Frank Cogan and his wife, Pauline, at the launch of ‘Unsettled Territory’.

North Meath men against the might of empire

'Unsettled Territory - The 5th Battalion (Meath Brigade) in North Meath 1917-1921' by Frank Cogan will stand as an illuminating monument for generations to come. It documents in graphic detail the achievement of the resolute combatants of the War of Independence in Meath, especially the Volunteers of the 5th Battalion, in the area from Kells to Oldcastle.

The author spotlights for us initially formative cultural, political and military aspects of Ireland’s freedom struggle in the Meath context. The key actor in the promotion of the Volunteer movement in Meath was Sean Boylan of Dunboyne. He had fought in the Rising of 1916 and was interned in Frongoch. Sean was a member of the IRB and was a close associate of Michael Collins. He was chairman of Meath GAA County Board and a member of Meath County Council. Along with Seamus Finn of Athboy, his adjutant, he was active countywide in organising the Volunteers. Under cover of an Aeríocht at Dunderry, they set up a Brigade and Battalion structure for the county early in 1918.

There were initially six battalions in the Meath Brigade. The author’s focus is on the 5th Battalion, based in the Kells-Oldcastle area, where his uncle was Commandant. One of the strengths of this book is that the local situation is always set in the overall national context. It is sobering to learn that at the very most, the entire Volunteer membership in Meath was about 1,400 men. But only a minority of those were active. Michael Collins reckoned that in all of Ireland he had only 3,000 active, capable Volunteers.

Contrast this with the British army in Ireland with 60,000 well-armed professional soldiers. Add to that 11,000 armed police of the RIC. The RIC were then reinforced by about 10,000 Black and Tans and a further 1,500 Auxiliaries. Supporting them was the awesome might of the British Empire, which at that time embraced 24 per cent of the earth’s total land area. The British Empire was the largest in history, and for more than a century Britain had been the foremost global power.

And incredibly, in the face of those enormous odds, the Volunteers had almost no arms. Frank Cogan shows the 5th Battalion going out foraging for arms; they raided big houses and local depots where guns were kept. Gradually they built up rudimentary resources, mainly shotguns, rifles and some revolvers – portion of these in bad condition. They had very little ammunition.

Michael Collins and GHQ were eager that Volunteer battalions should separate policing and military functions. It was obviously a waste of resources to have fighting men doing ordinary police work. Frank Cogan gives us a dramatic example of the cost to the Volunteers of such policing duties. This relates to his uncle, Séamus Cogan, Commandant of the entire 5th Battalion. Commandant Cogan and six Volunteers were driving a prisoner convicted by a Sinn Féin court of stealing cattle. At 3am, their vehicle was travelling at speed towards the town centre of Oldcastle – when they ran straight into a British Army patrol of 17 troops. When commanded to halt, Cogan ordered the driver to accelerate. They burst through the cordon of troops. Gunfire exploded at once. The gun battle was deadly. The car got through, in the direction of Mountnugent, but shortly crashed at a bend in the road. Commandant Cogan had been killed instantly, shot in the head and lung. Another Volunteer was seriously wounded. Two of the British military were also injured. The Volunteers escaped, leaving their dead leader in a nearby barn where his body was found the next afternoon.

Frank Cogan then focuses on his uncle’s inquest. At the inquest, the dead man’s younger brother, Patrick, a 19-year-old student teacher, cross-examined the British commanding officer, Lt Ball. Young Patrick Cogan addressed the court in Irish, and then translated into English. He put the case that his brother was acting with the authority of the Irish voters, as an agent of the Irish Republican courts set up by the democratically elected Dáil Éireann, and was engaged in the administration of law and justice; therefore, the Crown forces had acted wrongly in attacking the car. His argument impressed the jury, and the verdict returned was that Séamus Cogan met his death by bullet wounds inflicted by the British military. This was not at all what the police and military would have wanted.

Now clearly the death of Commandant Séamus Cogan was a disaster for the Volunteers and Sinn Féin. But the Volunteers showed real ingenuity in turning this disaster into a triumph. They did this by meticulously organising the biggest funeral ever seen in North Meath, with an attendance of more than 12,000 people. When the front of the funeral was arriving in Ballinlough cemetery, the tail-end was just leaving Kells. The Volunteers made sure that the Crown forces were blocked by cars and traps to the rear on all roads. Full military honours were accorded to Séamus Cogan, including three volleys of shots fired by men of his own Battalion. This was a hugely striking event, a mass show of strength and popular support. The Volunteers defied the RIC and British military, and helped to turn a disaster into a victory.

After Séamus Cogan’s death in July 1920, the conflict in Meath was intensifying. The successful raid by the Volunteers on Trim barracks in September brought a swift reprisal with the burning of part of the town by the RIC and Auxiliaries. Volunteer headquarters, through Sean Boylan, urged the Volunteers in North Meath to become more openly aggressive towards the Crown forces, to ease pressure on the south. The 5th Battalion responded capably. Detailed accounts are given of various skirmishes, clashes and ambushes mounted by them, at Edenburt, Oldcastle, Salford, Sylvan Park and Drumbaragh, some with as many as fifty men involved. For instance, in February 1921, about 20 men of the Carnaross company assembled hurriedly to ambush a lorryload of RIC and Tans returning to Kells after raiding a nationalist hall in Virginia. The ambush took place at Dervor, close to Carnaross. The Volunteers were armed only with shotguns, but they seriously wounded the commanding officer, District Inspector Rowland and also injured two of his force.

The response of the Crown forces to such attacks generally involved increasingly reckless reprisals. In this case, less than a month later, a force of RIC and Tans mounted a sudden raid on the home in Stonefield of Patrick McDonnell, who was Vice-Commandant and Intelligence Officer of the 5th Battalion. Patrick and his brother Tommy were taken by surprise, but they made a run for it out the back door of the farmhouse. As they were running across a neighbouring field, Patrick was gunned down. He was unarmed and posed no threat. However, by now the Crown forces were motivated by vengeance, and this was very likely a reprisal for the Dervor ambush a month earlier which led to the injured District Inspector Rowland having to retire from the RIC.

The final chapter of the book examines the impact of the Civil War in Meath and then gives a fascinating survey of the ways in which the War of Independence has been commemorated in the county oner the subsequent one hundred years. Many familiar Meath figures crop up in the reports of those ceremonies of remembrance recalled here.

The closing episode of the book details the magnanimous gesture of the author who recently sought out the grandnephew of Lt Ball, the British officer who most likely shot his uncle in 1920. We are touched by the moving words of reconciliation and friendship between the author and David Redman, the English kinsman of Lt Ball.

In conclusion, we may observe how appropriate it is that 100 years after Volunteer Séamus Cogan made the ultimate sacrifice for Irish freedom, the dead man’s nephew writes this splendid study. It is an eloquent tribute to the patriotism and valour which inspired Séamus Cogan and his courageous comrades-in-arms. In the current era, when the mighty British Empire is no more, this book demonstrates that there are certain values and ideals inherent in Irish identity, rooted in the very land itself, which remain constant, despite all the odds.