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The Easter Rising in County Wexford

Enniscorthy Volunteers prior to 1916.

The republican tricolour flew for a week over Enniscorthy in 1916, this article recalls these little known events. By John Dorney

County Wexford is famous in Irish nationalist folklore as the site of the 1798 rebellion. In that year the republican Society of the United Irishmen proclaimed a “Wexford Republic”, which operated for a month before it was bloodily suppressed.

What is less well-known is the role of the county in the Easter Rising of 1916, when the town of Enniscorthy was taken over for a week by the local units of the Irish Volunteers. Although much less bloody than the celebrated events of ’98, or of the Rising in Dublin, in which almost 500 people were killed within five days of fighting, the Wexford rebellion of 1916 does provide a fascinating look at reactions to the insurrection in provincial Ireland.

‘Extreme National Views’

County Wexford, like most of Ireland in 1916, was dominated politically by the Irish Parliamentary Party and it auxiliary the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

The one exception to this was Enniscorthy, which had a nucleus of separatist activists. There was a strong Irish Republican Brotherhood presence in the town and in the local Volunteers. One local IRB man, James Cullen, recalled the revitalisation of ‘The Organisation’ in the town after 1907, led by a man named Larry De Lacey. With the aid of old Fenians of the 1867 generation, one of whom, Charlie Farrell, was known to say, “Ireland will never be free until Enniscorthy and every other Irish town runs red with blood”, they recruited men carefully, selecting only those, “we knew held extreme national views”.[1]

 

Enniscorthy was the one town in Wexford where the local Volunteers were dominated by the IRB

Cultural nationalism seems to have been the dominant ideology among IRB men of this generation. CountyWexford also had a strong labour movement and 1911 had seen a bitter strike at the foundry in Wexford town in which a worker was killed by the police. However if social or labour radicalism played a role in radicalising people in Wexford, as it did in Dublin, it goes altogether unmentioned in the accounts local republicans left of the Rising.

Much is often made of the IRB’s anti-clericalism, but  in Wexford at least the separatists were also believers.  It seems to have helped their cause that they had the support of some local priests, including a Father Patrick Murphy, who according to his own testimony, “was associated with Sinn Fein, The Volunteers and every National movement”.[2] At one point, concern arose among the IRB circle as to whether the Brotherhood’s secret oath was irreligious. An IRB man had to be brought by the leadership to a meeting in Dublin where a Father Sheehy told the republicans that, “the IRB oath was not contrary to the teachings of the Church”, in order to assuage their fears. “When we returned to Wexford we explained the position to our members and they all appeared to be satisfied”.[3]

By 1913, there over 100 sworn-in IRB members in Enniscorthy and when the Irish Volunteers was formed in 1913, they, like other IRB circles where organisation had a presence, joined and took over the organisation from the inside. They used their influence to keep Home Rulers and Hibernians away from positions of authority in the Volunteers and, for this reason, the local companies were not as affected as those elsewhere by the split in the Volunteers over Redmond’s support for Britain’s war effort in 1914.[4]

There were also companies in nearby Ferns and Gorey and others in Wexford town, Ballymurrin, Ballindaggin, New Ross along with a number of smaller units throughout the county. However most of the original Volunteers outside Enniscorthy had sided with Redmond’s National Volunteers.  They were, however very short of arms and ammunition.

In late 1915 a dispute arose in County Wexford between Brennan Whitmore, who was Officer-in-charge of the Volunteers’ Enniscorthy Battalion and the Brigade staff in Wexford. Paul Galligan recalled, “The dispute was of  a trivial nature and arose over the right of Volunteers to attend dances”. Brennan Whitmore wanted disciplinary action taken against men who spent their money on dances rather than on the arms fund. A rather unseemly squabble broke out and Whitmore ended up resigning.

Thomas MacDonagh, the Volunteers’ Director of Training, sent Paul Galligan, a Cavan native and IRB man to Enniscorthy to take charge of advanced training

Thomas MacDonagh, the Volunteers’ Director of Training, sent Paul Galligan, a Cavan native and IRB man since 1911, from Dublin  to the south-eastern town, to sort out the mess, and as Galligan himself put it, “to take charge of advanced training”. [5]

MacDonagh, as a member of the IRB’s military council which was secretly planning a rising, knew that armed action was looming and Enniscorthy was a very strategic military location, commanding the railway route to Dublin from the ports at Rosslare and Waterford. It was therefore important for those at the heart of the conspiracy to get a reliable man in charge there, who would carry out orders when the time came.

In Enniscorthy, Galligan, who was known to the police, lived under the alias “O‘Reilly”, and was set up with a job in Bolger’s drapery establishment.[6] In the evenings he intensively trained 26 local Volunteer officers, at their hall named “Antwerp” in Enniscorthy. One Volunteer, John O’Reilly, remembered Galligan telling them, “If the day would come, which we all believed was near, for a fight against the enemy (Britain), we would not have too many men and not enough officers”.[7]

Galligan’s arrival in Wexford created a certain amount of confusion over who was in command of the Volunteers in the county. According to various accounts the commandant of the Wexford Brigade was either Seamus Doyle or Seamus Rafter, with Galligan as Vice Commandant. However it seems that Paul Galligan’s ties to the Military Committee, at the heart of the Rising, meant that he was the main source of accurate orders for County Wexford from the capital once the Rising was underway.

 

In March, Pearse told Enniscorthy Volunteers officers that a Rising was imminent

In March 1916, Patrick Pearse visited Enniscorthy for the commemoration of Robert Emmet, the Republican leader hanged for his rising of 1803. In public, in the Athenium theatre, Pearse delivered what Paul Galligan remembered as an, “impressive lecture” on Emmet. The Enniscorthy battalion provided a guard of honour. Such rallies, like the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in Dublin in 1915, allowed the Volunteers to openly flout the authority of the British state. John O’Reilly remembered, “we had the buildings under armed guard that night and were prepared to resist any interference from the RIC or other authorities”.[8]

In private, Pearse told local Volunteer officers such as Seamus Doyle that the orders for an armed uprising would come soon. In the second week of April, the police seized a motor car in College Green, central Dublin, which contained a quantity of shot-guns, revolvers and ammunition, all of which were destined for County Wexford. The two occupants of the car were Irish Volunteers from Ferns.

On again off again

The Easter Rising very nearly did not happen. Eoin MacNeill, the titular head of the Volunteers, had been kept in the dark by the IRB-dominated Military Committee and when informed of the plans for insurrection, on Easter Sunday 1916, tried to call it off. In Dublin itself, O’Neill and his ally in the IRB, Bulmer Hobson, were sidelined and the Rising duly broke out the following day.

In the provinces, however, the stream of contradictory orders coming from Dublin caused chaos among the Volunteers. J.J. O’Connell, who was supposed to be in command of the Rising in the south-east, told Wexford officers Seamus Rafter, Seamus Doyle and Paul Galligan that,  “he would take no part in the forthcoming rising and, further, it would be our responsibility whatever action we took.”[9]

 

The Wexford Rising was nearly put off by the stream of contradictory orders coming from Dublin.

The Volunteer officers in Enniscorthy were, understandably, at a loss. Galligan remembered, “As a result of O’Connell’s actions we were left without instructions and could take no further action and on Easter Saturday there was an air of indecision prevailing among the officers owing to this lack of instruction.”

To try to find out what was happening, Paul Galligan travelled to Dublin late on Easter Saturday night. On Sunday, he read MacNeill’s order cancelling “manouvres” and assumed the Rising was off. But the following day, at a house in Dalkey, in south County Dublin he learned of the events in the city centre and went to O’Connell Street to try to find out in person what was going on and what was expected of the Enniscorthy Volunteers.

At the insurgent headquarters at the General Post Office, Galligan met with three of the Rising’s principle leaders, James Connolly, Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett.

“Connolly said to me that they had enough men in Dublin and that it would be better to join my unit in Wexford. After a talk with Pearse and Plunkett in which I could hear the word ‘mountains’ being used, Connolly instructed me to go back to Wexford as quickly as I could to mobilise the Enniscorthy Battalion and to hold the railway line to prevent troops coming through from Wexford as he expected they would be landed there. He said to reserve our ammunition and not to waste it attacking barracks or such like.”

It was now 2 am on Tuesday morning. Connolly told him to get something to eat – Desmond Fitzgerald gave him tea and two buns – and a “good bicycle”, which Gearoid O’Sullivan took from the GPO storehouse.

At first light, “I started straight away for Enniscorthy. It was just breaking day as I left the GPO…When I got to the Parnell monument, I looked back and I noticed that there were two flags flying from masts on the front of the GPO…a green flag and the tricolour of today”.[10]

Galligan was more fortunate than many provincial Volunteer officers in that he had received clear and realistic orders from the head of what was now calling itself the Army of the Irish Republic – get back to Enniscorthy and cut the railway line to prevent the British from bringing reinforcements to Dublin.

The Rising in Enniscorthy

Galligan’s subsequent 200 km cycle took him on a wide detour to avoid British troops, via the North Circular Road, Mulhuddart and Maynooth and through County Carlow. It was late on Wednesday evening before he reached Enniscorthy.

On the outskirts of the town he happened across a Volunteer who was delivering bread and told him to gather the officers, as he had instructions for them from Connolly.

In Enniscorthy itself, the local Volunteers under Seamus Doyle had received an order from Pearse on Monday afternoon, telling them, “we start at noon today, obey your orders”. Since it was not at all clear what these orders were, Doyle consulted with Sean Sinnott, the Brigade commander in Wexford town who told him, “in consequence of the conflicting orders he would not have anything to do with the matter”. Back in Enniscorthy on Tuesday, Doyle found a few Volunteers waiting at the ammunition dump, unsure of what to do.[11]

It was only Paul Galligan’s return with Connolly’s orders that galvanised the Enniscorthy men. James Cullen recalled, “A meeting of the officers was held at ‘Antwerp’ and Commandant Galligan gave full details of the fighting in Dublin and of the positions held by the Volunteers. It was then decided to rise. It was really Commandant Galligan who was responsible for this decision.”[12]

 

The Volunteers occupied the town for five days but the only casualties were four wounded

In the early hours of Thursday, around 100-200 Volunteers took over the town hall and the castle and surrounded the RIC barracks in the town, to which they cut off the supply of gas and water. The insurgents’ armament was meagre though – only 20 rifles and 2,000 rounds of ammunition. Many carried only pikes, which, effective enough in 1798, would have been useless in an encounter with either armed police or British troops in 1916.

The Enniscorthy Volunteers were very conscious of themselves as heirs of the 1798 rebels in County Wexford. One of the symbolic actions they undertook was to occupy Vinegar Hill, scene of the United Irishmen’s final defeat in 1798, and fire some shots from it at the RIC barracks.

Whereas in Dublin, the rebels were initially highly unpopular with the general public, in Enniscorthy the reaction to the Rising seems to have been largely positive. According to Seamus Doyle, “Feeling in the town was generally friendly towards us, excepting the families of some British Army soldiers”.[13]

Sean Etchingham of Gorey, was in charge of recruiting and recruits. Not only did Volunteer companies come in from Gorey and Ferns, but hundreds of local men and boys wanted to join the rebels, Galligan recalled, “Large numbers of men were presenting themselves to join us and our biggest problem was feeding these men.” Cumman na mBan, for whom Galligan felt, “nothing but admiration and appreciation is due”, helped to house and feed the new arrivals. [14]

Even two of the local priests – Fr. Coad and Fr. Murphy – were anxious to join the Enniscorthy volunteers, but were persuaded otherwise and left after blessing the men.

Part of the reason for the Wexford rebels’ popularity may have been that the rebellion in Enniscorthy was, in stark contrast to Dublin, nearly bloodless. There was a brief exchange of shots between the Volunteers and the RIC, in which two civilians and an RIC constable were wounded, but the rebels never tried to assault the barracks – they had in any case been ordered not to waste their limited ammunition by doing so.

Another factor was that the Volunteers made great efforts to present themselves as responsible soldiers and representatives of an Irish government. According to Paul Galligan, “All of the officers and most of the men were in uniform… Food, bedding, cars (which were returned to the owners after the surrender) and clothing were commandeered from local shops and receipts were issued in all cases”. “It was admitted in all cases afterwards that there was no undue commandeering and no one was victimised on account of his political leaning. The police (RIC) in the town were put off-duty and confined to barracks. We established our own police and town patrols”.[15]

The Athenaeum theatre was made the Republicans’ headquarters, over which they flew the green, white and orange tricolour. All the public houses in the town were closed down and as Father Patrick Murphy, a priest who publicly blessed the rebels, recalled, “during the four days of Republican rule, not a single person was under the influence of drink”. The railway station was taken over and a train to Arklow was stopped and  commandeered.[16]

Paul Galligan was officer in charge of field operations and commanded a guard of honour as the Republican flag was raised. Seamus Doyle issued the Proclamation of the Republic, “calling on the people to support and defend it.” [18]

The diary of Sean Etchingham, a future Dail government minister, conveys the sense of liberation and exhilaration experienced by the Volunteers: “We had at least one day of blissful freedom. We have had Enniscorthy under the laws of the Irish Republic for at least one day and it pleases me to learn that the citizens are appreciably surprised……….a more orderly town could not be imagined. The people of the town are great. The manhood of Enniscorthy is worthy of its manhood.”[20]

By Saturday morning, up to 1,000 insurgents had been mobilised. News had reached the Volunteers, via some railway workers, that the British garrison in Arklow were preparing an assault. Galligan set up an outpost at Ferns, with 40-50 men, who they took over the R.I.C. barracks, (which had been vacated by the police) and the national school. Roads were blocked and advanced posts of scouts were established. A telegraph discovered in Ferns barracks stated that “enormous force would be required to suppress it” (the rebellion)

British Response

On Saturday, the RIC County Inspector reported, “ the rebels are concentrated at Enniscorthy and are stated to be entrenching themselves there, the Police are still holding out (presumably in the Police Barracks). The approaches to Enniscorthy within a radius of three miles of the town were blocked with felled trees and in one case by a telegraph pole which has been brought down. The damage to the Barrow Bridge on the Dublin and South Eastern Railway is now reported not to be serious.”[22]

Meanwhile, the British War Office sent a telegraph to Lieutenant-Colonel G.A. French, a retired British Army Officer who lived about two miles outside Wexford in Newbay,   instructing him to take over the command of the British Forces in Wexford and advising that reinforcements were on their way from Waterford along with an armoured train with a field gun.

Patrick Pearse had in fact already surrendered on Friday afternoon on behalf of the Republican forces in Dublin, “to prevent the further slaughter of the civilian population and in the hope of saving our followers, now hopelessly surrounded and outnumbered”.

The British assembled a column under French of 1,000 men, 2 field guns and a 4.7 inch naval gun at Wexford town, “with a view to engaging the rebels at Enniscorthy”.[23] The poorly armed Volunteers could not have taken on a force with this kind of firepower in a pitched battle. Perhaps fortunately for all concerned, they did not try to.

According to James O’Connor, a Home Ruler who joined the RIC as a Special Constable  for the duration of the Rising, Colonel French sent word to a Protestant clergyman and Dr. Furlong, the administrator of the Catholic parish of Enniscorthy, “suggesting that they should seek out the leaders of the Rebellion and advise them that they had no hope of  victory and that there would be considerable loss of life and damage to property if he had to shell Enniscorthy”. If they surrendered, “All the leaders and the men would be allowed to walk out of town. Colonel French was a gentleman and kept his word. But what explanation he gave to the British War Office I do not know”.[24]

It is a good story, but while Seamus Doyle  records meeting Furlong, his and the other Volunteers’ accounts state that it was Pearse’s surrender order, conveyed by the British to the Volunteer leaders in Wexford, that ended the Rising there.

The Surrender

 

Significant numbers of rival nationalists in the National Volunteers took up arms to help suppress the Rising.

By Sunday morning, there had still not been any sight in Enniscorthy or Ferns of the British Arklow garrison or the mobile column from Cobh that had landed at Wexford town. Later that afternoon, one of the Volunteers’ cycle patrols returned to the outpost at Ferns and told Paul Galligan that an RIC District Inspector and Sergeant had arrived under a flag of truce with a copy of Pearse’s surrender order.

Galligan was sceptical but inspected Pearse’s surrender order which was addressed to the O/C Enniscorthy Volunteers and sent the policemen to Enniscorthy under armed escort.[25]

At first, Seamus Doyle and his officers in Enniscorthy refused to believe the surrender order. He and Sean Etchingham of Gorey applied to Colonel French for permission to travel to Dublin and see Pearse in person. Despite the misgivings of the local RIC, who wanted the pair arrested, French put them in a military car and had them driven to Arbour Hill prison in Dublin where Pearse was being kept. Pearse looked, “physically exhausted but spiritually exulted. He told us that the Dublin Brigade had done splendidly – five days and nights of continuous fighting…Etchingham asked him, ‘Why did you surrender?’, Pearse answered, ‘because they were shooting women and children in the streets. I saw them myself’.”[26]

Pearse had not been aware of the Rising in Enniscorthy but agreed to sign a written order to the Wexford Volunteers confirming the surrender, that Doyle and Etchingham brought back to Enniscorthy.[27]

Doyle and Etchingham returned to Enniscorthy on Monday, April 31st. Paul Galligan, still in Ferns, received a dispatch from Enniscorthy confirming the surrender order and telling him to return to the town.

Some of the Volunteers in Enniscorthy, such as James Cullen, took to the hills in the hope of starting a campaign of guerrilla warfare, but after a few days decided to come back down and “face the music”. Those who remained formally surrendered to Colonel French and were taken by ship to captivity in Dublin.[28] If French had indeed promised to let the rebels “walk out of town”, he was unable to deliver on his commitment.

It might have seemed, during the Republican occupation of Enniscorthy that everyone in the town was on their side, but after the Rising it became clear that this was not so. Some 200 of the Volunteers’ various political opponents in Enniscorthy, who had lain low during the rebellion, “National Volunteers, Hibernians, and Unionists”, helped the RIC to patrol the town. As one Republican, Maire Fitzgerald, bitterly recalled, “the rats all came out of their holes to welcome the British soldiers”.[29]

Volunteer John O’Reilly was shocked to see the British Army entering Enniscorthy, “accompanied by some of the Wexford (so called) National Volunteers or Redmondites.”[30]

Enniscorthy was a particular stronghold of radical nationalism – the RIC noted that the Irish Volunteers, Sinn Fein, the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League (and though they didn’t know it, the IRB) were the most influential nationalist organisations there. Elsewhere  in the county, the IPP, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the National Volunteers were dominant and those places remained hostile to the rebellion.

The RIC Yearly Police report for 1916 writes of County Wexford, “Apart from the places affected by the rebellion, the county was peaceable during the year…Elsewhere in the county, the feeling of the people was quite hostile to the rebels and large numbers assembled under arms to assist the police in the towns  of Wexford, New Ross and Gorey.”[31]

Rival nationalists did not actually come to blows in Wexford in 1916, but Home Rulers did take up arms under British command and help to round up republicans. It may be significant that the County’s experience of the intra-nationalist civil war of 1922-23 was unusually severe by the standards of surrounding counties. The seeds of this may have been laid to some extent by the enmities of 1916.

A total of 3,430 men and 79 women were rounded up by the British in Ireland after the Rising, though 1,400 were released within a week.[32] In County Wexford, 270 men were arrested after the rebellion, of whom ten were sentenced to imprisonment or penal servitude.[33]

Due mainly to the destruction of roads and rail lines, the estimated damage to property in the Enniscorthy Rising came to £3,000.[34]

The Rising in Wexford – A Failure?

The Rising in Wexford therefore amounted to a great political spectacle but not much in military terms.

Nearly thirty years later, in the Dail, the independent Irish parliament, Deputy Corish of Wexford complained that only 70 of the 260 men who had submitted claims for a state pension for their service in the Easter Rising in Enniscorthy had had their claims accepted. “The Departments of Finance and Defence insist that the Enniscorthy men had no contact with the enemy. The Enniscorthy men came out to establish the Republic and were prepared to die for the Republic, if necessary. They came out under the order of Pearse and never thought that the struggle was going to end so quickly.”[35]

We would not stand by and watch our brothers in Dublin fall without striking a blow’: Paul Galligan

The Volunteers in Wexford, grouped around a militant nucleus of IRB men in Enniscorthy, were no doubt serious about fighting and they surrendered only under orders and with great reluctance.

The outcome of any battle in Wexford, however, was not in doubt. The poorly armed Volunteers might have made a good stand – only 17 Volunteers at Mount Street in Dublin had held off a regiment for two days and killed and wounded 240 British troops – but they would certainly have been beaten. Many of them and probably many civilians also, would have been killed had Enniscorthy been bombarded by the British heavy guns. Paul Galligan said during the week that without the German arms, they, “had no hope of success”.

So why rise at all? For one thing, Paul Galligan had clear and achievable orders from James Connolly to block the railway line to Dublin. There was also a certain amount of personal pride at stake. Galligan wrote to this brother that, “all the officers of Wexford decided to fight, even if it was only for 12 hours as they would not stand by and watch their brothers in Dublin fall without striking a blow”.[36]

In the longer term, the British reaction to the Rising, in Wexford as elsewhere, pushed many moderate nationalists, who had been hostile to the Rising, into the separatist camp.

The final word should be left to the County Wexford RIC who reported that, “Although the majority of people did not approve of the rebellion and were anxious that law and order should be maintained, they were unwilling to see any of the rebels punished and their punishment excited considerable sympathy.”[37]

 References


[1] Peter Paul Galligan Witness Statement, Bureau of Military History (BMH)
[1.1] James Cullen Witness Statement, BMH
[2] Fr Patrick Murphy, Witness Statement BMH
[3] James Cullen Witness Statement BMH
[4] James Cullen Witness Statement BMH
[5] Galligan Witness Statement BMH
[6] Galligan Witness Statement BMH
[7] John O’Reilly Witness Statement BMH
[8] John O’Reilly Witness Statement, BMH
[9] Galligan Witness Statement, BMH
[10] Galligan witness statement BMH
[11] Seamus Doyle, Witness Statement BMH
[12] James Cullen Witness Statement BMH
[13] Seamus Doyle Witness Statement BMH
[14] Galligan Witness Statement BMH
[15] Ibid.
[16] Father Patrick Murphy, Witness Statement BMH
[17] Seamus Doyle, Witness Statement BMH
[18] James Cullen Witness Statement BMH
[19] Father Patrick Murphy, Witness Statement, BMH
[20] Galligan Witness Statement BMH
[21] Daily Police Reports, 1916 Rebellion, WO 35/69/1, The National Archives, Kew,Richmond,Surrey,TW9 4DU,England
[22] Townshend p 246
[23] Daily Police Reports, 1916 Rebellion
[24] James O’Connor, Witness Statement BMH
[25] Galligan Witness Statement BMH
[26] Seamus Doyle, Witness Statement BMH
[27] Seamus Doyle, Witness Statement BMH
[28] James Cullen Witness Statement BMH
[29] Fearghal McGarry, The Rising,Ireland, Easter 1916, p243
[30] John O’Reilly Witness Statement BMH
[31] RIC Yearly Report, 1916 p10-11
[32] Charles Townsend, Easter 1916, p274
[33] RIC Report on the Sinn Fein or Irish Volunteer Rebellion
[34] RIC Annual report 1916, p11
[35] Dail Debates, Dáil Éireann – Volume 87 – 02 July, 1942 Committee on Finance. – Adjournment—Enniscorthy Military Service Pensions.
[36] Paul Galligan to Monsignor Eugene Galligan, November 29, 1917.
[37] RIC Yearly report 1916.

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