Brave, cunning and a little bit hilarious: Castlegar Volunteers pre-1916

At the start of the year, NUIG history lecturer Dr Mary Harris advised her students to consult the Bureau of Military History website because they had just recently published ‘witness statements’ given by participants in the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. I’m glad I heeded her advice. I always knew my grandfather was involved in the IRA in the general Galway are, but I really didn’t know what to expect. Unbeknownst to me, he had been the Captain of the Castlegar Flying Column, and had a fairly interesting story to tell.

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The statement was like nothing I expected. While we all have a nodding, ‘Wind that Shakes the Barley’ acquaintance with this era, we never really give much thought to logistics, the on-the-ground details, the ins-and-outs of running a revolutionary war. Molloy’s statement is, for want of a better word, humorous. He recounts many entertaining circumstances  that are ‘worthy of special mention’, to use his own words. Some of the tactics and guises used by the Volunteers to subvert the RIC constables and detectives who were watching them constantly at the time, were cunning and hilarious in equal measure.

If there’s anything I learned from Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins biopic, it’s that the Volunteers had an awfully difficult time laying their hands on any guns. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when Molloy divulged that, after ‘no help came from Germany’, they resorted to commissioning local smithy and Volunteer Lieutenant, Mick Newell, to make iron pike heads for the insurgency. Making them was all well and good, but smuggling them as far as HQ with RIC constables snapping at your heels was another story entirely.

The plan was to stuff the pike heads into the lining under a man named O’ Draighneáin’s car cushions. Molloy recalls three constables arriving to search the forge just as the car was swinging around to leave. O’ Draighneáin honked his horn three times at the RIC men, and when they approached he proceeded to pull off a stunt that wouldn’t be out of place in many a Hollywood thriller. He beckoned the men closer and said: ‘Do you know that you are wasting your time? You are speaking to Captain Grant from Dublin Castle. I have already searched these premises.’ He then took off down the road while the constables dutifully marched back to their barracks.

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The Volunteers were presented with another opportunity to make use of their cunning in 1915. Word filtered through to Molloy that Galway-based IRB Commander, A. Monahan, was to be arrested from his ‘digs’ (the word used in the statement, I kid you not), and needed to be rescued. A plan was once again devised, possibly more brilliant than the last. Local priest Father Feeney, and Volunteer Pat O’ Dea were to be involved in Monahan’s ‘exfiltration’ from the house. O’ Dea was given a priest’s suit and the two men cycled into town and entered Monahan’s place of residence on St Francis Street. To the watching RIC men, it seemed that the same two priests emerged from the house again after a short while. But what they didn’t notice was that O’ Dea remained in the house, while Monahan stole out disguised as a priest.

Reading statements like these is something I would advise everyone to do. They help to give faces and voices to the most turbulent period in our  island’s history. I could have bored you and recounted everything you already know. Yes, the Volunteers ambushed convoys, raided police barracks and  went ‘on the run’ to escape the authorities when they were carrying a bit of heat. You already knew all of that, so where’s the harm in knowing a bit more? Visit http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie.

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