OPINION

IT OCCURS TO ME: Casualties of war?

A vivid account of a troubled period

Frank Galligan

Reporter:

Frank Galligan

Email:

editorial@donegaldemocrat.com

IT OCCURS TO ME: Casualties of war?

It’s one hundred years ago since Eamon de Valera and Sean McEntee came to Raphoe to address a crowd.
One of the most vivid accounts of the troubled period was given by Anthony Dawson to the Bureau of Military History in 1956: “I was born at Letterkenny in 1902, where I received my primary education.
“After leaving the National School I attended St. Eunan's College, Letterkenny. My father took an active interest in the national movement.He was a founder member of the Sinn Féin Club in Letterkenny and also acted as County Court Judge in the Sinn Fein Courts when they operated in the area.
“As small boys, brothers Charles, James and myself joined the National Volunteers. After the Rebellion of 1916 we realised that we were in the wrong party and broke away from that organisation. I then joined the local Sinn Féin Club and in 1917 I joined the Irish Volunteers then organised in Letterkenny.
“My brother, James, was the O/C. of the Company. In 1917 we were generally employed at drill parades, route
marches and occasional raids for arms on the homes of the Ulster Volunteers. Very often we were called out to intercept and break up recruiting meetings for the British Army.
“British soldiers' wives, living in the town, who were in receipt of marriage allowance were very antagonistic towards us and caused considerable trouble at times. It was a usual procedure for us to compel the crowd to sing "A Soldier's Song" before the meeting was broken up.
“At that period the Ancient Order of Hibernians' organisation was bitterly opposed to and very often endeavoured to break up meetings held under the auspices of Sinn Féin. In February, 1918, Eamon De Valera and Seán McEntee were due to address a meeting in Raphoe. The A.C.N. and Unionist Party became so hostile that a request for Volunteer assistance came to Letterkenny. Ninety men were mobilised in a short time and we entrained for Raphoe. We armed ourselves with pick handles, slash hooks, pieces of lead piping etc. On our arrival in Raphoe we looked a formidable force.
“The R.I.C. made an attempt to stop us from marching down the street but were brushed aside. The opposition parties also withdrew and a successful meeting was held without any disturbance. We then marched back to Letterkenny.
“On the day of the Election in West Donegal, we were sent to Churchill to protect the ballot boxes as the A.O.H. endeavoured to take complete control there and even attempted to prevent voters with Sinn Féin sympathies from registering their votes at polling booths.
“After the 1918 Elections and up to the middle of 1919, our principal duties consisted in training, raiding for arms, cutting roads, railway lines and telegraph wires. Most of the raids for arms were carried out in the Laggan area, which was predominantly Unionist. Many of these Unionists were members of the Ulster Volunteer force and in that area we secured a good supply of arms and ammunition.
“Early in 1919 orders were issued for the burning of all unoccupied R.I.C. barracks in the area, also the raiding of Excise Offices.
“Acting on these orders a party of us set out and burned Glenswilly R.I.C. Barracks. By this time the Volunteers were kept very active, by the cutting of roads and the only railway line connecting West Donegal.
“At our request, the traders in Dungloe, West Donegal, boycotted the British Forces and refused to supply them with food. The British Forces found it very difficult to procure sufficient supplies of food locally and found it necessary to have their requirements of food and petrol conveyed by rail from Derry.
“One afternoon in 1919 we received information that a passenger train from Derry had two wagon loads of supplies for the British forces stationed in Dungloe and that a small party of British soldiers in mufti was travelling on the train as escort.
“A party of ten Volunteers was hurriedly mobilised in Letterkenny and set out in two motor cars to the Railway Station at Churchill where the train was due to halt for the purpose of setting down and picking up passengers.
“We arrived in good time and took up our positions around the Station. When the train pulled in we immediately boarded it and disarmed the escort, consisting of one N.C.O. and four men, armed with revolvers.
“The foodstuff was immediately unloaded on to the railway line and, not having any transport to remove it, we poured petrol, which was part of the consignment, over it and destroyed it on the spot.

In his book, “46 Men Dead” (about RIC casualties in Tipperary alone) Garda John Reynolds writes about Gilbert Potter from Leitrim who was captured by the IRA. When they were executing him, one of the guys shot himself in the leg and Gilbert Potter helped treat him and then climbed back into the grave to be shot.
In letters written to his wife and friends during his period of captivity, the police officer said the IRA members were treating him well and were “kind hearted”.
To his wife Lily, he wrote of his love for her and their four children. He asked the local bishop to take care of them in their time of distress: “How awful that I should have brought her this trouble. If you see Lily soon tell her that her goodness to me and devoted love are felt by me and are a treasure in my affliction.”
It’s a heartbreaking but necessary read. What has been remembered as patriotism was in many instances just slaughter.
I never fail to see a photo of Dan Breen but I think...not of a great hero...but a cold blooded killer.
The War of Independence began at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary with the murders of Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, who were escorting a horsedrawn carriage.
Connell was 30 years old and was engaged to be married. McDonnell was a 50-year-old widower with seven children, all orphaned when he was murdered. They were well-liked and respected men in their community.
Dan Breen said “Six dead policemen would have impressed the country more than a mere two.”