The War of Independence in and around Dunlavin. Part One: January 1919 to June 1920 by Chris Lawlor

Rough map showing Dunlavin’s position in the I.R.A. divisional commands.
Source: I.M.A., B.M.H. WS1572. Tracing, omissions and additions by the author.
Memorial stone on Dunlavin green commemorating the Dunlavin massacre
Source: Chris Lawlor

The year 1919 opened with an air of uncertainty and expectation in Irish political circles. A local newspaper on Saturday, 4 January carried a report on a large meeting in Baltinglass, called for the purpose of supporting the invitation of President Wilson of the USA to Ireland. Since one of the principal speakers was from Dunlavin, it is probable that many Dunlavin people were in attendance that day. At that meeting, Thomas Fleming from Shillelagh apologised on behalf of the newly-elected Robert Barton, who could not be there. Fleming gave a rousing speech, stating that:

‘the people of Ireland were not looking for Home Rule’. Absolute independence was the object, and when they returned Mr. Barton by five to one, they voiced that claim… seventy-five per cent of the people here in west Wicklow had voted for absolute independence’.[1]

Dunlavin man John J. Cunningham also addressed the meeting, offering congratulations on the return of Mr. Barton. Cunningham told the gathering that:

‘they had proved to the world… that Ireland stands for complete independence. The Irish Party had brought the country to destruction, and it was not in Westminster that redress was to be sought. The rights of small nations must be recognised at the Peace Conference… Some people say that abstention from Westminster is wrong. A few months ago, when conscription was sought to be imposed on the manhood of Ireland, the Irish Party opposed it on the floor of the House of Commons, but they failed. The voice of the people on their own soil had done what the Irish party could not do across the water, and so the fight for independence must be carried on at home. They had shown by their votes that their wish was to see Ireland, their native land, as free as it was in the days of Saint Patrick’.

The speeches given by both Fleming and Cunningham were Republican in tone, and the meeting ended with ‘patriotic songs’ and ‘a large procession, headed by the local Pipers’ Band and Cumann na mBan’.[2] On Sunday 5 January, the recently-elected Robert Barton did speak at a meeting in Baltinglass town hall,[3] and the appearance of the Sinn Féin parliamentarian brought the new political reality sharply into focus in west Wicklow, as was the case almost all over Ireland.

Voice of Nationalist Ireland

It was evident that Sinn Féin had replaced the Irish Parliamentary Party as the voice of Nationalist – and now Republican – Ireland. The Volunteers were re-forming and Sinn Féin MPs were not going to take their seats in Westminster. Many people wondered what the next move in Ireland would be.

The First Dáil

In the event, Sinn Féin invited all one hundred and five Irish MPs to meet in the Mansion House in Dublin. The twenty-six Unionists and six remaining Home Rulers refused the invitation, but twenty-seven of the seventy-three Sinn Féin MPs attended. Most of the others were still incarcerated following the ‘German plot’. Michael Collins and Harry Boland were absent because they were organising De Valera’s daring escape from Lincoln Jail. The Mansion House meeting constituted the First Dáil, and the new TDs (as opposed to MPs) reasserted the 1916 ‘Declaration of the Irish Republic’, passed the ‘Democratic Programme’ (of social reforms)[4] and issued the ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’, which was read to the House by west Wicklow TD Robert Barton.[5] On the same day, a small group of Volunteers led by Sean Treacy killed two RIC constables at Soloheadbeg in county Tipperary. Though other suggestions have been made, and there were sporadic violent incidents elsewhere before this ambush, this incident is usually taken as the start of the Irish War of Independence (also known as the Anglo-Irish War) of 1919-21. Following the Dáil’s declaration of the republic, the reorganised Volunteers took to calling themselves the Irish Republican Army or I.R.A. However, the presence of the British army caused difficulties for the I.R.A. in Dunlavin and its extended two-county hinterland. One observer noted that ‘the North Kildare brigade as well as that of West Wicklow found little scope for maneuvering their manpower in the national interests, as every call from headquarters was closely watched by the army of occupation, whose base may be said to be at their very doors’.[6]

War of Independence in West Wicklow

The opening months of the War of Independence were quiet throughout County Wicklow.[7] The county was geographically fragmented and Wicklow I.R.A. men found themselves serving in different divisions. The west of the county was covered by three divisions. Thus, for example, Hollywood was included in the First Eastern Division (Kildare Independent Battalion and later 7th Battalion, Kildare Brigade),[8] Valleymount was included in the Second Eastern Division (Third Battalion, Second Dublin Brigade)[9] and Dunlavin was in the area covered by the Third Eastern Division (Sixth Battalion, Carlow Brigade).[10] Moreover, study of the extant records from the immediate Dunlavin area is further complicated by the fact that Dunlavin village was almost on the very north-eastern extremity of the geographical area covered by the Third Eastern Division, with the result that volunteers from county Wicklow townlands in Dunlavin parish and townlands adjacent to Dunlavin within its county Kildare hinterland found themselves attached to different I.R.A. units than men in and around the village itself. This meant that, for example, while William [Bill] Esmonde of Dunlavin village was a captain in A Company (Dunlavin), 6th Battalion, Carlow Brigade,[11] Patrick Byrne of Tubber [Tober], Dunlavin was a volunteer in C Company (Hollywood), 2nd North Kildare Battalion, Kildare Brigade,[12] while William Litchfield of Usk, Dunlavin was a volunteer in E Company (Kilgowan), 6th Battalion, Carlow Brigade.[13] The I.R.A. divisional areas are shown on the map traced from P. Kane’s witness statement in Figure one.[14]

Fig. 1: Rough map showing Dunlavin’s position in the I.R.A. divisional commands. Source: I.M.A., B.M.H. WS1572. Tracing, omissions and additions by the author.

Slow start

The War of Independence got off to a slow start in county Wicklow. There was no mention of it on the County Council agenda in February, when the items put down for resolution included declaring a vacancy on the County Council in consequence of the death of veteran nationalist Joseph Dunne of Merginstown, Dunlavin, to fill five vacancies (including the one caused by Dunne’s death) on the county committee of agriculture, to appoint the council’s moiety of the school attendance committee of the Dunlavin division and to consider and approve a county-wide scheme for the treatment of venereal diseases.[15] However, as sporadic violent incidents began to occur throughout the country, there were indications that the conflict was beginning to affect everyday life in the county. Wicklow G.A.A. passed a resolution stating that it ‘considered the action of the Central Council as arbitrary in suspending all civil servants from the GAA without taking the opinion of the Gaels of Ireland, and calling for an immediate withdrawal of the order’.[16] The G.A.A. ban on civil servants and public servants such as R.I.C. constables who served the Crown happened against a backdrop of I.R.A. preparation in county Wicklow,[17] where ‘local commanders were still drilling and training their members’.[18] This was certainly the case near Dunlavin, where half the men of A company, 6th Battalion, Carlow Brigade, were involved in ‘parades, field training, dispatch work, intelligence duties and police duties under arms’ during 1919.[19] It is unfortunate that the report of the other half of A company, which included Dunlavin village, does not appear to be extant.[20] However, it is probably safe to assume, given the lack of violent events in the immediate vicinity of Dunlavin during the year 1919, that the other half of the company were engaged in similar pursuits during that year.

Arson attacks

The situation changed in 1920 however. A press report on 3 January related to a meeting of the Dunlavin branch of the County Kildare Farmers’ Union at which R. G. Dixon presided. Two members of the branch had been the victims of arson as their hay had been incinerated. A reward of £50 was offered for information about those responsible for the outrage.[21] Moreover, in March 1920 Wicklow County Council unsuccessfully appealed an award of £700 to Alice Elsie Tynte in respect of seventy cocks of hay burned on Copeland’s farm at Plezica, Dunlavin the previous year.[22] Incidents of arson during the War of Independence survived in local folk-memory in Dunlavin until the later decades of the twentieth century. According to local lore, the targets of the campaign were mostly larger farmers and gentry figures from the landed classes. The oral history of these attacks on property portrayed them as Republicans striking a blow against local establishment figures during the Anglo-Irish War.[23] However, contemporary sources such as newspaper reports reveal that the attacks happened against the backdrop of the labourers’ dispute, and it seems very possible that they were orchestrated in response to this. It is possible (and perhaps probable) that the primarily second-hand accounts given in the late twentieth century merged the two conflicts in local folk-memory. It is also very possible that some local men were involved in both the agitation connected to the labourers’ dispute and the activities of the I.R.A. at this time. Broadly speaking, both campaigns perceived the landed elite of the area as authority figures and hence as adversaries to be targeted. Whatever the real reason behind the arson attacks, they disrupted everyday life in the Dunlavin region at this time.

Increase in violence

As the year 1920 progressed, there were other signs of disruption due to the increasing severity of the War of Independence. In June 1919 the Dáil had established its own courts by decree.[24] A year later there were no cases to be heard at the petty sessions of Dunlavin.[25] A month later Lord Monteagle observed ‘The Sinn Féin courts are steadily extending their jurisdiction… [which] shows the growing and remarkable capacity of the Irish people for self-government’.[26] Also in June, Dunlavin patients needing treatment in the local infirmary were redirected from Baltinglass to Naas,[27] as the military were now in occupation of Baltinglass workhouse.[28] This military occupation occurred in response to increased levels of violence, with Saundersgrove House (between Dunlavin and Baltinglass) burned out on 8 May 1920, and many smaller R.I.C. stations abandoned and incinerated about this time.[29] Saundersgrove had passed into the ownership of the Tynte family of Dunlavin,[30] and they were later awarded over £26,000 compensation to be levied off the county.[31] The choice of Saundersgrove as a target for arson was possibly symbolic, as its former owner, Morley Saunders, was vilified locally for his part in the infamous Dunlavin massacre of 1798.[32] He was singled out for dishonourable mention in the broadside ballad ‘Dunlavin Green’.[33] This ballad was identified by Eamon Broy (the spymaster of Dublin Castle) as one of the songs ‘of the patriotic variety’ which inspired his youthful Republican ideals.[34] Moreover, the destruction of Saundersgrove during that summer denied its potential occupation and use by the military.

Fig. 2: Memorial stone on Dunlavin green commemorating the Dunlavin massacre. Source: photo taken by the author.

The I.R.A. were also active in other locations during this period. As well as Saundersgrove, there were arson attacks on Ballitore, Donard, Stratford-on-Slaney and Dunlavin.[35] There were sporadic violent incidents in the vicinity of Dunlavin during the late spring and early summer months from April to July 1920. Twenty-six volunteers took part in the burning of Ballytore [Ballitore] R.I.C. barracks. They included:

  • Thomas Flood of Ballinure and John Deay of Spratstown.[36]
  • Six volunteers including Patrick Stynes and Chris Murphy of Grangecon were involved in an ambush at Colbinstown, and another six, including Denis Byrne of Baltinglass, were involved in an attack on the town’s R.I.C. barracks. Byrne also took part in the Colbinstown action.[37]
  • James Dempsey and Patrick Travers of Blackrath were part of an eighteen-strong I.R.A. contingent who raided Colbinstown station for mails.[38]
  • The R.I.C. station and courthouse in Ballymore-Eustace also came under attack from a unit of eighteen local volunteers, including Arthur Doran and James Winders.[39]

Gaining momentum

Incidents such as these meant that the War of Independence was increasing in ferocity and the I.R.A. in Dunlavin and its hinterland were gaining momentum. The whole period from the beginning of 1919 to midsummer 1920 had witnessed the gradual increase of violence in and around Dunlavin, and the growing levels of violence impinged on everyday life in the locality. The local gentry, landed classes, magistrates and other authority figures who were under threat from the I.R.A. found themselves in an uncomfortable position, but perhaps the most vulnerable group in the village were the R.I.C. constables, who were now overtly targeted by the I.R.A. and shunned by many Dunlavin residents. A concerted campaign of sniping, shootings, boycotting, intimidation and arson precipitated many R.I.C. retirements and resignations, and discouraged recruitment.[40] All of these factors meant that there was a heightened state of tension in the Dunlavin area as the War of Independence moved into the second half of the year 1920, and it showed no signs of abating.



[1] Fleming’s percentage was slightly inaccurate. Over 75% of voters had chosen Robert Barton. In the general election of 1918, the west Wicklow electorate of 11,683 (7,898 men and 3,775 women) had a total poll of 7,609 (65.18%) who voted thus: 6, 239 (82%) for Robert Barton (Sinn Féin) and 1,370 (18%) for The O’Mahony (Irish Party); a Sinn Féin majority of 64%. (visited on 22 Jan 2019).
[2] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 4 Jan 1919.
[3] Paul Gorry, Baltinglass chronicles 1851-2001 (Dublin, 2006), p. 172.
[4] J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985 (Cambridge, 1989; reprint 1990), pp 40-1.
[5] Chris Lawlor, The little book of Wicklow (Dublin, 2014), p. 105.
[6] Christian Brothers Monastery, Naas, Annals of the Naas Christian Brothers, vol. 1, f. 4.
[7] Kevin Cullen, ‘The R.I.C. and the I.R.A. in Wicklow’s War of Independence’ in Journal of the West Wicklow Historical Society, vii (Naas, 2013), p. 64.
[8] Irish Military Archive [hereafter I.M.A.], I.R.A. nominal rolls, MSPC/RO/510, f. 3.
[9] I.M.A., I.R.A. nominal rolls, MSPC/RO/23, f. 2.
[10] I.M.A., I.R.A. nominal rolls, MSPC/RO/560, f. 3.
[11] I.M.A., I.R.A. nominal rolls, MSPC/RO/560, f. 15.
[12] I.M.A., I.R.A. nominal rolls, MSPC/RO/510, f. 17
[13] I.M.A., I.R.A. nominal rolls, MSPC/RO/560, f. 27.
[14] I.M.A., Bureau of Military History [hereafter B.M.H.], witness statement of Padráig Ó Catháin, Castlecomer Road, Kilkenny, WS1572.
[15] Wicklow News-Letter, 8 Feb 1919.
[16] Wicklow News-Letter, 22 Mar 1919.
[17] The general ‘list of operations carried out by the 6th Battalion, Carlow Brigade’ includes no operations from 1919. All events on the list happened in either 1920 or 21. I.M.A., I.R.A. brigade activity reports, MSPC/A67, ff 27-35.
[18] Cullen, ‘The R.I.C. and the I.R.A. in Wicklow’s War of Independence’, p. 64.
[19] I.M.A., I.R.A. brigade activity reports, MSPC/A67, f. 73.
[20] I am indebted to Mr. Hugh Beckett of the Irish Military Archive for his assistance in this matter. The documents in question may never have been submitted, they may have been lost or destroyed or they may have been filed elsewhere, though the latter possibility seems unlikely.
[21] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 3 Jan 1920.
[22] Wicklow News-Letter, 6 Mar 1920; Leinster Leader, 6 Mar 1920 and Nationalist and Leinster Times, 13 Mar 1920.
[23] I am indebted to the late Mr. Dudley Kirwan of Uppertown, Dunlavin for this information.
[24] Dorothy Macardle, The Irish Republic (London 1937; revised ed., 1968), p. 322.
[25] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 5 Jun 1920. There had also been no cases in Baltinglass petty sessions in April. Nationalist and Leinster Times, 17 Apr 1920.
[26] Irish Times, 5 July 1920.
[27] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 26 Jun 1920.
[28] The occupation was carried out on Wednesday, 19 May 1920. Gorry, Baltinglass chronicles, p. 181.
[29] Ibid, pp 180-1.
[30] Mark Bence Jones, Burke’s Guide to Country Houses: Ireland, i (London, 1978), p. 255.
[31] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 16 Oct 1920. Saundersgrove was rebuilt, but not on as grand a scale as the former house, causing one of its later owners to refer to it as ‘the Free State cottage’. I am indebted to Mr. Donal McDonnell of Coolnarrig for this piece of information.
[32] Chris Lawlor, The massacre on Dunlavin green: a story of the 1798 rebellion (Naas, 1998), pp 76-7.
[33] There are four known versions of this ballad. Three of them, the standard form of the ballad published in Hodgart (ed.), The Faber Book of Ballads, p. 202, a broadside from the White Collection (T.C.D., White collection, OLS-X-1-530, no.31) and the version transcribed in the Shearman papers (N.U.I.M., Shearman papers, xvii, f. 127v) are reproduced in Chris Lawlor, The longest rebellion (Dublin, 2007), pp 117-9. The remaining version, which was sung by the late Mr. Ned Dunne of Dunlavin (National Folklore Collection, U.C.D., Tom Munnelly Collection, Audio recording TM 0363/B) is reproduced in Chris Lawlor, ‘The Dunlavin massacre: two ballads of 1798’ in Journal of the West Wicklow Historical Society, iv, (2007) pp 144-5. All four versions vitriolically vilify Morley Saunders.
[34] I.M.A., B.M.H., witness statement of Colonel Eamon Broy, Rathgar, Dublin, WS1280.
[35] Henry Cairns (ed), Wicklow in revolt: a history of County Wicklow from 1913-1923 (Bray?, 2016), p. 104.
[36] I.M.A., I.R.A. brigade activity reports, MSPC/A67, f. 27.
[37] Ibid, f. 15.
[38] Ibid, f. 27.
[39] I.M.A., I.R.A. brigade activity reports, MSPC/A62, f. 7 (paginated as 4).
[40] Cullen, ‘The R.I.C. and the I.R.A. in Wicklow’s War of Independence’, pp 62-3.

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