Ireland’s Wars: The 5th Battalion And Ashbourne

The Easter Rising was a national event, but before we look to the country at large, we must first look at the events that took place within County Dublin, but outside of the city, centring on the experience of the Irish Volunteers 5th Battalion.

This unit was, at the time of the Rising, commanded by Thomas Ashe. Born in rural Kerry in 1885, Ashe was raised in a nationalist Catholic family with an emphasis in his upbringing on the Irish language. For a career he pursued teaching, and ended up employed in a Dublin primary school teaching Irish in 1905, where his nationalist leanings and anti-British feeling became obvious when he organised his students to march over a Union Jack on their break-times. He founded numerous Gaelic League branches (serving on its governing body) and a GAA club before joining the Irish Volunteers in 1913. His fund-raising skills were noted, IRB membership followed and he formed close friendships with the O’Rahilly, Sean Mac Diarmada and Tom Clarke in this time. He probably founded the Lusk Company of Volunteers, one of four companies that came to form the 5th Battalion of the Dublin Volunteers, also known as the Fingal Battalion. Though he was involved in the planning of the Rising from 1915, Ashe was promoted to Commandant of the battalion only a short time before the rebellion began,  owing to work commitments of its previous commander.

120 or so men had turned out on Easter Sunday, but barely half of that returned the following day, with inadequate arms and orders. If what was present had anything going for them, it was mobility, with nearly all of the assembled Volunteers bringing bicycles, along with a motorbike for the Commandant. Assembling first at Knocksedan, a few miles from Swords, Ashe’s only instructions were to hold the main road going through Finglas, and to disrupt British movements down it. Communication with the rebels in the city was poor, and so Ashe and his men were essentially on their own.

The first day’s events did not bode well for what was to come, with two attempted sabotages, at the Rogerstown Viaduct and Blanchardstown railways, unsuccessful. The following day Ashe sent a messenger into Dublin, who returned with a request for men from Connolly: a disappointed Ashe, who was expecting reinforcements himself, sent a third of his force into the city. He did receive one notable addition to his Volunteers though, in the form of the 2nd Battalion’s Richard Mulcahy, a Waterford-born Volunteer who had been sent on a sabotage mission to Howth and from there moved to hook up with the 5th Battalion, where he was installed as Ashe’s second-in-command.

Mulcahy’s arrival coincided with an upswing in the 5th Battalion’s fortunes. After two days of little to no action, on Wednesday Ashe moved to be more pro-active. His force of 40 or so men were split into four sections, with one designated as a camp guard and foragers, while the others went on assigned missions. That day three of the sections moved to Swords, where they rushed both the RIC barracks and the post office, capturing a small amount of arms, before moving onto nearby Donabate and doing the same, albeit with slightly more resistance, the police there obliged to surrender after a brief exchange of fire. The sections did not stay too long.

As has often been noted, Ashe and his men were demonstrating what would later be recognised as guerrilla war tactics, with forces that were not dissimilar to the later Active Service Units, better known as flying columns. Though operating with little in the way of arms – many of the men had only shotguns, and Mulcahy was angered on Wednesday when ammunition was expended firing on railway travelers who refused to stop – they were utilising their speed, knowledge of the terrain, and initiative in surprising the local police, who were sedentary and scattered.

On Thursday Ashe led another few sections to Garristown on the border of Dublin and Meath, but found the RIC barracks there occupied by only one man, with the rest having retreated to nearby Balbriggan: it was a logical strategy for the local police, and left Ashe’s men somewhat demoralised, both for the lack of action and the lack of a larger uprising that many had expected.

On Friday a messenger got through from Dublin, ordering Ashe to move to Batterstown  in Meath and cut the railway there: apart from that, Ashe was simply told to create diversions. Between them and Batterstown was the RIC barracks at Ashbourne, which Ashe resolved to take as he had taken others. Unlike at Garristown, the RIC at Ashbourne were prepared to make a fight of things.

Two policemen were captured at a crossroads outside Ashbourne, and sent to negotiate a surrender with the other RIC inside the barracks, who had prepared a rudimentary barricade outside. The men did not return, and Ashe launched a brief attack on the barracks from the front and rear. After an exchange of fire and the detonation of a grenade, the men inside the barracks prepared to surrender.

At that moment RIC personnel from Slane, travelling in a motorised column, arrived, 55 strong. While they were looking for the rebels, they probably did not actually expect to find them at Ashbourne, and stumbled into the engagement. After a brief exchange of fire that saw the RIC leave the cars and take up positions, Ashe briefly considered retreat, but was convinced otherwise by Mulcahy, who believed that the RIC could still be beaten, and that a withdrawal under such circumstances could quickly become a bloodbath.

Instead, Mulcahy devised a quick tactical plan. One section of men, barely seven strong, were sent to the front of the RIC column with orders to pin them down while the rest, under Mulcahy’s personal command, moved around to the rear, a movement that would take some time to do without notice, owing to the flat ground all around. On the face of it this was a desperate enough plan, since the unit assigned to pining down the RIC was so badly outnumbered and outgunned, but it benefited from the reluctance of the RIC to attack in force. It must be remembered that they were not soldiers, and were not trained to deal with an armed opponent of the type that the Volunteers represented.

It took a few hours for Mulcahy to get his men into position, during which time things almost came undone with the rebels nearer the crossroad came under fire from the north. After briefly considering a retreat, it was realised it was friendly fire, from another Volunteer section arriving at the site. Eventually Mulcahy’s men reached their objective, and fire was thus brought to bear on the police column from two directions. Eight were killed and many more wounded, at a cost of two Volunteers, before the remaining RIC men threw down their weapons and surrendered. From start to finish, the fight had lasted between five and six hours.

It was a remarkable victory, and the Volunteers enjoyed the spoils of guns and ammunition they had won. The prisoners, far too many to be kept, were released, and the rebels returned to their camp, though they now suffered a shortage of food owing to lack of a section scrounging for supplies that day. Regardless morale was now very high, and there was great expectation of what might be occurring in the city if this small group of rebels had been able to achieve so much.

On Saturday the force moved to a new camp at Killcallaghan, and awaited further orders from Dublin. That night, the column was warned of a potential attack from the 5th Lancers, and prepared in earnest for it: but instead of cavalry on the Sunday, it was long-awaited communications from Pearse that arrived. The 5th Battalion’s hopes turned to despair when the contents were read. Many, included Ashe, doubted the authenticity of the surrender order, but an escorted Mulcahy cleared that matter up by visiting Pearse in British captivity. The shocked Fingal Volunteers spent the remainder of the day at their camp waiting for British forces to arrive that they could surrender to, which eventually got there in the form of the cavalry troop they had previously been expecting an attack from.

The success of the 5th Battalion may have been relatively small, a skirmish that pales in comparison to the shelling and fires that were engulfing Dublin at the same time, but it has rightly been pointed out that the events foreshadowed the more successful tactics the forces of militant Irish nationalism would soon employ. A small mobile force of guerrilla fighters had escaped capture, neutralised numerous enemy posts, and then successfully defeated a much larger force through a clever flanking maneuver and taking advantage of the ignorance and inexperience of the enemy. In not undertaking the static strategy of the city based Volunteers, they had proven to be a very different, and very potent, type of threat, one that Irish police had a great amount of difficulty in dealing with.

Mulcahy has generally been given most of the credit for the Ashbourne success, though it would be inaccurate to say that Ashe had no impact at all. Both men, though now entering British prisons, would have a significant impact on events to come, Mulcahy most of all: he would not forget how successful the 5th Battalion had been doing what it did that week. For the time being they would have to be content with orchestrating a famous victory, one that, alongside the Mount Street Bridge fighting, would go down as one of the few outright victories for the rebels of Easter Week.

But they were not the only rebels taking to the field outside of Dublin City. The next four entries will commence a clockwise tour of Ireland at large during the Easter Rising, starting with the province of Leinster where, among other events, a group of Volunteers was attempting a violent reenactment of 1798.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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