The company lieutenants were John Whelan of Grange, Ballylinan and Joe Lacey of Clopook, Ballylinan. The brigade commandant was Eamon Malone of Barrowhouse whose name is commemorated in Malone Place, a small council housing scheme at the end of Woodstock Street here in Athy. Malone was described as a ‘small, wiry, courageous but rather delicate man - an excellent soldier but not a great organiser’.
He had been one of the leaders of the hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail in 1919 and on his release became the officer in command of the Carlow Brigade. He would die aged 45 years and today lies buried in the same Barrowhouse graveyard as Connor and Lacey. The Irish National Volunteers were formed in Athy on 9 May 1914, followed two months later by the setting up of a local branch of Cumann na mBan. In August 1914 the youth group Fianna Éireann was established in the town. Michael O’Kelly, a native of Loughrea in County Galway and one time editor of the Leinster Leader gave a statement to the Bureau of Military History in May 1955 which dealt with nationalist activities in County Kildare between 1913 and 1922. He described the first muster of the National Volunteers which took place at the Gibbet Rath in Kildare on 7 June 1914, a place enshrined in Irish history following the massacre of 1798. ‘Upwards of 1,000 volunteers attended, including contingents from Athy, Newbridge and Kildare. Among the speakers that day was Denis Kilbride, the local member of parliament. At Athy on the 11th of the same month there was a big parade of the volunteers of South Kildare in the spacious enclo-sure of the Agricultural Society grounds. Captain G. Bergin, J. Doyle and F. O’Brien were in command at the parade. The Athy Battalion had by this time four full companies, numbering in all nearly 1,000 men, while it had also the distinction of possessing what was then the only mounted troop in Ireland.’ I have been unable to identify who G. Bergin was and I am wondering whether in fact the reference was to J.J. Bergin of Maybrook. J. Doyle and F. O’Brien have not been positively identified but I am reasonably certain as to their identity. Following the start of World War I the ranks of the National Volunteers were depleted and O’Kelly claimed:- ‘In County Kildare only a skeleton organisation remained.’
Following reorganisation of the Irish Volunteers, Monasterevin and for a time Kildare town, were with Athy, part of the Carlow Brigade area in which there were six battalions. The 5th battalion was centered on south Kildare, with Athy as the A Company, Barrowhouse and Ballylinan the B Company, and Castledermot the C Company. John Hayden of Offaly Street was captain of the A Company, and as mentioned earlier Joe Maher was in charge of the B company, while in Castledermot Paddy Cosgrave was the local leader.
The first IRA casualty in the area was John Byrne who suffered fatal burns while assisting in destruction of the Luggacurran R.I.C. Barracks on 20 April 1920. Three months later Athy courthouse was burned down by a lone IRA activist whose action was not authorised and who found himself court marshalled as a result. The ambush at Barrowhouse on 16 May 1921 was authorised but the eight men who took part were poorly equipped in terms of arms and ammunition. The participants in what would result in the last of the pre-truce casualties involving members of the Carlow Brigade were Captain Joe Maher of Cullenagh, Lieutenant Joe Lacey of Barrowhouse, Paddy Dooley of Kilabbin, Maganey, Mick Maher of Barrowhouse, Jack O’Brien of Barrowhouse, Joe Ryan of Kilmoroney, James Lacey of Barrowhouse and William Connor of Barrowhouse. Jack O’Brien, the last surviving member of the unsuccessful ambush was inter-viewed by Jack McKenna many years ago when O’Brien was living in Kilkenny following his retirement from the Gardai and he confirmed the names of the eight men involved.
Six days after the Barrowhouse ambush members of the A Company attacked the RIC barracks located in the old military barracks at Barrack Lane, Athy. The attack lasted 20 or 30 minutes and seemed at best to have been a futile attempt to revenge the killing of the two IRA men in Barrowhouse. No casualties were reported on either side after the local IRA men withdrew. The truce came shortly thereafter, and 11 of July 1921 marked the official end of hostilities between the British forces which included the RIC and the IRA.
The Civil War, which would start with the seizure of the Four Courts in Dublin on 13 April 1922 and lasted for 14 months saw more casualties in the South Kildare area than in the almost 3_ years duration of the War of Independence. Thomas Dunne was killed in Castledermot on 16 June 1922, while Laurence Sweeney and Sylvester Sheppard died on the same day, July
1922. Sweeney was killed in Castledermot and Sheppard in an ambush at Grangemellon. The Graney ambush of 24 October 1922 resulted in the killing of three young Free State soldiers, Edward Byrne, Patrick Allison and James Murphy.
The history of the Republican move-ment in South Kildare during the War of Independence might seem unimpressive when compared with the Republican activities in West Cork and North Tipperary during the same period. Monthly activity in south Kildare was admittedly low key but nevertheless the involvement of many local men (not all of whom have been or can now be identified) gave proof that the so called garrison town was prepared to play its part in the national struggle.
The Nationalist newspaper carried a report on the 9 of April 1950 under the heading, ‘A Thousand Veterans Parade, Athy’ of I.R.A. veterans from eight midland counties marching in Athy in the towns Easter Parade. Surviving members of the local IRA also paraded in Athy to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, but sadly when the 90th anniversary came around two years ago there were no survivors left. Instead the platform party included the sons and daughter of a few of those local men, namely Joe May, Bapty Maher and J.J. O’Byrne who were imprisoned for their IRA involvement during the War of Independence.
On Easter Monday, 13 April 2009, Athy Heritage Centre will host an exhibition ‘The War of Independence and its aftermath’ which will run for two weeks. It will feature memorabilia and material from the War of Independence period and the Civil War, with particular reference to south Kildare and the area covered by the 5th Battalion of the Carlow Brigade IRA Margaret Walsh of the heritage centre would be interested in hearing from anyone with memorabilia, photographs or documents relating to the War of Independence or the Civil War which might be made available on loan to the centre for the duration of the exhibition. She can be contacted on (059) 8633075.