The War of Independence in County Wicklow: The growth of Nationalism as viewed through the eyes of the police by Brendan Flynn
Since many of the tribal/religious divisions in modern Irish society have their origins in the early part of the 20th Century, it’s worth-while examining just how these divisions began. It is not very often that you get to view the politics and social history of your home and country through the eyes of those who actually monitored that development. Here in Ireland we are very lucky that we have the resources available to do just that. The National Archives in Dublin holds the records of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) which contains copies of the Monthly Reports for crime in each of the counties of Ireland. These include County Wicklow. The information contained in these reports isn’t just about crime; but also includes a whole range of diverse social topics like the effects of the weather on jobs, prices etc., enlistments into the army; numbers and membership of all political and social organisations; evictions from farms, unemployment etc. These reports map out events before our very eyes; events that occurred in our community a century ago, just as if they were happening today. The beauty of these revelations is of course, that they have not been polluted by a century of later political and social interference and smokescreens.
Specimen Monthly report for County Wicklow
The Police Report for the month of February 1916 (1) is offered here as a specimen example of the social information contained in these reports. It begins by stating that the county was peaceable, that no sales had occurred under the Land Purchase Act, and that relations between (1) Landlords and Tenants, and (2) Employers and workmen were good. Kynocks munitions works in Arklow was being enlarged and recruiting for the army was not brisk.
There was practically no crime to report, and drunkenness was about average for the time of year. There was no agrarian or industrial unrest and no boycotting. No serious outrage was reported. One non-agrarian offense was committed, but there had been no evictions, and just one evicted farm was retaken. No persons were under police protection.
Most political organisations in the county were said to be inactive. There was just one branch of Sinn Fein and this held no meetings. No efforts were made to promote disloyalty or to distribute seditious leaflets or newspapers, or to discourage recruiting for the army. The following organisations were operating in the county:
- Irish National Volunteers (INV): twenty-five branches with 2,141 members. They were equipped with 424 rifles with no ammunition.
- Irish Volunteers (IV): two branches at Bray and Baltinglass with 57 members.
- Sinn Féin (SF): one branch in Bray with 12 members.
- United Irish League (UIL): eighteen branches with 274 members.
- Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA): nine branches with 205 members.
- Ancient Order of Hibernians (OAH): fifteen branches with 1506 members (approximate).
A number of things about this report need to be noted. Its contents were intended to inform headquarters about the general state of security in County Wicklow. It always included matters relating to agriculture and evictions as these often resulted in violence. Pseudo-political organisations which might foster unrest in the community were also included, as was anything that might hinder the efficient running of the state. This is why the report always ended by stating whether or not the organisations mentioned were active or inactive. Although SF are included in this report, they were said to be inactive at the time, although this wasn’t always the case.
This level of detail was only made possible by the large numbers of police barracks which were located in every part of the county. Thirty-three barracks were scattered around County Wicklow, and policemen with their families lived in each one. Single men also had lodgings there. All of these mixed freely with the community. At this stage it should also be pointed out that the rank-and-file policemen throughout what is now the Republic of Ireland were almost entirely native Irish Catholics, so they easily assimilated into the local community.
John Redmond and the Irish National Volunteers
Because of his family connections, John Redmond was extremely popular with Wicklow nationalists, particular the older generation. His mother came from West Wicklow; he lived in Aughavanagh; and his brother Willie lived in Delgany. It was no coincidence that he made his famous recruiting speech at Woodenbridge, because his home in Aughavanagh was just a short motor-drive away.
It is very clear from these reports that founding his Irish National Volunteers (INV) was more of a political stroke, rather than the creation of a serious military organisation. It must be remembered that a large proportion of the INV were well over the age of military service. They were in the organisation for patriotic, rather than military reasons. Time and again police officials repeat this mantra as they chart the decline in numbers of the INV.
At the time of its creation he was fully aware that his first priority was to separate constitutional nationalism from the violent idealism espoused at the time by the committee of the Irish Volunteers (IV). Most of these were members of a secret republican organisation that was bent on armed revolt. By forming the INV he successfully, albeit temporarily, separated constitutionalism from violence in Irish politics; and in doing so, he forced the Crown and British Government to accede to the principle of Irish sovereignty. This is acknowledged in the Inspector General’s Monthly Report for October 1914 in which he points out that the INV had “progressed by leaps and bounds from the time it was adopted by Mr. John Redmond” but that since the “Home Rule Bill was placed on the Statute Book, its raison d’etre appeared to be less urgent”. In explaining this reasoning, he further noted that at the end of September 1914 there were 181,732 INV members in 1,613 branches throughout the country; but that this number had fallen to 170, 449 members in 1,598 branches by the 4th of October. The rest had joined the army. Redmond couldn’t have cared less. By simply forming the INV he had already achieved his twin goals. He had separated vast numbers of idealistic nationalists from the secret-society-led IV; and he had the written promise of the King and Government for Irish freedom.
Confirming this opinion in October 1915, the Inspector General noted that ‘the INV (Redmondite) has ceased to be an active force. Raised in haste for a political purpose, they were never trained or organised. The membership, which is merely nominal, has steadily declined since the outbreak of war, and is now estimated at 116,661, including 5,360 who have Sinn Fein tendencies. They have about 9,100 rifles. He further noted that the IV represented the militant element the various sections of Sinn Fein or extremists. He said his force was disloyal and bitterly anti-English and was daily improving its organisation.(2)
As time passed the numbers parading with the INV steadily declined. In November 1914 there were 2,607 members in 31 branches in County Wicklow, but as recruiting into the army took effect these numbers began to fall. By February 1915 numbers had dropped to 2,141 men in 29 branches; and by November 1915 these figures stood at just 1655 members in 25 branches.
Nothing better charts the decline of this organisation during the war years than these police reports. By simply creating the INV, Redmond had immediately achieved his primary purpose of depriving the Irish Volunteers of the right to portray themselves as the only nationalist force in Ireland capable of withstanding the perceived threat of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). There was little or no political presence in the IV; and his view that the elected politicians of Ireland should be the ones to lead this campaign on behalf of the Irish people, had temporarily won out.
Since the INV was now a meaningless organisation, numbers inevitably began to fall away. In August 1914 the INV had 2850 members drilling in 35 locations around County Wicklow. By the end of the year these figures had dropped to 2533 members in 31 locations. Already the police were describing the organisation as inactive. The loss of 73 men in the Tinahely centre in August 1915 saw its numbers drop to 1,724 members in 25 locations. Membership continued to seep away until its membership stood at 1174 in 21 locations in March 1917. In June 1918 it finally ended up with a mere 763 members in 15 locations.(3) While this might seem a failure, it is actually the reverse. These declining figures actually chart Redmond’s success, as he succeeded in gaining Irish independence without bloodshed. By facing down the Irish Volunteers in 1914, he had brought Nationalist Ireland into his camp; and having succeeded in getting the British Government and Crown to agree to Irish Sovereignty, he achieved something that no other figure in Irish public life had been able to achieve before. He was, after all, a politician, not a soldier.
Aggressive nationalism: the growth of Sinn Féin (SF) and the Irish Volunteers (IV)
It is interesting to the trace the pattern of social change in County Wicklow during this period. It was traditionally a very conservative rural community, yet huge social changes took place in it towards the end of the war. Nationalism was part of the reason for this, but the biggest changes occurred because the glut of employment provided by Kynock’s Munition works in Arklow. Never before had well-paid work been so freely available to so many. In this atmosphere Trade Unions began to flourish during the latter part of the war and these led a succession of strikes on behalf of different trades seeking better wages and conditions of employment. Most of these achieved some level of success. The factory grew so big that during the latter half of the war there seemed to be constant strikes going on in the works.
Among other changes brought about by the war were the death of the two Redmond brothers at the most politically crucial time imaginable in Irish history. The United States had finally been coerced into entering the war on the Allied side, and Britain was facing up to the prospect of leaving Ireland to its own devises. The crucial question about Northern Ireland was still to be faced, and all these needed a master politician to handle them. Unfortunately, Ireland was suddenly deprived of its two natural political leaders, and in the ensuing vacuum, all the political scavengers in Ireland rushed to be first at the feast.
The rise of Sinn Féin (SF) in County Wicklow
Although its numbers remained comparatively small throughout the early part of the war, the organisation and cohesion of this small party in County Wicklow was quite remarkable, although always described in reports as inactive. Based in Bray, its original membership averaged about 14 men. A defining moment in its development came in 1915 when the famous Desmond Fitzgerald (later Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael) arrived in Bray from Kerry. The precise wording of the document that presaged his arrival, was “Suspect Desmond Fitzgerald, of Ventry, County Kerry, was by order of the military authorities, made under the Defence of the Realm Act, expelled from Kerry on the 25th January, and has been allowed to reside at Bray, County Wicklow”.(4) This succinct and very precise passage heralded a major revival of Sinn Fein in County Wicklow. He later moved to Enniskerry and was instrumental in providing the leadership necessary to rejuvenate SV/IV in County Wicklow.
In August 1915 a meeting was held in Bray with the view of recruiting new members. It wasn’t very successful. Two parties of IV were simultaneously launched in Bray and Baltinglass with a total membership of just 58 members. This quickly dropped away to 52. At this point Sinn Fein displayed a genius of organisation previously unseen in political parties in Wicklow. They launched a Boy Scout group called Na Fianna Boy Scouts (NFBS) and a women’s group called Cumann na mBan (CnmB). These two groups appeared for the first time in October 1917, and were an instantaneous success.
Their appearance coincided with, and perhaps caused, a jump in membership in the IV. Between November 1916 and December 1917, the numbers of this organisation hovered around 52 members in two locations (Bray and Baltinglass). These figures began to explode in January 1918, first rising to 72 members in three locations; then the following month rising to 112 members in the same locations. This surge continued until June 1918 by which time there were 427 members of the IV in eight branches scattered around the county. The IV had very cleverly used the proposed introduction of Compulsory Service Bill (the Military Draft) into Ireland to attract support among young Wicklowmen threatened by this Bill. This issue also caused a short Boycott on a shop in Wicklow Town. After a few turbulent months this idea was abandoned by Government. This very satisfactory result came about due to the resistance of Irish politicians and government figures in Dublin, together with the leaders of the RIC, all of whom believed that young men threatened by the draft were all turning towards Republicanism. Unfortunately, by the time the idea was scotched, the damage had already been done and many young Wicklowmen had turned to the IV.
A similar trend occurred with SF as membership rose from 21 in one location in October 1916, up to 135 in four locations June 1917; rising to 498 members in fourteen locations in October 1917; and finally, up to 1,357 members in 26 locations by June 1918. This organisation was essentially the political wing of the IV, and the rise in its fortunes matched the IV.
The formation of the CnmB and NFBS seems to have been a political statement more than anything else. When NFBS was originally formed in October 1917, they enrolled 32 members in one location. The numbers involved hardly varied between then and the end of the war. The story of CnmB is similar. Beginning in December 1917 with 40 members in one location, those numbers held until April 1918, when they stood at 35 members in one location, rising again until they reached 72 women in two locations in June 1918.(5) From an examination of the numbers involved, these two organisations probably consist of members of the families of male members. Both organisations were probably based in Bray, while the second CnmB group was probably located in Baltinglass.
Synopsis of political change in County Wicklow 1914-1918
The rise in popularity of SF/IV in County Wicklow could easily be sketched out on a graph referenced to political events. Prior to the formation of the IV in 1914 people were either notionally Nationalist or Unionist. In the spring of 1914, the leaders of the IV began a process of secretly preparing for armed conflict with Britain. This would inevitably have led Irish Nationalists into a war against Britain which could never have been won. John Redmond put a stop to this by forming the INV, thus removing over 90% of IV membership into his newly formed INV. By clever political manoeuvring, Redmond then got Crown and British Government approval to the principal of Irish sovereignty. This was followed by the IV launching a revolt in Dublin, which was brutally crushed.
After two years in the political doldrums, SF/IV relaunched themselves in County Wicklow on the back of the failed attempt by government to introduce Conscription into Ireland, and the corresponding rise in affluence throughout the county caused by increased employment and better wages. When these organisations re-emerged in 1917, they quietly start to agitate and gain ground. Using opposition to several “hot potato” political issues at the time like conscription, jobs and wages,
They also begin drilling without arms. This flamboyant gesture of defiance appeals to the Irish mentality, particularly the younger generation. They become even more popular as affluence spreads throughout the county, as they are repeating a mantra everyone wants to hear. Eventually all this agitation leads to Government issuing a proclamation announcing that Conscription would not be introduced into Ireland, and perversely, SF garnered much of the credit for this reversal of policy.
The rise of violence in County Wicklow
Throughout 1917-1918 the rise of SF/IV continued, exemplified by two rallies in West Wicklow at each of which over 600 people attended. Violence began to increase in the county, much of which can be ascribed to their influence, while other disturbances related to labour issues. These took various forms and occurred in various locations around the county, that include:
Parading in public places with pseudo arms (Hurley’s)
These parades began in the spring of 1918 and took the form of small groups of half-a-dozen or so men marching on the street at night using hurley-sticks as pseudo rifles. The groups were always small, and consisted of much the same people. Over the following months many of these were arrested by the police, brought before the magistrates the following morning and convicted. In the early stages of this campaign all the men were let off with a caution, issued mainly because of the nuisance involved for the police.
The first of these incidents occurred in West Wicklow in October 1917. Edward Fleming of Shillelagh was prosecuted for giving a seditious speech; while John Hayden, John Lawlor and John & Christopher Cullen were all convicted of carrying hurlies in a Sinn Féin procession.(6) During February-March 1918 a number of cases of illegal drilling were reported, but no prison sentences were imposed. Just eleven men were involved in these, who were: Thomas Cullen, arrested five times; Christopher Cullen: arrested four times; John Cullen; arrested twice; John Lawlor, arrested twice; John Hayden, arrested twice; John Byrne, arrested once; Thomas Murphy, arrested twice; John Traynor, arrested twice; John Kavanagh, arrested once; and Patrick Byrne, arrested once. Each of these men were brought before the magistrates, and all were released without penalty.
Attacks and imprisonment
This type of civil nuisance inevitably led to a political and military reaction, and being Britain in Ireland that reaction was heavy-handed and over-reactive. Counties Wicklow and Carlow, both of which had been consistently peaceful up to this point were combined together into a joint Policing Authority, whose Headquarters was located in Wicklow Town. There was an attack on that police barracks on April 15th 1918, which led to the arrest and prosecution of a number of local nationalists. Of these William O’Grady, Patrick Connor, James Connor, Michael Ronan, Thomas McCarthy and James Smullen were all charged, convicted and sentenced to two months Hard Labour; with sureties for twelve months.(7)
Attitudes towards the police in Wicklow steadily continued to change, and the County Inspector noted that “there was a considerably aloofness towards the police” in the district.(8) Eventually all this agitation led to an official Proclamation by Government that Conscription would not be introduced into Ireland. Despite the fact that every politician and public leader in Ireland were involved in this protest, it goes without saying, that SF gained all the credit for this reversal of policy.
Elsewhere John Kavanagh of Arklow was arrested for wearing an Irish Volunteer uniform in Arklow on July 30th 1918 in Arklow. He was convicted and officially warned as to his future conduct. Edward Tenant of Wexford Town and Gerald Kavanagh of Kilmore Quay, County Wexford were both charged with entering Kynocks Munitions Works in Arklow with loaded pistols with intent to commit a felony. Both men were convicted and imprisoned.
Robert Wingfield of Newtownmountkennedy was attacked while riding his bicycle home in November 1919. Four masked and armed men stopped him, took away his revolver and keys, then bound and left him by the side of the road. They made their way to his house and entered using his keys. They later left taking a double-barrell shotgun, 300 rounds of ammunition and a rook rifle.(9)
On Thursday March 25th 1920 a Dublin Corporation Official was stopped on the road by two masked men and robbed of a sum of money.(10)
Continuous minor incidents of this sort eventually led to official proclamations and Prohibitions of Meetings, which were introduced into County Wicklow in July 1918. Two years later on February 25th 1920, County Wicklow became one of several Irish counties officially Proclaimed. For the first time this brought Martial Law into County Wicklow and with it came the dubious privilege of being occupied by British Troops. The scandalous behaviour of some of these troops is dealt with in The War of Independence in County Wicklow: The war against the police.
There were a number of fatal attacks in the county during this tragic period. The deaths of Philip Dowling in Arklow has already been alluded to, as has the death of James O’Brien in Rathdrum. In relation to the latter death, which occurred during an attempted murder of two local policemen in Rathdrum, quite a number of members of the Rathdrum IV detachment were arrested for questioning in relation to this shooting match, but were all later released. Since they were all presumably members of the local IV, it is worthwhile noting their names. Among the released were James Murtagh, William Erritty of Fairgreen, Rathdrum(11). The report also said that the houses and business premises of men who were believed to be Sinn Feiners.
Copyright Brendan Flynn June 2020.
Royal Irish Constabularly – monthly crime reports (National Archives of Ireland).
 National Archives, Dublin, Reports of County Inspectors of Police, February 1916.
 Ibid, October 1915.
 Ibid, June 1918.
 Ibid, January 1915.
 Ibid, June 1918.
 Ibid, Confidential Monthly Report for July 1918.
 Ibid, May 1918.
 Ibid April 1918.
 Irish Times, Saturday August 8th 1919.
 Ibid, Thursday March 25th 1920.
 Irish Times, Tuesday February 14th 1920. The report described the men as ‘believed to be Sinn Feiners’. The houses searched belonged to Messrs. Bell, Curran, O’Brien, Walsh, Morrissey, Wedick, Cullen, D’Arcy, John Byrne and Fitzgerald. The report also said that three revolvers were found, one of which was found concealed in a sewer. A Volunteer Commandants uniform was also found.