A stone’s throw from my pirate ship is another local landmark that has fascinated me since childhood.
As you leave Saltmills village (heading towards Wellingtonbridge) and turn down the road for St. Kearn’s, there is a headstone erected on the roadside in memory of some IRA men who died there in 1920.
I can remember asking my grandmother what had happened to them and she told me they had died in an explosion while building bombs (although it seems crass to say it now, my young mind processed that as “they blew themselves up”).
I was immediately captivated. Bombs, explosions…those sorts of things happen in Bruce Willis movies, not in sleepy Irish villages where the big events of the year usually revolve around religious happenings, harvests or the lambing season.
I always wanted to know more but time moved on, I grew up, got distracted and sort of forgot about it.
Quite by chance, a few months ago I was looking around the internet for something entirely different when I struck gold – an account of the explosion BY SOMEONE WHO WAS THERE! I was quite stunned – I didn’t know such things existed – but quickly started reading.
Michael Conway from Curraghmore joined the Ballycullane Company of the Irish Volunteers in 1917 and was one of 14 men in St. Kearns on that fateful night. On October 12 1920, the men had gathered in an old, unoccupied house to make bombs to attack Foulksmills and New Ross RIC barracks. They had a range of explosives, including tonite and gelignite, a quantity of detonators and some bombs that had been prepared already.
“My job was cutting the wire off the detonators. I was using a pliers. I had finished my work and we were about to knock off for the night. Another Volunteer was also engaged cutting the wires off the detonators. He was using a penknife. He cut the wire too short off one of the detonators. It struck fire in his hand and he dropped it on to the floor. I was standing up at this time.
“I heard a report like a revolver shot. Then I saw a blue flame sweeping across the house. The next thing I heard was Captain John Timmins shouting, ‘Run men, we will all be killed.’ Almost immediately a terrific explosion occurred . I thought I was split from the top of my head down. The roof was blown up and landed some fields away.
“I was blown up too and I thought I was up to the stars and when I came down again I fell on a tree which was growing at one end of the house. The bough broke with me and it broke my fall into the house again, and stones from the wall fell on me. I was at this time almost unconscious. When I came to a little I heard great moaning. I was smothering from gas and was gasping for breath. I was naked as my clothes had been burned off me and I was red with blood. All that was left on me were my two boots and they were badly tattered.
“With the help of other men I dragged myself out from under the stones and I was laid on the green sod. John Timmins, our company captain, spoke to me and asked what way I was. He said ‘when you were not killed you were alright. We will go some place to see if we can get a priest; I am bleeding to death’.”
As can be seen by the monument, Capt. Timmins survived the blast, though five others were not so fortunate, and Michael Conway’s account describes the local effort to help the injured, dying and dead as well as what happened once the authorities got their hands on the survivors. Joseph McCarthy, 1st Lieutenant of the New Ross Company and Vice-Commandant of the New Ross Battalion, also gives an account of the explosion and its aftermath.
These are just two of 1,773 witness statements in the Bureau of Military History Collection which was compiled by the State between 1947 and 1957 in order to create a treasure chest of primary source material relating to Ireland’s tempestuous, revolutionary years of 1913 to 1921.
I take my hat off to the people who had the foresight to create this collection. It is an unbelievably gripping resource to which you will lose hours of your life! Aside from the stories of Wexford Volunteers (which were real eye-openers as there was an awful lot more going on in these parts than you’d imagine), there are statements from those connected with some of the biggest events of the time, including signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Robert Barton; the widow of Eamonn Ceannt, sister of Edward Daly and brother of Michael Mallin (all executed in 1916); members of ‘The Squad’, Charles Dalton and Patrick Lawson; and Eithne Lawless, one-time secretary to Michael Collins.
I wish I’d had a resource like this available to me back when I was studying for my history degree. Actually, maybe not – I would have been so distracted by and engrossed in these records that I probably wouldn’t have gotten much actual course work done!