There was a resurgence of Gaelic revival towards the end of the 19th century. The Gaelic Athletic Association was set up in 1884 to promote and preserve native sports. Within a decade the Gaelic League was founded to propagate the Irish language. The wave of patriotism these movements generated paved the way for Sinn Fein, which was set up in 1905. John Hoey in his Irish History wrote 'Sinn Fein adopted the indigenous language of the country and used it as a weapon against the English occupation of Ireland.'
The first branch of the Gaelic League in these parts was formed in Barnesmore only months after the organisation was founded. Language classes were held twice weekly in the national school. Branches were set up later in Tawnawilly and Donegal Town. The inaugural meeting of the Tawnawilly branch was attended by Fr. Cassidy, Fr. Ward, P.M. Gallagher (solicitor), Seamus Mac Manus well known folklorist and author, Conaill Ward, John Bonner N.T. and Tully Slevin. P.M. Gallagher was also the motivating spirit behind the town branch.
The Gaelic League had widespread acceptance and was supported by Protestants as well as Catholics. Patrick Pearse came to Donegal Town in 1907 to promote the spread of the language. He expressed delight at the reception he received from the parish priest Father McFadden who wished the Gaelic League every success, which Pearse felt 'could not come soon enough from a town steeped in Anglicisation'.In the same year in reply to a correspondent in the League's journal An Claidheamh Soluis who averted to the fact that Tirconaill's first feis was to be held later that month in Letterkenny he said that this was not correct as he himself could remember three feisanna being held close to Donegal at Tawnawilly, Barnesmore and Frosses.The Tawnawilly feis to which Pearse referred was organised by Eithne Carberry and a small committee in 1898. The committee included local school teacher John Bonner who was a dedicated language enthusiast and worker in the cause of Gaelic revival. Eithne Carberry was the pen name used by Belfast born Anna Johnston, patriot and poetess, who with her friend Alice Milligan, set up the strongly nationalist magazine Shan Van Vocht. One of the regular contributors to the magazine was Seamus Mac Manus who married Eithne in 1901, they set up home in Revlin, Donegal Town, in the house now occupied by Dr. John McHardy. Alas, her time in Donegal was short lived. She became ill and died in April 1902, only one year after their marriage. Her premature death was a great loss not only to the literary world but also to the Gaelic revival movement. One of John Bonner's young daughters inspired Eithne Carberry to write her well known poem Little Head of Curls.
In the early years of this century there was little political activity in these parts. The days of evictions were gone, the agrarian struggle had become less volatile in the wake of land reforms, and an act of parliament had advanced Irish farmers a loan of one hundred million pounds to help them buy out their lands. Home Rule was now the dominant issue and both major factions, the United League which embraced all the parliamentary parties, and Sinn Fein were striving for Home Rule... although they both differed in how this ought to be achieved. Sinn Fein advocated a complete break with England and were prepared to use physical force if necessary. The others believed in negotiating with England and this achieved a measure of success when Westminster granted Home Rule with Dominion status for twenty six counties in 1914. The Great War broke out that year and the measure was suspended.Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionists and the Orange Order had come together to oppose Home Rule and prepared the Ulster Covenant which called on all unionists to support 'all means which may be necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up Home Rule in Ireland'. This document was circulated widely in Donegal.Sir Edward Carson founded the Ulster Volunteers, an armed force, to implement the covenant and defeat Home Rule. As a counter measure to this, the Irish Volunteers were formed in 1913. Major Joe Sweeney, Dungloe, who fought with Pearse during Easter Week, writing in the Donegal Annual in 1966 said that the Irish Volunteer movement was taken up enthusiastically by the A.O.H. When Redmond called for young Irishmen to join the Allies and fight 'for the freedom of small nations' he also was supported by the A.O.H. Redmond¹s action caused a split in the Volunteers and the A.O.H. found themselves at odds with the movement they helped to create only months earlier. This led to bitter recrimination between the Hibernians and Sinn Fein which continued long after the Treaty, and in some cases never healed.At the time of the split, membership of the Volunteer Movement had increased greatly and morale was high. Speaking at a meeting in Dungloe in 1914 Patrick Pearse urged young men to join adding that in serving their country they would be doing a service which citizens in every land rendered to their own country. However, he added, it was a service Ireland had not rendered for one hundred years.
The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 saw intensive recruiting in this area for the British Army. Bands and propaganda films were used at meetings held in the town. These meetings were usually addressed from the balcony of Hastings Hotel (now the Bank of Ireland premises) which was owned by Captain Patrick Hastings, a retired British Army Officer. Lord Kitchener took part in one of these campaigns at which Sir Shane Leslie threatened that unless they got 40,000 recruits from Ireland conscription would be enforced.In fact 42,000 young men from Southern Ireland joined up and many of them including many local boys made the supreme sacrifice. Dr. H. T. Warnock, local G.P. presided at the meetings. The threat of conscription brought all nationally minded people together and meetings of protest were held all over the country. This brought forth another covenant, the National Pledge which read, 'Denying the right of the British Government to enforce compulsory service in this country, we pledge ourselves solemnly one to another to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal'. This pledge was signed by nationalists outside churches and at monster meetings in every part of the country.One of the most successful Anti-Conscription meetings in this area was held outside Clar Chapel. It was addressed by members of the U.N.L., Sinn Fein and A.O.H. One of the speakers Mr. James Dunleavy, a prominent local solicitor, said they were in a union of strength against the most abominable government they had been forced to live under for years and that the people were under no moral obligation to obey the law. During the war the parliamentary parties appeared to have little political initiative, while on the other hand Sinn Fein pursued a vigorous role which very often resulted in its members falling foul of the establishment. An example of how far the members were prepared to go to uphold their views is illustrated in the following incident: During the war British soldiers often marched from their barracks in Buncrana to Finner Camp, resting overnight at Barnes. For recreation they would hold a camp dance to which they invited local girls. One night while the dance was in progress Richard Bonner who was a prominent member of Sinn Fein, accompanied by a few others marched to the camp and protested to the girls for fraternising with the soldiers. The girls were ordered home and that was the end of the camp dances in Barnesmore.Horrible though the war was it was eclipsed here in Ireland by the Rising of 1916 and the revulsion created by the British Government's execution of fifteen leaders of the Rising, including Patrick Pearse.Although the Rising was a military failure (Major Joe Sweeney is on record as saying that they never had a hope of military victory) it nevertheless achieved success beyond all expectation. For it set alight a flame that engulfed the whole country and eventually brought about Independence for twenty six of the thirty two counties but not before a long drawn out guerrilla war had vindicated Pearse and his comrades. And four years later when Sinn Fein gained control of the District Council and Board of Guardians at the Local Government Elections one of their first acts was to expunge from the records a resolution passed by the Donegal Board of Guardians in 1916 condemning the Rising.
The extract was torn from the minute book and burned.Donegal played its part in the struggle. A big number of young men joined the newly revived Volunteer movement, while many of the women gave expression to their patriotic allegiance by joining Cumann na mBan. The English reply was to increase the R.I.C. presence in the barracks in Bridge Street and bring in a unit of the dreaded Black and Tans. Troops were billeted in a wing of the workhouse. In the tradition of guerrillas the volunteers carried on with their work during the day and became freedom fighters at night.Meanwhile, Sinn Fein were gaining strength and taking their policy direct to the people. In order to have a base for their operations they built a hall in Tirconaill Street where they held their meetings, language classes etc. This building was later burnt down by the Black and Tans during the reprisals. The Comrades of the Great War erected a hut on the green in Bridge Street which they used as a leisure centre. In March 1922 this hut was commandeered by the I.R.A. who held it for a time before evacuating it prior to its sale. Sinn Fein bought it for £31. It was sold some years later to Mr. Jim McGahern who along with his partner Mr. James Dunleavy used it as a furniture sales depot. It was later acquired by Messers. Tommy McGroarty and Jim Timony who subsequently sold it to the present owner Mr. Stephen McPhilemy in 1975 for £6,000. The Hut, as it is familiarly known continues to be used for furniture sales.
Needless to say it has undergone significant renovation since the days when it was used for dancing.In February 1918 Eamonn de Valera, Sean McEntee and Fionan Lynch visited Donegal Town. They were met at the railway station by P.M. Gallagher and P. J. Ward who led them to the Diamond with an escort of twelve horsemen and an estimated eight hundred Volunteers, many of them in uniform. Mr. de Valera said they would settle for nothing less than an Independent Republic. He was to be reminded of this promise many years later by his former I.R.A. comrades when he entered Dail Eireann. John Redmond referred to this meeting sometime later and said that de Valera had failed to make any impression on the people of Donegal 'to convert them to his somewhat indifferent programme'. Redmond misread the feeling of the people. Later that year Sinn Fein had a sweeping victory in the general election. They gained seventy three seats against six for the Parliamentary Party. The local Sinn Fein candidate P. J. Ward headed the poll and got over a thousand votes more than his opponent John T. Donovan. Mr. Ward was the father of Mr. John Ward who operates an extensive legal practice in Quay Street, Donegal Town.Despite the great victory of Sinn Fein the voice of the people was ignored by England and harassment was kept up. Homes were raided daily and young men rounded up and put in gaol. Despite being an M.P. Mr. Ward was subjected to the same treatment and was incarcerated in Wormwood Scrubs where he endured great privation and a hunger strike. Other young men from the area who were gaoled included Paddy Gallagher, publican; Dennis O'Neill, publican; Charles Harvey, tailor; John McDaid, tailor; John Bonner, farmer; John Mullin, stone mason; Phil Timoney, shop assistant and Thomas Gallinagh, farmer. Peter Callaghan from Coracramp, Tawnawilly was sentenced to death for taking part in a three hour battle with the Crown Forces in Cavan in May 1921. He was released during the amnesty. Mr. Ward's Law Clark, Mr. Liam Duffy was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment for acting as registrar to the first Republican Court held in Donegal Town.Prisoners in English gaols were subjected to dreadful treatment and this aroused protests here at home. Postmen in the town showed their sympathy by refusing to handle all mail and left the bags lying on the platform at the station. When the prisoners were released in 1922 there were great scenes of jubilation with bonfires, a torchlit procession and bands parading the men through the town. Candles in the windows were the householders' welcome home token. Addresses were delivered by Mr. P.M. Gallagher and Patrick McCartan, who was a former internee, and others.Although the Great War ended in November 1918 the official celebrations did not take place here until the following July. These were held in the Diamond. Tar barrels blazed and bands led a torch lit procession through the town centre. The gathering, which included forty or fifty demobilised soldiers was addressed from a wagonnette by the local magistrate Major Owen, Dr. Warnock and Major White from Lough Eske Castle who said he welcomed home 'all the boys who helped to beat the Hun.' Afterwards the ex-soldiers were entertained at a reception in the Market Hall.
The first major confrontation between the volunteers and the British forces took place at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary on 1st January 1919 when Dan Breen and Sean Treacy attacked an explosives convoy. Two policemen were killed. This signalled the start of a guerrilla war that was to last until the Truce in 1921. It would be impossible to list all the incidents and confrontations that took place between the major protagonists during this time but some, because of their tragic nature and the personal courage displayed, left a lasting impression on the community. The shooting dead of Captain Hugh Britton and Volunteer James Gallagher by an off duty British soldier, who claimed he was a deserter, in a house in Main Street Donegal was a tragedy that stunned the whole area. I deal fully with this in my chapter on tragedies. The burning of Donegal Courthouse, only a few yards from the police barracks where British justice had been dispensed for almost ninety years, and Barnesmore R.I.C. Barracks (built in 1867) were major coups for the I.R.A. who considered them important symbolic targets. The owner of the latter barracks Captain J. Hamilton was awarded damages of £500. The Station Sergeant B. O'Hare received £21 for damage done to furniture.The ransacking of the town by the Black and Tans following the killing of R.I.C. Constable Satchwell in an ambush in Mountcharles Glen was another incident that left lasting memories. Mountcharles was to suffer similarly at their hands with a woman being fatally injured in the shooting and one of their own men being accidentally killed in their blind fury.The 'Tans' needed no excuse to vent their sadistic spleen on the people. Just to see the community enjoying itself was enough, as they demonstrated on one occasion when they raided a St. John's Eve bonfire which was held every year at the junction of Castle Street and Water Street. A large gathering of young people were singing and dancing when the Tans arrived and began shooting into the air. Using the butts of their rifles they dispersed the crowd and then proceeded to douse the fire. To their perverted thinking it was a means of keeping the people in subjection. Their repeated acts of terrorism however had the opposite effect and there were a great many acts of courage displayed by the ordinary people who rebelled against the actions of the Black and Tans.
Very few of what was known as the Unionist population living in the area approved of the conduct of the Black and Tans. There are known cases of Protestant neighbours giving shelter to victims of harassment even at great risk to themselves. Members of the R.I.C. who were living in the town and had many friends there often openly expressed their disgust at the behaviour of the Tans, indeed not a few were afraid of them.On two occasions when drunken crown forces appeared in public brandishing guns and threatening people they were disarmed by private citizens. A soldier carrying a heavy machine gun threatened passengers at Donegal Railway Station taking obvious delight from seeing the fear he evoked.Fearful that he might discharge the gun accidentally the stationmaster Mr. John McGowan and a porter named Curran overpowered him and took away his weapon. He was soon dispatched from the station property. The gun was handed back later that day to his unit in the Workhouse.
On the second occasion, a well known Black and Tan named Chapman went into the Castle Bar and produced a revolver. Two off duty railway men John Gildea and Frank Gallagher were on their lunch break having a quiet drink. He attempted his bullying tactics with the two men who immediately grappled with him and relieved him of his revolver. He ran for the barracks. With the loss of his revolver his bravery had deserted him.The sight of revolvers was something the people had become accustomed to and even the discharge of guns on the street was not unusual. On two occasions Republican and prominent Unionists exchanged shots across the Diamond in broad daylight.Most people, Republicans in particular, had lost confidence in the legal system and so Republican Courts were set up. These were under the auspices of Sinn Fein and were widely availed of. The judges who had no legal training of any kind were selected from the community and their verdicts were based on common-sense and fair play. Learned judges commented later on the wisdom of some of these verdicts. Names to hand of some of these judges are Hugh Cassidy, Daniel Kelly, Ambrose Kennedy, Bernard McGinty, Fergus Britton, Peter Slevin, Patrick Carr, Patrick Molloy and Michael McGrane. I am sure there were many more in this area but unfortunately their names are not available.
The War of Independence ended on 11th July 1921, following a truce and the Treaty setting up the new Free State was signed on the following December 6th and accepted by the Dail on January the 7th 1922. The Treaty was rejected by de Valera. This was followed by the Civil War which lasted until March 1923 when Eamonn de Valera and Frank Aiken declared a truce and ordered their men to lay down their arms. The new Free State Government followed the example of the British in 1916 and executed a number of the leaders of the Civil War. This caused widespread condemnation; Erskine Childers, Rory O'Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett died in front of firing squads. Four men were executed in Drumboe, Stranorlar; Charles Daly, Sean Larkin, Timothy O¹Sullivan and Daniel Enright. Six months after the Treaty British forces shelled Pettigo and four members of the I.R.A. were killed in the attack. Two of them, Bernard McKenna, aged 23 years and William Cairney, 24 years, were buried in St. Agatha's, Clar. Both coffins were placed side by side in the same grave. A huge concourse of people followed the hearse and hundreds of volunteers, members of Sinn Fein clubs and Cumann na mBan marched in the procession. The coffins were draped with tricolours and covered with floral tributes. All shops in the town were closed and blinds drawn as a mark of respect. The Last Post was sounded by National troops from Drumboe, Stranorlar.The Treaty brought welcome relief, but it also created problems of administration. For instance policing of the area in the absence of the recently evacuated R.I.C. needed to be considered. But first let us deal with the actual evacuation itself. It was described by the late Christy Meehan of Donegal and Cullionbouy who was one of the volunteers taking part in the ceremony, as an emotional scene. Elderly people who never thought they would witness this day were actually crying with joy and were singing nationalist songs. The Tricolour party mounted the steps and the flag was handed over to Father Joe Kelly, the curate in St. Patrick's Church, Donegal, who blessed it and then carried it into the barracks. There was a tremendous cheer when he appeared at an upstairs window and fixed the tricolour in position. The volunteers presented arms and saluted the flag. A simple ceremony but a very significant one.
After the barracks was evacuated a public meeting was called to discuss the matter of policing. People of all shades of opinion were present and a committee was set up. It was agreed to form a Volunteer Police Force. The committee decided to appeal for funds to help defray the expenses of this force which would carry out the duties of local policing until a permanent force was set up. The elected committee consisted of: P.M. Gallagher, solicitor; Rev. P. J. Kelly, C.C.; Rev. David Kelly, Rector; E. Ryan, National Bank; Joseph McCloskey (Sec.); R. S. Chapman, chemist; Ambrose Kennedy, tailor; Connell Gallagher, farmer; Samuel Stewart, Ulster Bank; James McGahern, publican; Edward Conway, shop assistant; Robert Temple, draper; Anthony Ford, G.A. Barnes, Belfast and Ulster Bank; Patrick McCartan; Joseph Irwin, merchant; Denis O'Neill, publican; William Gildea; Joseph Meehan; Joseph Sweeney, auctioneer; John Kennedy, income tax inspector; Daniel Kelly, farmer; and T. A. Robinson, merchant.
The Republican Police took their work seriously and despite their lack of training, displayed tact, understanding and compassion when dealing with trouble makers. One of the most brutal of the former occupants of the barracks decided to pay a return visit to Donegal a short time after he was evacuated. He could not accept that he was no longer in authority and acted in a swaggering and aggressive manner at a number of places he visited. The Republican Police on being informed immediately arrested the visitor and confiscated the revolver he was carrying. He was put on the train that evening for Derry. One of the arresting escorts reminded the R.I.C. man that he was getting better treatment than he had meted out to the escort the last time they met.
A few weeks later they averted what could have been a dangerous raid. A patrol of eight I.R.P. came across ten or more men acting suspiciously at the Ulster and Belfast Bank and when challenged the suspected raiders opened fire and a gun battle ensued which reportedly lasted for almost thirty minutes. The raiders withdrew towards their cars which they had parked outside the town and made their escape.The volunteer force was more successful a few days later when they captured two men who had robbed a bank in Ballyshannon. They arrested the men en-route to Derry, at Donegal railway station.The Republican Police Force was set up in March 1922 and in the following October a contingent of the newly formed Garda Siochana arrived in Donegal (see Chapter on Law and Order).With the ending of the Civil War the newly established Free State settled down to what could be described as normal political life. Mr. de Valera who had entered the Dail in 1927 formed his first Government in 1932. Elections a year later saw his party returned again with a slight majority. He made sweeping changes in the link with Britain by withholding the Land Annuities, abolishing the Oath of Allegiance and the office of Governor General. The I.R.A. as it was constituted at that time made it clear however, that they would not settle for anything less than a thirty-two county Republic.Some years later - 1949 - John A. Costello declared a Republic for the twenty-six counties, saying that it would take the gun out of Irish politics for all time. This did not have the desired result if one is to judge by later uprisings and the present on-going struggle in Northern Ireland since 1970. (Since time of writing all paramilitaries have declared peace and talks are continuing.)In the early thirties political feelings were running high and it was not unusual for outdoor meetings, especially Cumann na nGaedhael meetings to come in for frequent interruptions and heckling. An organisation calling itself the Army Comrades Association was formed claiming its aim to be the preservation of freedom of speech. General Eoin O'Duffy, who had recently been dismissed from his post as Commissioner of the Garda Siochana which he had helped to set up, joined the Comrades and became its leader. The name of the organisation was changed to the National Guard and its members wore a uniform of blue shirt, black trousers and black beret. They became known as The Blueshirts. One of the biggest Cumann na nGaedhael meetings held in Donegal in the thirties was given a protective cordon of Blueshirts.
When Civil War broke out in Spain in 1936 O'Duffy raised over seven hundred Irishmen to fight alongside Franco's insurgents. Many of these were members of the disbanded Blueshirt movement. A large number of Republicans volunteered to fight in Spain against Franco's forces. In 1937 the government introduced a new Constitution. The Irish Free State became Eire and the country got its first President, Dr. Douglas Hyde.The following year, the Taoiseach Eamonn de Valera negotiated the return of the ports of Berehaven, Cobh, and Lough Swilly held by the British as part of the Treaty agreement. This proved to be an astute move as it enabled the country to remain neutral during the war of '39 - '45.
Since native government was set up a number of parties have played a role in the political life of the nation. These have included Cumann na nGaedhael, Fianna Fail, Labour, Sinn Fein, Fine Gael, Centre Party, Farmers Party, Clan na Talamh, Clan na Phoblachta, Progressive Democrats and Green Party. Smaller groupings have appeared from time to time but did not make enough impact to reach the country as a whole. Today the country's major problem is unemployment. At the time of writing there are 300,000 unemployed and hundreds of thousands of young people have emigrated.
Let's hope there are better times ahead for the youth of Ireland.