When Padraig Pearse stood outside the G.P.O. in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916 and read the Proclamation of Independence, ‘a terrible beauty’ was indeed born. The effects of the Easter Rising would be felt for generations afterwards. The Easter Rising would be followed by the War of Independence and the Civil War which would impact upon every section of Irish society. The global conflict which was World War 1 was two years old at this time and would continue for another two bloody years. The effects of the Easter Rising impacted heavily upon the Co. Wicklow soldiers serving in the trenches. They served out of loyalty and to revenge Catholic Belgium. They served to guarantee the freedom of small nations from the aggression of Germany and her allies. They served to achieve the promise of Home Rule for Ireland, suspended for the duration of the war but, mainly, for many, they served because it was a living and a guaranteed wage packet.
Easter 1916 and its Aftermath
The Easter Rising was a stab in the back for many of these men and in Parliament it was condemned as ‘a German move.’ This was hardly surprising as many of the rebel weapons had been sourced in Germany. For the rebels it was truly a case of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ On Good Friday 1916 Roger Casement was landed from the German U-Boat U. 19 on a Kerry beach and was captured. He had planned to link up with the Irish Republican Brotherhood to organise the landing of 20,000 German weapons from the ill fated ‘Aud.’
The rebels of 1916 believed that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity and that the time was ripe to spread an armed uprising across the country. For the soldiers of Co. Wicklow in the trenches, the aftermath of the Rising was a time of worry, for many believed that they would not now be trusted and they believed that they were viewed with suspicion by their commanders, they were not wrong. News of the Rising was quick to reach Wicklow and the actions of the rebels were condemned by many of the citizens, especially by those with sons or brothers serving at the front or in the Royal Navy. A small group of Nationalist activists welcomed the outbreak. In nearby Rathnew the rebels were condemned in equal measure, if not more so than they had been by the citizens of Dublin. The village would in the aftermath of the Rising and the Great War become more insular and inward looking in consequence of the changes brought about by the Rising and the events which followed. The separate and distinct identity of the village would become more important to the villagers. The Rathnew Brickworks had closed down and a few men had found employment in the Kynocks Munitions Factory in Arklow, there was at least a living to be gained in war. The men who survived the war returned to a changed society. Time, in one way, had stood still for them in the trenches but life had changed completely at home. The great sense of pride and patriotism in their efforts, as outlined during the war years by the Wicklow Newsletter and Wicklow People Newspapers, had been replaced by the events of the time at home and the silence of a group apart, a separateness and an insularity that was akin to that of the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion. The old saying ‘who fears to speak of 98’ for ex soldiers became ‘who fears to speak of service in the Great War.’
They were out in the cold. It is only in the past couple of decades that their efforts are once again being recognised and appreciated and they are coming in from the cold. It has been said that the last group yet to come in from the cold are the old Royal Irish Constabulary but, one must not forget the Coastguards as well. Once regarded as the enemy and the target of attacks during the War of Independence, they too served at the front from the early months of the Great War as outlined by the Wicklow People of August 1914: ‘Coastguards of Bray, Kingstown, Ringsend and Howth have been called to Portsmouth, leaving only one or two in each station. The Coastguards of Bray and Greystones left on Thursday morning – they all carried their rifles, bayonets, revolvers, bandoliers and brought other accoutrements in service boxes.’ The absence of armed Coastguards greatly facilitated the Kilcoole Gun Runners. They landed 600 German Mauser 71 single shot rifles and 20,000 rounds of ammunition. They were hidden at St. Enda’s, Padraig Pearse’s school in Rathfarnham.
By 1916 the Old Gaol in Wicklow had been offered to house German prisoners of war or ‘cultured animals’ as they were christened and the Murrough had also been offered to the War Office for the building of a concentration camp by Wicklow Urban Council. A large meeting had been held in the Town Hall Wicklow by the local Volunteers who had discussed the German Naval High Command reducing Wicklow to atoms in mere seconds from the sea and launching a seaborne invasion of the town ‘to take the pennies out of our pockets.’ Why Wicklow was such a strategic target was not explained nor why an invasion would be launched on the loose change in the town. The town coped as best it could with wartime restrictions in 1916 and things would get worse before the war was over. Petrol rationing meant a return to foot or pedal power and the horse and cart regained their popularity for a time. Wicklow citizens walked, cycled or travelled to dances and football matches by whatever means possible. Life continued for the citizens who thronged to the Wicklow Races and the Wicklow Regatta. Trade in the port was up with imports of coal and wheat and the new motor tax was introduced. Crowds of people flocked to the beach with buckets to gather the coal that was washing up from the wreck of the ‘Trifylia,’ whose anchor can be seen at the Black Castle to this day. The vessel had a cargo of 2,000 tons of coal. There was trouble in the district too with a streaker at Tighe’s Avenue and indecent and riotous conduct on the streets of the town.
There was trouble in the district too with a streaker at Tighe’s Avenue and indecent and riotous conduct on the streets of the town.
Bigger fines were called for. The men of the R.I.C. policed the town and had stations in nearby Rathnew and Ashford up to 1924. In the aftermath of the Rising they were increasingly active in setting up roadblocks, searching vehicles and raiding suspect properties backed up by regular soldiers. Gunfire and conflict on the streets of Wicklow were not too far in the future. The Constables also checked the Aliens Registers of the hotels in the county, always alert for German spies. The Aliens Register for the Wicklow House Hotel, which was situated in the Market Square of Wicklow, lists more visitors and commercial travellers details from 1914 to 1918 than that of the 1939-45 war. No one was above suspicion, even a tramp appeared at the Wicklow Petty Sessions accused of being a German spy, he stated: ‘I was singing songs in praise of our soldiers at the front; a crowd got round me and bawled out ‘he is a German spy-kick him boys.’ The Constables heard about the incident and arrested the hapless tramp as a result. In nearby Arklow men had been speaking in a foreign language in a local pub, they were manhandled to the Arklow Barracks and denounced as German spies. They were in fact sailors from Norway, from a boat in the harbour.
Rathnew village emptied almost completely of men of serviceable age, a great number of whom were followers of John Redmond, signed up to fight at the front. It was recorded in The Wicklow Newsletter Newspaper: ‘There will be no county in the United Kingdom so justly proud as the County of Wicklow, for in it there is the village of Rathnew, where the slogan did not sound in vain, and where the throb of War was felt by one and all.’ This was a very true statement as Rathnew men had a strong fighting tradition, from the 1798 Rebellion, the Spanish American War, the Boer War, to the Great War. ‘Today almost every man there has answered his country’s call and joined in the fight, showing that the terrors of the battlefield have only joys for them and the music of battle is the music for Rathnew.’ In the 1916 Roll of Honour for the village, a long list of names was published with many listed as killed, wounded, prisoners of war, discharged on medical grounds and gassed. One man had five sons and a son- in-law serving, Mr. P. Jameson was congratulated in a letter from the King. ‘Rathnew again! Rathnew every time! The old Gaelic war cry repeated under different circumstances,’ (to the football field.)
The list for the Newtownmountkennedy Roll of Honour 1916, was no different listing six Kelly brothers serving along with several fathers and sons, and a light enough casualty listing, up to March of that year. Private Edward Kelly was listed as ‘killed at the beginning of the war.’ The Wicklow Parish Church Roll of Honour also listed the Killed, wounded, prisoners of war, the invalided and Private Isaac Langrell, one of many smuggled across German lines by the famous Nurse Cavell, executed by a German firing squad for doing so.
Those winning the Military Cross in 1916 included Corporal Thomas Marah of Rathnew. Corporal Marah: ‘ran out telephone wires and repaired them under shellfire.’ Sergeant Major P. Kearney of Wicklow also won the M.C. Private Patrick Sullivan returned from the Dardanelles on leave to Rathnew. He had met many Rathnew men there and formed a part of the burial party for Private Cullen: ‘one of three brothers who were from ‘near Wicklow.’
Names such as Verdun and The Somme still resonate today as the scenes of the bloodiest conflicts ever to take place on the planet. They were the biggest actions at the front in 1916. Along the entire Western Front there are more than 700 Commonwealth graveyards alone. Some with 60% of the headstones carrying a simple inscription denoting a soldier of Great War, with no name attached. Some 60,000 Commonwealth soldiers are still missing in action, lying in no man’s land. Many Co. Wicklow soldiers are among these. Chivalry in battle died with these men who were machine gunned and bombed and who faced new and terrible weapons like gas, tanks and aircraft.
Private Christopher Meegan of Ballyhad near Rathdrum was invalided home from the Dardanelles. Private George Thompson of Rathnew was released in a prisoner exchange. He had been shot in the hip by a German while lying on the ground and treated brutally in captivity, being beaten and abused. Rathnew men were still joining the colours as recruitment drives were carried out in Wicklow and in the village. John, Patrick and William Ellis, all brothers, H. Free, C. Curtis, John, Jas and Hugh Doyle all joined the Royal Dublin Fusaliers. Private Christopher Twamley never made it to the front. He was: ‘Killed undergoing training in Cork.’ Private Franey was ‘wounded in several places,’ and Private Alec Doyle was recovering from a gassing. Amongst those killed in action in 1916 were Corporal Robert Baird of Broomhall near Rathnew. Rathnew men Corporal C. Daly, Private E. Boyce, H. Smith, A. Doyle, W. Byrne, T. Jordan and Private P. Browne. Private W. Laurence of Rathdrum. Private J. Duffy and Private Kelly of Kiladreenan. Private G. Byrne and Private Burke of Newtown. Corporal W. Doonan of Bray and Private Thomas McCormack also of Bray. Private M. Doyle of Knockanna . Corporal J. Simpson of Wicklow was posted missing. Amongst the wounded were Lance Corporal J. Keogh of Wicklow and Private Carey of Bray, wounded at the Somme. Private George Doyle of Rathnew was also wounded as was H. Richardson of Magherymore. Private Thomas Byrne of Rathdrum was invalided out due to his wounds.
Life during the Great War
The horrors of warfare did not affect many traditional events at home where people did their best to live a normal life. The Corpus Christi Procession in Rathnew had been founded in 1914 before the outbreak of the war and men at the front had been prayed for the following year. The pastoral setting of the village was reflected by six priests hearing confession before the 1916 Procession in the richly decorated and clean village. At 4p.m the Wicklow Foresters Band led the Procession to the open air site where the ceremonies took place. Well over 2,000 people attended, coming from all over the county. The Wicklow contingent had marched out behind the band. The Wicklow People also reported on a speech made by Fr. Bernard Vaughan on the virtue of killing Germans.
Life after the Great War
The veterans returned home after the war to a society which was changing, they were no longer looked upon as heroes but were resented by many for what they represented and were viewed as servants of the hated British Empire. They were once again under suspicion and distrust, this time, by their own people. Many carried the wounds of battle, shrapnel and bullets still in their bodies which necessitated medical treatment for the rest of their lives. Many suffered from the as yet undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or shellshock. Some had been killed by the war and did not know it at the time. Private Jameson had been crushed between two horses at the front. He spent time in an English hospital but died of his injuries two years later at home. Private Marah, badly gassed, died as a result of the effects of this in 1931. The survivors now had to live under a veil of silence. Rathnew became an enclave for these men to meet up in. They shared memories of the war, of lost comrades and harsh experiences. They eased the psychological pressure, tension and stress of what they had been through and of living in a changing society and did so in the one place where they would not be condemned for doing so.
Rathnew as a village became more insular, the residents christened ‘shonnys,’ a reference to their being ‘servants of the English.’ This was by virtue of wearing the uniform of the British Army. The term ‘shonny’ should not be viewed as derogatory by Rathnew natives but, should be carried as a badge of honour.
Rathnew soldiers had done their duty, sacrificed their lives and had the medals and battle honours to prove it. There were also a few Nationalists active in the village. In Wicklow town the ex-servicemen had a canteen on the Murrough. This was a clubhouse where they could meet up in much the same way as in the village of Rathnew, but, they had their enemies. The canteen was blown up. It is only right that these men are now recognised for their bravery and sacrifice and can finally come in from the cold. The men of the Coastguards and the Royal Irish Constabulary should now be brought in from the cold. The men of the Constabulary had done their duty in the Great War. Many were members of the Nationalist movement at home and along with ex-servicemen joined the ranks of the new Civic Guards of the Free State to restore law and order to an Irish countryside in chaos in the wake of the War of Independence and the Civil War.