As soon as the Great War broke out in August 1914, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), operating as a secret caucus within the Irish Volunteers, began to plan a rebellion against British rule in Ireland. Operating on the old IRB maxim that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’, they planned for a countrywide rebellion. The Germans agreed to supply 20,000 rifles; organisers were sent throughout the country to radicalise local nationalists and train them in arms; and conspirators met in Dublin and elsewhere to discuss military strategy and political objectives.
As part of this initiative, Liam Mellows was sent to organise the Irish Volunteers in County Galway in March 1915. Mellows was born in Lancashire in 1892 to Irish parents, and was then reared in County Wexford. Later he gained some military training and joined the IRB in Dublin. Frank Hynes, captain of the Athenry branch of the Irish Volunteers, recalled the arrival of Mellows in the town:
‘We got word from Dublin that an officer was being sent down to organise and train the Volunteers in County Galway . . . When he arrived I was introduced to a little fellow with glasses. My impression of him was that he may be a clever lad—he was about 22 years—but couldn’t be much good at fighting. His name by the way was Liam Mellows. He came in when the men were lined up, six footers most of them. Liam addressed them, “Now men I was sent down to get you to do a bit of hard work, so I want you to be prepared for a week of very hard work”. I could see the faintest trace of a supercilious smile on some of the men. When he was finished talking Larry [Lardner, the commanding officer of the Galway brigade of the Irish Volunteers] and himself went off to arrange about digs. Then the smiles broke out to laughing. “Who is the ladeen,” asked one fellow, “who talks to us about hard work?”’
In time, however, Mellows won the support and respect of the majority of the Irish Volunteers in Galway, and in 1966 a statue of him was erected in Eyre Square in Galway city.
Mellows quickly organised the separatists in Galway and found many recruits for the Irish Volunteers in a well-organised secret society that had links to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). An agrarian secret society had existed in Galway since 1907 and was largely responsible for the waves of land agitation that swept across the county during the first two decades of the new century. However, this secret society was itself a revival of a secret society that had originated in the early 1880s, and probably had roots in the secret society tradition of the early nineteenth century. There was enormous poverty throughout the west of Ireland at that time, with the majority of the population surviving on a diet of potatoes and little else. Indeed, most landholdings were too small and too poor in quality to provide the small farmers who lived on them with a reasonable standard of living. Consequently, there was continued agitation by small farmers to implement land redistribution in the region.
In particular, smallholders agitated against farmers (known as graziers) who occupied large farms on which they grazed cattle for export to the lucrative British market. Small farmers believed that their living conditions could be improved by the redistribution of this grazing land amongst the rural poor—small farmers and agricultural labourers—and the secret society supported their struggle for a more just division of land. Members of the Galway secret society—then under the leadership of the Craughwell blacksmith Tom Kenny—flocked into the ranks of the Irish Volunteers and provided Mellows with almost 2,000 supporters in the county on the eve of the Rising. Kenny, who was 38 in 1916, was the IRB centre for County Galway but was also an associate of leading republicans in Dublin (John MacBride, Seán MacDiarmuida and Arthur Griffith, for instance), as well as president of the Connacht GAA council.
‘Surrender, boys, I know ye all’
The insurgents who assembled in Galway on Easter Monday 1916 undertook a number of separate attacks on the British army and the police in the county. There were two unsuccessful attacks on police barracks at Clarinbridge and Oranmore on Tuesday. Another group of rebels, who had camped out at Carnmore crossroads overnight on Tuesday, encountered a British army patrol coming out of the city at dawn on Wednesday morning. Michael Newell, one of the rebels at Carnmore, remembers what happened:
‘I noticed a girl on a hill at Kiltullagh waving a white apron, apparently in order to attract our attention . . . I looked to see what was wrong and saw a number of motor cars about half a mile away coming in our direction from Galway City . . . Captain Molloy ordered us to take cover behind the walls. Just as we had taken cover, fire was opened on us.
The cars proceeded to about one hundred yards from our position and then halted. The enemy advanced on foot on our position, firing all the time. Captain Molloy ordered us to open fire, which we did, but the enemy fire was so intense and the bullets striking the top of the walls, we were compelled to keep down, and we were only able to take an occasional shot. The enemy advanced up to the crossroads and Constable Whelan was pushed by District Inspector He[a]rd up to the wall which was about four feet high, the district inspector standing behind Whelan and holding him by the collar of his tunic.
Constable Whelan shouted, “Surrender, boys, I know ye all”. Whelan was shot dead and the district inspector fell also and lay motionless on the ground. The enemy then made an attempt to outflank our position but were beaten back. The enemy then retreated and continued to fire until well out of range of our shotguns. They got back into the cars and went in the direction of Oranmore.’
After this incident all the rebels united at Athenry, where there were about 500 men (from Oranmore, Clarinbridge, Maree, Athenry, Craughwell, Rockfield, Newcastle, Derrydonnell, Cussaun and Kilconieron) armed with just 25 rifles, 60 revolvers, 300 shotguns and 60 pikes. However, the rebel position at Athenry was exposed and open to attack, and so the rebels retreated to Moyode Castle and Limepark, to the south of Athenry, both of which were deserted ‘big houses’. Frank Hynes explained the decision to decamp to Moyode:
‘Anyone reading this account would be inclined to think that we were acting in a rather cowardly manner . . . why did we keep retreating[?] . . . The Volunteers who were out in Galway numbered between five and six hundred; we had about fifty full service rifles and about thirty rounds for each rifle. The rest were old shotguns . . . and a good many [Volunteers] . . . were not armed at all . . . After the scrap with the peelers we called a meeting and decided to retreat to a place called Moyode. This was a castle which was owned by one of the big landlords called Pers[s]e. It was about five miles from us. The argument in favour of Moyode was that we could defend it at least until our ammunition would be spent. The castle was in charge of a caretaker so there was no trouble in capturing it.’
In fact, the Galway rebellion (like that in Ireland more generally) was undermined by two events. The first was the capture of 20,000 German rifles en route to the insurgents. If these arms had been distributed in Galway (and elsewhere throughout Ireland) as had been planned, then a much more extensive insurrection could have been attempted. The second was Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order, which cast rebel forces into a state of confusion on the day before the rising was due to begin. Thus the vast majority of Irish Volunteers did nothing during Easter week. Although many of the Galway Volunteers did ‘come out’, they were insufficiently armed to take on the military forces that gathered around them. In fact, marines began to encircle the rebel position at Limepark on the Friday, and HMS Gloucester in Galway Bay had been shelling the fields around Athenry from Tuesday onwards. Ultimately the Galway rebels were forced to bow to the inevitable.
On Saturday 29 April, five days after the Galway rising began, the rebels returned to their homes, while Mellows and the other leaders went on the run. Mellows escaped to New York, Lawrence Lardner went into hiding in Belfast, and Tom Kenny travelled to Boston, where he remained until 1923.
Most of the rebels were arrested the following week and imprisoned in English and Scottish jails before being transported to Frongoch in south Wales, where the rank-and-file were detained until August. The more prominent rebels were finally released at Christmas 1916.
‘I was looking for the freedom of my country as any decent man would do in an unfree country’
In terms of their social composition, the Galway rebels were young Catholic men from small farm, labouring and artisan backgrounds. Some of them were Irish-speakers and members of the Gaelic League; most of them were hurlers and members of their local GAA clubs. Almost all of them were members of the Galway secret society who had been sworn into the IRB by the two most prominent Fenians in the county, Martin Finnerty of Gurteen and Tom Kenny of Craughwell. The Galway insurgents had not—in most cases—benefited from the various land acts passed by the British government, and probably held firm to the belief that the land question could only be solved by an independent Irish republic. It was for this reason that they staged an insurrection against both the British state in Ireland and the landlords who owned the thousands of acres of grazing land that surrounded their smallholdings. In their responses to the questions put to them by the Royal Commission on the Rebellion, the insurgents generally explained their motivation in nationalistic terms. When asked if he knew what he was doing when he joined the Galway rebellion, Michael Kelly of Clarinbridge ‘answered that I did, and [said] that I was looking for the freedom of my country as any decent man would do in an unfree country’. However, the rebels’ concept of ‘freedom’ encompassed economic as well as political liberty, and the two struggles against the British state and the landlord class were viewed as one and the same. Gilbert Morrissey of Craughwell explained that the aim of the secret society was
‘. . . to keep the spark of nationality alive in us until the opportunity came. This was not so difficult in County Galway because, in a sense, arms were never put away. If the people were not fighting against the British forces proper, they were making a fair stand against its henchmen, the tyrant landlord class, their agents and bailiffs, who were backed up and protected by the Royal Irish Constabulary.’
There was, however, some division among the leadership of the Galway rising. Liam Mellows identified the rising primarily as an insurrection against British rule in Ireland, but the local leaders of the secret society viewed the insurrection as a broader agitation in favour of land redistribution. The conflict within the leadership was primarily between Mellows and Tom Kenny, the leader of the Galway secret society. Kenny was an extraordinary figure who was so influential in south-east Galway that the police described him as a ‘local monarch’. He envisaged a radical transformation of Irish society and the creation of a more egalitarian Ireland that was fairer to small farmers and labourers. During the rising, Kenny tried to push Mellows in a more radical direction by proposing that the rebels seize cattle and land as well as attacking the police and army. This conflict came to a head at Moyode Castle on Thursday when the two men discussed the future direction of the insurrection. In the event, Mellows rejected Kenny’s suggestions that the rebels should seize land and attack the bourgeois members of the home rule movement in the locality. Kenny was infuriated and later characterised Mellows as a coward and an inept political leader, writing in 1917: ‘Fair-headed Bill, you are good for nothing only drinking tea at Walshes of Killeeneen’. The Galway rising, despite Kenny’s best efforts, remained on a straightforward nationalist footing.
‘We could not have held it’
The Galway rising demonstrates that if arms had been successfully distributed throughout Ireland a countrywide insurrection would have been a distinct possibility. The county inspector for west Galway explained that if MacNeill had not issued his countermanding order the rebels would have taken control of the entire county:
‘It is pretty plain now [May 1916] that the rebellion was precipitated and if it had been deferred until later when all was ready it would not have been confined to the districts of Galway and Gort but would have embraced the whole county and we could not have held it.’
If a full-scale provincial insurrection had been staged, then the Easter Rising could have constituted an extremely serious military outbreak, given that there were about 15,000 Irish Volunteers in the country before the Rising and about the same number of British soldiers and police (RIC). Certainly, this was the view of the RIC’s inspector-general, writing in May 1916:
‘That the Sinn Féin insurrection was so quickly put down and that it was confined to so few districts outside the metropolitan area, must be ascribed to the fortunate arrest of Sir R. Casement and the failure of the German ship to land the required arms and ammunition. There is no reason whatever to believe that if these arrangements had not miscarried the Irish Volunteers in any county would have held back. In fact the evidence is all the other way.’
Secondly, the Galway rising—like that at Ashbourne and Enniscorthy—demonstrates that the Easter Rising was not a ‘blood sacrifice’. If all that was intended by the leaders of the Rising was a gesture to provoke British violence and therefore Irish republicanism (as some historians have suggested), it is unclear why 20,000 German rifles were imported and why arrangements were made for an insurrection throughout the provinces.
The rationale for the Rising may have been poorly worked out and even foolhardy, but the intention at the outset was military victory and not glorious suicide.
Fergus Campbell lectures in British and Irish history at the School of Historical Studies, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
F. Campbell, Land and revolution: nationalist politics in the west of Ireland, 1891–1921 (Oxford, 2005).
M. Dolan, ‘Galway in 1916’, Connacht Tribune, 2, 9, 16 and 23 April 1966.
C. D. Greaves, Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution (2nd edn, London, 1987).