Shots Fired - Tullamore Volunteers in Prelude to Easter
(Republished from the Tribune's special 50th anniversary1916
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
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
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
'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
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
'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
'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
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
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
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