Friday 9 December 2016

My 1916: 'If I'm half the man my grandfather was, I'll die happy...'

Charlie Weston was named after his father's father, who played a key role in one of the successful actions of the Rising, and his rebel spirit inspires his grandson today

Published 13/05/2015 | 02:30

Breaking down the shutters: Captain Charlie Weston
Breaking down the shutters: Captain Charlie Weston
Charlie Weston

As I take the train to and from work, I often think of my grandfather, and I smile to myself.

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Where I get on and off, at Donabate Station, is close to where he led a team that blew up the railway line 99 years ago. It was one of the first actions of the 1916 Easter Rising for the Fifth Battalion of the Dublin Brigade, better known in North County Dublin as the Fingal Brigade.

It may come as a surprise to some of those convinced that the 1916 Rising was a resounding failure, but the Fingal Brigade distinguished itself on that Easter weekend.

Its triumph in the Battle of Ashbourne was so comprehensive that British historian Charles Townshend calls it a "dramatic victory" and a "brilliant success". (Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, Penguin, 2005.)

Ashbourne was not only the most decisive success of any rebel action during the week, but the methods employed there were a forerunner to modern guerrilla warfare.

My grandfather played a key role in that battle and in the engagements that led up to it that fateful fight. He gets numerous mentions in the seminal Townshend book.

I never met Charlie Weston, which is a particular pity as I am named after him. He died before I was born.

From what I have been told about him by my late father and his sister, Ena, Capt Weston was brave, a leader of men and someone with a keen sense of the unjustified nature of British rule in Ireland.

He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and was a lieutenant of the Lusk Company. He wanted "a chance to burst the English domination" as he put it later in his detailed witness statement to the Bureau of Military History.

Fighting against English oppression was very much a family affair. Charlie's brother, Bartle, was a fellow member of the Fingal Brigade, while their sisters Thomasina and Julia were prominent in Cumann na mBan. Their cousins, the McAllisters, also bore arms that weekend.

The Fingal Brigade was under the command of Kerry-born Commandant Thomas Ashe, who later died on hunger strike.

Initially, they were poorly armed, inexperienced and had no clear idea of how to operate. They planned to move around mainly on bicycles. Just 120 men turned out on the Sunday, and half of that on Monday.

Ashe instructed his men to disrupt communications as a first move.

Soon after blowing up the railway line on the Saturday, Section Leader Weston and Joe Lawless climbed poles and cut the telephone wires.

When some people who knew him saw him doing this in Knocksedan, they asked: "Charlie Weston, are you gone mad?"

The various sections of the Fingal Brigade then attacked RIC barracks around the region.

In Donabate on the Wednesday, my grandfather demanded the surrender of the barracks. The answer was a revolver shot. His section and the RIC then engaged in a firefight. However, the RIC men soon gave up when "Weston broke the iron shutters of the barracks with a sledgehammer," according to Mr Townshend's book.

The volunteers moved on to other RIC barracks, taking prisoners at Rath on the way to Ashbourne.

The gentry in the area was so worried at the advance of the volunteers that the Marquess of Conyngham, fearing Slane Castle would be sacked, ordered the RIC's county inspector to take on the rebels, and offered up their cars.

Some 55 cars were borrowed from the gentry and driven by the owners' chauffeurs. Around 100 police officers were scrambled. All was set for what turned out to be a dramatic battle near Ashbourne - something that is well covered in Paul O'Brien's book, Field of Fire (New Island).

When the sides met, confusion reigned at first.

My grandfather's section was sent to the crossroads to pin down the head of the police column. Six to seven volunteers held the whole column for a number of hours.

Ashe's second in command, Richard Mulcahy (later general) led an outflanking manoeuvre. In the battle, the RIC commanding officer, County Inspector Gray, was mortally wounded, his deputy killed.

At one stage there was a fixed-bayonet charge on the Slane Road. The RIC surrendered and ran when their officers were killed.

Two of Ashe's men were shot dead, and five wounded. The RIC lost eight, with 15 wounded. A measure of the success of the volunteers can be seen from the fact that they collected 96 rifles after the battle.

"The Fingal Battalion was a success because it cast aside static warfare and adopted fluid, guerrilla fighting," according to a gold medal-winning academic paper by historian Paul Maguire. ('The Fingal Battalion: A Blueprint for the Future?' in The Irish Sword magazine.)

When it was all over, the volunteers got on their bikes to head back to camp.

But far from the use of bikes being seen a sign of 'Dad's Army' style amateurism, historians argue that crucial to the battalion's success was its mobility.

Mr Maguire stresses that the battalion performed so well it pointed to a whole new way of fighting - guerrilla warfare. My grandfather ended up the Frongoch internment camp in Wales. He later joined the Free State Army, rising to the rank of captain until he resigned and returned to civilian life in 1924.

I often wonder what he would make of Ireland today.

Nobody can be sure, but I reckon he would be appalled at the loss of sovereignty when the Troika imposed its will on us, and our banks were bailed out.

I like to think the Weston rebel spirit is a part of me as I battle rapacious banks on behalf of consumers, and fight my local authority and the HSE as they attempt to ride roughshod over the Donabate community where he lived and I now live.

And if I can be half the man that Capt Charlie Weston was, I will die happy.

Irish Independent

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