The War of Independence in and around Dunlavin. Part Two: July 1920 to July 1921 by Chris Lawlor

The last train to Tullow at Colbinstown, 27 January 1947.
Source: The photographic collection of the late Jack Thomas
John Lawlor pictured with his wife Bessie (nee Lambert).
Source: Author’s collection.

By the summer of 1920, the War of Independence was affecting daily life in Dunlavin and the rest of County Wicklow. The local elections of June 1920 were the first to use the proportional representation system of voting, and they returned an overwhelmingly Republican chamber of Sinn Féin and Labour councillors. The first meeting of the council was held on 18 June, and the newly-elected Councillor Christopher M. Byrne (1880-1958), who was on the run from the authorities, was briefly present. Robert Barton T.D. was unanimously elected chairman of the council. Barton had escaped from Mountjoy Jail on 16 March 1919, but was recaptured in January 1920 and tried by court martial. At the time of this meeting, he was incarcerated in Portland prison. Joseph Campbell was elected as vice-chairman and became the acting chairman in the absence of the chairman. Barton’s election was in protest at his sentence ‘by a court martial of the English army of occupation in Ireland’ and ‘as proof that the Irish patriot in an English prison is ever dear to his people’.[1]

Baltinglass District Council

The monthly meeting of Baltinglass Number One District Council was held in Dunlavin on Tuesday, 13 July 1920.[2] This was the first time a council meeting was held in Dunlavin, and ‘a Sinn Féin flag was unfurled in the courthouse during the proceedings’. Chairman John J. Cunningham presided over an attendance of James Byrne, J. Murphy, John J. Carroll, Denis Fay, John Kelly, A. J. Metcalfe, J. Hayden, J. R. Dagg (clerk) and P. J. Foley (engineer). Among the items of local governance discussed at the meeting were cottage rents, the building scheme for labourers’ cottages, estimates for the repairs of existing cottages, maintenance of the pumps in Dunlavin, payment of expenses pertaining to the Allotment Order, inspection and repair of the Hollywood sewer and work on the roads in the Glen of Imaal. However, some other items discussed had a decidedly more political flavour. At the time both the British parliament and the fledgling Dáil claimed to be the rightful government of Ireland. The following resolution, proposed by John J. Cunningham and seconded by James Byrne, was passed unanimously:

‘That this council of the elected representatives of Baltinglass No. 1 Rural District Council hereby pledge our allegiance to Dáil Éireann, the legitimately elected and constituted parliament of the Irish Republic…’

Copies of the full resolution were to be sent to the Republican Minister for Foreign Affairs for ‘transmission to the governments of Europe and to the President and Chairman of both the Senate and House of Representatives in the USA’. Three financial claims in relation to the burning of Blessington police barracks were submitted, along with an expenses claim from the engineer, P. J. Foley, for measuring the distance between Hacketstown and Rathvilly police barracks. The council decided to ignore all these claims since they related to R.I.C. barracks. The forces of law and order were also contested between Westminster and the Dáil and two legal systems were vying for control. In light of this, and to support the Sinn Féin courts, the clerk J. R. Dagg, who was a Justice of the Peace, was called upon by the council ‘to resign his J.P.ship’. This motion was proposed by J. Hayden and seconded by John J. Carroll.

1913 Lockout

Another resolution passed at the meeting related to James Larkin, the workers’ leader during the 1913 Dublin lockout, who had since gone to America and was imprisoned for labour activities in the USA.[3] This resolution, proposed by Denis Fay and seconded by John J. Carroll, read:

That we, the members of the Baltinglass No. 1 District Council, demand the release of James Larkin, who is at present undergoing a sentence of between five to ten years in Sing Sing prison in America, and that he be allowed to return to Ireland to take up his duties as General Secretary of the I.T.G.W.U. That copies of this resolution be sent to the American Consul, Dublin, the Republican Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Larkin Release Committee.

Finally, perhaps the resolution most indicative of the troubled times in which this meeting was held, with the War of Independence as its backdrop, concerned Robert Barton, the TD for west Wicklow. Proposer John J. Cunningham and seconder Denis Fay had no trouble in getting support for the resolution, which read:

That this council demand the release of our worthy representative, Mr. R. C. Barton T. D., and request the [IRA] Volunteers to hold Brigadier General Lucas as a hostage until Mr. Barton is set free’.[4] The council evidently supported the Republican agenda.

Republican policies were also publicly espoused by Sinn Féin at west Wicklow gatherings which Dunlavin people would have attended, such as the aeridheachts in Blessington in August (at which the Dunlavin Fife and Drum band played, and which was addressed by T.D.s Donal Buckley [Ó Buachalla], Art O’Connor and Roger Sweetman),[5] and in Donard in September (which was addressed by Countess Marckievz, among others).[6] Members of the Dáil also spoke at local G.A.A. gatherings, reinforcing the Republicanism message among the populace of Dunlavin and its west Wicklow and east Kildare hinterland.[7]

Local I.R.A.

The local I.R.A. was not inactive in the Dunlavin region and beyond during 1920 either. A number of volunteers, including Richard Keating of Usk, Dunlavin and James Kenna of Milltown, Dunlavin, were involved in a variety of activities including Belfast boycott raids, the destruction of R.I.C. barracks, a mail raid at Colbinstown station, the capture of maps and magazines from the R.I.C., burning income tax books, collecting arms, assisting in a mail raid in Kildare town, an arms raid on Ballysax rectory, police duty under arms at court martials (including those of prisoners named Hanley for cattle stealing and Kelly and Holt for cycle theft), continuous road blocking and trenching, in addition to the usual intelligence and despatch duty.[8] The mail raid at Colbinstown station took place on the morning of Wednesday 18 August. When the goods train travelling from Sallins to Tullow arrived at Colbinstown station, it was held up by a party of armed men. They took the mail bags for Grangecon, Baltinglass and Tullow before the raiding party made their getaway.[9]

Fig 1: The last train to Tullow at Colbinstown, 27 January 1947. Source: the photographic collection of the late Jack Thomas.

Compensation claims & intimidation

Intimidation was also ongoing in other ways. In September 1920 the Baltinglass Number One District Council received malicious injury claims from Miss Tynte of Tynte Park House (for the destruction of a shed), W. C. Merrey, the clerk of the petty sessions (for the loss of official books, forms etc.) and Thomas Molyneux (for firearm loss). The council took no action.[10] Molyneux also resorted to the [British] court system to seek compensation. His claim was dismissed by the judge at Baltinglass quarter sessions (held in Bray) in October. Molyneux’s solicitor argued that the offence fell under the heading of ‘riotous assembly by three or more persons with the object of causing terror’. Molyneux and his family were at prayers when armed men burst into his house and made off with a [shot]gun and a rifle. The judge ruled that he could not allow such a claim because, if he did so, he ‘did not know where it would end’.[11]

Intimidation against the R.I.C. also continued apace, and was successful enough to force resignations among the constabulary. That same month, Baltinglass Number One District Council read and approved a communication from the Dáil recommending that every effort should be made to find work for these former constables.[12] Threats against the R.I.C. were also extended to those who worked with them, and in the same month Dunlavin’s Dr. Edward Lyons responded to the council’s requests that he resign his magistracy and cease attendance on the local R.I.C. members. Lyons complied with the first request, but on the second he stated that he ‘must claim privilege… his mission in life was to attend the sick of the district… in all countries the priest and the doctor are left free to carry out their duties… the prevention of infectious diseases is important… not long ago such a case occurred in Dunlavin barrack [and] by seeing the sick man early he stamped out the infection. Had he not been free to act there would have been an epidemic of scarlatina in the town. There is the possibility [now] of an epidemic of smallpox … a rapidly spreading disease which, if not got hold of immediately, would spread all over the country’.[13] Lyons’ letter seems to have been successful as there is no record of any action being taken against him.

The ongoing War of Independence continued to have an impact on life in Dunlavin during the period from October to December 1920. The Baltinglass Number One Rural District council again met in the village in October, this time in the Foresters’ Hall. The dangerous condition of burned-out buildings, including Baltinglass courthouse and three malicious injury claims for arson, as well as one for damage caused by rifle fire, were among the items discussed. In all these cases, the alleged perpetrators of these damages were the Black and Tans. Other damages claims presented at the meeting included the cutting down of trees at Donard ‘during the raidings’ and the loss of furniture at Blessington R.I.C. barracks. The council decided to ignore all these claims for compensation.[14]


Sporadic violence continued in the vicinity of Dunlavin throughout the back end of the year. The police report of August 1920 noted that ‘Dunlavin was in a worse state of unrest than most of the country’.[15] Hence, when it was reported in December that Sergeant Brophy, who had been stationed in Wicklow town, was to be transferred to Dunlavin R.I.C. station, it is probable that he was more than a little anxious about the volatile state of the area into which he was to move.[16] Early in the new year, the R.I.C. in Dunlavin was rocked by the involvement of two of their temporary constables (Black and Tans) in the murder of Robert Dixon J.P. at Milltown, Dunlavin, on 2 February. The case was labelled ‘The Dunlavin Tragedy’ and made headlines in the national press. Constable Arthur Hardie committed suicide the following day, and Constable William Mitchell was subsequently tried and executed for the crime.[17] It has been suggested that the case soured ‘the relationship the R.I.C. had built up with Unionists and the farming community’.[18] It certainly made for uncomfortable headlines for the British authorities at a time when the war in Ireland and the conduct of the Black and Tans was coming under increasing international scrutiny.

Disrupting communications

The war was not abating in and around Dunlavin in the first half of 1921. During this period, the local I.R.A. were involved in disrupting communications and road trenching around Dunlavin,[19] intelligence and despatch work, policing under arms and carrying out raids for goods included in the Belfast boycott. They also attacked Dunlavin R.I.C. barracks and conducted a mail raid on Harristown railway station. Volunteers involved in these actions included, among others, Christopher O’Toole of Spratstown and Thomas Flood of Ballinure.[20] Nine volunteers ambushed and captured an army supply lorry en route to the army camp in the Glen of Imaal at Tynte Park, Dunlavin. The I.R.A. exchanged fire with the three soldiers on board and captured their weapons, two rifles and a revolver. Two soldiers were captured and their uniforms burned. About twenty volunteers ambushed a six-man R.I.C. patrol at Colbinstown, wounding two policemen. The local I.R.A. were joined by some men from other units for the Colbinstown ambush, and they in turn aided another company in an attack on Baltinglass R.I.C. barracks. Five local volunteers also ambushed and captured a despatch rider, his revolver and his motorbike.[21] In addition, John White of Rottenhill, Rathsallagh had his motor car damaged by ‘persons unknown acting in a seditious and unlawful conspiracy’.[22] In May, Alf Metcalfe of Crehelp was among the fourteen volunteers who attacked Hollywood R.I.C. barracks,[23] and shots were fired at Dunlavin police barracks on Wednesday 8 June. The R.I.C. returned fire and suffered no casualties.[24] The Dunlavin attack may have been prompted by the arrest of local I.R.A. volunteer John Lawlor two days earlier.[25]

Fig 2: John Lawlor pictured with his wife Bessie (nee Lambert).  Source: Author’s collection.


There were political developments and negotiations afoot however, and these bore fruit the following month, when, on 11 July news of a truce and a cessation of hostilities broke on a largely unsuspecting public. At that time, A Company (Dunlavin), 6th Battalion, Carlow Brigade had fifty-six active officers and men, and six members interned. As well as John Lawlor, Captains Laurence O’Toole (Spratstown) and Joseph Deering (Milltown) and Volunteers Joseph Grennan (Dunlavin), John Smyth (Grangebeg) and Henry [Hal] English (Fryanstown)[26] were in the Rath Camp on the Curragh.[27] In addition, P. Lawlor of Dunlavin was interned in Hare Park Camp (also on the Curragh).[28] The fate of internees such as these was only one issue that would have to be addressed in the long and uncertain negotiations that lay ahead. The truce had come into force, but a lasting treaty had yet to be hammered out. The twists and turns on the road to this treaty were plentiful, and the divisions that it would cause were as yet unknown. It is probably safe to suggest that the I.R.A. in the Dunlavin area, and their Republican supporters among the wider populace, might not have been as happy with the implementation of the truce had they been able to foresee the events of the following couple of years.



[1] Brian Donnelly, For the betterment of the people: A history of Wicklow County Council (Wicklow, 1999), pp 40-3, 53, 163, 167. See also Wicklow News-Letter, 19 Jun 1920.
[2] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 17 Jul 1920.
[3] Manus O’Riordan, ‘Larkin in America: the road to Sing Sing’ in Donal Nevin (ed), James Larkin: lion of the fold (Dublin, 1998), p. 71.
[4] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 17 Jul 1920.
[5] Leinster Leader, 24 Jul 1920.
[6] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 18 Sep 1920.
[7] Leinster Leader, 4 and 11 Sep 1920.
[8] I.M.A., I.R.A. brigade activity reports, MSPC/A67, ff 76-9. The Belfast boycott (of goods which originated in the North) was approved by the Dáil in August 1920 in response to developments there, including the eruption of violence, the proposal to establish a special constabulary and the threat of partition becoming enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act (which was eventually passed in December 1920).
[9] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 21 Aug 1920.
[10] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 18 Sep 1920.
[11] Leinster Leader, 16 Oct 1920.
[12] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 18 Sep 1920.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 16 Oct 1920.
[15] The August police report is quoted in 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. 68. The report also stated that Baltinglass was ‘in a state of terror’.
[16] Wicklow News-Letter, 11 Dec 1920.
[17] For a brief account of the Milltown murder case, see Chris Lawlor, The little book of Wicklow (Dublin, 2014), pp 90-102. The case is the subject of a separate essay (entitled ‘The Dunlavin Tragedy of 1921’) in this series.
[18] Cullen, ‘The R.I.C. and the I.R.A. in Wicklow’s War of Independence’, p. 70.
[19] Leinster Leader, 12 Mar 1921.
[20] I.M.A., I.R.A. brigade activity reports, MSPC/A67, ff 28-9 and 74.
[21] Ibid, ff 78 and 84.
[22] Leinster Leader, 5 Mar 1921.
[23] I.M.A., I.R.A. brigade activity reports, MSPC/A62, f. 15 (paginated as 12).
[24] Leinster Leader, 11 Jun 1921.
[25] National Archive, Kew, London, Prosecution of John Lawlor; believed leader of IRA; 6th June, 1921; Dunlavin, County Wicklow; to be recommended for internment; released 9th December, 1921, WO35/125/64 [C693683], f. 1.
[26] I.M.A., I.R.A. nominal rolls, MSPC/RO/560, ff 16-7.
[27] James Durney, Interned: the Curragh internment camps in the War of Independence (Cork, 2019), pp 246 and 272. Thomas (rather than John) Smyth of Grangebeg is listed in this work.
[28] Ibid, p. 226.

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