Ashbourne lit the blue touchpaper for future battles
Graham Clifford on a battle where Thomas Ashe's outnumbered men conquered the odds
Published 07/01/2016 | 02:30
So frequently described as a military defeat but a symbolic victory, the overall analysis of the 1916 Rising often overlooks one key battle - in which the outnumbered rebels claimed a remarkable victory.
On April 28, 1916 a group of Fingal Volunteers, estimated to number 45 men, under the command of Thomas Ashe, a national school teacher in Lusk who was originally from West Kerry, and second in command Richard Mulcahy, attacked the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks at Ashbourne, County Meath.
While other skirmishes took place on Easter Week 1916 outside of Dublin, in Galway, Cork, Wexford, Louth and Tipperary, the rebellion at Ashbourne was arguably the most significant - in that the reasons for and methodology of its success paved the way for future military activities in the War of Independence.
Using guerrilla tactics, close quarter combat, the element of surprise and by breaking his men down into small groups, Thomas Ashe fooled the RIC into thinking that more rebels were involved in the attack on Ashbourne than actually participated.
On April 24, Easter Monday morning, Ashe received orders from James Connolly to send 40 of his Battalion to the GPO to help with efforts there. Ashe, with his force of about 60 men, decided to send 20.
That week Ashe and his battalion raided RIC barracks in Swords and Donabate and seized ammunition. Their tails were up. On Friday Ashe decided to split his unit into four sections which acted like flying columns, highly mobile and carrying that element of surprise. Each section consisted of only a dozen men who mostly travelled on bicycle.
They planned to destroy the railway line which went through Batterstown so as to sabotage the flow of British reinforcements travelling from Athlone to Dublin to help quell the Rising there.
But as three of the sections detoured to Ashbourne they spotted an RIC sergeant and Constable hastily barricading their barracks. Rebel look-out scouts approached on their bicycles and managed to disarm the two men who were taken prisoner.
Ashe shouted to the police inside the barracks, demanding they, "surrender in the name of the Irish Republic". But the RIC men replied with rifle fire in his direction. Ashe dived for cover as the section returned heavy fire on the windows - the Battle of Ashbourne had begun.
The fighting intensified as RIC reinforcements arrived from Navan, Dunboyne and Slane but still the rebels held the upper hand taking up different locations around the barracks and confusing the enemy.
Indeed a convoy of police arriving from Slane, in as many as 24 cars, believed they had driven into an ambush after just two volunteers fired shots in their direction. They dived from their vehicles into nearby ditches. It's estimated that between 60 and 70 police arrived in this convoy and although they didn't know it, they almost doubled Ashe's force.
The next day, newspaper articles mistakenly estimated Ashe's troops numbered as many as 200.
Two Volunteers, John Crennigan and Thomas Rafferty, were fatally wounded. When the RIC's District Inspector Alexander Gray was killed, the constables surrendered and were taken prisoner.
The Volunteers gathered their arms and ammunition while Ashe warned the constables that they would be shot if they took arms against the Irish people again.
Their victory was short lived however, as at 2pm the next day, Ashe received word of the surrender in Dublin and sent his men home.
Many of those involved in the Ashbourne battle were arrested within days and interned in Wakefield in England and Frongoch in North Wales.
Thomas Ashe was sentenced to death but this was commuted to penal servitude for life and he was imprisoned in Lewes Prison in England.
Fourteen people were killed in the battle, two Volunteers, eight RIC members, two civilians driving RIC cars, and another two civilians who were passing through the area.
Many more were injured. One witness said afterwards: "The road that evening was a terrible sight with blood and bandages strewn across it."
In all, the battle at Ashbourne lasted for five-and-a-half hours but the success and tactical formation of Ashe's rebels acted as a blueprint for rebellion attacks in years to come.
In total, the Fingal Volunteers captured four RIC police barracks and almost 90 prisoners.
Some 43 years after the local rising, a monument was unveiled by President Seán T O'Kelly on April 26, 1959 at the Rath Cross in memory of John Crennigan and Thomas Rafferty, the volunteers who lost their lives.
The monument displays the name of Thomas Ashe's poem, 'Let Me Carry Your Cross For Ireland, Lord' and the names of both men who died there are displayed on the memorial in Irish.
It's unlikely that Ashe and his men would have held out too long if further reinforcements had flooded the County Meath town - but there's no doubt that Ashe's tactical nous helped deliver the rebels their most glorious military victory against all odds.