Kelly The Boy From Killane

Kelly is second only to Murphy as the most populous Irish name, and it is therefore logical to find it often in Ireland’s songs. According to Father Woulfe’s Irish Names and Surnames, Kelly derives from Ceallac meaning Warlike, and it seems that Kelly’s lived up to that meaning not only in Ireland, but wherever they went.  In the wars of the United States, the name Kelly appears frequently among those decorated for bravery.  The first American hero of WWI was Colin Kelly who received the Medal of Honor; and Joseph Clarke wrote a famous poem about a trio of Irish American Heros in the Spanish American war named Kelly, Burke and Shea.  Even in America’s War of Independence, the roster of Irish soldiers serving in Washington’s army was headed by Kellys – 695 of them.

The Kellys were Chiefs of Connaught where they ruled over Galway and Roscommon until the scattering of the clans from Cromwell’s time to the reign of Elizabeth I.  Today, there are Kellys in every County, and one who is dear to the hearts of every Irishman is John Kelly of Killane in Co Wexford.  He emerged as one of the leaders of the Rising of 1798 when, with only a small body of poorly armed men, he captured a contingent of British Militia on their way to fortify Wexford.  By May 29, rebel victories had spread the rebellion throughout Co. Wexford confining British troops to a few towns now vulnerable to attack.  General Fawcett, Commander of the garrison at Duncannon fort led 300 soldiers and supporting artillery to bolster the garrison at Wexford town.  Making good time with no opposition, Fawcett free-quartered his troops for the night among the unhappy inhabitants of Taghmon village.  At 2 AM, the slower artillery column arrived, but pressed on toward Wexford since villagers had duped the Brits with false reports of a clear road to Wexford and of the urgency of their pressing ahead.  Meanwhile, Kelly and his men were waiting in ambush at a place called Three Rocks.  A few rebel musket men were concealed behind the rock outcrops while hundreds of pikemen waited out of sight. Rebel spotters with flags signaled the approach of the Brits at dawn, as they marched unsuspectingly into the killing ground and met a close range volley of musket fire.  That was followed by a massed pike charge into the line, giving the soldiers no chance of regrouping.  The fighting left around 70 Brits dead, most of the gunners captured and two howitzers in the hands of the rebels.  A few survivors fled back to Taghmon with news of the disaster.  Unnerved by the annihilation of his artillery column and the prospect of attack from rebels armed with canon, Fawcett ordered a retreat.  Meanwhile, General Maxwell, Commander of the Wexford garrison, led a troop of cavalry to meet the expected reinforcements.  They soon met Kelly and his men bringing the captured artillery to use against Wexford and fled back to the town.  The prospect of facing rebels with artillery unnerved the Brits and envoys were sent to seek terms for peace.  While the rebels were involved with the peace envoys, the garrison snuck away, wreaking revenge by indiscriminately burning, raping and murdering as they fled all the way to Duncannon.  The rebels took Wexford town and freed their imprisoned Commander-in-Chief, Bagenal Harvey.  The rebels now were in a position to launch offensives against the few remaining British garrisons in the county.

Kelly was made a Lieutenant and was detailed by Bagenal Harvey, to bring in all available men from the barony of Bantry for an attack on New Ross.  Most of the county was in Irish hands but the key to ultimate success was the town of New Ross at the vital junction of the rivers Barrow and Nore which would open the way to the western counties.  The Battle for New Ross became one of the bitterest contests of the insurrection.  Although superior in number, the rebel forces had no trained men to fire their captured cannon, no experienced infantry leaders, and very little expertise or ammunition for the few firearms they did possess.  The fight for New Ross would be remembered as a story of pitchforks and pikes against artillery; of desperate courage against overwhelming firepower; and it all happened in the month of June.

On June 5, Lieutenant Kelly led a group of about 600 Bantrymen in the initial assault on New Ross.  They stormed one of the town’s main Gates.  The gate was originally known as Aldgate (old gate), but was later changed to Bewley for a local Norman family and then to Three Bullet Gate after Cromwell had fired three canon shots from there during his taking of the town in 1649.  On June 5, 1798, the gate became the scene of such prolonged and fierce fighting that it received yet another name.  It was ever after referred to as the Bearna Bhaiol – the Gap of Danger – by which it is still remembered to this day in the words of the modern Irish National Anthem.  Repelling a cavalry charge by the Fifth Dragoons, Kelly’s pikemen breeched the gate and  spilled into the town.  Kelly, a massive figure of a man, became the central figure in the house-to-house fighting that raged murderously throughout the day.  Then, as Crown forces were in full retreat, Kelly fell, seriously wounded, in Michael Street; he was taken to Wexford town to be treated.  Without their leader, the rebel attack slackened giving the English officers the needed time to rally their fleeing troops.  The fury of battle continued into evening, when the courageous but now leaderless insurgents broke off the action after 15 hours of fighting.

It was then that the slaughter began, as angry Crown troops ran down rebel stragglers without mercy.  Major Vesey, commanding in place of the fallen Lord Mountjoy, wrote: No quarter was given. The soldiers were too much exasperated and could not be stopped.  Dr Jordan Roche, a medical officer filed a report on the night’s activities which read: The remaining part of the evening was spent searching for and shooting the insurgents whose loss in killed was estimated at 2,806 men.

After the failure of New Ross, the Irish were forced back by English reinforcements to Wexford town and the final battle at Vinegar Hill.  When Wexford town was recaptured by the British, a yeoman sergeant, whose life Kelly had spared some days before, identified the wounded patriot.  Kelly was taken, brutally mistreated, and hanged on June 22 on Wexford Bridge.  His body was conveyed to the river and his head trailed and kicked along the streets before being spiked.  Friends recovered the head and returned it to Killane for burial.  A monument was later erected on the spot.  Had this courageous patriot’s name never been recorded in history’s pages, we would still  know of his exploits to this day because of the rousing 19th century ballad by Patrick Joseph McCall which is still among the most popular of all our rebel songs – Kelly, the Boy From Killane.

Michael O’Hanrahan

March 17 is known the world over as St. Patrick’s Day, but there are many other things that March 17th should be remembered for beside being the day that our patron saint died. For example, it is the date in 1776 that the Brits evacuated Boston during the American Revolution. Also, on that date in 1858, James Stephens and Thomas Luby founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood; in 1897, Bob Fitzsimmons defeated Jim Corbett to become Heavyweight Champion; in 1899, the first issue of An Claidheamh Soluis (Sword of Light), the nationalist newspaper edited by Padraic Pearse, was published; in 1900, the Montreal Shamrocks won the Stanley Cup; and in 1963, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was beatified. Most people are familiar with those events, but as much as any of them, there is one that also deserves to be remembered: March 17, 1877 was the birth date of Michael O’Hanrahan – probably the least known of all the 1916 Martyrs.

He was born in New Ross, Co. Wexford, to Mary and Richard O’Hanrahan, a veteran of the 1867 Fenian Rising. The family moved to Carlow where Michael was educated at Carlow Christian Brothers’ School and Carlow College Academy. On leaving school he worked alongside his father in a cork-cutting business where he received a nationalist slant to his education. Immensely proud of his heritage, he joined the Gaelic League in 1898 and within a year founded the League’s first branch in Carlow and became its secretary. He also taught Irish at the Catholic Institute and began to use the Irish form of his name – Micheál Ó hAnnracháin. By 1903 he was working in Dublin as a proof-reader for a Gaelic League publisher. He wrote articles in several nationalist newspapers, including Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteer. Politically aware from his early youth, O’Hanrahan became involved in some of the more radical nationalist campaigns of the day.

His writings brought him to the attention of Maude Gonne and Arthur Griffith and in 1903 he became involved with them in their campaign against the visit of King Edward VII to Ireland. His friendship with Griffith led him to join the newly-formed Sinn Féin political party founded by Griffith in 1905 to provide a focus for Irish nationalism. He also became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In November 1913 he was among the first to join the new Irish Volunteers, a military organization established by Irish nationalists. It included members of the Gaelic League, Ancient Order of Hibernians and Sinn Féin, and, secretly, the IRB who had organized the formation meeting. The Volunteers would be the main force to fight for Irish independence in the 1916 Easter Rising and, with the Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann, they formed the Irish Republican Army. The Volunteers were formed on 25 November, with their first public meeting and enrollment rally at the Rotunda in Dublin and O’Hanrahan was there. The stewards, who handed out application blanks, wore in their lapel a small silken bow the center of which was white, while on one side was green and on the other side orange and had long been recognized as the colors which the Irish Republican Brotherhood had adopted as the Irish national banner. Speaking at the rally was IRB member Patrick Pearse.

While expanding his nationalist activities and writings, O’Hanrahan authored two novels A Swordsman of the Brigade (1914) and When the Normans Came (published posthumously in 1918). He became an administrator on the Volunteers headquarters staff, was made quartermaster general of the Volunteers’ 2nd Battalion where he and the 2nd Battalion Commandant, Thomas MacDonagh became close friends. It was as second in command of Dublin’s 2nd battalion under Commandant MacDonagh and later third in command under Major John MacBride, that he fought at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory throughout Easter week. Unfortunately, O’Hanrahan had a nasty accident in Jacobs when he tumbled down a flight of stone steps and received a concussion. Fearing that MacDonagh might send him to hospital, he played the incident down. His brother Henry O’Hanrahan also fought in Jacobs.

Over the following week the Rising continued until a general surrender was issued on April 30th. As a result many of the rebels were taken into custody by the Brits. In a memorandum sent by General Sir John Maxwell to British Prime Minister, Herbet Asquith, the following description was provided for Michael O’Hanrahan: This man was employed at the office of the Headquarters of the Irish Volunteers. He was one of the most active members of that body, took part in all their parades and was a constant associate with the leaders of the rebellion. He was arrested in uniform and armed, and there had been heavy fighting and casualties amongst the British troops in the neighborhood of the place where this man with others surrendered. He was an officer in the rebel army.

Michael O’Hanrahan was tried by General Courts Martial on 3 May 1916. To the charge that he ‘did take part in an armed rebellion and in the waging of war against His Majesty the King,’ the witness, Major J.A. Armstrong, stated: ‘I was present at St. Patrick’s Park on 30 April. The British troops were fired upon and there were several casualties. The fire came from the neighborhood of Jacob’s Factory. The same day a surrender was arranged. I saw the surrender being arranged by Mr. MacDonagh. Over 100 men arrived from Jacob’s Factory as a result of the surrender and another large body arrived from the same direction as a result of the surrender. The accused belonged to one of the parties. He was in uniform and armed. After his removal to Richmond Barracks, he said that he was an officer.’ O’Hanrahan did not call any witnesses in his defense but stated: As a soldier of the Republican army acting under the orders of the Provisional Goverment of that Republic duly constituted, I acted under the orders of my superiors. O’Hanrahan was found guilty and sentenced to death.

The leaders of the Rising were all sentenced to death. Between 4:00 and 4:30 am on 4 May 1916, 39-year old Michael O’Hanrahan was murdered by firing squad in the stonebreaker’s yard at Kilmainham Prison on the same day as Joseph Plunkett, who had married Grace Gifford just hours before; Willy Pearse, brother of Padraic Pearse and Ned Daly, brother-in-law of Tom Clarke. Their remains were buried in Arbour Hill Cemetery. A public outcry against the severity of the sentences for men whose only crime was love of country, turned to revulsion as sixteen of the sentences were hastily and brutally carried out. World opinion weighed in against the executions as well with the result that they were halted and converted to penal servitude for life. Many were sent to concentration camps in both England and Wales. Michael’s brother, Henry, was sentenced to penal servitude for life, but became seriously ill requiring medical care and was let out of prison to die. His sisters Aine (Ciss), Maire and Eily remained involved in Cuman na mBan, the Ladies Auxiliary to the IRA.

The Co. Carlow museum has a section dedicated to their adopted son and in 1919 a Carlow Town based GAA club was founded taking Michael’s name in honour of his role in 1916, while at his birthplace, the Wexford railway station is named in commemoration of O’Hanrahan, as is the road bridge over the River Barrow at New Ross.