Saturday, March 26, 2016

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Battle Of Ashbourne Centennial Commemoration This Sunday At The Rath Cross

The 1916 Societies highlighting of one their Easter Rising centenary events this weekend.

On Easter Sunday, 27th March, the Tomás Allen Society Meath will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Ashbourne. Assemble at the Tesco car park at 2pm for march to the Battle of Ashbourne Monument at Rathcross.

The Battle of Ashbourne, 1916
The 1916 Rising took place from Monday the 24th of April to Sunday the 30th. The action was carried out by the 5th Battalion of the Dublin Brigade, known in the area as ‘The Fingal Volunteers’. The Commandant in charge of the roughly sixty men was Thomas Ashe, a high-ranking member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and active member of The Gaelic League. He had recently been promoted to Battalion Commandant shortly before the Rising.

His second-in-command was Richard Mulcahy, who on the eve of the Rising was promoted to First Lieutenant. Mulcahy was in the area with his own orders and only met up with Ashe by chance. He was in the Fingal area with two other men from ‘C Company’, with the objective of cutting communication lines at Howth junction which allowed communication with Britain. Afterwards they were supposed to return to Dublin. However, one of Mulcahy’s men was mistakenly captured by Ashe’s 5th Brigade.

Ashe and Mulcahy, both members of the Keating Branch of the Gaelic League, had become friends in the years previous and now met again, through this mistaken capture. Ashe appointed Mulcahy as his second-in command, and together they would lead their assault on RIC in the area.

Battalion Quartermaster was Frank Lawless. Other members of the Lawless family were also involved, such as Jim Lawless and Joe Lawless. Charlie Weston and Ned Rooney, like Jim and Joe, were Officers put in charge of sections of the Battalion when it split into four Columns. Dr. Dick Hayes was the unit’s Medical Officer and also held the roles of Adjutant and Intelligence Officer.

The Irish Volunteers in general were largely untrained. From the beginning of the rebellion 5th Battalion were poorly armed with an assortment of different weapons, generally rifles and with ammunition scarce.

On the Monday morning, 24th April, Ashe received orders from James Connolly to send forty of his Battalion to the GPO. They were to help with the planned efforts there. Ashe, with his force of about sixty men, decided to send twenty, who marched the next day under Captain Dick Coleman to Dublin. From the same order Ashe was instructed to raid nearby barracks, to release some of the pressure on those fighting in the city.

On Wednesday, the Fingal Volunteers raided RIC barracks in both Swords and Donabate, confiscating many weapons including ten carbines, three service revolvers and some ammunition – a welcome addition to their arsenal. Afterwards, successful attempts were made to destroy rail communication at Donabate and telegraph lines at Swords before proceeding to Rogerstown. Morale was high at this point, with the units ‘harassing actions’ proving successful.

A number of local Volunteers in the Swords and Donabate area joined with the Fingal Unit as they passed through. That night, after the fall of darkness, the unit moved on the barracks at Garristown, with a plan in place for another raid. However, after bursting their way into the barracks they found it deserted. Word had spread of the previous raids and the police at Garristown relocated to nearby barracks as reinforcements. Instead Ashe and Mulcahy led the men to Baldwinstown, where they set up camp for the night.

The next morning, Thursday April 26th, the Battalion was reorganised. Those not fully dedicated to the Rising or considered too old or too young were sent home, leaving about fifty men. The Battalion moved on towards Ashbourne and base camp was made in an unused farmhouse between Garristown and Ashbourne.

On Friday, the day of the battle, Ashe split his unit into four sections to act as Flying Columns, which would later become famous in the War of Independence. The mission of the day was to destroy the Midland Great Western Railway Line (M.G.W.R) which went through Batterstown. Intelligence suggested British troop reinforcements were being sent from Athlone into Dublin and they hoped to sabotage the line, disrupting the flow of troops into the city.

Three sections left the camp at 10am. The fourth section, under Jim Lawless, remained to guard the camp. There, they assisted the Battalion Quartermaster (Frank Lawless) in gathering supplies and rationing food. The other three sections had proceeded across the Dublin-Slane road en route to the railway line.

Each section consisted of about twelve men, mostly on bicycles. Medical Officer Dr. Dick Hayes drove the only motor car, in which he carried his medical supplies. The convoy was led by two scouts from the first section, who cycled ahead of the rest as ‘spotters’. Behind them travelled the rest of the section, commanded by Charlie Weston. Ashe and Mulcahy travelled with the middle section commanded by Ned Rooney. The third section was led by Joe Lawless.

The route of the men led them near Rathcross north of Ashbourne and Ashe agreed if the RIC barracks there had not already been evacuated it should be captured before continuing – allowing the Battalion to add more firearms to their arsenal.

The three sections took a slight detour towards Ashbourne. After reaching the main road, the scouts spotted an RIC Sergeant and a Constable building a barricade in front of the barracks. The scouts approached quickly on their bicycles and managed to disarm the duo, marching them to the rear section. Ashe now ordered the men off their bicycles and for sections two and three to take cover where they stood, on the by-road just north of Rathcross.

Ashe and Mulcahy now proceeded with Weston’s section. From an embankment opposite to the barracks Ashe demanded the police inside ‘surrender in the name of the Irish Republic’. Those inside replied to Ashe’s demands with rifle-fire in his direction. Ashe dived for cover as the section returned heavy fire on the windows. The Battle of Ashbourne had begun.


‘The police refused to surrender. Ashe went back to his men, got them under cover, and the battle began in earnest. Some of the rebels got onto the footpath along the road, behind the fence in front of the barracks, and behind the fence on the opposite side of the road, whilst some others were on the north side of the Barracks. Some were behind a wall which was on the south-west side of the crossroads’ – witness account from John Austen, local Post Office worker.

Lawless and Rooney’s sections by now were in a field at the rear of the barracks. But with no back door or windows could do nothing but hold their position. For the next thirty minutes the fire-fight continued, it later becoming evident the police had suffered a number of causalities.

Section one had two homemade canister grenades and one was thrown at the barracks, landing short but blowing a hole in the ground out front. The grenade caused no infrastructural damage but within minutes a white cloth, signalling surrender, was displayed from one of the windows. Perhaps the explosion damaged the police morale or perhaps their surrender was only a stalling technique. Nevertheless, a ceasefire was called on both sides.

As Ashe waited for the police to emerge, back at the crossroads shots were fired by two Volunteers. It was approximately 2pm and a convoy of police had just arrived from Slane in as many as twenty-four cars. The police, believing they had driven into an ambush, dived from their vehicles into nearby ditches and anywhere else they could find cover. The Volunteers had the element of surprise and in these initial moments RIC Sergeant Shanagher and a number of others were killed, including civilian police drivers.

Going on seventy police had arrived in this convoy and although they didn’t know it, they almost doubled Ashe’s force. The fact that Ashe split his unit into Columns gave the illusion they were in greater numbers than reality. In fact, the next day newspaper articles would estimate Ashe’s numbers as two hundred!

The heavy fire coming from the panicked police was flying in the direction of Ashe and Mulcahy at the barracks. Sections two and three were still awaiting orders and were oblivious to the numbers of police that had arrived. With all the heavy fire they felt it necessary to move from their position, from the rear of the barracks to an adjoining ditch facing the direction the fire was coming from.

Mulcahy met up with them, to give them their orders and reassure them. He told them 4th section had been sent for at base camp and together Mulcahy and the men from 2nd and 3rd raced across an open field, risking being shot to meet with Ashe. He informed the men of their orders. Section two and half of section three were to go with Mulcahy to reinforce those of section one, who were involved in the heavy fire-fight at the crossroads. The other seven men of section three were directed, by Ashe, to a position in the rear flank of the police to wait for section four.

The fighting continued but Jim Lawless’ 4th section had still not arrived. As time went by the seven men at the police rear-flank were becoming increasingly impatient, finally opening fire on the police position. The police returned fire and one of the seven is believed to have received a gunshot wound to the head. Another brought him for medical help, leaving only five at the rear. Only three of these carried rifles, the other two had shotguns.

The RIC, outnumbering them in both numbers and ammunition, kept them pinned down. Suddenly, movement behind the five led them to spin around and shoot at something creeping up behind them, dropping to the ground to dodge the retuning fire. Little did they know but the force behind them was actually Mulcahy, leading the 4th section. Amid the confusion, they had mistaken each other for the enemy and furthermore wasted almost all of their valuable ammunition.

The newly-arrived reinforcements remained to hold the position at the rear, while Mulcahy went to explain what had happened to Ashe. Meanwhile Joe Lawless and another Volunteer, who had made their way back to the dressing station in desperate need of ammunition, managed to acquire a total of twenty rounds from a guard and one of the wounded.

On their way back, however, eleven police emerged from the ditches, with hands in the air surrendering. They were stripped of the ammunition and brought back to the dressing station, which now had thirteen prisoners, one guard, and two wounded Volunteers. The original two again headed back towards the crossroads, now in plentiful supply of ammunition.

By this stage it had been over five hours since Thomas Ashe first demanded the surrender of the RIC garrison. Those of section four at the rear, now led by Brigade Quartermaster Frank Lawless, had pressed forward on the police, forcing them towards the main body of Volunteers at the crossroads. The Commander of the RIC convoy was District Inspector Harry Smyth. In an effort to motivate his men he stood up on the roadside bank, shouting at them to move forward only to realise the Volunteers behind him were closer than expected.

Frank Lawless lifted his rifle, aiming directly at the Inspector. Smyth spun around and fired his revolver, killing Fingal Volunteer Jack Crennigan just before seconds before Lawless managed to take his shot. Smyth was an Englishman and ex-army. A District Inspector of first class, he had been stationed in Navan since 1912.

Now the main body of Volunteers, noting the advancement of 4th section, arose from their concealed firing positions with fixed bayonets and charged at the remaining RIC. Demoralised by the death of their commander the police immediately abandoned their arms and unconditionally surrendered. The fifteen police in the barracks came out too, to surrender with their comrades.

The Volunteers went around collecting the vast amounts of arms and ammunition left over from the battle. Doctors, priests and other workers attended to the dead and wounded, including Post Office worker John Austen who collected the bodies and gave this account:


‘I told Ashe what I was going to do, and he told me to go ahead. Two of the policemen who had not been wounded helped me to collect the dead policemen into the cart. I had eight dead men in the cart when I had finished… Two of the dead men were civilians who I believe were drivers of cars.’

There were about eighty prisoners, who were assembled on the main road at the crossroads where Ashe made a short speech to them. He pointed out that their membership of the RIC led them to battle with their fellow countrymen but pardoned them on behalf of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic. He informed them that if they were ever seen again in arms against the Republic they would be shot.

As yet there had only been one death on the side of the Volunteers, John Crennigan. Six others were wounded, one of whom, Thomas Rafferty, would later die from his wounds. There were eight to ten police fatalities, including: District Inspector Smyth; County Inspector Alexander Gray; Sergeant Shanagher (shot in the heart while leaving his car) and Sergeant J. Young. Constables James Hickey, Richard McHale, James Gormley and James Clery were also killed.

In addition there were fifteen-eighteen wounded policemen. A number of civilian drivers of police vehicles were also killed, including a chauffeur named Kepp who was shot in the leg, which had to be amputated. He later died. Two passers-by, J.J Carroll and J. Hogan were also reportedly shot dead. Ashe had the wounded sent in motor cars to the Meath Infirmary in Navan. Fr. Murphy and Fr. Dillon also arrived on scene and attended to those in need.

Ashe and Mulcahy took their men to set up camp at New Barn, Kilsallaghan. There they awaited further orders. When the order came from Pearse, however, they were told to surrender. Mulcahy went to Dublin to verify the order, after which the 5th Battalion, Dublin Brigade, arranged a surrender to the British Cavalry and were taken to Richmond jail.

Ashe was sentenced to death for his leading role, later to be commuted to penal servitude for life. During his time in Lewes Gaol in England he wrote his poem, ‘Let Me Carry Your Cross for Ireland, Lord!’ Ashe was released in 1917 only to be rearrested and imprisoned in Mountjoy Gaol, where he and three others would go on Hungerstrike.

Ashe died on 25th of September 1917, as a result of brutal force-feeding puncturing one of his lungs. Mulcahy on the otherhand was released from Frongoch Internment Camp in Wales in December 1916, going on to become Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers in March 1918, Commander in Chief of The Free State Army in 1921 and Minister for Defence in the Civil War.

The five and a half hour battle at Ashbourne was markedly different to the Rising in Dublin. Its entire approach was different. In Dublin the measures taken were of a defensive nature. The rebels took key locations in the city and waited to be attacked, in effect waiting to be defeated. In Ashbourne and the surrounding areas the Volunteers split into Columns, creating the illusion they were greater in number than in reality. They attacked a barracks, confiscated arms and left again without trace. Their formation and guerrilla-style tactics set an example for the War of Independence to come.

In total, the men of the North County Dublin Fingal Volunteers captured four RIC police barracks, almost ninety prisoners and completed one of the only successful rebellions in the country. They all risked everything, two of whom lost their lives, in the greatest event in the history of the town of Ashbourne.

On April 26th 1959, forty-three years after the action at Ashbourne, a monument was unveiled at the Rath Cross in memory of John Crennigan and Thomas Rafferty. Sculpted by Peter Grant, the monument displays the name of Thomas Ashe’s poem, ‘Let Me Carry Your Cross For Ireland, Lord’. The names of the men are also displayed in Irish. The monument is known locally as The Rath Cross.

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