The following is an approximate transcript of a lecture to the Laois Historical Society that took place on 22nd August 2016. It maintains the form of a lecture, and should not be interpreted as a thorough analysis of the period
So, Laois has a rather complicated, and contradictory history
that could be loosely, very loosely mind, placed into three phases. The first,
the longest by far, stretches back to pre-history and the first farming
communities that sprung up thousands of years ago. The county’s tangible recorded
history, really began with the introduction of Christianity and the development
of religious communities in places like here…
in Anatrim, near Coolrain at the foothills of the Slieve Blooms, and Aghaboe. In 1111 Ireland’s Christian community was divided up into diocese during the great Synod of Rathbreasail, near Mountath.
Laois, and Dunamase in particular, was a central part of the narrative that led to the invasion of Ireland by the Normans led by Richard de Clare, better known as Strongbow.
The second phase of Laois’ history really began when Kildare’s Silken Thomas Fitzgerald renounced his allegiance to King Henry VIII 1534 and led a rebellion against English rule in Ireland. The Earldom of Kildare had served as a very convenient buffer zone between the midlands and the Pale. The Earls kept the peace somewhat and kept the raiding parties of the O’Moores of Laois and the O’Connors of Offaly far away from Dublin. But after the execution of Silken Thomas in 1537, English authorities were faced with the prospect of hordes of armed Irish launching sustained attacks on the Pale and exacting black rents, or what we might term today as protection money, from beleaguered settlers. Met with this grim likelihood, the English entered into protracted negotiations with the O’Moores and the O’Connors.
Ruaidhrí Caoch mac Conaill O’Moore was the chieftain of Laois at the time. The new inheritance structures which would have emerged had the O’Moores continued to respect the law of primogeniture annoyed the chieftain’s brother, Giolla Pádraig. Giolla Pádraig would have inherited O’Moore territory had his brother died but the new arrangement would have meant he would never inherit anything. As a consequence, a bloody conflict erupted between the brothers. It was this conflict which spurred the English into action. Forts were constructed in the modern towns of Portlaoise (Fort Protector) and Daingean (Fort Governor). And with the necessary garrisons in place the lands of O’Moore and O’Connor were seized in June 1557, thus creating the plantations of Laois and Offaly.
Laois becoming Queen’s County, after Queen Mary I, Offaly becoming King’s County, after Mary’s husband, King Philip II of Spain.
Bloodshed was concurrent with the early years of the Queen’s County. Uprisings were quashed in 1600 and 1641. Indeed, it was not until after the arrival of Cromwell into Ireland and the quashing of the 1641 rebellion did any sense of normal English rule come to Laois. The ancient oak forests were cleared, farms expanded, small industries came, towns grew, the population began to grow. The census of 1841…
shows that the population of Laois was 153,930, giving it a population far higher than Kildare, Offaly (King’s), Louth and Wicklow. But the population of Laois plummeted after the Famine. As you can see here…
the population by 1911 was just over 54,000, a drop of 100,000 people. This graph…
shows the effect of the population fall on a micro level, in the parish of Camross. Indeed you can see here that the population fall was only arrested in the 1970s, 130 years after the famine.
The contradictions of the history of Laois, the great chasm between some of the peoples of this county can be epitomised in a micro analysis of any snapshot of life in Laois during the Famine years. Very quickly, I have looked at the Leinster Express newspaper, from June 19th, 1847, the height of the famine. The Leinster, …
a very establishment newspaper at the time (indeed, only 16 years old at the time) reported that the situation was not a bad as was being let on, that the potato crop was in good health. Now there is certainly some truth in the fact that the crop was relatively unscathed by blight in 1847, the problem lay in the tiny yield due to the lack of seed, the piece was giving an utterly false impression of the hardship befalling the poor of the county.
In the very same edition, a far more accurate vision of what was happening came in a report from Borris-in-Ossory…
The scars of a bitter schism in Irish politics following the revelations of Charles Stuart Parnell’s affair with Kathleen O’Shea lingered for almost a decade after the death of ‘The Uncrowned King of Ireland’ in 1891. It was not until 1900 that the differing factions of constitutional nationalism came back under the united banner of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). Wexford man, John Redmond, assumed leadership of the party and he embarked on steering both Parnellite and anti-Parnellite camps towards the common goal of Home Rule.
The Liberal Party of Great Britain lost 123 of their seats in the January 1910 election and Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was forced to approach Redmond and seek his support to form a government. A subsequent snap election in December 1910 led to very little change as Redmond’s support remained crucial to the integrity of a Liberal majority. The crucial piece of legislation which was seen as the final block on Home Rule was removed the following year. Therefore, when Asquith introduced the Home Rule bill in April 1912, Redmond knew that it would inevitably bypass the House of Lords veto in two years’ time and be signed into law by Royal Assent.
However, as the clock ticked inexorably towards Home Rule, which would be enacted in the autumn of 1914, people on both sides of the political divide stirred into a level of action not seen in Ireland for over a century. The Ulster Volunteers had been established with the overt goal of blocking Home Rule by any means necessary, including, if required, armed resistance. The Irish Volunteers were established as a counterpoint to their Unionist opponents and their overt aim was to protect Home Rule at all costs.
The spread of Irish Volunteer corps across the south of Ireland was initially rather slow. The first few corps were established in and around Dublin. The first corps to be established outside of the capital was in Monaghan on 6 December 1913. A few days later, the students of Galway University followed suit. Indeed there was a corps established in Liverpool before the first sign of Volunteer activity in the midlands manifested; the establishment of the Tullamore Volunteers on 22 March 1914. The first corps established in Laois was in Abbeyleix in April. Mountmellick followed suit and throughout May, the nationalists of Laois awoke from their slumber and began to catch up with the rest of the country. In one week alone, Corps were established in Portarlington, Wolfhill, Stradbally, Ballyroan, and Rathdowney. By September, the Volunteer movement seemed to be at its most zealous phase in Mountrath, despite waning somewhat in other parts of the country. When the Home Rule bill was passed by parliament in London in September 1914, there were great celebrations all around the streets of the town. Most windows were illuminated with candles as bands paraded past. Those few windows that were not illuminated were smashed indicating a growing strength of feeling in the town.
However, the Volunteer movement as it existed in the summer of 1914 was not to last. On 4 August the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland declared war on Germany. Merely days prior to this, it seemed that a bloody war was about to break out in Ireland. Crown Forces had attacked an innocent crowd of bystanders on Bachelor’s Walk in Dublin, killing four. Crown Forces were also plainly complicit in the importation of arms for the Ulster Volunteers in Larne in April 1914. Their military leaders had threatened to resign if any form of action was taken to curb the Unionists. Discussions in Buckingham Palace over Home Rule had broken down and the exclusion of Ulster from such legislation seemed inevitable. Two armed groups of Volunteers, diametrically opposed, stood opposite each other, both sides waiting for the other to blink. But events on the continent suddenly defused the tension. Attention shifted towards the plight of Belgium, whose neutrality was guaranteed by Britain by a so called ‘scrap of paper’ signed 75 years earlier….
In the first debate following the outbreak of the Great War in the House of Commons both John Redmond and Edward Carson, leaders of both sides of the Irish political divide, pledged their respective volunteers to the war effort. This pledge utterly changed the nationalist Volunteer movement. Across Ireland hundreds of thousands of young men, men who had previously been active and zealous volunteers, enlisted in the British army. Some may have been driven by an ideological opposition to German aggression in Europe, some may have been reassured by pledges to implement Home Rule once the war was over. But, more often than not, young men joined the army out of a sense of excitement and adventure, not to mention the prospect of a healthy wage which would otherwise have been unavailable to them.
Immediately after the outbreak of the war, a distinctly different hue came upon the Volunteer movement. Picking up on this, following a large Volunteer meeting in August 1914 attended by John Redmond, Colonel Sir William Hutchinson Poe of Heywood and Captain Ralph Algernon Coote, of Ballyfin, RIC County Inspector Yeldham said ‘there was a strong desire after the outbreak of the war on the part of Unionists to support the movement’. Indeed, by October 1914, Yeldham stated that the Volunteer movement was effectively finished in Laois due to the large numbers that had left to fight in the War. It is said that around 368 men, a conservative estimate, from Laois died in the Great War.
When John Redmond offered the services of the Irish Volunteers for the war effort there were elements within the organisation who were very opposed to the idea of siding with the British army. The leader of this opposing rump nationally was the founder of the Volunteers, Eoin McNeill.
McNeill and a small minority of the provisional committee of the National Volunteers proposed a manifesto which stated that ‘Ireland cannot, with honour or safety, take part in foreign quarrels otherwise through the free action of a National Government of their own’. All across southern Ireland, in town halls and schoolhouses, volunteer corps met to discuss this manifesto, the recent passing of the Home Rule bill and Redmond’s control over the organisation.
What is deemed historically to be a split in the volunteer movement in the wake of these discussions was in fact more akin to a slight splintering than a great schism. In Laois, there was warm praise for Redmond and his policies. The Rathdowney Volunteers pledged their ‘warmest support to the object for which the Volunteer movement was established’. The Maryborough volunteers accepted ‘the policy laid down by Mr. Redmond for the future guidance of the Irish Volunteers’. The Borris-in-Ossory Volunteers passed a resolution which stated that ‘we the committee and members of the Borris-in-Ossory Corps of the Irish National Volunteers, strongly condemn the action of the ‘unknowns’ on the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers in issuing a manifesto with the object of creating dissention and division in the ranks of the Volunteers and we consider their action antagonistic to the organisation’. Only three Mountrath delegates voted in favour of McNeill’s manifesto. The rest of them all supported Redmond.
The genesis of the revolutionary movement that would emerge during the War of Independence in Laois had its origins in Ballyroan. When the fifty Volunteers of the Ballyroan corps met to discuss McNeill’s manifesto, they became the only corps in the county to vote in favour of Eoin MacNeill and denounce Redmond’s control of the Volunteers. This was largely down to the determination of the leading Volunteer in the area, Lar Brady. During the meeting, Brady successfully advocated the virtues of remaining loyal to the original founder of the organisation and the vote was carried with a majority of three to one. The Ballyroan Volunteers were the only group from Laois not to attend the parade inspected by Redmond in Portlaoise in late September 1914. Brady and the rest of the Ballyroan Volunteers encountered strong intimidation from local Irish Parliamentary Party supporters, showing the extent to which the IPP still had influence over nationalism in the area. The secretary of the Ballyroan Volunteers was a supporter of Redmond and he deliberately withheld correspondence from Volunteer Headquarters with the effect that the corps fizzled out to dormancy.
However, Brady’s determination was not dented. He joined the Portlaoise circle of the IRB in January 1915 and helped recruit for a newly re-formed Irish Volunteer company in the town. This Company was established by Patrick Ramsbottom and he assumed the role of Company Captain. Both Ramsbottom and Brady noted the difficulties they faced in recruiting men from both the general public and from existing members of the National Volunteers. Ramsbottom went as far as saying that ‘there was a strong pro-British element in [Portlaoise]’. In Mountrath, there was also an effort to form a branch of the Irish Volunteers but there was little support. However, a small group of men, likely the same men who had formed an IRB circle in the town in 1910, kept the fledgling movement alive throughout 1915 and into early 1916.
On 27 March 1916, William Delany MP died in his home in Roskeen, outside Mountmellick. His death and the subsequent by-election was the main focus of attention in the county throughout April 1916. However, by the time the presiding officer in Mountrath Courthouse announced a victory for John Lalor-Fitzpatrick in early May, other, more drastic, events were on the minds of the people.
Direct communications between Dublin and the rest of Ireland were severed on Easter Monday 1916. The first signs in Laois that something dramatic was occurring on the east coast came with the stopping of the rail service to the capital in the mid-afternoon. Station conductors were ordered to halt all trains due to a military strike in Dublin city centre. The one train that did set off from Limerick in the direction of the capital was stopped at Ballybrophy and all passengers were asked to disembark. All motor cars travelling in the direction of Dublin were stopped by the military near Ballybrittas and were told that they could go no further. Over the following days news began to trickle through of a great tumult in the capital, although the details were not clear. Was it a Sinn Féin rebellion? Had the Germans invaded? Surely a British gun-boat had not sailed up the Liffey and flattened Dublin city centre?
To add to the confusion, and to the fear that there was in fact a nationwide rebellion taking place, a train had been derailed near Colt Wood following the deliberate destruction of part of the line by a group of Laois Volunteers. Shots had also been fired in the same incident, indeed the first shots of the conflict nationwide. Phone lines were cut around Roscrea amidst rumours of military activity on the part of the Volunteers being stood down mere hours before they were to commence on Easter Sunday.
A week from the outbreak of the Rising, PJ Meehan, told an impromptu meeting of Maryborough representatives that he had travelled to Dublin on the day the Rising concluded. He said that the people were starving there for the want of food. Despite the fact that provisions of all sorts were urgently required, bread was the principle foodstuff that was needed. Meehan appealed that bread would have to be gathered in the town and that similar appeals be sent out to Mountmellick, Abbeyleix, Portarlington, Mountrath, and Stradbally.
On the Tuesday after the Rising, prominent businessmen from Maryborough, Messrs. Jessop and Aldritt joined P.J Meehan and they conveyed over 500 lb of bread in their private motor cars to Dublin. The bread was given to the Sisters of Mercy and the Saint Vincent de Paul for distribution. They also travelled to some of the city’s worst hit areas and distributed rations themselves.
Epitomising the chaotic reality that dominated in the days after the rising, on his return from Dublin, Meehan was driving through Monasterevin at a relatively high speed, as he said himself (bearing in mind the term speeding in 1916 amounted to about 30 m.p.h). He saw two British soldiers on horses beside the road but did not hear any calls from them so he sped on. A short distance later he pulled over for a short rest. As he got out of the car he saw the horses gallop towards him. Both of the soldiers were very animated and demanded to know who he was and why he did not stop when asked. When he explained that he did not hear their shouts, the soldiers told him that he was a lucky man as they had drawn their weapons upon him and he was in their sights before they decided not to shoot and catch up to him instead.
Certain elements of the public were quick to scorn the leaders of the Rising and demanded justice whilst others sought clemency. The Leinster Express pinned their colours, of a distinctly un-green hue at the time, to the mast in referring to the debate in one of its first editorials after the Rising;
A good deal of twaddle has been spoken and written concerning the advisability of leniency with the prisoners … and it is overlooked that every participant in the insurrection has, by the law of the land, placed his life in jeopardy, they entered into the conspiracy with their eyes open.
As time went on the opinion in Laois remained quite divided and this was shown in a debate during a meeting of the Abbeyleix Poor Law Union. Resisting calls to include a mention of clemency in a proposal on the Rising, the Chairman of the meeting said that ‘this is a public body and the community looks to us to express our opinion on it. It is a question of being in favour of this rebellion or being against it. We know what the opinion of the country is and we should pass this resolution. We would be doing a service to the country generally.’ In the end, a sentence urging clemency for ‘those misguided fellows’ was eventually included in the proposal.
The Easter Rising was the catalyst for a great change in the Irish political landscape. The IPP which had dominated Irish politics for a generation were to be wiped out by a resurgent Sinn Féin. The IPP were seen as an aging political entity not representative of the desires of a post-Rising Ireland. For instance, in a speech on 6 October 1916, John Redmond showed how out of touch he was with public opinion. He was quoted as saying ‘for the last ... two months ... I have been lying in the purple heather and trying to entice the wily trout out of the water, and trying to circumvent the still more wily grouse. I have really seen little of the newspapers’. It is little wonder that this part time fisherman was wiped out in the polls, along with his party, two years later.
The basic structure of the Volunteers in the Midlands, which would continue on throughout the War of Independence, came about in 1917. Individuals who joined the Volunteers upon its inception in 1914 and those who remained loyal to MacNeill took the lead in re-organising existing companies and establishing new ones. In his Witness Statement to the Bureau of Military History, Lar Brady outlined the procedure of organising a company;
The work of organisation consisted of establishing companies, holding election of company and battalion staffs, administering the Volunteer oath of allegiance to the Republic, giving lectures on the duties of Volunteers and filling vacancies caused by continuous arrests.
Patrick Ramsbottom and Patrick Fleming, acting under orders from the Volunteer Headquarters in Dublin, reorganised the Portlaoise Company and went around the county establishing new companies. In many parishes senior Volunteers were tasked with the job of reorganising the decayed remains of Irish National Volunteer companies and deal with opposition from IPP supporters. James Ramsbottom organised the Timahoe Company. It was because of intense IPP support in Portarlington that a company of Volunteers was originally established in neighbouring Killenard and not in the town, although a company was subsequently established there.
Now everyone familiar with this period in Irish history knows that concurrent with the resurrection of the Volunteer movement following the Easter Rising was the rise of Sinn Féin, and in this county, that largely meant the rise to prominence of this man, Kevin O’Higgins…
Now by early 1918 O’Higgins was a prominent member of the Sinn Féin movement in Laois, but it was not really until his involvement in the Offaly by-election of that year was he thrust forward as the leading member of the party in the county. With the spectre of conscription creeping on the horizon, it became a touchstone issue in the campaign for the election of Patrick McCartan. In Garryhinch, near Walsh Island in Offaly, O’Higgins addressed a crowd and made a ferociously passionate speech which landed him in prison.
Of course, no publicity is bad publicity, and, in the case of Sinn Féin at the time, an imprisonment such as that of Kevin O’Higgins, virtually secured success at any future election. And so it proved when a General Election was called a fortnight after Armistice. When the results were announced, O’Higgins had defeated PJ Meehan by 7,000 votes. Sinn Féin winning 73 seats across the island as a whole, increasing their seat numbers tenfold.
Soon after the sitting of the first session of Dáil Éireann on 19 January 1919, the Irish Volunteers officially became the Irish Republican Army. One of the first tasks that Volunteers became involved with in Laois was the collection of the Dáil Loan. The proto-state was in urgent need of funds and following the monetary success of Eamonn De Valera’s tour of the United States, it was decided to seek loans from Irish citizens for the support of the War of Independence effort. The collection was an overwhelming success in Laois. Indeed, the £13,000 total raised in Laois was second in Leinster to only the amount raised in Dublin. Most of the funds were transported to Dublin by PJ Ramsbottom who was the chief organiser of the collection in the county.
The first military event that I’m going to mention was the one that really brought the War of Independence to the forefront of Crown Force’s minds in a way that it had not beforehand. It was a hyper-organised, symbolic display of strength from the IRA. But most importantly, it was a symbol of strength from parts of the island where the IRA were not viewed as being much of a threat to the security of the state, including in Laois. Over 300 abandoned or partially abandoned RIC police barracks were destroyed on the evening of Easter Saturday 1920 (3rd April).
Important things to note about this event– it was a hyper-organised; it was a nationwide, co-ordinated event, showing the IRA GHQ’s ability to issue centralised commands, and the men on the ground’s ability to carry out orders. Militarily it was the end of the policing of Ireland in the normal sense of the word, the War was going to enter a new phase for better or worse after wards, and something I feel is overlooked at times, something I wrote about for the Leinster Express earlier this year, this was the first true commemoration of the Easter Rising. Four years after the tumult in Dublin, this was the true re-grasping of the mantle of the struggle for Irish freedom. The Rising’s immortal document, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, remembered the previous six struggles to throw off the shackles of the Crown, the seventh succeeded in so far as it let to the eight struggle, which truly took hold on Easter 1920.
In Laois the following barracks were attacked; Doonane, Luggacurren, Timahoe, The Heath, Ballyroan, Ballinakill, Castletown, and Coolrain. The actions of the IRA Volunteers involved in these attacks showed that the ‘peacable condition of the county’ as it had been recently referred to by local judiciary was well and truly gone. The policemen and their families that were present in the buildings, when people were present, most of them were either abandoned or partially abandoned, were treated rather poorly. Please allow to me to read the Leinster Express account of what happened in Ballyroan;
The game was truly afoot now as nationwide the IRA began to exert their force in attacks that were leading to the deaths of dozens of Crown Forces as Volunteers swore allegiance to Dáil Éireann. In Laois efforts were ongoing to subvert the British rule of law by establishing Sinn Féin Courts across the county. Concerted efforts were made to secure arms for the cause including requests being made to General Headquarters and raids upon known sources of arms such as the prison in Portlaoise.
But it was not until the end of 1920 that the bloody reality of the War that was manifest in other parts of the island came to the Queen’s County…
On the evening of 19th December a Crossley Tender full of armed men, Crown Forces, came to Ballyroan. They raided three pubs in the village taking the names of all present. In the dead of night, two masked men returned to McDonnell’s and demanded entry. James Whelan let them in, under duress. He was ordered by the men to face the fireplace and was asked was there money in the premises, they then made their way upstairs at which point Whelan was shot dead in a struggle. His father-in-law, Paddy McDonnell was also shot, though not mortally wounded.
The two men that were arrested escaped custody the day after St. Stephen’s Day, although they were soon re-apprehended. They were J.H Cockburn, and John Reive. Both members of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC, stationed in Abbeyleix. Both were police motor drivers and had only been stationed in Laois for a few days. Neither were ever issued with a firearm due to their temporary status there. After the raid on premises earlier in the evening, both men decided to return to commit burglary, which, as we know, went terribly wrong, and left James Whelan dead.
The morning after the shooting, Chief Constable of Abbeyleix Barracks, Constable Flynn heard moaning and crying from the Barracks kitchen. When he came in he found Cockburn injured, bleeding from the head. Flynn asked what had happened and Cockburn told him that he was set upon by two masked men who beat him for several minutes right outside the front door of the Barracks mere moments earlier. Flynn could find no sign of a struggle and following minimal investigation discovered that both men had left their quarters late the previous night without permission. When news came in of the shooting in Ballyroan Flynn became obviously suspicious and was shocked to discover that his own gun had been retrieved from the crime scene. Flynn checked the gun that was on his person, in a holster, and noted that it had a different serial number. Clearly both Cockburn and Reive had taken Flynn’s gun the night before, and when they left it behind in Ballyroan they desperately tried to cover their tracks by swapping another gun into Flynn’s holster.
Both men were arrested, and by Military Inquiry were charged with the wilful murder of Whelan. After they were re-apprehended the following year a Court Martial in Dublin found both men guilty of murder and were sentenced to death. This was commuted to life’s penal servitude, which was partly served in the infamous Dartmoor Prison.
In January 1921 a labourer, Geoffery McDonald, was shot dead between Ballinakill and Abbeyleix. The very next night former soldier Thomas Lawless was shot dead in his Maryborough home by an Auxiliary policeman William John Wilton, who was eventually found guilty of his murder.
A few weeks later a 26 year old man, former soldier, who it appears was about to join the RIC was shot dead in Maryborough. The IRA managed to get the intel on William Vanston via a technique which seen many many young men at the wrong end of a barrel of a gun, a raid on the post. Opening letters, seeing what they could use.
So Vanston’s death was the last in the series of murders that began just before Christmas. Crown Forces clamped down hard, enforcing a curfew between 9pm and 5am, patrolling the streets, firing flares, or Verey Lights as they were more commonly called at the time. The IRA were blowing up bridges, cutting roads, felling trees. Being generally disruptive. In early 1921 Edward Deegan, captain of the Abbeyleix IRA approached Lar Brady with information regarding the movements of the RIC in the town. Deegan said that an armed patrol of about twelve RIC men and Black and Tans left the barracks to patrol the town at roughly the same time every night and also returned roughly the same time every night. The barracks was a prime IRA target as it was the divisional HQ of the RIC and garrisoned inside were fifty Auxiliary Officers and Black and Tans. The front entrance to the barracks was a lawn drive which was about 150 yards in length with a wooded hill sloping down to one of the sides of the drive. The plan for the attack was to wait in the wooded area for the returning patrol and attack it as it moved along the lawn drive towards the barracks. The attack was to take place on 29 March 1921. Seventeen Volunteers led by Tom Brady, Lar’s brother, travelled from Bland’s Fort, Ballyroan to a field just adjacent to the wooded hill where they met Edward Deegan who confirmed that the patrol had just left. The Volunteers lay in wait, each armed with a rifle and twenty rounds of ammunition. However the patrol did not enter the barracks via the lawn drive, they entered a different way to the right of where the Volunteers were waiting. Lar Brady was the first to notice that the RIC were in fact entering the barracks building and he opened fire. The officers easily entered the building to safety. The Volunteers proceeded to shoot at the barracks until the RIC responded with machine gun fire. The IRA withdrew without any casualties being inflicted on either side. Were it not for the bad luck of the patrol entering by a different route, this attack could have yielded heavy casualties upon the RIC and Black and Tans.
Now in Abbeyleix the IRA managed to get away unscathed. This was not always the case, far from it in fact. On 16th May, two Volunteers William Conor and James Lacey were shot dead in botched attack on Crown Forces in Ballylinan, an attack which was met with a fierce reprisal which left several dwelling houses in Barrowhouse and Ballylinan in ruins.
In the final months of the War of Independence the focus in the sixth Battalion area around Mountrath shifted towards the perceived problem of spies and informers. Two incidences of summary executions of men took place around Camross at this time. The first man to be shot dead was Michael Byrne from Windsor. The Leinster Express reported his death as follows;
Murder near Mountrath
A great sensation was caused throughout the district on Friday last, when the dead body of a young man named Michael Byrne, aged 32 or 33 years, was discovered on the roadside a short distance from his house at Windsor, Coolrain, Mountrath. He was the eldest son of Michael Byrne, farmer of Windsor, and the family are very popular and much sympathy is felt with them in their great affliction.
It would appear from the meagre details to hand that the deceased was visiting some neighbours on Thursday night and left for home about 10.30pm. Nothing further was known of him until Friday morning, when he was found, as stated, shot dead, with one or two gunshot wounds in his body. The remains were removed to his residence, and the internment took place in the family burial ground on Sunday.
It is alleged that deceased was in possession of about £100 at the time of his death, and that it was frequently remarked that he used to keep large sums of money about him. The motive would, therefore, appear to be robbery.
What is not reported by the Leinster Express is, that laid upon Michael’s corpse, was supposedly a handwritten plaque that read ‘spies and informers beware’. At a time when the lines between patriotism, vigilantism, and outright robbery and murder were often blurred, the circumstances of Michael Byrne’s death indicate potentially sinister elements at work.
Whilst documented details of Michael Byrne’s death are scarce, details surrounding the death of Peter Keyes are much easier to come by. In his Witness Statement to the Bureau of Military History, Edward Brennan describes how it became very apparent in the early months of 1921 that there were spies actively working against the IRA in the area. A meeting was called in Peafield to discuss one particular spy and what was to be done about the situation. The meeting was attended by Brennan himself, as well as Lar Brady, Thomas Brady and Volunteers from the Mountrath and Killanure IRA. After considering reports on the alleged activities of Peter Keyes, the Volunteers agreed that he had to be executed.
Peter Keyes was 50 years of age. He was married to Kate since the early 1890s and they had ten children; James, Katie, Margaret, Mary, Peter, Michael, Patrick, Emily, Bridie and Annie. The family had lived on Shannon Street in Mountrath before they moved to Rushin. Keyes was a labourer and also acted as an auxiliary postman. Details of Peter’s alleged acts of espionage against the IRA are not documented and I won’t air any speculation on same this evening.
After the IRA meeting in Peafield, Keyes was sent three threatening letters. All three letters informed Keyes that he was a known spy for the RIC and that his life was in danger. At 10pm on the evening of 4 July, only a week from the end of the War of Independence, Kate Keyes heard noises outside their home. She urged her husband to allow her to go outside and get protection for him from the RIC in Mountrath. Peter laughed off his wife’s concerns, but given the nature of the letters that he had recently received he must have known that the IRA could pay him a visit at any time, day or night. The shooting dead of Michael Byrne had taken place not that long before and this event, and dozens like them all over the island, left no one in any doubt of what the IRA were capable of.
At 1am Kate heard further noises outside. Again, Peter urged his wife not to worry but half an hour later their dogs began to bark and shadows passed by their bedroom window. At about 2am the inevitable knock came upon the door. The pair leapt from the bed and Peter rushed toward the door armed with a poker and asked who was there. ‘Men’ was the short response. ‘What do you want’ was Peter’s reply. ‘We want you’ were the final words of the men before they forced their way inside. Peter who was shouting that they could not take him was swept aside by seven masked men. Four of them, armed with revolvers, seized Peter and brought him outside. The remainder stayed inside and kept Kate and three of her children in a room. She attempted to escape but was caught and forced into another room.
At 3.10am Kate heard three shots pierce the silence of the still summer’s night. She roared to her children that ‘they have him shot’. When assured that the men had fled, Kate sped to get the police before returning and finding her husband’s lifeless body.
The final death in Laois of the War, indeed one of the last nationwide, was that of John Poynton, in Kilbride, Portarlington. He had been a member of the RIC, but had recently left to farm the land owing to the death of his father. Given the timing of his death, I would share historian Micheal Rafter’s assertion that his RIC involvement was merely a cover for a murder that had little to do with the national struggle.
As I alluded to in the beginning of my talk, I am from the very outskirts of this county. Even by the remote standards of Camross, my home in Neilstown is very remote. It was this remoteness which was key in the circumstances that led to the establishment of the Headquarters of the Third Southern Division of the IRA in the home of my great-grand parents James and Grett Dooley. Their home would become the headquarters of the army for an area that stretched as far south as Newport, as far north as Rhode, as far west as Shannonbridge, and as far east as Killeshin.
At any one stage during the War of Independence, various prominent members of the North Tipperary IRA may have been present in Neilstown, such as Seamus Burke (a member of the first Dáil, Minister for Local Government and Public Health from 1923 to 1927, one of the only men to serve in the Dáil for Sinn Féin, Cummann na Gael, and Fine Gael) Ned Quinlan (leader of the Roscrea IRA), Seán Gaynor (leader of the Nenagh IRA), Pat Starr), Austin McCurtin, Michael McCormack, (prominent Nenagh Volunteers) and Patrick A. Mulcahy (future general in the Irish Army).
General Headquarters organiser, Michael McCormack, who had been in the area since Christmas 1920, oversaw the establishment of the Third Southern Division which comprised of the North Tipperary Brigade, as well as the two Offaly Brigades and the Laois Brigade. When the Division came into operation in the late spring of 1921, McCormack became the Officer in Command whilst Seán Gaynor became adjutant. Given the reputation that it had built up as a secure safe house in a remote area, the sitting room of Dooley’s in Neilstown was converted into the headquarters of the Division. At a meeting of regional Officers in Command from around the four Brigades in Neilstown, Gaynor and McCormack outlined their plans to improve communications with telephones and copying presses and to establish a Divisional Flying Column which was to meet in Camross on 11 July. Flying Columns from the three counties converged in Neilstown that Friday afternoon only to be told that a truce had just been announced.
In the early hours of 6 December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. It provided for the establishment of the Irish Free State exactly a year later.
Dáil Éireann passed the treaty by a margin of seven votes in January 1922. Eamonn De Valera resigned his position as President of the Republic and proceeded on a speaking tour of Munster during which he effectively announced that a bloody Civil War was the only possible outcome of the acceptance of the Treaty. At one such meeting he said ‘to complete the work the Volunteers of the last four years had been attempting, they would have to complete it, not over the bodies of foreign soldiers, but over the dead bodies of their own countrymen. They would have to wade through Irish blood, through the blood of the soldiers of the Irish Government, and through perhaps the blood of some of the members of the Irish Government in order to get Irish freedom.’ A General Election in June 1922 showed a large majority in the constituency of Leix/Offaly in favour of the Treaty; 3 pro-Treaty candidates were elected along with a Labour candidate. Nationwide, the picture was not as straight forward. 36 Anti-Treaty TDs were elected, a sizeable rump led by an increasingly belligerent De Valera. A few days before the election, prominent Volunteer, and opponent of the Treaty, Rory O’Connor had led a body of IRA Volunteers into the Four Courts complex on the quays in Dublin. A number of days later a retired British soldier was shot dead in London, in an action that is now generally assumed to have been ordered by Michael Collins. Assuming that the assassination was the work of the anti-Treaty IRA, Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, hatched a plan to destroy the Four Courts with gun boats, howitzers and the Royal Air Force in an action which could have killed hundreds. He was convinced at the last instant to renege on these plans and instead pressured Michael Collins to tackle the garrison with force. Collins resisted the pressure from London and also from the likes of Arthur Griffith as he knew that such an action would result in the outbreak of Civil War. However, the final straw came when the Republican garrison kidnapped JJ O’Connell, a Free State general. Collins gave the garrison an ultimatum to release O’Connell, which they failed to meet and the bombardment of the Four Courts began.
The Civil War was the great tragedy of 20th Century Irish History, just as the failed 1798 rebellion was of the 18th Century, the Famine of the 19th Century. It was fully felt in Laois.
In Laois, irregular forces as they would become known as, or non-Free State IRA forces, decided to strengthen their position in Abbeyleix…
As you can see here in Lar Brady’s words to the BMH, he was appointed Officer in Command of operations. Edward Deegan, O/C of the local IRA battalion, was in charge of an operation to restrict access to the town by blocking entry roads with trees and trenches, downing telegraph lines and disrupting the rail lines, including the destruction of a number of bridges. A party of Free State forces who were returning to Portlaoise were ambushed by a party of IRA men and James Kealy, Free State soldier from Ballickmoyler, was shot dead, it is said that it took over three hours for the injured Kealy to reach Portlaoise due to the blocked roads.
On 5th July, a very large force of Free State forces from Kilkenny began to engage IRA Volunteers in Abbeyleix. The IRA were vastly outnumbered, and according to Lar Brady, a decision was made after two outposts had already fallen that the IRA should retreat, and that only a small party should remain and engage Free State forces for as long as possible. Brady, who was part of the party that remained along with Edward Deegan and Joseph Crennan held out for several hours before re-joining their comrades near Ballyking, a few miles outside the town.
In the immediate aftermath of the Battle for Abbeyleix the IRA moved to Capard House, where they came under very heavy and sustained attack from Free State troops on 12th July. They managed to escape to the mountains around Clonaslee, but not before Volunteer Denis Dwyer lost his life. With the IRA on the back-foot, finding itself in constant retreat from the far better equipped Free State army, they sought to revert back to tactics of ambush and retreat which had served them so well in the War of Independence. So, to that end, and armed with information that a party of Free State troops were scheduled to pass through Tunduff, near Abbeyleix, they planned an ambush….
They marched through the night from their refuge in the Slieve Blooms to the ambush site beside a house with a high walled garden. The plan, largely devised by Tom Brady, was to place two mines in the road, and that when the convoy passed over the first, both mines would be detonated and the troops would be trapped.
However, the information that the IRA received did not prove entirely accurate, on that very day at least, the morning passed and there were no signs of any Free State troops. It was not until the afternoon that a party of 45 Free State troops approached, and even then, it appeared that they had gotten wind of the ambush as they approached very cautiously. The party consisted of a leading armoured car, and two lorries. As the car passed over the first mine, contrary to the plan, the mine detonated. The following lorries easily stopped, and reversed out of danger.
According to Volunteer Michael Sheehy, the IRA were wholly unprepared for the Free State troops when they actually did arrive. They had anticipated them arriving from the opposite direction and several of them were actually asleep following their sleepless night the evening before. The troops in the armoured car, though wounded and shaken, managed to make their retreat. Volunteer John Grace of Mountrath was shot dead as he attempted to retrieve a rifle in the road.
The Volunteers retreated to a nearby sandpit for rest after the failed ambush. However, reinforcements from Portlaoise were swarming into the area and five lorries of Free State troops were deployed to the area. As the approached the IRA Volunteers they came under brief heavy fire, before the Volunteers surrendered. The volley that they did get off have deadly effect, killing both Commandants Austin McCurtin and Sean Collison. Both men were two of the most prominent IRA Volunteers in North Tipperary during the War of Independence and would have made key plans towards the end of that War in the Third Southern Division HQ in Camross. The captured Volunteers were questioned by Michael Collins, and were lucky not to escape with internment in the Curragh.
This image was from the front of the now defunct Nenagh News newspaper, commenting, in a rather partisan way, on the death of both men. This is a rare image of Collison’s body under guard, and a painting of Collison.
There were many more incidents in the late summer of 1922 in Laois that left many wounded or dead. Portlaoise prison came under heavy fire in late August, and the building was set alight.
Many of you may have seen this image before, It was in Michael’s book a number of years ago. As summer turned to autumn and into winter, things nationwide were getting far more grim. Government ordered executions began in November, Erskine Childers among the first to be shot. This is one of Irish history’s most famous photos,
it is Kevin O’Higgins’ wedding photo. Rory O’Connor was his best man. Month later O’Higgins signed off on his execution, albeit most sources suggest that he did so almost under duress, and certainly under distress, Richard Mulcahy applying the pressure.
The beginning of the execution policy was met with a call by leader of the IRA, Liam Lynch that any TD that supported said executions would be shot on sight, and it was clear that family members of these same TDs were not exempt from this call.
On 11th February, 1923, a lorry containing seven armed and masked men approached the home of Dr. Thomas O’Higgins in Woodlands, Stradbally. Three of these men approached the house demanding admission. O’Higgins replied that he had received a letter and would not be admitting anyone to his home. The masked men made their way into the home on the premise of demanding to read the letter. As one of the men read the letter O’Higgins armed himself and was about to defend himself when he was shot multiple times, both from the men inside, and through the window by men who had remained outside. He died instantly. The Civil War rumbled on until late May of 1924 when Frank Aiken gave the dump arms order.