by Tom French and Frances Tallon
Meath County Council published a new edition of Oliver Coogan’s ground-breaking ‘Politics and War in County Meath 1913-23’ as a cornerstone of its celebration of the ‘decade of commemoration’ 2012-2022.
When it first appeared in 1983, it evoked from Con Houlihan in his Tributaries column in the Irish Press, the praise that: “the peaks of history may be seen in parliaments and in battle fields, but much happens quietly that only the patient chronicler can unearth.”
Local political activity was strong in Meath in 1913-16. In February 1914 the first Meath Corps of Irish Volunteers was founded in Kells and Navan soon followed suit. Interest in the Force spread rapidly and by August 1914 fifty-eight corps had formed. Active in Meath and supportive of John Redmond’s Home Rule aims were the United Irish League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Irish National Foresters, the Back to the Land movement and the Meath Labour Union. Following local government elections in 1914, more than 430 members served on various elected bodies, from County Council to Urban and Rural Distinct Councils and Poor Law Unions. Dissatisfaction with the slow progress of Home Rule and anger with Redmond’s call to join the British Army caused a split in the Volunteers. The majority of Meath Volunteers, as National Volunteers, stayed loyal to Redmond while the smaller number, the Irish Volunteers, moved towards a position where it was felt by November 1915, “the rights of Ireland could be defended not by paper resolutions or by mob oratory but by cold steel”.
The Easter Rising was imminent and Meath was a scene of significant action.
Coogan in addressing the Battle of Ashbourne on 28 April, 1916, left his readers in no doubt as to the centrality of this event in the history of the Rising in county Meath:
“It could be argued that the shoot-out between police and Volunteers just north of Ashbourne .... has no place in an account of county Meath. The insurgents in question were not Meath men but rather the Fingal Volunteers drawn from the Swords-Lusk-Skerries areas. But this would ignore two fundamental facts: firstly, the scene of the fighting around Rath Cross is actually within the boundaries of Meath, and secondly, the police forces on duty that day were almost without exception drawn from barracks in Meath.”
Thomas Ashe commanded the battalion which included Richard Mulcahy, Frank Lawless and Richard Hayes. En route to cut the railway line carrying troops from Athlone to Dublin the battalion saw an opportunity to take the Ashbourne RIC barracks and secure additional arms. When this was almost achieved RIC reinforcements arrived and the battle was prolonged to over five hours’ duration.
Two Volunteers, Thomas Rafferty and John Crenigan, were killed, and five were wounded. On the RIC side, both County Inspector Gray and District Inspector Smyth were killed in the action. Sergeant John Shangher (Navan), Sergeant John Young (Killyon) and Constables James Hickey (Kells), Richard McHale (Crossakiel), James Gormley (Longwood) and James Clery (Moynalty) were also killed. A chauffeur, Albert George Keep, employed by the Marquis of Conyngham whose car was commandeered to drive police to the scene, was also shot and later died of his injuries. About 20 constables were wounded.
Coogan notes that, while the Ashbourne conflict represented the heaviest fighting to have taken place anywhere in Ireland outside of Dublin, only about a dozen participants and sympathisers were arrested with most being released again after a short time.
On Easter Sunday 1916 a large number of Volunteers mobilised on the Hill of Tara. They dispersed and returned home on hearing MacNeills’s countermanding order. Later in the week a group from Dunboyne tried to make its way to the city centre although this did not prove possible.
Those from Meath who lost their lives in the Rising are listed in The Last Post, Republican Dead 1913-1975:
Allen, Thomas, Hill of Down, Co Meath: mortally wounded at the Four Courts 29-4-16: buried near the Hill of Down, Kilglass, Co Meath.
McCormack, James, Julianstown, Co Meath: killed in action near Liberty Hall, Dublin, 28-4-16: buried 1916 Plot, St Paul’s, Glasnevin.
Clarke, Philip, Slane, Co Meath: killed in action at St Stephen’s Green, 25-4-16: buried in St. Brigid’s, Glasnevin.
Seamus Fox, aged 16, was also killed. Fox was a native of Drumree where his father had owned the Spencer Arms Hotel until he sold it in 1915.
Brian O’Higgins (” hUigínn), Kilskyre, author and publisher, was among the most prominent of those Meath men who fought in and survived the 1916 Rising. ” hUigínn’s self-sacrifice in his early career as a travelling teacher of Irish and organiser for the Gaelic League in Meath and Cavan is noteworthy. He saw active service in the GPO in 1916 and was later interned in Stafford gaol and in Frongoch. He was elected Sinn Féin TD for West Clare in 1918 and held his seat until 1927. He opposed the Treaty and in 1923-24 and was interned in Mountjoy and the Curragh. His political life was, perhaps, later overshadowed by the blend of traditionalist Catholicism and inflexible republicanism he came to represent.
Francis Ledwidge, the Slane poet, chose a different path. He was a founder member of the Meath Labour Union, Slane branch, in 1906 and of the local Volunteer corps in 1914. However, he strongly opposed Redmond’s policies and leadership. As an elected member of Navan Rural District Council he was the only one to vote against a pro-Redmond motion in October 1914, declaring that Ireland was “just as far from Home Rule as ever”. At a meeting of the Navan Board of Guardians, of which he was also a member, he was accused, in late October 1914, of being pro-German in his outlook and sympathies.
Following this charge he enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. He saw Germany as the common enemy and was convinced that the war would be of short duration and that his military training would later benefit the Volunteer movement. Neither conviction was realised as Ledwidge was killed in July 1917 while road laying in preparation for a third battle at Ypres.
In May 1916 while on convalescent leave in Slane, Ledwidge’s friend Thomas MacDonagh was sentenced to death in Richmond barracks for his part in the Easter Rising. Ledwidge had enlisted at that barracks and British soldiers, in the uniform he had chosen to wear for patriotic reasons, carried out the execution. Seamus Heaney captures the “literary, sweet-talking, countrified” and undoubtedly deeply conflicted Ledwidge:
In you, our dead enigma, all the strains
Criss-cross in useless equilibrium
(. . . )
Though all of you consort now underground.
In the aftermath of the Rising Coogan concludes:
To many it was (and still is) the high point of Irish history. But at the time it was a far different story. Politicians, clergy, journalists and so on, were certainly very vocal and outspoken in Meath: vocal, that is, in suppression of the Rising and outspoken in their condemnation of the rebels and their cause. The Meath public seemed to have been in agreement. In the immediate aftermath of the Rising there was no gesture or statement to indicate sympathy with the event. Quite the opposite, in fact, as both local newspapers remarked on the large attendances at the funerals of the dead policemen. And at the Navan Petty Sessions in May, the magistrates congratulated the people of the town on “their admirable demeanour on the night of 28 April... we never doubted that their respectability and common sense were such that their conduct could not have been excelled by any community in the Empire”.
As new information from the Military Archives reveals, a very different series of events could have unfolded at Oldcastle in north Meath on Easter Sunday night 1916, had MacNeill not issued his countermanding order.
The following account comes from Donal O’Hannigan, Padraig Pearse’s officer commanding the north east:
“I left Dundalk on 6th April 1916 and went on to Oldcastle where I met Sean Nolan who was employed by Maguire & Gatchells. He was working at the internment Camp then there, where about 300 German prisoners were interned. I had a letter in German for one of the internees who was well known to our people in Dublin and who obtained for me a plan of the prison inside and the number of German prisoners who would be prepared to fight with us provided we released them. Having procured the plan and information that 50 German prisoners were ready to throw in their lot with us, I reported to Sean McDermott and informed him that I could capture the place with 30 men. This I had intended to do on Easter Sunday night and fixed the hour 10.30pm. I discussed this with Eamon Kent O/C 4th Batt. who gave me Garry Byrne Lieut of C Company.” The Easter Rising happened locally. That it happened when, as Thomas Kettle wrote, “we fools / [were dying] not for a flag, nor King, nor Emperor, / but for a dream” is remarkable and unremarkable.
As a new world was forming, Oldcastle found itself home to Irish insurgents, British troops and German civilian internees. As the decade of commemoration unfolds, the history of the meeting of these forces will continue to challenge and exercise the minds of patient chroniclers.
* An introduction by Tom French and Frances Tallon of Meath County Library Service for the 1916 2016 Centenary Programme in the county.