On the 28th April, the Friday of the week of the Easter Rising, a group of Irish Volunteers on their way to Batterstown, Co. Meath, came upon a Royal Irish Constabulary barricade. The battle that ensued came to be known as the Battle of Ashbourne. This bicycle pump was picked up by a woman on the site of the battle later that day and kept as a souvenir, and was donated to the National Museum in 1945.
The Battle of Ashbourne was a direct confrontation and gun battle between up to 70 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and about 37 Irish Volunteers. It was one of the few engagements outside of the city centre and was, in contrast to the main Rising in Dublin, a successful one. It was also an example of the guerilla warfare that became a normal method of operation during the War of Independence.
James O’Connor, an Irish Volunteer with St Margaret’s Company, Dublin, took part in the battle and recounted the events to the Bureau of Military History in 1948. After his battalion, which was headed by Thomas Ashe and Richard Mulcahy, was mobilized on Easter Sunday they were split into smaller groups, or flying columns, and sent north of Dublin city towards Ashbourne. Their mission was to destroy the railway line near Batterstown and disrupt the movement of British troops into the city. They set out by bicycle, armed mostly with shotguns, and after raiding a number of barracks in the area, cutting communications and collecting rifles, they reached the Cross of the Rath at Ashbourne. There they were met with a barricade that had been hastily erected by the RIC from the barracks situated there. The constables quickly surrendered and were sent to the barracks to order a full surrender. They did not return, and the Volunteers took positions across the road while O’Connor and Ashe tried to break in the door. The constables began firing from the upper windows of the building, and a gun battle broke out. The fighting intensified as RIC reinforcements arrived from Navan, Dunboyne and Slane, and O’Connor saw many falling as they were hit. Two Volunteers, John Crennigan and Thomas Rafferty were also fatally wounded. When District Inspector Gray was killed, the constables surrendered and were taken prisoner. The Volunteers gathered their arms and ammunition while Ashe warned the constables that they would be shot if they took arms against the Irish people again. Their victory was short lived, as at 2pm the next day Ashe received word of the surrender in Dublin and demobilised the battalion, sending the men home. Many, including O’Connor, were arrested within days and interned in Wakefield and Frongoch.
John Austen, a postal worker and native of Ashbourne, was an eye-witness to the event. His account of the start of the battle differs a little from O’Connor’s in that he states that the constable at the barricade did not surrender, but ran and was captured (finally being dragged out from underneath a bed), and that Ashe went to the barracks to order the surrender. Austen watched the battle from the nearby Lime-kiln Hill, and returned to the road when the shooting had stopped.
In total, fourteen people were killed in the battle, two Volunteers, eight RIC members, two civilians driving the RIC cars, and two civilians who were passing through the area. Many more were injured. Austen was asked to take the dead men off the road, and loaded the bodies of eight men into a cart with the help of two constables. The two Inspectors had already been removed, and the bodies of Crennigan and Rafferty had been taken away by the Volunteers. Austen described seeing Sergeant Shanagher – ‘He was shot right between the eyes as he left the car and slumped into a small depression on the side of the road. The road that evening was a terrible sight with blood and bandages strewn on it’.
The bicycle pump itself is a very ordinary object, and not one that is normally or easily connected to a battle scene. The clearest connection is probably that, as many of the accounts mention, the Volunteers arrived at the scene by bicycle. However, that doesn’t guarantee that this pump came from a Volunteer’s bicycle. Cycling was more common than travelling by car at this time, and it’s reasonable to think that the pump could have come from any bicycle, at any time, and simply could have happened to be there at that point in time. When the donor picked it up there was no indication of its ownership, but she believed it to have belonged to a person engaged in the battle and took it as a souvenir. In doing this she connected the object to the event and gave it an association and significance it wouldn’t otherwise have had. Like many museum objects, the meaning given to it by the person who witnessed or experienced an event is what gives it a place in our history, and allows it to continue telling a story long after the person has gone.
Royal Irish Constabulary Casualties
- RIC County Inspector Alexander Gray, injured at the Battle of Ashbourne and later died of his wounds on 10th May. Shot by Volunteer Frank Lawless. Aged 57, he had served for 33 years and 5 months
- RIC District Inspector Harry Smyth. An ex-army Englishman, aged 41, he had served for 16 years and 9 months, and had been based in Navan since 1912.
- RIC Constable John Shanagher, No. 54677. Aged 48, he had served for 25 years and 3 months.
- RIC Constable John Young, No. 58036. Aged 42, he had served for 19 years and 5 months.
- RIC Constable James Hickey, No. 54582. Aged 49, he had served for 25 years and 7 months.
- RIC Constable James Gormley, No. 66800. Aged 25, he had served for 3 years and 7 months.
- RIC Constable Richard McHale, No. 67072. Aged 22, he had served for 3 years and 2 months.
- RIC Constable James Cleary, No. 64900. Aged 28, he had served for 6 years and 9 months.
Irish Volunteer Casualties
- John Crennigan, aged 21, of Swords, Co. Dublin. A member of the Irish Volunteers (Fingal Brigade). He was killed in action when shot by RIC District Inspector Smyth, at the Battle of Ashbourne.
- Thomas Rafferty, aged 22, of Lusk, Co. Dublin. A member of the Irish Volunteers (Fingal Brigade). He received a gunshot wound at the Battle of Ashbourne, and died later of his injuries.
- Gerald John Hogan, aged 26, of 9 Summerhill Road, Kingstown. A civilian, listed as being a commercial traveller. He died in the cross fire in the Battle of Ashbourne as he tried to pass through. He is buried in Dean’s Grange Cemetery.
- James Joseph Carroll, aged 24, of 1 Municipal Buildings, Kingstown. A civilian, listed as being a commercial traveller. He was killed in the cross fire in the Battle of Ashbourne as he tried to pass through. He is buried in Dean’s Grange Cemetery.