(There is no author listed for these wonderful recollections. A book on Wexford and the Campaign was recently published, "From Vinegar Hill to Edentubber" by Ruan O'Donnell.)
20 December 2007
Wexford memories of the 1956-'62 Border Campaign
THE IRA unit in the Wexford Town area was re-formed in 1954 when Seamus Mac Suain returned home from abroad, taking over from the former Curragh internees and ex-prisoners who had kept the organisation intact through an underground network of meetings similar to the IRB organisation of a past generation.
Their main objective was to hold the Army intact until a younger generation of Volunteers was ready to take over. These veterans had, by the mid-1950s, married and settled down to domestic life with all the mundane problems of young families and had neither the energy nor time for the serious effort required. Besides, it was considered that they had endured enough hardship. Mac Suain’s initial support came from Liam McGarry, Tommy ‘Brownie’ Nolan, Richard ‘Mangans’ Hynes, Jimmy ‘Wheesie’ Murphy and Aidan Duggan.
There had not been a Sinn Féin cumann in the county for many years and few were interested in forming one. Despite the weak state of the Republican Movement in the aftermath of the mass imprisonments and heavy tactics of the government during the 1940s, the local Easter Commemoration Committee still continued to enjoy enthusiastic support with a substantial annual turn-out at the Crosstown Memorial Plot.
After several abortive attempts, the Paddy McGrath Sinn Féin Cumann was eventually formed in 1955 and has been in operation since (though the name has changed).
The radio news that followed the series of border raids of 12 December 1956 at first filled us with feelings of elation followed later by a sense of disappointment of not having taken part: a repeat of the 1916 Rising when Wexford Town had failed to rise. Despite that setback, a strong Sinn Féin cumann had been formed in Wexford Town in 1956 and young people were again openly promoting the republican cause through sales of The United Irishman newspaper and other activities.
Despite the shortage of numbers in the Republican Movement, most Wexford people were quietly proud of their republican heritage and resistance to British rule. The fields and streets of our county had run red with the blood of thousands in 1798 and we were constantly reminded of that struggle.
The numbers of active IRA Volunteers in the unit over the period from ‘54 to ‘58 came to approximately 30 but they were supported by many background workers. There seemed to be no shortage of arms for training purposes. We could do everything with the various weapons except what they were designed for, there being a chronic shortage of ammunition.
In 1954, the IRA staged a spectacular raid when they cleaned out the British armoury at Gough Barracks in Armagh. It was major news and had a profound effect on republican morale throughout the country. We were later to be supplied with some of the arms seized.
Then, in October, another spectacular occurred when the Omagh Barracks was raided and Volunteers (some later to be nationally well-known) were captured and imprisoned.
Emigration took its toll and this, together with ‘doing what comes naturally’ and other factors, combined to deplete our numbers in early ‘56. Jack Dunne, a veteran republican returned home from Kilkenny to work in the Wexford Gas Company and despite his hearing handicap, was totally committed and a steadying influence.
Sinn Féin did little to address the many social problems at the time, concentrating instead on “breaking the connection with England”. Selling papers, Easter Lilies, tickets, commemorations and ceilithe was quite enough to go on with. Selling dozens of the United Irishman around the pubs each month was a soul-destroying task facing cumann members and it did more to drive people out of the Movement than any hostile laws. But the commemorations and ceilithe became social occasions, particularly Easter Sunday and the annual pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown, County Kildare. Open-air rallies were common both in the Bull Ring and the Square in Enniscorthy where we became experts at the rent-a-crowd tactic. At the height of the resistance campaign there were 16 Sinn Féin cumainn in the county.
Due to a communications breakdown the Wexford unit did not participate in the 12 December 1956 attacks on installations but the Enniscorthy unit did and they acquitted themselves admirably. The Radio Éireann news bulletins on the morning after the attacks did raise our spirits and we were determined not to be left out of the next wave.
Then the Coalition Government fell and Fianna Fáil regained power. The Establishment closed ranks once again and republicanism was effectively ostracised in both states on the island of Ireland. The Special Powers Act was in full force in the North and the repressive Offences Against the State Act was reactivated in the South. The jails were filling up and republicans were under surveillance at every turn of the road. However most of the gardaí in Wexford had taken part in the earlier fight for freedom and would have understood our aims. Older Republicans were used by gardaí as their conduit if we were seen or rumoured to be breaking the law.
The Church in Wexford, ever part of the Establishment, acted to form though some clerics were initially supportive. After the Edentubber tragedy, the then Bishop of Ferns sent priests out to selected secondary schools, warning of the dangers to the faith. In contrast, priests from the border areas came and ministered to us.
Paddy Parle and Liam McCarthy (Liam McGarry was then based in Mayo) got things moving again and the unit was re-activated. Parle had returned from abroad and was working in English’s Printing Company.
The main strategy was to strike a blow against the British Army of occupation in the hope that the Irish people would eventually unite and demand freedom. None of us expected to win the battle, but we hoped to stir the national consciousness.
September 1957 dawned and we were called up at last. Frank Armstrong led us to a training camp at the Cull Bank, where it was a case of training all night and sleeping all day for security reasons.
The following weekend, Seán Hennessy picked us up and we arrived in Dublin, in the dead of the night to be collected the following day and brought to Frank and Vera Lanny’s home at Anyart, outside the town of Castleblayney in County Monaghan, the first of the many safe houses we were to know so well. There we were presented with the special anorak with Tricolour flash on the arm which we were told was required to comply with the Geneva Convention.
From ‘Blaney we were billeted in a succession of farms, houses and barns all along the borderline from Dundalk to Monaghan. The people were very kind to us and we felt at times that they were doing without themselves to feed their guests.
There were eight from Wexford and some Armagh Volunteers in the group which assembled on old Jim Finn’s farm, near Iniskeen, under the command of Limerickman Paddy Kelleher and aptly named ‘The Vinegar Hill Column’ by the Chief of Staff, Charlie Murphy, a Dublin man with Boolavogue connections. That was the last contact I had with either Paddy Parle or George Keegan, who would both be dead within weeks
The other Wexford Volunteers present were P Berry, from Duncormack; Bob Kehoe, Galbally; Liam McCarthy, a native of Mallow working in Wexford Post Office; Ned Ryan, Oulart; Frank Armstrong, Boolavogue; and myself. From Iniskeen we split up and departed to other locations near the Armagh border.
That little farm on the border at Iniskeen was probably the last of the Flying Column camps we had heard so much about from the Tan War. There was nothing romantic, however, about 20 young men sleeping rough in a barn on a bachelor’s small farm in the middle of nowhere. We did not expect hotel fare, nor did we get it, but there is nothing like the experience of the real thing.
Paddy Parle led everything from the Rosary, the singing and the general banter whilst the technicians working on the large kitchen table primed grenades and very heavy mines which we had on occasions to lug back and forth across the border.
The first of the Soviet Union’s Sputniks had been launched in space in October and could be seen each night in the Northern sky. We found it difficult to understand the Northern accent, especially the Ulster Scots words used in rural areas. The opposite sex was the most popular topic of conversion though girls were neither seen nor heard. Frank Armstrong, a seasoned Army man, expressed his surprise in ‘56 going into action with Seán Garland and him bemoaning the fact that he was missing a good dance that night in the Crystal Ballroom.
Volunteers were considered very fortunate to be billeted in a house with a TV but, due to the security situation, we were usually ‘confined to barracks’ and reading matter became a problem.
One house I was billeted in had a complete set of Annie Smithson books and a copy of Ethel Mannin’s famous book, Late Have I Loved Thee. These I had disposed of within days and was hungry for more. Emigrant family members regularly posted home banned magazines such as Reveille, Tit Bits, and The Daily Sketch.
My closest comrade across the fields was not too fortunate as his host, a retired sailor, had never learned to read and had no stock of literature, not even a newspaper. Due to his perceived anti-clerical reputation, the local branch of the Legion of Mary continually plied him with religious literature, which he used to kindle the turf fire.
Castleblayney then was a typical market town with little sign of life during the week. It was well-known for its ballroom, Muckno Lakes (‘The Killarney of the North’), Faugh’s Football Club, furniture manufacturing and, as in all areas close to the border, smuggling. Unlike today, there were few if any cars and parking did not create a problem.
My ‘farmhouse holiday’ came to a sudden end on the night of 10 November when we were assembled at the Lanny home at Annyart, near Castleblayney, for a proposed attack on the barracks at Crossmaglen. Our mission, part of a three-pronged attack on installations was planned as a diversionary tactic, to draw the enemy towards that area, away from Middletown and the Newry area where the other operations were planned.
There were only four in our party, led by Paddy Kelleher. George Poyntz, our driver, was an ex-Irish-Army man who lived and worked in Castleblayney. Then there was Eugene McGuinness, from County Armagh, and myself. After receiving instructions, chewing gum for the nerves and reciting the obligatory Rosary with Vera, the woman of the house, Poyntz had the engine of the van running and we took off towards our destination.
At Cullaville, the road was blocked but a local man was more than happy to surrender his van which took us to the perimeter of Crossmaglen.
There we were ordered to make a few dummy mines with the large old-style Jacob’s biscuit tins. These would be later spread across the main road, wired and primed with sod and stones. It was an exceptionally bright, moonlit night as we set about our task when the horizon was suddenly lit up, accompanied by two loud bangs like claps of thunder from the Newry direction. McGuinness remarked: “There goes the transformers but they’re too early.” It was five minutes to one o’clock on 11 November: Armistice Day. The fact that there were two loud explosions gives rise to the theory that the deaths may have been deliberate and Bob Kehoe insists that there was only one mine.
The reason I am attempting to relate all these minor details is to give an insight into what later transpired regarding George Poyntz, our driver, who was exposed as a British agent during the long war, in the 1980s. The local people we stayed with did not trust him and they were right about others also. The question is: was he an agent back then?
When our task had been completed, the van was abandoned at the border, where we then split into pairs, taking to the countryside towards Castleblayney. For long hours we tramped over and around “the little hills of Monaghan” until we reached safety at dawn. We were not expected but as the barn door was invitingly open we settled into an exhausted sleep on the barley animal feed.
Our sleep was shattered some hours later when the son of the family woke us in a state of shock to tell us the radio had reported several men had been killed in an explosion near Newry.
There were few details and it was some days before all five were identified as some bodies had been badly mutilated. An undertaker told me how he picked pieces of flesh off the bushes around the area of the house which was completely destroyed.
The deaths at Edentubber were a tragic setback to the resistance campaign and we found ourselves scattered and confined to safe houses in the major towns of Dundalk, Drogheda and Dublin City for some time afterwards.
‘round lonely Edentubber,
The banshee loudly wails
For five brave Volunteers who died,
The pride of Granuaile.