The Battle of Ashbourne

Tuesday 25, April 1916 was a fine, spring day. There had been gentle showers earlier, but the land had dried since then, and the rest of week promised to be warm. After a disastrous start on Easter Sunday, things had gone as smoothly as could be expected for Irish Volunteer, Lieutenant Richard Mulcahy. After reporting to the GPO in Dublin on Monday, he and two other Volunteers were sent into the countryside to destroy the telegraph lines at Howth. Despite one Volunteer needing to be sent back for his rifle and briefly being stopped by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), they reached their target and easily severed the lines[1]. Mulcahy on his way back to headquarters, stumbled upon the Fingal (5th) battalion, led by the charismatic and courageous Commandant Thomas Ashe. Mulcahy was instantly recognized and made Ashe’s second in command[2]. Together, they would spend a week, utilizing basic guerilla tactics to terrorize British forces in the countryside of Dublin County and capture three different British garrisons. They would end the week, with the Battle of Ashbourne, a desperate struggle that would pit Ashe’s leadership and Mulcahy’s analytical mind against the RIC’s discipline, arms, and experience. The battle, while often overshadows by the drama unfurling within Dublin, would provide a taste of what was to come during the Anglo-Irish War.

            Before taking part in the Rising, Thomas Ashe and Richard Mulcahy were typical Irishmen. Ashe was born in 1885 to a farmer and wife in Lispole. He was a teacher by trade, spoke both English and Irish, and was said to be a tall, handsome, and charismatic man[3]. He, like many in his generation, believed firmly in returning Ireland to its Gaelic past. He was recruited into the Irish Volunteers in 1913 through friends he met in the Gaelic League and joined the secret militant society the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) shortly afterwards. Because of his popularity and leadership abilities, he was given command of the Fingal Brigade, which consisted of units from the following cities: Lusk, Skerries, and St. Margaret’s.

 

Richard Mulcahy
Richard Mulcahy

Richard Mulcahy was Ashe’s exact opposite. Born in 1886 to a post master in Waterford, he would join the Post Office Engineering Department in 1902. Mulcahy was a quiet, deeply religious, and shy man, who was inspired to fight for Irish freedom by the Gaelic League and Arthur Griffith’s articles and speeches. He would join the IRB in the 1908 and the Irish Volunteers in 1913. Mulcahy did not have the charisma that Ashe had, but it would be his intuitive sense of organization and tactics combined with Ashe’s leadership that would win the day for the Irish Volunteers at Ashbourne.

While the early 1900s saw an extensive renewal of Gaelic identity and culture, Ashe, Mulcahy, and their compatriots of 1916 may have disappeared into the dustbins of history had Ireland not been a powder keg waiting to explode. Centuries of oppression broken by the occasional bloody rebellion had created distrust and antagonisms all over the Green Isle. Ever since the 1798 uprising, Ireland had been nothing but one giant headache for London. If the British authorities were not dealing with the 1848 rebellion or the 1867 Fenian Uprising, then they were battling against Daniel O’Connell’s peaceful efforts to emancipate the Catholics and dissolve the Union. O’Connell was able to liberate the Catholic majority, but he could not free Ireland from England’s rule, a cause picked up by Charles Parnell. Parnell was a beloved Irish politician who would become the closest of all Irish statesmen to convince England of the wisdom behind Home Rule. Home Rule was a bill that would keep Ireland within the British Commonwealth, but allow the Irish to govern themselves. This tantalizing agreement would be within his grasp, when a scandalous affair to an already married women ruined Parnell’s political career and Ireland’s future.

Home Rule was resuscitated by Parnell’s political successor, John Redmond. Through his tireless efforts, Home Rule was brought before England’s Parliament where

400px-John_Redmond_ca1916
John Redmond giving a speech circa 1916

it was indefinitely postponed by the eruption of World War I. Given the political climate within Ireland, it is unclear if Home Rule would have passed, even without the intervention of the First World War. Not only were many English against the bill, but so was a vocal minority within Ireland itself: the Anglo-Irish of Northern Ireland. Irish memory is long and, for the Northern Irish, the memories of the bloody massacres of the 1798 Rebellion, the 1848 Uprising, and 1867 Fenian Uprising were still fresh. They feared that Home Rule was the first step in England eventually abandoning the island and leaving them to the mercy of the large Catholic majority. In order to pressure London, they created a militant group known as the Ulster Volunteers in 1912. The Irish Nationalists (who were largely Catholic and supported Home Rule) responded in kind by creating their own militant group, the Irish Volunteers, in 1913.

The Irish Volunteers was created by Eoin MacNeil and included members from the Gaelic League, Sinn Fein, and, eventually, the IRB. MacNeil and Bulmer Hobson (who masterminded the unification of the Irish Volunteers and IRB) supported Redmond’s efforts to achieve Home Rule but believed that it was important for the Irish people to be prepared. They organized themselves along the lines of a regular army and regularly held drilling session where men practice military maneuvers. These sessions were such a familiar sight that during the first few days of the Rising, the RIC didn’t think anything of the units on the move in the countryside.

The logic behind merging the Irish Volunteers and IRB together was sound, but the IRB was far more militant than anyone imagined. IRB members, such as Patrick Pearse and Sean MacDermott (also known as Mac Diarmada), believed that Ireland would only be free after its people made a glorious and bloody sacrifice. While Home Rule was a possibility, and the Ulster Volunteers stayed in Northern Ireland, they had a hard time justifying an uprising. Then World War I occurred forcing England to permanently postpone Home Rule until after the war and to delicately encourage recruitment within its empire without angering its various populations. England considered conscription in Ireland, but decided that it was best to let sleeping dogs lie. However, they pressured Redmond to recruit for them. He came out as pro-recruitment and pro-war because he believed he could salvage Home Rule if Ireland remained loyal during the war.

This was the final straw for the nationalists like Tom Clarke and Pearse, who believed they had the required justification for an uprising. MacNeil and Hobson disagreed. They

Thomas_Clarke_the_brave
Tom Clarke

 

supported a rising, but only if conscription was passed, they were provoked by the Ulster Volunteers or the RIC, and if there was a reasonable chance of success. Pearse, Clake, McDermott, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett and Eamon Ceannt disagreed. They made a secret military committee, adding the socialist James Connolly after he threated to lead an uprising of his own, and planned for a country wide rebellion. They sent Plunkett and Roger Casement to Germany to recruit their assistance. The Germans refused to send troops to Ireland but agreed to send arms using their u-boats. Plunkett returned to Dublin in time for the rebellion, while Casement stayed to recruit from the Irish prisoners the Germans captured. The military committee, without alerting MacNeill or Hobson, decided that Easter Sunday would be the day for the uprising.

The order was given and when MacNeill found out, he was initially supportive, until he learned that the British had stopped a German ship carrying arms off the coast of Ireland. He sent out an order canceling the Rising, creating a confusing situation for Volunteers like Ashe and Mulcahy. The seven conspirators tried to salvage the mess but had to admit defeat and rearrange their plans. The men were dismissed, but told to be ready to spring to action at any moment. For men like Mulcahy, who was preparing to go on holiday, it was sheer confusion. For men like Ashe, who had gathered his battalion at Knocksedan, Swords in North County Dublin, and were ready to follow through on their orders, it was bitterly disappointing. Neither realized that the very next day would provide them both with the chance to do more than their share for the cause.

Frank Lawless, Ashe’s Battalion Quartermaster, was the first to receive the order to mobilize on Monday, April 24th. Lawless sent his son, Joseph, on Ashe’s motorcycle to the house of the battalion’s medical and intelligence officer, Dr. Richard Hayes. Hayes had been the original commander of the Fingal Battalion, but gave the post to Ashe to pursue his medical career. At the house, Joseph found both Hayes and Ashe and they gathered the battalion at Knocksedan once more. This time, only sixty men showed up as oppose to the estimated hundred and twenty on Sunday.

Ashe’s battalion was organized into companies of twenty to thirty men based on where they were from. The Swords company was commanded by Dick Coleman, the St. Margaret’s company was commanded by James V. Lawless, the Lusk company was commanded by Edward Rooney, and the Skerries company was commanded by Jim McGuinness. Despite the disappointment they felt over the lack of numbers, they had an advantage in mobility. Ashe had his motorcycle, Hayes had a two-seater Morris Oxford, and many of the men who had mobilized had brought their bicycles with them[4]. Their arms were better than other Irish Volunteer units, but still lacking. They had twelve-fifteen .303 or 9 mm service rifles, ten-twelve Howth Mausers, and twelve single-shot Martini carbines[5]. Some were armed only with shotguns[6] and there was an odd assortment of revolvers and pistols. They had an estimated amount of a hundred rounds per rifle, three hundred rounds loaded with buckshot per shotgun, and thirty rounds per pistol[7]plus sixty pounds of gelignite and two canister type grenades[8]. Most of the men gathered were dressed in their Volunteers uniforms[9].

Ashe sent Joseph Lawless on his motorcycle to meet up with two other Volunteers to blow up the Great Northern Railway Bridge. This bridge crossed at Rogerstown, which was about 27 km northeast from Dublin and 16.1 km northeast from Knocksedan. Destroying this crossing would delay the British attempts to enter Dublin city via the

thomas ashe
Thomas Ashe

railways. When they arrived at the bridge, they realized they didn’t have enough explosives to destroy the bridge. Instead, they stacked the gelignite around the middle girder on the center pier, but only caused minor damage. They bivouacked at Finglas and Ashe sent a midnight expedition to destroy the Blachardstown line, which was 9.1 km from southwest Dublin and 13.9 km southwest from Knocksedan, but this proved to be a wasted expedition. The men that had been sent, gave up on their objective, and returned to rest before moving out again.

Tuesday morning opened with a disappointing order for Ashe. Connolly had requested that he send forty men to assist the forces in Dublin. Ashe could only send twenty men under the command of Coleman. The rest of the day was quiet, except for the arrival of Mulcahy who Ashe enough to make him his second in command. A steady rain fell that afternoon and the Fingal battalion sheltered in a nearby farm in Killeek. That night, Ashe and his commanders decided that they would attack the police barracks at Swords, which was 9 km east of Killeek, and Donabate, which was 15.5 km northeast of Killeek.

             Ashe and Mulcahy started Wednesday, April 26th, by reorganizing the battalion into four equally sized sections. The sections would rotate their responsibilities with one foraging and defending the camp and the other three organized as needed to carry out their missions. Ideally, one section would serve as the advance guard, another section would serve as the main body and include the commander and his battalion staff, and the final section would serve as a rear guard. Section one was commanded by Charlie Weston, section two was commanded by Joe Lawless, section three was commanded by Ned Rooney, and section four was commanded by Jim Lawless. [10]

After the reorganized, Joe Lawless and his men bicycled into the city of Sword and positioned themselves around the barracks, acting as scouts. Lawless sent a man to report to Ashe of the situation while the police watched vaguely amused, apparently ignorant about what was going on in Dublin. Once Ashe received Lawless’ report, he ordered sections one and three to sweep into the city and rush the barracks. The police, caught by surprise, surrendered, allowing the Volunteers to collect several revolvers, carbines, and ammunition[11]. After capturing the barracks, Rooney’s men took the post office and cut the telegraph and phone lines. A motorized bread van drove into the village during the chaos and the men gladly feasted on its freshly baked contents and took the van to their camp in Killeek.

The men reorganized themselves, this time Weston’s section taking lead, and they marched to Donabate city. Weston’s men prepared to enter the city while the other two sections secured the perimeter and prepared the railroad and telegraphic lines for demolition. Two shots were fired at a man who had refused a Volunteer’s orders to halt, alerting the police in the barracks. Mulcahy was furious and sharply reprehended the men for wasting the ammunition and ruining the element of surprise. Ashe and Mulcahy entered the city with Weston’s column as the police sheltered themselves within the barracks. The Volunteers destroyed the telephone and telegraphic equipment in the post office and were approached by a man willing to negotiation the surrender of the barracks. The sergeant refused. Weston’s column approached the barracks and Weston demanded, once more, that the police surrender. This was met with gunfire. As the two units exchanged fire, Weston and six men armed with a crowbar, pickaxe, and sledgehammer, ran across the field of fire and battered down the bolted door of the police station. This revealed a second door that they proceeded to beat down as well. A white flag was flung, and the barracks surrendered. After disarming the police and collecting whatever they could from the barracks, they dismantled the railway tracks. They returned to camp in Killeek and Ashe and his commanders decided that the next day they would attack the barracks in Garristown, which was 22.1 km from Killeek.

            Thursday did not go as planned. When they reached Garristown, they discovered that the police had pulled back to the post at Balbriggan, taking the ammunition and arms with them. Ashe’s men destroyed the telegraphic lines at the post office and took what money was there (Mulcahy leaving a receipt that declared that the money no longer had any value[12]). After this setback, the men complained. It was obvious the rest of the country had not risen in rebellion and some even argued that they should have listened to MacNeill’s orders to stand down. Ashe argued with his men, claiming he wasn’t going to keep anyone there if they wanted to leave. He then had the men kneel so that Father Kavanagh, could bless them. They bivouacked at a farmhouse near Borranstown, which was the halfway point between Garristown and Ashbourne. Since the terrain was unfamiliar to them, Ashe sent out scouts, and discussed future plans with his staff. They decided that they would attack the Midland Great Western Railway near Batterstown, next. Despite the silence from Dublin, the Fingal battalion was proud of its accomplishes and were feeling confident.

However, the British would not ignore them for long. County Inspector Alexander Gray had received word of barrack attacks all day. Gray was a RIC man and had been stationed in Dingle, County Kerry during the Land Wars in the 1880s, severely repressing the population on the behalf of the landlords Currently, he was stationed at Slane in County Meath, which was about 21 km from Borranston. Even though the county was reported to be loyal, he suspected that the barracks at Meath were in danger. There were thirty-six RIC stations in the county, but many of them were small and not worth defending. He decided to withdraw his troops into the bigger barracks and he created the Quick Reaction Force that would mobilize rapidly to crisis points. He collected seventeen motor vehicles from the populace and his men were armed with Lee-Enfield rifles, Mark I carbines, and Webley revolvers. Finally, he made his second in command District Inspector Henry Smyth. Smyth was from England, had served sixteen years in the Constabulary, and had been in the army before that. Gray felt that he was prepared for whatever the Volunteers had planned.

That Friday morning at 10:30, Weston took advance guard while Rooney commanded section two and Joe Lawless’s men brought up the rear. They were marching towards the crossing between the Dublin main road and Slane Road. As they marched, they realized that the police barracks in Ashbourne threatened their line of retreat from Borranstown so they decided to take it, first. The barracks had received reinforcements from Navan, Dunboyne, and Slane and had created a perimeter defense in the form of a checkpoint manned by three constables. Weston saw this makeshift defense and decided to use the hedgerows and ditches to sneak up on them. After clearing the blockade, Weston reported to Ashe and Mulcahy who prepared their troops to assault the barracks.

The landscape favored the Volunteers. The terrain north and south of the barracks was thick with hedgerows that the Volunteers used as cover. Weston’s troops were in front of the barracks while Rooney and Lawless positioned themselves behind the barracks. Ashe demanded that the police surrender and was met with gunfire. This led to a firefight that convinced Ashe that a frontal assault would be useless and needlessly bloody. Instead, Mulcahy and Volunteer Peader Blanchfield ran forward and took cover behind the hedges and fence that surrounded the barracks. While Mulcahy provided covering fire, Blanchfield prepared an explosive and threw it at the barracks. The explosion caused little damage but terrified the police so much, they surrendered. Ashe had just ordered the police to come out with their hands up when a convoy of cars came tearing down Slane road.

            The convoys were Gray’s rapid mobility squadron. He had heard of the rebel attack at Ashbourne and sent his troops to support the RIC stationed there. Ashe thought about retreating, but Mulcahy convinced him to hold their position. He had Weston send out two scouts, who quickly returned and reported that there were at least a hundred men. Mulcahy replied, “It does not matter if there is a thousand, we will deal with those fellows[13].” With two men firing at the barracks to keep the police in there trapped, he had Weston’s men fire at the newcomers, keeping them distracted.

Weston positioned his men, so they flanked the convoy on both sides of the road. As the police dismounted their vehicles, Weston opened fire, sending the troops scattering for cover. Gray was caught in the gunfire and mortally wounded (he would die on 10 May.) Weston’s troops held the line while Mulcahy ran behind the barricades to find Lawless and Rooney. The two Volunteers were nervously waiting for orders and seeing Mulcahy run to them, through a hail of gunfire, unharmed, inspired them. Mulcahy’s plan was to trap the police force between the three sections of Volunteer soldiers. To do this, he had the two sections follow him to Garristown Road, which was perpendicular to the attacking police men. Section two would be positioned here to support Weston’s men, while Lawless would take his section to the rear of the police convoy. The police would be surrounded on three sides with their focus on Weston and Rooney. Once Weston and Rooney attacked across the crossroads, Lawless was to attack, trapping the fleeing police in a withering field of fire.

Mulcahy’s plan rested on his intuitive understanding that, while the Volunteers had been surprised by the sudden reinforcements, the police were in greater disarray.

 

richard and wife.png
Richard Mulcahy and Wife

Although he could not know of Gray’s mortal wounding, it was clear that the police had not expected to run into the type of resistance Weston’s men were putting up. Mulcahy sensed that if they pressed the police hard and fast, the RIC would break. Additionally, Mulcahy had arranged his men in small groups within their sections, allowing them to concentrate their fire, take advantage of the natural cover the landscaped provided, and to rush the police whenever the opportunity presented itself.

When Lawless reached the rear, he organized his men along the hedgerows and described the terrain as follows:

            “The road boundaries are those common to County Meath roads: a low bank, about eighteen inches to two feet high, dividing a wide shallow channel; this bank is gapped at intervals to allow water to drain from the road. The channel is no deeper than the road surface, but is about three to four feet wide and overgrown in patches with long grass and occasional small bushes. Beyond the channel rises a steep bank, four to six feet high, which has a thorn hedge on the field side, and between it and the fields runs a deep and wide ditch, six to seven feet deep and six to seven feet wide at the top[14].”

Gray’s second in command, Inspector Smyth was positioned in the rear as a reserve, when his men encountered Lawless’ forces. For an hour and a half, the police and Volunteers fired at each other, turning the quiet country road into a smoking, confusing hell where men on both sides were disoriented by the intense gunfire, screams of the wounded, and the smoke trapped into the hedgerow.

As Lawless’ men engaged with Smyth’s, one of the Volunteers told him he saw police reinforcements coming down the road. Lawless ordered his men to fire upon the marching column and he heard shouting, but thought it was his men being pushed back by the reinforcements. As he fired his revolver, Lawless realized he was out of ammunition. He ordered a retreat and in the confusion all his command. He found Ashe and told him about the incoming reinforcements. Ashe, believing his men were in danger, was about to call a general retreat, when Mulcahy ran across the bullet torn ground. Lawless explained that the police had been reinforced and Mulcahy testily explained that Lawless had fired upon their own men. He had ordered section four to come up from camp and support their attack. One can imagine Lawless’ horror when he realized he had fired upon troops led by his own father. Mulcahy’s explanation calmed Ashe’s nerves and they agreed to keep fighting.

With fresh men from section four, the police were now fighting on at least three fronts. Section four attacked the police from the Slane side of the road (their rear), Weston’s forced on Rath road (their front) and enfilade firing from Garrison road (Rooney’s command and whoever from Lawless’ command still had ammunition). Mulcahy shouted to the police “Will you surrender? By God, if you don’t we will give you a dog’s death[15].” The police responded with another wave of gunfire.

It was a futile gesture and Mulcahy must have known that. However, it seemed that the police needed a little more convincing, so, Mulcahy had men from section one fix bayonets and charge. This terrified the police, and many dropped their weapons and surrendered. While Mulcahy was charging, section four fought with Smyth’s men, killing Smyth in the process. Once their commander died, the men gladly surrendered. The men still trapped within the barracks quickly followed suit.

The Battle of Ashbourne was over.

While Hayes tended to the wounded, Ashe took the ammunition and arms from the prisoners and warned them that if they ever raised a finger against the Republic again they’d be shot. After that, he pardoned them and let them go. After five hours of fighting, the Volunteers lost one man killed and six wounded. Considering the length of the battle, the amount of ammunition they went through, and the exhaustion of their men, Ashe and Mulcahy decided to bivouac at Newbarn, a city 7 km from Ashbourne.

Saturday was spent resting, reviewing the ammunition and arms collected during the battle, and waiting for orders from Dublin. On Sunday, they received an order to surrender from Pearse. Mulcahy was sent into Dublin to confirm the order, Ashe believing it was a rouse by the RIC to get their forces to surrender. When Mulcahy returned with Pearse’s confirmation the Fingal Battalion was crushed. They surrendered as ordered, were marched to Swords, and taken to Richmond Barracks in Inchicore.

Richard Mulcahy would be interned at Knutsford before being moved to Frongoch, the ‘University of Revolution’, where he would first meet Michael Collins. They would serve their sentences until they were released in December 1916 and reunited with a newly reformed and active Irish Volunteers. Mulcahy’s abilities would be recognized by men like Eamon De Valera, Cathal Brugha, and Collins and he would be made the IRA’s chief of staff in 1917. He would lead the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War, oversee the creation of the Free State Army while fighting a civil war, and uphold civilian authority over the army during the 1924 mutiny. He would later become a prominent member of Fine Gael and serve Ireland in various ministerial positions. However, his legacy would always be darkened by his support of punitive executions during the Irish Civil War, in which anti-treaty activists captured carrying arms were often executed.

On 11 May 1916, Ashe was tried by court martial and sentence to death, but like De Valera, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He was transferred to Dartmoor Prison. He was also released in 1916 only to be rearrested after touring Ireland and speaking on the need for independence. This time he was imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison. While in Mountjoy, Ashe and several other prisoners wanted to have political prisoner status as oppose to criminal status. When this was denied, Ashe went on hunger strike. He died on 25 September 1917 after being brutally force fed.

Given his relationship with Ashe, Mulcahy was chosen to organize his funeral. It was the second time he was able to use his organizational and tactical skills to benefit the cause. Volunteers came to Dublin from all over the country and on 30 September, the Volunteers in uniform and with their arms took over the entire city. They escorted Ashe’s body to Glasnevin cemetery where thousands lined the streets. Mulcahy had the cortege begin from Dublin City Hall to Glasnevin cemetery. Three volleys were fired, and Michael Collins gave a brief oration, “Nothing additional remains to be said. That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian[16].”

The Battle of Ashbourne is often overlooked because of the drama that unfurled in the city of Dublin and because, at the time, it had been nothing more than a small battalion surprising a British garrison. Hardly an engagement that caught the imagination. For men like Mulcahy, however, the Battle of Ashbourne was a glimpse of the future. Like Collins, Mulcahy understood that the Irish could never win a direct confrontation against British forces, which mean the Irish would have to fight a series of limited and harassing engagements. While the majority of the Volunteers were trapped inside the city of Dublin, being bombarded and pried out of shattered buildings, Ashe’s command rode throughout the countryside, holding garrisons at gunpoint, collecting arms and funds, and disappearing back into the thickets before the police could respond. Even when the Volunteers were forced to engage with the British, Mulcahy and Ashe broke their command into smaller units and utilized a combination of surprise and terrain to defeat the police. For Mulcahy, the most important lessons from Ashbourne was the importance of mobility, discipline, and the element of surprise. If the newly formed Irish Republican Army could master all three, then they could defeat the British and win Irish independence.

[1] Valiulis, M. G. (1993). Portrait of a Revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the Founding of the Irish Free State. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[2] Townshend, C. (2015). Easter 1916: The Irish rebellion. UK: Penguin Books.

[3] Townshend C. (2015)

[4] Townshend C. (2015)

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] OBrien, P. (2012). Field of fire: The battle of Ashbourne, 1916. Dublin: New Island.

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] O’Brien, P. (2012)

[11] ibid

[12] Townshend C. (2015)

[13] O’Brien P. (2012)

[14] O’Brien P. (2012)

[15] O’Brien P. (2012)

[16] Townshend C. (2015)

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