27 April 2006

The Easter Rising: As seen through the pages of the 'Western People'

Western People

By James Laffey
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

News of the 1916 Rising was slow to reach the West of Ireland but when it finally did it had a seismic effect on public opinion, writes James Laffey

THE First sign that something was awry in Dublin came on Tuesday morning, April 25th, 1916, when neither letters nor newspapers arrived in Ballina. It was only then that the people of the town became aware of the grave events that had taken place in the capital city during the previous 24 hours. But details of the Easter Rising were still sketchy, to say the least.

The Western People admitted in its edition of Saturday, April 29th, that it was unable to offer any definitive information on the events in Dublin.

“We have not the means of knowing at this writing how matters actually stand, for all communication with the metropolis by rail or newspaper or letter has been absolutely cut off since Monday, and we are perforce living, as it were, on a desert island...there have been so many rumours born of the wild excitement of the moment that one cannot well say how near they approximate to the truth, or if they have any foundation in fact at all.”

The confused state of affairs was reflected in some of the information that was published in that first edition after the Easter Rising. It was claimed that 25,000 men - ten times the actual figure - had “assembled in great force in the city” and seized a number of key public buildings. The newspaper went on to report that 10,000 soldiers “armed to the teeth with rifle and cannon’ were landed in Dublin on Wednesday, April 26th, and a gun boat had been brought up the Liffey to shell Liberty Hall.

The information deficit in the West of Ireland had not been helped by the cutting of the Midland rail-line between Dublin and Mullingar. The Western People reported that no trains were travelling from Dublin and it had now reached the stage where “the wildest rumours of every kind have been in circulation”. Even the news on casualty figures was woefully inadequate. Official reports were stating that the number of deaths did not exceed ten or twelve, five of these being soldiers.

One of the few parts of the country from where the Western People had received reasonably accurate information was Galway. The newspaper’s North Galway reporter had forwarded a “special dispatch” on the two o’clock train from Tuam to Ballina on Friday, April 28th, four days after the Rising began in Dublin. The reporter revealed that news had reached Galway of an attempt to land arms in the south of Ireland, resulting in the arrest of Sir Roger Case-ment. The dispatch also contained details of a minor skirmish involving Sinn Féin supporters in Oranmore as well as a more serious incident at Carranmore, between Loughgeorge and Oranmore, which resulted in the shooting of a policeman. There were also ominous reports coming from Athenry where 1,500 Sinn Fein members had marched on the Department’s Model Farm before leaving in the direction of Gort. The presence of such a large contingent of Sinn Fein personnel in the Athenry area was undoubtedly the reason for another incident that was reported in the dispatch from the industrious North Galway reporter - shelling had been heard in Galway city on Wednesday afternoon. The shells had been fired from a light cruiser in Galway Bay and they had been “hurled through the air in the Athenry direction”.

But it would be several days before a clearer picture of the events in Dublin and elsewhere would emerge. One can almost sense the bewilderment and fear that pervaded the West of Ireland as one “wild rumour” after another emanated from Dublin.

“The Volunteers have been called upon to surrender within a time limit, and if they refuse the streets of Dublin, it is to be feared, may run red with blood,” noted the Western People’s editorial. “This would be a tragic ending to a tragic movement, tragic in the sense of the infinite harm it has already done the country and the resultant harm which must follow.”

The newspaper was quick to point the figure of blame at Sir Edward Carson whose gun-running expeditions on behalf of the Ulster Volunteers had provoked “treason and revolution”.

“If he had been properly dealt with as a conspirator against the safety of the realm what happened in Dublin this week would have been made impossible...The interests of Ireland have been gravely imperilled by what has taken place; another tragic moment in our fate seems to have arrived.”

News from Dublin was more readily available by the time the Western People hit the streets on Saturday, May 6th, 1916. At that stage, the rebels had surrendered and some sort of normality was beginning to return to the streets of Dublin. Eyewitness accounts were also beginning to filter back to the West of Ireland.

One of the first people to escape the carnage in Dublin was Mr Waters, of the Provincial Bank in Ballina, who miraculously managed to leave the city on the evening of the Rising. He told the Western People that everything had been normal in Dublin up to 12 noon on Easter Monday when he saw a company of Lancers being fired into as they passed down the street. Mr Waters eventually managed to depart the city after he was granted a permit by the Volunteers who, at that stage, were in “almost complete possession” of Dublin.

Others were not so fortunate and they remained trapped in the capital for the entire duration of the Rising. A Moygownagh man, named McAndrew, told the Western People that he had got out of the city on Monday, May 1st, and had cycled all the way to Ballina. He said his experience was a very frightening one - “between fires and crashing houses and people being shot down.”

Another man from Ballina, Mr Robert Hunter, of Crofton Park, had been staying in Clontarf when the Rising occurred and he reported a “stiff fight” on Howth Bridge. He said the greatest inconvenience suffered by the residents of Clontarf was a scarcity of food and provisions. For some days no meat could be procured and the price of foodstuffs went up tremendously.

Mr Hunter revealed that he had visited O’Connell Street after the Rising and found it to be “nothing but a mass of smoking ruins”. All the dead bodies had been removed off the streets but carcasses of several horses were lying about in the vicinity of the Parnell monument.

“It was an experience,” said Mr Hunter, “that I would not like to undergo again, and I was very glad when I got my heels out of the city.”

There was certainly no celebration of the Easter Rising in the edition of the Western People on May 6th. Indeed, the opposite was the case: the rebellion in Dublin was condemned as a “mad enterprise” that had bequeathed a “legacy of misery” to the city of Dublin.

“Ruined homes, broken families, countless orphans - this is the saddest part of the affair, and where the real pity of it lies, and most of all in relation to the poor, many of them being now without their bread-winners.”

The newspaper reflected on the negative impact of the Rising in Co Mayo where there was little buying or selling of stock at fairs beyond purely local transactions. No buyers had attended the fair at Balla on the previous day and a similar scenario was expected to unfold at the “great Ballina fair” of May 12th.

“If the indirect losses, as we may call them, total up to a very formidable figure already, the direct losses are appalling in their character. Capt. Purcell, head of the Dublin fire brigade, estimates the damage done to property in the city at two million pounds, inclusive of losses of stock. How the capital can ever recover from the setback it has received looms into a very serious proposition.”

The editorial was scathing in its condemnation of those in the Sinn Fein party who had fraternised with the German government in advance of the Rising.

“...it is best and most charitable to say of them that their failure has come as an open blessing rather than as one in disguise, because we can conceive of no greater misfortune that could befall us than that our lives and liberty should be placed at the mercy of a despot whose crimes against other small nations in the war cry aloud to Heaven for venegance.”

The dissatisfaction in the county at the events in Dublin was also evident in a report from Charlestown in which it was stated that news of the surrender of the Sinn Fein forces had been greeted with “much jubilation”.

“The local band paraded the town, accompanied by the Boy Scouts, carrying at their heads a Belgian flag, and the streets of the town were brilliantly illuminated with electric lamps. Since the first intelligence of the revolt was received the people of the district viewed the affair with equanimity, but condemned it in vigorous terms.”

But for all the condemnation of the Easter Rising there were subtle hints at a change in attitude amongst the general public. The edition of May 6th carried numerous reports of wholesale arrests throughout the region. In Claremorris, Mr Peter O’Rourke, a native of Co Sligo, and a well-known commerical traveller had been brought before the local magistrate on a charge of prejudicing his Majesty’s relations with foreign powers. The reporter noted that Mr O’Rourke was “an exceedingly popular man on the road” who had been arrested as he boarded the train in Claremorris.

Meanwhile the arrest of another well-known man in Claremorris, hotel proprietor, John T. Jordan, was described as causing a “terrible sensation”.

In Cong, Colum O’Leary, a well-known Gaelic League organiser, was taken into custody, while in Kiltimagh, John Corcoran was charged with attempting to cause sedition or disaffection among the civil population.

But the greatest number of arrests took place in Westport when 98 Volunteers, headed by the Boy Scouts, marched through the streets of the town on Sunday, April 30th, only hours after the rebels surrendered in Dublin. Some of the men displayed rifles and although they were not arrested on the spot they were rounded up on Monday morning. A total of ten men were arrested: Messrs Gannon and Gavin (teachers in the Brothers schools); Thomas Ralph, railway porter; Thos and Michael Derrig, J. McDonagh, Michael Duffy, J. Ruddy, Owen Hughes, Aughagower, and M.J. Ring, Drumindoo. The newspaper reported that the men were conveyed to Castlebar jail by a force of 40 armed police.

The public outrage that had been evident in the immediate aftermath of the Rising was clearly abating and questions were now being directed at the military who were making summary arrests all over the country. There was also sympathy in some quarters for the rebels and one article in the Western People of May 6th reflected the changing mood. It was penned by a correspondent of the Press Association who had witnessed the deportation of the first batch of prisoners to England.

“There were certainly a few amongst them who would be classed as intellectuals - tall, clean cut looking men, whose avocations in life were probably to be found in the professions. It was a mixed crowd, representing almost all classes of the community. But the most surprising thing of all was their demeanour, notwithstanding their miserable condition, firmly stamped upon their faces. Some went jauntily below, while others, with set lips and stern faces, walked between the onlookers, looking to neither one side nor the other.

“There was a striking incident when a young Sinn Fein officer, who could be not much more than 20, came on board. He was wearing the full uniform of the Irish Volunteers, with cap, Sam Browne belt, and pack. Standing six feet in height, with a clean, open countenance, he calmly folded his arms and stood on deck in the glare of the light of an officer’s electric torch. There was no evidence of fear written upon his face; it reflected nothing but determination...It was impossible not to admire the youth’s dignity of bearing.”

*** ***

By the time the next edition of the Western People appeared on the streets on May 13th the situation in Ireland had changed dramatically. Twelve of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion had been executed by court martial and fears were rising of further death sentences being imposed on Sinn Fein members.

News of the executions in Dublin were compounded by the ever-increasing military activity throughout the West of Ireland. The newspaper reported that 800 military personnel were now stationed in Castle-bar following the arrival of reinforcements earlier in the week. Special troop trains had conveyed to the town half a battalion of the North Stafford-shire Regiment, and 250 men of the 16th and 17th Lancers, together with machine guns, light artillery, armoured motor cars and transport. It was noted that all of the men had taken part in quelling the recent Dublin Rising.

“The arrival of the soldiers created a great stir in the town, and big crowds have watched them drilling on the Mall...The arrival of the military was kept a dead secret, even from the police.”

The reinforcements were badly needed in Castlebar as the number of republicans in the county jail grew with every passing day. Westport continued to be one of the hardest hit towns in the region with the arrest of 18 men on the morning of May 10th. They were conveyed to Castlebar Prison where, it was stated, they would be tried by court marital. It was said that they did not comply with the Lord Lieu-tenant’s Proclamation and failed to hand up their arms.

There were also “sensational developments” in Ballaghaderreen with the arrival in the early hours of May 11th of a detachment of troops. They arrested more than 20 young men and commandeered the local St Mary’s Hall as their headquarters. It was reported that a vigorous search was made in the various houses visited by the military, resulting in the seizure of six or seven “antiquated” rifles and two Irish volunteer uniforms.

“Though the raid was not wholly unexpected it came as a great surprise to many people,” noted the reporter. “No resistance was offered to the operations of the military, who were heavily armed.”

The arrests continued apace. In Castlebar, Mr John Hoban, a blacksmith from Linenhall Street, who was said to be a commander in the local corps of Sinn Fein Volunteers, and Mr Mike McHugh, a foreman in Heverin’s drapery establishment, were arrested in their beds. On the same morning, May 10th, police and military forces visited Balla and arrested Dick Walsh, Pat Fallon, J. Reilly, M. Golding Jnr and P. Keville. It was claimed that the arrests in Balla and Castlebar were the result of a recent “seizure” of arms in Balla.

The spotlight was also beginning to belatedly fall on some of the men who had been executed in Dublin. The edition of May 13th carried a detailed report of the midnight wed-ding of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford, who were married at Richmond Barracks before Plunkett was sent to his death in the stone-breakers yard at Kilmainham Gaol. The same report also noted that Ms Gifford’s sister was married to another of the executed lead-ers, Thomas MacDonagh, who was the father of two young children - a boy, aged three years, and a girl, aged 18 months. Elsewhere in the newspaper, a headline proclaimed the latest news from the capital: ‘Four More Shot --Eamonn Ceannt among the executed’.

The editorial of the same edition reflected the sense of unease and anger that was starting to sweep the country.

“The executions which have taken place in Dublin, where twelve of the leaders of the recent rising have been shot, have begun to cause beyond doubt a very grave reaction of feeling in the country...Disaffection may be stamped out for the time but can never be crushed by the application of extreme force. The tragedy that has taken from us so many young lives leaves after it a benumbing sense of sorrow. They risked all for ideals which they believed to be right, and they fought with wild courage and bravery, as their most bitter enemies, like the ‘Daily Mail’, admit. It is this which makes the sacrifice they have given go down deeper into one’s feeling when we think it over...”

The cells in Castlebar Prison were already beginning to empty as the Western People hit the streets on May 13th,

1916. The British Government --in its wisdom - had ordered the immediate deportation of countless republican suspects who were arrested in the wake of the Easter Rising. The West-port men who had refused to hand in their arms were among the first to be sent to Richmond Barracks in Dublin for transportation to Wandsworth Detention Barracks. A total of 25 men with Westport addresses were included on a long list published in the Western People of May 20th. Among the names was that of Joseph Ring, who would later become a key figure in the War of Independence and a founding father of An Garda Síochána. Ring, who was killed by Irregular forces during the Civil War, was granduncle of current Mayo Fine Gael T.D., Michael Ring.

Others who were deported to England were John Corcoran, from Kiltimagh, and Peter O’Rourke, the popular commercial traveller who had been arrested in such dramatic circumstances at Claremorris Railway Station. There were also large contingents from Cliffoney in Sligo and Athenry in Galway.

The British Government was already sowing the seeds of a bitter harvest. Pressure was mounting for self-governemnt in Ireland and the Western People’s editorial of May 20th could hardly have been more unambiguous: “Whatever may be the outcome of all that is being said and written, one fact stands pretty clear, that Dublin Castle rule will have to go.”

The die had been cast.

THE first to arrive in Castlebar from the metropolis were Sergeant Maher, R.I.C., and Mr. T.J. Drum, of the C.D. Board staff, both of whom went to Dublin for the Easter week.

It appears that early last Friday morning they made their way [out of the city] and into the suburbs, and after several exciting adventures succeeded in passing the cordon of military drawn around the city, and keeping to the canal bank, they ultimately reached Clonsilla, where they got a train for the West on the following day. They arrived home on Saturday evening and had a cordial reception from numbers of friends. Interviewed by our representative, they stated that at the time of their departure from Dublin fierce fighting was going on in different parts of the city.

The next to arrive in Castle-bar was Mr Thomas Murphy, the well-known contractor. He arrived by the evening train on Monday, and informed our representative that when he left Dublin on Saturday morning the fighting had not concluded. He was staying in Wynne’s hotel, and when Liberty Hall was shelled the vibrations were such that the large bay windows in the hotel completely fell out as if cut by a razor.

One of the shells started a fire, and in Mr Murphy’s own words, “the whole block of beautiful houses bounded by Liberty Hall, Hopkins and Hopkins and Wynne’s Hotel, were quickly burned to the ground.”

Mr Murphy lost all his luggage, and, with hundreds of others, was given shelter and food in the Custom House by the military. Talking about the effect of the shells, Mr Murphy said: “In Eden Quay the Volunteers erected a formidable barricade across the street, composed of carts, boxes and huge piles of paper which they seized in the ‘Independent’ office. The exact range must have been signalled out to the gunboat in the Liffey, for a shell came shrieking through the air. When the smoke cleared away there wasn’t a sign or a vestige left of the barricades or the unfortunate men guarding it.”

On Saturday the military authorities gave him a pass to Belfast. He alighted at Drogheda where he secured a motor car, which conveyed him to Mullingar and from whence he came on to Castlebar.

The next Castlebar man to arrive home was Mr Larry Kelly, foreman of Lavelle and Co’s establishment. Early on Saturday morning he evaded the military cordon beyond the Botanic Gardens, and following the canal bank, reached Enfield, but found that no train would be likely to run to the West for several days. Borrowing a bicycle from an Enfield gentleman, he set off for Castlebar, and all went well until he reached Roscommon, where the police arrested him on suspicion. Protests were of no avail, and he was detained in custody until the Castlebar police were communicated with, and of course they verified the state-ments made by Mr Kelly, who is a prominent member of the National Volunteers. After being released Mr Kelly continued his journey on the bicycle and reached Castlebar on Tuesday morning.

Mr Dixon-Addey, a member of the Congested Districts Board staff, Castlebar, arrived back from the city on Wednesday evening. He had many exciting adventures to relate. He happened to be in the General Post Office when the Sinn Feiners entered it. The order “hands up” was given, and after being searched, all civilians were allowed their freedom.

Mr Addey brought back several souvenirs, including a copy of the Proclamation posted up announcing the establishment of an Irish Republic. He had several narrow escapes from death, a stray bullet penetrating his coat and vest.

Mr Joe Winters, a shop assistant, who was attending the annual conference of the Irish Drapers’ Assistants’ Association, had several narrow escapes from bullets.

Mr Paddy Bourke, a member of the well-known firm of Bourke and Sons, Castlebar, arrived home on Wednesday evening from Galway. He states that all approaches to the city are guarded by police and military, and that all day on Tuesday chara-a-bancs and motor cars were conveying prisoners from the direction of Athenry into Galway.

• Western People, May 6th, 1916

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