Late into the night of Saturday April 23, 1916, dozens of men, all members of the Irish Volunteers, began to assemble and mobilise in parishes in and around Dingle in the western-most part of Co Kerry. With their comrades from Ballyferriter and Dunquin, the Dingle Volunteers began to march eastwards towards Tralee, a journey of some 30 miles over demanding terrain. In torrential rain, having crossed the treacherous Conor Pass, the men rested briefly in Castlegregory and met with Volunteer companies from Lispole and Annascaul near Camp before marching onwards.
Now over 100 strong, they faced wild and wet conditions into the early hours of Easter Sunday. Tired, wet, and footsore but determined to make it to Tralee, they arrived at about 10am. In the Rink - the headquarters of the Volunteers in Kerry - they joined with the Tralee companies and other groups, while, in Killarney, the Volunteers from the town and outlying districts also gathered and stood ready. These assemblies of hundreds of men and dozens of women - armed, trained and willing to act - would, within 24 hours, be told to stand down, return to their homes and await further orders. What motivated the men to march through the night from west Kerry in dreadful conditions - and the hundreds of others who assembled in Tralee, Killarney and other parts of the county - was the belief that they were about to strike a blow for Irish freedom.
Kerry had been integral to the planning of the Rising and was to be a major centre of action had the Rising, as it was conceived and planned by the IRB, gone ahead. The weapons to arrive in the Aud were to be distributed by the Kerry Volunteers to their counterparts in Cork, Limerick, Clare and Galway. The sight of well-armed Volunteers along the west coast would, it was presumed, encourage people to flock to their support, while a British government and army, engaged in war, might be reluctant to take on a popular, well-organised and well-armed force. The British might also not be in a hurry to use excessive force on Irish civilians at the expense of alienating America and its large Irish-American population. America, of course, would have been informed of this mass uprising by communications from the cable station on Valentia Island, off the south Kerry coast.
In spite all these plans, the Easter Rising of 1916 did not happen in Kerry. Instead, it was confined to Dublin and a few other places in north county Dublin, Meath, Wexford and Galway, while the men and women in Kerry waited, standing ready under arms for orders that never came. Despite this, it is vital to our understanding of the complex histories of the 1916 Rising that we look at what happened in Kerry and the contribution of Kerry men and women to the revolutionary story.
Central to any understanding of the Rising is the issue of German aid and how the success of that aid relied on Kerry Volunteers. For many, a German-Irish alliance seemed logical. In west Kerry, Irish language enthusiasts-turned-Volunteer organisers Desmond FitzGerald and Ernest Blythe "spoke in the strongest terms of a German-Irish alliance" at public meetings. The aggressive faction within the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) decided to use the Irish Volunteers to launch a rebellion before the end of the war, and went on to actively seek the assistance of Germany. Sir Roger Casement, with the support of the American equivalent of the IRB - Clan na Gael - was the driving force behind the German connection.
In Ireland, a self-mandated Military Council, consisting of the signatories of the Proclamation, drew up plans for the Rising.
Joseph Plunkett, a Volunteer organiser and poet who was dying of tuberculosis by 1916, was largely responsible for the military strategy of the Rising. Plunkett's plans for the Rising itself were simultaneously vague and ambitious. It should be stressed that neither Plunkett nor any of the other organisers had any background in the use of military tactics or operations. Volunteer units from Ulster were to "move to north Connacht and try to hold the northern end of the Shannon" while midland and Leinster units were "to move generally westwards across the Shannon". However, Munster and Connacht Volunteers were to play a more concrete part, and Kerry Volunteers had the pivotal position outside of Dublin. Alfred 'Alf ' Cotton, Volunteer organiser in Kerry and IRB man, wrote years later that German arms were to be landed in Fenit and "in Kerry our immediate objective would be to ensure the safe landing and distribution of the arms and ammunition".
Kerry Volunteers would then capture the Royal Irish Constabulary barracks in Tralee and close down the roads leading from the town "to prevent any British adherents carrying information to Cork or Limerick". Once Tralee was secured, the Volunteers would then move on to capture Listowel, Killarney and Castleisland. After Kerry was secured, the arms would be distributed amongst Kerry, Limerick, Cork, Clare and Galway Volunteers. This would result in an open rebellion, with the south and west falling into the hands of the Volunteers.
Simultaneously, the Dublin units, after several days' fighting in the capital, were to retreat and link up with the western and southern Volunteers. Plunkett seems to have honestly believed that "we could hold out one way or another for anything up to three months".
In Kerry, most of the Volunteers were oblivious to these plans. Peter Browne, from Ballymacelligott, recalled: "Apart from rumours and whisperings of things to happen, the average Volunteer had no official inkling of anything big coming off." Only the commander of the Volunteers and IRB in Kerry, Austin Stack, together with Cotton, had the full plans. Cotton recalled "every effort was to be made to have all in readiness, but no hint of the plans or intentions were to be given to any person". Some Volunteers were told of an imminent shipment of German arms but, according to William Mullins, a Tralee IRB man, the Volunteers were not expecting them to be used in a rebellion. Stack's deputy, Paddy Cahill, told Mullins of the shipment, but "Cahill made no mention of a Rising, or any other activity in this connection".
Volunteer leader James Fitzgerald, from Lispole, was ordered by Stack to maintain a watch on the coast and have a canoe with a crew in readiness and "I was to report to him any strange vessel observed in the bay - I don't know for what purpose".
In spite of this secrecy, the Royal Irish Constabulary was well aware of the conspirators' objectives. Somewhere along the secrecy chain, there was a leak from within the Irish Volunteers and IRB, with someone handing information over to the Castle. In his report for January 1916, the Inspector General wrote: "Within the past few days, information has been received from an informant in Ireland that the Irish Volunteer leaders have been warned to be in readiness for a German landing at an early date, and that in this connexion general parades of Irish Volunteers on St Patrick's Day have been ordered … I submit that it is now time to seriously consider whether the organising of the Irish Volunteers can be allowed with safety to continue their mischievous work and whether this force as hostile to British interests can be permitted to increase its strength and remain any longer in possession of arms without grave danger to the State."
However, the next month, he had adopted a calmer appraisal of the situation, writing that the Irish Volunteer leaders desired open rebellion but "without substantial reinforcements it is difficult to imagine that they could even make even a brief stand against a small body of troops". Curiously, he did not mention a German landing in his second report of the year.
Whatever about the police, British naval intelligence knew of Casement's plans to land guns in Ireland, but chose not to inform their colleagues in Dublin Castle. Mirroring the secrecy of the rebellion's planners, the Admiralty was protective of its information, not wanting those lower on the chain to get their hands on this information. Information that might, perhaps, go public.
The Aud arrived in Tralee Bay on Holy Thursday, April 20, but received no signal from the shore to begin disembarking the weapons. Simultaneously, Roger Casement and his two colleagues, Robert Monteith and Daniel Bailey, who arrived on German U-boat U19 in Tralee Bay, were put ashore on Banna Strand on the Friday morning. Monteith and Bailey decided to leave the ailing Casement where he was and seek help from the Volunteers in Tralee. They met up with Stack but, on returning to Banna Strand, found that Casement had been arrested. On hearing the news, Stack, apparently, told his comrades, "Oh God lads, the game is up". He was arrested later that evening, following an attempt to either meet or rescue Casement from the barracks in Tralee.
With Cotton absent - he had recently been effectively banished from Kerry by the RIC - nobody, seemingly, who was left was in on the plan. On Saturday April 23, 'The Kerryman' announced "following orders from headquarters arrangements are being made to have all members of the Kerry brigade engaged in full manoeuvres on Sunday next April 23rd". Kerry Volunteers mobilised on the Sunday, and again on Monday, in Tralee, but Paddy Cahill received no orders from HQ. By then, the Aud had been intercepted by the British Navy.
At some point in the intervening days, however, some members of the IRB around Tralee seemed to have been informed of the bigger picture.
Among the surviving Volunteer leaders, the consensus was that the Aud arrived prematurely, before they had orders to intercept it. According to Cahill, the German ship was expected to arrive on Easter Sunday or Monday and "if the boat was expected between Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday it would mean that the Volunteers should remain mobilised for at least three days and that, consequently, the British would most likely take the initiative" and arrest the Volunteers. Cahill's instructions were that, at all costs, the landing was to coincide with the national Rising and not before. In any case, by the time the mobilisation order came, the Aud had been intercepted.
Similarly, Mullins, who was also informed late in the day, later maintained that the Volunteer leadership always stressed that they "were to prevent any incident which might arouse the suspicions of the British or precipitate an action" and "our knowledge of the general plan was limited to the single instruction that not a shot was to be fired in the country until headquarters gave the order". Mullins felt that the plan failed "mainly because of the premature arrival of the German ship". Alf Cotton would also say that, "It is clear Daniel Bailey with members of the Irish Brigade in Germany that Kerry Volunteers carried out their part of the plans as instituted. The only blame, if any, due to them is that they, like good soldiers, obeyed their instructions to the letter".
The Volunteers in Tralee remained on standby for much of the week but eventually they all went home. In Dublin, the planners, aware that the loss of the Aud meant the Rising would be confined to Dublin and to almost certain failure, decided to go on with the rebellion
Many of the rank and file of the Kerry Volunteers in 1916 rose to prominence in national life. Apart from figures like Austin Stack, Piaras Béaslaí, Tom McEllistrim and Denis Daly, all of whom became TDs, others made a significant mark on national life.
Among them are JJ McElligott from Tralee, who later became governor the Central Bank; Mortimer O'Connell from Ballinskelligs who would become Clerk of Dáil Éireann; sisters Nell and Anno O'Rahilly of Ballylongford who became prominent republican activists; Paidín O'Keeffe from Rathmore who was Clerk of Seanad Éireann; Irish language activist and senator Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha (An Seabhac); JJ O'Kelly (Sceilg) of Valentia, a prolific writer and first Leas Cheann Comhairle of the Dáil; and Tralee journalist Michael T Knightly who was Ireland's First Chief Press Censor and a journalist with the Irish Independent.
An edited extract from 'Kerry 1916: Histories and Legacies of the Easter Rising - A Centenary Record' edited by Bridget McAuliffe, Dr Mary McAuliffe and Owen O'Shea which will be launched next Friday, in Tralee. Dr Mary McAuliffe will chair a round-table discussion on the events and the key figures in Kerry in 1916 with a panel of experts and historians. The book, priced €25 in paperback and €35 in hardback will be available on the night. Enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @Kerry1916Book