Military study made Ned Daly a shrewd tactician

 Ned Daly always wanted to be a soldier so when the Irish Volunteers were founded he seized his chance.

By Helen Litton


EDWARD (Ned) Daly was born in Limerick on 25 February 1891, the only son of nine children. His father had died five months earlier; he had been a Fenian in 1866, and his brother John had been in the 1867 Rising, escaping to America. The large family was left almost destitute until James Daly, who had emigrated in the 1850s, returned to Limerick a prosperous man, to look after his brother’s family.

Edward Daly, featured in the 16 Lives Biography series published by O’Brien Press. Photo courtesy of the O’Sullivan Family

Young Ned grew up in a very political atmosphere. His uncle John, joining Clan na Gael in New York, had been sent to England as a dynamiter. Arrested, he spent 12 years in prison and was released in 1896.

He flung himself into the Amnesty campaign, in which his nieces were already active, and a successful speaking tour in the United States earned him enough to set up a bakery.

In 1899, John became Limerick’s first nationalist mayor, and offered the Freedom of Limerick to a prison comrade, Thomas Clarke, who had just been released after 15 years. Clarke, 40, fell in love with John’s niece Kathleen, 21, and in 1901 they were married in New York, where Tom had contacts with Clan na Gael.

In John Daly’s opinion, Ned Daly had been coddled by his mother and sisters. He seemed interested only in music (he sang very well) and in his appearance.

He left the Christian Brothers in 1906, described as very bright, but unwilling to study.

John wanted him to work in the bakery, but doctors advised that the hot, dusty conditions would be bad for him, so Ned trained as a clerk, which he never liked. His secret ambition was to be a soldier, and he constantly studied military manuals, but he could hardly join the British Army.

In 1913, Ned moved to work in Dublin, living with Kathleen, her husband Tom and their three children. Tom Clarke was by now the centre of a revitalised Irish Republican Brotherhood, working tirelessly in his Parnell Street shop towards a rebellion.

When a Home Rule bill was finally brought forward, northern unionists refused to accept it, and established the Ulster Volunteer Force to defend themselves. The IRB decided to arm in response, and in November 1913 the Irish Volunteers were founded.

Thousands of young men joined the Irish Volunteers; among them was Ned Daly, a soldier at last.

Upon signing up, Ned became captain of the 1st Battalion in Dublin. He took pride in his company and could be disciplinarian, but he was greatly respected by the men, most of them older than he was.

He enjoyed the fundraising entertainments and summer training camps, often ending an evening with a song or two. His dark good looks attracted attention from girls in Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary of the Volunteers, but the only hint of a romance is in a letter to a sister in early 1915. It came to nothing, as the girl married someone else.

The First World War, starting in 1914, brought the opportunity Tom had been waiting for — to strike Britain while she was distracted. MP John Redmond’s speech urging the Volunteers to join the war resulted in a massive split, but enough Volunteers remained to carry out the plan.

The funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in August 1915. Picture: Glasnevin Trust

In June 1915, noted Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa died in New York, and Clarke took the opportunity for a display of nationalist strength. A massive funeral saw thousands of young nationalists marching to Glasnevin Cemetery, ending with Patrick Pearse’s eulogy for the Fenian dead. Hundreds more young men and women joined up.

By early 1916, plans for a rebellion were well advanced. Ned Daly, now Commandant of the 1st Battalion, was allotted the Four Courts area to defend, one of the largest.

The Volunteer chief of staff, Eoin MacNeill, not an IRB member, was horrified when he realised what was planned, and cancelled the ‘manoeuvres’ which had been announced for Easter Sunday. The IRB leaders, furiously replanning, decided to go out on Monday instead, and couriers were sent round the country.

Many Volunteers were simply confused, and stayed at home on Easter Monday.

When Ned Daly surveyed his battalion on Easter Monday, April 24, he had fewer than 100 men instead of about 300. However, he changed his plans, reorganising defences and barricades, and was later described as one of the shrewdest tacticians of the Rising.

The fighting in this area was intense, and casualties included defenceless civilians in North King Street, killed by British soldiers. On Saturday April 29, Ned received Pearse’s message to surrender, and marched his men to O’Connell Street, where he handed them over in correct military form.

Ned Daly was court-martialled on May 3. He pleaded ‘not guilty’, stating that he had not expected the Rising to succeed, but had followed his orders. His sisters Madge, Laura, and Kathleen came to say goodbye to him, as Kathleen had had to do with Tom the night before.

Ned, aged 25, was executed at dawn on May 4, with Willie Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, and Michael O’Hanrahan.

Ned Daly is one of the figures on the 1916 Monument on Sarsfield Bridge, Limerick, along with Tom Clarke and Con Colbert, and Limerick still keeps his memory green.


Helen Litton is a grandniece of Edward Daly, and drew on personal family archives and memorabilia to write Edward Daly, part of the 16 Lives biography series published by O’Brien Press


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