Divisions within Nationalism.
Long before the formal partition of Ireland, County Louth was a border area, the last outpost of the Pale facing the power of the northern Gaelic lords. In the modern period, however, the economic hinterland of north Louth lay in the Ulster counties of Monaghan, Armagh and Down, from which it would largely be cut off by partition under the Government of Ireland Act (1920). By 1905 traditional nationalism in Louth was still caught in the constitutional nationalist factionalism that followed the fall of Parnell in the 1890s (with Redmondites opposing Healyites) and was hardly challenged by the newly-establishment presence of Sinn Fein, though its local organizer, Patrick Hughes, was also a member of its central council. Nearly a decade later, with the rise of Ulster Unionist militancy, all factions united behind the foundation in the county of the Irish Volunteers, of which Hughes was secretary. With the coming of the First World War the Volunteers split between the Redmondite National Volunteers and the smaller, more radical Irish Volunteers, who in Louth were organised by Hughes.
Though the war brought hardship to some in County Louth the cigarette manufacturers, P.J. Carroll, won a contract with the War Office and Macardle's brewery supplied the British army with beer. Between December 1914 and December 1915, 550 men volunteered for the British army, of whom nearly half were members of the National Volunteers. Hall estimates that overall roughly 3,000 Louth-born individuals served in the First World War. Two of my grand-uncles did so, one dying at Passchendale in 1917 while serving with the Canadian forces; the other, a medical officer, surviving, albeit after a narrow escape when his Mediterranean transport ship was sunk by a U-boat.
Just before the Easter Rising in 1916 a by-election in the county saw the Irish Parliamentary Party take the North Louth parliamentary seat from the Healyites, though only after a bitter internal dissension over the nomination that alienated a number of members including Patrick Hughes's brother Peter. Meanwhile, Donal O'Hannigan was deputed by the IRB faction within the Irish Volunteers who were planning a Rising to organize sympathizers in the Louth, Meath and south Ulster area. They were to muster on Easter Sunday at the historical location of Tara, County Meath, where the republic would be proclaimed and then to march on Blanchardstown, north of Dublin. Volunteers were instructed to mobilize at Dundalk, Drogheda and Ardee for the journey south. The Dundalk contingent, which included Patrick Hughes, was the only one that had set out before Eoin MacNeill's order cancelling the Rising arrived. They spent the night in Slane, where word of the order reached them, and began to disperse the next day. However, on Easter Monday afternoon they received new orders from Patrick Pearse, via Sean MacEntee, to go ahead with the original plan. The group then occupied Castlebellingham and took a number of policemen prisoner, one of whom, Charles McGee, was shot dead. This incident has remained in popular, local memory as casting a stain on the proceedings.
The group eventually proceeded to north County Dublin where they dispersed when the Rising in the city failed. In retrospect, they might have been better employed cutting communications between Belfast and Dublin and thus preventing Crown reinforcements from the former traveling to the latter. Forty-nine men from Louth were imprisoned in the aftermath of the Rising, although O'Hannigan and Patrick Hughes evaded capture. After some prevarication Peter Hughes came out in favor of the Rising, in face of Redmondite disapproval. Initial hostility against the Rising began to change so that when MacEntee and two others who had been convicted of the murder of McGee were released in 1917 they were received with public welcomes throughout the county. At the 1918 election in Louth, the Sinn Fein candidate defeated the Redmondite Irish Parliamentary Party candidate, albeit by only a small margin. Hall's judgment is that support of the IPP in the county had not greatly decreased, even in spite of the events of recent years and the increase in the electorate, but that that Sinn Fein had replaced the Healyites as the principal opposition to the IPP. In Louth, it seemed, "local divisions within nationalism dating back three decades had first consideration over the greater national questions" (61). During the War of Independence (1919-21), there was relatively little violent activity in the county. "In Louth the political strategy predominated and was exemplified by acts of civil disobedience, boycotts, strikes and the establishment of an effective counter-state that rendered the county progressively ungovernable" (62). In 1919, the IRA had two battalions, one centered on Drogheda and the other on Dundalk, under James McGuill. A series of failed arms raids increased tensions with the British military, but there were also clashes between Sinn Fein supporters and those of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Exservicemen were also a significant group as turnouts for the inauguration of World War memorials showed.
A new phase of the War of Independence in the county began in the early months of 1920 with the killing of Thomas Mulholland in a clash between IRA volunteers and the police in Dundalk. My grandfather and namesake was North Louth coroner and presided at the subsequent inquest in a Dundalk courthouse guarded by British soldiers. The jury found that there had been no justification for the shooting. As the year wore on the security situation deteriorated in Dundalk and on 27 August three shop assistants in a draper's store owned by a Protestant were killed when it was set on fire. This incident was condemned by Peter Hughes, now Sinn Fein chairman of Dundalk Urban District Council, and by James McGuill who at a public meeting identified himself as head of the IRA in the area and dissociated it from the attack. Support for separatism was, nonetheless, growing and soon all local government bodies in the county had recognised the authority of Dail Eireann. Dail courts were also established though when asked to serve as coroner in them my grandfather replied that he would do so, "subject to my usual fee."
In April 1921, the IRA changed its operating structure with South Louth now part of the 1st Eastern Division and North Louth, part of the 4th Northern Division, under the command of Frank Aiken. On 24 June, he masterminded an attack on a train on the Louth/Armagh border carrying troops and horses back from the state opening of the Northern Ireland parliament. After the truce and Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, most Louth IRA units sided against the Treaty. Aiken, however, attempted the difficult task of keeping his forces neutral, knowing that many northern IRA men believed that their cause could only be advanced with the help of an independent southern government and its army. At the election in June 1922 the county voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Treaty, though a Labour candidate topped the poll, an indication of the economic effects partition was already having. 1922 also saw a number of violent incidents from kidnappings to murders in the area north of the new border, as southern forces contemplated ways of destabilizing the new northern state.
During the subsequent Civil War, Aiken tried, without much success, to act as an honest broker, though when it came to a choice he opted for the republican side. His attempts to prevent conflict in Limerick failed and, while absent from Louth on this mission, his own 4th Northern Division began to disintegrate. In July, he was arrested by pro-Treaty forces in Dundalk, escaped from jail ten days later with a number of other men and then captured the town with his forces two weeks later, only to be forced northwards by pro-Treaty forces at the end of August. Thereafter, republicans concentrated on picking off individuals, though it lost them most of their remaining support in the county. The last months of the Civil War early in 1923 saw executions in the county for possession of arms at the behest of government military tribunals, as republicans continued with assassinations and house burnings. The ceasefire that ended the conflict was facilitated when Aiken become IRA chief of staff, following the death of Liam Lynch. As a turbulent decade ended County Louth faced into economic recession and the negative social and economic effects of the newly-established land border.
BY JAMES MURPHY
LOUTH: THE IRISH REVOLUTION, 1912-23 DUBLIN: FOUR COURTS, 2019. [euro]19.95.
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|Title Annotation:||Louth: The Irish Revolution, 1912-23|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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