Many phases of the struggle
Roisín de Rossa interviews Bob Kehoe from Wexford, a Border Campaign veteran who this year marched with the pike men and women to remember 1798
This year has been an amazing year in County Wexford as hundreds of pikemen and women have commemorated the part played by their ancestors in 1798.
History has lived again in every parish as their pike people walked in the steps of the 30,000 men and women from County Wexford who died in the revolution 200 years ago, and as they celebrated the struggle for the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity which inspired the 1798 revolution and generations of republicans since.
In 1798 survivors of the battle at Vinegar Hill and the terrible slaughter that followed it fought their way north in the hope of joining their comrades in Antrim. In the 1950s, Bob Kehoe, another Wexford man, trod in their steps. He was one of a handful of men who went to Louth to join the fight in the 50s campaign - they were `The Vinegar Hill Column.'
d at Edentubber this year, Bob returned after 41 years to the site of the terrible night when his comrades were killed by the bomb they were preparing in order to attack the brand new automatic telephone exchange across the border. No one will ever know the horror of that night wandering on a desolate hillside by the cottage after the explosions.
Bob Kehoe, who was very sick, was not allowed to go on the operation. He left the cottage only minutes before the two explosions. Paul Smith (Bessbrook), Oliver Craven (Newry), and Michael Watters, who owned the cottage where the bomb was being made up, and Bob's comrades who had come from Wexford with him - Paddy Parle and George Keegan - were all killed.*
``Paddy Parle, he was a great fellow - real happy-go-lucky,'' says Bob. ``I was walking out the door. Bit disappointed, d'you know, and I looked back at him. He quoted Pearse - Pearse was his idol - he was always quoting him - `Farewell, farewell, beloved land, farewell, the May dawn breaks the last my eyes should see, Here in my own lovely land, farewell.' A few minutes later - the blast''.
A man was sent back to Wexford to tell them how all three Wexford men were dead. It was only later that Bob was discovered. ``They brought the coffins on a lorry back to Dundalk,'' he says. ``There were crowds lining the streets, to pay respects in Dundalk, and then afterwards in Wexford. Thousands came. There was a lot of encouragement from local people. They along with Dublin had risen in 1916. They knew their history. They took a great pride in the Wexford men. This year has revived all that again for Wexford. History has been relived in a way.''
At this year's Edentubber commemoration Bob laid the wreath at the memorial. It was a very moving occasion. Local bands played the beautiful Wexford tunes, Boulavogue, Kelly of Killane, Boys of Wexford. There were colour parties including the New Women's Colour party from South Armagh which is so much acclaimed, and marked the bravery of the women who fought in 1798. There was a guard of honour for the two Wexford men, Bob and Liam McGarry, a comrade from Kilmore, and 100 pikemen from all over the county.
``It was an occasion of terrible sadness,'' Beth, Bob's wife, says. Tears fell as he laid the wreath.
``We'd come up to fight. There was no more about it,'' he says.
Then, with delight and a wink of enjoyment, he says, modestly, ``and we weren't bad. We concentrated on the communications networks - knocking out the bridges, the customs posts, had the odd pot at an RUC man. It was hard to find a Brit around there. We fought with one hand tied behind our backs. The B-specials were taboo. In fact it was B-men who were guarding the customs out at Edentubber, so we had to torch it. But we did a good job on it.''
In December, after the June `56 convention, two men had come down to Wexford from HQ asking for men to take part in training `at a very advanced stage', and Bob was the first to volunteer. ``We'd seen what was happening to the people in the North at the time... And we knew our history - through the 1948 commemorations - what had been done in Wexford 1798. I heard Fr. Murphy, PP of Glynn at the time, staunch republican, always in his black beret, speaking at Bunclody, `We must continue the struggle begun by our forefathers so that the Tricolour can float, North and South, East and West'.''
Bob tells how the Irish Press serialised Tom Barry's `Guerrilla Days in Ireland'. ``We all read it. He was the hero. And Dan Breen's `My Fight for Irish Freedom' - a great cowboy read. And then there was the battle of Longstone Road. That inspired all of us.''
Bob, a teenager, joined up, and set about organising the IRA in the county which had been much weakened by so many republicans joining de Valera's Fianna Fail and what they still believed to be the Republican party, and by the repression, the isolation, the executions, the hunger strikes and terrible prison struggles of the 40s.
However in `56 he was needed in Wexford and had to stay back when the first Wexford men went up to the border, and it wasn't until the raid on Gough Barracks, and subsequent arrests, that IRA men were back down to Wexford asking again for more volunteers `for training at an advanced stage.'
Eight men went. They were the Vinegar Hill Column: Liam McCarthaigh (Wexford and Cork), George Keegan (Enniscorthy). Paddy Parle and Labhras O'Donaile (both from Wexford Town), Bob Kehoe (Galbally), Paddy Berry (Duncormack), Liam McGarry (South Wexford), Ned Ryan (Oulart) and Frank Armstrong (Boulavogue). They left Wexford for active service on the Monaghan and Louth borders.
A young lad from one of the bands came over to Bob at the commemoration and asked him to come over to them and talk to them. He remembered his grandfather telling him of those times when the Wexford men were up to fight in Louth, Down and Armagh.''
At a reception after the commemoration Bob met Lilly Watters, Michael's sister-in-law. She threw her arms around his neck, ``Why had it to take 41 years to meet,'' she said.
She presented him with an old bottle of stout. ``It is God's will that you have it,'' she said. Only two things were recovered from the house, the bottle and a first communion picture of Michael's niece, who was also at the commemoration that day.
After the tragedy at Edentubber in November of `57, Bob was transferred to the Donegal border and was active through Pettigo, Beleek, until he was arrested at Ballintra in December. He was sentenced for three and six months consecutive for failure to account for his movements and IRA membership. ``You, Kehoe,'' spat Judge Huaigh, ``didn't recognise the court. For that I sentence you to six months.''
Bob landed into Mountjoy on 17 December, 41 years ago today. He was three stone underweight, and on his second morning there was refused the special grub of a pint of milk and porridge that the Republican prisoners had won after refusing to eat the prison dinners. Straightway the OC, Sean Daly, called a meeting. A hunger strike was agreed, and four volunteered: Willie Gleeson, Sean Daly, Jim Coyle and Bob Kehoe.
By January of the new year, Bob got a septic throat. He refused to go to hospital. The Governor buckled and went to the Minister of Justice to inform him that he would not take responsibility for the men, and in particular for Kehoe who, without treatment, was going to die. The Governor returned to the jail and reported back to OC Daly what he had won for them - more than what the republican prisoners had demanded! The prisoners were then separated to D-Wing with political recognition.
Immediately in D-wing they began to cut their way out, ``using a surgeon's saw which had great teeth and could handle the pine wood floor,'' says Bob. Sadly the escape was foiled - by an informer. However Bob was not long in attempting another escape, which again very nearly succeeded - the grappling hook, thrown over the wall, landed well at the feet of two great cumann na mBan women, there to enable the escape, but was just four inches short to grip the wall, and the screws landed on the assembled escapees. A hard hand-to-hand fight ensued with the screws - a few got broken ribs. Bob lost his teeth with a baton blow across the face.
In September `58, Bob was transferred from the Joy to the Curragh where Republicans were interned. A soldier's first duty is to escape and he hadn't been long in the Curragh before on 2 December, 19 men escaped through and over the wire. 16 got away.
One of the men who escaped with Bob that time was Seosamh O'Cuinneagain, an old comrade of his from Enniscorthy - ``he was in the lead as we ran over the Curragh''. Loyal to the last to his fellow Wexford men, Bob said he was not going on the escape unless Seosamh came too.
``Seosamh had been a marvellous organiser in the county. There was at the time a Sinn Fein cumann in almost every parish. They sold several hundred copies of their paper in the county. People would say, as the paper sellers came round, `we've our man up there, you know.' They were very proud of us.''
On the way back from Edentubber on the bus, Beth noticed a pikeman who appeared distraught. She asked him what was troubling him. ``I am ashamed to be on this bus,'' he said, ``so ashamed. I helped to put the wire up round that man [Bob]''.
``I felt so sorry for him,'' she said.
Bob spoke at the reception after the commemoration of `the several phases' in the fight for freedom. There was 1918 after the 1916 executions, when Sinn Fein won an overall majority and set up the First Dail. ``We were young, inexperienced in the 50s, yet we had four TDs elected in `57. We now have two MPs and one TD. There is no reason why the men and women of the present day can't do what our forefathers did in 1918. They can do it if they put their shoulders to the wheel, now,'' he said.
At one of the first `98 commemorations this year in Wexford, in Horetown Cemetery, Bob recalls, a Protestant minister, the Rev. Norman Ruddock, said in his address, ``It took 40 years to get rid of the border between East and West Germany, yet we have failed to get rid of an artificial border in 200 years. I can't understand why we can't march as one to Wolfe Tone's grave in Bodenstown and reclaim our Irish Nation.''
Bob says we should go there next year. He says the Reverend's words were never referred to anywhere in the media. He wasn't asked to speak again. Buried in Norman Ruddock's graveyard at Killurin are Anne Flood who killed a Hessian captain and Matthew Furlong, who had been adjutant to Bagenal Harvey and was shot down at New Ross, as he carried the flag of truce.
``But there were people who didn't want to hear a Protestant minister say this, and at the same time, they would say it was sectarian to commemorate the men and women of the 1798 revolution; politicians, like Seamus Brennan, who advised Wexford to keep the `pike in the thatch' in this year's commemorations; those who feared a democratically elected Senate in Wexford, who wanted to make sure it ended in December 1998; those who feared to take part as pikepeople when Gerry Adams came to the Vinegar Hill Commemoration in February, who said it was too `political'. What did they think 1798 was all about? But these people are slowly being isolated as people get to know their history again.''
Bob recalls going to commemorations for the 150th anniversary of `98 with his father. ``I didn't get to them all. I didn't have a bike of my own in those days. But the commemorations this year were better,'' he says. ``In 1948 the commemorations concentrated very much on the leaders, this time it was on the ordinary people.''
The Carrigbyrne pikegroup was the first group formed for the 200th anniversary. ``We started organising in 1997. We had over 200 pikemen and women, sometimes 300, drawn from 16 parishes in the County and organised by Bill Murray. An FCA man trained us. It has been great. We made the documentaries of the 1798 Rising (for RTE, TnaG and BBC).
``People came in their droves to Dublin. There were 2000, from all over Ireland marching that day. The Comoradh Committee wanted to close it all down by 6 December. How can they close it down? You can't close history down.''
Which of the `78 commemorations meant most to them this year? ``Oulart, I think, apart of course from Bodenstown. It was after all a victory, and we hadn't a flurry of politicians there that time. They want to keep the political arena to themselves, to isolate us outside. We've a real chance to change all that now with the [local] elections coming up,'' Bob says. ``This year has brought a lot of pride into the county - it has focused people on their history and what was done to the people, and what has gone on in the north over 30 years.
``The men who broke out after Vinegar Hill who went North. Sure we just did the same.'