Wicklow through the Troubles by John Finlay

Group of Republican Prisoners outside Wicklow Gaol 1920
Image: Courtesy of John Finlay
Tom Cullen one of Michael Collins’ Apostlesduring the Troubles and the Civil War period. Became a Commandant in the army and drowned in an accident in Lough Dan in 1926.
Image: Courtesy of John Finlay
Countess Marchievicz at Market Square Wicklow April 1919
Image: Courtesy of John Finlay
Leading members of the volunteer movement Wicklow Town
Image: Courtesy of John Finlay
Wicklow Branch of the National Foresters Band
Image: Courtesy of John Finlay

An insight into Wicklow and its environs as seen through the eyes of the local newspapers of the time, namely the Wicklow People and the Wicklow News-Letter with additional information from the records of Wicklow Urban Council and Wicklow Harbour Board.

Sinn Féin’s election victory 1918

There were three candidates for the East Wicklow constituency in the General Election of 1918 –  D.J. Cogan, Home Rule Party, Alexander Parker Keane, Unionist and Seán T. Etchingham, Sinn Féin. Polling day was Dec. 14th and on that day the Wicklow People carried a large front-page advertisement for Etchingham with the slogan, ‘VOTE FOR ETCHINGHAM AND FREEDOM.’ When the election results were announced, after Christmas, Sinn Féin had won sweeping victories throughout the country. In the Wicklow constituencies, Seán Etchingham had been returned for Wicklow East while Robert Barton had won the seat in Wicklow West.

As 1918 drew to a close and 1919 dawned, the results of the General Election were on everyone’s lips with the drastic changes that must ensue. Yet the editorial in the Wicklow News-Letter of Jan. 4th began:

There are few amongst us who will be disposed to shed copious tears over the passing of the old year

…..and continued with a long discourse on the Great War but made no mention whatsoever of Ireland’s problems.

On the other hand, the Wicklow People published the same day read thus:

The result of the General Election is basically that the coalition with Mr. Lloyd George at its head, has been returned in England. In Ireland, as was expected, Sinn Féin has been victorious. The Irish Party (Home Rule) has practically disappeared. 73 Sinn Féin era and only 6 members of the Irish Party have been returned. This means practically the disfranchisement of Nationalist Ireland if the Sinn Féiners persist in carrying out their policy of abstention…. We, in common with so many others, do not think that the Sinn Féin policy could possibly be successful enough to establish an Irish Republic or complete separation.

The count was held in the Courthouse, Wicklow and both newspapers report on the remarkable scenes of jubilation after the result had been announced. The Soldiers Song and other patriotic verses were rendered and the Irish National Foresters Brass and Reed Band paraded the town accompanied by a torchlight procession. Many houses were be flagged for the occasion. Mr. C.M. Byrne gave the victory speech on behalf of Seán Etchingham and made it clear that neither Etchingham or Robert Barton would be taking their seats in the British House of Commons. To exultant cheers he informed all present of the great sweeping victory of Sinn Féin throughout the country.

Release of Seán Etchingham

Etchingham had been a founder member of Sinn Féin, a prominent Gaelic Leaguer and supporter of the G.A.A. In 1916, as a member of the Volunteers, he had taken part in the Easter Week Rising and accompanied military officers to Dublin to ascertain the truth of the surrender here. Courtmartialed subsequently, he was sentenced to death but this was commuted to penal servitude for life and with other Volunteers he was imprisoned in England. Released during the amnesty, he resumed his career in Co. Wexford (He was a native of Courtown.) but, when in May 1918, Sinn Féiners were arrested in connection with the ‘German Plot’, Mr. Etchingham was amongst them and he was imprisoned in Lincoln Prison. He was released from jail on Tues. Jan. 21st, 1919, being unconditionally discharged because of the delicate state of his health.

De Valera message

Etchingham arrived home to Ireland the following day carrying a message from Eamon De Valera to the Irish people and gave a most detailed account of his life in Lincoln Jail to the reporter of the Wicklow News-Letter. Under the heading “Dáil Éireann” the Wicklow People of Jan. 11th reported that the first meeting of Republican M.P.s had taken place in the Mansion House and included Robert C. Barton representing West Wicklow. Only 30 members were present at the inaugural meeting as 30 of the newly elected M.P.s were still in jail and three were in America seeking support for the new Dáil. The same papers editorial of Jan 25th reported ominously that:

Indications are not wanting that we are in for stormy times in Ireland. The new political party in power means to set the heather on fire. They should act with discretion and avoid coming into collision with the armed forces.

On Mon. Feb 3rd, the new Parliament at Westminster was formally opened but, as promised (threatened) no Nationalists attended. De Valera’s escape from Lincoln Jail, on the same day as the new Parliament opened, received widespread publicity in both local newspapers and despite a reward of £5 being offered and extensive house to house searches there was no sign of the escapees.

The Spanish Flu

Editorially the month of February brought little change. The Wicklow People inquired:

What does Ireland want? A Republic or Home Rule?

….while the News-Letter’s editorial sought social reform in post-war Britain. However a much more virulent enemy was on the way. Influenza (The Spanish Flu) was to spread rapidly in the aftermath of the War and many people weakened by food-rationing for years succumbed to the epidemic. Schools closed as the fever quickly spread and numerous deaths were reported during February, March and April. Many social events had to be cancelled in the hope of preventing escalation of the illness.

Barton arrest

On the political front, Robert Barton, M.P. for West Wicklow, was arrested in Dublin on Fri. Feb. 21st shortly after his departure from the Mansion House where he had presided at a meeting. He was imprisoned in Mountjoy Gaol awaiting court martial in connection with a speech he had delivered in Shillelagh, Co. Wicklow, some time previously. However, on March 22nd, both local newspapers reported the sensational news of Barton’s escape from prison. Tongue in cheek, the People reported the details of the escape thus:

When his cell was opened on Monday morning it was found that Mr. Barton had disappeared. The pillow and bedclothes were so arranged to give the bed the appearance of being occupied. This was obviously intended to deceive the warder who on his round during the night had flashed a light into his cell. The bars on the cell window had been filed through and removed, intimating the prisoner’s means of escape. A note was found addressed to the Governor of the prison, the effect of which was to intimate that owing to the discomfort of the place, Mr. Barton had felt compelled to leave. He asked the Governor to keep his bag and effects safe until he sent for them.

Barton’s escape was the first made successfully from Mountjoy.


Meanwhile the riot in Wicklow Town of March 15th continued to overshadow affairs. At their meeting on July 23rd, the Urban District Council (U.D.C.) had a claim before it for £1 4s 5d for damage to the barracks door and for witnesses expenses. On the 25th, John Byrne, The Mall, formerly of Main St., a Volunteer, and William Goodman, Castle St.,a sailor, were both arrested in connection with the affray. Later, Thomas Dunne, High St., was also taken in. All were charged with ‘unlawful assembly.’ Thomas Dunne was sentenced to two months, William Goodman three months and John Byrne, who was alleged to have put rails across the tracks and stones in the points to prevent the prisoners train from leaving the station, received a four months’ sentence.

G.A.A. despite the ban

At its August meeting, Wicklow U.D.C. refused to discuss a letter from the Irish Recruiting Council until ‘we have our Home Rule Bill.’ On Aug. 4th, G.A.A. games were held all over Ireland in defiance of the ban on public meetings. Wicklow played Ashford in a hurling challenge. The authorities let it pass, insisting that sporting events had never been targeted for prohibition. However, on Aug. 15th, there were 1,800 prohibited meetings of Sinn Féin clubs held all over Ireland. C.M. Byrne addressed the meeting in Wicklow. During the last week in August, in a continuing fallout from the Cullen riot of March 15th, two Hanlon brothers, both sailors, were arrested, William, at Garston near Liverpool and Michael, at Greenock, Scotland. Taken home to Bray rather than Wicklow and tried, both were found guilty and sentenced to one months imprisonment.

St. Patrick’s Day 1919

The National Holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, was celebrated with the customary degree of enthusiasm in Wicklow. Favoured by pleasant weather the annual procession, organised by the Wicklow Foresters and including Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBan, Irish Volunteers, the Labourers Union, G.A.A. and many other groups, was impressive. In the evening the Gaelic League organised a most successful and well-attended Céilidh in the Town Hall.

Strike in Wicklow Town

Late March saw major troubles develop in Wicklow town as the farm labourers demanded the same wages as their town counterparts. The tensions grew and a strike which cut off supplies to Dominican Convent ensued. Quarrels developed between the workers and many blows were struck in the fracas and melee which took place at Morton’s Lane. References by the clergy to the strike during Sunday Masses at St. Patrick’s did little to ease the tensions. Eventually a compromise was reached and the strike ended. Regrettably this was not the end of the affair, which culminated in the arrest of Union Leader James Everett, his imprisonment in Mountjoy and his subsequent release. In a letter from Robert Barton, M.P., and published in the Wicklow News-Letter of April 19th concerning the arrest and imprisonment of James Everett, the renowned politician states:

I have seen the arrest of your secretary. The fact that the army of occupation saw fit to arrest hi, is proof of his usefulness as an Irish citizen. You will be deprived for a short while of his services and of his wisdom in council but the cause of Labour gains fro victimisation, just as does the cause of Ireland… In a free Ireland I see a brilliant future for such men as your Labour Secretary.

Prophetic words indeed, as James Everett was to serve Ireland honourably and the people of Wicklow for many decades in a free Irish Parliament.

Trouble seething

During April many areas in Ireland were proclaimed as lawless but Wicklow remained free from major disturbances. Wicklow, peaceful or not, probably had trouble seething just below the surface and the change in editorial feelings of the Wicklow People since January was evident from the editors’s stance of April 12th when he inquired….

What did Ireland get for her peacefulness and her help to win the War in the interests of smaller nations? …[He answers the question himself thus]…..Nothing but deception, betrayal and repeated broken promises with the result that many people now believe that there is no use in being peaceable and law-abiding; that nothing will come to this country by being in that state and if Ireland wants to succeed in securing her rights there is no other course open to her but to follow the successful policy of Sir Edward Carson, the policy which the Sinn Féiners have, to some extent. been following…..


Press censorship prevented the papers from printing nationalist propaganda. Surprisingly then both local newspapers, in their May 3rd editions, published the texts of speeches by Seán Etchingham M.P. (T.D.) and Countess Markievicz which had been made in Wicklow on Sun. April 26th. Mr. Etchingham, returning to full health following his Lincoln Prison experience, addressed a large crowd from the steps of the ‘Billy Byrne Monument’ in the Market Square and thanked all for their support and good wishes and stating that he was proud to represent their historic county. He thanked the people for defeating conscription in 1918 and said that those who sided with Sinn Féin would lose nothing, for a friend would treat them more decently than a foreigner. He forecast that the world would soon sanction an Irish Republic. Madam Markievicz had arrived in Wicklow  by train to be greeted by a huge crowd. She was paraded from the station. She visited Ashford prior to addressing the meeting in the Market Square where she recalled the events of Easter Week 1916. She told the crowd that the surrender was the most terrible day she had ever lived through. She encouraged all present to learn the Irish language and in conclusion said that:

England can only settle the Irish question by giving complete independence. Other nations will see to that!

Malicious injury claims

June arrived and with it the headache for Wicklow U.D.C. of the malicious injury claims lodged against it by various members of the R.I.C. for injuries sustained in the riot of March 15th 1918. During the latter months many appeals and counter-appeals were lodged and cases heard until at the Wicklow Quarter Sessions held on Oct. 9th 1919, County Court Judge Brereton Barry finally ruled in favour of the claimants who had been injured by ‘sticks and stones’ and had also suffered a ‘good deal of insult and injury’. He awarded Head Constable Plower £313 4s 0d, Sergeant Jones £182 16s 0d and Constable McCormack £218 8s 0d (Equivalent of two years salary) .


June was a month of increasing tension as the number of house searches increased. Parnell’s home, at Avondale, was raided and James O’Keefe, a volunteer, arrested and charged with unlawful drilling. Police searched for arms at Glanmore, Ashford. In an early morning raid, the home of James Shannon was minutely searched while two constables stood guard with fixed bayonets. Nothing of a condemnatory nature was discovered and no arrests were made. Such house searches led to increasing tension and press censorship added fuel to the fire. Even the pro-establishment Wicklow News-Letter reported that ….

…..press censorship had ceased in England, America, Italy, Spain and even in Egypt but NOT in Ireland.


Wicklow People 1919 editions

Wicklow Newsletter 1919 editions

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