The fifth battalion of the Dublin Brigade was spectacularly successful against a large Royal Irish Constabulary force in Ashbourne, Co Meath.
By Paul Maguire
On Easter Friday, 1916, the noose tightened around the neck of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin City.
Surrounded on all sides, the country’s failure to rise in response to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic meant defeat was all but assured.
A different story was playing out at Ashbourne, however.
Here, the fifth battalion of the Dublin Brigade, better known as the Fingal battalion, were rounding off a successful week by defeating a much larger force of Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Shunning the tactics employed in the city, the Fingal battalion proved how successful guerilla warfare could be in an Irish context, and offered a ready made blueprint to future Irish rebels.
The establishment of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 was enthusiastically received in Fingal. Charles Weston was typical of many Fingal volunteers. He joined the Volunteers because it gave him a chance to “burst the English domination”.
Following the Volunteer split in August 1914, the battalion was reorganised on a much smaller scale. It consisted of four companies based around Swords, Lusk, Donabate, and St Margaret’s.
Training was undertaken religiously; one Volunteer remarking that “we were so well trained, we could hide behind an apple tree”.
Mick McAllister, maintained “most of the men were good natural shots… some of them were exceptionally good and could be said to be marksmen with a rifle”.
Despite their intense training, the Irish Volunteers were, in reality, a subscription army. One Fingal man recalled paying a six-pence weekly subscription. It was a testament to their dedication that subscriptions were maintained in an era of grinding poverty.
By Easter Week, the Fingal battalion was well trained and many were itching for a fight. Bernard McAllister maintained he had “a good idea that the fight we were looking forward to would start soon”.
Battalion commandant Thomas Ashe, a high-ranking Irish Republican Brotherhood member, who had assumed command shortly before the rising from Dr Richard Hayes, received an order from James Connolly on Good Friday that operations should begin at 7pm on Easter Sunday.
On the day, 120 men mobilised at Saucerstown. Due to Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order, confusion reigned.
Ashe sent Hayes and Joe Lawless into the city. They returned with the message that everything was off and to await further orders. At 7am on Easter Monday, Joe Lawless handed Ashe a dispatch from Pearse ordering the battalion to “strike at one o’clock today”.
Sixty men now mobilised at Knocksedan crossroads on Easter Monday. The battalion’s standing orders were to disrupt enemy movement and communications. To this end, small detachments were sent out during the week to cut telegraph lines and wreck railways lines.
The battalion camped at Finglas on Monday where they met with three Volunteers from the city. Amongst them was Richard Mulcahy who became an invaluable member of the battalion during Easter Week.
After sending reinforcements into the city on Tuesday, around 45 men remained and these were sub-divided into four sections. Three would undertake operations, while the fourth was kept in reserve.
The battalion’s mobility was key, every Volunteer having a bicycle, which allowed it to range over Fingal and beyond. Essentially acting as a flying column like that later commanded with devastating effect by Tom Barry in west Cork, the battalion acted with impunity throughout Easter week, striking at RIC barracks in Swords, Donabate, and Garristown.
In each instance, communications were destroyed and arms captured when available. It was not until Friday that the RIC undertook action against the Volunteers.
At 10.30am on Friday, three sections of the battalion entered Ashbourne with orders to attack the RIC barracks. Gerry Golden’s section encountered three RIC men on bicycles. Two surrendered on seeing the rebels, the third was disarmed after a scuffle with Golden. Another group were disarmed while erecting a makeshift barricade. The outskirts secured, Ashe then demanded the barracks surrender. Joe Lawless thought it “a rather flamboyant gesture”. The reply was a volley of gunfire from inside the barracks.
A 30-minute firefight began, which ended when a bomb was thrown at the barracks. Mick McAllister remembered it “made a terrific noise” but did no damage. It was, however, enough to force the police into surrender.
Before the surrender could be taken, a large convoy of police, under RIC County Inspector Alexander Gray and District Inspector Harry Smyth, arrived behind the Volunteers’ position. The RIC could not take advantage of their position despite having superior numbers and surprising the Volunteers.
Eugene Bratton, one of the RIC men in the convoy, remembered the arrival of the police convoy was met with a rapid fire from the Volunteers which was accordingly returned by the police.
A chaotic five-hour battle ensued.
Frank Lawless’s section was called for and as they made their way to the fight, they were mistaken for RIC reinforcements and fired upon by Lawless’s own son. As the fight wore on, however, the Volunteers’ field training and superior marksmanship began to tell.
Mulcahy initiated a “ruse… making great noise to give the impression that we were very numerous”. This tactic was successful and caused the RIC resistance to break.
Mulcahy and Ashe worked it that Mulcahy would drive the police down to Ashe’s position. Volunteer James O’Connor thought “Mulcahy was a very brave man as he went up to the middle of the road disregarding any cover and firing at the RIC as he went”.
The Volunteers were now in the ascendancy. As District Inspector Smyth encouraged his men to keep up the fight, he was shot down by Frank Lawless. “His death was a signal for a general collapse of police resistance.”
When the dust had settled it was clear the Volunteers had scored an overwhelming success. The RIC had suffered heavy casualties; eight dead and 18 wounded, while the Volunteers had comparatively light casualties; two dead and five wounded.
Ashe paraded the RIC before him and warned them not to fight against the Irish people again, as Dr Richard Hayes attended the police wounded. After the Volunteers had left, an eyewitness recalls the surviving police “were very shaken and were shivering. One of them remarked to me that the rebels were great men”.
Returning to camp, Ashe remarked he smelt “victory in the air”. The prophecy proved to be wide of the mark. Although they had a successful week, in Dublin it was, of course, a different matter.
On Saturday morning, two RIC men came to the Volunteer camp and stated that the leaders had surrendered. Ashe sent Mulcahy into Dublin for confirmation from Pearse. When Mulcahy returned the message was clear: “It is all up boys.”
Although ultimately defeated, the battalion had showed ample evidence that guerilla warfare was the best way in which to conduct a future insurrection.
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