On 04 January 1918, as two Rosses men were being brought under armed military escort by train, from Burtonport to Ebrington Barracks, Derry, to be charged with desertion from the British army, they were dramatically sprung free by a local detachment of the Irish Volunteers at Kincasslagh Road Station, Meenbanad.
The ambush, which occurred in the presence of a large crowd of people gathered on the platform, is remembered in The Rosses as the first action of the War of Independence and as a significant challenge to British authority in Ireland. The prisoners were James Duffy of Meenbanad, who had served in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and James Ward of Cloughlass, who had served in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The centenary of the ambush has now arrived.
Various accounts, heard and read, agree on the main facts but diverge on the details. A sudden event occurring in the presence of a crowd will always give rise to diverse recollections. General W. T. Sherman, one of the great leaders of the Federal Army in the American Civil War, wrote in the forward to his memoirs: – “We all know that no three honest witnesses to a simple brawl can agree on all the details”.
With a view to getting the story of the 1918 ambush as accurately as possible, five written accounts are quoted below. The accounts are quoted in the chronological order in which they were published. Each adds to our knowledge of the incident, but inconsistencies remain. As the participants and eye-witnesses have now passed on, we will strive in vain to get full clarity. Note that, to varying degrees, Accounts Nos 4 and 5 draw on Account No 3. Note too that words in brackets, thus [ ], are clarifications that do not appear in the original accounts.
Account No 1:
Account No 1 is an extract from BMH WS 1448, a witness statement given by Patrick Breslin to the Bureau of Military History, on the 27 June 1956. Patrick was a native of Ardara. He worked in Johnny Rua Sweeney’s retail store in Dungloe – Johnny Rua being the father of Major General Joe Sweeney, the organiser and leader of the Irish Volunteers in West Donegal. Patrick was present in Dungloe on 01 February 1914 when Pádraig Pearse, then the national organiser of the Irish Volunteers, addressed a meeting there. Patrick was so impressed by what he heard that, straight away, he joined the newly formed Dungloe Company of the Volunteers, as a founding member. He was also a founding member of the Dungloe Sinn Féin Club, and its first chairman. And he was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). In late 1918, when Volunteers GHQ formally established the No.1 Donegal Brigade, comprising three battalions – in The Rosses, Gweedore and Creeslough – Joe Sweeney was appointed Brigade O/C (Officer Commanding) and a short time later Patrick Breslin was appointed Adjutant.
Quote:…During the 1914-18 war many soldiers who were then serving in the British Army deserted while home on leave. Two such men from the Lower Rosses, one named Ward and another man named Duffy, deserted. I succeeded in getting Ward’s Lee Enfield rifle and bayonet. I also procured a quantity of .303 ammunition from another source and purchased a .38 revolver and some revolver ammunition of the same calibre. The rifle was the only service one in the Dungloe Company or any of the surrounding companies for a long period after their formation and came in very useful for musketry training in the area. Early in 1918 Duffy and Ward were arrested by British forces and detained overnight in the R.I.C. barracks in Burtonport, pending the arrival of a military escort from Derry. The officers of Burtonport Company, in conference with Joe Sweeney, Brigade O/C, decided that the two deserters should and must be rescued from custody. At first an attack on the barrack was contemplated, but eventually it was decided to hold up the train at Meenbanad and release both men from their escort. A member of the Sinn Féin Club came to me on the evening of the arrest of the two men and asked me what action was intended with a view to an attempt at rescue. I told him to wait and see and say nothing. A few men from the Burtonport Company, armed with revolvers, boarded the train at Burtonport, on which the escort with the two prisoners were travelling. At Meenbanid the train was held up. Two Volunteers entered the carriage containing the prisoners, held up and disarmed the escort and released Ward and Duffy… End Quote (1)
Account No 2:
Account No 2, by the well-known author and journalist Joe McGarrigle, appeared in The Derry People of Sat. 13 January 1968, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ambush. As McGarrigle was not a native of The Rosses, it is likely that a significant contribution to his account was made by Owenie Sharkey, who, at that time, was organising a commemorative monument at Meenbanad. It is also likely that Owenie received anecdotal accounts of the ambush from the participants pictured with him in the newspaper article – Dim Bonner, Fergal Ward and Neil Boyle. He may also have had information from James Duffy, then living ‘in Dublin’.
THRILLING RESCUE EPISODE RECALLED.
TRAIN HOLD-UP STARTED IRELAND’S WAR.
As the steam train sped along the narrow gauge that wove sinuously through the granite cuttings on the north-west Donegal coast, four men lay in waiting on a January day in 1918, ready to perform the deed that opened the Irish War of Independence. Although not officially claimed as the first encounter in the national struggle that ended with the setting up of Dáil Ȇireann – that honour is usually given to Dan Breen’s seizure of the explosives at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary – the Kincasslagh episode was in fact that curtain-raiser to the Four Glorious Years. Four unarmed young Republicans held up a train and compelled an armed British military escort to hand over two young soldiers home from the Great War who had decided that their place was in Ireland rather than in Flanders fields fighting for the Great Powers. Two young Rosses men, Jimmy Ward, now deceased, and James Duffy, now living in Dublin, were amongst thousands of Redmond Volunteers who went to France to fight for the freedom of small nations.The first indication they had that all was not well at home was when the Germans put up huge placards in the trenches telling them of atrocities being committed by the British in Ireland. Said James Duffy, recalling the period – “Then it dawned on me and on many others that the quicker we got out of the British Army the better. I swore that when I got my first leave I would never return.” And this is why James and his friend Jimmy, in January 1918, were sitting handcuffed in a train bound from Burtonport to Derry.
It was not long before word got around that the two men had been arrested. Knots of people had gathered into the village [Burtonport] to see the comings and goings of the military. It was not idle curiosity, however, that brought Fergus Ward from Glenhalt [Glenahilt], Dim Bonner, Meenbanad [Crickamore ?], his brother John Bonner, now deceased, and Pat Boyle, also deceased, together. They had heard that the military escort had arrived in Burtonport earlier that morning to take the prisoners back to Derry. And it was then that they took the courageous decision to rescue the two men. There was no time to look for guns. Their strategy had to be planned so that the element of surprise compensated in some way for their lack of arms.
The guard on the train, John McCole, and his young assistant, Neil Boyle, were taken into their confidence and they too played a part in the daring exploit. Their job was to carry out delaying tactics to enable the four men to take up their positions for the attack. An observant commuter would have noticed that Guard McCole and young Neil Boyle took [an] unusually long time in shunting wagons at Dungloe Road station. Then with an exaggerated pretense of locking the carriages, while in effect contriving to unlock the carriage in which the escort and their prisoners were seated, they set out for the next stop, Kincasslagh Road. A huge crowd had gathered on the platform to greet the prisoners. It was Dungloe fair day and there were a lot of people around. Duffy’s weeping mother was there being consoled by neighbours.
Mingling with the crowd were Dim Bonner and Pat Boyle. Lying in wait on the offside of the track were John Bonner and Fergus Ward.
At this stage James Duffy takes up the story.
‘When the sergeant saw the crowd he said – “You would think you were blinking heroes”. Then a voice shouted loud and clear “Open Fire”. One of the soldiers said “My God, we’re going to be shot”.’ While this was happening the guard on the train was indicating to the waiting men the carriage in which the Dorsets and the prisoners were seated. With a precision that would do credit to a large-scale military operation, the four men charged the carriage simultaneously. The doors of the compartment were flung open. Fergus Ward grabbed a rifle which was lying on the floor and called on the soldiers to surrender. Without as much as a shot being fired they handed over the prisoners. It was indeed a glorious victory. The four men and the two prisoners, still handcuffed together, ran down the tracks and scrambled over the rocks to safety. Before the soldiers could collect their wits Guard John McCole had blown his whistle and the train moved out of the station.The parting words of the sergeant in charge of the escort were “You might as well have taken me too as I will suffer for this”, and suffer he did at a subsequent court-martial, when he was reduced in rank and shipped out to the fighting front in France.
An Amazing Sequel
There was an amusing[sic] sequel to the story some time later.
John Bonner received a letter from the British Authorities asking him to return the rifle he had taken from the carriage. The letter informed him that he was suspected of being concerned in the raid and the authorities promised him safe conduct if he left the rifle in the barracks in Burtonport. The laughter of the four men echoed around The Rosses for many years.
Now a plaque is to be erected at the disused railway station to commemorate the exploit.
Mr. Owen Sharkey, a noted local Gael, has carried out quite an amount of research into this and other engagements in The Rosses. He says “The men of those days and their exploits should not be allowed to die without recognition.”
Owen has set up a committee to see that due recognition is given to the men of the Kincasslagh Rd Station Ambush. The plaque will be unveiled on Easter Sunday. End Quote (2)
Account No 3:
Account No 3 is an extract from ‘Donegal and the War of Independence’, a memoir by Major General Joseph A. Sweeney, published in The Capuchin Annual, 1970.
The extract includes a written statement by James Duffy, one of the rescued prisoners, recorded, at the request of Major General Sweeney, by Lt. Col. Denis Houston on 13 February 1937. All three men were then serving in the Irish Defense Forces. Houston was a native of Meenmore. During the War of Independence he was an officer in the Dungloe Company of the Volunteers. Later he was Intelligence Officer of No 1 Donegal Brigade. Joe Sweeney wrote as follows:-
Quote: …My participation in the Easter Week Rising of 1916 seemed to spark off a change in the young people and I was greatly surprised and encouraged at the warmth of the reception given me on my return home following imprisonment in England and Wales [Frongoch]. In the summer of 1917, I reorganised the Dungloe company and made arrangements for the organisation of a battalion to include Dungloe, Burtonport, Meenacross and Annagry. As many of the young men were migratory workers, it was difficult to keep units together but the enthusiasts moved from one company to another and gradually a stable position was achieved.
On 3 January, 1918, a number of Volunteers, of whom I remember Paddy (Frank) Boyle, Glenahilt, and Pat (Dennis) Boyle, Milltown, came to me in Burtonport and informed me that at a dance the previous night two British army deserters named Jimmy (Susan) Ward, Cloghglass, and Jimmy Duffy, Meenbanad, had been arrested and were lodged in Burtonport R.I.C. barrack. I was not too interested, I must admit, until it was mentioned that Duffy’s rifle had been seized by the R.I.C. The fact that Duffy had a weapon should have been reported to me and I was rather annoyed with them for this dereliction of duty. However, I now felt that we had to recover the rifle and a discussion took place as to the tactics to be adopted. The locals were in favour of a rescue attempt at the local railway station [Burtonport] but, as I was sure that an armed party of the R.I.C. would accompany the escort, which normally is unarmed except for side arms, part of the way, I vetoed the proposal. How far would the R.I.C. travel? I gambled on their getting off at Dungloe Road and suggested that the attempt should be made at Meenbanad or, as it was officially known, Kincasslagh Road. A number of those present volunteered for the rescue, and my brother, Bernie, secured a couple of revolvers for them and we warned them to use no more force than was necessary. Bernie visited the prisoners and managed to warn them to be alert on the train. The following morning the escort arrived off the first incoming train and moved about freely awaiting the outgoing afternoon train. They were steered into the late Jim Maguire’s premises [public house] where the hospitality was unlimited, and by the time they took their prisoners to the train they were more than a little befuddled. Meanwhile, the rescue party had gone to Meenbanad where they found the platform crowded with people returning from the Dungloe fair. What happened is best described in a written statement supplied to the late Lieutenant-Colonel Dinny Houston by Jimmy Duffy, at my request, on 12 February 1937. “We entrained under escort for Derry on the afternoon of the 4th January, 1918, and got as far as Kincasslagh Road station where our rescue was effected. During our detention in Burtonport a large number of people called to see us, in the course of which I learned from one of the Sweeneys – I don’t know whether it was Danny or Bernie – that an attempt would be made to rescue us from the barrack or train. The latter you know was chosen as the most suitable.
1. The names of some of the rescuers as far as I remember were: –
John and Jim Bonner, Meenmore, Anthony Sweeney, Meenbanad, James Ward, Upper Keadue, Paddy and Phil Gallagher, Meenbanad (brothers of ex.-Coy. Sergt. Gallagher).
Paddy Gallagher was the first man to enter the carriage by the back and strike one of the escort. One of the Colls – I think it was Charlie, Neil Boyle, Fiddler, [sic] – he struck me in mistake for one of the escort. Of course, there were others from different parts of the country and, as it was a fair day, the platform was fairly crowded.
2. The names of the escort: –
Shaw was the name of the sergeant in charge. He belonged to the Beresford Regt. and stationed in Derry. He was eventually court-martialed and reduced to the ranks; the names of the others I can’t remember but one of them was in hospital for a few weeks from a blow to the head.
3. The strength of the escort was one sergeant and three men. We were escorted by a party of R.I.C. as far as Burtonport Station. Whether they accompanied us as far as Kincasslagh Road, I can’t say. I was told after that two of them were in the back carriage. The sergt. in charge was in possession of my rifle and bayonet. These were wrenched from his hands by John Bonner. Jim Bonner held up the driver of the train. Paddy Gallagher, stationmaster, Kincasslagh Road, gave evidence at Shaw’s court-martial.” [see appendix]
At Shaw’s court-martial, Jim Maguire was summoned as a witness and severely examined but he and Paddy Gallagher [stationmaster] managed to extricate themselves from charges of complicity.
The following is my official report to G.H.Q. on the incident: –
“On 4/1/18 the first organised effort against enemy forces was carried out by members of A and B companies of the west Donegal brigade at Meenbanad railway station. A night or two before this date two local boys who had deserted from the British army were arrested by the R.I.C. When a military escort had arrived from Derry the two men were marched to Burtonport for removal to Derry. A party of R.I.C. accompanied them to Dungloe Road railway station. We had already sent a party of men, completely unarmed, to Meenbanad station and when the train arrived they entered the compartment where the deserters were held, attacked the guard [military escort] and rescued the men, one of whom had a service rifle.”
An extract from “Notes from Ireland”, No 1, Vol. 27, Feb 1st, 1918, “as published by the Irish Unionist Alliance for the supporters of the Unionist cause in parliament, in the press and on the platform” reads: –
“A daring outrage is reported from the Burtonport district of Co. Donegal where a band of alleged Sinn Feiners, some of whom were armed, succeeded in the rescue from a military escort of two men who were stated to be military absentees. It is stated that the two soldiers were at a dance in Burtonport. One of them had been absent since April last and the other had come from France. While the dance was in progress the police raided the building and took the two men, who were in civilian clothing, into custody after a short struggle. They were detained pending the arrival of a military escort from Londonderry. In the meantime, the news of the arrests spread throughout the district and a scheme for rescue was immediately devised. The escort, having reached Burtonport, took the men in charge and entrained for their return by the evening train. Apparently their movements were being closely watched without attracting the attention of the constabulary and information must have been sent to the rescue party who had gathered some miles along the line. The report states that when Kincasslagh Road was reached, where there is a brief halt, the rescuers, who were in large numbers, virtually held up the train, some boarding the engine, while others rushed the compartment containing the two men and their escort. A struggle ensued between the escort party and the rescue gang but, by mere weight of numbers, the latter easily overcame the soldiers who were hurried away in a motor car and the rescuers scattered with all haste. It is stated that some of the rescuers carried revolvers but no shots were fired”
Tipperary has claimed that the first shots of the Anglo-Irish War were fired in that county but here was an action successfully carried out without a shot being fired… End Quote (3)
Account No 4:
Account No 4 is an extract from Pádraig Ó Baoighill’s highly commended book – Óglach na Rosann – Niall Pluincéad Ó Baoighill, published in 1994.
The book is not only a biography of Pluincéad – it is a comprehensive account of the War of Independence and the Civil War, as they impacted West Donegal. The story is told in the mellifluent Gaelic of Rann na Feirste. However, for reasons of consistency, the extract is here translated into English.
Quote (in translation) …On the day of the Dungloe Fair of January 1918, Volunteers of the Dungloe and Meenbanad Companies (A & B) attacked a train at Meenbanad Station. They set free two prisoners, James Duffy of Meenbanad and James Ward of Cloughlass. These were two who had deserted the British Army but the R.I.C. arrested them at a dance in Kincasslagh and they were placed in a cell in the local barracks. Duffy had a gun when he was arrested [at his home?]. Many local people went to see them. Bernie Sweeney of Burtonport alerted them to the fact that the Volunteers were planning their rescue. On the 4 January, four members of the R.I.C. arrived on the morning train from Derry. The sergeant’s name was Shaw from the Beresford Regiment in Derry. He was accompanied by three constables. They were to take the prisoners with them on the afternoon train. The people of Burtonport showed them friendship and they were brought into Maguire’s tavern. At the same time the Volunteers were on their way to Meenbanad, with a plan for the rescue of the prisoners. Among those who participated in the action were Patrick and Phil Gallagher, Anthony McGinley from Meenbanad, James Ward from Keadue, Charlie Boyle from Cronasealg, John and Duimnic Bonner from Crickamore, Feargal Ward and Patrick Boyle from Glenahilt. Meenbanad Station was black with people returning from the Dungloe fair at the time. Suddenly, the Volunteers went on board and an altercation began between them and the R.I.C. The sergeant was relieved of the gun; Duffy and Ward were set free. There were so many people in the vicinity that the police were unable to do a thing. The prisoners were whisked away through the crowd. They were put in a car and, together with those who freed them, they were not seen again. This action occurred without a single bullet being fired, one of the first actions of the War of Independence in The Rosses. One member of the police was injured. Sergeant Shaw was brought before a court-martial and he was demoted. The proprietor of the tavern, James Maguire, and the Meenbanad stationmaster [Paddy Gallagher] were brought before the court in Derry. They were clever enough and they succeeded in proving that they had no prior knowledge of the plan or of those who participated in it. They were fortunate that there were so many people on the platform that day and that people were not sure what was happening.
This is how it was reported in ‘Notes from Ireland’ a paper issued by the ‘Irish Unionist Alliance’ (1.2.1919). [1918?]
‘A daring outrage is reported from the Burtonport district of Donegal where a band of alleged Sinn Feiners, some of whom were armed, succeeded in the rescue from a military escort of two men who were stated to be military absentees’.
This action and the attack on the R.I.C. guarding the explosives in Soloheadbeg in Tipperary were the first incidents of the War of Independence. Sean Tracey, Dan Breen and Seamus Robinson captured munitions and shot two R.I.C. constables. The British authorities were enraged. Subsequently, Duffy joined the Free State Army and Ward went to America, where he was killed in a street accident on 04 July 1931. Duffy lived out his declining years in a caravan beside Jack McCloskey’s tavern in Annagry. He died on 08 August 1976 and he is interred in Kincasslagh cemetery… End Quote (4)
Account No 5:
Account No 5 is an extract from chapter 22 of Frank Sweeney’s highly commended book, That Old Sinner, published in 2006.
The book tells the story of the Burtonport Extension of the Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway, which ceased operations to Burtonport in 1940, following a brief and problematic existence of 37 years. Its derelict infrastructure still traverses north Donegal, leaving small farms severed and the landscape forever scarred. The book is the product of meticulous research by Frank, while studying for a PhD degree at Maynooth University. It draws from archival sources, including newspaper reports of the court-martial that followed the 1918 ambush, as well as from Joe Sweeney’s memoir, quoted above. As his father was a native of Meenbanad, Frank had an added incentive to carefully research the story.
MEENBANAD MAKES THE HEADLINES
On New Year’s night 1918, James Duffy of Meenbanad and James Ward of Cloughlass, near Burtonport, were arrested by the RIC while attending a dance in Kincasslagh. They were brought to Burtonport barracks where they were held for desertion from the army. Arrangements were made for their transfer by train to Ebrington Barracks in Derry on the 4 January 1918, a Dungloe Fair day. Joe Sweeney of Burtonport, who had organised and commanded the Volunteers in The Rosses, heard of the arrests but was not too interested until he heard that Duffy’s rifle had been seized from his home by the RIC. He then felt that he had to recover the rifle, which would be needed in other attacks on the establishment. The locals favoured a rescue attempt at Burtonport Railway Station but Sweeney was sure that an armed party of the RIC, carrying side arms, would accompany the escort. How far would the RIC travel? Sweeney gambled on their getting off at Dungloe Road Station and he suggested that the attempt be made at Meenbanad or, as it was officially known, Kincasslagh Road. His brother, Bernie Sweeney, secured a couple of revolvers for the Volunteers and he then visited the prisoners and managed to warn them to be alert for escape while on the train. The following morning, 4 January, the escort, consisting of Lance Sergeant Robert Shaw, Private Holland and Private Henderson of the 3rd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, arrived in Burtonport on the first incoming train about 10.15 a.m. and moved about freely while awaiting the outgoing afternoon train. ‘They were steered into the late Jim Maguire’s premises where the hospitality was unlimited and, by the time they took their prisoners to the train, they were more than a little befuddled’ [quoting Joe Sweeney’s memoir]. Constable McCabe said he saw the three enter the premises of a local spirit grocer. About 2.30 p.m., Robert Shaw was joined by Private Holland, who was staggering from the effects of drink and was unfit to carry out his duty as escort. Shortly after 3 o’clock McCabe saw Sergeant Shaw and Private Holland going to the railway station with the two prisoners. He went in search of Henderson and met him coming to the station, with the assistance of two civilians. He staggered into the station, falling on the platform and was not fit to carry out his duty because he was very drunk. Meanwhile the rescue party had gone to Meenbanad Station where they found the platform crowded with people returning from the Dungloe Fair. John McCole [guard on the train] said that when the train reached Meenbanad a crowd of about 100 or 150 rushed along the platform and surrounded the carriage in which the prisoners were. The crowd was very angry. Three quarters of them were women, who were very excited. There were about twenty or thirty men and a lot of young boys or girls there as well. Paddy Gallagher, who entered the carriage by the back, was the first in and he struck one of the escorts. Joe Sweeney recalled, “One of the Colls – I think it was Charlie – struck me (Joe Sweeney) in mistake for one of the escorts…. The Sergeant in Charge was in possession of the rifle and bayonet. They were wrenched from his hands by John Bonner while Jim (Dim) Bonner held up the driver of the train”. Patrick Gallagher, the stationmaster at Meenbanad, said the crowd was unusually large. Before the train arrived he learned the object was to bid goodbye to the prisoners and on that account he allowed the crowd to remain on the platform. The door of the compartment in which the prisoners were seated, was opened and a woman got out. The door was then closed and a soldier stretched out his hand as if to bid someone goodbye. The door of the carriage then opened again and a soldier came out and pulled another after him. The latter fell on the platform. Gallagher said that then he saw the ‘poor boys’, Duffy and Ward, running away. He had to apologise to the court for using the term ‘poor boys’. Neil Boyle, guard [assistant guard ?] on the train, said the crowd in the station appeared to be very quiet. After the departure of the train he saw the two prisoners running down the railway track in the direction of Burtonport. He said that many of those at the station had come to see the prisoners off and bid them goodbye.
At his court martial in Derry, Robert Shaw gave his version of events. When the train drew up at Kincasslagh Road Station (Meenbanad), he opened the door of the carriage to help two women, who were in the same compartment, to get out and the door was then closed. The mob on the platform rushed towards the carriage, threatening the occupants with sticks and a voice shouted, “Where are they? We must have them”. Shaw understood them to refer to the prisoners. The carriage door was immediately dragged open from the outside and the prisoners were dragged out by the mob. “We held on to the prisoners as long as we could but the door of the other side of the carriage was opened by part of the mob and we were attacked on that side by sticks and stones. That was the time the prisoners were rescued and we had to draw our bayonets to protect ourselves”. Lance Sergeant Robert Shaw, Inniskilling Fusiliers, was charged with allowing two deserters to escape while being conveyed from Burtonport to Derry, allowing an escort of which he was in command to get drunk, and he himself escaping when in custody. The court found him guilty and ordered his detention for fifty-six days. Twenty-eight days of the sentence were remitted. He was also reduced in rank…. End Quote [see appendix], (5)
- Minor Inaccuracies.
There are what appear to be a few minor inaccuracies in the above accounts.
(a) Account No 1 refers to Joe Sweeney as ‘Brigade O/C’. Joe Sweeney, in his own official report to GHQ, (Account No 3), states that the Volunteer party was from the ‘west Donegal brigade’. In Jan.1918, the brigade structure for Donegal was not yet formally approved. It was approved by GHQ in Dec.1918, following Ernie O’Malley’s visit to the county.
(b) Account No 2 refers to ‘the national struggle that ended with the setting up of Dáil Éireann’. The Dáil first sat on 21 Jan.1919, the day of the Soloheadbeg ambush – the day on which, historians agree, the War of Independence began.
(c) In Account No 3, James Duffy’s statement refers to ‘John and Jim Bonner, Meenmore’. This should surely read ‘John and Dim Bonner, Crickamore’. The inaccuracy can hardly be attributed to James Duffy, since James’ sister, Mary, was married to Dim. James and Dim were close neighbours. ‘Dim’ is the short for Duimnic. Being the only Dim in the locality he was known to all simply as ‘Dim’, occasionally as ‘Dim Bonner’. Dennis Houston, who recorded James Duffy’s statement, was a native of Meenmore, a townland adjoining Crickamore. It is inconceivable that either he or James Duffy would misname Dim or confuse Meenmore with Crickamore. The inaccuracy is repeated further on in Duffy’s statement, where Dim is again referred to as ‘Jim’. A similar error occurs elsewhere in Joe Sweeney’s memoir where the Meenbanad stationmaster, Paddy Gallagher, is incorrectly referred to as ‘Anthony Gallagher’. The Bonner brothers would have been well known to both Dennis Houston and Joe Sweeney. The errors may be stenographic.
(d) Account No 4 describes Company B of the Volunteers as the ‘Meenbanad Company’. There was no Meenbanad Company as such. Company B was the Burtonport Company. The account refers to ‘Anthony McGinley, Meenbanad’, as a participant whereas James Duffy, in his statement, refers to ‘Anthony Sweeney’ of Meenbanad. There was an officer of the Dungloe Volunteers named Anthony McGinley who worked in Johnny Rua Sweeney’s store. But he was a native of Creeslough. (Ref. BMH WS 1382 by Dennis Houston.)
(e) Account No 5 states: – “Joe Sweeney recalled ‘One of the Colls – I think it was Charlie – struck me (Joe Sweeney) in mistake for one of the escorts’…” If that statement were correct it would imply that Joe Sweeney was an active participant at the Meenbanad ambush. However, in Account No 3 the statement: – ‘One of the Colls etc.….’- is attributable to James Duffy and not to Joe Sweeney.
(2) Was the 1918 Meenbanad ambush the first action of the War of Independence ?
The inscription on the commemorative monument at Meenbanad reads: –
The claim that the Meenbanad ambush was the first action of the War of Independence is endorsed in the accounts of Joe Sweeney, Pádraig Ó Baoighill and Joe McGarrigle. There is no doubt that the ambush was a planned attack on an armed British military unit. The Volunteers were aware that the British escort was armed and, if accompanied by RIC, that they too would be armed. However, it may also be argued that the ambush was an isolated, opportunistic incident mounted solely to free the prisoners and was not planned as the beginning of nation-wide hostilities.
It is useful to consider the Meenbanad incident in the context of the wider political and military developments of the period. In Jan.1918, the Irish Volunteers in The Rosses were a small, dedicated group, drawing inspiration from the 1916 Rising. While Sinn Fein were advancing a political agenda to win Irish independence, the Irish Volunteers were organising and training for an armed struggle. Denis Houston, in his witness statement BMH WS 1382, states that a number of the officers in the local companies were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). They had sworn a solemn oath (1) to organise a fighting force, (2) to procure arms by every means in their power and (3) to secure freedom for Ireland by physical force, when the opportunity arose. The IRB was a secret society, organised on a circle basis, where only the circle leader knew everyone in his own circle and the contact person in the circle above him. Michael Collins was on the Supreme Council of the IRB. It was during their internment in England and Wales, that he and Joe Sweeney forged an enduring, personal friendship. Historians agree that, following the 1916 Rising, the British made a major blunder, from their own perspective, when they interned, without trial, so many Irish political prisoners. At peak, there were up to 1800 internees at Frongoch. The camp was “a university of revolution”. It was there future leaders of the Volunteers developed strategies for guerilla warfare and for undermining British rule in Ireland. There too, internees from different parts of Ireland forged cohesive friendships and common goals. Not all internees were members of the IRB. Joe Sweeney’s membership predated the 1916 Rising. His loyalty to the IRB oath may explain why, on the occasion of the 1918 Meenbanad ambush, the capture of a service rifle appeared to be of greater importance to him, initially at least, than the rescue of the prisoners – both of whom would have been well known to his family. In Jan. 1918, the Great War was still raging and families across Ireland were deeply affected by it. Daily, it occupied the minds of ordinary people more so than did the national question. Germany was about to launch its last big offensive – the 1918 Spring Offensive. That failed to achieve its objective and the war ended on 11 Nov. 1918. More than 1100 Donegal men lost their lives in that war. With few exceptions their families never had the consolation of visiting their graves. In many cases their bodies were never found. (6)
Following the 1916 Rising, popular support dramatically shifted from the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) to Sinn Féin. This was due to: –
– the resentment at the execution without trial of the 1916 leaders,
– the jubilation at the homecoming of the Frongoch internees,
– the intense political focus of Sinn Féin, with success in the four 1917 by-elections,
– the death on hunger strike of Thomas Ash, Sept 1917,
– the widespread opposition to the British decision of April 1918 to extend conscription to Ireland,
– the internment of Sinn Féin leaders in May 1918, for alleged involvement in a ‘German Plot’ – a fabrication by Dublin Castle.
In the campaign for the Dec. 1918 general election, the IPP pledged to return to Westminster and resume their quest for Home Rule. Sinn Féin pledged to boycott Westminster, set up a native Irish parliament and government, establish an independent judicial system, undermine British rule in Ireland in every way possible and seek international recognition for Irish self-government at the Paris Peace Conference. The IPP was wiped out in the election.
The strengths of the parties before and after were as follows:-
IPP 78 6
Sinn Féin 7 73
Unionist 18 26
Many of the candidates returned for Sinn Fein had been interned at Frongoch. To popular acclaim, Joe Sweeney was returned for West Donegal. Aged 21, he was the youngest member elected. He attended the first meeting of the Dáil in the Mansion House, on 21 Jan. 1919. Of the 73 Sinn Féin members elected only 27 were able to attend, as many, including De Valera and Griffith, were still in prison. (7) (8)
At the time of the Meenbanad ambush, the local Volunteers were not at all ready for a sustained military campaign. They were at a very early stage of recruitment and training and they were bereft of arms. Few were trained in weaponry. It is likely that those engaged in the ambush saw it simply as a local action to free the two prisoners rather than the first action of nation-wide hostilities. No one was killed at Meenbanad. No shots were fired there. Almost two years would elapse before the first shots would be fired on an RIC patrol in The Rosses – at the Rampart School, 12 Dec 1919. A full year would elapse before the ambush of 21 Jan. 1919 at Soloheadbeg. There two RIC men were killed – James McDonnell (57) from Belmullet and Pat O ‘Connell (36) from Coachford. They were the first fatalities of the War of Independence, which is why Soloheadbeg is generally held to have been the first action of that war. During 1919, there were sporadic attacks on the RIC in diverse locations, mainly to acquire weapons. In that year 15 RIC officers were killed. The British responded with reprisals. They refused to recognise Dáil Ȇireann. They banned Sinn Féin and other nationalist movements. However, it was not until 1920 that the conflict escalated to a serious level, with regular ambushing of RIC patrols, boycotting of RIC in rural stations, forcing them to withdraw to larger towns, and the burning of many barracks. Many native Irish officers resigned from the RIC and recruitment dried up, leading to the deployment of the Black & Tans – a ruthless para-military force, that terrorised civilian populations. A total of 493 RIC were killed in the War of Independence.….(9)
Neither of the actions, at Meenbanad or Soloheadbeg, had prior approval from Volunteers GHQ.
(3) To what regiment did the British military escort belong ?
Joe McGarrigle claims that the escort was from the Dorset Regiment. His reference to the Dorsets may derive from a confusion of two separate Meenbanad ambushes. The Dorsets were certainly involved in the Jan. 1921 ambush, when a troop train was derailed at Paddy Ghráinne’s cutting. That ambush was followed by a comb-out of The Rosses by the Dorsets. James Duffy states that the military escort comprised four men, Sergeant Shaw being from the Beresford Regiment. Pádraig Ó Baoighill states that the escort comprised four RIC men but (perhaps quoting James Duffy) that Sergeant Shaw was from the Beresford Regiment. Frank Sweeney, having studied a report of the court-martial in the Derry Standard of the 04 Mar. 1918, states that the escort comprised three men – a sergeant and two privates and that they were from the 3rd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He names the three men. His account is the more credible on this point. It is fully endorsed by reports of the court-martial in the Londonderry Sentinel (10).
(4) Who were the Volunteers involved in the action at Meenbanad ?
Joe McGarrigle infers that only the four men named in his account were involved – Dim and John Bonner, Fergus Ward and Pat Boyle. He infers also that these four men devised and executed the rescue plan and took all the operational decisions. There is no mention of the Gallagher brothers of Meenbanad or of Joe and Bernie Sweeney of Burtonport. He states that Pat Boyle and Dim Bonner mingled with the crowd on the platform while Fergus Ward and John Bonner entered the compartment, in which the prisoners were held, through the door remote from the platform. He states that Fergus Ward picked up the rifle from the floor of the compartment. In his memoir, Joe Sweeney describes his own and his brother Bernie’s involvement in the planning and organisation of the ambush. However, he does not claim that he participated in the action at Meenbanad. Patrick Breslin confirms Joe’s role in the planning. He does not name the activists at Meenbanad. Prisoner James Duffy names Paddy Gallagher as the person who first entered the carriage and struck a member of the escort party. Duffy also states that it was John Bonner who wrested the rifle from Sergt. Shaw and that Dim Bonner held up the engine driver. Pádraig Ó Baoighill names nine men who, he says, were ‘among’ the participants. He names Paddy and Phil Gallagher of Meenbanad, both mentioned by James Duffy. They were locally known as Paddy Phil and Wee Phil. (Their brother, briefly referenced in James Duffy’s statement as ‘Ex Coy. Sergt Gallagher’, was Anthony Phil who later lived at The Leffin. Following the Treaty, Anthony joined the National Army.) To confuse matters somewhat, the stationmaster’s name was also Paddy Gallagher. He was known locally as ‘Paddy the Station’. He is named in Frank Sweeney’s account as ‘Patrick Gallagher’.
(5) Were the Volunteers armed ?
Patrick Breslin states that the Volunteers were ‘armed with revolvers’. Joe Sweeney, in his memoir, states that they had ‘a couple of revolvers’, but strangely in his report to GHQ he states that they were ‘completely unarmed’. Joe McGarrigle states that they were unarmed and gives that as the reason why they adopted a strategy of surprise. Sergt. Shaw’s evidence to the court-martial was that the military escort was attacked with sticks and stones. He made no mention of guns. It would have been foolish for an unarmed unit of the Volunteers to engage an armed and trained unit of the British military. It is therefore probable that some of the Volunteers involved in the action carried revolvers. Joe Sweeney states that they were ordered ‘to use no more force than was necessary’. However, if some of the Volunteers carried guns, it would appear that these guns were not deployed. Perhaps, it was not necessary to do so. According to the Belfast Newsletter, the evidence of the Burtonport RIC to the court-martial was that Privates Holland and Henderson were very drunk and unfit for duty, that Henderson was assisted to the train at Burtonport by two civilians and that he fell twice on the platform. And stationmaster Paddy Gallagher testified (Account No 5) that one of the soldiers fell on the platform at Meenbanad. Joe Sweeney states that the soldiers were ‘more than a little befuddled’. It would appear that the two privates were very drunk and, in one case at least, footless. If that were the case, Joe McGarrigle’s description of the action as a ‘glorious victory’ may be somewhat overstated, albeit two prisoners were rescued and Duffy’s rifle was recovered.
(6) Were British soldiers obliged to take their rifles home on leave at a time when the Irish Volunteers were desperately seeking arms ?
Desertion is a reality in every army. Many Irishmen, who experienced the horrors of the Great War, deserted when home on leave. The RIC would have been well aware of the importation of arms by the UVF at Larne in 1913 and by the Irish Volunteers at Howth in 1914. They would also have been aware that Volunteers were going to great lengths to acquire arms. It seems incredible then that there was a time when British soldiers were obliged to carry their rifles home on leave. A Derry volunteer, Liam Brady, recalled in BMH WS 676: – “…..It was the custom of British soldiers coming home on leave to bring their full kit including their rifles with them. The T.F.P. [an active service unit of the Derry City Volunteers] realising that there was a chance of getting some handy rifles, held up scores of those soldiers and relieved them of same. Some soldiers, who were sick of fighting England’s battles, handed over their rifles, deserted and joined the Volunteers. As activities were taking place all over Ireland, and the loss of rifles to the British Government must have been considerable, orders were issued that in future all soldiers must deposit their rifles in a military barracks before proceeding home…..” (1)
(7) Did Joe Sweeney participate in the action at Meenbanad ?
It would appear that Joe was not present at the Meenbanad action. If he were, he would surely have recorded it in his memoir and in his report to GHQ. Then aged 20, he was an engineering student at University College, Galway. The Meenbanad incident occurred while he was home for Christmas holidays. Some months later, in the summer of 1918, he contracted the ‘Spanish Flu’, which resulted in many deaths . He was hospitalised in Galway and was unable to sit his summer exams. At the same time, he was under surveillance by Galway RIC for the manufacture of explosives. When he was discharged from hospital he decided to abandon his studies, return to Burtonport, work in his father’s business and concentrate on organising the local Volunteers. (3)
(8) Did the Volunteers travel to Meenbanad by train or were they there ahead of it ?
Patrick Breslin states that the rescuing party travelled on the same train as the prisoners and the escort. Other accounts state that they travelled independently and were already at Kincasslagh Road Station when the train arrived there. The latter is the more credible. It is supported by a statement in McGarrigle’s account that the guard, John McCole, took an inordinately long time in shunting the wagons at the intermediate station – Dungloe Road (Lough Meela) – in order to give the Volunteers time to reach Meenbanad ahead of the train. As it was a Dungloe fair day, extra time was needed to shunt cattle wagons at Dungloe Road, since it was to that station jobbers brought their animals for onward transportation. Joe Sweeney states that he selected Meenbanad for the rescue because he surmised that RIC officers, carrying side arms, would accompany the military escort as far as Dungloe Road. In his report to GHQ he states, as a fact, that they did so. If he foresaw this as a probability, he would have detailed the Volunteers to be at Meenbanad ahead of the train.
(9) Exactly when was the decision taken to mount a rescue attempt at Meenbanad ?
Joe Sweeney’s account infers that the plan was drawn up on the 3rd Jan., the day before the rescue. If that were the case, the question arises – how did the Volunteers know that a military escort would be arriving in Burtonport the following morning, and what its strength might be. Such intelligence could only have come from the local RIC. Joe McGarrigle, on the other hand, infers that the decision to mount the rescue was made by the four named men, only on the morning of the ambush, after the escort’s arrival in Burtonport.
(10) Did the escort carry side arms ?
It is not credible that a military escort would travel from Derry to Burtonport unarmed. Joe Sweeney expected them to be carrying side arms. Yet, the only firearm mentioned as having been captured by the Volunteers at Meenbanad was James Duffy’s rifle. If the soldiers were carrying side arms it would appear that they did not deploy them. Perhaps, the size of the crowd, its intimidating demeanor, the element of surprise and their own inebriation discouraged them from doing so.
(11) Neil Boyle – Assistant Guard.
The young assistant guard on the train was Neil Boyle of Milltown, pictured 50 years later in the Derry People article by Joe Mc Garrigle (see Account No 2 above). This was the same Neil Boyle who was guard on a train that was blown off the Owencarrow viaduct by a hurricane, on the night of 30 Jan. 1925, with the loss of four lives. It was recorded then that Neil worked tirelessly through the night, helping the injured and guiding survivors to safety.
(12 )Jimmy (Susan) Ward.
One of the rescued prisoners, Jimmy (Susan) Ward, subsequently emigrated to the U.S.A., where he served for a time in the U.S. army and died following a street accident in New York on Independence Day, 1931.
(13) How did the rescued prisoners leave the station ?
Pádraig Ó Baoighill states that they escaped by car. Stationmaster Gallagher testified at the court-martial that he saw them running away. Neil Boyle testified at the court-martial that, as the train was pulling out from the station, he saw them running down the track in the direction of Burtonport. Joe McGarrigle corroborates this account and adds that they were handcuffed together as they scrambled down the track and over the rocks. Apparently, they were not handcuffed to the military escort.
(14) How did the escort leave the station ?
‘Notes from Ireland’ quoted by Joe Sweeney state that the soldiers‘ were hurried away in a motor car’. It is not credible that there was a friendly motor car waiting at the station to remove the escort to safety, or that they would feel safe in a local hackney. It is more credible that the escort escaped to Derry by the train, which pulled out of the station immediately after the prisoners were freed.
(15) Are there other accounts of the ambush ?
There is an account, not quoted here but posted on the internet, which states that, following the rescue, James Duffy went into hiding in a local house and, when the police came searching for him, that he escaped through a tunnel, which he and his friends had dug. The tunnel was described as ‘100 yards long’. If such a tunnel ever existed, Meenbanad folk would surely have known about it. As there is granite everywhere, a lot of hard labour and gelignite (then under strict police control) would have been required to dig such a lengthy tunnel and it would have taken months to do so. In his statement of 1937, James Duffy makes no mention of a tunnel. The account should be read with caution.
There is another published account, not quoted here either, which states that the Volunteers boarded the train and moved through the carriage until they came to the compartment in which the prisoners and their escort were seated. The adjoining photograph, by H. C. Casserly, is taken from ‘Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway’, by Steve Flanders & Joe Begley. The railway was narrow-gauge; the rails were a mere 3ft apart. The carriage width was 7ft 3in. There was no internal passageway through a carriage, as would be normal on a standard-gauge railway.
‘I wish to express my appreciation to Donegal Heritage-Jimmy Duffy for the considerable help received in assembling this document.’ John Sharkey, January 2018
- Bureau of Military History, Witness Statements.
- Derry People, 13 Jan 1968.
- The Capuchin Annual 1970, Donegal and the War of Independence – Major General Joe Sweeney.
- Óglach na Rosann, Niall Pluncéad Ó Baoighill – Pádraig Ó Baoighill.
- That Old Sinner – Frank Sweeney.
- County Donegal Book of Honour, The Great War 1914-1918, – Paddy Harte et al.
- Ireland Three – M E Collins.
- The Donegal Awakening – Liam J. O Duibhir.
- Police Casualties in Ireland, 1919-1922, – Richard Abbott.
- Belfast Newsletter 24 Feb 1918.
RESCUE OF ABSENTEES IN DONEGAL
MOB RUSH A TRAIN
ESCORT PARTY PROTECT THEMSELVES WITH BAYONETS
A STATIONMASTER’S “SLIP”
A district court-martial sat at Ebrington Barracks on Saturday to investigate charges against Lance-Sergeant Robert Shaw, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The offences alleged against accused were—(1) Allowing Private Ward, Royal Inniskillings, and Private Duffy, Dublin Fusiliers, two absentees, to escape while being conveyed from Burtonport to the guard detention room at Ebrington Barracks; (2) allowing an escort, of which was in command, to get drunk; and (3) himself escaping when in arrest.
Major Lennock, Somersets (president), Captain Curtis. A.S.C. (attached Inniskillings), and Captain Ellis, Somersets, constituted the Court. Lieutenant G. L. Williams. M.C.. Royal Inniskillings, was the military prosecutor.
Accused, for whom Mr. H. S. Robinson appeared, pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Evidence was given of accused and two privates being sent to Burtonport for two absentees, and that after arrival at Burtonport the escort separated from accused, and two police witnesses alleged that two of the former were through drink incompetent to carry out duty as an escort. Private Henderson, one of the escort, did not accompany the escort and the two prisoners to the station, but arrived late, assisted by two civilians. He was drunk and staggering, and fell twice on the platform
John McCole, the guard, said when the train reached Kincasslagh Road Station a crowd of about 100 or 150 rushed along the platform, and surrounded the carriage where the prisoners were. The crowd was very angry.
The President—Did you see any stones thrown?
Witness—No; but I saw plenty of sticks waving. The stationmaster ordered me to ” go ahead,” or the train would be smashed
Answering the Prosecutor, the witness said the crowd at the station was three-fourths composed of women, and was very excited. There were about twenty or thirty men and a lot of young boys and girls.
To Mr. Robinson — The platform was packed with people, who rushed the carriage in which the soldiers were immediately [as] the train drew up. The men all carried sticks.
Neil Boyle said the crowd at the station appeared to be quite quiet. After the departure of the train he saw the two prisoners running down the railway track in the direction of Burtonport. Many of those at the station came to see the prisoners off and bid them good-bye.
To the Prosecutor—Witness admitted it was generally talked about in the district that the prisoners would travel by this train.
Mr. Robinson—Wasn’t the crowd on the platform nothing short of a mob!
Witness did not reply.
Mr. Robinson—What was the crowd there for?
Witness—To see the soldiers off.
Tague Doherty, a postman, and a cousin of one of the prisoners, said be understood the crowd collected at the station to bid goodbye to the prisoners.
Replying to Mr. Robinson, witness said his statement in the summary of evidence that the crowd was threatening someone in the carriage was untrue.
Mr. Robinson—On your oath, didn’t you know what the purpose the crowd was?
Witness— Well, I thought it might be to rescue the prisoners.
Patrick Gallagher, the stationmaster, said that before the train arrived he learned the object was to bid goodbye to the prisoners, and on that account he allowed the crowd to remain on the platform. The door of the compartment in which the prisoners were was opened, and a woman got out. The door was then closed, and a soldier stretched out his hand as if to bid someone good-bye. The door of the carriage then opened again, and a soldier came out and pulled another after him. The latter fell on the platform. Witness saw the ” poor boys” running away. The crowd was not hostile.
Mr. Robinson—What do you mean by the “poor boys?”
Witness—That was a slip. He saw no struggle outside the carriage, but admitted that there mitt have been a disturbance.
The accused, giving evidence on his own behalf, said he left Derry Barracks about 4.30 a.m. without food, and had breakfast in Burtonport about 12.30 with the escort. He sent Henderson to the station to ascertain if there was any likelihood of hostility, as they had been boohed and jeered at by the people at the street corners in the morning. Tho police told him that they were likely to have trouble. The escort obtained drink, but not with his permission. Holland was fit to discharge his duty as an escort, and Henderson was capable of discharging the duty allotted to him. “When the train drew up at Kincasslagh Road Station witness opened the door of the carriage to allow two women who were in the same compartment to get out. The door was then closed. The mob on the platform rushed towards the carriage. Some of the men in the crowd had sticks, with which they threatened the occupants of the carriage, and a voice shouted, “Where are they? We must have them.” Witness understood them to refer to the prisoners. The carriage door was immediately dragged open from the outside and the prisoners dragged out by the mob. “We held on to the prisoners as long as we could,” the witness continued, ” but the door on the other side of the carriage was opened by part of the mob, and we were attacked on that side by sticks and stones. That was the time the prisoners were rescued, and we then had to draw our bayenets to protect ourselves.”
The proceedings were resumed yesterday.
Mr. H. S. Robinson, who appeared for the accused, continued the case for the defence.
Accused was further examined on the third charge.
Cross-examined by the military prosecutor as to his statement on Saturday that he left for Burtonport on the morning of the occurrence without breakfast, accused said he was unable to obtain any. He tried to make arrangements the previous night, and was provided with a sandwich, “to save any trouble in the morning.”
The President—Nothing else?
The Prosecutor—Did you make a complaint?
Accused—No, I thought it would be irregular to do that. The accused added that the men of his escort received no breakfast before leaving.
The Prosecutor—Did you not take the trouble of asking why they did not get breakfast!
Further cross-examined, accused said he knew from the appearance of Private Henderson at Burtonport. Railway Station in the afternoon that he had drink taken. He was not, however, drunk.
Asked for his reason for telling Sergeant McCafferty in Burtonport Barracks that the men of his escort had got too much drink in his absence, accused said he did not think he had any reason.
The President — You must. have had some reason?
Accused — The police made a remark to me about the men being sickly looking, and I thought they might have been in a public-house.
The Prosecutor—Can you explain why it was that that was the first explanation of their sickness that suggested itself to you?
Accused—As I had refused them permission to get drink I thought they had taken their chance. They asked me more than once for permission to get drink. The men of the escort, accused added, were absent about two hours. There was nothing in Private Henderson’s condition at 2.30, when he was detailed to go to the station to ascertain if there was any likelihood of hostility being shown the escort, to warrant the police statement that he was drunk.
The Prosecutor—Were the police swearing lies?
Accused — In my opinion Henderson was all right. I would not say they were swearing lies.
Accused, who mentioned that Private Holland was sick when he left Derry in the morning, was
cross-examined at length by the military prosecutor as to the orders given to Private Henderson to proceed to the railway station and report. He was not aware of Private Henderson having to be helped into the railway carriage at Burtonport. Accused and Private Holland brought the prisoners from the police barracks to the station, and were accompanied by the police for protection.
Asked what resistance he and the escort gave when the prisoners escaped at Kincasslagh Road Station, accused said they held on to the prisoners until the latter were dragged out of the carriage.
Examined by the Court, accused was unable to explain the discrepancy between the police statement that he reported at Burtonport Barracks about twelve noon and his own evidence that he reported at eleven o’clock.
Captain Ellis pointed out that Constable Glennane swore accused reported at the barracks about 11.30.
The President asked accused to account for his movements in Burtonport between eleven and twelve o’clock.
Accused said he spent about an hour in the police barracks after reporting there at eleven o’clock.
The President — Apparently they did not see you?
Accused said he was in the barracks most of the time.
The President — If you feared an attempt at rescue or disturbance why did you allow strangers into the carriage with the prisoners?
Accused—I could not prevent them.
The President—You were an escort travelling on duty?
Accused — I understood I could not prevent them.
The President–Why did you not get the carriage doors locked?
Accused replied that he did not expect any trouble after they left Burtonport.
The President—Did you make any attempt to recapture the prisoners?
Accused—None. I had no time. The train moved out as the prisoners were rescued.
The President—Did you make no attempt to get out!?
Accused—The train was on the move.
A number of military witnesses were examined for the defence to show that accused not under any restraint at the period the prosecution alleged he was in open arrest.
Corporal Arthur. one of the witnesses for the prosecution, recalled, said he heard Regimental Sergeant-Major Arbuckle warn accused that he was in open arrest. Witness denied the allegation that he informed accused subsequently that he was not in arrest.
This concluded the evidence.
Mr. Robinson reviewed the evidence, and submitted that everything possible had been done by the accused to carry out his duty. it would be extremely hard, said Mr. Robinson, if the excused were to be held guilty of negligence under the circumstances. When accused and his men arrived in Burtonport in the morning they were, by reason of the uniform they wore, boohed and jeered.
Later one of the men was sent by accused to the station to ascertain if there was any likelihood of hostility. Accused was in a district which was admittedly hostile, and where objectionable remarks were made about the King in the morning. Nothing occurred prior to the departure to arouse accused’s suspicions that an attempt would be made to rescue the prisoners. Dealing with the subsequent release of the prisoners, Mr. Robinson asked how accused was to have prevented a mob assembling at Kincasslagh Road Station. Apparently, said Mr. Robinson, information was sent from Burtonport by some means or other that the prisoners were travelling by a certain train. and the mob assembled at Kincasslagh. armed with sticks and stones, for the sole purpose of rescuing the prisoners. The mob attacked the carriage in which the accused and escort were from both sides, and the escort were obliged for their own protection to draw their bayonets. Mr. Robinson dealt at length with the other charges, and submitted that no evidence had been adduced on which the Court could find the accused guilty.
Replying, the Military Prosecutor said he would leave it to the Court to determine whether a sufficient resistance was made by the accused when the attack was made on the carriage. It was clear a large crowd assembled at Kincasslagh Station, but the fact that a crowd hostile and threatening was present was not a warrant to release the prisoners.
Mr. Robinson mentioned accused and his brother patriotically joined the colours on the outbreak of war. Accused, who had been in France, had been twice wounded, and his military record showed a clean sheet. His sister, who was in the Post Office in Dublin during the rebellion, held the fort there, and was now doing duty in France. The inquiry concluded, and the result will be promulgated in due course.
Londonderry Sentinel, Tuesday, February 26, 1918
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Ó ‘gus éalóchaidh mé i mbárach go Mullach Dubh Gállda dom’ chómhair,
‘Gus is tuirseach gan áidhbhéil a ghním na tráigheanna romhama threabhadh;
Acht ó’s nídh é bheas déanta ‘s nach bhfuil a áthrach anois rómham,
‘Sé mo chéad beannacht a fhágaim ag tráigheannaibh an Dúin Mhóir.
Acht tá mé ‘nois d’á bhfágail go bráth uilig ‘mo dhéidh; Tá mé ‘g dul imeasg mo cháirde agus is mór an sásamh sin fhéin; I n-íochtar Mhullach Dubh Gállda béidh m’fhárus níos mó, Acht mo chéad beannacht ‘sé fhágaim ag tráigheannaibh an Dúin Mhóir.
le Donnchadh Ó Searcaigh (roimh 1906)
The facts that we do know about of the death of Private Con Duggan of the 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles in Dublin in April 1916 gives rise to as many questions as answers.
He died in the Easter Rising allegedly killed in action. He was 22 years when he died and was buried in his native parish of Kincasslagh although he is mentioned on a tombstone over a ‘grave’ at Bully’s Acre, Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin.
He was the son of Bartley Doogan from Calhame, Annagry and Brigid (Mhór) Doogan from Carrick A tSeascain in Gaoth Dobhair. He was a member of the 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles of the British Army who were based that week at Portobello Barracks, (now Cathal Brugha Barracks) Rathmines, Dublin. The 3rd Battalion was in the effective control of Captain Bowen Colthurst from Mallow, County Cork as his superior officer was ill. On the Tuesday of Easter Week part of the battalion left the barracks under the command of Bowen Colthurst with the view to arresting ‘Fenians’ as Bowen Colthurst called suspects. Bowen Colthurst had with him as a hostage, with his hands tied behind his back, the pacifist Frances Sheehy Skeffington who had been arrested as a rebel sympathiser the previous day. It seems he had told the military when stopped on Portobello Bridge on his way home from trying to organise a group to stop the looting of shops that while he sympathised with the rebels aims he did not agree with their methods. Frances Sheehy Skeffington in his early thirties attracted attention from the way he dressed. He walked with a cane and generally had an eccentric appearance. He took his wife’s name Sheehy as part of his own name on their marriage. He was considered harmless but strange. He was friendly with Thomas Mc Donagh one of the signatories of the Proclamation and seemed to frequent the places Mc Donagh frequented largely to meet and often argue with Mc Donagh. This may have meant that he fell under suspicion of being a militant when he was not one.
The unit controlled by Bowen Colthurst were a motley crew made up of the 3rd Battalion recruited mainly from Ireland and East Belfast in particular but that week their numbers were increased by the presence of other British soldiers including it seems one Australian who were on holiday leave in Dublin when the fighting started. Bowen Colthurst stopped a 17 year boy who was coming from a religious service in a nearby Catholic Church. After questioning him about being in breach of curfew Captain Bowen Colthurst shot him dead. He also shot a Labour Party Councillor who was an inactive member of the Irish Volunteers and although he did not die there and then he died a fortnight later. Bowen Colthurst fire-bombed with it would seem the Australian’s help a shop of a Unionist Alderman Councillor at Kelly’s Corner confusing it with the property of a Nationalist Alderman Councillor of the same surname Kelly. He also killed the owner of the shop. He arrested two journalists, Mc Intyre and Dixon who although they were editors of Unionist publications he seemed to think they were Nationalists. They together with Frances Sheehy Skeffington were brought back to Portobello Barracks and the following morning Wednesday all three were executed by seven man firing squad. Sir Frances Vane who had overall command of Portobello Barracks was otherwise engaged that day with heavy fighting at the South Dublin Union held by Eamon Ceannt one of the signatories of the Proclamation of 1916 but he returned to the barrack on Wednesday evening to discover what had occurred.
Efforts by the highly principled Sir Frances Vane to have Captain Bowen Colthurst arrested did not find favour with the authorities in Dublin and Sir Frances Vane was forced to go to London to press the government there to arrest Captain Bowen Colthurst. This was done reluctantly although in the meantime the Defendant had been promoted by the military in Sir Frances Vane’s absence. While Vane is clearly a person of high principles the military in general seemed to feel that it would be detrimental to army morale to punish Bowen Colthurst. Bowen Colthurst was tried and convicted of the three murders at the Barracks and found guilty but insane. He was held at Broadmoor Prison Hospital for less than two years and then released on the basis that he was no longer insane. He went to Canada and lived there until his death in 1965. Sir Frances Vane was discharged from the army in 1917 and one of the reasons for his discharge was given was his involvement in the Sheehy Skeffington affair. His attempt to record what had happened was frustrated by the military censor. There was a Judges Inquiry and Bowen Colthurst did not come out to well out of the affair. He was probably insane at least by the standards of our time although he was not lacking in calculation when it came to trying to cover his tracks. He for example searched the house of Sir Frances Sheehy Skeffington in an attempt to find evidence that the pacifist was a closet militant.
The British Army Roll of Honour has an entry for Con Duggan and it says the following;
Con Duggan, Private No 5470 G Coy, 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, second son of Bartley Duggan of Calhame, Annagry, by his wife Bridget Duggan, born 22/3/1893, educated at Mullaghduff National School. Was an electric tram car driver, Lanarkshire Tramways. Enlisted 14th January 1916 and was killed during the fighting in Dublin about 30th April 1916, unmarried. Buried in the grounds of the Royal Hospital there, 2nd May. His younger brother was killed at Loos.
In other British Army records Templecrone the parish he was from was confused with Templemore in County Tipperary and the county he was from was given as Tipperary. His date of death is given as 29th April 1916 but that is not inconsistent with ‘about 30th April 1916’. He could have died from wounds received early in the week but it does seem unlikely that he would have been killed on the 29th (Saturday) or the 30th (Sunday) as the fighting was over at that stage particularly on the south side of the city. And Con Duggan was not buried in Bullys Acre, Royal Kilmainham but in Kincasslagh, County Donegal.
The soldier who accompanied the body of Con Duggan to Annagry for burial in Kincasslagh graveyard reputedly said to Con’s mother at his wake that her son had been asked to take part in a firing squad and when he refused he was then killed himself. The soldier allegedly said Con had been a foolish boy to refuse to take part in the firings squad as all he had to do to give the impression that he was complying with the request was to take his place in the firing squad and then he could deliberately aim to miss the target. He reputedly added that he had to do that himself. Con’s mother supposedly replied that ‘that would not be Con’s way’. It may be the case that Con Duggan death was collateral damage in the Portobello Barracks murders.
I am indebted to Jimmy Duffy of Carrickfinn, Kincasslagh, County Donegal and John Mc Fadden of Calhame, Annagry who provided me with information regarding Con Duggan.
By Seán Boner, Meenmore, Dungloe.