reasonably active in the South Kildare area. Roads were blocked or trenched and trees were felled in order to disrupt the movement of soldiers, Black and Tans and R.I.C. alike. However the authorities dealt with the problem by press ganging local men into reopening the roads. Applications filed by local men in connection with Military Service Pension applications in the 1950s tended to claim military training, escort duty, blocking roads and the blowing up of Kilmoroney Bridge and Cloney Bridge as the principal activity of the Volunteers in this part of the county. A few could also claim involvement in the May 1921 attack on the Athy R.I.C. Barracks which came six days after the unsuccessful Barrowhouse ambush which resulted in the deaths of James Lacey and William Connor.
The months leading up to the cessation of hostilities in June 1921 saw some of the greatest activity by both sides. The R.I.C. raided houses in Barrowhouse in early May some days before the ill-fated ambush and arrested two young men, Patrick and Peter Dunne. On the first Sunday in June a large force of police and military took over Athy, guarding all the approaches to the town. The occasion was the intended holding of the County Kildare Feis in the Showgrounds. Approximately fifty lorries of soldiers arrived in the town and they took up position with machine guns mounted at vantage points. A number of soldiers and police marched to the Showgrounds where all those in attendance were subjected to a systematic search in which several police men and two female searchers were employed. The Secretary of the Sports Committee, Patrick Conway, who refused to give his name other than in Irish was arrested, as were two other young men. Those arrested were brought to the local Police Barracks then located in Barrack Lane and after some hours were brought with the soldiers when they withdrew from Athy. Within a mile of Kildare town the three prisoners were released and told to walk back to Athy.
Following the truce which came into effect on 11th July 1921 preparations were made for the soldiers, the Tans and the R.I.C. to withdraw. The Nationalist newspaper reported on 11th February 1922:- ‘The process of evacuation still proceeds – the Tans are going ...... on Tuesday evening quite a big batch of the local R.I.C. force left by the 4.35 train for Dublin.’
The R.I.C. Barracks in Athy was finally vacated on Friday, 10th March 1922 when a large number of military lorries and Crossleys arrived in the town. As the lorries drove up Woodstock Street with the last of the R.I.C. men there was a feeble cheer from onlookers. Lorries and Crossleys lined both sides of the street and scores of soldiers marched up and down fully armed until the last R.I.C. man had left. At 12.30 p.m. after the soldiers and policemen had left, Athy Barracks was taken over by Brig. Police Officer Ryan Comdt. Finn, Butler, Police Officer Farrelly and Hugh Eoin McNeill from Headquarters. The tricolour was later hoisted over the Military Barracks which had housed a British Cavalry troop since the 1730s and the Royal Irish Constabulary from the 1890s.
I had written this article before the latest horrific killings in Northern Ireland. A selective study of Irish history will always afford some people an opportunity to justify whatever outrage is committed in the name of Irish independence. Those people, I would suggest, are as representative of the Irish people as were those who rioted in the streets of Athy in July 1919 with shouts of ‘Up the Khaki’.