Donegal and 1916: Recruiting moves slowly  

The complete Mountcharles Company arsenal consists of one Lee Enfield rifle

Donegal and 1916: Recruiting moves slowly  
Historian and historical author Liam Ó Duibhir from Letterkenny has written extensively on Irish republican history of the 20th century. As part of the continuing commemoration of the centenary year of the Easter Rising, Liam has written for the Donegal Democrat/Donegal People’s Press of the part Donegal of the remarkable events of 1916 and the part that Donegal and Donegal people played in them. This is the second installment of a six-part weekly serialisation of “Donegal and 1916” that will appear Mondays in the Democrat/DPP.

Ernest Blythe continued to travel the county in the hope of encouraging others to join the ranks of the IRB and the Irish Volunteers.

He met with some success in Raphoe, where he made contact with Johnny McShane. He was also successful in recruiting men in Letterkenny, where he met Conal Carberry, whom Blythe considered to be the most influential man he had met in the north. 

He also recruited men in Ballybofey, Stranorlar and Donegal town. Despite his best efforts, Blythe recruited a relatively small number of men over his four to five weeks in the county. While every effort was being made to raise companies of the Irish Volunteers in County Donegal, these efforts were met with little success. 

The dismal state of the Donegal Irish Volunteers was summed up by Michael Monaghan, Mountcharles, listing the complete arsenal of the Mountcharles company as one Lee Enfield rifle, which was the property of Joseph McManus.

The first opportunity for the IRB to publicly express their intentions to strike a blow against the British establishment in Ireland came about following the death of the Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915. O’Donovan Rossa had died in exile in America in early July 1915. 

The IRB selected Padraig Pearse to deliver the now famous, graveside oration at the funeral in Glasnevin cemetery on the 1st August 1915. Part of Pearse’s oration read, “…Life springs from death and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The defenders of this realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have foreseen everything, think they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead and while Ireland holds these graves Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” 

The obvious interpretation of this oration was that the time had come to end British rule through physical force resistance.  

Engagement with Germany

While it was evident that every effort was made by the IRB to procure weapons, the Military Council had been actively engaging with the German military through contacts in America to land a large shipment of some 30,000 rifles and ammunition in Ireland in advance of the planned Rising. 

Roger Casement had travelled to Germany at the behest of the IRB and John Devoy, John T. Ryan and Joe Garritty, leaders of Clann na Gael in America. John Devoy had been informed by the IRB Military Council on 5th February 1916 that the date of the Rising was set for Easter Sunday, 23rd April. On receipt of this, John Devoy established contact with two Germans, men called Von Papen and Von Skall, who were based in the German Embassy in America and the weapons shipment was arranged between the German representatives in America and Berlin. The Germans communicated with Berlin through a radio station based in Mexico. The arrangement had been months in the planning and the date was set for landing the weapons in Ireland on board the cargo boat, Aud. 

The Germans had communicated to Berlin that the Aud should arrive on the Irish coast at Limerick or at Fenit in County Kerry between 20th and 23rd April. However, a message was received by John Devoy in America from the IRB Military Council that the Aud should not arrive until 23rd April. This was communicated to Berlin through the radio station in Mexico, but unfortunately by that time the Aud had already been at sea and as a cargo ship did not have any radio equipment. 

A bad start, worsened

The plot to land weapons had got off to a bad start and this matter was made much more precarious following the discovery of the plans by the American Secret Service on 15th April 1916. After discovering the plot, the Secret Service carried out a raid on the offices of Von Skall, where they discovered the details in correspondence from John Devoy in connection with the weapons shipment. The Secret Service informed the British of the planned gun-running mission, but for some unknown reason the British did not take immediate action and failed to intercept Aud on the high sea. The intelligence was later communicated and patrols sailed along the Irish coast on the lookout for a German cruiser carrying weapons. 

While Aud was sailing towards Ireland another tragedy was to beset the already doomed gun-running plot. Members of the IRB were detailed to travel from Dublin to County Kerry, with instructions to brief local members there about the arrival of Aud. While the original plan was for Aud to arrive at Fenit, four of the IRB members while travelling to that area took a wrong turn and in the dark of night and their car plunged off a pier at Ballykissane into the water. Only one of the men, Tom McInerney, survived by swimming ashore while the three others, Sheehan, Monaghan and Keating, all perished. 

In the early hours of Good Friday morning, 21st April 1916, Aud arrived in Tralee Bay at the agreed time, piloted by Reserve-Lieutenant Karl Spindler of the German Navy. However, due to the unfortunate series of misfortunes her signals went unanswered. Karl Spindler decided to spend the night hiding behind one of the Magharee Islands off Ballycurrane on the Kerry coast. At dawn a ship carrying a pilot flag approached the Aud, and much to the German commander's surprise the pilot boat hoisted the British flag of war and the cargo was discovered. Aud was detained later that day. 

As the Aud was being escorted to Cork the crew scuttled the boat and on surrendering identified themselves as sailors of the German navy. Roger Casement, who had been transported from Germany on the German U-19, was soon after captured by the RIC near Banna Strand. 

Rosses man, Joseph Sweeney

Joseph Sweeney (pictured) from Burtonport had been a student at Padraig Pearse’s school Saint Enda’s (Scoil Éanna) in Cullenswood House in Ranelagh. While there he was greatly influenced by Pearse’s teachings and lectures in Irish history. In 1916 he was a 19-year-old engineering student at UCD, but lived at Saint Enda’s. 

Conor and Eunan McGinley, whose father was a native of Glenswilly, were also former students of Saint Enda’s and part of the group. They were cousins of Dr. J.P. McGinley, who was also a member of the Irish Volunteers having joined while a medical student at Queens University in Belfast. Dr. J.P. McGinley was in Dublin over the Easter weekend but did not take part in any of the action, as he was not assigned to any of the battalions in the city. 

Joe Sweeney had been sworn into the IRB by Padraig Pearse in 1915. There a number of other former pupils of Saint Enda’s attending UCD and resided in the school were also sworn members of the IRB including the McGinley brothers. In early 1916 Padraig Pearse told them that the date of the rising had been fixed for Easter Sunday of that year. 

On Easter Sunday morning in Dublin many of the young volunteers including Joe Sweeney were awakened early. Sweeney attended mass at Mount Argus, but on his return to Saint Enda’s he saw posters pasted at various locations stating that the Volunteer parade had been cancelled by Irish Volunteers Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill. MacNeill on hearing about the capture of Casement and the weapons had feared that the rising would amount to nothing and had an article published in the Sunday Independent cancelling the Volunteer parade. MacNeill had only shortly before discovered that the Volunteer parade was to be the vehicle by the IRB were to strike against the British establishment in Ireland. The countermand issued by MacNeill created a very confused situation throughout the country and the IRB Military Council took the decision to abandon their plans for Easter Sunday morning and instead postponed until the following morning, Easter Monday. 

This was not an ideal position, as throughout the country many volunteers were made to believe that the planned rising had been postponed indefinitely while others were preparing for action. Unknown to the leaders and Volunteers, and notwithstanding the best efforts of the IRB Military Council to keep the plans a secret, the British had received intelligence that the Rising was to take place some time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. However, the intelligence was not given much credence and there was no obvious preparations by the British to counter any efforts by the Volunteers.