Michael Kelly of Castle Lambert: His Fight for Irish Freedom

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Compliments of Martin Kelly

Michael Kelly of Caherbriskaun and Castle Lambert, Co. Galway (1893-1977)

Michael Kelly was born at Caherbriskaun, Athenry, Co. Galway on May 1, 1893, in an Ireland that was just struggling to lift itself from centuries of cultural and political subjugation. Kelly was one of those people you would call “natives to the soil.” He was a farmer, but such a simple description did not do justice to men of rural Ireland in those days that had to combine many talents from carpentry to thatching to keep their families safe and warm. But Michael Kelly was much more than a simple farmer. He was just one patriot among many who took up the cause in that fateful time of Easter Week 1916 for Irish Freedom.

Like many of the men of rural Ireland, Kelly listened more than he talked. Although he had risked his life on many occasions, he chose not to talk about it very much. Only when he was bantering in the company of a trusted neighbor did some of the past reveal itself. When neighbor Pat Kelly spent time doing work on Michael’s house in the 1950s, Michael chatted away amicably with his friend in the presence of his son, Martin, who listened with all the attention of a fascinated 11 year old.

This short article is largely based on the conversations of Michael Kelly and his friends and especially with his neighbor while the young Martin Kelly listened. Martin’s father and his friends spoke proudly of their youthful years, during Ireland’s troubled times, but this was in the company of trusted neighbors who had experienced “the troubles” themselves. Recently, however, the Irish Department of Defense released on line the testimony collected from Michael Kelly and other 1916 and War for Independence soldiers. These interviews and statements were collected in connection with the award of service medals and pensions for veterans of the conflict. The documents were compiled at various times between the 1930s and 1950s. The more than one hundred pages of documents in the Michael Kelly file reveal many vivid details of his service for the Irish Republic.

Michael Kelly of Caherbriskaun and Castle Lambert

The Kellys came originally from the townland of Caherbriskaun, Athenry, Co. Galway. Sometime around 1890 or 1900, the land which had been held as tenant property was acquired from the landlord by the grandfather named Michael Kelly (1828-1900) from the landlord. This Michael Kelly gave the land shortly afterward to his grandson, also a Michael Kelly, in 1900 when he was age 7.  Grandfather Michael Kelly was married to Mary Cusack from the Oranmore area. It was their son John (Sean Mór) who was and is the ancestor of all the Kellys of Caherbriskaun and Castle Lambert.

There were two pieces of land in the townland of Caherbriskaun where the Kellys were originally lived. The family comprised in addition to their parents 3 sisters, Mary, Norah and Julia, and brothers Timothy (who died age 5 in 1899) and John (also known as Mac), born about 1902. The Caherbriskaun holding had about 20 Irish acres while the other piece of land in Rathmorrissey, near Derrydonnell, totaled 20 Irish acres of mountainy land, overgrown with furze. The house where they lived was in Caherbriskaun and the ruins are still to be seen, about a mile in from the Lisheenkyle Road near Leonard’s Wood.

When Michael Kelly was small, the family used to go to cut seaweed to use as fertilizer, most probably at Oranmore about 5 or 6 miles away. Most farmers did that in those days, but thanks to modern fertilizer, such back breaking tasks have been made unnecessary. Otherwise, life on the farm was typical of Ireland at the time – long hours and hard work.

The oldest sister Mary married a neighbor, Pat Grealish of Lisheenkyle, and had a large family. Some of the grandchildren are still there in Lisheenkyle. Norah (Nonie) emigrated to Boston and married a man named Mahon. Julia Agnes, known as Aggie, emigrated to New York and married a Fahey man in the Bronx at St. Brendan’s Church, 205th and Decatur Avenue). All three sisters had children.

After the Irish Civil War in the 1920s, the Lambert estate was divided up among local families. The Kellys received additional land in Castle Lambert. Michael Kelly built a new house in Castle Lambert about 1932 at the time he married Kate Duggan from Lettermore. His brother John (Mac) got married to Nellie Craven and moved into the home place in Caherbriskaun. Both brothers were only a mile and a half from one another and remained close throughout their lives. Likewise, their large families have been equally close despite emigration that in some cases has taken many of them around the world.

The house of Michael and Kate Kelly (who were married in 1933) in Castle Lambert, Athenry, Co. Galway was always a hospitable place where strangers were welcome. Frequently, it was the language of the Gael that was spoken by this very Irish couple who loved nothing more than the traditions, song, dance and stories of their native land. Both Michael and Kate Kelly were fluent Irish speakers. Rural Galway was about a typical a piece of Irish countryside as one could find in the Emerald Isle, but far and wide from Castle Lambert, the Kelly house won a reputation for being one of the best places in the country to “céilí” in. A good night of Irish entertainment was often spontaneous and for this reason accomplished singers and musicians were known to call in for an evening of fun.

Irish Freedom

By 1912 the wave of Irish nationalism was sweeping Ireland and attracting the attention of patriotic Irish men and women. One of the hotbeds of activity was in the Athenry area where a number of young men came together in 1914 at the time of the Irish Volunteers, a military unit organized to support the implementation of Home Rule for Ireland. With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 the British government reneged on the legally passed measure and young Irishmen turned from parliamentary solutions to a more militant approach to Irish freedom.

Michael Kelly, in his own words in 1935, summed up his service for Ireland in a statement contained in the Irish Department of Defense files as follows:

“I joined the I.R.B. (Irish Republican Brotherhood) in 1912 and the Irish Volunteers in 1914. I took part in all activities of the Volunteers prior to, during and after 1916, and remained an active and faithful member of both organizations until the end of the civil war in 1923.”

Michael Kelly, who was 21 in 1914, became involved in a secret Irish nationalist movement, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, two years before. He prepared for the coming rising as a member of the Irish Volunteers and was finally called out for the Rising in 1916 as a member of the Derrydonnell. Together with the contingent from Athenry they were among the 750 soldiers of the Irish Volunteers to mobilize outside of Dublin.

Just before Easter Week in 1916, a military instructor of the Volunteers came down from Dublin (Alfred Monaghan, actually a native of Belfast) to help train the unit under Liam Mellows. The instructor who had brought rifles with him took the local unit out for target practice. A half-crown was placed on the bark of a tree and a number of volunteers took turns shooting, but unfortunately missed the coin. Young Michael Kelly spoke to the instructor stating he couldn’t believe that everybody had missed and asked permission to fire himself. He fired three shots and it was thought initially he had missed as well, but on close examination it was discovered all three shots had hit the target and driven the half-crown into the tree.

Michael Kelly was the part of his group of about 50 men who came from as far away as Claregalway and Lackagh. They spent many hours drilling on the mountain near Oranmore and Rathmorrissey and had a dugout for training purposes, sometimes spending many nights in this hideout, at one of the most remote parts of this desolate landscape. Michael Kelly’s expertise grew quickly. He became a sharpshooter on the rifle and acted as the drill instructor for the group.

Word had come down the line from Dublin that a Rising was pending in April of 1916, but there was no definite date. The local units were just told to get ready, but despite two trains that passed through Athenry every day in those times, communication was never good with headquarters. Easter Week saw the mobilization of all the volunteer units in the Athenry and Derrydonnell area including Michael Kelly, but when no instructions came from Dublin the units all stood down and the volunteers quietly went back to their homes and work. Later in the week on hearing that the Dublin members were “out” they took over the Agricultural College – the Farmyard. From there they moved to Moyode. Kelly and some of his comrades were sent to break up the railway line at Derrydonnell where they remained on patrol for the rest of the Rising.

It took the British authorities only a short time after the collapse of the Rising to make a general round-up of the Republican militants from across Ireland. Michael Kelly and practically all of his fellow soldiers, including Martin Ruane, Richard Higgins, Tommy Holland and Tommy Connell, were arrested and taken to the jail where the site of the present cathedral is in Galway City. A short time later they were sent to the internment camp at Frongoch in Wales. Some of the surviving leaders of the Rising including Eamon DeValera and Michael Collins were also detained.

There were two barracks where the prisoners were kept, but one was inadequately heated and those kept there suffered terribly. Some of the prisoners died as a result. Michael Kelly was lucky enough to be in the better of the two. One of the women serving the prisoners took a liking to Michael and when no one was looking slipped him extra rations. This made all the difference in the world as far as maintaining his health.

The British authorities held a threat over the prisoners that they would be sent to the front as British soldiers. During the First World War there was no draft in Ireland, but Irish residents in Britain, or for that matter, prisoners in a camp in Wales, could be forced into the military. For this reason Kelly and his comrades refused to answer to their names in the roll call and were punished by the authorities. Tensions flared, but finally a compromise between the two sides was reached. The language of the camp was the Irish language and this helped maintain secrecy among the interned. Michael Kelly was a fluent Irish speaker.

At the end of August 1916, some of the prisoners in Frongoch, including Michael Kelly, were released. A photograph of Kelly, Martin Ruane and Tommy Holland survives from this time and was taken in London just prior to their release. As was customary, a new suit of clothing was given to each of them, so the three presented a rather handsome image of three young men, perhaps dressed for a wedding, rather than newly released from a P.O.W. camp.

According to an article on John Edward Joyce by Finbarr O’Regan the Derrydonnell /Lisheenkyle unit was especially active in the War of Independence.

This often drew the attention of the British for their activities while the town unit of the I.R.A. was quieter. Military activities increased during 1920 and into 1921.

In order to take attention off their unit, a contingent from the Derrydonnell Company was sent to burn the Cricket Pavilion outside Athenry in Park. The attempt in June 1921 conducted by a small group was successful but unfortunately the petrol suddenly exploded, killing a first cousin of Kelly, Bill Freaney. Freaney who had used watered down petrol in an attempt to burn down Castle Lambert house poured plenty of it about to make sure it would ignite. While the explosion blew two comrades out the door, poor Freaney was engulfed in the conflagration.

The day after the attack the I.R.A. unit discussed who would claim the body. Because Kelly had not been present at the attack, he volunteered to go into Athenry and retrieve the body for burial with a brother of Bill Freaney, Michael. The British detained both men for rigorous questioning over a period of three days before eventually allowing them to take the body for burial.

The Black and Tans

As 1920 came, Michael Kelly and his comrades were forced to be on the run. For much of the time they were sleeping “out on the mountain.” One winter’s night, they decided to go home to sleep. Unfortunately, it was the night that the British irregular military force, known as the Black and Tans, for the mixed colors of their uniforms, chose to raid the Kelly house. Michael and his young brother John (Mac) were caught sleeping in their beds and soon roughly interrogated by the soldiers. The Black and Tans then dragged them out of the house and threw them into the large water tank outside that was used for the storing of rain water. The lightly clad Kellys stood immersed freezing in the cold water while the soldiers harassed them by throwing turnips at their heads and bodies.

Unknown to the Black and Tans was the fact that the bales of straw outside the house that were ready for thatching the roof contained several hidden rifles. Secreted in the ceiling was the money of the local I.R.A. unit. Miraculously, neither rifles nor money was discovered by the marauders.

The two brothers, seizing an opportunity, jumped out of the water tank, grabbed a blanket, and set off into the night to escape the British. Fortunately, the soldiers were more intent on doing looting, helping themselves to chickens, turkeys and eggs, and the Kelly brothers ran at break neck speed into Leonard’s Wood, about 50 yards away. There, they sheltered under the thin blanket until the lorries proceeded on to the next farm for more plunder. When it was safe to return to the house, the Kellys made their way back home and to a warm fire.

Civil War

During the Irish Civil War, conflict flared between old friends as two factions formed, one supporting the treaty that created the Irish Free State of 26 of the 32 Irish counties, and the other opposed to any settlement that was based on the partition of Ireland. Michael Kelly, based on advice from I.R.A. headquarters in Dublin, went with the anti-Treaty faction.  Between 1921 and 1923, war raged between the factions.

One Sunday, probably in 1922, Michael Kelly met an old comrade from the I.R.A., Michael Dunleavy, on his way to mass. Outside church, Dunleavy drew a revolver and told Michael he was under arrest. At the police station, Kelly learned that it was no betrayal on the part of Dunleavy. He told Kelly that he was to be assassinated by a squad on his way home from mass because he was in the anti-treaty faction. Dunleavy had actually saved Kelly by arresting him and placing him under his protection. After peace returned to Ireland the two erstwhile enemies became close friends and worked together for many years thereafter.

The Kelly Files

The Michael Kelly records at the Department of Defense are very extensive and contain dozens of pages of testimony from Michael Kelly himself and from his former colleagues in the Derrydonnell Company of the Irish Republican Army. These pages offer many wonderful insights into his military career, but would require many hours of analysis to translate into a proper narrative history.  For much of the period, Kelly served as quartermaster for the company, an important position normally considered an officer’s rank. The quartermaster had the important responsibility to make sure that the arms and supplies were well hidden from the authorities and were ready and all times for use by the company.

While the statements and questionnaires in the pension and medal files were necessarily long and repetitive to meet government standards, their often one-line responses, in the words of Michael Kelly himself, give a very personal account of the period between 1912 and 1923. Although not strictly chronological, his statements can be matched exactly with the summary of events for Michael Kelly compiled by the Irish Department of Defense.

Extracts of some of Michael Kelly’s statements are as follows:

“Engaged in sentry, outpost and scouting and breaking railways.”

“Drilling and guarding Captain A. (Alfred) Monaghan before Rising, often was arrested and imprisoned in Galway, Richmond Barracks, Knutsford, Frongoch, on release rejoined company.”

“Carried out all orders received.”

“Drilling to resist conscription and did Volunteer duty at General Election, Dec. 1918. In several raids for arms.”

“Engaged in attack on British military officers of Derrydonnell (Nov 1919) and in attack on Moyvilla RIC Barracks, March, 1920.”

“Blocking roads for attack on Lough George RIC Barracks (May 1920) in destruction of Moyvilla RIC Barracks, June 1920, in capture of enemy stores at Athenry Railway Station (June, 1920), burning of Castle Lambert House (September 1920), was on the run from October 1920 to truce (Sept. 1920), captured beaten by Black and Tans and as a result was laid up for some time.”

“Cutting telegraph poles and in action on Department farm Athenry in which we were attacked by a party of Black and Tans and after a short fight we made our retreat successfully.”

“Training in Killeen Camp on two occasions about one month all told and also was drilling and training in my own area.”

“Joined column at Moorpark, Athenry, was in the ambush of Free State troops at Coshla in July 1922, continued with column until arrested in Jan. 1923, was imprisoned at Galway and Curragh until July 1923.

Michael Kelly replied specifically to inquiries about his service during the Easter Rising of 1916 and in the following years:

“Went out in the Rising of 1916 with arms, was at farmyard Moyode, breaking railway line at Derrydonnell, came home on Saturday, was arrested and deported to England, released in July.”

“From 1917 to 1920 drilled, trained, raided for arms.”

“In 1920 blocking roads for Lough George Barracks, took part in the burning of Castle Lambert House and Moyvilla Barracks.”

“1921. Was beaten by Black and Tans, took part in the farm yard raid in retreat was attacked by Moorpark Black and Tans.”

“After the truce went into camp on different occasions.”

“1922/1923 Civil War. Joined the column that came to Moorpark, took up arms, took part in Coshla Ambush, worked with column all through the area, was arrested by Free State soldiers and taken to Galway Jail, Curragh Camp, released in July, 1923.”

Kelly answered in detail inquiries about Easter Week 1916:

“We were informed on Saturday to go to Confession. We did not do much on Sunday. We were mobilized and we were told to keep mobilized that we might be called out any moment. We did not know what time. Sunday night – in Derrydonnell, we went to Captain Monahan’s (in Coshla). We were told to protect him for the night. From 12 o’clock til 6 o’clock in the morning. Armed with a shotgun.”

“We mobilized again on Monday evening and Monday night, lived 2 miles from Derrydonnell (assembly point). We did not sleep at all on Monday night except we were in and old barn.”

“Tuesday we stayed mobilized all day. We were told not to stir and went on to the farmyard. Spent the night at farm. Wednesday in farmyard, was in the fight outside the farm. I was not a rifle man and had a shot gun, not in the front line, but I was there. Moyode on Wednesday night. Sent down on Thursday morning to Derrydonnell to break up the railways and telegraph poles. We were watching for any military that would come along the road from Oranmore and from Galway. We were expecting ships in the bay and we were doing outpost duty and we were to pass the signal along into Moyode. Sunday morning, went into hay barn with another and fell asleep. Came home on 30 April, last day of month, went on the run before capture in about a month. Arrested in house morning 3 o’clock. Brought to Galway. Richmond Barrack, Knutsford and Frongoch. Released in July or August. In for about two months.”

One last note was added about the first action with British that occurred in late 1919:

“Attacked British officers Nov 1919 at Derrydonnell, came in car going to a dance to Roxborough House to celebrate the Great War. Blocked road and dismantled car, (it) ran into blockade, barbed wire in the road. Car smashed. Had revolver, did not fire, six men in all.”

Although there is much more material contained in the Kelly file, much of it is administrative and not pertinent to this article.  This is presented in conclusion as an appendix to the above.

A last summary statement of Michael Kelly’s entire service contribution was prepared and dated 5th December 1956 through the offices of Shields and Sons, Solicitors, Athenry, and signed by Michael himself.

Footnote by John T Ridge 2016

Michael Kelly was a great Irishman, but today his memory is mostly kept by his family and neighbors. Ireland remembers Easter Week and the men of the War of Irish Independence, but the individual stories of its soldiers are largely unknown. Michael Kelly was a quiet man, but on a few occasions his son, Martin Kelly, listened to the recounting of events around Athenry with rapt attention. This brief account of his father in the struggle for Irish freedom is based on Martin’s recollections and the newly released documents available from the Easter Rising and the War for Irish Independence made available by the Irish government, Without Martin’s memories and his research over the internet, this story could never have been set down in print. It was an honor to assist Martin in researching his father’s story. May Michael’s story make all Ireland proud of those heroes of one hundred years ago.

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About this record

Written by Martin Kelly

Published here 04 Feb 2021

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