By Ronnie O'Gorman of The Galway Advertiser
with help from a well researched article by
Una Newell published in the current Galway
Archaeological and Historical Society
On St Patrick's Day 1916, in an effort to demonstrate their strength, more than 600 Volunteers, displaying Sinn Fein badges and carrying guns and pikes, marched through Galway town. It is believed there were about 2,000 volunteers in the area, but for a number of reasons (some fearing identification by the police), they did not reveal themselves in public. Still, 600 was a formidable force.
The parade passed off peacefully, except for a number of Volunteers from Gort and Athenry who when boarding the train on their way home shouted:. "Up Sinn Fein", and fired shots out of the railway carriage window as the train pulled away.
If the police were in any doubt as to the strength, discipline and aim of the Volunteers up to that point, they were now alarmed. A police report noted: `Sinn Fein is spreading in a very dangerous manner.'
Liam Mellows, a slight, fair haired, man, with an English accent (he was born in Manchester, but spent most of his childhood in Wexford), had arrived from Dublin the previous spring to organise the Volunteers in County Galway. He was only 24, totally dedicated to the cause, and a strict disciplinarian. His father and grandfather were British army officers.
He was highly regarded by his Dublin colleagues as a man who got things done. But as he stood before the Galway Volunteers on his first night, few believed he was the right man for the job. That was quickly to change. Proinsias ? hEidhin later described Mellow's deceptive appearance:
"I thought when I first met him that he was only a delicate little chap who was very enthusiastic about the movement and who might be able to give a very fine lecture on patriotism or even how to fight, but no more. I very soon found out my mistake. He addressed our company the first night he came down, and told us that we're to prepare for a very hard week's work. We felt half inclined to smile at the little chap from Dublin talking to us about hard work, but it was the only occasion we felt that way inclined."
It was not all harmony among the Galway Volunteers. Tom Kenny, a blacksmith in Craughwell, a powerful and influential leader of a number of radical republican and agrarian secret societies, and one of the founders of the Galway Volunteers, was not offered the leadership in the run up to the Rising. Whatever about Kenny's political dedication (he was driven by the prospect of the redistribution of land from the big estates to the small tenant farmer), he did not have Mellows' ability in military organisation, and arms. It was a bitter pill for Kenny to swallow.
Mellows' leadership skills, however, were such that despite the scarcity of proper weapons, the Galway Volunteers were drilled into a united, and a reasonable, fighting force. A soldier?s discipline, and a knowledge of drill and arms now existed among the Volunteers. There would be no more shooting from a carriage window as a train pulled out of the station!
Mellows, always under police surveillance, was arrested in March 1916 and deported to England. This was a serious blow to the planned Rising in the west. Immediately his brother Barney and James Connolly's daughter Nora crossed to Staffordshire. Barney changed places with Liam who then escaped to Dublin, via Glasgow and Belfast, disguised as a priest. He was back at his headquarters at Killeeneen, east Galway, for Easter.
While he was away Alfie Monaghan, a fluent Irish speaker from Belfast, took over the training of the men.
Monaghan's movements were closely monitored by the police, but he managed to interact with students and staff at the university. Support was growing. George Nicholls, the town's coroner and a well know solicitor joined the cause, as well as Tom Kenny (who went along with ?good grace'), and Pat Callanan from Craughwell, Tom Ruane and Brian Molloy in Carnmore, Lawrence Lardner (commanding officer), Sean Broderick, Mattie Niland, Frank Hynes, Pat Fahy and Stephen Jordan in Athenry, Eamonn Corbett from Killeeneen, Bryan Cusack (medical student), and many others including a swathe of young men, at least 60, from the parish of Castlegar. Several young curates were attracted to the Volunteers, notably Fr Wiliam O'Meehan, Kinvara, and Fr Harry Feeney of Clarinbridge.
Despite contradictory and confusing orders from Dublin on Easter Monday 1916, once Mellows heard that Padraic Pearse and others had seized the moment, and were occupying strategic buildings in the capital, he immediately ordered the Galway Volunteers into action. He must have known that the cause was lost before it began. The promised weapons, coming from Germany to the Kerry shore on board the Aud with Roger Casement, were lost, and Casement captured. Mellows' men had only a few rifles, shotguns and pikes, many had no weapons at all.
Nevertheless Galway was the only centre in the country to come out in support of the Dublin Rising. The local Volunteers cut rail and telegraph lines, blocked roads, attacked Clarinbridge and Athenry police barracks (in the hope of securing arms), and occupied the village of Oranmore until troops arrived from Galway. Mellows, with a small party, covered the withdrawal.
Athenry was reinforced by 200 extra constabulary. There was a skirmish at Carnmore, where RIC constable Whelan was shot dead, and District Inspector Herd was wounded.
By now the British administration had swung into action. A large number of soldiers had landed in Galway from the sea, and were converging on the east of the county. The naval gunboat the HMS Gloucester began shelling into the fields around Athenry. The Volunteers had gathered at Moyode Castle, about five miles from Athenry, to access their situation. After intensive debate, and only three days following their mobilisation, the Galway Volunteers decided to disband. Militarily their situation was hopeless. Mellows wanted to fight on as a guerrilla force, yet the opinion of the majority was to disband. Mellows accepted the decision and agreed. Tom Kenny was furious. He described Mellows as a coward, and an ?inept political leader'. "Fair-headed Bill, you are good for nothing only drinking tea at Walshes of Killeeneen."
"We had hardly any guns or ammunition," Mellows later remarked, "I had to send many of them home. I never knew the blackness of despair until then."
There was an intensive manhunt for Mellows in the months that followed. But by Christmas 1916, he escaped to America on board a British munitions ship sailing from Liverpool.