Paddy Fleming, 1894-1952, was a revolutionary, job creator and industrialist. The Swan man ended up in nine prisons, escaped three times, and in later years brought hundreds of jobs to his native county.
Paddy joined the Laois Volunteers in 1913 with his older brother Eamon. By 1915 he was in contact with Terence McSweeney, Thomas McCurtain and Thomas Kent in Cork. Eamon was living in Dublin and was in regular contact with the 1916 leaders. Sean McDiarmada was well known to the two brothers as he had inspected volunteers at the Swan prior to the 1916 Rising. The Laois Volunteers were given the job by Padraig Pearse to wreck the rail lines at Clonad, Portlaoise and at Ardreigh, Athy. It was successful at Clonad but less so at Athy.
After the Rising both men went on the run. Paddy spent a lot of his time in Cork, visiting home whenever possible. Early in 1917 well-placed sources told him that the authorities were out to get him. When he was in his home area he continued to recruit volunteers for the north Kilkenny Brigade of which he was Commanding Officer.
He was arrested in Kinsale on 16 February and brought to Cork where he was later charged with attempting to buy arms. His Court martial was held at Victoria barracks (now Collins). He completely denied the charge and stated he was being set up to be put away. Paddy had a witness that could have cleared him but decided not to use him as it would affect this man’s business later. However, he was given five years penal servitude. This was seen at the time as being very harsh.
He was immediately transferred to Cork jail and some weeks later to Maryborough now Portlaoise Prison. Arriving there he demanded political status, but this was not granted as he had been sentenced to more than two years. Writing letters to Dublin Castle came to no avail. He refused to wear prison clothes and lay almost naked in his cell. He then refused food for over two weeks and came down with a bad bout of influenza. The authorities became concerned of his situation and released him under licence, whereby he could be arrested at any time.
Arriving home he was almost unrecognisable to his family. Immediately he became involved with his north Kilkenny Bridge again and by early 1918 was drilling over 300 men. RIC reports at the time complained that he was acting in a most dangerous fashion and that he was a bad influence in the area.
Dublin Castle ordered his immediate re-arrest. By June he was back in Portlaoise Prison again.
Total non-co-operation with the prison authorities was the order of the day. The only way they could contain him was to tie him up in a straitjacket. This went on for several weeks, but he broke free several times. They also tried muffs but they were unable to control him. His health became very poor and at one stage the prison doctor felt he had only 24 hours to live. Fearful of him dying in prison, his prison sentence was reduced to two years and on the P January 1919 he was moved to Mountjoy jail. He had achieved his political status.
Elected leader of the prisoners in Mountjoy he began further agitation there. This was resolved quickly as Michael Collins, Harry Boland and Rory O’Connor were organising an escape for Paddy, Piarias Beaslai and others. On the 29 March 20 men got over the wall. This was the biggest breakout during the war of Independence. Paddy spent several weeks with two sisters of the Treaty Signatory, George Gavan Duffy in Dublin. By now there was a price of £1, 000 on his head.
Collins felt it would be better to get Paddy out of Dublin. Fr PJ Doyle was rector of Knockbeg College Carlow and was known to be sympathetic to republicans. Paddy dressed as a woman and was driven to the college in a taxi. During the following months the story of his time in Portlaoise unfolded to Fr Doyle. Collins realising the extent of what he had been through ordered him to put his experiences on paper. It was published under the heading “In Maryboro and Mountjoy“. It went on sale in bookshops, but was immediately withdrawn by order of the authorities.
While in Knockbeg he secretly made several trips to see his parents Andrew and Mary at the Swan, and kept in regular contact with his North Kilkenny Brigade. Michael Collins knew that Paddy was still in danger of recapture so he decided to get him to the United States to tell his story to the Irish American population. Dressed as a priest he made his way to Wales, where he remained briefly with his sister Madeline. Still in priest attire he sailed from Liverpool, arriving in Canada 10 days later. Crossing the border he made his way to New York where he met Eamon De Valera, Harry Boland and Liam Mellows.
It was almost 14 months since his break from Mountjoy. His memoir “In Maryboro and Mountjoy “ has gone into print and 50,0000 copies were distributed throughout the USA by the Friends of Irish Freedom and the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. Paddy crisscrosses the USA with De Valera and Boland speaking at many meetings.
Shortly after the treaty was signed in December 1921 Liam Mellows asked Paddy to return to Ireland as quickly as possible. When the Four Courts and other buildings were occupied in Dublin by Republican Forces, the officers agreed not to fire on Free State Forces. Paddy was one of these who took that decision. When Free State soldiers bombarded the Four Courts there was nothing else for him to do but join his comrades there. He fought his way out and was then ordered by Ernie O’Malley to take charge of the south Eastern Division of the IRA in Wexford. Sean Lemass was one of his associates there. Eventually captured in Enniscorthy after a number of gun battles with the army. Placed in New Ross jail he went on hunger strike for a brief period. Transferred to Kilkenny jail from which he broke out. Recaptured and a few weeks later escaped again. This time he made it to the Swan cross country, a distance of 20 miles.
However, his freedom was short lived. Picked up again by the military he was put into the Curragh detention camp. Rumours of a breakout and he was swiftly moved on to Mountjoy, due to be executed but due to various interventions this did not happen. After the Civil War he was released.
He married Rita Farrelly in 1925. She was a veteran of the War of Independence. They had three boys and two girls. He joined the Irish Sweeps in 1930 as Foreign Director. By 1935 he was in a strong financial position and with the help of some friends he opened Fleming’s Fireclays. By the 1960’s there were 280 people working there. At the outbreak of World War 2 Sean Lemass urged him to open a Coalmine at Wolfhill. In a short time there were over 100 men working there. In 1940 he took over the running of Rossmore Collieries. He died in 1952 and is buried at Clogh Cemetary, Castlecomer.