On Easter Saturday 1916, the leader of the Castlegregory branch of the Irish Volunteers, Pat “Aeroplane” O’Shea, was directed to come into Tralee to collect green pilot lamps with which to signal a ship expected into Tralee Bay the following day. In an extract from his memoirs, published for the first time in Kerry 1916: Histories and Legacies of the Easter Rising, he remembers all was well until the Dingle train pulled into Castlegregory junction. There he heard sensational news: “An ex-RIC sergeant named Murphy, who was employed as a checker on the railway, informed all in the carriage, which seated about thirty, that a German ship had been captured at the Shannon’s mouth and that two Germans had been captured near Banna Strand.”
This was the moment that O’Shea found out about the German arms ship, the Aud and its capture. As the train pulled into Tralee station he saw “history unfold itself before my eyes”. “Advancing along the middle of the road marched a company of RIC, helmets on their heads, and carbines on their shoulders and ammunition pouches slung on their belts. However one disliked them, one could not but admit that they were a fine body of men as they strode along, looking neither to right or left and lest of all at the man in civilian clothes who walked in the centre and whose great height almost dwarfed them all. Nobody, not even his ignoble escort, knew the identity of this stranger whose proud and erect mien drew and held the attention of all. He was of middle age, handsome, with pale complexion, black hair and moustache turning grey. He wore a cheap looking and obviously ready-made suit with a white handkerchief peeping out of the breast pocket. He wore no beard. He wore no overcoat so that his manacled hands were in plain view. On his head he wore a cap with a wide flat top. As far as dress went, his was a shabby figure. One thing was recognised by all. The man who left Tralee by the 10.30 train that morning was a personage, but all guesses were very wide of the mark – especially those relating to the prisoner’s nationality.”
The man who was being escorted to Tralee station that Easter Sunday morning was Sir Roger Casement. His arrest at McKenna’s Fort near Banna Strand and, later that day, the arrest of IRB man, Austin Stack, leader of the Kerry Volunteers, threw the planned Rising in Kerry – and nationwide – into chaos. Kerry had been integral to the planning of the Rising and was to be a major centre of action had the Rising, as it was conceived and planned by the IRB, gone ahead. In the months leading up to Easter 1916, Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, William Partridge, Seán Mac Diarmada and Joseph Plunkett either visited or were in constant communication with Kerry Volunteer and IRB leaders. The weapons to arrive in the Aud were to be distributed by the Kerry Volunteers to their counterparts in Cork, Limerick, Clare and Galway.
In spite of all these plans, the Easter Rising of 1916 did not happen in Kerry. The fact that the Aud arrived early, with no one ready to receive it, the arrest of Casement and Stack, and the tragic drowning of Volunteers Con Keating, Daniel Sheehan and Charles Monahan at Ballykissane, while en route to Cahersiveen to secure communications equipment for the insurgents, meant that all plans in Kerry were now on hold.
The news of these events caused Eoin MacNeill, Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Volunteers, to issue the countermanding order. All the ensuing confusion meant that the Rising was confined to Dublin and a few other places in north county Dublin, Meath, Wexford and Galway, while the men and women in Kerry waited, standing ready under arms for orders that never came. Despite this, it is vital to our understanding of the complex histories of the 1916 Rising that we look at what happened in Kerry and the contribution of Kerry men and women to the revolutionary story.
Central to any understanding of the Rising is the issue of German aid and how the success of that aid relied on Kerry Volunteers. For many, a German-Irish alliance seemed logical. In west Kerry, Irish language enthusiasts turned Volunteer organisers, Desmond FitzGerald and Ernest Blythe, “spoke in the strongest terms of a German-Irish alliance” at public meetings. Sir Roger Casement, with the support of the American equivalent of the IRB – Clan na Gael – was the driving force behind the German connection.
In Ireland, the IRB Military Council, consisting of the signatories of the Proclamation, drew up plans for the Rising. The Munster and Connacht Volunteers were to play a concrete part, and Kerry Volunteers had the pivotal position outside of Dublin. Alfred “Alf” Cotton, Volunteer organiser in Kerry and IRB man, wrote years later that German arms were to be landed in Fenit and “in Kerry our immediate objective would be to ensure the safe landing and distribution of the arms and ammunition”.
Kerry Volunteers would then capture the Royal Irish Constabulary barracks in Tralee and close down the roads leading from the town “to prevent any British adherents carrying information to Cork or Limerick”. Once Tralee was secured, the Volunteers would then move on to capture Listowel, Killarney and Castleisland. After Kerry was secured, the arms would be distributed amongst Kerry, Limerick, Cork, Clare and Galway Volunteers. This would result in an open rebellion, with the south and west falling into the hands of the Volunteers. Simultaneously, the Dublin units, after several days’ fighting in the capital, were to retreat and link up with the western and southern Volunteers. Plunkett seems to have honestly believed that “we could hold out one way or another for anything up to three months”.
Only the commander of the Volunteers and IRB in Kerry, Austin Stack, together with Cotton, had the full plans. Cotton recalled “every effort was to be made to have all in readiness, but no hint of the plans or intentions were to be given to any person”. Some Volunteers were told of an imminent shipment of German arms but, according to William Mullins, a Tralee IRB man, the Volunteers were not expecting them to be used in a rebellion. Stack’s deputy, Paddy Cahill, told Mullins of the shipment but “Cahill made no mention of a Rising, or any other activity in this connection”.
Volunteer leader, James Fitzgerald, from Lispole, was ordered by Stack to maintain a watch on the coast and have a canoe with a crew in readiness and “I was to report to him any strange vessel observed in the bay – I don’t know for what purpose”. In spite of this secrecy, the Royal Irish Constabulary was well aware of the conspirators’ objectives. Somewhere along the secrecy chain there was a leak from within the Irish Volunteers and IRB, with someone handing information over to the Castle.
In his report for January 1916, the Inspector General wrote: “Within the past few days, information has been received from an informant in Ireland that the Irish Volunteer leaders have been warned to be in readiness for a German landing at an early date, and that in this connexion general parades of Irish Volunteers on St Patrick’s Day have been ordered … I submit that it is now time to seriously consider whether the organising of the Irish Volunteers can be allowed with safety to continue their mischievous work and whether this force as hostile to British interests can be permitted to increase its strength and remain any longer in possession of arms without grave danger to the State.”
The Aud arrived in Tralee Bay on Holy Thursday, April 20th, but received no signal from the shore to begin disembarking the weapons. Simultaneously, Roger Casement and his two colleagues, Robert Monteith and Daniel Bailey, who arrived on German U-boat U19 in Tralee Bay, were put ashore on Banna Strand on the Friday morning. Monteith and Bailey decided to leave the ailing Casement where he was and seek help from the Volunteers in Tralee. They met up with Stack but, on returning to Banna Strand, found that Casement had been recently arrested. On hearing the news, Stack, apparently, told his comrades, “Oh God lads, the game is up”. He was arrested later that evening, following an attempt to either meet or rescue Casement from the barracks in Tralee.
With Cotton absent – he had recently been effectively banished from Kerry by the RIC – nobody, seemingly, who was left was in on the plan. On Saturday, April 22nd, the Kerryman announced “following orders from headquarters arrangements are being made to have all members of the Kerry brigade engaged in full manoeuvres on Sunday next April 23rd”. Kerry Volunteers mobilised on the Sunday and again on Monday in Tralee, but Paddy Cahill received no orders from headquarters. By then, the Aud had been intercepted by the British navy.
Despite the arrests and the loss of the arms, the orders from Stack to mobilise remained in place. In Dingle, Volunteer Tadhg Kennedy heard that Stack had been arrested and he was to return to Tralee. However, he “disregarded it and waited to march with the Volunteer contingent to Tralee on Saturday night at 12 midnight from Annascaul”. On Saturday, a contingent of 40 armed men marched in from Ballymacelligott and were stationed in the Rink where they and the Tralee Volunteers provided a guard for Monteith, who was hiding there.
On Easter Saturday night over 100 Volunteers from west of Dingle began their journey to Tralee. At about 2am, they began their march from “Annascaul to the village of Camp where [they] rested and were joined by Volunteers who had marched from Ballyferriter, Dingle and Lispole”. The west Kerry men had marched through the night up the Conor Pass in very bad weather. Seán Ó Muircheartaigh, who was a lieutenant with “The Ferriters”, remembered the hard struggle up the Pass, as it “was raining and pitch dark [and]…men were complaining about their boots”. The marchers arrived in Tralee about 10am on Easter Sunday morning. There they joined with the Tralee and Ballymacelligott Volunteers and Cumann na mBan women in the Rink in Tralee.
The gathered Volunteers, about 320 strong and the majority armed with some sort of gun, then paraded in the sportsfield when Patrick Walsh arrived from Limerick with the countermand from The O’Rahilly. Easter Monday dawned quiet in Tralee and early on the men got orders to return to their homes and wait for further orders. The west Kerry men did not relish another march all the way back so they went to Tralee station, where after a short standoff with some RIC men, they boarded the train and returned west. The rest of the Volunteers in Tralee remained on standby for much of the week but eventually they all went home. In Dublin, the planners, aware that the loss of the Aud meant the Rising would be confined to Dublin and to almost certain failure, decided to go on with the rebellion.
After the surrender the county was quiet but the execution of Roger Casement in Pentonville on August 3rd changed attitudes. The commandant of the Ashbourne insurgents, Kerryman Thomas Ashe, wrote that the “whole county seemed to be crying”. This change continued as stories of the Kerrymen killed in the Rising in Dublin (The O’Rahilly, Patrick Shortis, Patrick O’Connor and Michael Mulvihill) as they charged down Moore Street on Easter Friday, were told throughout the county.
By the time of the general amnesty in June 1917, the support for the Rising and the attitude of the people had radically altered. There was a tumultuous welcome home for the released prisoners on June 20th and, in August 1917, to mark the first anniversary of Casement’s execution, a huge meeting was held at Casement’s Fort in Banna Stand where the Volunteers and Cumann na mBan paraded. Thomas Ashe addressed the “men and women of Kerry” and praised the “mystical man” who had “brought with him a loving heart and an undaunted spirit that will live in Ireland as long as any man will live who believes in the Irish ideals of an Irish republic”.
Ashe was soon re-arrested after this, and was fatally injured while being force fed while on hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail; he died on September 23rd. Over 700 Kerry Volunteers travelled to Dublin for his funeral and mock funerals were also enacted in every parish in Kerry. The then Chief Secretary for Ireland, Ian MacPherson, said that Ashe’s death did “more to stimulate Sinn Féinism and disorder in Ireland than anything I know”. The RIC estimated that soon after the number of Volunteers in the county had reached 3,000 and Kerry was now poised to play its part in the coming months and years of turmoil.