Hi from James Durney

James Durney is an Irish author and local historian based in Naas, Co.Kildare, Ireland. He has written a number of books on both Irish and international history. His latest work ‘Irish casualties in the Korean War 1950-53,’ will be launched in Tipperary town on 25 June 2014. James has worked with Irish language national broadcaster, TG4 on the development of their documentary series ‘Mobs Mheiriceá’. He was also consultant and chief researcher on ‘War Stories’ from Irish national broadcaster RTE.

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Six of the best

James Durney

In May 1916 the British War Office confirmed that Private Patrick Preston (29), 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who had been reported missing in action since 24 May 1915, had been confirmed killed in action. A report in the Kildare Observer of 27 May 1916 stated that his widow, Mrs. Mary Preston, had six brothers serving in the British army, two of whom were prisoners of war.

It was not an unusual case in Naas, the home of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, for many male members of a family to be serving in the British military during WWI, but six brothers is a large commitment. Research showed that Mrs. Preston was formerly Mary Doran, Corban’s Lane, Naas. She was the daughter of James and Margaret Doran. When her husband died Margaret married Peter McCann, in 1891. The couple had four children – Peter, Patrick, Eliza and James – while Margaret was also mother to six children by her marriage to James Doran – Michael (1883), Mary Anne (1885), John Joseph (1887), William Joseph (1889) and Thomas (1891).

In total four Doran brothers – Michael, John Joseph, William Joseph and Thomas – and two McCann brothers – Peter and Patrick – were in the British armed forces. Pte. Thomas Doran, 1st Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was wounded on 25 April 1915 during the landings at V Beach, Gallipoli. He was sent back to Exeter Hospital in England, where he composed a tribute to the Dublin Fusiliers, ‘Storming of the Dardanelles,’ which was published in the Kildare Observer of 17 July 1916.

Johnny Doran (Regimental number 8630) and his brother Paddy McCann (11591), serving with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, were captured during the retreat from Mons in August 1914. They were held as prisoners-of-war in Seane Lager Camp, Paderborn, and then moved to Limburg Camp, where they remained until the end of the war. Johnny Doran, lived at Corban’s Lane, with his wife, Mary. He was on the special reserve after twelve years service in the RDF and was called up on the outbreak of the war. In Limburg the brothers desisted recruitment to Roger Casement’s Irish Brigade, which the patriot was hoping to raise to fight for Irish independence.

The Kildare Observer of 31 October 1914 reported that Private Johnny Doran, had written to his wife from Germany. The letter bore the date 11 September, but was only received by Mrs. Doran on 24 October 24. It read:

My dear wife, – I suppose you must be in a bad way since you got no letter from me, but it was not my fault. I would have written long ago, but we are only getting the privilege now. When you receive this letter I want you to send me on a box of cigarettes, as we can’t get any smokes here, as we have no money. (The letter goes on to state that the parcel must be under 10lbs. weight, and contains a request that his wife would send him a home-made cake.) It continues: – I must have some one’s prayer, as so far, I am safe and well. Tell Maggie and Sonnie to pray for me until I return. Please God, it won’t be too long. Tell my mother to send on Paddy (The writer’s step-brother) the same as you will send me. Tell her that Paddy and I are prisoner of war together, and Paddy is all right and in good health. Let me know if you have heard anything about T. Higgins, as I did not see him since I came out. I wish to God the war was over until we get home. – Your loving husband. “John.”

Later on 1 January 1916 John Doran was reported to be at Limburg Camp and wrote this letter to his mother, Margaret McCann:

Dear Mother, I now take the pleasure of dropping you these few lines hoping to find you all in good health, as this leaves me at present and Paddy in the best of health. Dear mother, I was glad to get the fags and shirt, as we had a good smoke. Hope Lizzie is minding little Maggie, as my heart lies in her. Let me know in your next letter if you heard from Tom or B., as we hear they are coming out. I hope not. Tell the old fellow and Bessie and Mary that me and Paddy wish them all a happy Christmas, as we will make ours as best as we can. Hoping to hear from you soon, and thanks to Mrs. Loveband for the parcels. No more at present – from your son, J. Doran. 8630 Pte. J. Doran, English Lager Sennelager, Paderborn, Germany.

There are two Michael Dorans recorded as serving in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers – a sergeant and a private. Two William Dorans are recorded in the Dublin Fusiliers, while there is one William J. Doran recorded in the Royal Engineers. There are three Peter McCanns recorded in the Dublin Fusiliers – two lance-corporals and a sergeant. (Further information is sought on any of the above.)

John Doran died in July 1961 at the age of seventy-five. His two sons, John and Bill, joined the British army and served in WWII. John was known as ‘Mons’ because he was born at the time his father was captured in the retreat from Mons.

Mary Doran married Patrick Preston in Naas on 8 October 1907. Patrick was the son of John and Margaret Preston, of Blessington, Co. Wicklow, and was a serving soldier with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, based in Naas Military Barracks. Some years after her husband’s death, on 20 August 1921, Mary Preston, formely Doran, married Richard Wood. They lived for a time at Rathasker Road, Naas.




We talk of Irish regiments, no wonder why we do,

The Dublins and the Munsters, you’ve heard about those two;

You can see by many papers how Irish blood it tells

The way those famous regiments fought at the Dardanelles.


On the 25th of April, when we did make a start,

We were singing Tipperary, a song that reached our hearts;

The ships were packed with khaki lads, such spirits they did show

To the cry Are we downhearted? We quickly answered No.


We got then into our small boats, this way we were to land,

Then every Tommy could be seen with a woodbine in his hand,

There were boys from Tipperary, from Cork and County Clare,

And the boys from County Dublin and the Short Grass, that’s Kildare.


The Turks they were prepared for us, as one and all could tell,

For about one thousand yards from land we were met with shot and shell;

There were bodies floating through the sea and hundreds on the sand,

But the Turks they suffered terribly when we fought them on the land.


The wounded moaning mercy, it was an awful sight;

Those who got badly wounded were wishing for the night,

And when night came our stretcher boys had lots of work to start,

Collecting bodies, legs and arms, the sight near broke their heart.


The Turks were then retreating, their numbers lost were large;

Our officers say Dublins! We’ll have a bayonet charge.

The charge was done, the Turks they run, our lads in ringing cheers,

I can’t forget those Irish boys – the Dublin Fusiliers.


Before I go, I tell you, be proud and give three cheers.

For those brave fighting Irishmen – the Dublin Fusiliers.


Pte. Thomas Doran, 1st Battn., RDF.

Kildare Observer 17 July 1916


New kildarecover copy

New Publication


Foremost and ready. Kildare and the 1916 Rising

The latest book from James Durney, well-known historian and author, is now available.  It tells the story of Co. Kildare and its involvement in the 1916 Rising, providing a chronological account of the days before, during and after the Easter Rising. This study records Co. Kildare’s huge involvement in these momentous events and reveals a story that has not previously been told using many sources available for the first time, along with eyewitnesses’ testimonies.

On Easter Monday 1916 1,600 men, women and children went out to fight for an independent Ireland. They faced the most powerful empire in the world. The battle raged in Dublin for six days and resulted in 485 deaths and the destruction of many parts of the city. While mainly a Dublin affair many of the Volunteers were from outside the city; two dozen Kildare men and women took part in the Rising, including fifteen who walked from Maynooth to the General Post Office. Several Kildare natives and residents were killed on all sides in the Rising, while dozens more were wounded or imprisoned in the aftermath.

The subsequent execution of the leaders of the Rising awakened a generation to the cause of Irish freedom. In the succeeding War of Independence and Civil War the Kildare men of 1916, including Domhnall Ua Buachalla, Tom Harris, Pat Colgan, Michael Smyth and Éamonn Ó Modhráin, would play their part.

This book is aimed at the general reader or anyone interested in the history of Co. Kildare and the 1916 Rising.  It is a vital source for teachers, students and researchers who are interested in this period of Irish history.



The brothers O’Kelly, Leinster Leader editors

James Durney

Galway-born brothers, Séumas and Michael O’Kelly, were both editors of the Leinster Leader during Ireland’s revolutionary period.  Séumas was editor from 1906-1912, while Michael replaced his brother as editor when Séumas moved to Dublin. Subsequently, when Michael was interned, in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, Séumas briefly replaced him until Michael was released from custody a few weeks later. The editorship of the Leinster Leader was Séumas O’Kelly’s longest single journalistic connection.

Michael O’Kelly was born Michael Kelly, on 18 February 1873, in Loughrea, Co. Galway, to Michael Kelly and his wife, Catherine Fitzgerald. Sponsors were John Fitzgerald and Bridget Morris. Séumas O’Kelly was born James Kelly, in Mobhill, Loughrea, Co. Galway, on 16 November 1875, the youngest of seven children. Sponsors were Martin and Honora Kelly. On 22 October 1905 Catherine Kelly took ill while saying the Stations of the Cross, in Loughrea Cathedral, and died the next day.

Writing in June 1919, in a preface to his brother’s play, The Parnellite, Michael O’Kelly wrote about the origins of the O’Kelly’s:

‘Born at Loughrea, Co. Galway, the early life of Séumas O’Kelly was passed in an environment that strongly permeated all his work. His forebears on the paternal side were for many generations identified with the milling and corn-carrying trade, which in the past flourished between Limerick and Galway … The father of Seumas for many years carried on a prosperous business in Loughrea. Seumas’s mother was Catherine Fitzgerald of Foxhill, in the same locality, a family name now extinct, and only the very old remember the Fitzgeralds of Foxhill, noted for their generous hospitality.’

From the 1880s Loughrea was at the centre of agitation by the Land League’s ‘Plan of Campaign’ on the Clanricarde estate. Many tenants in Loughrea and surrounding rural districts were evicted for non-payment of rent, and Lord Clanricarde resisted their reinstatement until the estate was purchased by special legislation shortly before the Great War. Michael O’Kelly later wrote that his father was ‘one of the sufferers amongst the evicted tenants of the Clanricarde estate,’ and the scenes which Séumas ‘witnessed in his early years left a deep and lasting impression on his mind’. According to one local story the Kellys were evicted from their holding during the Plan of Campaign, though they seemed to have retained a degree of financial stability. Michael Kelly opened a newsagents shop in Loughrea and was able to provide a good level of education for his children.

In the 1901 Census Michael Kelly’s occupation was given as ‘Newsagent.’ His address at Mobhill, Loughrea, was recorded as a shop on the B1 Form. He was sixty years of age and his wife, Catherine (56), and daughter, Nora, (26) are also recorded as being newsagents. Sons Michael (23) and James (21) are recorded as ‘journalists.’ A grandson, Alphonsus Sweeney (8), was also recorded.  Ten years later, in the 1911 Census, Michael (34) had changed his name to O’Kelly and was a boarder in a house on Dublin Road, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. His occupation was given as a journalist and his language proficiency recorded as ‘Irish and English’. In 1911 Séumas was living in Naas, Co. Kildare, in a cottage rented from Mrs. Norton. The census form was completed and signed in Irish with the head of family signature being given as Mícéal Ua Ceallaig (72). Also recorded was Nóra Ní Ceallaig (daughter, aged thirty), Séumas Ua Ceallaig (son, aged twenty-eight) and Alponsus Mac Suibne (nephew, aged ten). Both Mícéal and Séumas are recorded as having ‘gaelig and bearla’, while Nóra and Alponsus have ‘bearla’ only. However, Alponsus Mac Suibne is recorded as being a nephew, so it is obvious that Séumas, and not Mícéal, filled in the census form.

While growing up in Loughrea, Séumas was influenced in his viewpoint by contact with older relatives and country people from whom he learned some Irish and the folklore/storytelling tradition that shaped many of his stories and writings. Much of his writings are recognisably set in Loughrea and the West of Ireland. His strong commitment to Catholicism was acquired from his deeply religious mother and his service as an altar boy with the local Carmelite fathers. Séumas began working as a journalist on local papers, including the Midland Tribune, the Tuam News, and the Connacht Leader. When he took over the Southern Star, based in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, in 1903, he became the youngest newspaper editor in Ireland. Despite his editorship and newspaper experience it took him some time to make any impact as a writer.

Séumas moved to Naas, Co. Kildare, in 1906, to take up the post of editor of the Leinster Leader. He lived first in the town’s Main Street, but then in ‘Abbeyville’ a four-chimney house by the Grand Canal, which provided the inspiration for his linked series of short stories, The Golden Barque. That same year he published his first major work, By the stream of Kilmeen, a collection of short stories and sketches. The following year his one-act comedy, The Matchmakers, was produced by the Theatre of Ireland at the Abbey Theatre. Then came The Flame on the Hearth (1908), but it was not until The Schuller’s Child was presented in 1909, at the Rotunda, that he first experienced popular acclaim.

He brought his father, his sister Nora, and his nephew, Alphonsus Sweeney, to live with him in Naas, in 1907. Meanwhile, he had founded a local branch of the Gaelic League, became an early member of Naas Sinn Féin, and played host to many visitors, including Countess Markievicz, who attended the yearly June commemorations at Wolfe Tone’s grave in nearby Bodenstown. His journalistic career was accompanied by his development as a writer, publishing stories in a variety of outlets, including the Irish Rosary and the Irish Packet. He eventually became master of the short story form.

Séumas had always been nationalistic and conscious of the many injustices in Ireland at the time and was a contributor to the United Irishman, published by Arthur Griffith – who had been a compositor in the Leinster Leader’s rival paper, the Kildare Observer, also published in Naas. Séumas made regular weekend visits to Dublin, where Griffith introduced him to Dublin literary circles, including Seamus O’Sullivan, who described Séumas as ‘a stoutly-built little man … who seemed to me, at first sight, to be the most good-natured-looking person I had ever seen’.

Around 1911, Séumas suffered a severe attack of rheumatic fever, which left him with a chronic heart condition. He continued to write extensively and with increasing skill publishing verse and short stories; he collaborated with Count Casimir de Markievicz on the one-act play Lustre.  Séumas became editor of the Dublin Saturday Evening Post in 1912 and moved to Dublin, where he lived in Drumcondra. His editorship at the Leinster Leader was taken up by his brother, Michael. Séumas attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers, with his nephew, in November 1913, at the Rotunda. Around the same time that he moved to Dublin Séumas began writing a series of Irish sketches for the Manchester Guardian, turning down a permanent job on the paper. Shortly afterwards Miss A. E. Hornridge, the Abbey benefactress, asked him to write a play suitable for an English audience.  He wrote Driftwood, which was produced at the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, in October 1915, and the following January it opened at the Duke of York Theatre, London.

The success of this work prompted London publishers to take note, for the following year Metheun published his first novel The Lady of Deerpark. From that onwards much of his work was published in London and New York and his literary reputation continued to grow. One such work, The Weaver’s Grave,’ is regarded throughout the world as a masterpiece. It is the best-known and most translated and broadcast of O’Kelly’s work.

Séumas O’Kelly left the Evening Post in 1915 because of continuing ill-health. He was offered the editorship of the Sunday Freeman, but had to retire after two weeks and returned to live in Naas, in January 1916. When Michael O’Kelly was arrested and interned after the Easter Rising he resumed the editorship of the Leinster Leader until his brother’s release in June 1916, his work complicated by his having to get all controversial articles passed by the censor in Dublin Castle.

The strongly nationalistic views of editor, Michael O’Kelly, were reflected in the Leinster Leader, especially in reports concerning the British army and its war effort. In October 1914 O’Kelly wrote a long editorial on ‘Ireland and the war’ in which he attacked the ‘unholy lust of capitalism and others’ and argued that Ireland’s quarrel was with Britain and not Germany. He became President of Naas Sinn Féin Club and Officer Commanding Naas Company, Irish Volunteers. In early 1916 a meeting was held in Michael O’Kelly’s home at Gleann na Greine, Naas, to prepare for local action in support of a general rising planned for Easter week. Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order generated huge confusion and very few Volunteers mobilized for action at Easter 1916.

In the aftermath of the Rising there were some local arrests and Michael O’Kelly and his nephew, Alphonsus Sweeney, were among those picked up. O’Kelly was imprisoned in the Glasshouse, at the Curragh and Richmond Barracks, Dublin. He was deported on 8 May and interned in Wandesworth Detention Camp and Wakefield Barracks, England. In early June 1916, after a month in detention, he was released and resumed editorship of the Leinster Leader in August.

Séumas O’Kelly continued to live in Naas until May 1918 when Arthur Griffith was arrested and deported during the German Plot scare. Despite his failing health, Séumas assumed editorship of Nationality. During celebrations after the Armistice of November 1918 a crowd of soldiers and separation women attacked the paper’s premises, which were also the headquarters of Sinn Féin. O’Kelly feebly defended himself with his walking stick, but suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, which led to his death in Jervis Street Nursing Home, Dublin, on 14 November 1918. His funeral to Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, turned into a major political demonstration and his status as a nationalist martyr led to the posthumous publication of many of his works.

The procession which started at noon from the Church of St. Teresa, Clarendon Street, was of imposing proportion, while along the route to the cemetery the streets were thronged with spectators. Previous to the removal of the remains from the church Requiem Mass for the spiritual repose of the deceased was celebrated by his brother, the Rev. Father Alphonsus O’Kelly, O.D.C. Wreathes were received from the Sinn Fein Executive, the staff of Nationality, the staff of the Leinster Leader, the Co. Kildare Gaelic League Executive, and Naas (Seán Connolly) Sinn Fein Club. The fife and drum band of the Dublin Builders’ United Labourers’ Trades Union, the Ashbourne Irish pipers’ band and the Sinn Féin Irish pipers’ band played slow music as the funeral wended its way through principal streets of the city. In the cortege were Cumann na mBan and other women’s organizations, Sinn Fein clubs, Fianna boys, Gaelic Leaguers, and the general public. The pathways in the cemetery were lined by Volunteers, who were formally dismissed by their officers, when the internment had been completed. Some two hundred police were stationed in the vicinity of Glasnevin.

Séumas O’Kelly was unmarried, but he is said to have cherished a hopeless passion for the actress and republican activist, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh (Mary Walker), for whom he wrote the play, The Shuiler’s Child (1909). She was a founder member of the Abbey theatre and was leading lady on its opening night in 1904. As a member of Cumann na mBan Nic Shiubhlaigh was at Jacob’s Factory in Easter Week 1916. She married former IRA Director of Organisation, Eamon Price, in 1929, and died in 1958.

Michael O’Kelly remained a prominent republican activist throughout the revolutionary period. At Naas Petty Sessions he was sentenced to a week in Mountjoy Jail, in March 1918, for ‘unlawfully’ selling potatoes without having a licence from the British Food Controller. After the evidence was given Michael O’Kelly said, ‘I do not recognise the jurisdiction of this court at all. I am a citizen and soldier of the Irish Republic, and don’t recognise this court.’ O’Kelly was interned in the Rath Camp in 1921 until the General Amnesty in December; he was interned again during the Civil War, in Newbridge Barracks, in 1923.

In later life he moved to Dublin and worked with the Irish Independent. He lived at 76 Upper George’s Street, Dun Laoghaire. Michael O’Kelly died in December 1955, aged eighty-two. His funeral took place to Glasnevin Cemetery, following Requiem Mass in the Church of St. Teresa, Clarendon Street, from where his brother’s remains had left thirty-seven years earlier. Military honours were accorded by a unit of the Defence Forces; Naas Company, Old IRA, was represented by a former comrade, Patrick O’Carroll. The attendance included his nephew, Alphonsus Sweeney (Dun Laoghaire), and M. F. Linnane, Chief Reporter for the Irish Independent.

Unfortunately, Séumas O’Kelly has been neglected in his own country, whereas abroad he has been the subject of thesis, treatise and translation. It was only many years after his death that Séumas O’Kelly received greater eminence than he received when he was alive. The twenty-fifth and fiftieth anniversaries of his death saw various commemorations in his honour. In 1968 a short-lived ‘Séumas O’Kelly Society’ was formed, in Dublin, to perpetuate his memory. The following year on 5 December 1970 Gill and Macmillan published A land of loneliness, a select body of O’Kelly’s writings edited and introduced by Eamonn Grennan, of Harvard University. George Brandon Saul penned a monograph for ‘The Irish Writers Series’ (Bucknell University Press, 1971). Seumas O’Kelly is remembered too, in Naas, with a plaque on Leinster Leader house on which there is inscribed the tribute: ‘A gentle revolutionary.’


Theobald Wolfe Tone, Irish patriot

James Durney

Theobald Wolfe Tone was born on 20 June 1763 at St. Bride’s Street, Dublin, but spent his childhood at Stafford Street (now Wolfe Tone Street), in Dublin. His father, Peter Tone, was born at Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, on the estate of the barrister and politician Theobald Wolfe, Tone’s godfather. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Tone was called to the Bar in 1789, but was more interested in politics. When Tone published an argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland under the pseudonym ‘A Northern Whig,’ he was invited to Belfast to assist in founding the Society of United Irishmen, which first met on 18 October 1791. A Dublin society was formed a month later. At the start the society drew its support from Presbyterians in Ulster, and from Protestants and liberals seeking parliamentary reform. There were others like Wolfe Tone, who inspired by the French Revolution, sought to establish a republic. As he later wrote, he sought to break the connection with England, and ‘to substitute the common name of Irishmen, in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’.

In April 1794, Rev. William Jackson, arrived in Ireland to assess for the French government the likely success of a French invasion. Tone unwisely wrote a memorandum for him; when Jackson was betrayed and arrested, Tone was fortunate to escape arrest and prosecution. He was allowed to sell his possessions in Ireland (a cottage on an acre of land near Bodenstown) and exile himself to America. Tone arrived in Wilmington, Delaware, on 1 August 1795, with his wife, Matilda, their children and his brother, Arthur, and sister, Mary. He purchased a farm of some 180 acres near Princeton, New Jersey, but left the following year after the French minister in Philadelphia encouraged Tone to take his invasion plan to revolutionary France.

An invasion fleet left Brest in December 1796, but bad weather prevented a landing. Tone persuaded the French into new expeditions, but by the time General Jean Humbert landed in Co. Mayo in August 1798, the United Irishmen’s rising in Ulster and Leinster had failed. The repressive measures by the Crown had driven Ireland into revolt in May 1798, but the rising was suppressed with great savagery and the United Irish movement destroyed.

Gen. Humbert was soon defeated, and Tone was captured aboard a French ship in Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal, on 12 October. At his trial in Dublin he admitted treason and, when his request to be shot as a soldier, rather than be hanged, was refused, Tone cut his own throat on 12 November, dying in prison on 19 November 1798. His body was brought from Dublin to Naas, Co. Kildare, where legend has it he was waked in a house belonging to his cousins, the Dunbavins, on the Sallins Road. Theobald Wolfe Tone was buried in the family plot at Bodenstown Cemetery, outside Sallins, Co. Kildare, on 21 November 1798. Only two people were present, one of them his cousin, William Dunbavin. Matilda Tone died on 18 March 1849 at Georgetown. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

The ideals of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen continued to be a potent force in Irish history. From 1842 his grave in Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, has become a place of pilgrimage for nationalists and republicans.


William Ponsonby at the Battle of Waterloo

James Durney

An aquatint drawn by Manskirch and engraved by M. Duourg (1817), titled the ‘Death of Major General Sir William Ponsonby, 1815,’ shows the fatally wounded Irish general on the ground surrounded by enemy lancers. William Ponsonby commanded the Union Cavalry Brigade at the battle of Waterloo. He rode too far after their charge against Marshall Drouet D’Erlon’s I Corps. His horse became mired in mud near the enemy lines and he was killed by Polish lancers during a French counter-attack.

William Ponsonby was born on 13 October 1772, the second son of William Brabazon Ponsonby, 1st Baron Ponsonby, and his wife Louisa (née Molesworth) fourth daughter of Richard, 3rd Viscount Molesworth. After attending Eton and Kilkenny College, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1795. Commissioned into the 83rd Foot, he was promoted to captain, and then major, in the Royal Irish Fencibles (1794). He transferred to the 5th Dragoon Guards in 1798 and was promoted to lieutenant-colonel two years later. His family’s political influence contributed to his rapid military advancement.

His Dublin-born father, William Brabazon Ponsonby, was a landowner, MP, and speaker of the Irish House of Commons. He was a leading opponent of the union and voted against it in 1799 and 1800. During his career William Ponsonby was MP for Bandon Bridge, Co. Cork (1776), and also MP for Co. Kilkenny (1783). He retained his Kilkenny seat until he was raised to the peerage in 1806. A keen horseman and foxhunter William Brabazon Ponsonby kept what was perhaps the best hunting establishment in Ireland at his seat in Bishopscourt, Co. Kildare.

Bishopscourt was once owned by the Bishops of Kildare and came into the hands of the Ponsonbys when Sahara Charlemont married Brabazon Ponsonby, 1st Earl of Bessborough. John Ponsonby, who succeeded to the estate on the death of his father, was a leading Irish politician of his day. He entered Parliament in 1739 and was later elected Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Apart from taking a prominent part in the political welfare of the country he was also a keen sportsman, and kept the finest pack of hounds in Ireland at that time, which were known as ‘the Bishopscourt Hunt.’ It seems that the ownership of Bishopscourt passed to Frederick, the youngest of the five Ponsonby brothers.

Young William Ponsonby was also MP for Bandon Bridge (1796-7), and Fethard, Co. Tipperary, which he held from 1797 until the Act of Union in 1801, and Co. Londonderry (1812-15). His main residence was at Goldsmith’s Hall, Co. Londonderry. Despite his military commission, he followed the family line and voted against the act of union in 1799 and 1800. In 1811, as colonel, he took his regiment to Spain, where he was present at numerous actions and played a prominent part in the victory at Salamanca (22 July 1812). He became a brigade commander and was promoted to major-general but took leave of his brigade in France in January 1814.

The French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, had subverted the idealism of the French Revolution and transformed its republican government into a dictatorship run by himself. However, he posed a threat to the whole European order and was forced to abdicate in 1814 and exiled to the island of Elba. Napoleon escaped the following year and returned to France in triumph. He staked all on one last desperate gamble. A European alliance called the immediate mobilization of the Continental armies and Britain’s greatest military commander, the Duke of Wellington, was appointed commanding officer. Arthur Wesley (the family later changed the name to Wellesley), the Duke of Wellington, was born in Ireland in 1769. His father was a descendant of an English family that had lived in Ireland for generations. The Wellesley’s country house was Dangan Castle, in Co. Meath, and their town house in Dublin’s Upper Merrion Street. The family also owned thousands of acres of land in Meath and Kildare.

On 13 June 1815 Napoleon crossed the Belgian frontier making for Charleroi. His aim was to defeat Field-Marshal Gebhard Blϋcher’s army of 120,000 men and drive him to retreat eastwards; he would then turn on Wellington before entering Brussels. Napoleon hoped for a Belgian rising – the Belgians were pro-French and hostile to the Dutch alliance – a France united behind him, the fall of the Tory government in England, and that his father-in-law, the Austrian Emperor, deprived of British subsidies, would sue for peace.

The French attacked Blϋcher’s Prussians at Ligny driving them from the field with heavy loss and sending them in retreat eastward towards Wavre. Napoleon detached Marshal Grouchy with 30,000 men to follow the Prussians while he dealt with Wellington. The two armies met at Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Having thrashed the Prussians Napoleon was confident that he would finish off Wellington’s Allied army on the day and be in Brussels by nightfall.

The British contingent of 34,000 men was part of a massive Coalition army that included Dutch, Belgian and Prussian troops. At that time between 30 and 40 per cent of the British line regiments were Irish, so on this basis at least 10,000 Irishmen stood on the battlefield at Waterloo. During the Waterloo campaign Irishman William Ponsonby commanded the Union Brigade, so called because it was made up of English, Scottish and Irish regiments – the 1st Royal Dragoons, the Scots Greys, and the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. He wrote a letter to his mother, Louisa, seven days before the fatal battle:

‘… There seems to be in England a decided feeling for war & perfect confidence as to the successful result. How far this confidence is well founded a few months will show. Bonaparte will certainly have need of all his extraordinary abilities to resist the immense force about to attack him & I should think it impossible for him to do so, unless he is backed by the cordial & nearly general support of the population of France… The Duke of Wellington, however, considers himself very strong & is very confident…’

Early in the battle Ponsonby’s Union Brigade were bunched together in close columns to the left of the Brussels road when shot and shell began to wreck havoc among them. They had only moved position to avoid cannon fire bouncing over the ridge and a frustrated William Ponsonby yelled, ‘Greys, they have found us again!’ The cavalry dispersed into open columns of half squadrons to reduce vulnerability, but it was in vain as the cannon continued to seek them out.

Around 2 pm the Union Brigade made a dramatic charge which routed the remains of D’Erlon’s I Corps. Carried away by their initial success the brigade continued on across the valley and seized two French batteries, but their momentum began to peter out as they crossed the bottom of the valley basin, which was slippery with deep mud. Some horses sank to their knees as they crossed the edge of a ploughed field, but the cavalry struggled on until they were right into the French gunners hacking them down left and right. The British officers quickly lost control of their men, whose bloodlust was up. Major de Lacy Evans, extra aide-de-camp (ADC) to General Ponsonby, recalled, ‘The enemy fled as a flock of sheep across the valley, quite at the mercy of the Dragoons. In fact, our men were out of hand. The General of the Brigade, his staff, and every officer within hearing, exerted themselves to the utmost to reform the men. The helplessness of the enemy offered too great a temptation to the dragoons, and our efforts were abortive.’

From his vantage point Napoleon watched the Scots Greys plunging into the French gun line. ‘These terrible Greys,’ he conceded with some awe, ‘how theyfight!’ But Napoleon saw the confusion, and sent two regiments of Cuirassiers and one of Polish Lancers to attack the disordered cavalry.

The Union Brigade had advanced too far and by this time their horses were completely exhausted. A high price would be exacted for their recklessness. They fled in disorder as the French cavalry counter-attacked, vainly trying to fight their way out of a trap. Nearly 2,400 French lancers and cuirassiers, on fresh horses, rode into the disorganized and exhausted British cavalry. The Union Brigade suffered 617 casualties out of 1,186 men, being effectively destroyed, and played no further part in the battle. Ponsonby, like many of his men, rode too far and his horse became bogged down in the heavy ground. Realising that he would be overtaken he called out to his ADC to take his watch and a miniature portrait of his wife. He was set upon by Polish Lancers, who recognizing his rank and worth as a prisoner beckoned him to surrender. However, when a group of Ponsonby’s own Union Brigade spotted him and rode to his rescue, the Lancers were left with no option but to kill him. Both Ponsonby and his ADC were speared on the spot.

Colonel Bro de Commères, leading the 4th French Lancers in the counterattack, said, ‘Sergeant Urban killed General Ponsonby with a lance thrust. My sabre cut down three of his captains. Two others were able to flee.’

Several survivors later reported passing William Ponsonby as he lay dead in the mud, still clutching the miniature portrait of his wife. His body was afterwards found with seven wounds, over which his faithful charger kept guard. The Union Brigade again encountered the Polish Lancers, almost every one of whom was killed, so that their commander did not fall un-avenged.

The Duke of Wellington in his report on the battle expressed his ‘grief for the fate of an officer who had already rendered very brilliant and important services, and was an ornament to his profession’. Ponsonby’s remains were returned to England and were buried in the Molesworth family vault in Kensington. A memorial was erected to him in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. There is a small collection of his papers in the National Archives (Kew). A son, William, was born some months later. He succeeded his uncle, John Ponsonby, as 3rd Baron Ponsonby.

William Ponsonby’s death highlighted some pertinent points about cavalry charging, but it also occurred because of a simple enough matter. According to some accounts, on the morning of the battle the groom in charge of Ponsonby’s best horse, a chestnut charger, could not be found. Other accounts state that Ponsonby deliberately did not take his best horse, as it was worth more than the government compensation price that he would have been paid if it were killed. Instead he chose a small black bay. It is certain, however, that he went into battle on an inferior mount, and this proved a fatal choice.

A second cousin, Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, son of the 3rd Earl of Bessborough and Henrietta Spencer, also fought at the Battle of Waterloo. He commanded the 12th Dragoons and was sabred from his horse, then speared by a passing lancer. As he lay severely wounded on the battlefield Ponsonby was robbed of valuables on several occasions, used as a makeshift firing platform by a French skirmisher and rode over by Prussian cavalry. ‘I thought the night would never end,’ he remembered. At last he saw an English soldier from the 40th Foot who had lost his regiment. Ponsonby offered him a reward if he would stand guard over him. The soldier picked up a discarded sword and stood over him until help arrived. Frederick Ponsonby survived his wounds and later became a major-general. He died in Basingstoke, in 1837.

Frederick Ponsonby, fifth son of William Brabazon, and the last of the family, died in 1849, and was buried in the little graveyard on Oughterard Hill. He was the last master of the famous Bishopscourt Hounds and had retired to Dublin after selling Bishopscourt to pay his brother’s debts. The bridge over the Grand Canal at Baronrath, Straffan, is named after the family and is known as ‘Ponsonby Bridge.’

It is stated in old family documents that Sir William Ponsonby’s faithful horse which had remained with him on the battlefield, was brought back to Bishopscourt after the battle of Waterloo. Captain Gerald Ponsonby, who wrote a paper ‘Bishopscourt and its owners,’ for the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society (1915) stated: ‘There is an old man still living in County Kildare who says his grandfather remembered the groom bringing Sir William’s charger back to Bishopscourt after the battle.’

Gerald Ponsonby also recalled an old man named Curran, a resident of Kill village, singing a song at a Tea Party given at Palmerstown House, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, in 1887. The song described a run of the hounds, in which Sir William Ponsonby, the then Master of the Bishopscourt Hunt, followed the hounds, swimming his horse across the Liffey, at Poulaphouca.


Robert Charles Hepburn in the Spanish Civil war

James Durney

Only two Kildaremen fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War – Frank Conroy and Robert Charles Hepburn. Frank Conroy was killed in action on 28 December 1936, two weeks after arriving in Spain, while Robert Hepburn had a more discomfiting military career.

Robert Charles Hepburn was born in Kildare Town on 13 March 1913, the son of Charles Hepburn and Rosalie Henshaw. Charles Hepburn was born in Co. Antrim in 1883 and in 1901 and 1911 was living in McClean’s Lane, South Dock, Dublin. His trade was recorded as a carpenter and his religion as Church of Ireland. Mary Rosalie Henshaw was the daughter of James and Rebecca Henshaw, from Co. Clare. James Henshaw was a bricklayer from Scariff, Co. Clare. A Roman Catholic, James married Rebecca Pidgon, who was twelve years his senior and Church of Ireland, in 1891. They had three children – James, Rebecca and Rosalie. In the 1911 census all the children are recorded as being Irish Church, but Rosalie was baptized as a Catholic. She was born in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, in 1895, and in 1911 was recorded as a domestic servant. James was born in Carlow, while Rebecca was born in Dublin. James Henshaw obviously travelled wherever he could find work and in 1911 is living in Stafford Street, on Dublin’s northside. Two years later the family were living in Kildare Town where Robert Charles Hepburn was born. Charles Hepburn’s profession was recorded as a carpenter.

At eighteen years of age Robert Charles Hepburn joined the British Army and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1931-34. His Irish address was given as 78 Iveagh Gardens, Crumlin, Dublin, and his trade as a tailor’s presser.  He arrived in Spain from London on 6 February 1937 and was sent to the Jarama front twelve days later. Three days of fighting from 12-14 February had dealt the British Battalion, of the International Brigade, a near-mortal blow. Of the 630 men who had gone into action on 12 February, only eighty or so were left unscathed when the battle ended three days later. To help replenish the battalion’s numbers, some eighty new volunteers from Madirueras were rushed to the front, even though most of them were yet to receive training.  Some had not even handled a rifle. At the front morale was at an all-time low. Heavy casualties, lack of sleep, bad food and constant living in unsanitary conditions at the front took its toll on the British and Irish volunteers and there were many desertions.

Robert Hepburn suffered a nervous breakdown after six days at the front and was sent to the cook-house to rest. After a week he refused to return to the front and battalion commander, Captain Jock Cunningham, sent him to the base at Albacete for a medical examination. Doctors found him fit for the front, but Hepburn still refused to return and was arrested on 3 March 1937. Sentenced two days later to one month in the labour battalion on 8 March he requested to return to his unit in the line. Hepburn served in an anti-aircraft unit, but soon deserted. He was caught on a ship in Alicante in June 1937 and sent back to the International Brigade at Brunete and then for punishment to Camp Lukacs. The camp had been established in order to offer deserters an opportunity for rehabilitation, as an alternative to more draconian forms of discipline. However, most volunteers said it was more like a prison camp. Hepburn was in Denia Hospital in late June 1938 and was proposed for repatriation before the withdrawal of the International Brigade in September 1938. He deserted again by stowing aboard the S.S. Wisconsin in Alicante and landed at Marseilles on 18 July 1938. Hepburn was repatriated home with the help of the Irish Legation and British Embassy in Paris.


John Devoy. Forgotten hero, unrepentant rebel

By James Durney

In 1865 James Stephens, the founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), appointed John Devoy Chief Organiser of the Fenians in the British army. John Devoy was born at Greenhills, between Kill and Johnstown, near Naas, in 1842. His father was a tenant on the nearby Palmerstown estate and John Devoy attended school in Kill village. His maternal grandfather, John Dunne, took part in the Battle of Naas, during the 1798 Rebellion, when 350 rebels captured an artillery piece, forcing the British to retreat to Ballymore-Eustace.

John Devoy joined the French Foreign Legion when he was nineteen to gain military experience. He was posted to Algeria, but deserted a year later and returned to Ireland, joining the IRB, or as it was commonly known, the Fenian Brotherhood. Devoy concentrated on the Dublin barracks and the Curragh Camp, recruiting hundreds of men into the Fenians. Of the 26,000 regular troops stationed in Ireland, sixty per cent were Irish with an estimated 8,000 of these being Fenians. Of the militia force of 12,000, half were Fenians, while the army in England had some 7,000 men bound by the Fenian oath. Devoy based all his hopes of a successful insurrection on a mutiny in the British army. He argued that lack of arms and trained men were the cause of past failures. Now, there were many inadequately guarded arsenals and thousands of well-trained soldiers ready to change sides.

In 1865, the Fenians began preparing for a rebellion. They had about 6,000 firearms and had as many as 50,000 men willing to fight. In September 1865, the British moved to close down the Fenians’ newspaper The Irish People and arrested much of the leadership, including James Stephens and Thomas Clarke Luby. In 1866, habeas corpus was suspended in Ireland and there were hundreds more arrests of Fenian activists, among them John Devoy. The rising took place in 1867, but it proved unco-ordinated and fizzled out in a series of skirmishes. When it became apparent that the rising that had been planned was not transpiring, most rebels simply went home.

Sentenced to fifteen years John Devoy served five years until an amnesty in 1871 allowed him to leave for America. With four other pardoned men,Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Henry Mulleda, Charles Underwood O’Connell and John McClure, he received an address of welcome from the US House of Representatives. Devoy became a journalist for the New York Herald and was active in the secret Clan Na Gael (Family of the Irish).  Under Devoy’s leadership, Clan na Gael became the most important Irish republican organisation in the United States and Ireland. He aligned the organisation with the IRB in 1877. Barred from returning to Ireland Devoy travelled to Europe, where he conferred with Charles Stewart Parnell in Boulogne. A basis for the New Departure was reached and at subsequent meetings details were planned and implemented. Devoy and Michael Davitt planned the Land League, which organised rent strikes and agitation on estates throughout the country. By 1880, the New Departure was in full swing: Parnell, Davitt and Devoy rallying Home Rulers, Land Leaguers and Fenians in a united camp.

Devoy lived in New York and had important allies among the Irish-American community. From the moment he woke up in the morning until he slept at night John Devoy worked tirelessly for the cause of Irish freedom. In his offices of the Gaelic American, where he was editor from 1903 to his death, he wrote letters and articles and stoked in every way possible his hatred for England. He organised the Catalpa escape; assisted in fund-raising efforts for the Irish Volunteers and other Irish organisations; and negotiated for arms from Germany for the 1916 Rising. A tough pragmatic man, Devoy argued with Éamon de Valera when he arrived in America in 1919 to secure funding during the Irish War of Independence.

Devoy later supported the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty and the formative Irish Free State. As an honoured guest of the Irish Free State in July 1924, he visited Naas and his birthplace near Kill.John Devoy died in New York City on 29 September 1928, aged eighty-six. His body was returned to Ireland and buried with full honours in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery on 26 June 1929. The Times of London, the voice of the British establishment, unwittingly saluted John Devoy by saying he was ‘the most bitter and persistent, as well as the most dangerous, enemy of this country which Ireland has produced since Wolfe Tone’.