Episode at Easter – The 1916 Rising in Louth

Irish Volunteers in Louth (Courtesy Irish Volunteers website)
Irish Volunteers in Louth (Courtesy Irish Volunteers website)

In the midst of the recent centenary commemorations many local contributions to the Rising have started to come to light. One such focus is the events of Easter week in County. Louth and the role of Louth men and women in the plans for the rebellion. By Ailbhe Rogers.

Similarities can be drawn between the experiences of Louth veterans and other counties; the lack of orders, direction and communication, confusion, problems with transport and opposition from authorities.

The role of women in Louth during the Rising especially has gone completely unnoticed until quite recently. Also striking is the involvement of local Redmondite National Volunteers forces in assisting the arrest of Louth Volunteers after the Rising.

Events in Louth were mostly bloodless. However, on Easter Monday an incident also occurred between local Volunteer forces and the Royal Irish Constabulary at Castlebellingham, Co. Louth in which a policeman was shot dead and a British officer was injured.

The plan for the Rising in Louth

About eighty Irish Volunteers marched out from Dundalk on Easter Sunday morning 1916 with the intention of meeting the Meath Volunteers at the Hill of Tara. The group was made up of units from Dundalk, Ardee, Cooley, Grangebellew and Dunleer.

The Volunteers in Louth were supposed to destroy the bridge at Slane, free a contingent of German prisoners of war and take up positions in Blanchardstown, outside Dublin.

Their orders were to destroy the bridge at Slane, free a contingent of German prisoners of war and take up positions in Blanchardstown in order to intercept any British military units coming by train from Athlone.

The Louth Volunteers were to form part of an entrenching circle around the city that would keep communication and supply lines open as well as providing a possible escape route to the West for the Dublin Volunteers. A contingent was left behind in Dundalk to commandeer a consignment of arms that belonged to the Redmondite faction of the National Volunteers.[1]

The Countermanding order

Sean MacEntee
Sean MacEntee

However, at the last minute, Eoin MacNeill, the Volunteer Chief of Staff, tried to call off the rising, causing chaos among the Volunteer around the country.

Around lunchtime on Easter Sunday, a courier on a motorbike was sent from Dublin to Dundalk to deliver Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order, in the form of despatches addressed to Louth Volunteer leaders Patrick Hughes and Donal O’Hannigan.

Because the Volunteers had already left the town, the despatches were instead delivered to Angela Matthews, president of the Dundalk branch of Cumann na mBan, who with the help of Rev. Father Peadar Macardle of the Marist, Dundalk, frantically tried to make contact with the Louth Volunteers before they took any action.

Matthews had MacNeill’s signature authenticated before delivering the despatches to Sean MacEntee who was in charge of the contingent of Dundalk Volunteers who had remained behind in the town to commandeer the guns belonging to the Redmondite Volunteers. She also mobilised some of the Dundalk Cumann na mBan women and to inform them of the situation.[2]

Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order and Pearse’s subsequent re-mobilisation order threw the Louth Volunteers into confusion.

Sean MacEntee along with a group of men set off in motor cars to inform the Louth Volunteers of the countermand. MacEntee, Thomas Hamill and P.J. Berrills were subsequently sent on to Dublin to make contact with Patrick Pearse and James Connolly as to what was happening.

No sooner had they distributed the countermanding order though than got word that the Rising was back on. Around lunchtime on Easter Monday Angela Matthews received a visit from a young lady caller named Julia Grenan of Dublin, who had been sent by Patrick Pearse to counties Louth and Monaghan with despatches explaining that the Rising was now going ahead and that all local units were to strike at noon on Easter Monday. [3]

For the second time, frantic attempts were made to get urgent orders to the Louth Volunteers, who had spent the night in Slane and were now on their way back to Dundalk via Dunleer and Castlebellingham.

Meanwhile back in Dundalk, forces hostile to the insurrection were organising. The local contingent of Redmondite Volunteers voluntarily surrendered the arms in their possession to the local military and police. A Home Defence Corps was formed in the town with the aim of assisting the police should the order be given to arrest the Irish Volunteers returning to the town.

When the local branch of Cumann na mBan were made aware of these developments they decided to cycle south out of the town and meet the Louth Volunteers to deliver Pearse’s mobilisation order and to warn the Volunteers about the Home Defence Corps lying wait in the town. Nellie Clarke was chosen to accompany Angela Matthews in her mission. Matthews took the Blackrock Road out of the town while Clarke took the Dublin Road and the two ladies agreed to meet at the gates of Clermont Estate.[4]

Late in the afternoon on Easter Monday, Seán MacEntee overtook the weary and footsore Louth Volunteers at Lurgangreen in a commandeered Dublin motorcar. MacEntee had successfully made contact with Patrick Pearse and James Connolly in Liberty Hall, Dublin. Pearse’s message for Donal O’Hannigan and the Louth Volunteers was to carry out their original instructions as soon as possible. Around the same time Nellie Clarke reached the contingent and delivered the orders to O’Hannigan and Hughes.

Checkpoints

While eavesdropping upon a conversation between the two Dundalk RIC men, who had been trailing the Louth Volunteers since Sunday morning, Paddy McHugh overheard Sergeant Michael Wymes instruct his colleague Constable Connolly that when the party came within a mile of Dundalk, Constable Connolly was ‘to proceed as fast as he could to [a] barracks and inform the Dundalk police of our arrival.’[5]

The Volunteers mounted checkpoints on the roads, arresting RIC men and seizing cars for transport.

As a result, the Volunteers arrested two RIC constables and searched them. They were found to be in the possession of papers which contained copies of notes on the Louth Volunteer movements since Easter Sunday, the originals having been sent on to Louth RIC HQ in Dundalk.[6]

Other Volunteers, on their way to rendezvous with the Meath Volunteers at the Hill of Tara mounted checkpoints and held up about thirty cars to ensure that word of the mobilisation did not get through to the Dundalk RIC. Eight cars were pressed into Volunteer service, two containing British soldiers, who were taken prisoner and also put under guard with the two RIC policemen. Any cars that were not required were dismantled to prevent further use: ‘In some cases we took the valves out of the tyres and threw the valves into fields.’[7]

A horse brake was secured for the dispossessed civilian passengers who were conveyed to Dundalk.

Some shots were fired on cars that failed to stop.

Any vehicles that did not stop were fired on. Local farmer Patrick McCormack was shot in the hand when he refused to halt while passing in his horse and cart.[8] A loaded rifle was also discharged by accident grazing the head of Dundalk Volunteer Richard Jameson.[9]

The nervy weapons handling is not surprising. Due to the severe shortage of guns on the part of the Louth Volunteers before the Rising, some Volunteers like Daniel Tuite had never undergone rifle drill and many others had never fired a weapon before.[10]

The fact that many of the Volunteers had got very little sleep in the previous thirty-six hours would also have contributed to bad temper, tetchiness and a lack of judgement. It can also be presumed that having just been informed that the Rising was definitely on and that they were on their way to Dublin to take part, excitement may have got the better of some of the younger men in the group.

These facts will come to prove tragically important later on in the episode. The dozen or so RIC men and military who were stopped were left behind to make their own way while the Volunteers proceeded onto Castlebellingham to regroup.

Castlebellingham

Castlebellingham RIC Barracks.
Castlebellingham RIC Barracks.

Castlebellingham is a small village in mid-Louth that is situated between Dundalk and Drogheda and lies about three miles inland from the sea. In the 1911 census there were two pubs and one shop in the village.[11]

In the village, O’Hannigan ordered his men to stock up on provisions and food supplies for the journey to the Hill of Tara. Items such as cheese and biscuits were commandeered from some of the local businesses in the village.

In at least one case they faced opposition from a local shop owner who threatened the Volunteers with a knife. A receipt on behalf of the Provisional Irish Republic was handed over for what food was taken.[12]

The insurgents stopped in Castlebellingham to stock up on supplies. They took any RIC or military personnel they encountered prisoners.

While this was going on, two of the village’s policemen, Acting Sergeant Patrick Kiernan and Constable Patrick Donovan left Castlebellingham RIC barracks to investigate the situation and attempt to stop some of the motor cars.

The two were immediately apprehended, searched for arms and placed with a guard upon them alongside some iron railings in front of Patrick Byrne’s pub. The railings surround a grassy triangular area in the centre of the village still to this day. Sean MacEntee was placed in charge of the prisoners and according to O’Hannigan, the orders he gave to his men were: ‘As long as the RIC surrendered peacefully they were not to molest them or injure them in any way.’ However, his men were ‘to shoot if they tried any funny tricks.’[13]

A few minutes later the party were joined in the village by Constable Charles McGee of Gilbertstown RIC barracks who arrived on his bicycle with the intention of delivering despatches to the Castlebellingham RIC.

Twenty-three-year-old Constable Charles McGee was a native Irish speaker from Innisboffin Island, Co. Donegal and had been posted to County Louth in 1913.

Born in 1893, twenty-three-year-old Constable McGee was a native Irish speaker from Innisboffin Island, Co. Donegal and had been posted to Gilbertstown in May 1913. McGee was ordered to dismount, which he did. He was subsequently searched for arms and relieved of his despatches. He was put with the other two RIC policemen with their backs to the railings.

Just then a motor car drove into the village and was stopped by the Volunteers. The occupants of the car were Second Lieutenant Robert Dunville of the Irish Grenadier Guards and his chauffeur both of whom had been travelling from Belfast to the ferry at Kingston (now Dun Laoghaire). Lieut. Dunville, who was also twenty-three years of age, was a graduate of Eton College and was the son of John Dunville, former Lieutenant-Colonel in the British army and private secretary to the Duke of Devonshire.

The two were ordered out of the car and lined up with the rest. Dunville was asked if he had any weapons upon his person and Paddy McHugh ‘accepted [the] officer’s word that he was not armed and did not search him.[14]

According to many of the Volunteers’ witness accounts Dunville was very angry at being held up. Edward Bailey recalls: ‘He was not very nice about his treatment,’[15] while Frank Martin states that ‘Lieut. Dunville was threatening and abusing us.’[16]

Just as the Volunteers were about to leave Castlebellingham a brief incident occurred in which Dunville and McGee were both injured by gun-fire, McGee fatally. Sources from both sides differ as to what exactly occurred.

The shooting of Dunville and McGee

Charles McGee, the RIC constable shot dead at Castlebellingham.
Charles McGee, the RIC constable shot dead at Castlebellingham.

Paddy McHugh was covering the prisoners from the last car in the convoy of commandeered vehicles:

MacEntee withdrew the guard on the prisoners but ordered me to cover the prisoners, from the last car. I took up position on the running board of the car and I covered the prisoners with the rifle I carried. As the guard was being withdrawn, and MacEntee’s back being turned, the staff officer whom I had covered made a move that appeared to me as if he was attempting to draw a gun. I immediately called on him to put up his hands.

He did not obey. I called again and he again ignored my call. I called no more but fired, and, to my amazement, the RIC man at the other end of the line of prisoners fell. Another shot then rang out and I called out to cease fire.. The RIC man who fell on the road was killed by a charge of buckshot fired from a shotgun. The man who fired the shot from the shotgun has never admitted the mistake or the accident or whatever his motive was and so it will now probably remain forever his secret.[17]

According to Sean MacEntee who was in charge of the prisoners:

Keeping the prisoners covered the while, I then backed towards my own car.. I had just turned to enter it, had mounted the foot-board and was stepping inside the car, when a shot rang out. I jumped out at once and looked towards the prisoners. The lieutenant was standing quite steady and upright, two policemen were running across the road, while of the other policeman and of the chauffeur there was no sign.. It was not until nearly five weeks later, when I was brought back from Stafford to stand my court martial in Dublin, that I learned that the same shot that wounded the lieutenant killed Constable McGee as well.[18]

Donal Hannigan did not see what happened but from the report he received:

..it appears that when the officer was approached by McEntee he dropped his motor cycle and ran behind the RIC men and made attempts as if to draw a gun from his pocket [sic]. On seeing this one of my men fired at him. At that moment the RIC man unfortunately moved into the line of fire and the bullet passed through the R.I.C. man and wounded Lt. Dunville. Lieut. Dunville was found to be armed with a revolver.[19]

From reading the above statements, a reasonable conclusion that one may come to is that Paddy McHugh may have fired from the rear of the convoy when he thought he saw Lieut. Dunville reaching for a weapon. McHugh’s bullet may have passed through Constable McGee’s left arm, wounding Lieut. Dunville who was possibly standing directly behind him.

Lieutenant Dunville may have tried to draw his gun leading to the shooting of him and Charles McGee

When McHugh’s shot rang out there might have been a moment of panic amongst the Volunteer ranks in which a skittish recruit with a shotgun may have also fired from the front of the convoy hitting McGee in the upper torso.[20] A medical inquest on constable Charles McGee [21] found four wounds were found on him, consistent with a bullet  wound to the arm and shotgun blast to the chest. [22]

Constable McGee did not die immediately. He was attended to by Dr Patrick J. O’Hagan who happened to be in the vicinity at the time and along with the help of a 39-year old local dressmaker named Sarah Connaughton who witnessed the incident, the pair managed to drag McGee into George O’Kelly’s kitchen nearby.

McGee was removed by motor car to the Louth Infirmary where he subsequently passed away. The coroner for North Louth Dr. O’Connell returned a verdict of death due to shock and haemorrhage as the result of his wounds.[23] McGee was formally identified by his brother Denis and his remains were brought back to his home place. He is interred in Gortahork Cemetery, Co. Donegal.

In the case of Lieut. Dunville it was found that the bullet had passed through the left side of his chest and may have perforated his lung. He recovered from his ordeal but suffered bouts of ill-heath in later life which was put down to the injury he suffered in 1916. Dunville died suddenly of heart failure on 10 January 1931 in Carltonian, South Africa.[24]

Aftermath

The Louth men pressed on with a group making it as far as Tyrellstown House near Mulhuddart, north Co. Dublin where they became stranded and spent most of Easter week, before dispersing after hearing of the surrender of the insurgents in Dublin. The Louth Volunteers did not disband until Wednesday 3 May and were the last unit of Volunteers to do so.

The Louth Volunteers dispersed on May 3rd after hearing of the surrender in Dublin. Over the following weeks the local RIC made sweeps throughout the main towns and villages of Louth arresting about sixty-five men.

Over the following weeks the local RIC made sweeps throughout the main towns and villages of Louth arresting about sixty-five men in total. Some were arrested at home while others were at work. Batches were marched to the nearest train station and sent to Richmond Barracks, Inchicore, Dublin.

Others managed to evade arrest by going ‘on the run.’ Edward Bailey took a job working with farmers in the Dunleer district, an area in which he was not very well known by the local RIC.[25] Hugh Kearney and Owen Clifford both travelled to Liverpool along with the help of some sailor friends with Kearney later laying low on the east-coast of Scotland.[26]

Paddy Hughes, Paddy McHugh and Donal O’Hannigan were all wanted and their names appeared in the Irish Hue & Cry Police Gazette on numerous occasions. Paddy Hughes kept his head down in Drogheda and later went on the run in North Louth and South Armagh only re-emerging during the Truce period in 1921.

Posing as a tramp fiddler, Paddy McHugh travelled to Dublin where he avoided arrest by assuming the name of Seán Kiernan, a surname he borrowed from one of Castlebellingham’s RIC constables.

He later became a member of the Dublin IRA Brigade Munitions Staff.[27] Donal O’Hannigan procured a bicycle and travelled to Mitchelstown, Co. Cork from whence he also continued the struggle.[28]

Only ten Louth men were released from Richmond Barracks before the deportations to Britain began. The rest of the men were marched to the North Bull, put on cattle ships and transported to Wakefield, Stafford, Wandsworth and Barnlinnie prisons with an eventual destination of Frongoch internment camp, North Wales.

Sean MacEntee, Francis Martin, Denis Leahy and James Sally were all charged with the murder of Constable Charles McGee and were court-martialled in Richmond Barracks, Dublin on 9-10 June 1916.

Upon their arrest, Sean MacEntee, Francis Martin, Denis Leahy and James Sally were all charged with the murder of Constable Charles McGee and were court-martialled in Richmond Barracks, Dublin on 9-10 June 1916.

The four Dundalk Volunteers were defended by Mr. T.M. Healy, Mr. Cecil Lavery and Mr. J.B. Hamill of Dundalk. Various witnesses such as residents of Castlebellingham, motor car owners, chauffeurs, doctors and RIC policeman were all called upon to testify.

Most of the witnesses agreed that the four were present at the incident but did not fire the fatal shot. At the trial RIC Sergeant Patrick Kiernan ‘heard a shot from the direction of the first car.. Another shot followed and witness and Constable Donovan ran into a house. Two shots were fired as they crossed the road.’[29]

Lieutenant Robert Dunville said: ‘A man got out of one of the cars and aimed a long rifle at him. He heard a report and somebody at his right hand side shouted and he found that he himself had been shot.. He could recognise the man who pointed the long rifle but it was not one of the accused.’[30]

All four men were found guilty and sentenced to death, which was later commuted to penal servitude; Sean MacEntee – penal servitude for life; Francis Martin – ten years’ penal servitude; Denis Leahy – ten years’ penal servitude and James Sally – ten years’ penal servitude with a remission of five years.[31] All four were imprisoned in Dartmoor and Lewes prisons in England and were not released until the general amnesty in June 1917.

The four men were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, later commuted to penal servitude but were released under the general amnesty of June 1917.

A common feature throughout the events in Louth during Easter Week is that of confusion caused by Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding orders and the subsequent lack of communication between the various contingents.

The death of Constable Charles McGee had a negative effect on the Louth Volunteers. McGee was very popular in the Dundalk area being a well-known Irish speaker, a talented Gaelic football player and he had associated with many of the Louth Volunteers on a social level. Hence, many of the men found themselves in a difficult situation caught between personal feelings of remorse and satisfaction. Years after the tragic event Paddy McHugh lamented:

I feel convinced that the RIC man was killed accidentally. His death as it happened was regretted sincerely by all in charge of the Volunteers. Every night from this on whilst we were together, that man was prayed for by the whole Company.. May the Lord have mercy on his soul.[32]

The men who were charged with the murder of Charles McGee were not the actual perpetrators and that the person responsible never officially stepped forward to take the blame.

The shooting had ‘an unfortunate and damaging effect on public opinion in the town of Dundalk and district.. ‘turning sympathisers away from us.’33

However due to the executions of the Rising’s leaders and the highly effective propaganda campaign that was initiated by Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan in the aftermath if the Rising, public opinion went from one of anger to sympathy and this subsequently led the way for the road to further raicalisation anf guerrilla war in the years ahead.

References and notes

[1] Donal Hall, World War I and nationalist politics in county Louth, 1914-1920 (Dublin, 2005) p. 21

[2] Ailbhe Rogers, Cumann na mBan in Co. Louth 1914-22 (MA) NUI Maynooth (2013) p. 19

[3] After handing over Pearse’s despatches to Angela Matthews, Julia Grenan returned to Dublin. For the remainder of Easter Week, Julia and her good friend Elizabeth O’Farrell attached themselves to the GPO garrison where they worked as despatch carriers alongside many of the members of the Provisional Irish Government and several other members of Cumann na mBan.

By the end of the week, she was one of only three women left in No. 16 Moore St. at the time of the surrender. Julia Grenan was arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol until 9 May 1916. She is buried alongside her best friend and partner Elizabeth O’Farrell in Glasnevin Cemetery.

[4] Ailbhe Rogers, Cumann na mBan in Co. Louth 1914-22 (MA) NUI Maynooth (2013) pp 23-4

[5] Patrick McHugh Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 677)

[6] Donal O’Hannigan Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 161)

[7] Thomas McCrave Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 695)

[8] Arthur Greene Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 238); Irish Times Sinn Féin Rebellion Handbook, Second Edition (New Delhi, 2016) p. 109

[9] Patrick McHugh Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 677)

[10] Daniel Tuite Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 337)

[11] House and building B1 return form for Castlebellingham Town, Castlebellingham, Co Louth, National Archives of Ireland, Dublin (Census of Ireland 1901/1911 and census fragments and substitutes, 1821-51, 1911 National census of Ireland)

[12] Donal O’Hannigan Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 161)

[13] Donal O’Hannigan Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 161)

[14] Patrick McHugh Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 677)

[15] Edward Bailey Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 233)

[16] Frank Martin Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 236)

[17] Patrick McHugh Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 677)

[18] Seán MacEntee Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 1052)

[19] Donal O’Hannigan Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 161)

[20] Stephen O’Donnell, The Royal Irish Constabulary and the Black and Tans in County Louth: 1919-22 (Dundalk, 2004) p. 229

[21] Carried out by Mr T.F. McGahon J.P. and Mr. A.A. Watters J.P in the Louth Infirmary, Dundalk on the body of Constable Charles McGee.

[22] Dundalk Examiner, 29 Apr. 1916 On the upper left arm there was a large wound about one inch in diameter and an exit wound through the seventh vertebrae. In the left axilla (armpit) they found a large lacerated wound two inches by one inch. In the left side of his chest, splinters of rib bone had embedded itself in the left lung lacerating the organ to a considerable extent

[23] Dundalk Examiner, 29 Apr. 1916

[24] The Times, 12 Jan. 1931

[25] Edward Bailey Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 233)

[26] Hugh Kearney Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 260)

[27] Patrick McHugh Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 664 and 677)

[28] Donal O’Hannigan Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 161)

[29] Irish Times Sinn Féin Rebellion Handbook, Second Edition (New Delhi, 2016) p. 110

[30] Irish Times Sinn Féin Rebellion Handbook, Second Edition (New Delhi, 2016) pp 110-11

[31] Irish Times Sinn Féin Rebellion Handbook, Second Edition (New Delhi, 2016) p. 112

[32] Patrick McHugh Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 677)

33 James McGuill Witness Statement, Military Archives, Cathl Brugha Barracks, Dublin (Bureau of Military History, No. 353)

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