The arrival of the Anglo-Normans in 1169 AD marked the beginning of a 750-year turbulent relationship between Ireland and its neighbouring island, Britain. By 1913, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, ruled from London. A decade later, twenty six of the thirty-two counties of Ireland were independent. This exhibition explores Galway’s participation in the revolutionary events that shaped the nation.
In 1798, the United Irishmen staged a rebellion to end British rule in Ireland and establish a republic. It failed and Britain passed the Act of Union (1800), closing the Irish Parliament in Dublin and bringing all Irish Members of Parliament (MPs) to Westminster, London. The Union, however, did not pacify Ireland. Three years after the Act, another unsuccessful rebellion was staged, followed by another in 1848 during the Great Famine (1845-1851), a humanitarian crisis that many blamed on the British Government. The 1867 Fenian rebellion, planned by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), showed that a minority of Irish nationalists continued to see violence as a means of achieving independence from Britain. For the majority of Irish nationalists in the late nineteenth century, reform of land ownership and the reinstatement of an Irish parliament for domestic affairs, or Home Rule, were the main political goals. Founded in 1882, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was the main Home Rule party, led by Charles Stewart Parnell. The First and Second Home Rule Bills (1886 and 1893) were defeated in parliament. In the vacuum that followed, some Irish nationalists began to explore alternatives to Home Rule. Formed from 1905, Sinn Féin absorbed a number of separatist groups, together promoting a policy of national self-reliance and passive resistance to British rule.
By 1910, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) again held the balance of power at Westminster and introduced the Third Home Rule Bill. Passed in the House of Commons in 1912, the bill was rejected in the House of Lords with the result that implementation was delayed for two years. Ultimately, it was expected that an Irish parliament would convene in 1914. The Bill was strongly opposed by Ireland’s sizeable unionist minority, which was concentrated in the more industrialised, Protestant-dominated province of Ulster. Unionists did not want to be governed by an Irish parliament dominated by Roman Catholics. Their fears were summed up by the slogan ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’. Unionists also believed that Home Rule would damage economic ties with Britain and be disastrous for the linen and ship-building industries. In January 1913, Edward Carson of the Ulster Unionist Council approved the creation of a paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), to resist the implementation of Home Rule by force. Later that year, Eoin MacNeill, co-founder of the Gaelic League, published an article in An Claidheamh Soluis that recognised the merit in forming a nationalist equivalent of the UVF.
Launched in Dublin on 25 November 1913, the Irish Volunteers comprised a cross-section of Irish opinion, from militant republicans to moderate nationalists, including members of the IRB and the IPP. Provincial branches quickly followed, with George Nicolls organising an initial meeting in Galway’s Town Hall on 30 November 1913 to launch a local branch. In April 1914, a female equivalent known as Cumann na mBan (‘League of Women’) was established. By August a branch had formed in Galway. In April 1914, as tensions over Home Rule increased, the UVF imported almost 25,000 rifles from Germany. Three months later, the Irish Volunteers landed 900 Mauser rifles from the Asgard at Howth, Co. Dublin. Civil war seemed inevitable. The outbreak of the Great War removed the threat of civil war and Home Rule was suspended until the end of hostilities. Unionist leader Edward Carson pledged the UVF to the war effort. IPP leader John Redmond also urged members of the Irish Volunteers to serve in the British Army. Of the 170,000 Volunteers, almost 158,000 went along with Redmond as the newly-styled National Volunteers, leaving Eoin MacNeill with a smaller faction of Irish Volunteers. By spring 1915, a police report noted that in Co. Galway there were 5,809 National Volunteers and only 742 Irish Volunteers. By March 1916, however, there were 1,615 Irish Volunteers in Co. Galway.
When the Great War broke out, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) recognised that England’s difficulty could be Ireland’s opportunity. Following the split in the Volunteers, members of the IRB secretly continued to secure key positions within the smaller faction, as they had done in the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League and other nationalist organisations. By doing this they were able to gain control of the Irish Volunteers and edge its membership further and further towards extremism. On 1 August 1915, at the funeral of prominent Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin, Dublin, Patrick Pearse – an emerging figure within the IRB and Irish Volunteers – declared: ‘the fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’. The famous oration, written and practiced by Pearse at his cottage in Rosmuck, Co. Galway, has since been perceived as a call to arms. In January 1916 the Military Council of the IRB, which included Éamonn Ceannt from Galway, agreed to mount a joint insurrection through the Irish Volunteers with James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army for a national uprising. In Co. Galway, republican activities were co-ordinated by Liam Mellows from a base in Athenry.
Planned as a national event, the 1916 Rising was mainly confined to the streets of Dublin. On Easter Monday 24 April 1916, the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell Street was seized by republican forces along with other key buildings. In front of the GPO, Commandant-General Patrick Pearse read aloud a Proclamation declaring an independent Irish Republic to a small crowd of onlookers. Over the following days, about 1,600 Irish Volunteers, led by Pearse, with 200 members of the Irish Citizen Army, led by James Connolly, and members of Cumann na mBan faced 20,000 Crown forces armed with artillery. After intense fighting at the GPO the rebels retreated to Moore Street and surrendered on Saturday 29 April. A Countermanding Order, issued to the Irish Volunteers by Eoin MacNeill, together with a failure to land arms meant that the Rising was destined to fail from the start. Around 485 lives were lost in the Rising, including: rebels, policemen, soldiers and civilians. A total of 368 Crown forces were wounded, while the combined numbers of rebels and civilians injured reached 2,217. Outside of Dublin, rebels seized buildings and clashed with the RIC at Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, Ashbourne, Co. Meath and Castlelyons, Co. Cork.
On orders from Pearse, Liam Mellows led the Irish Volunteers in a Rising in east Co. Galway, which lasted from Easter Tuesday 25 to Saturday 29 April.
On Easter Tuesday, almost 100 men from the Clarenbridge Volunteers under Mellows marched from Killeeneen schoolhouse and attacked the RIC barracks in Clarenbridge. Later, an estimated 100 men from the Oranmore and Maree Volunteers led an assault on the RIC barracks at Oranmore, taking a number of policemen prisoner. In an effort to thwart British forces, the rebels also barricaded roads, cut telephone lines and damaged railway lines and a road bridge. From that evening, local Volunteer companies began to assemble at the Model Farm, on the outskirts of Athenry.
On Wednesday morning, a shoot-out between the RIC and a group of rebels at Carnmore Crossroads, near the town of Galway, resulted in the death of Constable Patrick Whelan. In the afternoon, a British warship – the HMS Laburnum – started shelling areas around Galway to intimidate the rebels and discourage an assault on the town.
Later that same day, between 500 and 700 rebels took up defensive positions at Moyode Castle, near Athenry, and days later at Limepark House, near Peterswell. Lacking in arms and aware that the British forces were closing in, the last of the rebels disbanded on Saturday morning.
A strong RIC presence in Galway town, the close proximity of the Connaught Rangers depot at Renmore, and a National Volunteer force that was unwavering in its loyalty to Redmond, greatly impeded any chance of a successful rebellion. Nonetheless, an ambitious plan targeting the town had been prepared at the University Road home of George Nicolls. It was envisaged that the local Volunteers, with the assistance of the Spiddal and Moycullen Volunteers, would capture seven prominent buildings in the town. The rebels also devised a plan to kidnap two prominent local business men – Máirtín McDonogh and Joseph Young – to use as leverage to force the RIC to abandon their barracks.
Following word of rebellion in Dublin, the authorities in Galway town made arrests, declared Martial Law and quickly secured the main public buildings, including the GPO. Armed RIC patrolled the streets, supported by members of the National Volunteers. A reserve civilian force was raised too, with backing from a committee chaired by Máirtín McDonogh. Fear gripped the town following the shoot-out at Carnmore Crossroads, as did unfounded stories of a possible attack by the rebels. It was reported by the Freeman’s Journal that ‘things were quiet’ in Galway town after ‘a large number of soldiers had been landed from a war vessel’ – HMS Gloucester – on Thursday 27 April.
On Easter Tuesday, the RIC arrested suspected local Volunteer organisers in the town including George Nicolls, Micheál Ó Droighneáin, Pádraic Ó Máille and Frank Hardiman. To prevent escape or rescue, the men were imprisoned aboard a British warship on Galway Bay. On their way through the streets of Galway they were subjected to open hostility from locals.
In the immediate aftermath, the Rising was widely condemned. At a public meeting in Galway’s Town Hall, a resolution ‘to crush by every possible means the efforts of the disaffected fanatics and mischief makers’ was passed ‘with enthusiasm’. Galway County Council passed a resolution expressing ‘condemnation of the recent disturbances of social order brought about by irresponsible persons’. Despite mounting protests and calls for leniency, 15 rebels were executed. They included the seven signatories of the Proclamation, seven others thought to be leaders, and Thomas Kent who was shot in Cork. Almost 100 other individuals were also sentenced to death but had their sentences reduced to various terms of imprisonment.
The executions provoked a backlash against the British government and generated widespread sympathy for the rebels. Anti-British sentiment escalated further after the arrest of more than 3,100 people, of whom 2,500 were deported to Britain in May 1916. Of the 1,800 or so rebels who were interned at Frongoch in Wales in early June, 322 were from Galway. More than 1,100 prisoners were released from the camp in August, with the rest remaining interned until shortly before Christmas. Although the Rising was a military failure, the British mishandling of the event resulted in a shift in Irish public opinion towards independence.
Although widely referred to as the ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’, the Rising was in fact organised by the IRB through the Irish Volunteers. However, Sinn Féin now benefited from increased hostility towards British rule in Ireland. As they were released from British prisons, returning rebels swelled the membership of Sinn Féin to continue the struggle for independence. In 1918, Sinn Féin further benefited from British government proposals to extend conscription (compulsory military service) into Ireland, which was strongly opposed by republicans, nationalists and the Church. In Galway, between May 1916 and December 1918, the membership of Sinn Féin expanded from 200 members to 7,500 members. With the conclusion of the Great War in November 1918 a general election was held in the UK, including Ireland. Sinn Féin declared that they would run and, if elected, its members would not take their seats in the British parliament but would instead establish an independent parliament in Dublin. Running many veterans of the Rising, Sinn Féin won 73 of 105 seats nationally, including four seats out of four in Galway, and established Dáil Éireann (‘Assembly of Ireland’) in January 1919. Their comprehensive victory signalled the end of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and Home Rule which had dominated Irish politics for two generations.
The War of Independence, or Anglo-Irish War, was fought on two fronts. Politically, Dáil Éireann sought to undermine the British Government and Dublin Castle, the centre of the British Administration in Ireland. They set up a parallel government, police force and legal system. At the same time, the Irish Volunteers, now increasingly known as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), mounted a military campaign against British forces in Ireland. As the RIC were seen as ‘the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle’, its members were intimidated and attacked throughout the country. As a result, the RIC lost men to retirements and resignations, and had fewer new recruits. To help maintain control, the British Government recruited for the RIC in Britain. These new recruits, known as the ‘Black and Tans’, arrived in Galway from February 1920 onwards. Later that year, they were joined by a new Auxiliary force, the ‘Auxiliaries’ or ‘Auxies’. Many of the new recruits were veterans of the Great War. Both the ‘Tans’ and the ‘Auxies’ earned a notorious reputation for indiscriminate violence. From the summer of 1920 onwards, violence between republican and British forces escalated throughout Ireland. By the summer of 1921 with neither side sensing an immediate victory, a ceasefire was agreed between Sinn Féin and the British Government, which took effect on 11 July 1921.
From the summer of 1920 to the ceasefire in July 1921, a series of attacks and reprisals by Irish republican and British forces resulted in the deaths of IRA Volunteers, policemen, soldiers and civilians. During this dark period, the Galway IRA killed 11 policemen, 2 soldiers and 6 civilians, three of whom were suspected of spying. On the other side, British forces killed a total of 27 IRA Volunteers and civilians throughout Galway; several others allegedly died as a result of ill- treatment by Crown forces.
Following the ceasefire, Éamon de Valera met with British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, in London. The talks were ultimately unsuccessful, but both sides knew that without an agreement the armed conflict would inevitably resume. In October, de Valera, as President of the Irish Republic, appointed a team of delegates for fresh talks in London ‘with a view to ascertaining how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations’. This time, he did not take part directly in the discussions. After two difficult months of negotiations, Lloyd George delivered an ultimatum to the delegates – either sign the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty or face an ‘immediate and terrible war.’
The Irish party signed at 2.15am on the 6 December 1921. The Treaty essentially gave full independence to the 26 counties of southern Ireland (the Irish Free State or Saorstát Éireann). Controversially, however, it would remain within the British Empire and all elected representatives would be required to swear an oath to ‘be faithful to’ the British monarch. Following a series of intense and emotional debates in Dáil Éireann, the Treaty was approved by 64 to 57 votes on 7 January 1922. A general election followed on 16 June and the majority of Irish voters backed the Treaty.
From April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA occupied the Four Courts in Dublin. The first general election in the Irish Free State was held in June. Pro-Treaty Sinn Féin won 58 of 128 seats and anti-Treaty Sinn Féin took 36. The remaining seats went to other parties which supported the Treaty. When the order to surrender the Four Courts was ignored, the new National Army, under Michael Collins, shelled the building thus signalling the beginning of a civil war. As the conflict spread, casualties mounted and both sides became increasingly bitter and vindictive.
When members of the IRA shot Sean Hales a pro-Treaty TD, as a reprisal for the execution of IRA members, the Free State Government then executed four senior republican prisoners without trial, including Liam Mellows. By the end of 1922 it was clear that the IRA was on the verge of defeat but they refused to surrender. Executions were used to break their resolve. In a three week period in January 1923 the Free State Government executed thirty-four IRA prisoners across the country. These included four Galway men shot in Athlone Barracks: Michael Walsh, Stephen Joyce, Martin Burke and Hubert Collins. In April 1923, the anti-Treaty IRA called a ceasefire, and in May it ordered its fighters to ‘dump arms’, effectively ending the conflict.