The 1916 Series: The Battle of Ashbourne
One of the most significant events of the 1916 Easter Rising outside of Dublin took place in Ashbourne on 28th April, when the ‘Battle of Ashbourne’ took place at Rath Cross. This was commemorated with a State Ceremonial Event on Easter Monday 2016, at which Tanaiste, Joan Burton, was guest speaker.
In April 1916, as Pearse and Connolly contemplated surrender in the GPO, Thomas Ashe and his Volunteers were on the cusp of a great victory at Ashbourne. It proved to be the only victory for the Volunteers in 1916.
The victory was claimed by the Fifth Battalion of the Dublin Volunteers. The events at Ashbourne were the cause of great angst among the Volunteers in the Royal County as they played no part in them. Indeed, it was ironic that the man who led the disintegration of the Meath Volunteers, James Quigley, was present at the battle and played a major part in tending to the wounded and the dying on both sides.
As in all cases of war, to the victor goes the spoils and following Ashbourne, the name of Thomas Ashe always springs to mind.
Thomas Ashe was born in Lispole, Co Kerry in 1885 and became principal of Corduff National School, Lusk, Co Dublin, in 1908. He took an active part in the resurgence of all things Irish which was sweeping Ireland. He was a member of Conradh na Gaeilge, The Black Raven Pipe Band, the Volunteers, and was inducted into the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Ashe rose rapidly through the ranks and was Commandant of the Fifth Battalion which in turn was part of the Dublin Brigade. He assumed the role from Dr Richard Hayes. This Battalion consisted mainly of Volunteers from Lusk, St Margaret’s, Skerries and Donabate.
Their mission in 1916 was to secure a safe passage for the Volunteers should they have to retreat from Dublin. They were also to be involved in diversionary tactics to cause confusion in the ranks of the British. Ashe and his Volunteers were different from the other Volunteers in Ireland, every member had to possess a bicycle, allowing them to move silently and speedily, not only by day, but also by night.
Easter Week had a disastrous beginning. Eoin MacNeill had cancelled the manoeuvres planned for Easter Sunday when he heard that Roger Casement had been captured and the Aud had been scuttled. Ashe, being a member of the IRB, ignored MacNeill and took his Fifth Battalion out on manoeuvres to Knocksedan. He received a message from Connolly: “All was off for the moment, but hold in readiness to act at any time”. Ashe disbanded his men and told them to be ready to turn out at any moment.
On Monday 24th April, a dispatch rider arrived with a message for the Fifth Battalion from PH Pearse: ”Strike today at one o’clock”. Ashe sent men out to destroy the Great Northern Railway Bridge at Rogerstown, while more were sent to capture soldiers returning from Fairyhouse, with no success. That night they camped at Finglas. Ashe lectured his men that they were now soldiers of the Irish Republic.
On Tuesday, the Fifth Battalion had to send 20 men to Connolly, but were joined by Richard Mulcahy who was to play a major part in the events of the week. On Wednesday, they attacked the barracks at Swords and destroyed the telephone exchange in the post office. At Swords they also captured a van from Kennedy’s Bakery, which they brought back to their camp. Moving quickly on their bicycles, they set out to capture Donabate barracks. Donabate was more difficult to capture but after a sharp battle, the RIC surrendered. Surprise was a major part of the Fifth Battalion’s tactics. On Tuesday they moved to capture Garristown and arrived at the ungodly of 2am. only to find that the barracks had been evacuated and all men and weapons had been moved to the larger station at Balbriggan.
They set up camp at Baldwinstown that night where signs of unrest began to appear in the ranks of the Volunteers, with complaints of the Rising being a failure as there was very little activity outside Dublin. Calling the men together, Ashe told any doubters to leave immediately, and only two departed. Contact was made with Fr Kelvehan, son of an Old Fenian, who blessed them and asked God to protect them in the days ahead. As if eager to put the events of Baldwinstown behind them, Ashe moved camp again that day and took over a deserted farmhouse at Borranstown near Ashbourne. That night Ashe, Mulcahy, Dr Hayes and JV Lawless decided that they would travel to Batterstown to destroy the railway line from Athlone to Dublin.
On Friday 28th April, Ashe and his Volunteers, who now numbered less than 50 men, set out for Batterstown. As they approached Rath Cross they noticed unusual activity around Ashbourne barracks. Unknown to Ashe, Inspector McCormac from Dunshaughlin had reinforced the station with constables from Navan, Dunshauglin and Dunboyne. Three of these were busy erecting a barricade on the road to Garristown.
At 10.30am, the Volunteers opened fire on the three constables who promptly surrendered. One scampered over a hedge and made off, the other two were prisoners of the Volunteers. Mulcahy, who by now was recognised as the military tactician, decided that Ashbourne barracks must be captured to ensure safe passage to Batterstown. This was to prove difficult as the only access to the building was from the front. The constables refused to surrender. Mulcahy attacked from the front but with no success. As a last resort, he called on Volunteer Blanchfield to prime his homemade canister bomb and throw it at the front door. Blanchfield carried out his orders, but the bomb fell short, after what seemed an eternity it exploded with a terrible bang. The terrified policemen had enough, a white flag appeared and they surrendered to Mulcahy.
As Mulcahy was about to accept the surrender, a shot was heard coming from a sentry at Rath Cross. A large convoy of cars was approaching from the Slane direction. In the confusion, Mulcahy lost his prisoners who quickly retreated back into the barracks and bolted the door.
Ashe, seeing the heavy reinforcements from Slane, decided that they should retreat and ordered young Lawless to get ready the bicycles. The cause of all the confusion was the arrival of Alexander ‘Baby’ Gray and 57 highly trained constables. Gray who was the County Inspector for Meath, had trained a ‘special response’ force to deal with the threat of the Volunteers.
He based them in Slane. On Easter Sunday, the strategically important bridge at Slane had been captured for a brief period by the Dundalk Volunteers. News reached Gray that Ashbourne was under siege. He sprung into action and piled his special response force into 17 cars, commandeered from the gentry and merchants.
Convoy from Slane
At 11am, the convoy set out from Slane for Ashbourne. Gray sat in the first car, District Inspector Smyth, Navan, in the last. Each constable wore a helmet and carried a rifle. Sometime around noon the convoy approached Rath Cross. The sentry posted by Ashe at Rath Cross fired a warning shot which not only startled Mulcahy, who was about to accept the surrender of the constables in the barracks, but also the approaching convoy. The driver in the lead car stopped suddenly, bringing the whole convoy to a shuddering halt. Mulcahy realised that the convoy was trapped. He ordered JV Lawless, who was preparing the bicycles for retreat to Borranstown, to cover the rear of the convoy, there was to be no retreat. Gray was the first casualty, he was shot in both arms and seems to have been unable to take any part in battle. It fell to DI Smyth to lead the beleaguered police. He rushed up and down the line trying to encourage his men. It was futile, police lay writhing in agony on the road and in the ditches. Smyth’s bravery was to no avail. He suffered the same fate as many of his colleagues. A bullet pierced his head. His death left his men leaderless and dispirited. They raised their arms and surrendered.
Eight of their members lay dead or dying on the roadside, as did two civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fifteen constables were badly wounded. The Volunteers lost two members, Thomas Rafferty and John Crenigan.
The RIC in Meath were left leaderless. Gray had received fatal wounds, Smyth lay dead in a ditch, Sergeant Shanagher, Navan, and Sergeant Young of Ashbourne were also dead.
Ashe was magnanimous in victory. He ordered the Volunteers to bring the wounded to their field hospital where they were treated by Dr Hayes, who was also the Adjutant to the Fifth Battalion. Dr Byrne of Slane, who was prisoner of the Volunteers, was pressed into service. James Quigley, Meath County Surveyor and one time French Legionnaire assisted the wounded. No prisoners were taken, the RIC men were left to return home. The wounded were put in the cars of the convoy and brought to Navan Infirmary, and the dead policemen were placed in the washroom of Ashbourne police station where they lay until the following day.
On Saturday morning, the dead were brought by lorry to Navan. On Sunday, the horror of war was apparent to all in Navan, as eight coffins lay in front of the High Altar in St Mary’s Church.
Thomas Ashe was arrested in 1917 and tried by court martial. His death sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. He died, after a botched force feeding while on hunger strike, on 25th September 1917.
* From an Ashbourne Historical Society talk to Navan and District Historical Society, February 2016.