Dr. Caroline McGee, Inspiring Ireland Project Creative Lead, paints a picture of insurgent activity around the country during the Easter Rising using objects and documents in Ireland's national cultural institutions, public service broadcaster and private collections.
Published: March 14, 2016
During Easter Week 1916, although the leaders of the Rising had planned a countrywide insurrection, Dublin became the epicentre of activity. The aim of a national rebellion was scuppered by a munitions shortage and uncertainty about whether the Rising would take palce. The first of these difficulties emerged on April 20 when the captain of a weapons-filled German-registered ship the 'Aud', deliberately scuttled his vessel as it was about to be intercepted by the Royal Navy off the south-west coast of Ireland. The man who coordinated this gun-running exercise, Roger Casement, was arrested the next day at McKenna's Fort, Ardfert, county Kerry, and subsequently executed.
In Dublin, Irish Volunteers chief-of-staff Eoin MacNeill, fearful of official plans to suppress the organisation, issued an order countermanding the call to arms from the military council led by Patrick Pearse. In order to keep Bulmer Hobson, a man who was central to the development of nationalism in Ulster but opposed the Rising, from finding out that the Rising would go ahead in spite of MacNeill’s countermand, he was ‘kidnapped’ on Good Friday. He spent the weekend imprisoned in Martin Conlan’s house in Phibsborough guarded by fellow Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) member Mortimer O’Connell. On Easter Monday as news began to reach members of the Volunteers and Cumann na mBan (The Irishwomens’ Council) around the country, confusion reigned. Although arrangements coutrywide - from Cork to Limerick to Tyrone - were well advanced, varied numbers of Volunteers turned out to fight on April 24 as the rebels took control of the country's capital. As a result, the Rising in the regions was more a widely dispersed affair with counties Galway, Meath, Louth and Wexford seeing the most activity in terms of combat - with mixed results.
Action in Galway was concentrated in the east of the county where Liam Mellows had been sent in March 1915 to organise the Volunteers. Born in Lancashire in 1892 to Irish parents but raised in County Wexford Mellows had had some military training and was a member of the IRB. A key event was the occupation of Lady Ardilaun’s home at Moyode Castle, Craughwell. According to Frank Hynes, captain of the Athenry Volunteers, the castle was chosen as it was felt that the men could defend it until their ammunition was spent and because 'there was no trouble in capturing it’ with only a caretaker present.
The man in question was John Sheckleton who had been in Lady Ardilaun’s employment for ten years prior to the Rising. He, his wife, and daughter were the only occupants of the castle when it was stormed early on the morning of April 25, 1916 by approximately 500 Irish Volunteers from Claregalway and Castlegar, armed with a limited number of rifles, revolvers, shotguns and pikes. The castle was occupied for three days and nights but by April 29, when the surrender was announced in Dublin, the rebels had returned to their homes having run out of supplies. The castle was then reoccupied – this time by the British Army and some of the 200 RIC men from Northern Ireland who were drafted into the east Galway area to assist the local police force in quelling rebel activity. Shackleton and his family were brought by Loughrea police to Dublin where they were made to identify the rebels and give evidence against them. The Volunteers were subsequently rounded up, arrested, and imprisoned in England and Scotland before being interned in Frongoch, Wales until Christmas 1916. Mellows hid out in County Clare before escaping to Liverpool disguised as a nun, from where he set sail for New York. While there, he worked for John Devoy's Gaelic American newspaper before being arrested in October 1917 for attempting to get to Germany to buy arms.
On his return to Craughwell hostility towards Sheckleton was so intense he had to have police protection and finally, to leave the area when he became unemployed and his wife suffered ‘a nervous breakdown due to fright and disturbance’. Through his solicitor Nathaniel Tughan, he claimed a sum of £169 11s from the Property Losses (Ireland) Committee for loss of fowl, furniture, hay and personal effects – items ‘the Military and Police took possession of, consumed, destroyed and injured’ while occupying Moyode; he also made a separate claim for £28 for damage inflicted by the rebels. Sheckleton’s PLIC files documents the lengthy battle he waged to receive compensation: in total he received just £38 16s. By contrast, a claim by Lady’s Ardilaun’s land agent, for destruction by insurgents of garden produce and garden utensils at the Castle, was paid in full.
Activity elsewhere in the country was largely confined to the east side of the country. In Fingal, north of the capital, the 5th Dublin battalion of Irish Volunteers (numbering approximately sixty) were under the command of one of the group’s founding members, Kerry native Thomas ('Tom') Ashe (1885- 1917), a key player in the IRB and member of the Gaelic League. Assisted by Richard Mulcahy, Charlie Weston and Frank Lawless, Ashe's first objective was to sever communications between Fingal and its hinterland, which took in counties Kildare, Meath, and Louth, by damaging the railway lines serving Lusk and Fairyhouse, the latter being the location for the traditional Easter Monday horse racing event that would be attended by many British Army officers.
Initially mobilising at Knocksedan (near Swords) on instructions from Pearse that were carried to the base by Cumann na mBan member Mollie Adrian, the Volunteers (among them Lawless’ sons James and Joseph) were organised into ‘flying columns’ and charged with attacking Royal Irish Constabulary police barracks in the villages of Balbriggan, Donabate, Garristown and Swords. The Battle of Ashbourne, which took place on the Friday of Easter week, while of short duration (a mere five hours) brought about the highest number of deaths and casualties outside Dublin: two Volunteers and eight RIC men killed and almost a dozen more men between the two sides injured. The success of the rebels was attributed by Charles Townshend to the ‘simple, classical manoeuvre [of surrounding one’s enemy and…] the skill and alertness’ of those involved, assisted by a favourable local topography that was kept under surveillance by Joe Lawless using field glasses.
Ashe was subsequently interned in Lewes prison (many Fingallians were also incarcerated there and in Dartmoor and Frongoch detention centres). He was released in 1917 but rearrested and charged with sedition for speaking at a Sinn Féin meeting in Ballinalee, County Longford during that year’s by-election campaign; he died on hunger strike in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin on 25 September 1917. The contribution of Ashe’s sister Nora to the 1916 Rising is not as apparent as that of her fellow country-women who were members of Cumann na mBan. However it is clear that events during and as a consequence of Easter Week 1916, particularly the death of her beloved brother, laid the foundations for Nora's political activism. One of the first tasks she undertook was to sell tickets for an auction to raise money for the construction of the Ashe Memorial Hall, Tralee, Co. Kerry (now Kerry County Museum): one of the prizes was the dispatch motorcycle used by Tom Ashe during Easter Week. Later, during the War of Independence, in Nora’s own words she 'did odd jobs for Tom Clarke and others [and]...During the Black and Tan period took messages from Limerick to Dublin’.
The failure to achieve a nationwide Rising has been attributed to poorly laid plans and the absence of adequate amounts of arms but as Ferghal McGarry has noted, other more complex reasons included ‘poor communications, and more deep-rooted differences between provincial leaders and the organisers over the viability of an insurrection’. These polarised opinions would come to have a lasting and dramatic impact in the years that followed 1916 as Ireland moved into a new phase of battle to secure independence from Britain, a conflict that led to civil war and a political legacy that carried through almost to the present day.
Roy Foster, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890 - 1923, (London, 2015)
Keith Jeffreys, 1916: A Global History, (London, 2015)
Lucy McDiarmid, At Home in the Revolution: what women said and did in 1916, (Dublin, 2015)
Ferghal McGarry, The Rising: Ireland Easter 1916, (Oxford, 2010)
Sonia Paseta, Irish Nationalist Women 1900 - 1918, (Cambridge, 2014)
Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, (London, 2005)
About the author:
Caroline McGee is the Project Creative Lead of Inspiring Ireland 1916. She recently completed her PhD in modern Irish history at Trinity College Dublin. She has wide-ranging experience as a curator of Irish cultural heritage assets and in managing digital collections. She also lectures and writes on Irish art and architectural history and the application of new media technologies to research, teaching and learning and is a Council member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.