Nun’s Veil; Liam Mellows ‘on the run’, 1916 Rising

Veil used to Liam Mellows to escape Ireland, 1916 (NMI Collection EW.1108)

The Rising of Easter week 1916 came to an end on Saturday 29th April when Patrick Pearse led the official surrender of the Irish rebels to Brigadier General Lowe. The leaders of the Dublin garrisons each in turn surrendered as the news was brought to them over the next couple of days. The rank and file Volunteers had another option; to disappear back into their communities and continue to fight for independence. They would have had to have laid low, knowing that as they had been drilling (many in uniform) in public since 1914, they could be easily recognized by the authorities as an Irish Volunteer or Irish Citizen Army member. For some going ‘on the run’ was the only option. Liam Mellows, the leader of the Rising in Galway, was one such man.

This piece of black gossamer cloth fashioned into a veil, was worn by him as he escaped to England after some months on the run in Ireland. He was accompanied by Pauline Barry, and both travelled disguised as nuns.  It was donated to the National Museum of Ireland in 1941 by Sr Lelia MacKenna.

Though the 1916 Rising is remembered mostly as a Dublin event, it was intended by its planners to be countrywide. Branches of the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan in towns and cities such as Cork, Enniscorthy, Limerick and Galway planned the insurrection with the Dublin leaders and awaited the arrival of weapons and ammunition into Ireland and for the final commanding orders to proceed with their plans. Those 20,000 weapons, organized by Roger Casement to come from Germany on the SS Aud, failed to reach Ireland when the ship was intercepted by the British Navy on 20th April. This was to be a major factor in the failure of the Rising.

Roger Casement and Crew of U19, Kerry, April 1916

The order to start the rebellion was quickly followed by Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order on Saturday 22nd April. This confusion led to many Volunteers not turning out, or being unsure of what action to take. Outside Dublin, by the time couriers reached them with the news that the Rising had started in the capital the regional police and army had already been alerted, making action impossible. Because of this, armed insurrection took place in only a handful of areas outside Dublin; to the north Louth, Meath and Ashbourne saw fighting, and the Volunteers proceeded with the Rising in Enniscorthy and Galway.

In Galway about 2,000 men had joined the ranks of the Irish Volunteers which had been organized by Liam Mellows since March 1915. It drew much of its membership from the strong IRB movement in the area, led by Tom Kenny, which had its root in the region’s large agrarian community. Mellows had been arrested in Tullamore and deported to Reading Jail in March 1916, and Laurence Lardner was commanding the battalion in his absence. However, he escaped, arriving back in Ireland disguised as a priest on Easter Monday.

Early that morning the Galway Volunteers received news that the rising had been called off, only to be followed later that day with a message from Pearse that the rising had started in Dublin and the Volunteers were to proceed with their plans – to occupy police barracks and send men to Tralee to collect arms; a redundant task considering the arms had not landed. Many of the Volunteers that had gathered now dispersed, lessening their numbers, though others continued, attacking police barracks in Clarenbridge, Oranmore and Gort on Tuesday. On Wednesday a group of Volunteers came face to face with the Royal Irish Constabulary at Carnmore Crossroads. Shots were exchanged, and Patrick Whelan, aged 34, an RIC Constable with 8 and a half years of service, was killed in the confrontation.

The now 500 strong group of Volunteers under Mellows’ command gathered in Athenry, armed with a small number of rifles with about 30 rounds of ammunition each, old shotguns and other weapons. This lack of arms and ammunition ensured no further attacks could happen and they began retreating further to defensive positions. While camped at the abandoned big house at Lime Park rumours of a large oncoming military forces began to circulate, and the Volunteers finally disbanded at Moyode on Saturday.

Liam Mellows Irish Volunteer tunic, given to Pauline Barry as a token of thanks for her help in his escape (NMI Collection)

Most of the rank and file rebels were arrested and deported to English jails and Frongoch the following week. Laurence Lardner went into hiding in Belfast, Tom Kenny travelled to Boston and Mellows, along with two of his officers – Alfie Monaghan and Frank Hynes – decided to try to return to Dublin via Limerick. They were on the run for the next five months, escaping over the mountains of Derrybrian and into the mountains of Co. Clare.

Sean McNamara of Crusheen, Co. Clare described these months for Mellows, Monaghan and Hynes in his witness statement. Michael Maloney discovered the three men on his land in the Knockjames area and, being himself a member of the IRB and Irish Volunteers, brought them to a hut on the land and supplied them with food. He told McNamara as his commanding officer, who began to collect funds to support them, including over £100 from the Daly Family in Limerick. The men spent five months in the Knockjames mountains hut, and McNamara describes this time almost fondly – ‘Liam had his violin , there were visitors, music and songs, often a wrestling bout and always the Rosary in Irish led by Liam’. In October Volunteer Michael Fogarty brought the order from GHQ Dublin that Mellows should go to America. McNamara was to accompany Mellows to the house of Fr Michael Crowe, the parish priest of Kinvara, who had procured two nun’s habits which were to be used by Mellows and Miss Pauline Barry of Gort as a disguise. McNamara leaves them with Fr Crowe, who later reported that the two ‘nuns’ had attended mass at 6.30am the next morning, describing Mellows as ‘the most perfect nun in appearance that I ever saw’.

They then travelled as a group – Fr Crowe, Bluebell Powell dressed as a novice and the two nuns – by car to Cork, calling at hotels and convents along the way, Mellows’ disguise holding throughout the day.

Veil used to Liam Mellows to escape Ireland, 1916 (NMI Collection EW.1108)

Mellows travelled in this disguise from Cork to Liverpool, and made his way to the house of Republican Peter Murphy. Murphy worked for the Liverpool and Mersey District Shipping Federation, an Employers Association, and, along with his assistant, he began making arrangements to get Mellows onto a ship to New York. Mellows stayed in this house in Liverpool for two weeks. Nellie Gifford-Donnelly, one of the founding members of the Irish Citizen Army and a combatant in the College of Surgeons during the Rising, was also on the run there, waiting to get to America on a false passport.

Nellie Gifford-Donnelly

Murphy arranged for Mellows to sail as a coal trimmer under the name of John Atheridge on a tramp steamer. Nellie helped disguise Liam by dying his hair, and he joined a ship which sailed first to Barbados and then New York, arriving after 6 weeks at sea. During that journey Mellows had risen to the position of Leading Stoker before the ship reached New York in about December 1916.

Sketch of Liam Mellows disguised as a ship's stoker, dated 19 December 1916 (NMI Collection)

Mellows began work with John Devoy on the Gaelic American newspaper, but was soon arrested by the US authorities and imprisoned in the Manhattan Detention Complex in New York, charged with aiding the German enemy. He was released in 1918, and continued to tour the US, speaking for the Republican cause, and helped organize Eamon de Valera’s fundraising trip to America in 1919-20. On his return to Ireland he continued activity through the War of Independence and opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. He was one of the 77 men officially executed by the Irish Free State Forces, being shot on the morning of 8 December 1922, aged 30.

Liam Mellows, disguised, c. 1920 (NMI Collection)

It is sometimes difficult to square this strange relic with Liam Mellows. There is no denying that there is an element of humour to this story, which is not normally associated with the Liam Mellows we are presented with. Images of him show a young man with a serious demeanor. It is evident in his face that he is an intelligent and understated man. We know that he was able, determined, dedicated to his beliefs, and clearly very hard working. From a young age he was held in very high regard by Thomas Clarke and James Connolly, and was entrusted with the task of mobilizing the west of Ireland. He earned the trust and respect of the men he led. He would of course have been aware in his months in hiding and during his escape that his capture could very likely lead to his death. But I can’t help but wonder if, when handed this black veil to wear, he raised a smile, or perhaps an eyebrow.

Liam Mellows in disguise with Alfie Monahan on his right, Father Sweetman with Sean Etchingham behind (NMI Collection)

The Bullet in the Brick – the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and the madness of Captain Bowen-Colthurst, 1916

Portobello Barracks brick with bullet, 1916 (NMI Collection - EW.683)

The kind of objects relating to the 1916 Rising which have become part of the National Museum of Ireland’s collection over the last century are varied, and by their very nature includes the most ordinary of objects made extraordinary by the events of the time.

This half brick formed part of the wall at Portobello Barracks, now Cathal Brugha Barracks, until April 1916. Embedded in it is a bullet fired by the firing squad which executed Francis Sheehy Skeffington on the order of British Army officer Captain John Bowen-Colthurst. It was given to Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Francis’ widow, in 1935, and she donated it to the museum in 1937.

Portobello Barracks brick with bullet, 1916 (NMI Collection - EW.683)

Francis and Hannah Sheehy SkeffingtonFrancis Skeffington met Hanna Sheehy in 1896, and they married in 1903. They shared their socialist and nationalist views, and as ardent feminists, the Sheehy-Skeffingtons co-founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908. Francis was a committed pacifist, and had campaigned against recruitment to the British Army regiments in 1914 at the outbreak of the war in Europe.  He had also opposed the increasing militarisation of nationalist organisations such as the Irish Citizen Army, and when the Rising broke out on 24 April 1916, he went to the city centre to appeal for calm. On the evening of Tuesday the 25th, on his way home to 11 Grosvenor Place, he was arrested and brought to Portobello Barracks. Although a search revealed nothing more than a draft form of membership of a proposed civic guard (to prevent looting in the city), and no charge was made against him, he was detained for further enquiries.

Captain John Bowen-Colthurst

At this time, Portobello Barracks was officially under the command of Colonel McCammond who was absent on sick leave, leaving the command to Major James Rosborough. The barracks was also suddenly filled with soldiers from numerous regiments who were on leave in Dublin and reported for duty to their nearest barracks when the Rising broke out. The site must have been in a state of some confusion.  Captain Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles, originally from Dripsey, Co. Cork, was a decorated officer. He had fought in the Boer War and afterwards served in India, including the 1904 British military incursion into Tibet. He had been injured while leading a disastrous attack against a German position on the western front in September 1914 and was sent back to Ireland. He was attached to the 3rd Battalion stationed at Portobello Barracks when the Rising broke out.

Richard O'CarrollIt seems Colthurst became quite frenzied at the outbreak of the Rising. In the late hours of Tuesday 25 April he led about 40 soldiers out of the barracks in search of ‘Sinn Feiners’ (the Sinn Fein party were at that time mistakenly believed to be responsible for the Rising), taking Sheehy Skeffington with him as a hostage. As they headed towards the city Colthurst shot dead James Coade, a 19 year old mechanic, on the Rathmines Road. Richard O’Carroll, the Labour Party Councillor and Quartermaster of C Company, Irish Volunteers was delivering ammunition to the garrison outpost at Northumberland Road when he was pulled from his motorcycle and shot through the lungs. O’Carroll later died of his injuries on 5th May. Another man, Patrick Nolan was shot by Colthurst outside Delahunt’s Grocery shop, but brought to the hospital at Dublin Castle and survived.

When the raiding party reached Camden Street they entered the tobacconist shop of Alderman James Kelly, arrested Thomas Dickson (editor of The Eye Opener) and Patrick McIntyre (editor of The Searchlight), and brought them to Portobello Barracks. The soldiers fire-bombed the shop on Colthurst’s orders. Kelly was not present at the time and, though unconnected to the Rising, he was later arrested and interned, and released 16 days later.

Memorial wreath at the wall where the shootings took place (from Irish the barracks, Colthurst ordered that the three civilian prisoners be taken from the detention rooms in which they were held and brought to the yard. At about 10am on the morning of Wednesday 26th he ordered a firing squad of 7 soldiers to shoot the three civilian journalists. In a moment of clarity, Colthurst reported the action to his superior, a Major James Rosborough, saying that he had shot the three prisoners on his own responsibility and that he might possibly be hanged for it. Rosborough asked him for a written report, and Colthurst was confined to barracks duties. The bodies were hastily buried in the grounds.

Irish Citizen newspaper, Memorial Number, July 1916

Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and son Owen, 1916 (Library of Congress)On Friday 29th April Hanna Sheehy Skeffington arrived at the barracks to enquire about her husband, having been told by the police that she should ask there. Colthurst denied all knowledge of her husband, and threatened her with arrest. That evening, he led a party of soldiers in a raid on her home as she was putting her son, Owen, to bed, and took a large quantity of papers and books with the intention of finding incriminating evidence to justify the shooting. One paper that was probably found in this raid and produced at Colthurst’s eventual court-martial was a copy of the widely available Secret Orders Issued to the Military (the forged ‘Castle Document’) with the claim that he found it on Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s person when he was arrested.

Bowen Colthurst arriving at Richmond Barracks for his court martial June 1916 (NMI Collection)

Major Sir Francis Vane, serving out of Portobello Barracks, had reported Colthurst’s actions to the authorities in Ireland during the week but found them not only unreceptive to the complaint, but himself relieved of his duties, and the subject of a campaign against his character. He then reported to the military authorities in London, which led to Colthurst being placed under open arrest on 6th May. He was court martialled on 6 June and found guilty of the murders, but insane. He was admitted to Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for one year, after which he was found to be recovered and released. He emigrated to Canada on a military pension where he died in 1965, never returning to Ireland. His family home in Dripsey was burned down during the War of Independence as retaliation for the murders.

Sir Francis Vane found that his actions in reporting Colthurst led to the ruin of his career, being relieved of his employment in the military, and all his attempts to publish his experiences were foiled by the military censor.

Major Sir Francis Vane, photograph autographed for Owen Sheehy Skeffington (NMI Collection)

In December 1935 Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who had campaigned tirelessly for justice for her husband, received a parcel containing a half brick with a .303 bullet embedded, accompanied by a letter explaining its context from F. McL. Scannell. It tells the story of how he came to have the object.

Dear Mrs Sheehy Skeffington,

The following is an account of how a half brick, in which is embedded a bullet that passed through your husband’s body, came into my possession.

I always considered that you should have it, but considered it too gruesome a souvenir to offer you.

After the three unfortunate victims had been murdered Bowen Colthurst made frantic efforts to wipe out all the traces of his crime which, in the shape of three sets of bullets in the wall, proclaimed to all and sundry who passed that way one of the first actions of ‘a Soldier and a Gentleman’ with which we became so familiar as the struggle went on.

With that object he had several bricklayers, who were working on a large building then being built for the British Government in Dublin, were taken with their tools, in basses, a kind of soft basket without cover but having two handles for carrying them by, to Portobello Barracks.

They were kept surrounded by British Soldiers with fixed bayonets, pointed at them. There were kept for a considerable time in this uncomfortable position, and then harangued at considerable length as to the consequence of divulging anything whatever of what they saw or did.

They were then marched with their ‘escort’ to the wall where the ‘executions’ had been perpetrated, still surrounded by fixed bayonets. They were then instructed to remove all the bricks with bullets in them and replace them with new ones which Colthurst had already a supply awaiting.

While this was being done the soldiers told them where each of the victims had stood. The spot being repaired by the man I knew was where your husband had been placed.

When the work had been completed the old bricks were left in a heap, obviously for the British to destroy.

The bricklayers were once again marched away and given another lecture as to what their fate would be if they breathed a word of what happened in the Barracks. They were kept surrounded by the wall of bayonets for a considerable time, evidently to ensure that their nerves were in the proper condition, before being marched to the gate where with a final caution they were sent away.

It was during this last tirade of frightfulness that the man I knew noticed that a portion of a brick was in his bass. He was too frightened to say anything about it. I met him shortly after and he told me what had happened and made me promise not to give him away. He asked me what he should do with the brick as he was afraid to keep it. I told him I would take it and he gave it to me.

I have kept it in my house ever since.

I tried through some of the ‘Boys’ to get in touch with you shortly after I got it but you were then endeavouring to reach America, and I could not do so.

Although I knew you were the one with the greatest right to it I could not bring myself to offer such a ghastly memento and so rake up wounds which will never be forgotten.

Newspaper reporting of the Bowen-Colthurst court martial, June 1916 (NMI Collection)

The findings of 1916 court martial remained controversial, and it has been asserted from that time that the military conducted a cover up in order to ensure that his commanding officers could not be held responsible for Colthurst’s actions. A conclusion of ‘Guilty, but insane’ allowed the event to be put down as the actions of an individual mad man.

But the existence of the bullet in the brick raises a question – if Colthurst was responsible for the order to replace the damaged bricks, does this imply that he was aware of what he had done and what the consequences would be, and deliberately attempted to cover the crime? Would such an action then prove compos mentis – that Colthurst was sane?

Evidence given in the court martial portrayed various sides of the officer. Some testified to his character, describing him as kindly and considerate, but more unbalanced after his return from France. Major General Bird’s testimony on made clear that Colthurst recklessly sacrificed his men during the actions around the retreat at Mons and at Aisne in 1914, remarking that when agitated and fatigued he was not responsible for his actions.

Dr Parsons had treated Colthurst on his return from the front and noted his extreme nervous exhaustion at that time. He saw him again at the time of the court martial and opined that he was close to a nervous breakdown, relating how Colthurst talked mostly about the fighting at Mons and how he spent time reading the Bible in the hours before the shooting of the journalists.

Captain E.P. Kelly testified that he witnessed Colthurst in Portobello Barracks on the day of the shootings; ‘half lying across the table with his head resting on his arm, and he looked up occasionally and stared about the room, and then fell forward again with his head on his arm’. Such evidence would suggest Colthurst was suffering from shell-shock, now known as post-traumatic disorder.

However, Colthurst was also known to occasionally commit acts of an ‘eccentric’ nature. A Major Goodman of the Curragh Camp had known Colthurst since 1904, when they were stationed in India. He told of how he shot a dog that had barked during the night. When he asked if the dog was dead Colthurst answered no, but that it was sufficiently wounded to die. This, alongside rumours of previous brutalities against prisoners and civilians, would indicate a tendency towards brutal behavior. Colthurst himself professed that he was carrying out his duty, believing he had the right to shoot rebels under the terms of martial law, and that in any other country except Ireland it would be recognized as right to kill rebels. Certainly, his raid on the Sheehy Skeffington household in an attempt to find incriminating documents would suggest that Colthurst was sane enough to determine what he needed to find to defend his actions.

There are conflicting memories surrounding the repairing of the wall in Portobello Barracks, with one claim that the military organized for the Royal Engineers to fill in the bullet holes, and another, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, saying that bricklayers were brought in by Colonel McCammond on 7 May, the day after Colthurst was placed under arrest, to replace the bloodstained bricks with new ones. The account in the letter that accompanied the brick is the only one of the three that suggests Colthurst himself organized the repair, but contains no date or other details to support this and may have been a natural assumption at the time on the part of its author.

However there is little doubt that the brick did in fact come from a bricklayer who was forced to repair the wall, and is the material evidence of the attempt to cover the murder of the three journalists in Portobello Barracks in the middle of Easter Week 1916, whether by the military authorities or by Colthurst.

Portobello Barracks brick with bullet (NMI Collection - EW.683)

The IRA ‘Big Gun’ and the Death of Matt Furlong, 1920

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

Arming the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence was not an easy task; weapons, particularly modern ones, were not readily available. In the countryside shotguns were common, as most farmers owned one. The IRA also gathered firearms such as rifles, even Lewis machine guns, and ammunition from the many raids conducted on Royal Irish Constabulary barracks around the country. Arms were also smuggled into Ireland. In 1921 Harry Boland ordered over 650 Thompson machine guns (made iconic by the US Mafia during the 1920s and 1930s) from America, and though most were intercepted on the docks in New York, some did make it to Ireland via Liverpool in England.

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

Such weapons made little impact on the armoured vehicles of the British Forces however, or the strong walls of barracks buildings, and heavier guns were necessary. Unable to acquire them, the IRA turned to improvising weapons to serve their needs. This home made ‘big gun’, or mortar, designed to fire mortar bombs at short-range targets, was described as the only piece of such artillery used by the Irish during the War of Independence when it was donated to the museum in 1937.

The story of this mortar is an interesting insight into the making of improvised munitions during the War of Independence, but it is also a tragedy which led to the death of Matthew Furlong.

Matthew Furlong (from Furlongs of 19 South Main Street, Wexford town, had a Fenian family tradition. Matt and his brother Joseph were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) from 1908. He apprenticed as an engineer in the Wexford Engineering Company, but due to the labour wars and lockouts in Wexford in 1911 he and Joseph moved to London where they transferred to the London I.R.B., joining the same centre as Michael Collins. When the Irish Volunteers were formed in Ireland in November 1913, companies were also formed in the Irish centres in England. The Furlongs joined, and just after Christmas 1915, received word from Collins to quit their jobs in London and relocate to Dublin to prepare for the Rising. Matt and Joseph fought with G Coy, 2nd Battalion at Jacob’s Factory during the 1916 Rising, and were interned in Frongoch Camp in Wales until December 1916. They returned to Ireland and their home at 70 Seville Place, Dublin, took employment (with Matt working for a time at the National Shell Factory on Parkgate Street during the war years) and resumed their activities in the I.R.A.  Matt’s trade would prove useful, his engineering knowledge led to his involvement with the setting up of an underground munitions factory in 1918 by Michael Lynch of the Fingal Brigade, who had been charged with the task by Dick McKee.

The munitions factory was established in the basement of 198 Parnell Street, underneath the bicycle shop of Heron & Lawless; Archie Heron was Lynch’s Vice-Commandant and Joseph Lawless an Engineer Officer, both of the Fingal Brigade.

A munitions factory making hand grenades at Bailieboro, Co. Cavan

The munitions factory was fully equipped, including a forge and a lathe. It was here that they made the iron exterior bodies of hand grenades, based on the pattern of German egg grenades, and the brass fittings for the fuses, which were transported to another location to be filled with explosive and finished.

Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp, 1921 (NMI Collection)Lawless was arrested in a raid on the bicycle shop by British Forces in May 1919, and afterwards felt that because of his connection with the premises it would be more closely watched. In order to keep the profile of the building low and protect the factory, he sold his interests to Lynch. Archie Heron had already left the business some time before. By June Lawless had set up a separate business renting cars, which was also used to provide car transport to Volunteer raid parties, and munitions became the sole business of 198 Parnell Street. (The story of Joseph Lawless’ later internment in the Rath Camp in 1921 can be found in a previous blog post here).

During mid 1920 it had been decided that there was a need for a portable heavy gun to aid in Barracks attacks, and work began on an experimental mortar. G.H.Q. Munitions branch decided to attempt to replicate the British Stokes, or Trench, mortar which had been produced during the latter part of WWI.

PSM_V92_D055_Stokes_mortar_for_trench_warfare_2 (Wikimedia)

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

Artillery of this type is smooth bore rather than rifled, and used to propel explosive shells at a high angle towards targets with a much greater explosive capacity then a hand grenade. Matt and Joe Furlong undertook the task, although detailed drawings and instructions were not available.

When the mortar was complete in October 1920, testing began. Experiments with dummy shells were successful, a test site in Co. Meath was selected, and Matt Furlong, Peadar Clancy, Tom Young, Sean O’Sullivan and Patrick McHugh began the trial, with Matt as the operator. Difficulties arose with the firing of live shells, and adjustments were planned. Another trial at Kells took place where, after a number of tests, Matt decided to use a live shell which fired but landed unexploded. After further adjustment another shell was tested; this time it exploded inside the base of the mortar, blowing off the bottom half of the cylinder. Matt Furlong was very badly wounded, particularly along the left hand side of his body which had been closest to the mortar. He was brought to the Mater Hospital where his left leg was amputated, but he later died of his injuries at the age of 28.

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

With the loss of the mortar, the munitions factory at 198 Parnell Street, still operating under the name of ‘Heron and Lawless’, concentrated on grenade manufacture. It was eventually shut down by the Auxiliaries in December 1920, when it was accidentally discovered during a raid next door. The building that housed the munitions factory is now the location of King’s Inn House, beside the Parnell Centre.

British soldiers, two Auxiliaries and a DMP constable at the Heron and Lawless premises at 198 Parnell Street after the raid. (

The ‘big gun’ itself was hidden in the River Tolka for some years before it was recovered by John Connell of Lustown, Co. Meath, after his release from Arbour Hill Prison. He and Padraig O Huigin later deposited it in the National Museum of Ireland in 1937 for display in its 20th Anniversary exhibition in Kildare Street. It remains the only known example of an IRA Big Gun.

View of "1916" exhibition sign, central court, Kildare Street, 1941. Shot from the balcony looking towards the first floor stairway (from glass plate negative DF5406, NMI Collection)

View of “1916” exhibition sign, central court, Kildare Street, 1941. Shot from the balcony looking towards the first floor stairway (from glass plate negative DF5406)

Irish Citizen Army (and James Larkin) at Croydon Park, 1914

ICA at Croydon Park, James Larking to the left, April-October 1914

This famous photograph of a unit of the Irish Citizen Army drilling at Croydon House in Croydon Park, Clontarf is extremely well known.  However, this second view of the same scene, including an additional figue to the left – James Larkin – is less commonly seen. It came to me in 2014 through the NMI’s former Registrar, who received it from a former curator at the museum.

On this day – 21st January – in 1876, trade union leader James Larkin, was born to Irish parents in Liverpool.  Originally an organizer in the National Union of Dock Labourers, he had arrived in Belfast in 1907 to organize a strike there, and was later transferred to Dublin where he, James Connolly and William O’Brien established the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in December 1908. Work was scarce, badly paid and inconsistant, and the union grew quickly, causing some of the main employers in the country to ban membership of a trade union as a condition of employment. They established the Employers’ Federation, headed by William Martin Murphy, owner of the Dublin Tramway Company, a number of newspapers and the Imperial Hotel in O’Connell Street. In August Murphy fired 300 tram workers, leading to sympathy strikes and the eventual locking out of over 20,000 workers, with violence breaking out on the streets between the striking workers, the blackleg labour and the Dublin Metropolitan Police who were brought in to protect them. The Dublin Lockout was to last until February 1914 when the workers were forced to return to their jobs with few rights won.

ICA at Croydon Park, 1914. Photograph by Keogh Brothers of Dublin. (NMI Collection)

The Irish Citizen Army was formed as a workers’ militia to protect people in the aftermath of the August 31st Bloody Sunday riots, when the Dublin Metropolitan baton charged  the crowd listening to Larkin giving a speech in O’Connell Street.  Labourers James Nolan and John Byrne both died of injuries received by police batons on the Saturday, and contemporary reporting stated that 433 people, and possibly up to 600 people were injured in the violent disturbances over the course of that weekend.

The Irish Citizen Army was established by James Larkin, James Connolly and  Jack White. White, a former British Army captain, led the training of the ICA at Croydon Park.  White was arrested at a demonstration in March 1914, and soon afterwards the ICA started re-organising. Apart from a constitution being written (by playwright Sean O’Casey), a uniform was decided upon and ordered to be made by Arnott’s; a dark green serge wool tunic and trousers, and a hat with one side of the brim pinned up with the ICA badge.

The uniforms arrived sometime in March or April 1914, and it was probably at that time that the famous photograph of the Irish Citizen Army was taken at Croydon House. It was taken by Keogh Brothers Photographers of Dublin, and shows a unit of the ICA proudly showing their uniforms, with the Plough and the Stars flag on a pole held by the man on the far left. The first appearance of the flag, made by the Dun Emer Guild, was stated to be at a meeting on the 5th April 1914, so this photograph was taken on or after that date. The presence of James Larkin in the second version of the ICA at Croydon Park  photograph also means it was taken before his departure on a fundraising trip to the United States on 24th October of that year.

It’s always fascinating to see a little extra of something we already know so well.

James Larkin, far left

Covert Photography in Rath Internment Camp, Joseph Lawless, 1921

Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

In December 1920, at the height of the War of Independence, the British authorities established the first internment camp on Irish soil at Ballykinlar, Co. Down. The British policy of interning any man in any way suspected of being involved in the republican movement led to many hundreds of men being detained without trial, and soon a series of internment camps were built around the country, though Ballykinlar remained the largest and probably the most famous. One such centre was the Rath Camp at the Curragh, Co. Kildare, where I.R.A. member and internee Joseph Lawless took this series of unique photographs illustrating life in the camp. He donated them to the National Museum of Ireland in 1950.


Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Joseph was involved in the movement for Irish independence from an early stage, along with his father Frank and brother James Lawless . He joined the Irish Volunteers as a member of the Swords Company in about 1914, and was involved in the Howth gun-running of that year. In his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History he gives a full and detailed account of the Battle of Ashbourne in Co. Meath during the 1916 Rising, describing the military engagements and the gun battle that led to the deaths of 12 people. Joseph was a keen amateur photographer and was in the habit of carrying a camera, and states that he took photographs of this day with his Vest Pocket Kodak camera. Though the Battle of Ashbourne was a successful engagement for the Volunteers, they gave themselves up to the military when the word came from Dublin of Pearse’s general surrender. Joseph was interned in Frongoch until the general release at Christmas 1916. On his return to Dublin he went to retrieve his camera, rifle and binoculars which he had hidden in a stone wall near Ashbourne – he found the rifle and binoculars, but sadly the camera, and the only photographs of the events at Ashbourne, was missing.

Row of prisoners' huts at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Row of prisoners’ huts at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

He later set up a business in Parnell Street which was to become a bomb factory, and later established a private car hire business which was used by IRA parties, including Joseph, to carry out raids on RIC barracks. He was arrested in December 1920 and interned first at Collinstown Aerodrome (now Dublin Airport) and Arbour Hill, and was transferred to Rath Camp at the end of February 1921. He agreed to be elected as the prisoners’ vice-commandant under Peadar McMahon.

Sentry tower at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Sentry tower at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

The camp was built to hold between 1200 and 1400 men, and was comprised of four series of huts (A, B, C and D), a canteen, cookhouses, baths, latrines, wash houses, stores, a hospital, a chapel and an excerise yard, all surrounded by fencing of barbed wire and sentry towers, lit at night by flood lights.

Washing clothes at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Washing clothes at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Taking exercise at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Taking exercise at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Although cameras were prohibited in internment camps and prisons, Joseph had managed to smuggle one in and photographically recorded the details of the prisoners’ lives. They cover everyday activities such as taking exercise, washing clothes, attending mass, cooking meals and tuberculosis patients being treated in the camp hospital. These activities contrast with the background in the photographs which depict watch towers and barbed wire, reminding the viewer that the people in the photographs are under constant armed guard and threat to their lives.

Prisoners in the hospital hut at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners in the hospital hut at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners attending Mass at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners attending Mass at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Sergeant Roper and Ed McEvoy at Hut 1, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Sergeant Roper and Ed McEvoy at Hut 1, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

One image in particular also makes us consider the conditions of the British soldiers guarding the camp. The soldier photographed is Sergeant Roper of the Black Watch, to the left in the foreground is Ed McEvoy, another I.R.A. prisoner. The camera is hidden on Joseph’s person, most likely under his jacket at around hip level, as he stands inside prisoners’ hut No. 1.   In the information accompanying the collection, Joseph stated that Roper heard the click of the photograph being taken but did not know who had the camera. He became very alarmed when McEvoy told him that the photograph would be used to identify him to the prisoners’ friends on the outside. The threat of retribution from the friends of the internees must have been a real fear for the soldiers.

Trenches being dug after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Trenches being dug after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Any chance of escape from Rath was slim, but opportunities were taken when they were found. From the early stages of the camp escape tunnels were being dug by the prisoners, and a plan was put in place that would enable the escape of most of the prisoners in the camp. In September 1921 the tunnellers digging out from a hut in D section decided to break through to the surface earlier than was expected by the camp leaders, and a number of men escaped. However, the plan to communicate the escape route failed and the first many knew of it was the next morning when the British soldiers rounded up all the prisoners to be counted. Later that day they were paraded on the field for a more detailed check, and the grounds searched for more escape tunnels. Within a couple of days a deep trench had been dug around the fences to cut off any further routes of escape.

Prisoners being counted after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners being counted after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Mail being taken to be censored, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Mail being taken to be censored, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Joseph and a Northern Irish man called Tom Glennon came up with a new plan of escape in October. The refuse from the cookhouse was sold to a local merchant as pig swill, and collected in a donkey cart which Tom thought could conceal two men. They formed a plan, gained 10 pounds from another prisoner, the camp chaplain Father Paddy Smith from Tullamore, and Tom arranged the bribe with the soldier who took charge of the cart from its young drivers once inside the camp. They raided the camp censor’s hut for two large mail sacks and waited for the cart to arrive on Sunday evening. With the help of their commrades at the cookhouse the bribe was arranged and Joseph and Tom hid themselves in the mail sacks, covered with swill. The cart was driven out the gates and returned to the young boys to be delivered to the merchant, who got quite a shock down the road when they realised what their cart contained. They left the boys’ cart at the edge of the Curragh and made their way back to Dublin, at one point meeting two British officers from the Rath Camp, who were fortunately too drunk from their activities on their day’s leave to recognise them. Joseph continued his activities in the Republican movement on his return to Dublin. He later became a Colonel in the Irish Army in the Free State. Two months after his escape, on the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, Rath Camp was closed and its remaining prisoners released. The Rath Camp came into being as a centre of internment again a year later during the Irish Civil War, when it held around 1200 Republican prisoners.

Prisoners at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)