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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Siege of Derry Begins

siege-of-derryThe Siege of Derry, the first major event in the Williamite War in Ireland, begins on April 18, 1689. The siege lasts nearly three and a half months, ending on July 30, 1689 when relief ships bringing the English Army sail down Lough Foyle.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 is a relatively bloodless revolution in which James II, King of England, Ireland and Scotland and a Roman Catholic convert, is ousted from power by the Parliament of England. The English throne is then offered to his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William III of England, also known as William of Orange. In Scotland, the privy council asks William III to assume responsibility for the government in January 1689, and he and Mary are formally offered the Scottish throne in March. The situation is different in Ireland where most of the population are Catholics. Irish Catholics are hoping that James will re-grant them lands, which had been seized from them after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649–53). James thus looks to Ireland to muster support in regaining his kingdoms just as his father, Charles I, had done in the English Civil War of the 1640s.

On December 10, James flees London. He is caught but flees a second time on December 23 and makes his way to France. On March 12, James I lands in Kinsale with 6,000 French soldiers. He takes Dublin and marches north with an army of Irish and French Catholics.

In April 1689 reinforcements from England arrive under the command of Colonel John Cunningham, who is a native of the city. He is under instructions to take his orders from the Derry City Governor, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lundy. Lundy advises Colonel Cunningham to leave as arrangements have been made for the city to be surrendered. Lundy calls a meeting with several of his most loyal supporters to discuss surrender. News of the meeting spread, angering many of the citizens. That night, Lundy and many others leave the city and board a ship to Scotland. The city’s defence is overseen by Major Henry Baker, Colonel Adam Murray, and Major George Walker, also an Anglican priest. Their slogan is “No Surrender.”

As the Jacobite army nears, all the buildings outside the city walls are set alight by the defenders to prevent them being used as cover by the besiegers.

The Jacobite army reaches Derry on April 18. James and his retinue ride to within 300 yards of Bishop’s Gate and demand the surrender of the city. He is rebuffed with shouts of “No surrender!” and some of the city’s defenders fire at him. James asks for surrender three more times but is refused each time. This marks the beginning of the siege. Cannon and mortar fire are exchanged and disease takes hold within the city. James returns to Dublin and leaves his forces under the command of Richard Hamilton.

Royal Navy warships under Admiral George Rooke arrive in Lough Foyle on June 11, but initially decline to ram through the heavily defended defensive boom across the River Foyle at Culmore.

On July 28, two armed merchant ships, Mountjoy and Phoenix, sail toward the boom, protected by the frigate HMS Dartmouth under Captain John Leake. Mountjoy rams and breaches the boom, and the ships move in, unloading many tons of food to relieve the siege. The city had endured 105 days of siege during which some 4,000 Protestants of a population of 8,000 are said to have died.

The siege is commemorated yearly by the Protestant Apprentice Boys of Derry who stage the week-long Maiden City Festival culminating in a parade around the walls of the city by local members, followed by a parade of the city by the full Association. Although violence has attended these parades in the past, those in recent years have been largely peaceful.

The song “Derry’s Walls” is written to commemorate the siege.

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The Battle of Kilrush

james-butler-earl-of-ormondeThe Battle of Kilrush, a battle at the start of the Irish Confederate Wars in Ireland, takes place on April 15, 1642, soon after the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

The battle is fought between a Royalist army under the James Butler, 12th Earl of Ormonde, and Richard Butler, 3rd Viscount Mountgarret, who leads Confederate Irish troops raised during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Ormonde and Mountgarret are cousins, both being members of the Butler dynasty.

Ormonde’s troops leave Dublin on April 2 and march unopposed from Naas to Athy and on to Maryborough, now Portlaoise, arriving on April 8. There they resupply the royalist garrisons and send cavalry forces to support those at Carlow and Birr, before returning to Athy on April 13. Setting out at 6:00 AM on April 15, and having decided to avoid a battle on their return march to Dublin, the government troops are blocked by Mountgarret’s rebel militias at Kilrush, two miles south of Suncroft, between Kilcullen and Moone in southeastern County Kildare.

The land is remarkably flat, with the exception of two ridges that run nearly parallel northward from a castle, with a marsh lying between. The army of Ormonde, consisting of 2,500 foot soldiers and 500 horses, assembles on the high grounds of Ardscull, Fontstown, and Kilrush, while the rebel army under Mountgarret, consisting of 8,000 foot soldiers and 400 horses, proceeds in the same direction along the heights of Birtown, Ballyndrum, Glasshealy, and Narraghmore. Mountgarret, having the advantage in numbers, and anxious for battle, outmarches Ormonde’s forces, and posts himself on Bull Hill and Kilrush, completely intercepting Ormonde’s further progress to Dublin. A general engagement becomes unavoidable. The left wing of the Irish is broken by the first charge. The right wing, animated by their leaders, maintains the contest for some time, but eventually falls back to neighbouring Battlemount. Here they break, flee and are pursued with great slaughter across the grounds they had marched over the previous day. Ormonde’s army then marches on to Dublin, arriving on April 17.

Ormonde’s army suffers twenty fatalities and approximately forty wounded in the Battle of Kilrush. Mountgarret’s rebel army loses more than 700, among which are several colonels. The victory is considered of such consequence that Ormonde is presented with a jewel valued at £50 by the Irish Government.

(Pictured: Sir Peter Lely’s oil painting of James Butler, 12th Earl of Ormonde)


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The Headford Ambush

headford-ambushThe Headford Ambush is carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on March 21, 1921, during the Irish War of Independence. The battle lasts almost an hour and fourteen people are killed – nine British soldiers, two IRA volunteers and three civilians.

The guerrilla war in County Kerry escalates rapidly in the spring of 1921. The county is occupied by the British Army, Auxiliary Division and Black and Tans paramilitary police, as well as the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). For the previous several months they have been burning suspected Republicans’ property and shooting suspected IRA sympathisers. By early 1921, they have begun rounding up male inhabitants of nearby towns and villages and searching for IRA suspects.

On January 23, in response to the IRA’s assassination of RIC District Inspector Sullivan, 1,000 soldiers and armed police surround Ballymacelligott, arrest 240 men and march them to Tralee for questioning. British forces, especially the Auxiliaries, also carry out a number of reprisal shootings of local civilians. The IRA sets up full-time guerrilla units, known as flying columns, to avoid arrest and to assemble units capable of taking on British patrols. IRA GHQ in Dublin also sends an organizer, Andy Cooney, to Kerry to oversee the setting up of flying columns. On March 2, under Cooney’s direction, the 2nd Kerry Brigade sets up its own flying column under Dan Allman and Tom McEllistrim. On March 5, McEllistrim leads 20 volunteers from the column to a successful ambush at Clonbanin, in which they co-operate with Cork IRA units, killing four British soldiers including Brigadier General Hanway Robert Cumming. Buoyed by their success in Cork, the 2nd Kerry Brigade tries on a number of occasions to ambush British forces in Kerry itself.

On March 21, an IRA party of the 2nd Kerry Brigade is billeted about four miles from the Headford railway junction when they hear that British troops are returning by train from Kenmare to Tralee. As the train does not go directly to Tralee, the British have to change trains at Headford, making them vulnerable to ambush. Allman, commanding 30 volunteers, reaches the junction only 12 minutes before the train, which is carrying 30 soldiers of the 1st Royal Fusiliers. The railway staff just has time to flee before the train pulls into the platform, where its passengers have to change trains for Tralee. Alongside the soldiers, the train is packed with cattle and pig farmers on their way back from the market in Kenmare. Most of the civilians have already got off when the British soldiers begin to disembark. Allman himself tries to disarm a Fusilier but shoots him when he resists. This is the signal for the IRA to open fire on the British troops.

One of the first British casualties is Lieutenant CE Adams DCM, who is shot dead when he appears at the carriage door, as are several other soldiers who are standing in front of the engine. The surviving British troops open fire from the train while those who have got off scramble underneath it for cover. In the ensuing close-quarter firefight, conducted at a range of just 20 yards, three civilians and two IRA volunteers, including Allman, are killed. Two-thirds of the British force is estimated to have been killed or wounded. Most of those killed are hit in the initial firing. Afterwards, the IRA gunmen have no direct field of fire into the troops who are hidden under the train.

MacEllistrim calls on the survivors to surrender and when they refuse, the IRA begins to move in to finish off those who keep shooting by throwing hand grenades under the train. Just as they are doing so, another train pulls into the junction carrying another party of British troops. The IRA column has used most of its ammunition and is forced to retreat, escaping toward the hills in the south.

(Pictured: British soldiers searching a train in County Kerry, 1921)


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The Assassination of Tomás Mac Curtain

Tomas-mac-curtainTomás Mac Curtain, Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, is assassinated in Cork, County Cork on March 20, 1920, which is also his 36th birthday.

Thomas Curtin is born at Ballyknockane, Mourne Abbey, County Cork, on March 20, 1884, the son of Patrick Curtin, a farmer, and Julia Sheehan. He attends Burnfort National School. In 1897 the family moves to Cork City, where he attends the North Monastery school.

Mac Curtain, as he later becomes known, is active in a number of cultural and political movements beginning around the turn of the 20th century. He joins the Blackpool, Cork branch of Conradh na Gaeilge, becoming its secretary in 1902. He has interests in music, poetry, history, archaeology and Irish history. He works in his early career as a clerk, and in his free time teaches Irish. In 1911 he joins Fianna Éireann, and is a member of the Irish Volunteers.

He meets Elizabeth Walsh (Eibhlís Breathnach) at a Gaelic League meeting and they marry on June 28, 1908. They have six children, five of whom survive into adulthood. The family lives over 40 Thomas Davis Street, where Mac Curtain runs a small clothing and rainwear factory.

In April 1916, at the outset of the Easter Rising, Mac Curtain commands a force of up to 1,000 men of the Irish Volunteers who assemble at various locations around County Cork. From the volunteers headquarters at Sheares Street in the city, Mac Curtain and his officers await orders from the volunteer leadership in Dublin but conflicting instructions and confusion prevail and as a result the Cork volunteers never enter the fray. A tense stand-off develops when British forces surround the volunteer hall and continued for a week until a negotiated agreement leads to the surrender of the volunteers’ arms to the then Lord Mayor of Cork Thomas Butterfield on the understanding that they will be returned at a later date. This does not happen however and Mac Curtain is jailed in Wakefield Prison, in the Frongoch internment camp in Wales, and in Reading Gaol. After the general amnesty of participants in the Rising 18 months later, Mac Curtain returns to active duty as a Commandant of what is now the Irish Republican Army.

By 1918 Mac Curtain is a brigade commander, the highest and most important rank in the IRA. During the Conscription Crisis of 1918, he actively encourages the hiring of the women of Cumann na mBan to cater for Volunteers. He is personally involved with Michael CollinsThe Squad that, along with a Cork battalion, attempt to assassinate Lord John French, whose car is missed as the convoy passes through the ambush positions. Despite the setback he remains brigadier of No.1 Cork when he is elected Lord Mayor. He is elected in the January 1920 council elections as the Sinn Féin councillor for NW Ward No. 3 of Cork, and is chosen by his fellow councillors to be the Lord Mayor. He begins a process of political reform within the city.

In January 1919, the Irish War of Independence starts and Mac Curtain becomes an officer in the IRA. On March 20, 1920, his 36th birthday, Mac Curtain is shot dead in front of his wife and son by a group of men with blackened faces, who are found to be members of the Auxilaries along with unknown members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) by the official inquest into the event. In the wake of the killing, which is in revenge for the shooting of a policeman, Mac Curtain’s house in Blackpool is ransacked.

The killing causes widespread public outrage. The coroner’s inquest passes a verdict of willful murder against British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and against certain members of the RIC. Michael Collins later orders his squad of assassins to uncover and assassinate the police officers involved in the attack. RIC District Inspector Oswald Swanzy, who had ordered the attack, is fatally shot, with Mac Curtain’s own revolver, while leaving a Protestant church in Lisburn, County Antrim on August 22, 1920, sparking what is described by Tim Pat Coogan as a “pogrom” against the Catholic residents of the town.

Tomás Mac Curtain is buried in St. Finbarr’s Cemetery, Cork.


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The Crossbarry Ambush

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERADuring the Irish War of Independence, Tom Barry and the West Cork Flying Column of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) rout a superior force from the Essex Regiment of the British Army at Crossbarry, County Cork on March 19, 1921.

A force of one hundred IRA members under the leadership of Barry are involved in a major skirmish with up to 1,000 British troops at Crossbarry. English intelligence has determined that Barry’s West Cork Brigade is based near Crossbarry and plans a major encirclement and assault. Poor planning and timing ensures that the British forces get separated before attacking Barry’s men. Barry is a brilliant guerrilla fighter and strategist who directs an attack against an initial force of approximately 140 men, before he orders his men to break out.

Charlie Hurley, one of the Brigade commanders who is injured during the Upton train ambush, is staying in a house with a pro-republican family, where he is recuperating from serious wounds he had received at Upton a month earlier. When he realises that he is surrounded by the British forces, he flees the house, as Tom Barry comments in his book, to reduce the danger to those in the house. He is shot dead by the pursuing troops. Barry remarks that Hurley “went to meet his death like a true Irishman.” A ballad exists that commemorates him. In addition, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) grounds in Bandon, County Cork are named after him.

Reports as to casualties differ. The IRA claims that over thirty British are killed while official British figures are ten killed and six IRA men killed. Whatever the numbers, it is probably the largest single military engagement in the Irish War of Independence as the IRA knew major battles with British troops would be a disaster for them and rarely got involved in full frontal action. While the casualties may not seem that large, Crossbarry is a major morale victory for the IRA who had “defeated” a British force of over one thousand. Prime Minister David Lloyd George states that the Crossbarry and Kilmichael ambushes convinced him of the need for a truce and a treaty with the Irish rebels.

(Pictured: Crossbarry Ambush Memorial, Crossbarry, County Cork)


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The Selton Hill Ambush

selton-hill-ambush-memorialThe Selton Hill Ambush takes place on March 11, 1921, during the Irish War of Independence. An Irish Republican Army (IRA) flying column is ambushed by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Auxiliary Division at Selton Hill, County Leitrim. Six IRA officers of the Leitrim Brigade are killed.

Seán Connolly is an IRA activist from County Longford, but he is also used by IRA GHQ to organise the surrounding areas of County Roscommon and County Leitrim. When Michael Collins orders Connolly into the county, he warns that it is “the most treacherous county in Ireland.” As Connolly is running a training camp at Selton Hill in early 1921, his position is given to the RIC. The RIC District Inspector, Thomas Gore-Hickman, has been alerted to Connolly’s position by a local doctor who had served in the British Army. The doctor had reportedly been told of the training camp by a local member of the Orange Order.

The events at Selton Hill take place one week after the Sheemore ambush, in which British troops from the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, based in Boyle suffer several casualties and at least one fatality. On March 11, at Selton Hill, a large force of RIC and Auxiliaires, based in Mohill and troops from the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment surround and then attack the IRA camp. Six IRA volunteers are killed. The RIC suffers no losses. The IRA dead are Sean Connolly, Seamus Wrynne, Joseph O’Beirne, John Reilly, Joseph Reilly, and Capt. M.E. Baxter.

Ernie O’Malley later claims the volunteers’ bodies are “taken to Mohill by soldiers who shouted ‘fresh meat!’ as they were driving through the town.” He is also quoted as saying, “Men from the Bedfordshire Regiment were seen by a badly wounded IRA officer, Bernie Sweeney who survived, to use rifle butts on the skulls of two wounded men.” He also states that the location of the column was given to the local District Inspector of the RIC by a doctor who had been in the British Army, who received the information by a local Orangeman. The IRA officer who survives is Bernie Sweeney, from Ballinamore, who survives by hiding in a drain, where the cold water prevents him from bleeding to death. He is rescued and hidden from the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries by locals.

The IRA learn their position had been given away by the doctor and the Orangeman. The latter is later killed by the IRA. The doctor escapes to England and later dies in an accident.

The border country of the north midlands often proves to be a treacherous place for IRA training camps. On May 8, 1921 a camp of Belfast IRA volunteers based in the Lappanduff hills in neighbouring County Cavan, is also surprised. One volunteer is killed, thirteen captured, and arms and ammunition are seized by the British forces.

(Pictured: Selton Hill Ambush Memorial, south of the village of Fenagh, County Leitrim)


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Birth of Civil War Officer John O’Neill

john-oneillJohn Charles O’Neill, Irish-born officer in the American Civil War and member of the Fenian Brotherhood, is born on March 9, 1834 in Drumgallon, Clontibret, County Monaghan. He is best known for his activities leading the Fenian raids on Canada in 1866 and 1871.

O’Neill receives some schooling in Drumgallon. He emigrates to New Jersey in 1848 at the height of the Great Famine in Ireland. He receives an additional year of education there and works in a number of jobs. In 1857 he enlists in the 2nd United States Dragoons and serves in the Utah War (May 1857 – July 1858), apparently deserting afterwards to California.

In California, he joins the 1st Cavalry and serves as a sergeant in the American Civil War with this regiment until December 1862, at which time he is commissioned as an officer in the 5th Indiana Cavalry. He is credited as being a daring fighting officer, but believes he has not received due promotion, which leads to a transfer to the 17th United States Colored Infantry as captain. He leaves the Union Army prior to the end of the conflict, marrying Mary Crow, with whom he has several children.

While in Tennessee, O’Neill joins the militant Irish American movement, the Fenian Brotherhood, which eschews politics in favor of militant action to expel the British presence in Ireland. He attaches himself to the group led by William Randall Roberts, who wishes to attack Canada.

O’Neill, ranked as colonel, travels to the Canada–US border with a group from Nashville to participate in the Fenian raids. The assigned commander of the expedition does not appear, so O’Neill takes command. On June 1, 1866, he leads a group of six hundred men across the Niagara River and occupies Fort Erie.

The following day, north of Ridgeway, Ontario, O’Neill’s group encounters a detached column of Canadian volunteers, commanded by Lt-Col. Alfred Booker. The inexperienced Canadians are routed by the Civil War veterans. O’Neill withdraws back to Fort Erie and fights a battle against a detachment led by John Stoughton Dennis. With overwhelming numbers of Canadian forces closing in, O’Neill oversees a successful evacuation on the night of June 2-3 back to United States territory. He is later charged with violating the neutrality laws of the United States but the charges are later dropped.

The penetration of O’Neill’s organisation by British and Canadian spies ensures that his next venture into Canada, the Battle of Eccles Hill, in 1870 is known in advance, and Canada is accordingly prepared. After the Battle of Trout River ends in a disorganized rout, O’Neill is arrested by United States Marshal George P. Foster and charged with violating neutrality laws. He is sentenced to two years in prison in July 1870 but he and other Fenians are pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant that October.

Though he renounces the idea of further attacks on Canada, he changes his mind at the urging of an associate of Louis Riel, William Bernard O’Donoghue. With the latter, and without the backing of the bulk of the Fenians, he leads an attack on the Hudson’s Bay Company‘s post at Pembina, Manitoba, on October 5, 1871. The area is then disputed between America and Canada. He is arrested by American troops.

In 1874 O’Neill embarks on a lecture tour along the east coast, encouraging the poor Irish that they would have a better standard of living if they would resettle with him in Nebraska. The first Irish colony in Nebraska is set up in Holt County in the town that bears his name today – O’Neill, Nebraska. His legacy is in the communities that exist in Nebraska today. These settlements are thriving and successful farming communities. John O’Neill can claim credit for the spirit of generosity that is still part of these communities today.

In 1877, while on a speaking tour in Little Rock, Arkansas, O’Neill becomes ill and returns to his home in Nebraska. His condition continues to deteriorate and, after been admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital Omaha in November 1877, suffers a paralytic stroke and dies on January 8, 1878.