William O’Grady Wicklow Revolutionary Republican by Stan J. O'Reilly

Group outside Wicklow Gaol with republican prisoner William O’Grady back row left with the fine moustache, circa 1920.
Image: Courtesy of John Finlay
Wicklow Gaol pre 1950
Photo: Courtesy of Edward Kane
Former R.I.C. Barracks, Church Street, Wicklow Town
Photo: https://www.buildingsofireland.ie/buildings-search/building/16003122/church-street-wicklow-county-wicklow
Excerpt from Wicklow County Council Minute Book 18th June 1920 - oath of loyalty to the new Dail Eireann following landslide Sinn Fein victory in the 1920 local elections.
Image: Courtesy of Wicklow County Archives

Beginnings of Sinn Fein in Wicklow

William O’Grady was at the heart of the Sinn Fein and revolutionary movement which saw Sinn Fein flags flying from sailing vessels in the harbour and openly displayed in Wicklow and district from May of 1917. The local police were active in removing them and they were then replaced. It was the beginning of a very dangerous game of cat and mouse. Nationalism was growing in the country. A proud day for Sinn Fein came in August of 1917 when the Wicklow Sinn Fein Club came into existence at a meeting in the Town Hall, Wicklow. Sinn Fein then proceeded to elect their local officers and William O’Grady was elected Chairman. He and his fellow club members were placed under surveillance by the authorities and house raids and searches began. Sinn Fein was active around the county and in September a public meeting was held in Ashford, with main speaker Arthur Griffith. By November Wicklow Sinn Fein had established a Cumann na mBan branch with the local female members rendering valuable service. This writer spoke to a couple of their number in the county many years back, but, they remained as silent as the men and even more so, freezing out members of their own families who were curious about their activities.  In December 1917 a Sinn Fein dance was organised for the Town Hall, Wicklow and a large house was rented on the Main Street as Club Rooms. (This was in the old Wicklow Travel building.)

Large family

William O’Grady ended up with a large family of over twenty children. He was a freedom fighter and knew well the risks he was taking, holding seditious meetings in his house, addressing outdoor and indoor meetings around the county and organising for the overthrow of the occupation of Ireland and English rule. He was playing a very dangerous game of cat and mouse with the local authorities. It was said in local lore that he was read from the altar for his activities. There is no way now to prove or disprove this. Even so the Parish Priest and his Curate went to court in 1918 to support O’Grady and four other prisoners. His wife Henrietta, a devout woman stood by him but no doubt had words with him from time to time, considering his activities, his suffering business and his ever growing family. William attracted the attentions of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Wicklow Town and his house was raided by them and Black and Tans several times.

Local Government Elections 1920

The Local Government Elections in Wicklow’s Kilmantin Ward saw William O’ Grady and colleague John Byrne take two of the nine seats. Colleague C. M. Byrne was elected for the Abbey Ward along with James Middleton and Peter Byrne. In April William was amongst those attending a March of 1,000 people who marched to the Market Square behind two Sinn Fein Tricolour flags and a Banner reading: ‘The Workers of Wicklow.’ This event became known as the ‘Down tools day.’ In June William along with other Councillors in town protested at the reckless speed and manner in which military vehicles tore up and down the streets. Further election success followed for Sinn Fein in the County Council elections. At their first meeting they pledged allegiance to Dail Eireann. At the next meeting there was some excitement as ‘on the run’ C. M. Byrne of Glenealy, was warmly greeted as he put in an appearance. The ballot box and the gun went hand in hand. Raids and house searches increased by July and the home of William O’ Grady, was as usual, one of their targets.

By August William put forward a list of Irish Street names which he proposed should replace the Anglo street names throughout the town. The motion was passed and a Committee formed to progress this and cost the project. Arthur Fitzpatrick was arrested and placed in Wicklow Gaol before transfer to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.

Black and Tans

In October of 1920, the Black and Tans who had arrived in town the previous month raided the Sinn Fein Hall and caused a considerable amount of damage. Fearful locals could only look on. In December William O’ Grady was under arrest once again and lodged in Wicklow Gaol. This was the month when P. J. Noonan, I. R. A. Intelligence Officer, was arrested and lodged in Wicklow Gaol. He had previously heard of two men, both wearing the Irish language Fainne pin, making contact with his colleagues. This was an acknowledged era of spying and counter spying, betrayal and arrest. In Wicklow Gaol he finally encountered what he termed one of these: ‘agent provocateurs.’ This man was with William O’ Grady and John Byrne as they were brought under escort into Wicklow Gaol, the Fainne pin easily recognised. He would later write: ‘ I became suspicious of this man, and we held no communication.’ When Noonan was being removed from his cell on transfer to Mountjoy Jail, he identified the second ‘agent provocateur who was ‘walking with an officer.’ Noonan revealed that the body of this spy was later found in a field. Danger was everywhere for the revolutionaries and their adversaries.

The arrival of the Black and Tans and their raid on his home was something very different to the R.I.C. This was a new brutal force intent on the harsh pacification of the local insurgents and their sympathisers. The raid on the home of William O’Grady and other arrests by the Black and Tans heralded a new and dangerous era for Wicklow Town and district. The raid made the local newspaper, the Wicklow People and led to questions being raised in the House of Commons in England. The main question being asked and put forward was the raids and subsequent arrests were not carried out by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary but by others, members of a different force with such powers conferred upon them.

‘Action’ revolutionaries

Well known ‘action’ revolutionaries of the time from Wicklow and district attended seditious meetings in the O’Grady home. One of these was Mr. William Kennedy of New Street, Wicklow, and brother in law of revolutionary Arthur Fitzpatrick. He was a member of the Irish National Foresters Brass Band ‘and during the Anglo Irish War was one of the most useful members of the Sinn Fein and Volunteers, for, like all the other members of the family he was heart and soul in the movements of those days, and rendered much valuable service to the Volunteers.’ William Kennedy, son of J. Kennedy, died in February of 1928 after a prolonged illness.

Sinn Fein Dances

It was not all about conflict and fighting – William O’Grady and his fellow revolutionaries were very active in the Wicklow Sinn Fein Club and organised dances in their clubroom on Sunday nights. Mr. L. Daly and the above mentioned A. (Arthur) Fitzpatrick acted as M.C.s. Fundraising, donations and subscriptions kept the movement in much needed funds. The Club was called Major McBride Sinn Fein Club and they held their A.G.M. there in January 1918: ‘The Chair was taken by the President Mr. Wm. O’ Grady and there were close on a hundred members present. William was re-elected President. Other local officers elected were James Brennan, L. Byrne, W. J. Cardin, J. Kilcoyne, John Byrne and J. Smullen. Sinn Fein held a public meeting in Greenane in February advocating for Sinn Fein and set up a club there joining others already formed. William O’ Grady spoke at a Sinn Fein Rally in Barndarrig.

Arrest of Tom Cullen

There were days of conflict involved and this escalated with the arrest of Thomas Cullen, Abbey Street, Wicklow on a charge of illegal drilling on April 7th. Tom was the organiser of the Volunteers for the county as well as Commandant of the Wicklow Company of the I. R. A. (Some units around the county were very active while other units were not so, for example the Roundwood Company, who were said to have made up for this by the shooting of the R.I.C. Constable, on the Murrough, Wicklow.)

Tom Cullen was arrested for illegal drilling by the R. I. C. having left Mass. He was then taken to a special court for trial, found guilty and sentenced to six months. A large crowd of supporters and sympathisers had invaded the court. Cullen stated; ‘I do not recognise the court, it is only a farce.’ Constables were assaulted as Cullen was led from court, by male and female onlookers, Tom having said: ‘I haven’t a dog’s respect for it.’ The Resident Magistrate W. M. Sullivan replied to Tom: ‘We will see you again Tom, when the six months are up.’ Tom then stated: ‘The Germans will be here before then.’ The police had a tough job removing Tom and getting free of the crowd. By this time Sinn Fein flags were flying, including at O’Grady’s house and at the head of the crowd which followed them to the R.I.C. barracks at Church Street.

Baton charge

A mob of 400 had gathered by noon as the police were removing Tom Cullen to the train station. Things were turning ugly. Stones and sticks were used and there was a baton charge. In the middle of the fray was William O’Grady, playing his part in trying to release his commander. The crowd followed the police and Tom to the train station at Wicklow, they invaded the platform and threatened the train driver and fireman. Windows were broken and air brakes cut. The Volunteers present tried to restore order and a standoff ensued. Soon Cullen was rescued by the mob but was retaken at Brickfield Lane. Constables were assaulted and not compensated for years afterwards. The police and the prisoner were then taken back to the Barracks which came under attack. A special train was sent to Wicklow and was packed with soldiers, the crowd were unafraid and jeered and cat-called the soldiers, one being struck across the face by a woman. The soldiers eventually, with police aid, got Tom Cullen on a train to Dublin which arrived at 9.15p.m.

Trouble would soon follow for some of the crowd present. Men went on the run and evaded capture, some as far as England. William O’Grady was one of those evading capture and keeping his head down. One could excuse his absence from the big Wednesday night event but he did attend the large anti-Conscription meeting in the Market Square, many groups, bands and organisations did attend as well as the police. William O’Grady was one of those who spoke from the Courthouse steps and he declared: ‘a threat and a challenge had been hurled against us. A certain distinguished gentleman called Oliver Cromwell had used a similar threat when he told the Irish people to go to hell or Connaught. Those who attended from the country were escorted to the outskirts of the town after the meeting by locals and Volunteers.

William also travelled to the village of Rathnew and spoke to the crowd gathered there for an anti-Conscription meeting. At the Wicklow Borough Court at the May 1918 sitting, the R.I.C. claimed £12.00 compensation for damage to the Barracks during the Cullen arrest. The Court refused the summons to the police. Time had run out for William O’Grady and four of his comrades as they were swept up in a swoop made by the police early on a Wednesday morning in May 1918. The police were armed entering the houses at 5 a.m. They were all lodged in Wicklow Gaol under a heavy guard while searches continued for others not at home. A large body of police marched to the Market Square as more trouble was expected and a crowd of locals threw out boos, jeers and cat-calls.

Unlawful assembly

The prisoners were charged with unlawful assembly and unlawful disturbance of the public peace, assault of the police and instilling ‘terror and alarm of His Majesty’s quiet and peaceable subjects. As it turned out there was no peace in court that day either. There was a huge cheer from the locals assembled as the prisoners went to the dock. The Chairman adjourned proceedings so the court could be cleared of “rabble rousers”. The police were instructed to keep everybody out of the court. Mrs O’Grady was not willing to leave the court: ‘wife of one of the prisoners, refused to go and was forcibly ejected by a couple of police.’ The events of the arrest of Tom Cullen and the aftermath were outlined to the court when order was restored.

William O’ Grady was the subject of contradiction in his behaviour that day. One witness declared: ‘I saw him at one time telling the crowd to conduct themselves.’ Constable McGuinness stated: ‘I saw O’Grady striking Constable Griffin on the hand with the wooden portion of a golf stick – excepting O’Grady, I did not see any of the other prisoners use violence.’ Constable Griffin stated: ‘Some of the crowd endeavoured to break through the police, amongst the number being William O’Grady. In trying to keep the crowd back with drawn batons, O’Grady struck me a violent blow on the left hand with a golf stick. The stick was coming on my head and I put up my hand to save myself.’ Sgt. Jones testified that he did not see O’Grady do anything while questioned by Mr. McCarroll for the defence, who then asked him: ‘Is it a fact that O’Grady in the main kept the crowd back?’ The Sergeant replied: ‘At the Brickfield Lane he did.’ Constable McCormack testified that he did not see O’Grady do anything. Mr. McCarroll stated: ‘No overt acts were really proved against anybody in the case except Mr. O’Grady, and there was evidence that at Church Hill he was active in keeping the crowd back which was to his credit.’ When the Magistrates retired to consider their verdict after hearing the case, they returned with a verdict that all the defendants were guilty even though the Magistrates recognised that four of the prisoners had no overt act proved against them, they were guilty of unlawful assembly. William O’Grady had taken part in a violent affray but had helped at one point in the restoration of order. Therefore, all five went to Mountjoy prison for two months and time served they would have to enter into reconnaissance for future good behaviour. The house raids and arrests continued but only one was successful by May 18th, the apprehension of the Caretaker of the Sinn Fein Club, James Smullen on the Murrough. He was remanded in custody, charged with unlawful assembly. His riotous and disorderly conduct earned him two months in prison with two sureties for future good behaviour: ‘Smullen was subsequently removed by motor to Dublin. At the Wicklow Quarter Sessions in June of 1918, damages were awarded for the broken windows in the police Barracks on Church Street: ‘£12 compensation was awarded to be levied off the Urban District of Wicklow.’ Arrested in July 1918 for unlawful Assembly the previous April were William Goodman, Castle Street and John Byrne of The Mall. They were brought to the Barracks to appear before a special court. As fugitives on the run they were not granted bail and were remanded to prison in Dublin for trial at the next Petty Sessions.


Thomas Dunne of High Street was also arrested and all three appeared in court in August. John Byrne was sent to jail for four months with hard labour and to later provide sureties for his future good behaviour. William Goodman went to the cells for three months and he had to find the same bail. Dunne went down for two months and he had to find the same bail. The next to be arrested in August was sailor William Hanlon in Garston ‘by going to sea evaded arrest in the meantime.’ This was far from the first time that political and on the run rebels had taken to the sea. In 1798 one man had hidden in the Royal Navy for five years under an assumed name. Within a week William’s brother Michael Hanlon was arrested in Greenock: ‘It is probable both will be tried at a Special Court under the Crimes Act at Wicklow.’ The brothers were brought to Bray under a heavy armed escort and were placed in remand to Mountjoy, joining William O’ Grady and other comrades. Michael was also a sailor who had run for the cover of the sea. They had crossed the Atlantic while on the run: ‘both are fine specimens of manhood and were members of G.A.A. football clubs in Wicklow. William Hanlon is perhaps the best handball player in Co. Wicklow.’ They were both tried at Bray and found guilty. They were sentenced to two months of hard labour and give financial guarantees for their future good conduct, keep the peace for a year or serve another month.

Primary sources:

Thank you to the County Librarian, County Library and Staff, Boghall Road, Bray.

Courtesy of the Director of the National Library, Kildare Street, Dublin.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, February 25th, 1928.

The Wicklow People newspaper, Saturday, January 11th, 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, February 23rd, 1918

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, April 20th, 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, April 27th, 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, May 11th, 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, May 18th, 1918.

The Wicklow People, Saturday, May 25th, 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday June 22nd, 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, July 27th, 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, August 3rd, 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, August 31st 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, September 7th 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, September 14th 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, September 21st 1918.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, January 18th 1919.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday March 22nd 1919.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, April 20th 1919.

The Wicklow People Newspaper, Saturday, June 4th, 1955

Secondary Sources:

Wicklow Historical Society Journal (hereafter listed as WHSJ.) Vol. 5. No. 4. 2017. Life in Wicklow a Century Ago by John Finlay.

WHSJ Vol. 1. No. 6. July 1993. Wicklow Rejects Home Rule for a Republic by John Finlay.

WHSJ Vol. 1. No. 7. July1994. ‘

WHSJ Vol. 2. No. 1-No. 3. 1995-1998, 2000, 2001, 2002 Vol. 3. No. 1. 2003 Vol. 3 No. 2. Vol.3. No. 4 2005.  2008 Vol3. No. 7.

WHSJ. Vol. 2. No. 7. June 2001. British Spy System 1920-21. Intelligence Chief’s Revelations – Incident in Co. Wicklow Recounted by P. J. Noonan.

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