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21/09/2021

100 YEARS AGO: Darkness before the Dawn in last weeks of War of Independence in Kildare

Historian James Durney examines some violent Kildare civilian deaths which took place during the final weeks of the War of Independence

100 YEARS AGO: Darkness before the Dawn in last weeks of War of Independence

A reenactment of the confrontation with Philip Dunne, courtesy of the Prosperous Heritage Festival Reenactment Group

The last six months of the War of Independence were the most violent of the entire struggle. Over 1,000 people were killed between the beginning of 1921 and the Truce of July 11, 1921. Civilians bore a heavy cost and their experience is possibly the most overlooked of the period as we eagerly struggle to study the various combatants.

In County Kildare, four civilians died violently in the closing weeks of the war.

On June 13, 1921, the IRA shot dead Michael Power (40), an ex-soldier, at Kilboggan House, near Nurney. Michael Power had served in the army for over a year as a sapper, being too old for active service. Originally from Kilkenny, he lived with his wife, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Dillon, a local woman, and four young children at Kilboggan. While investigating cattle stealing in the Curragh area in the summer of 1920, the local IRA arrested Michael Power, who was tried for larceny before a Sinn Féin court. He was sentenced to leave the country for a period of 12 months.

Instead of leaving Ireland as ordered, Power obtained married quarters at A Block, Gough Barracks, Curragh Camp and, in September, employment with the Royal Engineers. When questioned by the camp authorities he, according to Michael Smyth, OC 2nd Kildare Battalion, named the people involved in his trial. On June 10, Mr and Mrs Power visited her sister at Kilboggan House, where Michael Power was shot three times at close range with a small calibre pistol.

Michael Power had married Lizzie Dillon at Suncroft Chapel on April 17, 1902, when they were both living at Kilboggan and he was working as a labourer. They had four children: Catherine (b 1903), Margaret (1905), Elizabeth (1910) and John (1912). Lizzie was the daughter of a local farmer, James Dillon. The couple moved intermittently, but mostly lived at Kilboggan.

However, in September 1920, the Powers were living at Behan’s Cottage, Brownstown, the Curragh, when one night about 11 o’clock, their small house was surrounded by around 15 men, who started to beat open the door. Michael Power immediately went down and opened the door and two masked men, armed with revolvers, entered.

They asked him if he was Michael Power, and then took him away, half-dressed. He returned home at 4am the next morning, and explained to his wife that he had been tried by a republican court for larceny and he was to leave the country for a term of 12 months. Lizzie Power mentioned to the subsequent military court of inquiry that one of the masked men was Edward Moran (Éamon Ó Modhráin), who was OC 6th Carlow Battalion, which operated in the Curragh/Kildare area.

In April 1921, Lizzie visited her ailing sister, Catherine Dillon, who was employed as a domestic servant for Henry Scully, of Kilboggan House. Michael Power joined his wife later, and left about 7pm. Two hours afterwards, four men, two of them masked and carrying revolvers, came to the house and asked Lizzie where her husband was. She told them he had gone home. The men then searched the house, ‘upsetting everything’, according to Lizzie.

On June 10, 1921, Lizzie Power again visited her sister at the house in Kilboggan. Michael went with her and remained for about an hour. He then said that he was going into the yard and would be back in about five minutes. Lizzie was upstairs at the time, but after Michael had left she noticed three men approaching the house.

When she observed the centre man put a white handkerchief over his face, Lizzie became alarmed and went down stairs and into the yard to look for her husband. She found him lying face downwards in a stable. He was unconscious, and, although she remained with him until he died about 30 minutes later, Michael Power never spoke. Lizzie left Michael’s body and went to the nearest RIC station in Kildare town to report the incident.

Dr Laurence Rowan, of Kildare town, attended the scene. He, incidentally, was also a medical officer for the IRA. Dr Rowan gave evidence to the military inquiry that Michael Power had two bullet wounds on the left side of the chest and one at the left collar bone. All wounds had been caused by small calibre bullets, which had been fired from a distance of at least three yards. The court found that Michael Power was ‘wilfully murdered by a person or persons unknown’.

In giving evidence to the inquiry, Lizzie Power said her husband had been demobilised from the British Army in 1919 and that he was in receipt of 25 shillings a week. She was then living on 10 shillings a week she was getting from her sister. Lizzie Power applied for £6,000 compensation and secured £1,000 with a further £4,000 to be divided between her four children. Mrs. Power and her children emigrated to Scotland the following year.

Comdt Michael Smyth, Kildare 2nd Battalion, made this statement about the incident: ‘A man, named Power of Kilboggan, Suncroft was questioned about robberies in the area, but before he could be arrested he sought refuge on Curragh camp, where he gave information concerning the IRA. He was kept under the protection of the British military at Curragh camp. When he left camp to return home on one occasion he was arrested, tried, found guilty and executed. There was considerable enemy activity around Suncroft after the execution, but no arrests were made. Some other spies, including a woman, were under observation, but they, too, took refuge in Curragh camp.’

A week after the killing of Michael Power another controversial murder took place at Grangehiggin, Kilmeague. Philip Dunne, a 35-year-old labourer, was shot dead in what Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin have described in the Dead of the Irish Revolution (2020) as a ‘less than heroic operation, which has all the hallmarks of a local dispute, dressed up as a political one’. Local feuds simmered during the revolution and its aftermath, and individuals, political and otherwise, dominated and influenced activities, using fear and authority over communities.

Philip Dunne lived with his widowed mother, Anne (70) and two sisters, Teresa Margaret (22) and Julia (30) at Grangehiggin, on the Naas side of the cross where the Naas-Rathangan and Kilmeague-Allen roads converge. Mrs Dunne owned a small cottage and a patch of ground and Philip earned his living selling turf and working for local farmers as a general labourer.

At about midnight on June 14, 1921, there was a knock on the door, followed by a voice which said. ‘If you do not open the door in five minutes we will blow you all up!’ Julia Dunne opened the door and two masked men entered, later identified by Teresa as Daniel Rigney and Michael Dunne. She had known Dunne for the past ten years and Rigney for about a year.

They dragged Philip outside where neighbours Charlie Dunney, Joe Ward, Martin Heavy and Laurence Flood were waiting. Philip struggled with them and according to Teresa, one of them broke a stick over her brother’s head. Philip broke free and ran away and Teresa overheard the men saying they would ‘do’ him later. The six left but returned about a half hour later. On hearing them approach the Dunne women fled to the fields in terror. They returned to the house about 4.30am and Philip returned, still bloodied, about 8.30am. The following night the family hid in the fields, in fear for their lives. Again, at dawn they returned to their home.

At 9pm that night, June 16, up to eight men came to the house and demanded to be let in, once more threatening to blow up the house if they were not admitted. Anne Dunne said: ‘We armed ourselves with forks, spades and slashers...’ and then opened the door. Daniel Rigney and another man entered and Rigney fired a shot into the kitchen in the direction of Philip Dunne. Mrs Dunne and Philip then attacked the two and Philip hit Rigney with a turf spade. The two men turned and fled, followed by Philip Dunne and his mother and sisters. Philip hit the other man who fell into a ditch.

Two men armed with revolvers, one of them identified as Rigney, opened fire at a range of seven yards. Philip Dunne fell mortally wounded, while Anne Dunne was wounded by bullets in the head and hip. All the attackers fled across the fields. Despite their wounds the Dunnes made their way to the home of Rev Fr. Bennett, CC, at Kilmeague, who sent for Dr Paul Blake. The doctor dressed their wounds, but Philip Dunne died at 4.30am. Mrs. Dunne and Teresa went by ass and cart to Kildare RIC Barracks and reported the attack.

The police brought Anne Dunne to the Kildare Infirmary, where she remained in a precarious condition until she was discharged on June 27, 1921. She said, ‘My son was not interested in any politics. His father supplied produce to the army all his life’.

An inquest was held at Kildare RIC Barracks, where it was determined Philip Dunne had a fractured skull and gunshot wounds to the chest and right forearm, which had proved fatal.

The Kildare Observer reported that the RIC from Kildare visited the area on June 17, and arrested Daniel Rigney (50), Kilmeague, and Michael Dunne (37), Grangehiggin, Kilmeague. They later arrested Charlie Dunney, married (50), Dunbyrne, Grangehiggin; Joe Ward, married (55), Grangehiggin, Kilmeague; Martin Heavey (27), Blacktrench, Allen; and Laurence Flood (32), Mayfield, Kilmeague. The six men were charged with ‘murder and a whiteboy offence’ and held in Mountjoy Jail, Dublin, awaiting trial. ‘Whiteboy’ offences were those deemed as agrarian and it was thought that this had all the hallmarks of a land issue. The six men were subsequently released on January 18, 1922, in the general amnesty, after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Comdt Michael Smyth, Kildare 2nd Battalion, made this statement about the Kilmeague incident, which has a completely different version than that of Anne and Teresa Margaret Dunne: ‘At a meeting of the battalion council at the end of 1920 the members were perturbed at the number of arrests taking place in the battalion area – especially of battalion and company officers. It was believed that there were informers and spies in the area. Some persons were mentioned as suspects. As a result of a visit by Volunteers to the house of a man suspected of giving information, he was fired on and mortally wounded but first attacked the party with a slane and struck one of the Volunteers on the head. A number of men were arrested in the area after this incident – but none of them were members of the IRA.’

On Sunday, June 19, 1921 the remains of Philip Dunne were interred at Old Cemetery, Allen. The only people present were Fr Bennett, along with his servant; the deceased’s brother, John Dunne, and a cousin; and Dr Blake. It is believed that Philip is buried with his father, John, who died in 1918, but there are no records or a headstone.

Anne Dunne secured £350 compensation for the death of her son as well as £100 for personal injuries. She died on December 1, 1930, at Grangehiggin, aged 82 years. Anne was buried at New Cemetery, Allen; her daughter Bridget was buried with her when she died in May 1947, but there is no headstone to mark the plot.

On May 29, 1924, President WT Cosgrove told the Dáil that compensation claims from Laurence Flood, Martin Heavey, Charlie Dunney and Michael Dunne ‘in respect of impairment of health as a result of imprisonment’ and ‘injuries and loss sustained during the Black-and-Tan troubles since 18th June 1921’ fell outside the relevant legislation. The named gunman, Daniel Rigney, was originally from Broughal, Kilcormac, Co. Offaly, and worked as a branch foreman in the grocery establishment of Mrs. O’Brien, Kilmeague (now McCabe’s Gala). He died aged sixty-three, on 24 November 1934, in Portlaoise Hospital.

Four days before the Anglo-Irish Truce came into effect, on 7 July 1921, two more civilians, Bridget and John Doran, died in the most horrifying and tragic of circumstances in Co Kildare during the War of Independence. (see next week).

My thanks to John Power (Scotland) and Joe Murphy for help with this article.

— Kildare County Council Historian in Residence and author James Durney is a member of the Kildare Decade of Commemorations. Committee

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