The Battle of Ashbourne

The biggest and most successful action by the rebels in 1916 took place at Ashbourne. Thomas Ashe was the leader of a group of about sixty Volunteers from the Fingal area of north Dublin. Ashe was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and active in the Gaelic League. He had been promoted to Battalion Commandant shortly before the rising.

Thomas Ashe

Second in command was Richard Mulcahy who had recently been promoted first lieutenant. Mulcahy later served as Minister for Education and as leader of Fine Gael from 1944 to 1959. Mulcahy was in the Ashbourne area under orders to cut the communication lines at Howth junction and met up with Ashe by chance after one of his men was captured by Ashe’s Brigade. Frank Lawless was Battalion Quartermaster and Dr. Richard Hayes was the Medical Officer.

On Easter Monday, 24th April Ashe received orders from James Connolly to send forty men to the GPO in Dublin, Ashe with limited manpower available sent twenty. On Wednesday the Fingal Volunteers raided RIC police barracks at Swords and Donabate. On Thursday the Battalion moved towards Ashbourne and established a base at a farmhouse between Garristown and Ashbourne. On Friday morning three sections advanced towards Ashbourne where they discovered an RIC sergeant and constable erecting a barricade outside the police station.

Fingal Volunteers

Ashbourne RIC Station

Rath Crossroads

Cottage at Rath Cross

The Volunteers took cover on the by-road from Rath Cross while Ashe called on the police to surrender “in the name of the Irish Republic.” The police replied with rifle fire and the Battle of Ashbourne had begun. The Volunteers surrounded the barracks and the police suffered a number of causalities. A home-made grenade was thrown at the barracks but fell short causing no damage to the building. Following this a white flag appeared at one of the windows.

By now it was 2 o’clock and police reinforcements arrived from Slane thereby putting a halt to the surrender of the barracks. A convoy of more than twenty cars led by County Inspector Alexander Gray and District Inspector Harry Smyth, came under fire from the volunteers. The police force from Slane amounted to more than sixty men thereby outnumbering Ashe’s forces. By clever distribution of his men Ashe managed to give the illusion that he had much greater forces. A heavy fire fight took place at the crossroads with one of the Volunteers being struck in the head. At one stage some of the Volunteers fired on their own forces in error. The battle had continued for more than five hours and the Volunteers were running short of ammunition. County Inspector Gray was seriously wounded, dying a number of days later.  District Inspector Harry Smyth rose from the roadside ditch and called on his men to attack the rebels. Smyth managed to kill one of the Volunteers before being shot himself. Demoralised by the loss of their leader the force of fifty policemen surrendered, as did the fifteen or so police in the barracks. Constable John McGearty of Ballivor was sent out carrying a large white handkerchief to surrender. It was such a terrifying ordeal that his hair went white overnight. His wife had provided him with a clean handkerchief that morning, the only piece of white the policemen had. The prisoners were assembled at the crossroads where Ashe addressed them. He pardoned them on behalf of the Republic but said if they were caught again in arms they would be shot.

Two Volunteers and eight policemen were killed in the action with six Volunteers being wounded and about eighteen policemen. The dead police included: County Inspector Gray, District Inspector Smyth, Sergeant John Shanagher, (Navan), Sergeant John Young (Killyon), Constables James Hickey (Kells), Richard McHale (Crossakiel), James Gormely (Longwood) and James Clery (Moynalty). A number of civilian drivers employed by the police were killed as were two passers-by. The chauffeur of the Marquess of Conyngham for Slane was one of the police drivers who died later from his injuries. Ashe had the wounded despatched to Navan Infirmary by car and Fr. Murphy, Duleek, and Fr. Dillon arrived to tend to those in need.

Ashe set up a new camp to the southeast of Ashbourne at Kilsallaghan and awaited further orders. The orders came but they were orders to surrender. The Volunteers were taken to Richmond Jail after surrender and Ashe was sentenced to execution. His sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life and he served time in Lewes Gaol in England where he wrote his poem “Let me Carry Your Cross for Ireland, Lord.”

Released in 1917 Ashe became the president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Ashe was re-arrested for sedition for speaking at Ballinalee, Co. Longford, where he shared the platform with his good friend, Michael Collins. Collins visited Ashe at the Curragh detention centre and attended his trial which Collins treated as a big joke. Imprisoned in Mountjoy Gaol Ashe demanded prisoner of war status and when it was denied he went on hunger strike. Ashe said “Even though I do die, I die for a good cause.” As a result of a botched forced feeding session Ashe died a ghastly death on 25 September 1917. His funeral was a major show of strength and a major public relations coup for the nationalist movement and was the first significant public appearance for Michael Collins who delivered a graveside valediction. “Nothing additional remains to be said. The volley which we have just heard is the only speech which is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian.” he declared.  Later Collins wept openly and his memorial card bore the inscription “In veneration of a gallant patriot and a noble friend.” Ashe died in his thirty-third year, five years later Collins was killed aged thirty two. The tactics of guerrilla warfare used at Ashbourne were adopted and used successfully by Collins and those who fought in the War of Independence.

Unveiling of Ashbourne Monument by President Sean T. O’Kelly

In 1959 a monument was unveiled at Rath Cross, Ashbourne by President Seán T. O’Kelly, in memory of John Crenigan and Thomas Rafferty, the two Volunteers who died in the 1916 action. The monument was inspired by Thomas Ashe’s poem “Let me carry Your Cross for Ireland, Lord.”

Volunteer Dead

Volunteer John Crenigan

Jack (John) Crenigan was the son of John and Ann Crenigan. John was a groom/coachman from Mullingar and Ann was from County Meath. They married in 1894  and John was born a year later and baptised in St. Mary’s, near the Phoenix Park. In 1901 the family lived at Hilltown, Dunboyne where John Senior was groom for Captain Stead. The family moved around a bit. By 1911 the family had settled at Roganstown, Swords where John was a coachman. The family included five children: John, Thomas, James, Mary (Molly) and William. 

Jack Crenigan began his working life with Frank Lawless at Saucerstown. He then worked for a while for the Dublin Tramways Company. He became a member of the Swords Company of the Irish Volunteers in 1914. His brother, James, also enlisted. The Lawless family and Crenigan family were neighbours and great friends. On Holy Saturday rifles, ammunition and medical supplies arrived from Dublin to Frank Lawless and were put into a horse drawn van driven by Jack Crenigan

On Easter Monday James was sent to Dublin by Ashe to re-enforce the GPO. James was sent to fight at the Mendicity Institution. James Crenigan was arrested in Dublin following the Rising and sent to Lewes jail and in late 1916, he was transferred to Wormwood Scrubs in London. In 1917 James was freed as part of the general amnesty.

Jack was killed in action when shot by RIC District Inspector Smyth, at the Battle of Ashbourne. Smyth stood up to encourage his men forward. He and Frank Lawless shot at the same time, Lawless’s shot hitting Smyth in the forehead, killing him and Smyth’s shot  missing Lawless, penetrated Crenigan’s heart, killing him instantly.  The Volunteers removed his body for burial. A horse and cart bore the simple coffin of John Crenigan on his final journey to Old Rolestown Cemetery at Killossory, Kilsallaghan, Co Dublin.

Volunteer Thomas Rafferty

Thomas Rafferty was the son of James and Ellen Rafferty of Lusk, Co. Dublin. His father was a general labourer and Thomas worked as a groom and domestic servant. Aged twenty two in 1916 Rafferty was a member of the Lusk Volunteers. Rafferty won honours both as a piper and a hurler, and was a member of the Black Haven Pipers’ Band and the local hurling team.

On Easter Monday the Volunteers were mobilised. Thomas was involved with the attack on the RIC Barracks at Swords on Wednesday. Thomas received a gunshot wound at the Battle of Ashbourne. Dr. Hayes treated Tom Rafferty and he was left at a house nearby as he was too bad to move any further. Rafferty died the following day from his wounds. Ashe went to see the body of Rafferty and made the call for his mother to come and see him. Rafferty is buried in the grounds of St Maccallen’s Church in Lusk.

The Shot Chauffeur

Albert George Keep

An unarmed chauffeur named Keep, in the employ of the Marquis Conyngham, of Slane Castle, was shot in the leg by an explosive bullet at the battle of Ashbourne, and had to have his leg amputated, but he died.

Albert George Keep was an Englishman who came to Ireland and became the chauffeur for  the Marquis of Conyngham. He had been in the employ of the Marquis for at least five years. Keep was shot about the same time as District Inspector Smyth. The position of chauffeur was relatively new in 1916, which meant his duties–and pay–varied wildly based on the house and employer. He also existed in the in-between world occupied by the governess, since he was not a member of the household, yet he was not a member of the outdoor servants. The chauffeur’s duties consisted of driving the family and of maintaining the upkeep of the motorcar. Keep was fined in November 1912 for driving too fast at 22½ miles per hour in Dublin, 2½ mph over the limit. The Marchioness of Conyngham was afraid that the rebels would attack Slane and she forced the County Inspector to move towards Dublin to intercept them.

After the battle Dr. Richard Hayes attended to Keep’s wounds. Keep resented that his automobile had been commandeered. While Hayes was working on him a police sergeant came over and asked him how he was getting on. Keep looked up and said “A damned lot how you care how I am getting on”. Keep thanked Hayes and told him that a British force of 7,000 men with artillery and machine guns had landed in Drogheda.

Constable Duggan who was near Keep said “That poor fellow’s legs were ripped with bullets and his condition was most gruesome.” The leg was amputated in the County Infirmary, Navan but Keep died the following morning. Keep was buried in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Slane. The inscription on the memorial reads: “In proud and loving memory of my dear husband Albert George Keep who from wounds received at Ashbourne 28th April 1916 died 30th April 1916 aged 28 years.”

Albert met his wife, Sarah, at Slane Castle where she was working as a maid. Sarah Scarlett was born in 1895 at Castlepollard, County Westmeath, the daughter of John and Kate Small Scarlett. Albert George Francis Keep was born in County Meath, Ireland in 1917, the son of Sarah Scarlett and Albert George Keep, he never saw his father.

After her husband’s untimely death, Sarah Keep moved with her young son and daughter to Kent, England. Albert joined the army and served with the Cambridgeshire Regiment. In October 1941 his regiment was despatched to the Far East where it fought against the Japanese on the Malaya Peninsula. Finally forced to retreat back to the Island of Singapore they attempted to defend Singapore City.  On 15th February 1942, General Percival signed the surrender of the British and Commonwealth forces. Percival was accused of torture by IRA men during the War of Independence and he was marked for assassination. On February 12, 1942, in the final stages of defence, Lance Corporal Albert George Francis Keep was reported as missing in action. Having no known grave he is commemorated on Column 57 of the Kranji Memorial, Singapore.

Two Civilians Shot Dead

Two civilians from Kingstown, now Dun Laoighre, were passing the main road to Slane when they got caught up in the fire fight. J.J. O’Carroll, a commercial traveller, was home on holidays from Liverpool. James Joseph O’Carroll, aged 24, lived at 1 Municipal Buildings, Kingstown. John Hogan was a taxi driver and he was taking Carroll back to Kingstown.  Gerald John Hogan, aged 26, lived at 9 Summerhill Road, Kingstown.    Both had registered for military service.  The bodies were brought back to Kingstown and buried at Deansgrange.

One Volunteer said that two civilians arrived on the scene in a small two seater car. The Volunteer said that the police thought these were Ashe and Hayes as their car was similar to the one used by them and the police shot them both.

Police Dead and Wounded

County Inspector Gray

District Inspector Smyth

There were eight police casualties at Ashbourne. RIC County Inspector Alexander Gray, RIC District Inspector Harry Smyth, Sergeant John Shanagher, Sergeant John Young and Constables James Hickey, James Gormley, Richard McHale and James Cleary.

County Inspector Alexander Gray was born in Tyrone in 1858 and joined the RIC in 1882. He served in various counties including Kerry, Donegal, Armagh, Dublin, Antrim, Kildare, Roscommon and Westmeath before taking up the position of County Inspector for Meath in 1912.  He is mentioned in Peig Sayer’s autobiography Peig where she called him “Baby Gray” on the account of his boyish looks. Terence Dooley wrote an article on Gray in Riocht na Midhe 2003. Wounded at the Battle of Ashbourne he died on 10th May. He was 57 years old and had served 32 years in the RIC. Following a funeral service in St. Mary Church, Navan, he was buried at Esker Cemetery, Lucan as he had lived at 8 Cooldrinagh, Lucan.

District Inspector Henry Smyth was born in Hertfordshire, England he joined the RIC at the age of 25. He served in Offaly, then known as King’s County, and Kildare before being appointed to Meath in 1910.  Married he left a widow and four children. He was twice wounded, shot in both hands and other parts of his body. As the rebels attacked the police Smyth was shot by an explosive bullet in the last hour of the battle and died shortly afterwards. A large number of people from Navan and the surrounding districts attended his funeral in Ardbraccan Churchyard.

Sergeant John Shanagher, Navan, aged 48, had 25 years service He had served in Ashbourne and knew the area. He was the first to be killed, shot in the heart as he was leaving his car.  He fell into a channel of water near the cross roads. There was a suggestion that he was shot by his own men as he was unpopular.  He was made a permanent sergeant in 1907. Shanagher was buried in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon.

Sergeant John Young was based at Killyon Barracks. Aged 42 he had 19 years service and was buried St. Mary’s Cemetery, Navan. Young was a native of Cavan and had served in Down and Armagh before being appointed to Meath. He married in 1921 and was made a full sergeant in 1913.

Constable James Hickey, Kells, was buried St. Mary’s Cemetery, Navan, aged 49 and had 25 years service. His body was found on the centre of the road. A native of Limerick he had served in Kells for some time. He had been made a permanent sergeant in 1907 but was reduced back to constable in 1911.

Constable Richard McHale, Crossakiel, was buried St. Mary’s Cemetery, Navan, aged 22 and had 3 years service. His body was found on the centre of the road.  

Constable James Cleary, Moynalty, aged 28, had 7 years service. He was wounded at Ashbourne but died shortly after and was buried in Ballyglunin, Tuam.

Constable James Gormley

Constable James Gormely, Longwood, aged 25, had 4 years service and was buried St. Mary’s Cemetery, Navan. James Gormley, was born 23rd February 1891, Ballintogher, Sligo. He worked in farming until the 2nd of September 1912 when aged twenty one he joined the RIC.  Gormley went to the RIC depot in Dublin’s Phoenix Park where he underwent basic light infantry training. He served most of his career in County Meath listing postings in Slane and Enfield over the next three years. In April 1916 James was stationed at Longwood until ordered to report to Slane as part of additional security measures demanded by the Marquise of Slane as a result of the Rising. At 11 a.m. on the morning of the 28th of April James armed with his RIC Enfield Carbine and Webley Revolver boarded one of a convoy of cars provided by the local gentry and set off in the direction of Dublin. At Kilmoon they halted and were told by locals that “the rebels were in Ashbourne and eager to fight them’’. At approximately 12.30 the column pulled up short of the Rath Cross roads and the RIC began to disembark. Constable Gormley was shot and died instantly. Gormely’s body remained overnight in the barracks before being taken to Navan. He was buried with full military honors two days later on the 30th of April in the RIC plot in Navan. James Gormely’s brother was an active member of the Ballintogher Volunteers, many of whom turned out for a Requiem Mass for the dead constable.

RIC Grave Navan

Seventeen constables were wounded including Patrick Conneely, Thomas Foley, Francis Kenny of Athboy Barracks; Tim Finian of Bohermeen Barracks; Michael J. Duggan of Crossakiel; William E. Johns of Navan; Henry Lecky and Henry McGann of Oldcastle, Patrick Drinan of Nobber; John Murphy of Robinstown; Patrick McKeon and Peter Murtagh of Slane and Martin Mulvihill and Francis P. Glennon of Trim Barracks.

For their action at Ashbourne a number of police men were awarded medals. Sergeant William O’Connell of Athboy was given the King’s Police Medal. Sergeant John Griffin of Bohermeen was awarded the George’s Cross.  Constable Eugene Bratton of Navan was awarded the King’s Police Medal. The night before the battle Bratton was based at Navan and did a lot of scouting on his motor bike. On the morning of 28th he was in civilian attire as he was driving one of the cars. He was driving the District Inspector in his car and was at the rear of the convoy. When the fighting started Bratton was held up by a group of rebels at the rear of the convoy.  Bratton managed to escape, obtain a bicycle and cycled to Balrath barrack where he phoned for re-enforcements from Navan and Drogheda. He then returned to Ashbourne where he took possession of the District Inspector’s body and brought it back to the widow. Bratton was brought to Buckingham Palace for his medal presentation. He resented this but had no choice. 

Thomas Keighary was a constable in Dunshaughlin who fought at Ashbourne. He was killed by British forces in December 1920. As a sergeant he had access to the County Inspector’s office and he stole permits forms, stamped them and passed them to the IRA. On the night of 1st December 1920 news came to the Dayroom at the RIC Barracks, Navan, that a dispatch rider had broken down at Kilcarn. Sergeant Keighary was called in to take charge of the tender which was being dispatched to rescue the rider.  There did not seem to be any reason for Sergeant Keighary to be called in and detailed with this job. When the tender arrived at Kilcarn there was no dispatch rider there. Two military lorries arrived and one of the RIC sergeants fired two shots in the air. The military opened fire on Sergeant Keighery who was standing in the door of the Post Office, killing him immediately.  A Navan RIC man believed that it was a frame up by the military and Head Constable to get rid of Keighary. His widow received an enhanced pension of £80.

A very good book which gives a lot of information on the RIC at Ashbourne is “The Rising Dead R.I.C. and D.M. P.” by Ray Bateson.

The strange case of James Quigley

James Quigley was born in 1869, the son of Richard and Alice Quigley nee Ward at Newbliss, Co. Monaghan. He was trained for the priesthood, attending secondary school at St. Macartan’s Seminary and then went to Liverpool to work as a clerk. In 1892 Quigley joined the French Foreign Legion but did not participate in any fighting and he jumped ship in the Suez Canal. He made his way to the British Consulate in Port Said, thirty miles across the desert. He arrived penniless and the Consulate said he would have to turn him over to the French authorities but gave him a chance to disappear. Quigley wandered the town until he saw a sign in English. The people there helped him until two weeks later they got him a working passage back to Liverpool. He taught French, Maths and Science for a period in Liverpool before returning to Ireland.

In 1904 Quigley obtained an engineering diploma from Queen’s College, Galway. He was assistant surveyor in Monaghan for three years and then he became County Surveyor of Meath in 1907 and served in that position until 1923. 

In 1911 he took holidays in Lisdoonvarna where he met Linda Heyns  and they married three months later. They had four children Richard who became a priest, Edward who became a doctor and James and Paul who became engineers.

Quigley joined the Irish Volunteers in Navan in 1913 and became secretary. In 1914 he became county secretary of the Meath National Volunteers.  He addressed a meeting of the Volunteers at the hill of Lloyd at Kells with John Redmond. Quigley urged the Volunteers to fight for Ireland and only Ireland.

On the 28th of April 1916 Quigley was in the vicinity of the Battle of Ashbourne and was observed by a number of policemen. In June 1916 he was court-martialled for “conveying information to a number of persons who were taking part in an armed rebellion”. Quigley said he had neither hand, act or part in the rebellion and that he had no sympathy with the rebels. He said he only came upon the scene by chance. The police came across Quigley on the road between Balrothery and Kilmoon. He was known as he held the position of County Surveyor. The police again met Quigley near Kilmoon. He was seen at the Battle of Ashbourne making his way to the rebel’s position in the woods. A number of policemen said Quigley was witnessed in conversation with Thomas Ashe with whom he had shaken hands. Quigley’s house had been searched and three rifles and ammunition was found.  Quigley would not be examined under oath but he would give a statement. Quigley said the Volunteers had no policy and he had proposed a resolution of loyalty to the King at the first meeting. He did not resign but took no further part in the activities of the Volunteers. On the day he was attending a meeting in Ardee and returning form that meeting he met the police.  He said he did not shake hands with the rebel leader and had never belonged to any Sinn Féin organisation. P.J. McQuillan, publican and farmer of Navan said he was a member of the committee of Navan Volunteers but none of the members had anything to do with the Sinn Féin outbreak at Ashbourne. “They were all opposed to the principle of Sinn Féin.” Joseph Conroy, a ganger with Meath County Council said Quigley had given him instructions on the road between Balrath and Duleek just before noon on the day. Patrick White M.P. said Quigley had always been a supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party and a subscriber to their funds. Meath County Council had passed a resolution bearing testimony to Quigley’s good character and that the council believed there was no grounds for the arrest. They declared they “refused to believe that such a manly, generous hearted official would have been part of the Ashbourne outrage.”  He was found not guilty and released.

Later Joe Lawless said that Quigley had met him at Ashbourne and told him he was trying to warn the Volunteers of the approaching police convoy.

James Quigley, hiding behind hat at his trial

Quigley was arrested by the military in September 1920 and imprisoned at Ballykinlar Camp where he taught other inmates surveying. He remained in jail until Christmas 1921.

Quigley was appointed Chief Roads Engineer in the Department of Local Government in 1923. He retired in 1934. He visited the sixth International Road Congress in America in 1930. He ran for Senate, but lost. Quigley died in October 1941 and was buried in Killeevan, Co. Monaghan.

There is an interesting article by Seán Condon on some of Quigley’s activities in the Navan and District Historical Society Journal 3.