Ireland’s Wars: The Rising In Connacht

The western most province in Ireland had somewhat of a part to play in the plans of the military committee, even if, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that they were mostly fantasy. At times Pearse and the others envisioned that Connacht would rise and then be held by a force of Volunteers using the Shannon as a natural defensive line, and could even be a respite and sanctuary for rebels further east, retreating after their initial uprising to safety in the west.

For this they were relying, to too much of an extent, on the Volunteers in Limerick and Clare, but there were Volunteer units in Connacht proper who would play a part in what was to come, many influenced by agrarian-based violence that had never fully ceased from its height in previous centuries. And there were potential targets aplenty: urban centres like Galway City, various ports and harbours of the west coast, and critical points of British authority in the form of barracks and depots.

We must focus primarily on Galway, and the central figure there was a man named Liam Mellows. Son of a British NCO, Mellows was educated in military schools but ultimately decided against pursuing a career in the crown forces, perhaps because of his ever deepening nationalist leanings. In rapid succession he joined and became a key member of a number of nationalist organisations, like Fianna Eireann, the IRB and then the Volunteers, being placed in important organisational positions. In 1915 he was appointed to help re-organise and train the Galway Volunteers, doing so despite a number of arrests and stints in prison. It was a difficult task: the county and city of Galway were dominated by the Redmonite Volunteers, recruitment was difficult and even with the transfer of a batch of Howth Mausers, the Irish Volunteers in the west remained poorly armed. But Mellows was admired for his attitude and efforts, thus his deportation in March 1916 under DORA law was a setback. It was only temporary though: a few weeks later, with the Rising imminent, friends and family found where he was being detained in Britain, sprung him, and got him back to Ireland a few days in advance of the rebellion.

By the time Mellows was in a position to exert influence on the situation in Galway, all was confusion there. Only belatedly had the other senior Galway officers of the Volunteers realised the depth of the divide in the higher Volunteer leadership and, just as in other parts of the country, this contributed to a sense of paralysis in the face of contradictory orders. Having initially expected to rise on the Sunday, MacNeill’s countermand left the Galway Volunteers wondering who to trust, and while there remained a strong belief in the necessity of a rebellion, such belief was useless without direction. Some mobilised on Sunday, some on Monday, some on both, and some never mobilised at all (such as in Galway City). Those that did, fully prepared to engage in an uprising, did so with limited arms, and a few limited attacks on RIC barracks did little to procure more. Among the more notable of the early attacks was that undertaken by the Clarinbridge company, who wounded one policeman in an extended firefight, only to be obliged to retreat with other RIC arrived at the village.

Maybe a thousand or so men were mobilised in County Galway, some of whom disbanded in the face of even the lightest opposition. The element of surprise was lost quickly, and the local RIC moved fast to consolidate their own barracks’ and to call for military reinforcements. It was left to Mellows to try and turn them to some kind of productive avenue, which he attempted to do from a rally point at the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction’s experimental farm outside the town of Athenry, where over 500 men had gathered by late on Tuesday, but with arms for only 350: like others, they did not know what to do when the promised German guns failed to materialise. The next few days worth of operations consisted of patrolling and scouting of the surrounding area, with Mellows trying to get a better picture of how things lay in the county: there were some engagements with RIC in this time, mostly exchanges of fire between opposed patrols, but with no casualties on either side. The lack of arms hamstrung any pretensions of grander operations, and most of the leadership rejected the calls of those who advocated a split into columns and a guerrilla approach.

On Wednesday, worried about the sedentary nature of his forces and with word of RIC all around, Mellows moved his force to nearby Moyode Castle, a mostly deserted “big house”. There were constant rumours and reports of RIC and British military advancing on Mellows’ position, and despite the praise directed towards him for his spirit and organisational abilities, here he seemed to be affected by that same terrible sense of despairing passivity that so infected large parts of the Volunteer make-up in Easter Week, unwilling to move to the attack, and also unwilling to stay where he was. The movement to Moyode, and subsequent maneuvers, may have been part of a vague plan to hook up with Volunteer units in Clare and Limerick. It was not a very defensible position, though there was little in the eyeline to defend against: Mellows found the nearest RIC barracks occupied by just two women and one ill RIC sergeant.

A brief engagement with a motorised RIC patrol was the sum total of active Volunteer fighting at Moyode, and the only other clear sign that a military uprising was taking place was the booming of artillery from the HMS Laburnum, a Royal Navy sloop that had sailed into Galway Bay and was now trying, without success, to fix its guns’ sights on the rebel HQ. Such was the lack of accuracy, that some of the Moyode garrison were content to fool themselves into thinking the artillery noise was evidence of British and German ships firing at each other.

At several points over the next few days Mellows put the choice of disbandment to the garrison, and some choose to take up the option: Mellows himself vacillated between stirring words of fighting it out to the bitter end, and relinquishing command. On Friday he took what was left and moved to another abandoned big house, at Tulira Castle. On the way there, Mellows received communications from local priests noting the failure of the country at large to rise, the hopelessness of the rebel position in Dublin, and the nearby landing of a company of Royal Marines, who even then were closing in with other British regulars. This was the last straw for many, and what was left of Mellows’ force gradually disbanded, the commander giving grudging assent, with many of its make-up soon to be arrested. Mellows himself would escape to America, and would go on to have a sizable impact on what was left of the Irish revolutionary period in other ways.

The Rising was extremely limited in the rest of the province. Aside from the usual hesitance of Volunteer units, the British military and the RIC moved quickly to secure important points, and numerous arrests of nationalist leaders were made, neutering the possibility of any rebellion before it could get going. Priests also intervened in some cases to prevent mobilisations. Only in a small number of cases did Volunteers gather, such as on Achill Island, to no effect, and it can be fairly said that Connacht contributed more to the Rising through those born there who fought in Dublin, than actively during Easter week.

There remains only one more province to discuss. Often forgotten in the history of the Irish revolutionary period, Ulster did play a part in 1916, but it is appropriate that we leave it till last, owing to the limited nature of the events there.

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


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