Ireland’s Wars: The Rising In Leinster

Since the Easter Rising was such a Dublin-centric event, it would stand to reason that the province of Ireland with the most rebel activity outside of the capital would be the larger Leinster region. There were plenty of targets that would have been of worth to the rebels: the various ports on the eastern coast, roads heading to the south and west, and numerous RIC and military barracks. However, as will become a recurring theme for my comments on the “National Rising”, the confused nature of the mobilisations on Easter Sunday and Monday, along with the lack of solid communications with Dublin, meant that the Rising in Leinster, and the rest of the country, would be a confused piecemeal thing.

We must start with Enniscorthy, County Wexford. That county had a significant nationalist pedigree – Not for nothing did Pearse emphasise to the GPO garrison that a rebellion had begun in the most south-eastern county – but at that time it could be fairly said that the majority of Wexford was more in the Redmonite line of thinking, with Enniscorthy as a major exception. There, the work of the IRB had ensured that the local Volunteers, along with companies in nearby Ferns and New Ross among others, were of the “Irish” variety.

It is important to note that it was not just because Enniscorthy had symbolic value that it became a focus: it was a stop on the railroad coming from the ports at Waterford and Rosslare, and so the military committee had logical interest in its control in the event of a Rising. Who was to exert that control was a confused thing though: A number of names have come down as the county commandant, but it seems clear that Paul Galligan, a Cavan Volunteer appointed by Thomas McDonagh to sort out difficulties in Wexford and to take charge of training, was the man in charge during the events in question.

The Enniscorthy Volunteers were prepared, at least somewhat, to rise, but the countermanding order threw everything into disarray, and the officers spent a large part of Easter Sunday, Monday and Tuesday attempting to figure out what was going on. Many clearly expected, and wanted, to go “out”, but the lack of support from neighbouring counties (see below), gave them serious pause. No one wanted to be the only Volunteers undertaking a rebellion. By Tuesday anything between 200 and 600 men (there are conflicting accounts) had assembled in or near Enniscorthy, but with the conflicting orders nothing had occurred. That changed when Galligan returned from Dublin, where he had consulted with the GPO leadership, who told him to go back to Enniscorthy, take control of the town in order to block the railway, but to conserve ammunition by avoiding direct assaults on police barracks. He was back on site by Wednesday evening, when he assembled the officers and outlined the plan.

The Volunteers took the mostly symbolic step of occupying Vinegar Hill, from which they exchanged a few rounds with the local RIC barracks, before occupying the town hall, castle and train station. The RIC barracks held out and refused to surrender: conscious of the noted lack of ammunition – his few hundred men had barley 20 rifles between them all – Galligan did not order an attack, instead cutting  the building’s gas and water, and leaving the defenders besieged. The Athenaeum Theatre became the Volunteers headquarters, and there was next to no resistance in the remainder of the town, with numerous accounts claiming that the locals were firmly on the side of the rebels. Only a handful of casualties would occur in the course of the week, and no fatalities.

Volunteers came into Enniscorthy in dribs and drabs throughout the next few days, and there may have been over a thousand men there by the weekend. The biggest problem was finding places to house this influx, and to feed them all, as no British attack was forthcoming. Though the British Army did assemble a thousand strong force in Wexford Town for that purpose it never moved out: given the disparity in artillery and ammunition, it is likely that if they had attacked, they would have succeeded.

Instead of warding against an attack from the direction of Wexford Town, Galligan had instead moved northwards to Ferns with around 50 men on the Saturday. Some accounts claim he did so to ward against a rumoured British advance from Arklow, others that he was actually marching on Dublin in the absence of enemy to fight in Wexford. Whatever the case, Galligan went no further than Ferns, occupying the abandoned RIC barracks and school house there.

But no attack happened in Ferns either. On Sunday messages arrived from Dublin about the surrender: like with Ashe and the 5th Battalion, the Wexford Volunteers did not accept this order until two representatives had visited Pearse in person, transported by the British military. With the surrender order confirmed, the Volunteers laid down their arms and went into captivity, save a handful that attempted to flee to the hills and begin a guerrilla struggle, that only lasted a few days. There was some bitterness at the nature of the surrender, both because the Volunteers were giving up without much of a fight of their own accord, and because the “National” Volunteers assisted the British in the aftermath, in patrolling once rebel-held areas, and helping to round up republicans in the weeks that followed; already existent ill-feeling between the two groups was thus exacerbated. Galligan slipped away back to his home county, but was arrested soon after.

Enniscorthy was undoubtedly the biggest event of the Easter Rising in the larger Leinster area, but there were other places worth mentioning also. The Volunteers of Louth and Meath had been expected to rise and support the work of the 5th Battalion, with a planned muster at the Hill of Tara (purely for symbolic reasons, as local commanders had told Pearse how inconvenient such a location was for the task). The countermanding order confused matters horribly however, and by the time the local officers had received firm instructions from Pearse to rise on Monday, the majority of their men had gone home.

Donal O’Hannigan, commander of the Louth Volunteers, belatedly began a rising in the village of Lurgen Green with just 28 Volunteers, capturing local RIC and some unfortunate British officers who happened to be travelling through the area; one RIC man was killed. They soon moved on to Dunboyne, where they received orders from Connolly to march to Dublin, something that was totally impractical: the HQ Commandant may have misunderstood the position of the Louth Volunteers. Instead, O’Hannigan briefly attempted to organise a link-up with Thomas Ashe, and when this didn’t work out his group occupied Tyrellstown House in Blanchardstown, remaining there for the rest of the Rising.

A small number of Meath Volunteers did assemble at Tara, but with no outlook of a larger scale uprising, they simply went home. This was repeated in Westmeath, where only a small proportion of the local Volunteers mobilised, and soon went home without any orders to follow. Laois-based Volunteers sabotaged a railway line, but did little else that week. In Kildare it was a similar story, with confusion over the contradictory orders, and one incident of railway sabotage, though other companies, most notably those based in Maynooth, did march to the capital to take part in the fighting in the headquarters garrison. In Longford there were some cutting of telegraph wires and road blockages, but that was all.

Ginger O’Connell, he who had advocated a patient approach and training in guerrilla warfare, hesitated with his Volunteers in Kilkenny and the surrounding area, debating with other officers at numerous points throughout the week whether he should stage a rebellion. Aside from his own lack of conviction in Pearse’s plan, O’Connell felt that the lack of an uprising elsewhere, especially Munster, would make any effort he would attempt pointless. In the end, the Volunteers under his aegis did nothing. Even with news of the Rising in Dublin, a lack of suitable leadership in the localities meant that these Volunteer companies stayed put, and O’Connell’s lack of movement undoubtedly affected the outlook of many of the Wexford Volunteers, as noted above.

Thus went the Rising in Leinster, with little in the way of pro-active achievement for the Volunteers, but also little in the way of bloodshed. The Volunteers were able to make a splash in Enniscorthy, enough to distract the British somewhat and impede movement on the railway, but that was essentially it. The opportunity for a larger scale affair, that could have supported what was occurring in Dublin, was lost owing to the countermanding order, and the hesitance – not illogical hesitance it must be admitted – of numerous local commanders.

It was a somewhat different story to the south and west, and the various Volunteer units in Munster. It was there that much was expected, owing to the planned landing of German arms, but that crucial lack of planning and botched communications would produce one of the more controversial aspects of the Easter Rising.

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

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