Dr Conor McNamara, Moore Institute 1916 Scholar in Residence accompanied over fifty relatives of the three hundred or so Galway prisoners deported in the aftermath of the 1916 Rebellion to Frongoch in North Wales recently to lay a memorial stone at the site of the internment. The trip was organised by the Friends and Relatives of Galway 1916 and the delegation was accompanied by Cathaoirleach Contae na Gaillimhe, Michael Connelly, and Councillor Gabe Cronnelly.
The group had a deeply personal connection with the Rebellion and included the children, grand children and other descendants of the Galway Volunteers who, led by Liam Mellows, rose in Galway in 1916. A reception for the group was hosted by Chris Ruane, Member of Parliament for the Vale of Clwyd from 1997 to 2015, and grandson of Thomas Ruane, Captain of the Claregalway Volunteers in 1916. Local Member of the Welsh assembly, Ann Jones, accompanied by the retired speaker of the Welsh assembly, Lord Elis-Thomas, welcomed the group and spoke of the importance of remembrance and community.
Following a reception and dinner in the town of Balla, the group were hosted on the site of the internment camp. A number of speakers paid moving tribute to their relatives, with poems and ballads recited and family reminiscences recalled. Chairman of Galway County Council, Michael Connelly, gave an emotional tribute to those who made the long journey to the remote valley and thanked all who played such an important part in ensuring the prisoners were not forgotten.
Dr Conor McNamara, Moore Institute, NUI Galway, delivered a lecture entitled, ‘Forgetting and Remembering 1916 in Galway’, focusing on the revival of interest in the period thanks to the endeavours of local communities, facilitated by Galway County Council.
Dr McNamara said: “The ceremonies concluded with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque, laid on behalf of the people of Galway, in memory of those interned. The plaque pays tribute to the Galway prisoners in both Welsh and Irish. As the rain swept through the valley, events ended, appropriately, with further songs of tribute echoing across the site.”
Dr McNamara explained that NUI Galway is endeavouring to launch an innovative digital humanities project focused on bringing the personal archives and oral history of the revolution to an international audience. Below is a copy of Dr Conor McNamra’s lecture at the event.
Liam Mellows and the Galway Volunteers
Mellows and Ó Monacháin were the unlikeliest of duos to lead a revolution in Galway. Both were outsiders, urban and un-initiated in rural ways. Mellows was born in Hartshead military barracks, Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire. Three generations of the Mellows family had served in the British military and Liam’s father, William, was born in Gondah, India, where he was father was serving. William Mellows met his future wife, Sarah Jordan, a dressmaker, while stationed in Cork in 1882 and married in Fermoy in 1885. Sarah Jordan was the youngest of eighteen children to Patrick Jordan, a land agent from Monalug, Wexford. The couple moved to Ashton-under-Lyne in 1889, after stints in Manchester, and Glasgow. The family moved again to Dublin in 1894, thence to Cork, where Liam and his older brother Frederick attended Wellington Barracks military school. By 1900 Liam and his family were back in Dublin where he continued his education in Portobello garrison school.
Sergeant William Mellows’ hopes that his son would become a military officer were to be spectacularly subverted by the boy’s love of Irish history but the itinerant lifestyle and martial culture in which he was nurtured defined his years as a republican activist. Mellows route to national was his involvement with Na Fianna Éireann boy scouts movement which he joined in Dublin in 1911. The organisation was established to counter the pro-imperial boy scouts movement established by Robert Baden-Powell in 1907. Na Fianna provided Mellows with a counterpoint to his military upbringing and allowed him to instil the same martial values in young boys that he himself had experienced. Travelling across Ireland establishing local units and organising events, Mellows attained the experience and personal qualities that made him an ideal organiser for the Volunteers. The establishment of the Irish Volunteers provided mellows with a natural avenue for his political beliefs, personal qualities and experience. Active as an organiser from the establishment of the organisation in November 1913, he was dispatched to Mrs Broderick’s boarding house in Athenry. The arrival of Mellows represented a formative boost to morale and organization in the county and his commitment and charisma made an indelible impression on ordinary recruits.
Mellows’ deputy, Alfie Ó Monacháin, a poster and lithographic artist by trade, was a native of Balfour Avenue on Belfast’s Ormeau Road. A member of the IRB and the Volunteer alongside Bulmer Hobson, and was appointed a Volunteer organizer in place of Mellows after he was deported in July 1915. Appointed initially to Cavan, he was arrested and held on remand in Crumlin Road jail in October and sentenced to three months hard labour under the Defence of the Realm Act, ‘I met some terrible rascals and criminals, all I think sub-normal beings and all had a lot of good in them.’ On release in January 1916: ‘I got instructions from GHQ to go to Galway to assist Liam Mellows. From this it will be seen that GHQ had reasons for having Galway very specially organized and equipped for the coming Rising. My district being mainly the Gaeltacht.’
Mellows made an immediate impression on the young rural farmers sons of the Irish Volunteers. Volunteer Pádraig Ó Fathaigh later wrote, ‘he was the life and soul of the movement. His magnetic power was amazing and the Galway Volunteers would follow him wherever he led.’ Volunteer Francis Hynes recalled, ‘I, who had the privilege of being one of his most intimate acquaintances often wondered how a man whose inner thoughts were so deep and so serious could always show such careless, I might say irresponsible front, to his casual acquaintances. I will always remember the first night he addressed our company.’ ‘My impression of him was that he may have been a clever lad – he was about 22 years – but he couldn’t be much good at fighting,’ Hynes recalled, however, ‘before the first night under his command was over they laughed no more, they loved and respected him after that.’
Chaplain to the Galway Volunteers, Fr Feeney of Clarinbridge developed a close bond with Mellows and later offered an account of his time in Galway for the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising:
Mellows was well below average height, frail looking with fair, almost white hair. He wore rimless glasses of the pince-nez type and did not, at first sight, inspire great respect or confidence. But the thin, frail body was tough and sinewy, immune to cold and hardship.
Liam had other qualities which endeared him to the Galway Volunteers. Off duty, he was good humoured and an ingenious practical joker, especially as regards his police escort which he was adept at throwing off the scent.
Mellows religious faith was an important factor in sustaining him as Feeney recalled, ‘Liam was an exceptionally religious man. Merely to say that he was a practicing catholic or that he attended the sacraments, would convey a poor impression of the depth of his religious conviction. He seemed to me to be a man who was fond of prayer and very familiar with God.’ Mellows summed up the importance of his own religious beliefs in a letter reflecting on him time as a Volunteer organizer written in 1919:
Although we live in amity with our fellow country men and women who are not co-religionists and desire the utmost freedom for all creeds in Ireland, nevertheless, we cannot divorce God and Ireland and God in Ireland can mean only one thing. I have myself experienced so often the help of His protecting and guiding hand during the last few years, when every step I walked was trod in danger and Ireland’s enemies sought me, that I would indeed be an ingrate were I not to acknowledge it. And so I lay any honours that have come my way where I laid my trials and sufferings, for outside of God there is no one to help Ireland, but when she has his help, she has all, for he did not desert her in the dark hours of tribulation, particularly during the last four years, neither will He refuse his protection in the days of trial yet to come.
Witness Statement Ref #: 342, Witness: Michael Newell, Officer IV, Galway, 1916; OC Galway Brigade, IRA, 1921, p. 9
On the way to Frongoch, the train on which we were travelling was held up at, I think, Nottingham Station for about one and a half hours while troop trains were passing through. We were assembled on the station platform under a very strong escort of soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets. We were by a very hostile crowd of both men and women, who jeered us, called us nasty names: they also spat at us. One of the soldiers dropped his rifle to the trail position and struck three of the hostile crowd, knocking them out. He then shouted “Up Carraroe, Up Connemara”. He was John Keane, a native of Carraroe. I heard afterwards that he was tried for this assault and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, but instead was sent with a draft to the Dardanelles. He was not heard of again.
Witness Statement Ref #: 1062, Witness: Laurence Garvey, Lieutenant IRA, Galway, 1917 – 1921
We were marched through Glasgow to Barlinnie Prison on the outskirts of the town. On the way we heard people shouting “shoot the swine”. Our worst enemy seemed to be a Chinaman. He had a big fat face, yellow as a sovereign and a pigtail, the first I ever saw. He was dressed like a woman and kept shouting for our blood along the route. We spent six weeks in Barlinnie after which we were removed to Frongoch. On the way there the officer in charge of our escort was an Irishman named Roche. He treated us exceedingly well on the way, buying tea, cigarettes and tobacco for us. He allowed nobody to insult us at the railway stations on the journey.
Witness Statement Ref #: 1564, Witness: Michael Kelly, Officer IRA, Galway, 1921
We were a gay party singing and dancing. Some more serious-minded of the prisoners were of the opinion that the British were taking us out to sea to sink us, and others said we were put on the cattle boat so that the Germans, if they sank the boat, would take it for what it was and would not make any attempt to rescue us. We were brought to Glasgow and separated into two batches. My batch marched through Glasgow to whatever station was the terminus for Perth. We got a good reception in Glasgow. There were about two hundred in our batch including some Wexford men. We were lodged in Perth Jail. We got a bad reception at Perth railway station; the people thought we were deserters from the British army and boohed us. We returned the boohs with vengeance.
The members of the Advisory Committee were very pleasant fellows. They knew every move I made for the twelve months previous to the Rising. They knew an about the dances I attended, the girls I was friendly with, and that I carried a gun in Galway on the St. Patrick’s Day Parade 1916. They asked ne did I know what I was going to do when I was called out in Easter Week. I answered that I did, and that I was looking for the freedom of n country as any decent man would do in an unfree country. I was released about the end of August, 1916.