The first shots of the 1916 Easter Rising?

Were the first shots of the 1916 Rising fired in County Tyrone on Easter Sunday?

As part of the planned Rising, the Belfast Battalion of the Irish Volunteers and Belfast IRB Circles mobilised on Saturday 22nd April, 1916, and traveled by train to Coalisland in County Tyrone. There, they were to drill and parade, while the Tyrone Volunteers also mobilised. Both units were to then proceed to Connacht where they were to link up with Liam Mellow’s command, apparently by providing a screen along the River Shannon to prevent British forces attacking from the east.

You can read accounts of the Belfast volunteers who took part here, along with the story of their mobilisation, and read the National Graves Association 1966 commemorative booklet here.

Under the President of the Supreme Council of the IRB, Denis McCullough, advance parties had reached Coalisland on Friday 21st April. By the time the Belfast units formed up in Coalisland, a Belfast IRB member was already dead, Roger Casement was under arrest and Eoin McNeill’s countermanding order printed in the press. With the confusion surround McNeill’s order and whether the Rising was going to take place at all, it was decided that the Belfast units would return to the city by train from Cookstown before suspicion was raised about their real intention.

Then, in Cookstown:

Shortly after three o’clock it was evident that there was something unusual astir, as small advance parties began to reach Cookstown and busied themselves, though fruitlessly to secure bikes or other vehicles to meet the main body, who it was feared would not arrive in time for the train. When the procession, marching in sections of fours, reached Killymoon Street, one of the most Nationalist streets in Cookstown, several shots were fired. On passing the police barracks two arrests were made, and eventually the main body reached the railway and entrained for Belfast without further mishap.

Then, that evening:

John Dillon, 49 Gibson Street, Belfast, was charged that at Gortalowry, Cookstown , on 23rd April, he did feloniously, unlawfully and maliciously shoot at certain persons unknown with intent to maim. Jeremiah Hurley, 9 Amelia Street Belfast, was charged that unlawfully he did assult and wilfully obstruct Head Constable O’Neill in the execution of his duty, apprehending John Dillon

These appear to be the first shots fired in the Easter Rising in 1916, a day before the Rising began in Dublin. A full account of this episode was reported in Tyrone Courier on 27th April 1916 (thanks to Anthony Fox for sending this to me – he has published the article on his Listamlet.com blog here), I have reproduced the relevant text below.

LOCAL SINN FEIN PARADES,COALISLAND CONFERENCE BROKEN UP!

Dungannon and Coalisland districts were the scenes of great excitement on Saturday evening and Sunday in consequence of the advent of large parties of Sinn Feiners from Dublin, Belfast and other centres. A number of them bore arms. At 12.45 on Saturday afternoon the first party of Dublin representatives arrived in Dungannon by the ordinary tram, and marched to Coalisland where they were met by local leaders. The first Belfast contingent arrived at 7 p.m, accompanied by pipers and marched to Coalisland. A further large contingent from Belfast arrived by the midnight mail train, and having paraded in Market Square at one o’clock on Sunday morning they, too marched to Coalisland. A portion of them was billeted for the night in the Coalisland Volunteer Hall, another party was accommodated in Annaghaboe, while others were put up by sympathisers in private houses in Annaghmore and Spring Island, in the Coalisland locality. On Sunday a further contingent from Belfast arrived in Cookstown by the Midland route and drove to Dungannon, whence they marched to Coalisland. Other representatives from Belfast and various Ulster centres came to Coalisland in motors, and altogether some 140 members were present. The Edendork company, marched to Coalisland and local leaders from Donaghmore, Cappagh, Carrickmore, and Eglish, were in attendance. A private conference was held at noon, and at 1.15 p.m a motor arrived from Dublin, and the message which its occupants conveyed appeared to have a very depressing effect on the conference, which immediately broke up. It had been intended to camp out in the vicinity of Coalisland during the night and march to Cappag, a stronghold of the movement, at daybreak on Monday. On receipt of the news from Dublin, however, the Belfast and Dublin representatives were paraded, and marched to Cookstown, a distance of eight miles.

Cookstown, a distance of eight miles.

SCENES AT COOKSTOWN TWO ARRESTS

A Cookstown correspondent says: A party of Sinn FeinVolunteers marched from Coalisland to Cookstwon on Sunday afternoon, when the orders from”chief of staff” were received from Dublin cancelling the parade. Although each individual Volunteer was directed to obey this order in every particular, about one hundred of them decided to march to Cookstown to catch the 4-20 train on the Midland railway. Shortly after three o’clock it was evident that there was something unusual astir, as small advance parties began to reach Cookstown and busied themselves, though fruitlessly to secure bikes or other vehicles to meet the main body, who it was feared would not arrive in time for the train. When the procession, marching in sections of fours, reached Killymoon Street, one of the most Nationalist streets in Cookstown, several shots were fired. On passing the police barracks two arrests were made, and eventually the main body reached the railway and entrained for Belfast without further mishap. In the evening a special Court was held by Mr H. Alfred Mann J.P when John Dillon, 49 Gibson Street, Belfast, was charged that at Gortalowry, Cookstown , on 23rd April, he did feloniously, unlawfully and maliciously shoot at certain persons unknown with intent to maim. Jeremiah Hurley, 9 Amelia Street Belfast, was charged that unlawfully he did assult and wilfully obstruct Head Constable O’Neill in the execution of his duty, apprehending John Dillon , who was then charged with shooting at certain women with intent to maim. The accused were remanded for eight days, and on Monday afternoon were admitted to bail, Dillon in £50 and two sureties of £25 each, and Hurley in £20 and two sureties of £10 each. The sureties were James Mayne, law clerk, Cookstown, and Mr Dermot Barnes, draper St James’s Park, Falls Road Belfast.

Other people record the same story. The various accounts are interesting as they highlight the difficulty in achieving a consistent reconstruction of events, and how, from different perspectives, the same event was viewed, and later remembered, with some variations. According to Denis MCullough:

An incident happened on the journey which will illustrate the type of population we had to contend with in Tyrone. A man named Butler, who was a kind of hanger-on to the Volunteers before the split, but had no connection with us afterwards, apparently came from or his wife came from Coalisland and was there for the Easter holidays, when our men arrived. He was a drunkard and took up with the few men of our body who took intoxicating liquor and was a very bad influence with them generally. On Sunday morning he was the worse of drink and tailed on to the Column, on its march to Cookstown. Between Coalisland and Cookstown is the village of Stewartstown, a hotbed of Orangeism. Passing through Stewartstown, a crowd of the inhabitants attacked the Column and it took all my efforts to keep them steady and from retaliating. I got them safely through Stewartstown, but Butler, who was in the rear, turned back and fired a shot or two at the Orange crowd, from an old revolver he Ducee 29. carried. Immediately the R.I.C. who were, of course, accompanying the Volunteets, closed in and arrested him. A number of the Volunteers broke ranks and proceeded to stage a rescue. I got between them and the police and with the help of one or two of the Volunteer officers, got them to re-form ranks and continue their march. I had no hesitation whatever in leaving him to his fate (though some of our men bailed him out the following morning). He didn’t belong to oir body and disobeyed the order which he heard me give, firmly and vehemently, to our men. If I had permitted a fracas to develop, undoubtedly some of our men would have used the revolvers or automatics they still had and the whole affair would have developed into a sectarian riot, to the disadvantage and disgrace of the whole movement.

And Thomas Wilson:

On our arrival at the outskirts of Cookstown a man who followed us from Belfast and was not a member of the Volunteers fired off a revolver near some R.I.C. men who were marching at our rear. The R.I.C. made an effort to arrest him and he ran into our ranks. A scuffle took place and one of the R.I.C. went in front of us to the R.I.C. barracks and apparently reported the matter to the police in the barracks. A number of police were outside the barracks when we came up. We halted, and Denis McCullough had a discussion with them. As a result of this discussion the man who fired the shot was taken into the barracks. 

And, Seamus Dobbyn:

We marched to Cookstown. On the way there was some shooting at Stewartetown, where a number of Orangemen apparently had tried to block the passage of rearguard. A email number of police were cycling and marching on both sides of the road, but very few. At the fall-out on the journey between Stewartstown and Cookatown we learned definitely that the Rising was to take place, but were informed that we were going to Belfast to go later to Dublin. I cannot say who brought that information, but the man who told me was Manus O’Boyle. When we reached Cookstown we were halted by a number of police outside the barracks. They parleyed.eyedfor a while with Mr. McCullough, Cathal McDowell and others immediately in front of our ranks. Mr. McCullough then asked us to go peacefully to the station, but just as we were moving off a numberof R.I.C. charged into our ranks and seized one of the men. I forget this man’s name. We immediately surrounded the R.I.C. and struggled with them to try and release this man, but we were called on urgently to re-form ranks and to let the man go. He was taken into the barracks and we marched to the station and entrained for Belfast.

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