Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bantry Riots, August 14th 1910

During the spring and summer of 1910 the UIL and the AFIL clashed frequently in Cork city and county, as the latter tried to reorganised under the direction of Joseph Devlin, and with not a little help from his organisation, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (Board of Erin) (AOH-BOE). Meetings at Midleton, Clonakilty, Bandon and Youghal were beset by fighting. At the end of July William O'Brien and James Gilhooly addressed a major AFIL rally in Gilhooly's home town of Bantry, which was derided by their Nationalist opponents as little more than a gathering of Orange supporters in the west Cork town. This opinion was supported by the subsequent prosecution of a number of publicans in the town by the local RIC inspector for hanging out orange flags outside their premises as a greeting to O'Brien and his AFIL supporters. The court cases which followed saw insults and slanders traded between Daniel O'Leary BL (supporting the prosecution) and Skibbereen solicitor Jasper T Wolfe (defending the publicans). That Wolfe also acted as Gilhooly's election agent and was also employed as the returning officer for the parliamentary constituency of West Cork (which Gilhooly represented as an MP) was seized upon by O'Leary as evidence of further collusion between the British state and the AFIL against the more nationally-minded UIL. Wolfe retorted in court that O'Leary had committed the mortal sin of informing on his fellow nationalists to the organs of the state, a charged which the Bantry solicitor angrily and vehemently denied, going so far as to publish an open letter in the Southern Star. This conflict, although minor, was an example of the latent tensions in the region, and a harbinger of the conflicts to follow.

A few weeks later, the UIL held a major rally in the town on Sunday August 14th. From early morning, large crowds had begun to gather in the town, of both Nationalist persuasion, and tensions and ill-feelings were running high. From the moment the Cork train drew into the station and the UIL party on board began to disembark, insults and blows were exchanged on the periphery. Once the procession from the station to the square began, the UIL congregation were pelted with mud and stones. A ceremonial arch , erected at the junction of New Street and Main St leading onto the square, was felled from a second-floor window by a man wielding what the police later described as a machete. A force of eighty RIC officers and men, under the command of County Inspector Fawcett, attempted to keep both groups apart, but were pelted with stones and rotten eggs for much of the duration of the meeting. The Party contingent was also continuously showered with stones and rotten eggs, even while speaking during the rally. Once the speeches had concluded, a large group attempted to storm the stage. The police were struck repeatedly by members of the group “with ‘batons’ longer [and] heavier than their own.” Other smaller squads of constables were attacked in Main St, Mill St, and High St. After holding their ground, all squads of police attempted to baton-charge the aggressors from the main square. This took repeated attempts, during which DI Wallace was struck on the head with a stone, and sustained a deep wound to the head; he was carried to nearby Vickery’s Hotel to receive treatment. One member of the police struck a man in the vicinity of the Hotel with such force that his baton “broke in half.” The violence did not stop after the Party contingent left the town. Approximately 30 police were retained in the town for the rest of the weekend, when “great excitement prevailed, but no serious collisions took place.” Unconfirmed reports suggested that a man from the Borlin Valley area had died from injuries sustained in the riots. A party of “Redmondites” from Glengarriff were set upon on their return home, and were badly beaten. Similar scenes were reported in Castletownbere, where street fighting occurred.

Fallout from the riot lingered for a number of months. Gilhooly blasted the “partisan” report of the scenes in the Irish Independent, claiming that “a prominent local ‘Mollie’ [had] attacked and seriously wounded with a baton a fellow-townsman supposed to be in sympathy with the All-for-Ireland League” the night before the UIL meeting. He gave other instances of batons being confiscated from friends “of the defeated candidate at the last election”, and charged Patrick O’Leary, brother of Daniel, with intimidation, alleging he “openly displayed a baton during the progress of the meeting.” Strong language used by Roche and Sheehy towards O'Brien “was directly calculated to make a riot inevitable.” He also questioned the report’s conclusion by stating that a “number of the imported rowdies broke loose from their protectors (the police) and smashed some windows in the houses in Wolfe Tone square and the Marine terrace, including [those] ... in the house of Constable Twomey.” In response the editor challenged Gilhooly on a number of points, openly supporting his reporter, “who was sent specially to Bantry to report the proceedings”. It was Daniel, not Patrick, he argued, who had displayed the baton “as an interesting specimen of one which had been just captured from one of the All-for-Irelanders [sic].”Arrests by the local RIC force were made during and in the immediate aftermath of the riots, and these men were brought before sittings of the local Petty Sessions court in the town at regular intervals in the weeks after. Gilhooly, as the local MP, also served as one of the Justices of the Peace assisting the Resident Magistrate, RM Purden. However, political allegiances took precedence, and he questioned a number of fines imposed by Purden – many of them on his own supporters, when it was obvious to him that the “other ... parties ... were to be let off scot free”. The local sergeant argued that the “disturbers were ... no credit to either party.”

Many people thought that, with cases being heard in the Petty Sessions court – albeit on an infrequent manner – that that would be the end of the matter. Others, however, had a different view. In the early hours of Monday September 12th, RIC constables arrested thirty-five people in and around the immediate area of Bantry town, and charged them with assaulting, wounding, beating and ill-treating DI Wallace, Head Constable Looney, Sergeants Dennehy and Driscoll, and Constables Nolan, Coffey, Reilly, Townley, Chapman, Barry, Bolger, Wixted and Hoare and with “unlawfully and riotously [gathering] together to the great terror and disturbance of the liege subjects of the King.” The arrests aroused considerable surprise in the area, “as the people ... thought there would be no prosecutions owing to the length of time that had elapsed”. The trials of those arrested descended in farce, being adjourned on a regular basis due to accusations of partiality from both the Party and AFIL representatives present. The Crown Solicitor for the prosecution, Dr Wynne, protested vigorously on a number of occasions, arguing that the magistrates were showing contempt for the rule of law in the region. Daniel O’Leary was fined 2s 6d for assaulting William McSweeney at one of the initial sittings. In his appeal to the King’s Bench Division in Dublin on Tuesday October 4th his barrister “said the main ground of objection was that the Bench of ten magistrates was presided over by Mr Gilhooly”, and that another magistrate, B O’Connor, was “biased against Mr O'Leary.” Another magistrate, JJ O’Mahony, was alleged to have held a position of office in the Kealkil AFIL branch. The fine was rescinded, but the allegations against Gilhooly led to a further investigation. In November, he was stripped of his position of Justice of the Peace; Fawcett noted in his report for that month that the decision would “make the duty of the police in enforcing the law less difficult as the rowdies and ill disposed relied on him to either get them out of any trouble or let them off with a trifling punishment.” The hearings led to eleven of those arrested being returned for trial at the Cork Winter Assizes.

Just as the murder of Judge William Byrd in the town in February 1900 had acted as a stunt on the growth of the UIL in the region, the Bantry riot checked the growth of the AFIL inside and outside of Cork. There is also further evidence of the supposed social composition of the AFIL in Bantry, and I shall return to this topic in my next post.

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