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Co. Kildare role in War of Independence

Kildare Voice July 27 2007
Spies help war effort
Kildare informers played vital role in the
War of Independence
Bonfires were lit across Kildare when news broke of the cease fire of this month in 1922.
Kildare’s volunteers had just suffered a major setback, having aborted what would have been the biggest operation of the war in the county and suffered loss of arms, equipment and men in the follow-up.
Kildare’s role in the War has generally suffered a bad press, and never quite recovered from a throwaway line in Michael Hopkinson’s seminal study of the War of Independence (2002) referring to Kildare’s “large scale inactivity.”
The picture we get is of a no-show by Kildare’s two battalions of volunteers – (one for the north of the county and one for the south) with 18 companies sitting on their hands .
They had an estimated 600 men at peak, according to Terence Dooley’s article in last year’s Kildare’s History and Society, although post ceasefire numbers swelled to more than 1,500.
Dooley’s article asks for a reassessment of the alleged Kildare no-show in the light of Kildare’s contribution to what he calls “the general mayhem of the period” in terms of “disruption of communication links and gathering of intelligence.”
Dooley’s point is that big ambushes a war do not make. Kildare didn’t do big ambushes, we had a total of six ambushes and, coincidentally six casualties.
Two RIC men were shot dead at Greenhills on August 21 1920, a third was ambushed at Maynooth on February 21 1921, two volunteers were killed in a failed ambush at Barrowhouse in May 16th 1921, and an informer was shot by the IRA on June 13 1921.
The entire war in Kildare provided fewer casualties than a bank holiday weekend of road accidents would today.
There were also more than 200 smaller incidents, tree felling end road trenching, designed to disrupt road, rail and electricity lines.
The local leadership was reprimanded by General Richard Mulcahy for sending out 55 volunteers on the one operation in Allen and headquarters was skeptical of their ability to get together a flying column, fearing Kildare would not have the discipline required. Eventually one was formed in combination with Meath and another in combination with Wicklow.
But much of Kildare’s fight for Irish freedom was low-profile and high-value stuff. Kildare hosted some of the biggest British military installations in the country (6,000 soldiers in all) and, consequently, some of the most important sources of intelligence.
Sean Kavanagh, intelligence officer for Naas and Gerry Maher, who worked for the British, passed on the cipher which enabled Michael Collins to crack the codes which the British were using in communications throughout the country.
Frank Conlan, the All Ireland medalist who worked for the railway in Newbridge, was crucial to Collins’ operation at such a secret level that his name only emerged when war medals were being distributed long after the cease-fire.
Public attention was diverted by a successful campaign to stop fox-hunting in the county in 1919, (which also prevented the Punchestown Races taking place) and the contests for the 1920 local elections, in which Sinn Fein won control of Kildare County council for the first time with 15 seats as against five for Labour and one independent.
The British engaged in low level (by their standards) intimidation, attacking Broughal’s pub in Kill, burning homes of political and community activists and (most spectacularly) a bookshop in Naas, disrupting economic and social life by preventing the market being held in Athy, blocking sports events and even raiding the Farmer’s Ball.
That said, it was a time of fear. According to the Kildare Observer the entire civilian population of Maynooth staged “an almost complete evacuation of the town” when a curfew was imposed in Spring 1921.
Kildare volunteers had been badly hit by arrests within two months of the war breaking out. he adjutant general in Dublin reported in December 1920, a year into the campaign, that “all the battalion officers whose names we have been arrested and I don’t know who is in charge.” They included South Kildare commandant Tom Harris and Vice Commandant Art Doran.
After April 1921 actions were increased. The volunteers were ordered to step up the trenching of roads and felling of trees to harass troops moving around the county.
It was to the most important communication line of all that attention turned in July 1921 as the war was drawing to a conclusion.
The Meath/Kildare Flying Column led by Paddy Mulally planned to ambush a troop train at Stacumny, with local support which included Matt Gough, who recently had the Leixlip bridge named in his honour.
According to Ernie O’Malley’s diaries in UCD, Mulally told him that Michael Collins had ordered the operation. Houses were commandeered, trees were cut down and roads trenched and a Thompson Gunner was brought down from Dublin.
The big finish to the war in Kildare was a disaster. Before the train arrived, the volunteers were surprised by a routine patrol of Black and Tans in a Crossly tender.
They were unaware of the volunteers' presence until one volunteer fired a shot at them. They raised the alarm and in the ensuing firefight several volunteers were wounded and captured. Some of the homesteads around Stacumny still bear the bullet holes to this day.
Local volunteer Jack O'Connor escaped was later arrested.
None of them spent long behind barbed wire. Six days later the truce was declared. There were bonfires all over Kildare.
By mid-July, according to James Dorney’s One the One Road, prisoners were being released at a rate of two a day from the internment camp at Rath. They included Tom Harris who became Officer Commanding of an ex-internee association on the start of a career that was to take him to a lifetime in politics.
Soon the green uniforms were everywhere as Republican police went on duty across the county. The IRA secured an office in the Naas Town Hall. The Dail met in public session and a Celbridge man Art O'Connor was re-appointed Minister for Agriculture in the government, able to perform its duties in public for the first time.
It was an end and a beginning.
James Dorney: On the One Road (2002)
Terence Dooley: IRA Activity in Kildare During the war of Independence in Kildare History and Society (Geography publications, 2006)
Key dates
1921 August 21 Ambujsh at greenhills results in deaths of two RIC men
1921 Fedbruary 21st Ambush at Pike bridge maynooth results in death of RIC man
1921 may 16th failed ambush at Barrowhouse results in death of two volunteers,
1921 June 13 alleged informer was shot by the IRA
1921 July 5 Stacumny ambush failed, no casualties
1921 July 11 Truce declared
1921 Dec 6 Treaty signed in London

From the his column in The Kildare Voice of 27 July 2007, Eoghan Corry examines the role of County Kildare in the War of Independence. Our thanks to Eoghan

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