A time when the IRA in Laois turned on the RIC

Revisiting the early 20th century in Laois when the country was in the grip of the War of Independence

Ger Dooley

Reporter:

Ger Dooley

ira portlaoise prison

Clipping from the Leinster Express about an attack in the then Queen's County now Laois

We are asked to make little sacrifices….”Never before, in living memory, has an Eastertide passed of such an extraordinary nature.

All but a commendable few were permitted to venture beyond a mile and a quarter from home. Family units joined together in spirit only, with the aid of WhatsApp, Zoom, and Skype. Shaky webcam footage of priests, rectors, Rabbis, and Imams displayed on four inch screens across Ireland. Nearly 3 billion people around the world forced to stay indoors to arrest the spread of an invisible enemy.

The centenary of Ireland’s most extraordinary Easter was remembered four years ago. Laois Volunteers played a noteworthy part in the Rising, with the first shot of the rebellion fired during an operation that derailed a train near Colt Wood. However, nothing close to resembling a revolution or an island-wide war for independence would occur in Laois for another four years.

An ambush by the IRA in which two RIC Officers are killed in Soloheadbeg, and the first meeting of Dáil Éireann hours later on 21st January 1919 signalled the beginning of the Irish War of Independence.

Little action of note took place in the first 60 weeks of the conflict in Laois. The Courthouse in Maryborough (Portlaoise) was the scene of several court-martials of IRA Volunteers throughout 1919. That of John Hayden of Athy who had been detained as part of dreaded D.O.R.A (Defence of the Realm Act) legislation followed a pattern typical of the time. He had been arrested after being discovered in possession of documentation likely to cause ‘disaffection to his majesty’. When proceedings began, he promptly refused to recognise the proceedings and started to sing the Soldier’s Song at the top of his voice as he was dragged away by the RIC to a cell. There, he and three other Volunteers were fed by the Maryborough branch of Cumann na mBan.

The most serious incident in the county in 1919 occurred in Ardenteggle, near Killeshin. The usually tranquil surroundings of the Rice family farm were disturbed on 15th June when two RIC Officers, led by Sergeant Masterson, arrived in search of two men they claimed they were searching for from Kilkenny. Martin Rice Jr. said he knew nothing of the two criminals and the police left. Shortly afterwards Rice Jr. came out of his front door to find the two RIC men, and the very two men they claimed to be searching for beating Martin Rice Sr. in the farmyard. Rice Jr. intervened and was shot in the hip in the ensuing struggle. He underwent surgery in the Mater Hospital, but survived. Masterson was charged with grievous bodily harm four days later.

The course of the War of Independence nationally changed in December 1919. Michael Collins and the rest of the General HQ (GHQ) of the IRA decided that they needed to implement greater control over the island-wide organisation in order to coordinate their resources and maximise their ability to halt British civic and military control of Ireland. The first realisation of this new coordinated GHQ led approach came with the first sanctioned attack upon an RIC Barracks in Ireland on 2nd January 1920 when the IRA forced the surrender of police in Carrigtwohill in Cork.

The single largest coordinated attack of the War of Independence came on Easter Saturday 1920. It was on this night that the Laois IRA sprang into action for the first time in a military capacity. Over the course of the preceding months, the RIC had began to abandon their barracks in more rural areas and retreat to larger urban barracks which could be reinforced. GHQ ordered the IRA all over Ireland to attack, and destroy as many RIC barracks as they could.

In Laois, eight barracks were targeted; Ballyroan, The Heath, Ballinakill, Castletown, Coolrain, Timahoe, Doonane, and Luggacurren.

Ballyroan had been the centre of republicanism in Laois for several years. The genesis of the Laois IRA emerged there when, in 1914, they met to discuss Eoin McNeill’s manifesto opposing that of John Redmond who was urging all Volunteers to enlist in the British Army and fight in the Great War. Thanks to the determination of Lar Brady, they were one of only two Volunteer Corps in Laois to vote down Redmond’s proposals, and they were the only Corps not present at Redmond’s visit to Maryborough in September 1914.

Therefore, it was unsurprising that the most elaborate attack on Easter Saturday in Laois was in the small rural village of Ballyroan. The Barracks there had ceased to be operational for police work, and Sergeant Ryan had been re-deployed to Maryborough. However, his family still lived in the Barracks. On Easter Saturday night, the Sergeant had returned to be with his family owing to the illness of his young son.

In the dead of night, the Sergeant’s son awoke to the sound and vibrations of drilling. The tactic of drilling holes into the gable end of RIC Barracks, inserting gelignite, and detonating the explosives, had been initiated in the Carrigtwohill attack and replicated in Castlehackett (Galway), Holycross (Tipperary), and Allihies (Cork). Mrs. Ryan, who was still up, also heard the drilling and shouted out that there was no arms or ammunition in the building.

The Sergeant is then aroused from his slumber by the growing commotion. He goes outside and is confronted by approximately 40 Volunteers who tell him he will be blown to atoms as they hold him against the wall with a revolver. Using aliases to communicate with each other such as ‘Rory O’More’ (the Laois leader of the 1641 Rebellion), the IRA evacuate the Sergeant’s family and bring them to a neighbour’s house. The Sergeant’s eldest son narrowly escapes injury when one of the Volunteers fires a gun in his direction urging him to leave the building. They then set fire to the building. The gelignite was not detonated; the police discovering the hole in the wall with a four inch fuse still intact the following day.

They hold the Sergeant captive for 3 ½ hours before they flee the scene. The Sergeant frenetically runs from house to house in the village seeking help in extinguishing the flames. However, at a time when the boycott of police officers is growing, most people refuse to help, and only reluctantly do so when the fire threatens other adjoining buildings.

Similar to Ballyroan, the RIC Barracks in The Heath had been abandoned as an operating base, but the Sergeant’s wife still lived there. Her husband, Sergeant Kyne, had been transferred to Mountrath. Mrs. Kyne was removed from the building before it was burned to the ground. She later became ill and was taken to hospital and was treated for shock.

In Ballinakill, RIC Sergeant Dowling was asleep when he heard the sound of windows breaking. He leapt from his bed and saw figures pouring petrol in though the shattered panes of glass. Dowling managed to make such a racket that he was heard in a nearby house where a wake was ongoing. Fr. James Harris, the Parish Priest, emerged from the house with some other mourners to see what was happening. Afraid of being identified, the IRA immediately fled the scene.

Coolrain RIC Barracks was located in the centre of the village. It was occupied by Sergeant Michael Finan, and his wife, Bridget, and their children. Bridget was in the house alone on Easter Saturday when the local IRA came knocking. She was removed to a neighbour’s house as the building was partially destroyed. Much of the living quarters were undamaged and she returned to their the following day. Finan lodged a joint claim for compensation with the Sergeants in The Heath and Ballyroan of £1,978 for loss of property.

A similar story befell the sole resident of Timahoe RIC Barracks; Mrs. Armstrong, the Sergeant’s wife. She was removed from the building as the IRA caused partial damage to the building.

Meanwhile, the three other targeted buildings had been completely abandoned and were either extensively damaged or fully consumed by fire. Castletown Barracks had been unoccupied for months before its partial destruction. Luggacurren Barracks was abandoned a full year earlier before it was razed to the ground. As was Doonane Barracks, a former fever hospital capable of holding scores of patients.

Two weeks after Easter Saturday, Lar Brady led an attack upon Clonaslee RIC Barracks, causing £3,000 worth of structural damage. RIC Sergeant Hogg claimed £30 compensation for loss of property.

Brady himself, who had risen to become the leader of the Laois IRA by that stage, led the only attack upon Crown infrastructure of taxation in Laois on Easter Saturday which took place in Mountmellick. Daniel Williams, an income tax collector, was abducted in his home in Acragar and brought to his office where he was forced to hand over all documents relating to the collection of tax in the area. They were promptly burned before his eyes before he was safely returned home.

The Easter attacks rattled authorities in Dublin Castle. It was clear that conflict that had emerged in the past year was escalating at an alarming rate. In Dublin, Michael Collins’ Squad was picking off members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. On 26th March, Resident Magistrate Alan Bell, who had been charged with the task of uncovering money raised for Sinn Féin, was dragged from a tram near the RDS and was shot dead. Castle authorities were rapidly losing control of their own officers; the RIC, now bolstered by new English recruits who soon became known as the ‘Black and Tans’, were engaging in acts of retaliation.

In the space of a few days leading up to Easter, two unarmed civilians had been shot dead in Portobello, the RIC shot dead James McCarthy in Thurles and, most significantly, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Tomás MacCurtain, was shot dead by men presumably acting under orders of the RIC.

In an effort to regain control, hundreds of Irish men were arrested in March 1920. Most of them were neither charged with any specific crime and were sent to either the newly fortified prison facility on the Crumlin Road in Belfast, Wormwood Scrubs in London, or Mountjoy Prison. As the cells began to fill, and prospects of being treated as political prisoners diminished, 80 prisoners in Mountjoy decided to commence a hunger strike on the 5th April 1920. Initially, the strike raised few eyebrows. The refusal of food by Irish nationalists had been commonplace for years. However, the sheer size of this strike was unprecedented and by 7th April concerns for the prisoners’ wellbeing came into sharper focus.

By 10th April, the plight of the hunger strikers was to the forefront of people’s minds across Ireland. Hourly telegrams to the American and British newspapers brought the Irish conflict to the front pages of newspapers who had previously dismissed what had been happening for the past year as part of a growing pattern of post-War protests against British rule from Egypt to India. Hundreds of people began to pack the streets around the North Circular Road in Dublin around the prison. The British army deployed hundreds of soldiers to keep the crowd back as tanks last used on the battlefields of Europe patrolled the prison’s perimeter wall.

On 12th April, the National Executive of the Irish Labour Party and the Irish Trade Union Congress announced that all businesses were to strike work the following day. Much like the hunger strike, the labour strike was one of the most formidable tools in the arsenal of Irish labour, as it was around the world.

The only other time a national strike had taken place was on 23rd April 1918 in protest to conscription. The disruption caused by the strike gave the British government a glimpse of what would come should they pursue the policy of conscription in Ireland, and they quietly dropped the plan. With the memory of this success fresh in their minds, the workers of Ireland sought to replicate their achievement for the hunger strikers.

Despite the short notice, in Maryborough, the strike was almost fully adhered to by workers in the town. Local labour leaders called to businesses on the night of the 12th April requesting them not to open the following day in support of the hunger strikers. On the morning of the 13th, the shutters remained down, and the doors were bolted closed. Men and women walked in front of businesses with placards. A few publicans reportedly ignored the requests and were covertly admitting patrons.

However, when news of this reached rival publicans who had closed their doors, they proceeded to picket the premises shaming those within to leave and the business to close.

The nature of the strike itself meant that communications with Dublin were limited. Rumours swirled around the town during the first day of the strike; most people were assured that some of the strikers had died. When a motorist arrived from Dublin with a copy of the Irish Independent he was surrounded by a crowd wishing to read the latest news.

That night, a telegram arrived notifying the striking workers that there was no developments from Mountjoy; nobody had died, but the strike would continue for a second day. A hastily convened meeting in the Town Hall followed preparing for a prolonged strike. Dr. Thomas Higgins, the father of Kevin O’Higgins TD, assumed the Chair and gave a rousing speech, typical of the time, to ready the people for a period of uncertainty.

He said the hunger strikers ‘are guilty of no crime but the fact that they love their country and hate England – sentiments which, I think, are noble in the heart of any Irishman, and worthy of approbation – those men are lying in their cells at the present moment at the point of death. We as workers, and having our liberty, are asked to make little sacrifices to obtain the release of those unfortunate prisoners.’

The following morning, shops were allowed to open for three hours to allow for people to stock up on provisions. Volunteers rounded up ‘strangers’ and forced them to leave the town so as to ensure what little stock remained in the town would only be used for locals. As it was a Wednesday, which was usually the Fair Day in town, farmers were stopped on the roads and asked to turn back. Many of them, who had little knowledge or interest in the strike were forced to drive their cattle all the way back as far as Mountrath and Stradbally.

With communications once again stifled, when rumours began to filter through in the late afternoon that the prisoners had been released, few believed them. They had worked themselves up into fury the day before owing to false rumours of deaths, they were reluctant to believe any rumours now. Hundreds of people packed the church to pray for their health. But as they emerged into the pouring rain and the dimming April sunlight whispers of rumours had been replaced with hard facts; telegrams had been received confirming the prisoners were released and the strike was over.

Another meeting was held at the Town Hall in which an official announcement came from the Strike Committee. The sombre tones of the night before was replaced with joy. There followed an evening of merriment with music, parades and dancing around tar barrels on Main Street.

These scenes were replicated in most towns around the county with large processions being noted in Ballybrittas and Rathdowney.