ARKLOW’S 1914-1923 EXPERIENCE- Part 4 | January-June 1920

Maria Curran - one of the first female urban councillors in the country, elected in 1920.
Image: Arklow Maritime Museum
Robert Barton (1881-1975)
Courtesy of

This is the fourth instalment in a series of seven articles looking at how the immensely important decade spanning 1914 to 1923 played out in Arklow. 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.  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.

January – June 1920

The opening weeks of 1920 at last saw some progress in Arklow with regard to republican politics. Either late 1919 or the early months of 1920 saw Matt Kavanagh being promoted from Company Captain in Arklow to Brigade Adjutant. The exact date of the promotion and therefore its place in the sequence of events is in some doubt. Jack Holt, who had been Acting O.C. (Officer Commanding) of the 5th Battalion since Jim O’Keeffe’s arrest the previous year, was confirmed in that position.[1]

On 15 January, Sinn Féin member and former member of Cumann na mBan, Maria Curran became one of the first women urban councillors in the country and her appointment to the chair made her the first female council chairperson in Ireland.[2]  It should be noted that she was Matt Kavanagh’s aunt. Her appointment not only reflects her strength of character and the respect with which she was regarded by her fellow councillors, but also the shade of politics of the majority of the council members. This republican hue is further shown by a council resolution passed on 19 March, 1920:

That this Council hereby acknowledge the authority of Dáil Éireann as the duly elected government of the Irish people and undertake to give effect to all decrees duly promulgated by the said Dáil Éireann insofar as same effects this Council, and that copies of this Resolution be forwarded to the Republican Minister for Foreign Affairs for transmission to the Governments of Europe and the President and Chairman of the Senate and House of Representatives of the U.S.A.

Sinn Féin’s establishing the Dáil the previous year had not, of course, been recognised by the British government and was, under British law, a unilateral declaration of independence – an act of treason. Arklow UDC’s recognition of the authority of the Dáil was therefore also treasonous. As agents of the British government, the R.I.C. regularly demanded the minute books of the council, either hoping to find statements for which councillors could be charged with sedition or just for sheer nuisance value. To thwart such inspection, on at least one occasion, Maria Curran hid the book in the chapel belfry across the road.

Raid on Kynoch’s factory

February saw several events on the military front. Joe Kelly was both the intelligence officer in the Arklow company and an employee of Kynoch’s, which it will be remembered was in a two-year phased process of closure. He informed his company captain that a quantity of gelignite was due to be shipped out. Matt Kavanagh, who was still either Arklow Company Captain at that time or was newly promoted to Brigade Adjutant (as mentioned above, the chronology is unclear), lost no time in assembling other members to carry out a raid. The explosives were to be loaded on to the SS Dandelion for shipment to Kynoch’s factory in England. In fact, some of it was already on board the steamer. It would be a dangerous undertaking, as all activities with explosives are, but made more so by the fact that some of the material was in ‘an unfinished state’. He selected ten volunteers – Joe Kelly, Mickey Greene, Jack Holt, William Cleary, Myles Cullen, Bob Hickson, Laurence White,[3] John Kavanagh, Andy Holt and James Dolan – to carry out the raid, with Matt himself in charge:

We held up the sentry and seized his rifle and fifty rounds of ammunition. We captured two and a half tons of gelignite made up in half-cwt. boxes and got successfully away with it. None of it was re-captured although the town and beach were raked for it night and day. On instructions from G.H.Q. the major portion of the gelignite was sent on to Dublin by rail in suit cases, per Tom Gaffney who was a guard on the railway. A quantity of it was handed over to Mick Newport for the North Wexford Brigade. We also had to send the rifle and ammunition to Dublin. Later, some of the gelignite was used to destroy Aughrim and Redcross R.I.C. Barracks which had been vacated.[4]

This raid was a valuable contribution to the military capability of the I.R.A., but it was equally valuable, if not more so, as a propaganda coup, given the heavy security around Arklow in general and the Kynoch factory in particular. There was also the constant threat of informers. The presence of ‘a lot of ex-R.I.C., ex-servicemen, ex-officers, naval and military and their families were a source of worry to us.’[5] Any euphoria felt, however, was short lived.

Shooting in Rathdrum

Exactly one week later, on 12 February,[6] Brigade OC Seamus O’Brien was shot dead in Rathdrum by members of the R.I.C. Details of the event are contradictory, with republican accounts and R.I.C. versions being diametrically opposed.[7] One aspect both sides agreed on was O’Brien’s revolver proved ineffective. This weapon had been loaned to him by Matt Kavanagh and was probably one of the Harrington & Richardson .38s which Collins had given Kavanagh and about which Kavanagh had reservations.[8]

Whatever the truth of the killing, the result was the same: the brigade was now left without an OC. In response, G.H.Q. told Matt Kavanagh to call a brigade council meeting in Avoca at which the delegates from the various companies were informed that major changes in the structure of the region were to be implemented. The most important change was, the old 4th (north county) and 5th (south county) Battalions were to be amalgamated as the East Wicklow Brigade, with Matthew Kavanagh as OC. Tom Quigley was to be his adjutant. It might be remembered that Andrew Kavanagh had joined the Arklow Company in 1917 at the age of 16, but had left the town to work in Newbridge and Nenagh, returning in 1919 and was active again until moving to Liverpool in January 1920, where he spent six months before returning home in June 1920. On his return, he was involved in distributing some of the hidden gelignite which had been taken from Kynoch’s the previous Febraury when he was Liverpool:

When I came back I took part in operations for the purpose of getting this gelignite into the hands of Dublin I.R.A. It had to be raised from the dump and, because of it having become frozen, it was doubly dangerous. We packed it in fish boxes camouflaged with fish on top and put it in charge of the guard on the mail train who conveyed it to Dublin, to our headquarters, where it was diverted to different parts of Ireland. I understand it turned out to be very useful. The guard on the train was Ted Crowley; he lived at Barton Street, Tinahely.[9]

Arrival of Black-and-Tans

The effect nationwide of the boycott against R.I.C. personnel and their families resulted in decreased numbers within their ranks. To counteract this, advertisements appeared in British newspapers offering high wages to new recruits. Ten shillings a day was too good to resist, especially for out-of-work battle-hardened ex-army personnel. By October, there were 2,000 of these individuals who, because of a shortage of uniforms, wore a cross between the R.I.C. uniform and that of the British army. This hybrid garb gave rise to the name Black-and-Tans. In addition, ex-British officers were attracted by £1 a day to join another new force, the Auxiliaries. Neither the Black-and-Tans nor the Auxiliaries were trammelled by either military regulation or law of the land. It was their role to terrorise the populace into withdrawing their support of the I.R.A. Although these new forces were mainly despatched to the most troubled areas such as Tipperary and Cork, they were soon to be found in every part of the country and they quickly established a reputation as an undisciplined gang of ruffians who, though efficient in military engagement, excelled in terrorising the defenceless. One local story that survives is the following:

A young woman was returning home from her place of work. Because of the time of year it was dark though not particularly late as she made her way up the Rock road. As she neared the house occupied by the Kavanagh family, she heard and saw a lorry load of Black-and-Tans. Because of reports of their activities filling the countryside, she looked for cover.  She jumped in behind the ditch and waited until they had gone down the road a bit. They were that drunk in the lorry they started shooting the cattle below at Chapman’s. They were up on top of the Rock. They thought they [the cattle] were men. She waited behind the ditch and listened to what was going on until they had finished. Then she crept along the ditch until she got in home.[10]

Hero’s welcome

Republican prisoners in Mountjoy staged a mass hunger strike in the spring of 1920. Their demands for recognition as political prisoners were ignored and the harsh conditions of prison life were highlighted. Across the country, protest marches and work stoppages were called and widely observed. Charlie Gaule was the secretary of the Transport & General Workers’ Union in Arklow; he was also a member of the Urban District Council. In April he called on local workers to down tools and join in the national protests. It proved very successful, with business in the town being brought to a standstill. The Wicklow People praised the selfless action, mentioning the sacrifice made to forego a day’s wage in order to show solidarity with the hunger strikers. This national demonstration prompted the government to release the sixty-nine strikers, one of whom was Andrew Holt from Ferrybank, Arklow. When news of his impending release became known in late April, plans were immediately set in place to give him a hero’s welcome.

When his train pulled into the station at 7.30 p.m. he was greeted by a crowd estimated between two- and three thousand people. Amid the cheers, a brass band struck up and led a procession from the station to Parade Ground, then to Main Street and across the bridge to Ferrybank. In Main Street, however, they came across a military motor wagon carrying several armed soldiers. Some of the women and girls in the huge crowd started cat-calling the soldiers, but they decided not to react and when the procession had passed, they drove towards the station where they transacted their business before heading back down Main Street and crossing the bridge to return to their camp. By the time they reached Bridge Street, however, they again came on the procession and again they received some verbal abuse from the women and girls. Tempers were rising, and one of the soldiers told the driver to drive through the crowd. This led to some of the men in the crowd getting involved and soon several clusters of fist-fights were under way. No one was really injured and the soldiers climbed back into the wagon. The matter seemed at an end. About an hour and a half later, however, some of the soldiers had been brooding on the incident. They had been drinking in a Main Street pub all day and, fuelled by alcohol, they climbed over the perimeter fence of their temporary barrack and headed back towards the centre of town.

By now it was almost ten o’clock and the large crowd had dwindled to pockets of people chatting. One of these pockets was a small group of men at the corner of Bridge Street and Main Street. A couple of R.I.C. personnel strolled down the street and, as they turned into Bridge Street, they saw the disgruntled soldiers coming across the bridge and their attitude left little room for doubt that they were on for trouble. The R.I.C. officers drew the attention of the chatting men to the soldiers and advised them to get home quickly, but as they were about to leave, the sergeant in charge of the soldiers ordered his men to ‘drop and fire’. Shots rang out. A bullet tore through one of the policeman’s uniform but didn’t hit flesh. Two of the chatters were less fortunate. Philip Dowling was shot through the lung and died within minutes. John Kavanagh, a grand-nephew of Maria Curran and nephew of Matt Kavanagh, was severely wounded through the shoulder.

There was an outcry, with predictably both sides giving very different accounts. The Wicklow People published the nationalist interpretation of events while the Wicklow News-Letter supported the British army version.[11] The former wrote of how ‘the people themselves did not give sufficient cause for the use of the death-dealing weapons’, while the latter would later refer to Dowling being ‘shot in a riot’.[12] It was a sad affair that greatly marred the celebrations to welcome Andrew Holt’s return from prison. It was also an incident which shows how confused allegiances could be at that time. Philip Dowling’s father was an ex-R.I.C. sergeant and his brother Michael was also an R.I.C. man who was killed in an ambush in Keadue, County Roscommon eleven months later. Given these connections, perhaps it is not surprising that the local R.I.C. sent a wreath to Philip Dowling’s funeral. Within a week of Michael’s death, ex-Sergeant Joseph Dowling would lose a third son in a year when Joseph Jnr. died in New York, a victim of the flu epidemic there.

The official verdict of the coroner’s court was the army had fired ‘without justification.’ Although Sergeant Blain of the Lancashire regiment was named as the man who gave the order to ‘drop and fire’, nothing was done to bring him to justice.

Local elections

One place where people could show their political allegiance without fear of being baton-charged or shot was in the ballot booth. Local elections were held on 1 June and Sinn Féin won eleven of the twelve seats on the county council; Lord Powerscourt won the single unionist seat. Some of the Sinn Féin candidates were in jail. Robert Barton of Glendalough House was one, and his incarceration was condemned by his council colleagues. To drive home their displeasure, Barton was elected to the chair in his absence. Christopher M. Byrne was also unavoidably absent – he was on the run. A tricolour was produced and draped across the council table. Felix O’Rafferty from Arklow was one of the eleven Sinn Féin councillors who could take their seats. He was a forty year old publican with a premises at 34 Lower Main Street.[13] His brother Joe was also a publican who had a separate pub in Main Street, the back bedroom of which would appear was used as the G.H.Q. of the Arklow Company.[14]



[1]               Matthew Kavanagh, Bureau of Military History (BMH), Witness Statement (WS) 1472, p.11.
[2]               Dolores Tyrrell, ‘Maria Curran, Pioneer Woman Councillor’ –                                         in AHSJ 1987, pp.10-12
[3]               Sometimes spelt with a ‘y’.
[4]               Matthew Kavanagh, BMH, WS 1472, pp.12-13.
[5]               Andrew Kavanagh, BMH, WS 1471, p.2.
[6]               Matt Kavanagh recalls this as 11 February.
[7]               See Cairns & Gallagher, p.19.
[8]               See Note 37 above.
[9]               Andrew Kavanagh, BMH, WS 1471, p.2.
[10]             This account was given to me in the late 1980s on the condition that the source remain anonymous.
[11]             Wicklow People, 1 May 1920 and 8 May 1920; Wicklow News-Letter, same dates.
[12]             Wicklow News-Letter, 26 Mar 1921.
[13]             Census of Ireland, 1911. This is now ‘Kenny’s of the Harbour’ pub.
[14]             Arklow, the official guide (Cheltenham, 1927), advertisement for ‘Central Hotel’, p.31. Evidence given at Matt Kavanagh’s courtmartial states ‘the pub of Joe O’Rafferty, Main Street’ as the place of arrest and therefore the Arklow company H.Q. This now The Old House.

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