Thursday, April 7, 2016

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Derry’s Role In The War For Independence ~ Part 5

Eamon Sweeney (eamon.sweeney@jpress.co.uk) continues in the Derry Journal with his look at the role of Derry during the War of Independence.



A heavy campaign across Ireland against conscription of Irishmen into the British Army was organised by Sinn Fein.

Derry was considered an ideal place for men ‘on the run’
The city reacted strongly to conscription into the British forces
Guerilla tactics were being developed

Volunteers Reorganise

The Volunteers in Derry were now reorganising, with Cavanagh in command. They carried on with renewed energy.

Pamphlets, poems and songs were appearing all ever the land and the praises of Pearse, Plunkett, Connolly, MacDermott, Clarke and the others were being sung from Cork to Donegal. The leaders of Easter Week were honoured and revered as national heroes. The Irish Republican Army or the I.R.A. as the Volunteers were now called, was growing in strength, and drills and parades were taking place all over Ireland.

Raids and arrests were carried cut by the British armed forces and the I.R.A. sprang into action again, but this time the method of warfare was different. Guerilla tactics were adopted.

Dublin orders to Derry

The O.C. Derry City Battalion, I.R.A. received instructions from Dublin that as Derry City was an ideal place as a hideout for important men who might be “on the run,” he should refrain from any military activities other than recruiting and drilling for the present. Cavanagh carried out this order strictly, but in the ranks of the I.R.A. a number of young enthusiastic men, not knowing Cavanagh’s orders from G.H.Q. and anxious for action formed themselves into a group known in local Volunteer circles as the T.F.P. This group under Gabriel McGrath ( a young Dublin man working as a draughtsman in the city), planned a raid on Nicholson’s, Beech Hill estate, a few miles from the city boundary, for rifles which were supposed to be stored there.


A ground swell of opinion against helping the British war effort sprang up in the aftermath of the executions of the leaders of 1916.

The raid was carried out but only a few shotguns were found. Cavanagh, hearing of the raid, ordered an inquiry and a number of courts-martial took place. Gabriel McGrath went to Dublin and had an interview with the I.R.A. Headquarters Staff, some of whom he had known personally. He told them that arms, ammunition and explosives could be got easier in Derry than in any other town in Ireland and, if he got permission to carry out raids, he would show good results.

He was instructed to deliver a despatch to the Derry O.C. telling him to allow him (McGrath) to carry out such raids as the O.C. thought suitable. Henceforth the TFP became the Active Service Unit. This A.S.U. got word that Craig’s Foundry, Strand Road, was manufacturing Mills hand grenades for the British Government. They secured a number of keys for the back entrance of those premises which opened on the Quay near Boating Club Lane. A number of men made several visits per night until over 5,000 of those grenades were safe in the hands of the I.R.A.

The grenades were complete with spring trigger and lever but without any base plug. The A.S.U. became very active and let no opportunity pass that would further the Republican cause and hamper the workings of the British Government. It was the custom of British soldiers coming home on leave to bring their full kit, including their rifles, with them. The A.S.U. realising there was a chance of getting some rifles handy, held up scores of those soldiers and relieved them of same.

Some soldiers who were sick fighting England’s battles handed over their rifles, deserted and joined the Volunteers. As those activities were taking place all over Ireland and the loss of rifles to the British Government must have been considerable, orders were issued that in future all soldiers must deposit their rifles in a military barracks before proceeding home.


There was also a concerted effort to get Republican prisoners out of British prisons.

The A.S.U. attended recruiting meetings with the main object of asking awkward questions and causing confusion. As those meetings were numerous and the people in some districts very pro-British, the Volunteers did not get it all their own way.


Guildhall meeting


There was many a scuffle and the Volunteers had to make many a hasty retreat. I remember the greatest recruiting meeting held in the City. It took place in the Guildhall with Sir R. Anderson, the Mayor, as chairman. Questions were asked from all parts of the house. A number of scuffles took place while some Volunteers were being ejected from the hall amid choruses of cheers and boos.
The meeting was eventually cut short and the Fianna boys distributed Republican literature as the people left the hall. Sinn Fein in Derry City became a real live organisation with plenty of pep. It attracted large crowds of intellectuals who became its most active members. The weekly meetings were well attended and so conducted that there was hardly a dull moment. They held very successful Gaelic classes and some people who hold important positions in the twenty-six counties today owe their success to the Gaelic they learned at those classes.


Members of the Irish Citizen Army.


Pamphlets and poems were distributed, stating the aims, objects and advantages of Sinn Fein. Céilidhe were held nearly every Sunday night and larger halls were taken over periodically for a ceilldhe mor. The planning and running of the organisation was perfect. I often visualise the happy faces in the Richmond Street Hall. If it were possible to put back the hands of time and to reenact the days of 1918 when the Irish people stood as one solid block, then we would find a real tonic for all the gloom that the passing years have cast upon us, especially the people of the six partitioned counties.

The late Johnny Fox already a member of the I.R.B. joined the Volunteers on their establishment and served in the Derry Battalion of the I.R.A. throughout the War for Independence. He was one of those mobilised on Easter Sunday night, 1916. In the subsequent years he suffered an almost unbroken series of internments and imprisonments in Frongoch, Ballykinlar, Newbridge, Derry Jail, Victoria Military Barracks Belfast, Richmond Military Barracks, Dublin, Lewes Jail and Wormwood Scrubbs Prison, England.


The Conscription Fight


In April, 1918, the British Government declared their Intention of applying conscription to Ireland.
Irishmen were to be towed into England’s army and sent to fight England’s battles In the four corners or the earth. Protest meetings were held throughout the length and breadth of Ireland and the following resolution was passed.

We join with our fellow countrymen at home and in foreign lands in proclaiming once more than Ireland is a distinct nation with a just right to Sovereign Independence. This right has been asserted in every generation, has never been surrendered and never allowed to lapse. We call the Nations to witness that today as in the past it is by force alone that England holds Ireland in her Empire and not by the consent of the Irish people.



Cumann na mBann were highly active in all campaigns before, during and after the Easter Rising.

At a conference held in the Mansion House, Dublin on April 18, 1918 of Sinn Fein, Irish Labour and other organisations, the following joint statement was issued: “The right of the British Government to enforce compulsory service in this country, we pledge ourselves solemnly to one another to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal.”

At the meeting delegates were appointed to visit Maynooth, where the Irish Bishops’ were holding their annual meeting. The delegation was received and the following statement was issued:

We contend that conscription forced in this way upon Ireland is an oppressive and inhuman law, which the Irish people have a right to resist by every means that are consistent with the law of God.



Republican Activity


Republicans in Derry became very active. The Volunteer parades were more frequent and every method was used to perfect the men in the use of firearms, preparing for what they believed to be the inevitable showdown with their mighty enemy.

They were determined not to allow themselves to be dragged into the British Army. Sinn Fein, Cumann na mBann and the Fianna were doing everything possible to prepare the people for coming events. Anti-conscription literature was being distributed and on Sunday, April 21, 1918, chairs and tables were placed outside the city churches and solemn pledges to resist conscription were signed by the entire congregations. A large and vigorous protest meeting was held in St. Columb’s Hall.

Hugh C. O’Doherty, solicitor, took the chair, that champion of righteous causes; who was later to become the first Nationalist Mayor of Derry. He told that huge overflowing meeting that the people of Derry Columbcille would not stand idly by if the British Government attempted to enforce conscription on Ireland.

The British Government became alarmed at the solidarity and determination of the Irish people and after being warned of the consequences of such a step they hesitated and at last withdrew the threat of conscription in Ireland. The Irish people by their unity had scored another smashing blow against the British Government’s plan to rid itself of the Irish.


  • Next week ...The General Election of 1918


These posters and leaflets were issued by the British Army in Dublin during the war.

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