Ireland’s Wars: The Rising In Munster

Munster had been the centrepiece of the larger national plans for the Rising, based around the intended landing of German arms on the County Kerry coastline for later distribution to Volunteers in Cork. The province had many targets that would have been a worthwhile focus: two of the biggest cities in the country, crossings over the Shannon, vital ports and a host of military barracks with troops that could be attacked, diverted or otherwise held-up. But the combination of shallow planning for the operational side of this endevour, and then the floundering of the German efforts to actually land arms, meant that the Munster Volunteers were not in the best position when Easter Sunday came.

Given the nature of the discussion of the Munster experience in the Easter Rising, it is appropriate that we begin with County Cork. There was positive perception of the Cork-based Volunteers, considered by some to be the best organised of the non-Dublin units. The Cork brigade was led by Tomas Mac Curtain and his immediate adjutant Terence MacSwiney, both well-regarded as industrious and capable officers. They had overseen a rigorous training programme for the men under their command, and had spent the days and weeks leading up to Easter Sunday at their own Volunteer buildings engaged in intense planning. However, all of this was shot to pieces by the failure of the Aud, then a succession of communication flubs, and then, perhaps, a previously unacknowledged inadequacy in their own leadership and strength.

On Easter Sunday just over 220 men of the Cork City battalion assembled, much less than was expected, but soon to be joined by Volunteer units from throughout the larger county, to the extent that there may have been 1’200 Volunteers prepared to engage in a Rising that day. They set-off for previously assigned rally points dotted between Cork City and the intended German landing point on the Kerry coast, and soon, inevitably, the force was hopelessly splintered and unable to communicate adequately with its various sections. When Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order arrived, Mac Curtain and MacSwiney were obligated to traipse around the countryside in an unreliable car – it broke down at least one time – to try and get the word out to their men to stand down. They were still undertaking this exhausting task on Monday, when a motorbike messenger from Dublin arrived with a scribbled order from Pearse, telling the shocked men to follow their original orders. As has been noted, at least nine different contradictory messages with orders from Dublin would arrive over the next few days.

In simple terms, neither Mac Curtain nor MacSwiney rightly knew what to do. They were divorced from the squabbles of the Dublin leadership, and so did not fully know who to follow, Pearse or MacNeill, and there was some rumours that the Rising in Dublin was primarily a Irish Citizen Army affair, that the Volunteers should not get engaged in. There was also a fear that seizing buildings in Cork City, an urban area underneath natural heights on its outskirts, would end disastrously, and that British forces in the city were too strong. Lacking clear orders, the two commanders decided to await developments and perhaps a communication from the capital with definite instructions.

This was not to the liking of many in Cork who, as the days of the week slipped by, saw their chance of making an impact fading away. Some claimed the concern about Cork’s hills were nonsensical, since the Volunteers could simply have left the city and seized them themselves. Individual unit commanders did attempt to organise attacks on RIC barracks, but found lack of numbers to be an impediment that was impossible to overcome. Many of the rank-and-file went home and back to work, even as news of what was happening in Dublin reached the countryside.

Mac Curtain, aside from pacing back and forth in the Cork City Volunteer Hall, came under pressure from the mayor and local clergy, fearful of what was happening in Dublin coming to their streets, to surrender the Volunteers’ guns. The headquarters was being closely watched by British authorities, and it was a tense enough, if bloodless, stand-off. An elaborate deal was eventually reached where the Volunteers’ arms would be placed under the control of the civic authorities for a time, before being returned, but they were simply handed over to the British when a deadline for the deal expired without it being brought to fruition, with the Volunteer leadership in Cork arrested to boot. The loss of the arms to the British without a fight was undoubtedly the most controversial element of the entire affair in Cork, and would trigger investigations and recriminations later.

There was some bloodshed in Cork during the Easter Rising however, when the RIC raided the Kent family home in Castlelyons on Monday 2nd May. The Kent’s were prominent nationalists with two of their son’s in the local Volunteers; they engaged in a three-hour firefight with the police, with one of the brothers, Richard, killed, along with an RIC constable, before the rest surrendered and were arrested.

If Cork had reason to feel its performance during the course of the Rising was inadequate, they were, at least, in good company when it came to the rest of Munster. In Limerick Michael Colivert was the commander of the Volunteers in the city and county, as well as those in neighbouring Clare, a force that totalled over 1’500 men, but which was not adequately armed. Until the Tuesday before the Rising began Colivert’s instructions in the event of a rebellion was to hold a defensive line on the banks of the Shannon, but given the amount of men that Colivert had to hand, this was a fanciful objective: as he himself outlined to Pearse, he would have to defend the river with one man for every 300 yards of ground. But that week Colivert received new instructions, to stand ready to receive a shipment of German arms and distribute them, and to adjust his plans accordingly.

Colivert had no time to properly come up with such a plan, and when the news of the arms shipment’s failure reached him and other commanders, followed by MacNeill’s countermand, it was the death blow to any pretensions of holding a rising in the south-west. Even when Pearse sent an order to rise on Monday, Colivert and his subordinates demurred, noting that Pearse still referred to Germans that had not arrived, and would not. In the end, despite authorities fearing unrest and insurrection from Limerick City and Ennis, nothing happened beyond brief mobilisations and manoeuvres, some of which were called off due to bad weather. Colivert arranged a surrender of arms just like Mac Curtain, and would be arrested after the Rising.

We have already seen the issues faced by Kerry-based Volunteers to a certain extent, with the disaster at Ballykissane Pier, the arrest of Roger Casement and Austin Stack, and the Aud’s misdelivery. The Rising, naturally enough, did not go ahead in the county, beyond the assembling and marching of a few Volunteer companies for a time. In Tipperary, one RIC member was shot dead while attempting to arrest a Volunteer officer near the Limerick border, while in Waterford Volunteers in the city briefly considered an attack on the post office only to find it held by RIC, while elsewhere in the county the Rising amounted to attempted train hold-ups.

The failure of the Volunteers in Munster to effect any kind of Rising remains a uncertain topic, but with the benefit of hindsight we must be realistic. The would-be Munster rebels were not adequately armed for the task asked of them, and only the most perfect execution of the Aud plan would have given them the required guns. The communications with Dublin and the military party within the Volunteer leadership was poor – Colivert, for example, was not in Pearse’s full confidence, and so did not receive adequate instructions – both before the Rising and during. In the end, soldiers with poor or non-existent directions, arms or plans could not be expected to take on armed police and military in what was already clear as a hopeless cause as early as Tuesday.

However, we should not excuse the likes of Mac Curtain and Colivert entirely. It was within their power to do something, albeit not the spectacular grabbing of buildings and river-lines that Pearse presumably wanted. Disruption, diversions, sabotage and other gestures could well have been attempted, as became the case a few years later during the War of Independence, but partly because of the aforementioned problems, but also because of inexperienced and paralysed leadership within the province, they were not.

The recriminations would come for Munster, and may well have fanned some of the flames that would engulf the province from 1919 onwards. For now, we must move north to Connacht, and the Rising in Galway and elsewhere, when substantial actions were taken, but with very mixed results.

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

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