First Shots Fired - Tullamore Volunteers in Prelude to Easter Rising

(Republished from the Tribune's special 50th anniversary1916 commemorative supplement)
March 20th 1916 wasn't very different from many another Mondays in Tullamore. Light-hearted young men in khaki were in the streets enjoying their furloughs with friends and others like them were heading back once more to face the Germans in the carnage of Verdun.

It was a brave new decade in a new century and it was essentially, a man's decade; a time when the test of one's manhood was stoutness of heart and the strength to shoulder a rifle.

In every town and village in Ireland the cream of its young men had volunteered to fight for the freedom of small nations, to die for king and country, and in each was the firm conviction that their fight was Ireland's and that when they came victoriously home their trophy would be Home Rule.

That spring even an excited and jostling crowd spilled over Tullamore Railway Station singing, 'It's a long way to Tipperary' and amid the cheering and excited waving of Union Jacks tear-filled eyes were full of sadness while brittle voices sang 'Good-bye Johnny Dear' and mothers, wives and sweethearts frantically waved their handkerchiefs as the train puffed out under Charleville Bridge in a fog of smoke and cheering lads shouted out slogans.

Other young men in Tullamore that same day were also called to arms, preparing for a more personal and much more heroic fight; and they too had proved their manhood and soon would shoulder the arms with which Ireland would yet be freed forever.

These same men and that burning idealism that shone brighter than the spirit of their khaki clad brothers and instead of following the steps of the Wild Geese's goslings to the fields of Flanders and mud-flats of the Somme, these young men who stayed at home, to fight at home were to don the plume of the Phoenix and in one symbolic blow for freedom prepare the nation for a ruthless four years War of Independence against the mightiest Empire the world had ever known.

And strangely enough, in retrospect, that symbolic gesture removed the key-stone of the British Empire which in the 50 years that followed had all but vanished and no longer do the red dotted marks on the map cover a fifth of the globe's land surface.

While the troop train was puffing it was through the rich lands of Geashill and on through the bog of Allen, the false gaiety of the platform farewell was quickly swept aside by harsh reality and while some going down High Street downed their sorrows others gathered around the headquarters of that new nationalist organisation - Sinn Fein who had a hall in William St (Colmcille St) over the premises now know as Noel O'Brien's.

The crowd jeered, waved their flags and taunted the men in the upstairs room; they called them names, made rude gestures and insulted them with sneering jibes of cowardice.
There were 15 men inside but they remained calm in face of provocation, realising as nobody else did that they were preparing for an armed fight for freedom and a false moves at this juncture might well jeopardise that struggle.

These men were very conscious of the importance of their personal actions, for not in a thousand years was Ireland's idealists and men of freedom so united; not since the days of the High Kings had the Irish ever stood together; and not since the Norman conquest 700 years earlier had the Irish even fought for themselves for an Irish state, free and independent.

The gallant band gathered in Tullamore stood firm even when the building was attacked and when stones came crashing through the windows; and a horde of people swarmed up the stairs to drag them out and beat them up.

The horde turned into a howling mob bent on violence for this hall represented to them everything against which their young men were fighting for in France. These men threatened the peace and security which they accepted as a way of life and the most unpopular men in Ireland in 1916 were those labelled Republicans. Things were far too good for everyone in wartime, there were none of the rationing privations of World War II, the price of pigs and livestock was up, there was work for everyone, and life in Ireland was better than it had been since the Famine.

While the mob tore at the stairs and clawed at the first of the Volunteers to come outside to face them the R.I.C (police) rushed from Barrack St to investigate the outbreak of violence, to restore law and order and in the process to disarm the Volunteers.

Mr John Spain (U.D.C.) Dillon st, Tullamore took up the story for me the other day at his fireside when he rolled back the years to March 1916 when he was a youth of 16 and an apprentice carpenter in P. & H. Egan's.

He told me that the Volunteer Movement was very strong a few years earlier but by 1916 the Redmond 'split' and especially the fall away of members from active participation in the Volunteers had reduced their numbers to not more than 17 in Tullamore town.

'I remember,' he said, 'on Sunday, March 19, 1916 we paraded behind the Colmcille Pipers Band through the town and there were only about 15 of us all told. The rest had fallen away.'
Mr Spain then gave me his own account of what happened in Tullamore on Monday, March 20th 1916.
'The next evening after work we assembled in the Sinn Fein Rooms to have revolver practice, he said. 'Outside there was a very hostile crowd and we eventually got annoyed with them. Some of the Cumann na mBan girls had come in, the boys started to dance with them, hoping to make light of what was going on outside,' he said.

'But things got worse and worse,' Mr Spain added, 'and several of the Volunteers took home the girls for safety. When they were leaving they were attacked by the crowd; swipes were made at them but they dodged through the crowds and the Cumann na mBan girls got home safely.'
He recalled that they included among others, Mary Jane McBride (Mrs Poland), Maggie McBride (Mrs Martin), Letie McBride, Mary Anne and Brigie Mooney, the two Berrys (Mrs J. Duggan and Mrs M. Bolger), Brigie Neary and Katie Neary (Mrs P. Dune), Clontarf Road.

Back at the Sinn Fein Rooms the position was getting more serious, the younger people who had been threatening the Volunteers were now joined by many adults and to restore order and protect themselves from being molested Peader Bracken fired a shot over their heads to disperse them.
'This alerted the R.I.C who raced to William St and knocked at the door, which was then bolted against them. The door was driven in and as they rushed up the stairs the Inspector was knocked back by the stroke of a Hurley from one of the Volunteers. The others kept coming, rushed into the room and lined us up both sides of the room; we taking command from our own officers and the police lined up on the other side.'

'There were 21 police in the room and outside the door' he told me 'then Sgt Ahern (RIC) gave orders to take our names and we gave our names in command for our officers.' 'Then the RIC demanded to search the premises for arms but Peadar Bracken, Joe Wrafter and Seamus Brennan - who were our officers - refused to allow it; and then the trouble started.'

When we resisted the arms search there was a man-for-man struggle between us and we managed to get them out to the stairs. Commdt Bracken pulled his gun to fire at the Inspector but Sergt Ahern came between them and was shot and seriously injured. Seamus O'Brennan tried to use his but the weapon jammed and then we all used whatever we could lay our hands on. Harry McNally drew a poker and hit another policeman across the forehead. Plates, pokers, hurleys and everything we could lay our hands on were used.'

'That night was terrible,' he recalled. "You couldn't realise how bad it was. Some of us were lying on the ground being kicked along the floor. R.I.C and all were lying on the floor. It was desperate. There were 21 police and 15 Volunteers in the place ... but when we came out it was even worse.'
'We were attacked by the crowd coming out and there was no assistance for us from anyone, police or people; the mob attacked us and we escaped as best we could to our homes.

Peadar Bracken and Seamus O'Brennan got clean away and they eventually joined up with Pearse in Dublin and both took part in the Rising.'

'Joe Wrafter, who was Lieutenant was arrested that night with Joseph Morris, Henry McNally and Thomas Byrne.'

'I was arrested myself on March 23 in Egan's workshop where I was a carpenter's apprentice,' said Mr Spain. 'I was taken to Tullamore R.I.C Barracks and then to Tullamore Jail where I was detained for a month with Edward Downes and John Martin who were too young to go to jail and too old to be sent to Reformatory. The others were detained until early in June.

'The whole lot of us appeared in court in Tullamore and our solicitor was Mr James Rogers.'
'After we three young men were released on bail I volunteered to take part in the Rising, as also did Downes and Martin, when we were called up to do so on Easter Sunday. This was our first indication of the actual Rising itself. The remainder of our lads were then in jail on remand.

'At that time two other Volunteers - John Duggan and Jackie Connor - came forward to serve in the Rising and we assembled at the Fingerboard only to be told that the Rising was called off. McNeill's countermanding order, in fact, delivered by Prof. Liam O Brian kept us out of the Rising.'

Like his comrades, Mr Spain maintained his allegiance to the Volunteers and although this is part of another story, he fought right through the War of Independence and ended up as a Company Captain and the first man to take over Tullamore R.I.C Barracks. Subsequently, he took charge of Kilbeggan R.I.C Barracks.

He recalled that none of them knew there was going to be a Rising that Easter Monday but, he said, they all knew they were preparing for something.

The central figure in the happenings in Tullamore was Commdt. Peadar Bracken, O.C. Athlone Bridge of the Irish Volunteers at the time, and the man who fired a shot to restrain the milling mob outside.
He was in the Sinn Fein rooms when they attacked it and he has left some records of what took place after the crowds had rushed the stairs, were eventually pushed outside and the Volunteers bolted the front door.

The situation was ugly, in fact serious, and he was conscious there was going to be some sort of 'show down; with the R.I.C. so he issued orders to resist any attempt to arrest or disarmament.
Almost immediately District Inspector Fitzgerald and Head Constable Stuart arrived in the rooms, the police and mob having forced the door.

Some sort of order was restored but it was an uneasy peace in an explosive atmosphere.
D.I Fitzgerald ordered the Volunteers to 'fall-in' on one side of the room but Peadar Bracken told him they would only assemble on the orders of their own officers. County Inspector Crane and Sergt Ahern then came in and the County Inspector ordered search for arms. Bracken refused to allow a search for arms and after Fitzgerald told Crane, he sprang at Bracken who immediately drew his revolver and fired at him but the revolver was knocked low by one of the Constables and the shot passed between Crane's legs. Peadar stepped back and tripped over a forme but before he could get to his feet, County Inspector Crane and Sergt Ahern jumped on him and tried to pin him down.

Lying on his back, he managed to fire three shots, one of which struck Sergt Ahern and was a near fatal wound in the right arm and another entering his left side close to his heart.
Endeavouring to get to his feet, Bracken was then struck by Crane who aimed a blow at his head with a walking stick but he warded off the full weight of the stroke and aimed another shot at crane but the revolver was empty.

Another strike from Crane's care stunned Peadar and before he could deal a coupe de grace the Volunteers leader hit Crane with the empty revolver.
In the meantime Seamus Brennan's revolver had jammed but he succeeded in making good his escape.

Glancing around to see how the others were doing in their escape bid, Peadar noticed only Sergt Humphries and Sergt Lancaster at the door, with drawn batons.

He decided to run the gauntlet of the two policemen and the huge mob outside with only his empty revolver waving it around in a menacing fashion as was possible, he dashed through the door and in doing so he he was felled by a blow from Lancaster's baton but he scrambled to his feet and staggered out onto the street.

The crowd fell upon him, he was kicked, pounded and battered but he made good his escape; first of all going to Chapel St where he gave Vol. Sean Barry his gun and moved to Vol. Roddy Molloy's house in Emmet Terrace.

At this stage Peadar didn't think he could succeed in getting clear of the police but after his head wounds were dressed at Molloys he got as far as John Coonan's house in Arden.
Here he spent the night and moved on to Owen Weir's home at Ballykeenaghan. Rahan. A horse and trap was yoked to bring him to McCormack's of Drumraney, Moate and here he set up his headquarters.

One of the principal men in the drama of 1916 in Tullamore and later in Dublin was Lieut. Seamus O'Brennan (later Captain) and recalling the Tullamore Sinn Fein episode he wrote some time ago that there were heavy British casualties in France during the early weeks of March, many of them were local men, and this tended to harden the feelings of Tullamore people towards the Volunteers.
He said that on the previous day - Sunday, March 19th - there was a big GAA tournament in Ballyduff and they decided to hold a flag day with the help of Cumann na mBan to raise funds to procure arms for the Volunteers.

During that afternoon some of the girls were attacked, insulted and in some cases their collections were taken.

By J.F. Burke
Courtesy of The Midland Tribune