Laois man who sparked War of Independence

Teddy Fennelly on the role of a forgotten Portlaoise man in the War of Independence

Laois man who sparked War of Independence

Sergeant Joe Dowling of Castement's Irish Brigade

In 1918, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, called a General Election for Britain and Ireland immediately after the Armistice which ended WW1 was signed at 11 o’clock of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, to seek a mandate for his coalition government to guide his country from a state at war to peacetime politics. The December elections proved to be a watershed in the Irish political landscape. Sinn Fein, won 73 of the 105 seats in what was to be the last All-Ireland election.

Things would never be the same again as the once powerful Irish Parliamentary Party, which pursued a policy of a limited form of self-government, was replaced by a more radical Republican Party, who demanded full-blown independence.

This led to growing conflict with the British Government, to the War of Independence, to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and the division of Ireland into two new political entities, the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, which resulted in the Civil War.

All that is now consigned to history and is well documented. This year and in the coming years we will continue to celebrate those momentous events of one hundred years ago. But what is not as well-known, and is little mentioned, is that a Portlaoise man played a central role in the unfolding of a series of events that led to the independence we enjoy today. 

He was Joe Dowling, who was born in 1886 in Maryborough (Portlaoise), the eldest in a family of fifteen to John and Catherine Dowling, 3 Well Road (now New Road). He was a member of an old and well-established family, which had its roots deeply set in Portlaoise and of whom many close relations still live in the town and county. He was a patriot whose actions triggered off an avalanche of support for the republican cause in the fight for independence and yet he remains the forgotten hero in Irish history of the period. Surely he deserves better. This is his story.

Roger Casement was one of the most important figures involved in the fight for Irish independence and in the story of 1916. Born in Dublin in 1864 and reared in County Antrim, Casement was a prominent British diplomat and was knighted for his work as a global humanitarian in the Congo and Peru where he exposed the scandals of slavery and exploitation of the indigenous peoples by the colonial powers and their agents.

He was appalled by the oppression and corruption embedded in the colonial administrations in the countries in which he worked and grew to distrust imperialism. On returning to Ireland he came to realise the abuse of power, injustice and coercion of the majority by the British overlords in Ireland.

Casement travelled to Germany where he tried to recruit an Irish Brigade from Irish prisoners-of-war held there to support revolutionary elements in Ireland. His efforts were only partially successful and out of 2,000 Irish POWs held in Zossen camp, only in the region of 56 joined up.

Joe Dowling was an army reservist and was called up shortly after the first shots were fired in WW1. After one of the many action engagements in which he was involved, he was captured by the Germans and became a prisoner-of-war. Most of the Irish captured were eventually taken to Limburgh Camp. It was from here that Casement set up his Irish Brigade and on 27 March 1915, Dowling was one of the first POW’s to join. He was appointed Sergeant and was the third in order of superiority.

Casement discounted the idea of sending the Brigade to Ireland to join in the Rising planned for Easter 1916 but he did manage to persuade the German War office to ship a consignment of 20,000 guns and a quantity of ammunition to Ireland.

The British Naval Intelligence became aware of the plan and captured the boat on its arrival into Irish waters off the Kerry coast. Meanwhile, Casement and two comrades, Monteith and Beverley (an alias for his real name Bailey and a sergeant in the Brigade), arrived on a German submarine, U20, at Tralee Bay and came ashore in a small boat at Banna Strand.

They had hoped to liaise with local revolutionaries in bringing the consignment ashore and distributing the weapons. Casement had told his NCOs in Germany that were he to be successful in the gun-running, he would arrange for the rest of the Brigade to travel to Ireland and take part in the revolution.

No help arrived and Casement was arrested by British forces on Good Friday 1916. Bailey was arrested a little later. Three days later, on Easter Monday, the planned Rising went ahead but was crushed within the week.

Fifteen of its leaders were shot by firing squad and on 3 August, after his show trial and conviction on charges of treason in London, Casement became the sixteenth and last of the Rising’s leaders to be executed

While many of Casement’s recruits gradually withdrew from the Brigade and some later tried to repatriate themselves into the British Army for fear of being also branded traitors by the War Office and shot at dawn, Dowling continued the work of Casement in seeking further military assistance from Germany long after the patriot’s death. He believed in Ireland’s cause and gladly followed Casement. Like Casement his cause was not for Germany but for the freedom of his own country.

During a brief stay-over for a St. Patrick’s Day dinner in Berlin in 1917 he, along with other Brigade members, was briefed on a secret mission to Ireland in relation to a new gun-running attempt to boost a new phase in the fight for independence which was anticipated with the growth in popularity of Sinn Fein. Lots were drawn to decide who would venture on the highly dangerous mission, and Dowling picked the fateful number.

He was to go to Ireland to set up a communications channel to facilitate the gun-running mission to the west coast of Ireland. Once landed, he was to liaise with his comrades in Germany by way of messages in P.O.W. parcels sent to by Irish contacts.

To prepare for the task Dowling was sent on a three week training course under a submarine instructor at the Kiel submarine base. In early April 1918, Dowling and the German interpreter to the Brigade, Zerhusen, travelled from Danzig to Hamburg where the Irishman was to catch a U-boat for Ireland.

After a few days wait he was in the U-boat and on his way and it arrived off the Clare coast in the early hours of 12 April. He made it to shore in a rubber dinghy but, on realising he had landed on an island (Crab Island) about half a mile from the mainland and not at the place intended, he hailed a passing fishing boat and was left ashore at Doolin Point.

Unfortunately he had been spotted on Crab Island by a coast guard (James O’Brien).

Dowling said that he had been ship-wrecked from a ship sailing from America but the local officer was not convinced and sent him to be interviewed by a senior Naval officer in Galway. It seems likely, as in Casement’s case, German codes had been broken by British Intelligence or an informant had passed on critical information which led to Dowling’s hasty arrest.

Dowling was sent to London and detained at Cromwell Gardens before being handed over to the Metropolitan Police. He was interrogated at length at New Scotland Yard.

He was sent to the Tower of London pending a Court Martial. His defence was that he was simply trying to get home but he made no statement to the court. He was found guilty and sentenced to be shot but this was commuted to penal servitude for life.

After the Casement gun-running affair, there was a continuing belief in British establishment circles that Irish republicans were behind a plot in relation to a German invasion of Britain via Ireland. The capture of Dowling convinced the British establishment that Sinn Fein were collaborating with the Germans. As a result of what became known as the German Plot, British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, appointed Lord French, 1st Earl of Ypres, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in May 1918. He was a Field Marshall in the British Army, and a veteran of many wars having joined the service as a boy of 14 in 1866.

He had attained a number of high ranking positions including Commander-in-Chief of both the Home Forces and the British Expeditionary Force and was sent over as a military governor with far greater powers than his predecessors.

He was the man responsible for despatching Sir John Maxwell to Dublin to deal with the Easter Rising in 1916 and the ruthlessness in which his underling carried out his duties was, no doubt, much to the satisfaction of his commander.

Not for the first time, and as happened so often again into the future, the British administration misjudged the Irish situation. The Irish popular sentiment had been to a large extent unsympathetic to the Rising in 1916 but the brutal manner of its crushing and the execution of the leaders changed all that. It was the making of Sinn Fein and galvanised the support for independence.

On 17/18th May, 1918, French ordered the arrest of the main players in the Sinn Fein leadership, including Eamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith, and sent them to English jails.

The authorities had completely under-estimated the level of support for the movement throughout the country and it was a God-send for Michael Collins and those other Sinn Fein leaders who had escaped the British dragnet to use the jailings as a propaganda weapon. The issue of conscription in Ireland as the WW1 carnage continued further aroused anti-British sentiment.

The extent of the explosion in support for the republican movement was later borne out in the General Election in December of that year.

When Sinn Fein was declared an illegal organisation in July 1919 and Lord French demanded the government to impose martial law in Ireland it was the last straw and political resistance by the republicans turned to a military campaign. The War of Independence had begun.

It had been triggered off by Dowling, “the man in the boat” as he became known, and the so-called German Plot, which really never was. But with so much activity going on in the succeeding years leading to the Treaty in 1921, followed by the Civil War, Dowling’s own plight in an English jail faded into the background. He petitioned politicians for clemency and for a transfer to an Irish prison.

In 1923, William T. Cosgrave, President of the Irish Free State, got involved in discussions to free the Connaught mutineers as well as Joe Dowling, and while the British agreed to release the mutineers they would not release the Portlaoise man. His case was debated in the Senate and in the House of Commons but the War Office continued to hold the hard line in his case.

All other prisoners sentenced for crimes during the War had been released by this time. Due to political expediency, however, the War Office finally relented and on 2 February 1924, King George V signed a document that annulled the sentence and Dowling was finally released from Liverpool Prison and was accompanied home by a Free State official.

In 1926, he married Henrietta Hovenden at a church in St. Pancras and they lived in Hampstead in London until his death on 1 August 1932 in the Fulham Cancer Hospital. His mother, Catherine, then living at Millview, Portlaoise, was advised by telegraph of her son’s death on the same day.

His remains were taken back to Ireland by boat and were met at Dunlaoire by political representatives, members of the Dublin Brigade, I.R.A. and Cumann na mBan.

The coffin, draped in the tricolour and Dowling’s Irish Brigade hat on top were transferred to Westland Row Church for Requiem Mass. Funeral took place to Glasnevin with a guard of honour. An oration at the graveside was delivered to a large attendance by Senator Mrs Tom Clarke. His last wish was to be laid to rest with the men of 1916 with whom he had hoped to fight and strike a blow for Irish freedom.

Casement’s legacy is secure in the country for which he gave his life to acquire its freedom. But what about his comrades in the Irish Brigade and especially the man who was loyal to him and his cause and the cause of an independent Ireland?

Surely in this great decade of remembrance a fitting tribute should be paid to this forgotten Irish hero of the period, Portlaoise man, Joe Dowling!