ARKLOW’S 1914-1923 EXPERIENCE: Part 3 | 1918-1919

Extract from Wicklow County Council minute book, 18th June, 1920.
Source: Wicklow County Archives

This is the third instalment in a series of seven articles looking at how the immensely important decade spanning 1914 to 1923 played out in Arklow.  Over the next year or so, further instalments will appear in Our Wicklow Heritage until we reach 1923 and the gradual settling in of an uneasy peace in a partially independent Ireland.

Arklow was arguably the most industrialised town in the county, with Kynoch munitions factory being a particularly significant presence. The number of Arklow men who made their living at sea, with the resultant appalling loss of life to German u-boats and seas mines, shows another aspect to that terrible time.

1918 – Passing information

Passing information up the line to G.H.Q. was another function local Volunteer companies performed. In ‘April, May or June, 1918’, John Broy, who was the quartermaster of the Arklow company, told his captain, Matt Kavanagh, that he had a brother Éamonn in the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), who was posted in Dublin Castle. This man was willing to give information if he could be put in touch with ‘the right person’. As Kavanagh had no contact with G.H.Q. at that time, he handed the information to Micheál Staines who, in turn, transmitted it to headquarters.

It was also in April 1918 that conscription was extended to Ireland. While ultimately it was not enacted, this caused a backlash of anti-British sentiment throughout the country. Within days, 200,000 people had signed a pledge against it. Anti-conscription meetings were held throughout County Wicklow and, as a result, membership of the Irish Volunteers swelled. Arklow was no exception to the general disquiet, although anyone working in Kynoch’s was exempt from conscription as each employee had been issued with a card declaring their work to be of value to the war effort.[1]

This gave the republican movement the boost it so badly needed. The mood of the people is caught in the following incident.

Mistaken arrest

Sometime in either June or July, 1918, two special constables, who were guarding Kynoch’s munitions works, were arrested, through mistake, by the R.I.C. for carrying firearms. These men were from Wexford and local people, equally mistaken, believed that they were I.R.A. volunteers. A hostile crowd formed to attempt to rescue them, stoning the police. A baton charge was ordered, as a result of which eight members of the local company were arrested.[2]

They were tried before a Special Criminal Court, one of the first of the Crime Courts set up in the country. Kavanagh, working with M. J. Dwyer, a solicitor practising in Arklow and later County Wicklow Registrar, briefed Cecil Lavery, who later became a judge of the Supreme Court. G.H.Q. issued instructions that the men were to recognise the court and Lavery defended the eight men without remuneration. Two of them got two months in jail, and the other six were acquitted. One of those convicted was not a member of the I.R.A.

Revolvers & Michael Collins

Matt Kavanagh wasn’t happy with the fact that his Arklow company had no access to small firearms, a situation he discussed with Seán McGrath. McGrath was secretary of the Self-Determination League in Great Britain who was married to Annie Redmond from Arklow. Because of that family connection, McGrath spent his annual leave in the town. He told Kavanagh that he could supply revolvers if arrangements could be made to have them collected in Liverpool. Kavanagh placed an order for £50 worth, which would net him ten revolvers and 500 rounds of ammunition. The drop was to be made at an address near Edgehill railway station in Liverpool and, rather than delegate the task, Kavanagh decided to collect the weapons himself. When he got there, however, he was informed that they had already been collected for G.H.Q. in Dublin.

This was a great disappointment, but worse was to follow. Very soon after Kavanagh’s arrival home, Tom Cullen, often described as Michael Collins’ bodyguard and who would later hold the rank of Major General in the Free State army, arrived in Arklow and ordered Kavanagh to accompany him to Dublin immediately. Their destination was Cullenswood House on Oakley Road in Ranelagh, where Kavanagh met Collins for the first time:

Collins started off with a terrible harangue and abused me at a frightful rate for daring to interfere by tapping a Headquarters source of supply for arms. Micháel Staines, who was present during this interview, said something on my behalf, whereupon Collins appears to have changed his views towards me. He shook hands with me and congratulated me for trying to secure arms. He said that there were some people trying to avoid getting them. He agreed to give me six revolvers for cash and three hundred rounds of ammunition. They were not the type of revolver I was actually looking for, but a .38 revolver made by Harrington and Richardson of America. I got these just before the general elections in 1918.[3]

Collins’ remark about ‘people trying to avoid getting guns’ might have referred to an incident in Bray in which nine out of ten rifles sent to there were returned to H.Q.[4] Despite Kavanagh’s apparent winning Collins’ approval, he was still very much on the periphery. In fact, it seems that most, if not all, Wicklow volunteer officers were. Kavanagh readily admits that not only did he not know many of the inner circle, but that he didn’t even know where G.H.Q. was, ‘as I was not sufficiently well known in the movement to be told.’

This was a situation he wanted to change.  He went to 6 Harcourt Street to try to make contact with someone in G.H.Q. It was suggested that he write to Seán McGrath, which Kavanagh duly did, using the Harcourt Street address to add legitimacy to the letter. By a quirk of fate, McGrath was arrested on the platform of Rugby railway station a few days later and among the items in his possession was Kavanagh’s signed letter. McGrath’s subsequent trial was something of a cause célèbre. Implicated with him was a man called Burrowes, manager of the Midland Gun Company, who was also arrested. Both were charged with exporting arms to Ireland. They pleaded that the arms were for the Ulster Volunteers. Burrowes received a sentence of six months’ imprisonment, and McGrath got twelve months. Kavanagh seems to have escaped implication through the letter, but from then on he had close contact with G.H.Q., being named as one of the principal organisers in the south Wicklow and north Wexford region.[5]

Christopher M. Byrne

Christopher M. Byrne, who in 1914 had taken it upon himself to organise the first flush of County Wicklow Irish Volunteer companies and was again to the fore in 1917, had not gone away. He was a Rathdrum Poor Law Guardian and he made his strong Sinn Féin leanings known wherever and whenever possible. At a meeting of the board of guardians in October 1918, he gave notice that at their next meeting he would propose that ‘the pictures of the English monarchs hanging in Ashford dispensary be immediately removed.’[6] While not exactly a declaration of war, it is again indicative of the feelings running in the county.

The war in Europe ended on 11 November 1918 and the first general election to be held since 1910 got under way in December. As elsewhere, County Wicklow Volunteers acted as personation agents at polling booths, helping to ensure the enthusiastic return of the two Sinn Féin candidates, Seán Etchingham and Robert Barton. Barton was arrested two months later.

1919 – Rise of militant nationalism

In early 1919, Kynoch’s re-announced their intention of closing the factory. Their first indications of closure were notices issued to employees as early as March 1918, but negotiations had won something of a temporary reprieve. With the need for munitions now back to peace-time levels the company would no longer be viable. They had lost their commercial explosives markets and there was no option but to close the factory. There was an outcry, saying that this was no way to treat a town which had contributed greatly to the war effort. In reality, of course, the underlying reason behind the closure was the rise in militant nationalism, especially in the wake of the landslide election of Sinn Féin in December and the sitting of the An Cead Dáil in January. The British government had not the slightest intention of having a munitions/explosives factory in Ireland. Local pressure, however, did wrest one concession: the closure would be a phased one over two years.[7]

Extract from Wicklow County Council Minute Book June 1920 – oath of loyalty to the new Dail Eireann following landslide Sinn Fein victory in the 1920 local elections. (Image: Courtesy Wicklow County Archives).

Just as the introduction of conscription to Ireland in April 1918 had acted as a recruitment campaign for the I.R.A. , the end of World War I saw many of those new recruits fall away. A further major blow to the south Wicklow area was the arrest of Jim O’Keeffe, OC of the 5th Battalion in March 1919. O’Keeffe never returned to his post, and at first the Brigade OC, Séamus O’Brien, carried out O’Keeffe’s duties as well as his own until Jack Holt was appointed Acting OC of the 5th Battalion.[8]

Boycott of R.I.C.

It was about this time that the Dáil introduced a strategy that had worked well in the 1880s – a boycott of R.I.C. personnel and anyone who had dealings with them. This, it was hoped, would put sufficient pressure on R.I.C. members and their families to affect morale and even reduce numbers. Nationwide resignations from the force increased and recruitment fell, but it seems to have had little effect in Wicklow. In fact, the early part of 1919 was so quiet in the county that it was deemed trouble-free and rural barracks were closed so that personnel could be transferred to more potentially dangerous locations around the country.[9] This situation was to change as the year progressed.

The Arklow company continued to carry out raids for arms on private houses, netting about thirty shotguns and some old revolvers. One of the best weapons to come into their possession was a British army issue .45 Webley revolver which was lifted from the coat of an army officer at Woodenbridge Golf Club.[10] It was used in an arms raid on Kynoch’s soon after to keep sentries quiet while three Lee Enfield rifles and 150 rounds of ammunition were taken. Matt Kavanagh and his men must have been pleased with this success, but once again G.H.Q. burst his bubble. The raid was reported in the local paper and came to the notice of G.H.Q. who demanded that the rifles and ammunition be handed over, presumably for redistribution to a more active company.

The rest of 1919 was quiet in Arklow, the following year, however, saw an increased level of action by the local company.



[1]               One such card was exhibited in Arklow Maritime Museum until recent years.
[2]               Matthew Kavanagh, BMH, WS 1472, p.4.
[3]               Ibid, p.3.
[4]               Cairns & Gallagher, p.3.
[5]               Frank Henderson, BMH, WS 821, pp.84 and 94.
[6]               Wicklow County Council Archives, Rathdrum Board of Guardian Minutes, 20 Oct 1918, quoted in Brian Donnelly, For the betterment of the people (Wicklow, 1999), pp. 35-6.
[7]               See Rees, Arklow … pp.262-3.
[8]               Cairns & Gallagher,  p.14. Also, Matthew Kavanagh, BMH, WS 1472, p.5.
[9]               Cairns & Gallagher, p.17.
[10]             Matthew Kavanagh, BMH, WS 1472, p.11.

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