TERROR ON THE SHORT GRASS

by jdurney on October 24, 2012

Terror on the short-grass – Kildare’s violent history highlighted in new book

Terror. Look at that word again. Terror. Even reading it sends a chill down the spine. It is a word which signifies fear, worry and disruption. It’s also a word which has found a new significance in the modern lexicon. “Terrorism” is a preoccupation of society today.  The catastrophe of 9/11 in New York carried all the hallmarks of terrorism writ large … an assault of great violence bringing death to a civilian population well removed from any frontline in the conventional sense.
Terrorism is nothing new to Ireland and the story of the country is blighted with periods when guns and bombs drowned out pleas for calm and peace. One such blighted period is known euphemistically as “the Troubles”, the years from 1916-23.  Beginning with the Easter Rising in 1916, continuing through the War of Independence 1919-23 and concluding with the Civil War 1922-23, the narrative of killing, burnings, fear and intimidation triggers controversy into modern times.  A number of stand-out events – the Bloody Sunday killings of British intelligence personnel (and others) in Dublin in November 1920, the Kilmichael ambush in Co. Cork the same month, and the killings of civilians in west Cork, remain sharply contested subjects among professional historians .
A new book published by Lilliput press entitled “Terror in Ireland 1916-23” will add to the perspectives in this debate. Edited by Dr. David Fitzpatrick of the Trinity College History Workshop – noted for its ground-breaking study some years back of Irish men in the First World War – the book comprises meticulously researched chapters by an array of well-regarded historians who draw on new sources of information.
It is perhaps a surprise to find Co. Kildare featuring in a book on terror in Ireland – the short-grass county is generally regarded as having been by-passed by the more aggressive phases of the War of Independence and of the Civil War. However as contributor Anne Dolan points out such an analysis is to ignore the reality of terror and it’s impact on peoples’ lives.  The fear of violence, albeit taking place in another part of the country, is enough to enforce change in peoples’ behaviour and attitudes. And what might be referred to as low-level terrorism – the kind of activity seen in Co. Kildare such as  trenching roads, burning country houses, and robbing post offices – is sufficiently alarming to make people recoil with fear. 
The essay on “Revolution and Terror in Kildare 1916-23” has been written by Michael Murphy who is from Laragh, between Maynooth and Kilcock, and who as a young TCD graduate takes his place in the new publication in the company of eminent scholars of the period.
He sets the context for his study on Kildare during “the Troubles” by looking at contradictory phenomena in the county’s social and military history. Kildare had been in the van of the 1798 rising while in 1803 many Kildare rebels joined in Robert Emmett’s futile uprising in Dublin. He writes that “In the later nineteenth century the IRB developed strongly throughout the country. John Devoy from Kill was the chief Kildare conspirator, subsequently dominating a sister organisation in the United States (Clan na Gael)”.
As the 19th century progressed revolutionary ideals receded and were overtaken by a practical politics in which the considerable advantages of being part of the United Kingdom and its Empire were to the fore. This was particularly evident in Kildare where between barracks in the Curragh, Naas, Newbridge and Kildare there was a huge concentration of British Army personnel in the county. This brought an economic trade-off to the mid-Kildare towns which had the effect of normalising the British presence in the area.
When trouble erupted in early 1919 violence returned to County Kildare on a scale which might surprise those who assume that everything happened in west Cork – as Michael Murphy writes: “Despite the constraint imposed by economic self-interest, Kildare’s Sinn Féiners Volunteers contributed … sometimes violently to the campaign for independence after 1919.” As in other parts the brunt of the violence was borne by the constables of the Royal Irish Constabulary – most of whom were Irish and Catholic. One of the first Kildare atrocities was the killing of Sergeant John Hughes, in February 1920, while on patrol in Maynooth town. The RIC remained a target in the following months and Michael Murphy’s research has identified attacks on RIC stations in Leixlip, Sallins, Athy, Castledermot and Ballymore Eustace. In August of that year two RIC men were killed in an IRA ambush near Kill; this triggered a rampage by the “Black and Tans” who swept into Naas shooting and setting fire to Boushell’s shoe shop. The author quotes the Leinster Leader editorial printed some days after which epitomised the concept of terror: “But who can adequately picture the agonised hours of terror passed by families while … bullets flew in every direction, amid the sound of breaking glass …?”
Michael Murphy goes on to trace the legacy of violence in Kildare in the Civil War where the county –although again relatively quiet – experienced the single deadliest incident when in November 1922 seven Anti-Treaty men were found by Free State forces in a dug-out near Moore’s Bridge on the Curragh, west of the racecourse and were subsequently executed.
However there was only so much that the public could bear in terms of the fear of violence and in the elections held in 1922 and 1923 the Kildare electorate largely shunned the Anti-Treaty side. As Michael Murphy concludes: “Having sustained a bloody and costly struggle against British Rule, ordinary citizens craved a lasting peace and demanded an end to terrorism when directed against an Irish State.” 
For a thought-provoking read on some of the most controversial happenings in the story of modern Ireland “Terrorism in Ireland” published by Lilliput Press and edited by Dr. David Fitzpatrick is worth seeking out. Series no: 279.

Liam Kenny reviews “Terror in Ireland 1916-23” edited by Dr. David Fitzpatrick of the Trinity College History Workshop, which includes an essay  “Revolution and Terror in Kildare 1916-23”  written by Michael Murphy, from Laragh.

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