The day when an Irish national parliament in Dublin would be established, whose members would be elected by the people of Ireland, for the first time since the Act of Union was imminent. But in reality, in rural areas such as Camross, such news was greeted with mild apathy. What went on in the Palace of Westminster did not really concern the farmers and labourers of Camross. The centre of their political interest, mild and all as such interest was, was in Mountmellick where their representatives discussed the tangible aspects of their lives.

According to the 1911 Census of Ireland, Camross had a population of approximately 1,700 people. There were 148 Delaneys, 140 Phelans, 68 Dooleys, 60 Cuddys, and 48 Fitzpatricks. There were 171 more men than women. There was just under 1,500 Catholics, 223 members of the Church of Ireland, 18 Methodists, 15 members of the Church of England, 7 Presbyterians, 4 Quakers and a single Baptist. The vast majority of the people derived a meagre income from farming. 156 people described themselves as some form of labourer. Holders of different posts included;

  • Mary Burke, Lacka, who was a seamstress
  • John William Heyhirst, Anatrim, who managed the clog factory
  • George Abbot, Killanure, the postman
  • Hector Morrison, originally from Scotland, living in Larch Hill, who was a rabbit trapper
  • Anne Delaney, Marymount, who was the midwife
  • Theodore Verschoyle, Whitefields, and Richard Hyde, Rosnaclonagh, who both derived ‘income from rent’
  • Fr. Michael Murphy, the Parish Priest
  • Fr. Martin Kealy, the Curate
  • Rev. John D. Cowen, Coolrain, and Rev. Henry Anderson, The Glebe, the Church of Ireland rectors

Camross was a typical rural area of the time. There was nothing that set it apart from any other parish in the area. All of Laois was satisfied with the work of the IPP and the people allowed them to get on with their work with little fuss or debate. Camross fell into the Queen’s County Ossory constituency and since 1900 William Delany had been re-elected unopposed. The rest of the county only saw a change in representation when Patrick A. Meehan was succeeded by his son, Patrick Joseph Meehan, after the former’s death in 1913. Other, more radical, strains of nationalism were largely derided. Seamus Miller, a leading Gaelic League organiser from Mountrath, said that there were a few in the county who were interested in the ideals of Arthur Griffith’s new Sinn Féin party, but ‘they were classed as cranks and soreheads’. Any tendencies towards physical force nationalism was largely the reserve of the Irish Republican Brotherhood which, albeit gaining some momentum around the country, represented a very small portion of the body politic. There was a small circle of the IRB in Mountrath in the early 1910s. Patrick O’Mahony, a senior organiser for the secret organisation used his new job as a survey officer for the postal service to travel the country organising IRB circles where he could. In 1910, after spending a week in Roscrea, O’Mahony moved on to Mountrath where he organised a circle around Tom Dunne and Sean Finn, who was a local school teacher at the time.[1]

The National Volunteers

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 on 27 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. Camross Volunteers would have been initially catered for in the Mountrath, Borris-in-Ossory, or Castletown corps. However, sometime around June 1914, a corps called the ‘Upperwoods Volunteers’ became affiliated with the organisation. Its leading organiser was Dr. Eugene Francis Hogan of Larch Hill, Coolrain. Hogan, a Justice of the Peace, became a much respected member of the organisation in the county. He presided over the first meeting of the County Board of the Laois Volunteers and was nominated as the county vice-president, a position which he modestly chose to pass on to someone else.

But for all the esteem that Hogan was held in, his enthusiasm for the cause was not replicated in the wider Camross community. The ordinary farming class did not seem to take much interest in the organisation. Upperwoods was the only corps that sent a single delegate to the first County Board meeting, that being Hogan himself. The movement was apparently much stronger in the bordering areas of Ballaghmore and Killavilla. Both of these areas sent corps to a large Volunteer parade in Roscrea on 19 July. It is possible that the meteoric rise of the Volunteers simply passed the people of Camross by. The Laois RIC County Inspector, Charles Yeldham, stated in his monthly report to Dublin Castle in March 1914 that ‘farming operations are well advanced owing to the continuing nice weather. The people in this county appear on the whole prosperous and comfortable and there are signs everywhere of material improvement. Politically there is little or no excitement.’[2] It was clear that the good weather that was prevailing led the farming classes of Camross to concentrate on their work and reap the rewards of the soil rather than concern themselves with issues of high-politics.

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.

The Great War

However, the Volunteer movement as it existed in the summer of 1914 was not to last. On 4 August 1914 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, CI 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 the county due to the large numbers that had left to fight in the War.

However, Camross largely stood apart from the large scale recruitment to the British army, as it had done with the Volunteer movement. This was not untypical of a rural area. Trade in agricultural produce and horses was soaring; the agricultural wholesale price index rose by 60% between 1914 and 1916. All in all, things were going spectacularly well for the farming community. Historian L. M. Cullen stated that ‘the First World War, and especially the two years after it, was the most hectic period of agricultural prosperity in Ireland’s history, surpassing even the best years of the Napoleonic Wars. It has also been said that, in economic terms, the last years of the Union with Great Britain, were the best years.’[3]

But despite the likely apathy that many had for the war effort, a number of young men from the area did join the British army during the Great War. Joe Neil, Neilstown, joined the British Army leaving his prized horse ‘Captain’ behind him. Some months later he wrote home saying that he had been reacquainted with ‘Captain’ on the battlefields of Flanders, his family having cashed in on the soaring prices for healthy horses.

In Coolrain young men could enlist in the British Army in the RIC barracks. Within days of enlisting, one could find themselves swept away from the serenity of the Slieve Blooms to the trenches of the Western Front. One interesting case from the time shows how every member of society was welcome into the British army, and how many members of the recruit’s family would not have been happy at their decision. In January 1916, Patrick Touhy came to the RIC barracks in Coolrain and completed his enlistment forms for the army. The Sergeant in the barracks at the time was Sgt. Clarke and he gave Touhy a military warrant to travel on towards Maryborough where he would be formally recruited into the army. Touhy proceeded to Mountrath rail station to travel on to Maryborough. But at the station he was accosted by his cousins, Eliza Touhy and Molly McInerney. They physically held him until the train had left the station and brought Patrick back to the tent site where the Touhy and McInerney families were staying near the Pike of Rushall. The following day, Touhy heard that the police were looking for him so he travelled to Coolrain and gave himself up. He presumably then left for the Western Front with the Leinster Regiment. Meanwhile, Eliza and Molly were arrested in Ballybrophy. As they were being conveyed to custody the police were attacked by a large group of travellers who tried to unsuccessfully release the prisoners. Both women were charged with preventing enlistment and were given cautions by Mr. Butler R.M in Mountrath Petty Sessions court.[4]

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 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’.[5] The Maryborough volunteers accepted ‘the policy laid down by Mr. Redmond for the future guidance of the Irish Volunteers’.[6] 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’.[7] By September 1914 what was left of the Upperwoods Volunteers were likely to have been subsumed by their Mountrath counterparts. According to Seamus Miller only three Mountrath delegates voted in favour of McNeill’s manifesto. The rest of the Mountrath Volunteers all supported Redmond.

The Easter Rising and the re-birth of the Volunteers

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.[8] 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 IPP 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 formed Irish Volunteer company in the town.[9]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]’.[10] 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. In the by-election, Mr. J Nulty presided over the polling station in Coolrain whilst votes were also cast in Mountrath, Mountmellick, Rathdowney and Borris-in-Ossory for the vacant Queen’s-Ossory seat. 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 Volunteers. Shots had also been fired in the same incident. Phone lines were also cut around Roscrea. But once the dust settled and the sheer scale of the damage to Dublin was realised there was a general feeling of disgust towards those who had led the rebellion. Certain elements of the public were quick to scorn the leaders of the Rising and demanded justice whilst others sought clemency. The opinion in Laois was 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.[11] The tone of this debate is in remarkable contrast to the overwhelming feeling of sympathy which was generated for the Rising in the wake of the shootings of its leaders. There was a huge sea change of opinion as a direct result of the protracted executions carried out in Dublin, London (Roger Casement) and Cork (Thomas Kent).

In Camross, this great change in opinion was aided by the changing of school teachers in Camross National School. In an interview with Teddy Fennelly, Pat Dowling recalled the influence of Mr. Flynn who came to the school in 1916;

When I went to school in Camross there was nothing about Irish history, that is until the great Pearse came along, the great Pearse, he changed Ireland. He was the man who woke up the people and who got them to stand up for themselves. The Irish were the tools of the overlords for hundreds of years and they had been accepting that position until Pearse came along. When Pearse was executed the whole of Ireland changed. Around the time of the 1916 Rising we got a new teacher, a Mr. Flynn from Rathdowney. The old teachers were all servants of the Crown and taught us nothing of Ireland. The only things we learned were about ‘the sun never setting on the King’s dominions’, ‘the black hole of Calcutta’, and ‘the Irish picking tea in India’. My father knew nothing about Irish history, nor did my grandfather nor great grandfather. You could not blame the majority of Irish people then for being simply not interested in the Rising when it came. They were satisfied with the status quo. They didn’t realise they were eating the crumbs from the Englishman’s table. But Mr. Flynn was different. He was an admirer of Pearse and loved Ireland and knew its history. Fr. Dan Hyland … and myself were the only two pupils interested in history, and we found out everything we could.’[12]

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’.[13] It is little wonder that this part time fisherman was wiped out in the polls, along with his party, two years later.

The re-organisation of the Irish Volunteers truly began with the release of Irish prisoners, court-martialled in the wake of the Easter Rising, from English and Welsh prisons. The majority of prisoners were being released throughout the summer of 1916 and in an act of goodwill by British authorities, designed to encourage the United States to join the Great War, the 569 remaining internees were released back to Ireland in time for Christmas.[14] Joost Augusteijn points to the feeling that many Volunteers had of having let their comrades in Dublin down by not mobilising during Easter. He points to the teasing that returning Volunteers in Tipperary received from British soldiers who sung at them their version of the ‘Soldiers Song’; ‘Soldiers are we, who nearly fought for Ireland’. Reorganisation of the Volunteers offered these men a second chance.

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.[15]

The Camross, Killanure and Coolrain IRA

In April 1917, following orders from Michael Collins, Adjutant General of the Irish Volunteers, 25 companies of Laois Volunteers were organised into five battalions. Shortly afterwards, a 6th battalion, centred on Mountrath, was added to the Brigade structure. The formation of the 6th Battalion took place at a meeting in Camross and was chaired by the Officer in Command of the Laois IRA, Lar Brady.[16]

The 6th Battalion of the Laois Brigade comprised of seven companies. The 202 members of the 6th Battalion were as follows;

Battalion Officers

Name

Rank

Place of origin

Edward Brennan

Officer in Command

Cuddagh

Pat Morris

Vice-Officer in Command

Mountrath

James Dempsey

Adjutant

Mountrath

John Delaney

Quartermaster

Ballinrally

Joe Deegan

Intelligence Officer

Mountrath

A Company – Mountrath

Name

Rank

Place of Origin

Denis Deegan

Captain

Mountrath

Daniel Ryan

First Lieutenant

Mountrath

Patrick Breen

Second Lieutenant

Mountrath

Michael Connor

Quartermaster

Cappagh

Daniel Sheerin

Volunteer

Mountrath

Daniel Costello

Volunteer

Mountrath

James Phelan

Volunteer

Sconce

Patrick Maher

Volunteer

Mountrath

Patrick Maher

Volunteer

Mountrath

Joseph Carrow

Volunteer

Mountrath

Frank McKenna

Volunteer

Mountrath

Timothy Maher

Volunteer

Mountrath

Partick Ryan

Volunteer

Mountrath

James Millar

Volunteer

Mountrath

John Gillman

Volunteer

Mountrath

Bernard Russell

Volunteer

Mountrath

Denis Bennett

Volunteer

Clonard

Joseph Deegan

Volunteer

Mountrath

Joseph Connelly

Volunteer

Mountrath

Patrick Morrin

Volunteer

Mountrath

Patrick Walsh

Volunteer

Mountrath

William Green

Volunteer

Mountrath

A Company – Mountrath (Cappagh Squad)

James Dunne

Volunteer

Roskelton

Thomas Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Trumera

Laurence Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Trumera

Richard Brophy

Volunteer

Trumera

Edward Delaney

Volunteer

Coolnareen

Thomas Synott

Volunteer

Cromogue

Martin Lahey

Volunteer

Derryough

Thomas Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Cloncullen

John Dunne

Volunteer

Cappagh

Daniel Bergin

Volunteer

Redcastle

John Kennedy

Volunteer

Redcastle

Timothy Ryan

Volunteer

Mountrath

B Company – Castletown

Name

Rank

Place of origin

Thomas Delaney

Captain

Crannagh

William Butler

First Lieutenant

Aughavan

Martin Gorman

Second Lietenant

Crannagh

Edward Brennan

Adjutant

Rushall

Edward P. Tarrant

Quartermaster

Castletown

Patrick Hughes

Volunteer

Castletown

Jeremiah Hughes

Volunteer

Castletown

Dennis Gorman

Volunteer

Castletown

William Doyle

Volunteer

Aughavan

Edward Butler

Volunteer

Aughavan

Patrick Brennan

Volunteer

Rushall

William Tynan

Volunteer

Rushall

William Grace

Volunteer

Castletown

John Mullins

Volunteer

Castletown

C Company – Camross

Name

Rank

Place of origin

Patrick Neill

Captain

Neilstown

William Bergin

First Lieutenant

Camross

Joseph Bergin

Second Lieutenant

Glenconra

John Gorman

Adjutant

Camross

John Cuddy

Quartemaster

Aughduff

James Corcoran

Volunteer

Borophuca

Martin Connors

Volunteer

The Folly

John Dooley

Volunteer

Stooagh

John McLane

Volunteer

County Bounds

Martin Scully

Volunteer

Garranbawn

James Scully

Volunteer

Garranbawn

Con Scully

Volunteer

Gurtlusky

Patrick Bergin

Volunteer

Glenconra

William Rielly

Volunteer

Ballinrally

Jer Cuddy

Volunteer

Derrylahan

James Moore

Volunteer

Carroagh

Patrick Delaney

Volunteer

Camross

Michael Breen

Volunteer

Camross

Joseph Gleeson

Volunteer

Camross

John Hipwell

Volunteer

Mount Salem

John Dowling

Volunteer

Glenkitt

Denis Delaney

Volunteer

Shrahane

Denis Phelan

Volunteer

Shrahane

Michael Lalor

Volunteer

Shrahane

William Leahy

Volunteer

Derry

Michael Conroy

Volunteer

Glenall

D Company – Borris-in-Ossory

Name

Rank

Place of Origin

George Hanrahan

Captain

Skirke

Patrick Delaney

First Lieutenant

Skirke

James Kelly

Second Lieutenant

Borris-in-Ossory

Edward Bergin

Quartermaster

Skirke

Thomas Whelan

Adjutant

Cahir

James Bannan

Volunteer

Skirke

Patrick Bergin

Volunteer

Skirke

James Whelan

Volunteer

Skirke

Patrick Cushen

Volunteer

Skirke

James Downes

Volunteer

Skirke

Joseph Delaney

Volunteer

Skirke

Thomas Delaney

Volunteer

Skirke

William Bergin Sr.

Volunteer

Skirke

William Bergin Jr.

Volunteer

Skirke

John Ryan

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Patrick Ryan

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Joseph Kelly

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Michael Geoghegan

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Michael Drennan

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Michael O'Hara

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

James Crennan

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Patrick Maher

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Christopher Brien

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

John O'Hara

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

William Cassidy

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

William O'Dea

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Joseph Dooley

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

John Dooley

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Michael Dooley

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

James Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Clononan

Daniel Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Clononan

Martin Delaney

Volunteer

Mondrehid

Thomas Whelan

Volunteer

Mondrehid

William Grady

Volunteer

Mondrehid

James Grady

Volunteer

Mondrehid

Patrick Hyland

Volunteer

Mondrehid

George Higgins

Volunteer

Mondrehid

Thomas Carey

Volunteer

Garron

Thomas Heffernan

Volunteer

Ballykelly

Thomas Brown

Volunteer

Ballykelly

Jeremiah Whelan

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Michael Marnell

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Thomas McGrath

Volunteer

Ballykelly

Frank Fitzpatrick

Quartermaster (up to May 1921)

Borris-in-Ossory

Denis Riordan

Captain (up to May 1921)

Borris-in-Ossory

Peter Maher

Captain (May 1921 - June 1921)

Borris-in-Ossory

James Bergin

Adjutant (up to June 1921)

Borris-in-Ossory

E Company – Coolrain

Name

Rank

Place of Origin

Thomas Dooley

Captain

Coolrain

Thomas Coss

First Lieutenant

Derryduff

James Doyle

Second Lieutenant

Windsor

Martin Dooley

Quartermaster

Coolrain

John Hyland

Adjutant

The Glebe

George Higgins

Volunteer

Windsor

Bernard Higgins

Volunteer

Windsor

Michael Phelan

Volunteer

Derryduff

Peter Dooley

Volunteer

Kildrenagh

Patrick Glennon

Volunteer

Coolrain

Christopher Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Coolrain

Thomas Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Windsor

Thomas Bennet

Volunteer

Pike of Rushall

Patrick Wall

Volunteer

Windsor

Fintan Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Crannagh

John Brophy

Volunteer

Derrynaseera

Thomas Brophy

Volunteer

Derrynaseera

Thomas Coss

Volunteer

Derryduff

F Company – Killanure

Name

Rank

Place of Origin

Fintan Breen

Captain

Inchanisky

Patrick Phelan

First Lieutenant

Bacca

Thomas Hickey

Second Lieutenant

Killanure

Daniel Jackson

Adjutant

Killanure

Patrick Ryan

Quartermaser

Whitefields

Laurence Phelan

Volunteer

Bacca

Joseph Phelan

Volunteer

Bacca

John Delaney

Volunteer

Bacca

Michael Delaney

Volunteer

Bacca

Matthew Delaney

Volunteer

Bacca

James Delaney

Volunteer

Killanure

John Delaney

Volunteer

Killanure

William Delaney

Volunteer

Killanure

William Delaney

Volunteer

Castleconnor

Kieran Delaney

Volunteer

Cardtown

John Cuddy

Volunteer

Killanure

John Carroll

Volunteer

Killanure

John Burke

Volunteer

Killanure

Fintan Delaney

Volunteer

Killanure

Thomas Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Derrycon

Fintan Conroy

Volunteer

Garrafin

John Conroy

Volunteer

Garrafin

Joseph Moore

Volunteer

Garrafin

Michael Moore

Volunteer

Garrafin

Martin Moore

Volunteer

Cardtown

John Moore

Volunteer

Glendine

James Leahy

Volunteer

Cardtown

Thomas Jackson

Volunteer

Killanure

Patrick Byrne

Volunteer

Baureigh

Patrick Jackson

Volunteer

Killanure

Denis Byrne

Volunteer

Killanure

James Hogan

Volunteer

Gurteen

James Tully

Volunteer

Gurteen

Laurence Breen

Volunteer

Bacca

Denis Phelan

Volunteer

Bacca

Michael Delaney

Volunteer

Killanure

Joseph Drennan

Volunteer

Killanure

Michael Dunphy

Volunteer

Johnsboro

Joseph Phelan

Volunteer

Killanure

Thomas Phelan

Volunteer

Killanure

Sylvester Ryan

Volunteer

Killanure

Bernard McNiff

Volunteer

Baureigh

Edward Moore

Volunteer

Cardtown

Michael Moore

Volunteer

Cardtown

Denis Ryan

Volunteer

Whitefields

G Company – Kyle/Ballaghmore

Name

Rank

Place of Origin

John Egan

Captain

Ballaghmore

Patrick Delaney

First Lieutenant

Ballaghmore

Patrick Teehan

Second Lieutenant

Ballaghmore

Fintan Egan

Quartermaster

Ballaghmore

Arthur Maloney

Adjutant

Ballaghmore

Joseph Carroll

Volunteer

Ballaghmore

John Drennan

Volunteer

Ballaghmore

James Maher

Volunteer

Ballaghmore

Patrick Connors

Volunteer

Ballaghmore

Timothy England

Volunteer

Ballaghmore

Michael England

Volunteer

Ballaghmore

John Rigney

Volunteer

Ballaghmore

One of the greatest challenges for the Volunteers during the War of Independence once they managed to secure arms was hiding them safely from the authorities. The wilderness of the Slieve Blooms provided the ideal cover for arms ‘dumps’ where guns and ammunition could be hidden. One such dump was located in Neilstown.

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.

IRA Volunteers faced the constant threat of interrogation or capture during the War. Company and battalion meetings were particularly risky due to the concentration of high profile officers in the same place at the same time. Innovative means of disguising these meetings as other social events were orchestrated but often times these ruses were not so successful and on one such occasion much of the leadership of the Borris-in-Ossory IRA were arrested in one fell swoop. The Officer in Command of the 6th Battalion, Edward Brennan, described the incident in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History;

In 1921, about April, a Battalion meeting was held in Marnell's house, Springhill, Borris-in-Ossory. A dance was organised to cover the objects of the meeting, on a Sunday night. The Brigade Adjutant, (the later Chief Superintendent Martin Lynch, Garda Siochana), was present; also the Battalion 0/C, Battalion Quartermaster and I.R.A. men from Rorris-in-Ossory, Camross and Coolrain areas. At daybreak all visitors left with the exception of Martin Lynch, Brigade Adjutant; Frank Fitzpatrick, O/C local Company and Denis O'Riordan. The latter two were cleaning up the house when suddenly a raid was made on the place by Black and Tans. Lynch, Fitzpatrick, O'Riordan and Michael Marnell, owner of the house, were arrested and taken to the Curragh. After some days Marnell was released, but the other three men were interned until the general amnesty.[17]

The Camross and Coolrain Volunteers who were present in Marnell’s on that evening were lucky to get away before the Black and Tans arrived. However, other local Volunteers were not as lucky. Brennan describes how after a 6th Battalion meeting in Coolrain, John Delaney, who had been the Battalion Vice-Officer in Command, was arrested, and subsequently court-martialled and imprisoned in England until the truce. In a show of great solidarity with their comrade, about a hundred Volunteers, and people not involved in the IRA, rallied to Delaney’s aid and went to his turf bank and cut his turf for him. Others who were arrested during the War of Independence were John Carroll and Thomas Phelan from Killanure.

Brennan himself was remarkably lucky to evade arrest himself following an incident in Ballybrophy;

In the spring of 1921, I was cycling towards Rathdowney, adjacent to Ballybropby railway station, when I met Daniel Guidera, Borris-in-Ossory. We were talking for a couple of minutes when, suddenly, a Black and Tan lorry approached over the railway bridge. I was about to move away when another lorry came along with a District Inspector named Mooney in charge. Immediately he saw us he called a halt, ordered us to put up our hands and be searched closely.

When the searchers found nothing in our pockets, the District Inspector, who all this time was moving around us with a revolver in his hand, ordered our clothes to be taken off and searched, we were now standing naked on the road. Again they found nothing, but previous to this I had a document from G.H.Q. about increased attacks on Black and Tans etc. This document was to be read at Company meetings by me as Battalion O/C, but it was not to be given to any other Company or Battalion officer, and it was to be returned to Headquarters when it had been read to each Company in the Battalion. I had this document pinned inside my shirt for some time whilst I was attending all Company meetings.

On the night previous to the above hold-up, I dreamt I was raided and the document found, with the usual terrible consequences. Owing to my dream I hid the document before starting that morning and so escaped punishment.[18]

One of the first overt military missions undertaken by IRA Volunteers from the parish took place in April 1920. A boycott of the RIC, coupled with a shift in British tactics, led to the partial evacuation of multiple rural RIC barracks across the country. Amongst the partially evacuated barracks was the barracks in Coolrain. The RIC Sergeant stationed there at the time was Michael Finan. Finan, originally from Sligo and previously stationed in Durrow, lived in the barracks with his wife Bridget and their children. No other officers resided there due to the partial evacuation. On the evening of Easter Saturday, 3 April 1920, a number of Volunteers approached the barracks intent on its destruction. Bridget Finan was on her own in the building at the time and she was asked to leave. She duly abandoned her home and took refuge with a neighbour before the Volunteers set the barracks alight. The building was extensively damaged, but not entirely destroyed. Some of the adjoining living quarters were undamaged and Bridget Finan and her children returned there the following day.[19] Sergeant Finan, along with RIC officers in The Heath and Ballyroan sought a total of £1,978 in compensation from Dublin Castle for the destruction of personal property and a further £8 was sought for damage to the telegraph line infrastructure.[20] On the same evening the completely abandoned Castletown RIC Barracks was attacked although the damage was limited.[21]

At the height of the War of Independence there was a local election. This election, which took place on 1 June 1920, further cemented Sinn Féin’s mandate as they took the majority of seats available to them. In the Coolrain electoral district for the Mountmellick District Council two of the three available seats were won by Sinn Féin whilst the third seat was claimed by the Labour candidate. The result was as follows;

Electoral Area

Top of Poll

Second in Poll

Third in Poll

Unelected

Coolrain             

Patrick Scully (81)

Sinn Féin

Thomas Brophy (75)

Labour

Martin Dooley (57)

Sinn Féin

Patrick Phelan (54)

Sinn Féin

Patrick Phelan, Sinn Féin candidate from Bacca, who narrowly missed out on the final seat was nominated to be co-opted on the council. Martin Dooley who defeated him by three votes seconded the nomination. A vote was taken and Phelan only received ten votes and did not gain a place on the council.

One of the most significant pieces of legislation implemented by councillors elected in the summer of 1920 was to officially abandon the colonial name of both the county and the county town that had been in place since the 16th Century. The old name of the county was Leix or Laoighis and in September 1920 the County Council passed a resolution officially changing the name of the county to Leix.[22] The name of the county town was changed from Maryborough to Portlaoise by the Town Commissioners although everyday use of Portlaoise would not come into place for a generation.

A key tenet of the dual goal of Sinn Féin and the IRA during the War of Independence was to supplant British authority with that of new Irish institutions. Part of this involved the establishment of a new judicial system which became known as the Sinn Féin courts where small issues such as land arbitrations could be dealt with. Lar Brady recalls attending one such Sinn Féin court in Camross.[23] Volunteers also stepped into the vacuum left by the evacuation of the RIC and assumed the role of the civil police. There are indications that members of the Rathdowney IRA aided the local Camross IRA in policing the Coolrain area following the departure of Finan following the attack on the RIC Barracks.[24]

Such efforts to replace British authority with that of an Irish equivalent were fraught with danger. The opposition of Crown Forces to such efforts was plainly shown in an incident in Borris-in-Ossory during the Truce, as described by the Leinster Express;


Republican Court Stopped

On Wednesday last, exciting scenes were witnessed at Borris-in-Ossory. The military and police – the latter apparently fully armed – arrived from Donaghmore, where they have been quartered, and took up positions outside the Young Men’s Catholic Hall. A very large number of people, including many professional gentlemen, were present in the town at the time in connection with legal business which was to be dealt with at the District Republican Court, which was to be held at 10am. The judges adjudicating having arrived, entered the building and took up the seats allotted to them. Immediately followed a number of armed soldiers and some police, all of whom appeared to be in charge of Head-Constable Mooney and a military officer. The former, addressing the presiding chairman, inquired what sort of a court they were about to hold.

Chairman – How do you come to know that they are going to hold a court?

Head-Constable – I am asking what sort of a court this is, and I will give you half an hour to disperse.

Approaching the bench he asked the names of the judges, and each of them declined to give their names.

Head Constable – Very well, I give you half an hour to clear out.

The presiding judge, addressing the people in the court said ‘I know perfectly well this man is out-stepping his instructions in his action here today.’

At the word of command the soldiers presented their rifles and ordered all in the building to hold up their hands. In the course of some confusion and excitement which followed the Registrar exclaimed that he had been searched and a paper taken off him.

The Chairman directed him to take a note of that and have it reported.

The Head-Constable repeated his threat, and subsequently the judges and people left the court. The Crown forces remained in the town for about a couple of hours, afterwards marching and counter-marching, when they left in the direction of Donaghmore. The judges, litigants, solicitors, and all concerned, had left in the meantime, and within about 1 ½ miles distant of Borris-in-Ossory held their court and disposed of a very long calendar, which included a number of interesting cases.

Any means of hindering Crown Forces in their general day-to-day attempts to curb the activities of the IRA were employed in the 6th Battalion area. Small scale acts such as blocking roads with trees amounted to no more than an inconvenience to the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. Nevertheless, it did hold them up on their patrols and could have bought fleeing Volunteers or Flying Columns valuable time. Larger acts of sabotage included the blowing up of bridges which would have caused huge disruption to any motorised transport. Camross and Kyle Volunteers aided Roscrea Volunteers as they repeatedly blew up a bridge between Borris-in-Ossory and Roscrea. The bridge was blown up on so many occasions that it became known as Quinlan’s bridge after Ned Quinlan, Officer in Command of the Roscrea IRA. 

In the final months of the War of Independence the focus in Camross shifted towards the perceived problem of spies and informers. Two incidences of summary executions of men took place around Camross in 1921. 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. Byrne was buried in Kyle graveyard, where he was joined by his father, Michael, in 1930, and his mother, Johanna, in 1932.

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 will not be speculated upon in this account of his death.

After the IRA meeting in Peafield, Keyes was sent three threatening letters, the first of which was delivered on 29 June 1921. 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. It was initially claimed that the men had taken £5 from Kate but when she was pressed on this point in a subsequent inquest she admitted that she did not actually see the money been taken by any of the men.

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. Peter Keyes died of multiple gunshot wounds to the head and chest. The following October, Kate and her children were granted £2,000 to be ‘levied off the country-at-large’.

IRA Third Southern Division HQ

On the very outskirts of the parish, and indeed the county, Neilstown is one of the most remote townlands in Camross. 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 James and Grett Dooley. Despite no members of the immediate Dooley family, in either Neilstown or the original homestead in the County Bounds, being active members of the IRA 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. Indeed, the fact that there were no young men in the family at all probably led to suspicious eyes being cast elsewhere making the two story farmhouse the ideal location to coordinate Republican activity.

One of the key events that plunged much of North Tipperary into all-out guerrilla war was the assassination in July 1919 of RIC District Inspector Hunt in broad daylight after the horse races in Thurles. The anger that Crown Forces felt in the aftermath of this brazen attack against their authority is palpable in the North Tipperary County Inspector’s report to Dublin Castle;

The Thurles Races were…very largely attended…After the last race – about five o’ clock – the spectators were flowing back into the town. District Inspector Hunt, who was in uniform, walked with a party of soldiers and a military officer…The military turned into the hospital where they were stationed and Hunt proceeded to walk on among the crowd. Just as he entered the square a man ran up behind him and fired three shots at a range of two or three feet…The murder of...Hunt is the culminating act of lawlessness and defiance in this locality...The murder of the two police at Soloheadbeg was their first blow. Then came the Knocklong outrage in which prisoners were rescued and two police killed…The volunteer organisation has, in this part of the country, become so successful, so determined, so powerful and so revengeful that any policeman who is instrumental in bringing any of its members to justice is a marked man.

A severe crackdown on the IRA followed the Thurles attack. Despite the attack having been perpetrated by Volunteers from the 2nd Tipperary Brigade (Mid-Tipperary), the repercussions for their North Tipperary counterparts forced several prominent Republicans to go ‘on the run’. One such Republican was Seamus Burke TD. An American citizen, Burke was a barrister by training, but never practiced. He was present in the Rotunda, Dublin in November 1913 when Eoin McNeill founded the Irish Volunteers. He was returned unopposed in the 1918 General Election for North Tipperary for Sinn Féin.  He had already served time in prison in 1918 on illegal drilling charges and in the wake of Hunt’s death he was a prime target for Crown Forces. So Burke fled his home, Rockforest House, near Knock, outside Roscrea, and took refuge in Neilstown. He would become one of the first in a long line of Republicans who would ‘billet’ in Dooley’s. Whilst at Dooley’s, Burke wrote part of his political treatise, The Foundations of the Peace. After the War of Independence he left an autographed copy of the book in Neilstown. Burke would go on to become the first Minister for Local Government and Public Health and would serve in Dáil Éireann until 1932 for both Cumann na Gael and Fine Gael, one of only a few members of the First Dáil to serve in the Cumann na nGaedheal and Fine Gael parties.

At any one stage during the War of Independence, various prominent members of the North Tipperary IRA may have been present in Neilstown. Apart from Seamus Burke, the Dooleys provided refuge for Ned Quinlan, Seán Gaynor, Pat Starr, Austin McCurtain, Michael McCormack, and Patrick A. Mulcahy. The house was raided twice by auxiliaries and the Black and Tans during the War of Independence and the occupants of the house were lucky to escape harm on both occasions. One such occasion took place the day after a raid by the Camross IRA on Roundwood House. During this raid, the Volunteers helped themselves to the Hamilton’s abundant store of liquor and the raid turned into a great evening of merriment. Some of the Volunteers struggled to leave the house on their own power and, indeed, many could not! Martin Connors, Knockloughlin, helped himself to a binoculars during the raid, a very rare piece of optics in the early 1920s and a potentially very useful piece of equipment for the IRA. Connors came up to the Dooley’s and showed James and Grett the pair of binoculars that he had taken. As they admired Connor’s acquisition, an Auxiliary Crossley Tender drove into the yard and several British soldiers began to alight. Connors was terrified. The War of Independence had entered its most vicious cycle of violence and were Connors to have been found with the binoculars the best case scenario would have meant certain arrest for all adults in the house. Grett was washing a basket of clothes at the table at the time and James grabbed the binoculars and hid them in the water and suds. The soldiers entered the kitchen and informed them of the robbery in Roundwood the previous evening and proceeded to search the house. Whether they suspected something from the visibly shaken Connors they searched every room to no avail. They left empty handed and Connors retrieved his newly washed binoculars and went on his way glad of the quick thinking of the man and woman of the house.

The structure of the IRA in the midlands underwent its final change of the War with the dividing of the country into Divisions. 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.

Len Gaynor, nephew of Sean Gaynor and son of Nenagh Volunteer, Mick Gaynor, speaking at a commemorative event in Neilstown on 29 August 2015. Photograph reproduced courtesy of Mark Conroy.

Crowd in attendance at Neilstown commemorative event in August 2015. Picture reproduced courtesy of Mark Conroy.

The local Officer in Command, Edward Brennan, had been asked just prior to the Truce to organise a training camp for the new divisional Flying Column in the Slieve Blooms in mid-July 1921. The Truce caused a delay to this training camp but it was eventually held in a disused farmstead owned by Martin Carey in Derrylahan and not in the mountains between Garranbawn and Glenkitt as originally planned. McCormack himself trained the Volunteers in Derrylahan. The following week, Lar Brady held a training camp in Bacca for the local Volunteers.

By the late summer of 1921, the Volunteers were in a peculiar state of limbo. An uneasy truce was holding and there was an uncertainty as to what would happen next. Had they won? Would they be forced to reengage with Crown Forces? Under what terms would London agree to an independent Ireland? The sense of authority that some Volunteers had built up in their own minds over the past few years went to their heads as reports of sectarian murders and violent assaults were reported all over the island. It is widely known that a horrific incident took place in North Tipperary during the Truce involving two elderly women who held through to their Loyalist beliefs. There is no suggestion of such incidents having taken place in Camross. However, the foreboding atmosphere of an imminent renewal of some form of bloodshed was pervasive.

Civil War

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. Under the terms of the agreement, Ireland would become a self-governing dominion with the same status to the crown as Canada and Australia. The King would remain the head of state and all members of the Dáil would have to take an oath of allegiance to him. The Royal Navy would retain a presence in three ports for security purposes and six counties in Ulster would have the option of leaving the Irish state if they chose to do so (an option they exercised almost immediately).

The disestablishment of the Irish Republic announced during the Easter Rising was confirmed when 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 bleakest period of Irish history since the Famine. As many as 4,000 people died between June 1922 and May 1923, an average of about 15 people a day lost across the Free State. It resembled a condensed version of the struggle for Irish independence from Easter 1916 to the Truce; a sharp explosive beginning centred around Dublin, followed by widespread fighting across the south of the country and ending with a guerrilla war in rural areas.

In Camross, the period of training immediately after the Truce gave way in the winter of 1921 and spring of 1922 to a general acceptance of the Truce for the large part. But despite the majority of the IRA in the parish accepting the rule of the Free State and the Treaty, as elsewhere, there was a minority who remained true to their ideals and remained in the IRA. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Laois IRA was thoroughly reorganised, its battalion borders bearing little resemblance to that of the War of Independence.

The parish fell into the new Number 2 Company of the Laois IRA Brigade. The different units of this Company were Ballyfin, Pallas, Clonkeen, Raheen, Mountrath, Clonard, Killanure, Castletown, Borris in Ossory and Camross.

Mountrath Company IRA (Civil War)

Name

Rank

Place of origin

James Dunne

Captain

Roskelton

John Dunne

First Lieutenant

Cappagh

Edward Delaney

Second Lieutenant

Coolnareen

Michael Connor

Quartermaster

Cappagh

George Dunne

Adjutant

Cloncullen

Daniel Bergin

Volunteer

Redcastle

Thomas Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Coote Street

John Kennedy

Volunteer

Redcastle

Thomas Synott

Volunteer

Cromogue

Richard Brophy

Volunteer

Trumera

Laurence Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Trumera

Clonard Company IRA (Civil War)

Name

Rank

Place of origin

William Osborne

Volunteer

Kilbricken

William Dowling

Volunteer

Kilbricken

Michael Whelan

Volunteer

Shanahoe

Killanure Company IRA (Civil War)

Name

Rank

Place of origin

Laurence Phelan

Captain

Bacca

John Conroy

First Lieutenant

Garrafin

Joseph Moore

Second Lieutenant

Garrafin

John Delaney

Adjutant

Bacca

Fintan Conroy

Quartermaster

Garrafin

William Delaney

Volunteer

Killanure

Matthew Delaney

Volunteer

Killanure

Michael Delaney

Volunteer

Bacca

Thomas Hickey

Volunteer

Killanure

William Phelan

Volunteer

Drim

Patrick Phelan

Volunteer

Drim

Castletown IRA Company (Civil War)

Name

Rank

Place of origin

Eamonn Tarrant

Volunteer

Castletown

Patrick Hughes

Volunteer

Castletown

Jeremiah Hughes

Volunteer

Castletown

Denis Gorman

Volunteer

Crannagh

Daniel Peters

Volunteer

Cuddagh

Borris-in-Ossory IRA Company (Civil War)

Name

Rank

Place of origin

George Harrahan

Captain

Skirke

Denis Riordan

First Lieutenant

Borris-in-Ossory

Patrick Delaney

Second Lieutenant

Skirke

Edward Bergin

Quartermaster

Skirke

James Brennan

Adjutant

Borris-in-Ossory

Frank Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

Peter Maher

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

James Crennan

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

James Whelan

Volunteer

Skirke

John Grady

Volunteer

Borris-in-Ossory

James Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Clononan

Daniel Fitzpatrick

Volunteer

Clononan

Thomas Whelan

Volunteer

Mondrehid

William Grady

Volunteer

Mondrehid

James Grady

Volunteer

Mondrehid

Thomas Carey

Volunteer

Garron

Camross IRA Company (Civil War)

Name

Rank

Place of origin

Patrick Neill

Volunteer (Commanding)

Neilstown

John Delaney

Volunteer

Marymount

.

During the War of Independence the 6th Battalion of the Laois IRA numbered 201 men. Between the truce and the outbreak of the Civil War, everyone bar 49 had left. Entire areas lost all their Volunteers; the Coolrain and Kyle companies of the IRA were wound up altogether. Only two men made up the Camross IRA, three in the Clonard area. However, there remained a significant IRA company in Killanure and most of the activities of the Civil War centred around the Killanure area.  One of the most dramatic incidents during the Civil War in the parish took place in the late evening of 11 March 1923. Lieutenant Gerry Higgins and a party of 11 Free State soldiers were on patrol in the Ballyfin area when they came upon a column of 15 IRA Volunteers. A heavy fire fight ensued for several minutes before the Volunteers fled towards Killanure. The soldiers followed them but lost their trail. Reinforcements arrived from Portlaoise and the upper districts of Camross were searched for the column and they were found in Baureigh. The IRA opened fire on the soldiers with machine guns and managed to make their escape once more. The following day the entire area was combed by about 100 Free State troops but the column had dispersed and were not to be found. 

The authority of law was at a low ebb during the Civil War and incidents of crime were proving to be a problem for the new Civic Guard. In March 1923 three local men robbed several local houses in the dead of night in the Clonin and Tinakill areas. One woman in Tinakill fled her house for several hours such was the treatment meted out to her by the trio.  Other breaches of law and order were far more politically driven. The assault of a farmer during a violent raid on a house in Aughduff was indicative of the huge divisions that the infant state would have to overcome after the Civil War.

Harry Phelan

There is a very strong Camross link with the first death of a police officer under the authority of an independent Ireland. On 14 November 1922, three members of the unarmed Civic Guard entered the public house and shop of Ms. Mullally in Mullinahone, seven miles from their station in Callan. They were on recreational leave for the day and one of their objectives in going to Mullinahone was to purchase a few hurls and a sliothar. The men had barely ordered a drink in the bar when three other armed men entered the premises and shouted ‘Hands up’. Straight away, a shot was discharged. The bullet entered one of the men’s jaw and exited at the back of his head. Henry ‘Harry’ Phelan died instantly. He was a month shy of his 23rd birthday.

Phelan was from Rushin, Mountrath and had joined the newly established Civic Guard in the summer of 1923. He was the first member of the Civic Guard (soon renamed An Garda Siochána) to be killed in the line of duty. The man who shot Phelan dead was local to the Mullinahone area. He was known to Ms. Mullally and in the course of an inquest on the shooting she admitted as much. But she refused to identify the person in public, instead writing the shooter’s name on a piece of paper which was given to authorities. 

Phelan’s coffin was borne through the streets of Callan where all businesses closed as a mark of respect. Funeral mass took place in Mountrath and Phelan now rests in Camross graveyard with other family members.

The extended Phelan family, including Oliver Phelan, Cardtown (far right), at the unveiling of a memorial plaque in Mullinahone to the memory of Harry Phelan. Picture reproduced courtesy of Kathy Phelan Bracken.

Private Joseph Bergin, and a court case that shocked Ireland

On 14 December 1923 a group of children were playing in a field beside the Grand Canal in Milltown, Co. Kildare. The children noticed blood on a bridge over the canal and this was brought to the attention of a local man, who discovered a body in the water. The body was that of 23 year old Joseph Bergin from Glencondra, who was serving with the Military Police in the Curragh Camp. A post-mortem confirmed that he had been shot dead after a violent struggle. His wounds were consistent with a prolonged dragging along the ground, possibly from a car. The following day, at an inquest, the county coroner was told that Joseph had indicated to a comrade that he was heading to Dublin on the day that he disappeared to purchase a motorbike. It was noted that Joseph had money with him that he had saved carefully for some time. He was on duty in the Curragh until 6am on Thursday, 13 December, and left the camp, presumably en route to Kildare to get a train to Dublin but he was not seen alive in the Curragh again.

The early hour of his departure was put down to the assumption that he would have intended on getting an early train to Dublin, purchase his bike and get back to the Curragh before night fall. He left the camp on a borrowed bicycle. This bike was not found in either Kildare train station or in Newbridge, suggesting that he may not have reached either in the first place. Wild theories were speculated upon in the Kildare area and several of them made the national press. A version of Bergin’s character was discussed openly and rumours of Republican involvement were widespread.

Shortly after the identification of Bergin’s body, there was a sensational lead in Dublin. A car found near Dame St. on the same evening as the grim Kildare discovery which seemed unclaimed and had blood stains within was viewed by the Gardaí as potentially being the car that transported Bergin from his place of death to Milltown. A disused house on a farm in Guiderstown, Kildare, was investigated by police and the building bore all the hall marks of a grievous crime having taken place within. The investigation was one of the main news items in Ireland over the Christmas of 1923. The speed of new discoveries and the tone of the police statements which claimed that arrests were imminent gave every indication that the case would be quickly resolved and those responsible for Bergin’s death would be brought to justice.

However, there were no arrests. The case became cold and there were no further developments for an entire year. But a remarkable development on Christmas Eve 1924 brought the story back to the front pages. James Murray, a former member of the Free State army, was arrested in his home in Dún Laoghaire and was removed to Mountjoy Prison. A couple of days later he was brought before a judge and evidence was heard regarding the disappearance of Bergin and the subsequent discovery of his body. After an afternoon of hearing evidence, Murray was remanded for trial for the murder of Joseph Bergin.

It is not an overstatement to say that the ensuing trial of James Murray was nothing short of being the most extraordinary case heard in an Irish court in a generation. Proceedings opened with the going over of known facts and the established trail of events confirming the circumstances around Bergin’s final known movements. Policemen also explained the discovery of the disused house and what they found there. But the wider, more sinister picture of the death of Bergin emerged during the evidence of Private James Cleary, stationed in Portobello Barracks, in the transport section of the Free State Army. On the day of Bergin’s death, Cleary met with Colonel Michael Joe Costello, the director of intelligence of the Free State Army. Costello was with three other men, one of whom Cleary believed to be the accused, James Murray. Cleary was asked to drive the three men out of the barracks in a Ford touring car as far as the North Circular Road. At this point Murray said he would take over driving and Cleary handed the car over and the three officers left.

The following day, Cleary saw the car abandoned in Crown Alley, just off Dame St, in the heart of modern day Temple Bar. Cleary said that there was blood on the back seats and blood stained clothes scattered about within. Cleary made an attempt to clean off the stains but to no avail. When he made his discovery known he was promptly arrested and held in Arbour Hill for four months. Throughout his lengthy incarceration he demanded to know what he was being accused of, but he was neither informed of this, or was ever moved to a formal trial before he was quietly released without explanation. The very next witness confirmed that the car abandoned in Dublin was the same that had made track marks outside the abandoned house in Kildare. The courtroom was now buzzing with the potential exposing of a great conspiracy involving the army and the possible execution of one of their own.

Colonel Costello was next to give evidence. He opened by stating that he barely knew Bergin personally, but was keeping a very close eye on the young Camross man. He said that he suspected that Bergin was in communication with some Republican prisoners in Tintown Camp, where all Republican Civil War prisoners were held, and he wanted to investigate the claims. Therefore, he got the accused to interview Bergin. He corroborated the initial part of Cleary’s evidence with regards the acquiring of a car for a ‘special job’. The day after the acquisition of the car, Murray returned to Costello and he informed him that he had done well in interviewing Bergin and had obtained some important documents. Costello asked him to write up a report but it never reached his desk and when he heard that Bergin’s body was found he feared that the interview did not go as smoothly as Murray had indicated. But Costello would not be pressed on further details on his role in organising this ‘interview’. He claimed that he reported the matter to the National Army Chief of Staff and refused to answer any further questions, reserving his right to do so given his military position and his belief that the line of questioning was coming close to encroaching on national security matters.

Preceding page - An official internal communication between civil servants in the offices of the Army Pension’s Board confirming that the application for receipt of a state pension for Stephen Bergin, Joseph’s father, on account of his son’s death was withheld for the duration of the lengthy legal drama that unfolded in a Dublin court room. After the trial was over a pension was granted to Mr. Bergin. Image kindly reproduced courtesy of the Military Archives of the Irish Army.

The evidence of Costello stunned the galleries. After a lengthy delay involving the Army’s legal team, the next hearing of the trial resumed in June 1924. Colonel Costello was once again the prime witness and the evidence proved to be no less remarkable than before. Despite agreeing with James Cleary’s evidence in the first hearing, Costello now refuted Cleary’s earlier evidence that Murray was accompanied by two other men on the morning he retrieved a car for the so-called ‘special job’. Costello claimed that the area where the car was parked was frequented by members of the public and that Cleary could easily have mistaken two innocent bystanders as being in Murray’s company. He later said that owing to the huge number of men in the army intelligence department, he wouldn’t know all the men involved. He also stated that, once it was apparent that Murray’s interception of Bergin had resulted in his death, he attempted to contact Murray but he could not be found. Murray had in fact fled to Buenos Aires in Argentina. Murray was officially dismissed from the army due to being away without leave and Costello stated that he did not see Murray again until the beginning of the trial that January.

Mr. Gleeson, prosecution for the state, then asked Costello the following;

‘If the prisoner comes up here and says he went away on your suggestion and that you actually paid his expenses for going away will you deny it?’

‘I will, certainly. It is absolutely false’ replied Costello amidst an increasing murmur from the galleries.

‘If he swears he did in fact go to Argentina with money provided by you will you deny it?’ pressed Mr. Gleeson.

‘It is absolutely wrong’ replied a defiant Costello.

‘And that when he heard he was mixed up in this business he came back from Argentina to have it out with you’ suggested Gleeson.

‘It is absolutely wrong’ repeated Costello.

The presiding judge, Mr. Justice Hana, quickly recognised the inference from Gleeson’s questioning, as did an increasingly staggered press section in the gallery. Hana asked Gleeson ‘Is it suggested Colonel Costello was in league with Murray to conceal the murderers?’

‘It is’ confirmed Gleeson.

‘I take it you do not suggest that Colonel Costello was any party to the murder of the boy?’ replied the judge.

‘Oh no!’ said Gleeson, careful not to have any piece of his questioning ruled out of order.

Gleeson then moved to read four letters which were written by Murray and were allegedly received by Costello. All the letters had aliases and used code words for certain individuals. These aliases and code words were subsequently explained by Gleeson and the following extracts have the correct names inserted for clarity’s sake. The first letter read;

I have been thinking over the advice of attempting to deal directly with the President (Douglas Hyde, President of Ireland) and the Minister for Defence (Richard Mulcahy TD) regarding my case. Of course this would have to be very carefully thought over before any move is made and would only be necessary in the event of there being no prospect of my returning to military duty, say during the next year. My plan is roughly to get a reliable clergyman to see President Hyde and find out his views on the case, also do likewise with Richard Mulcahy.

Then as the thing would develop I could place copies of all captured stuff before them with a statement to the effect that Joseph Bergin was tried by court-martial and found guilty on his own statement.

All of this would necessarily be done under a promise of secrecy and in the event of them not being willing to reinstate me they would make an offer of a settlement of some description…

My position is that were it not for the fact that you would get yourself mixed up in the thing I would be perfectly willing to place the full facts of the case before the public and accept their judgement no matter what sacrifice it might entail.

Having expressed these views I think it would be a very good thing if you met me [in Argentina] any time at your own convenience and discuss the matter fully, exploring every channel which might be useful towards fixing the thing up as I am sure a settlement would strengthen your position as much as mine and if they made an offer no matter how little it would give us a lever as they would have hopelessly compromised their position and would have to give way to my demands for a settlement.

Murray concluded the letter by asking Costello questions regarding how much was known about his whereabouts, whether a detailed photograph of him was being circulated and whether official records relating to him could be destroyed.

The evidence that Costello was involved in the cover-up of Joseph Bergin’s death was mounting. Defence for Murray alleged that Costello had made a series of payments in relation to Murray’s transport to Argentina and also to Murray’s wife. But such payments could not be proved as Mr. O’Connor, secretary to the Ministry of Defence, stated that the details that were being sought could not be given as they would be inimical to the public interest.

Michael Murray, brother to James, gave further evidence implicating Costello. Michael claimed that Costello had told him that ‘shortly after the murder’, Murray’s wife would be paid by Costello’s department. He went on to say that Costello gave him £50 to go to Glasgow, where Murray went to straight after the murder. Another man in Glasgow had already given £100 to Murray, by way of Costello. Both brothers used the money to go to Argentina. Michael also claimed that Costello had told him that Murray should flee to America after the murder but that he refused.

Costello staunchly denied receiving or replying to Murray’s letters and also denied giving money to Murray either directly or indirectly. But, afterall, it was not Costello who was on trial. After four days of extraordinary accusations, implicating the senior command structure of the Army, the jury retired and deliberated for twenty five minutes. They emerged and returned a guilty verdict on Murray. Murray was sentenced to hang on 2 July 1925.

Murray said the following by way of a final statement;

I merely wish to say that I am innocent, and to state that I have been made the scapegoat for this crime of which I am innocent. I only hope that the officers who have sworn my life away will be as prepared to meet their God when they come to meet Him, as I am to meet him now.

Murray subsequently appealed the decision of the judge and it was amended to a life sentence of penal servitude.

On 21 April 1926, as Murray was serving his sentence and the story was beginning to fade from the memories of most, another ex-Army officer, Joseph Mack, was charged in connection with Bergin’s murder. On the first day of the trial James Cleary, the soldier attached to the transport section in Portobello Barracks, gave evidence that Mack was one of the individuals that was with Murray on the night Costello ordered Cleary to give them a car. However, on cross examination Cleary was found to contradict himself on several accounts. The following day the presiding judge ordered the jury to find the defendant not guilty as he felt that it would be unwise to allow a verdict to be reached in light of Cleary’s evidence and further evidence placing Mack away from the place that Cleary had placed him. 

This was where the saga ended. Whatever actions or help that Joseph Bergin was carrying out within the Curragh Camp regarding Republican prisoners, his virtue as a man was never in doubt. Whilst prisoners were on hunger strike during 1923, Bergin’s kindness and humanity towards them was never forgotten.  His death was very similar in nature to that of Noel Lemass, elder brother to future Taoiseach, Seán Lemass. Lemass was abducted, tortured, and shot in a manner that closely resembled the treatment meted out to Bergin a few months later. Indeed, during James Murray’s trial, the finger of blame for Lemass’ murder was pointed squarely in the direction of the Free State Army’s Intelligence body.

Colonel Costello retired from the Irish Army in 1946 and then became director of the Irish Sugar Company. He transformed the ailing company from a crippled body that employed 700 seasonal workers to a successful company that had 5,000 employees. He died in 1986 at 82 years of age. The extent of his role in the torture and murder of two young Irish men, one the brother of a future leader, the other a humble young man from Glencondra, will never truly be known.

In May 1928 a plaque was unveiled at the site of the discovery of Bergin’s in Co. Kildare by Moss Twomey, IRA Chief of Staff. Twomey, in a barely veiled reference to those caught up in the cover up of Bergin’s murder said ‘”Forget the past," had been cried out by those now in high positions whose records were an embarrassment to them and who now wished to be counted as gentlemen’.  On 21 October 1945 a new gravestone was erected in Camross graveyard honouring Bergin. It received full prominence, just outside the entrance to the church. The monument was erected by the Laois National Graves Association and a graveside oration was given by Michael O’Kelly from Roscommon;

To the nation as a whole, and to Republican Ireland in an especial manner, the graves of their martyred soldiers were more precious than mines of gold, or ten thousand fields of corn, or the cattle of a thousand hills; more ennobling than palatial cities stored with the triumphs of war and art; more supporting in the darkest hour than colonies, fleets or armies, because it was from the tombs of great men that succeeding generations had always kindled the lamp of freedom. Pearse saw that the graves of those who died to make this land a nation of free men held an incalculable value for us. Standing over a Fenian grave, in one of Ireland's darkest hours, with prophetic vision, he said “As long as Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree will never be at peace”.