Commander W.F. Blunt of the British Royal Navy got his first sighting of Galway Bay at dawn on Tuesday April 25, 1916. It pleased him. His viewing platform was the bridge of HMS Gloucester (photo left), a Bristol-class cruiser from the 3rd Squadron of the British Grand Fleet. It had been available for deployment, since rejoining the Grand Fleet in 1915. Within its short 6 years of life, it had already seen fighting in both the Mediterranean Sea and off West Africa. Galway seemed a light distraction for such a military heavyweight. It had 4×4 inch main guns, a crew of 480 ratings and a range of over 5000 nautical miles. Its orders were to suppress a potential rising by Irish volunteers at Galway city.
Blunt was extremely fortunate to still have a career in the Navy at all, since the accident he was involved in, in 1911. As Captain of HMS Hawke (photo right), he collided in the Solent with the White Star liner RMS Olympic (sister ship of the Titanic). In charge of the Olympic was Captain Edward J. Smyth (photo below) and, with the planned voyage of the Olympic cancelled, it left Captain Smyth available to command RMS Titanic.
At the outbreak of the Great War, a shortage of experienced navy officers helped save Captain Blunt’s career and, instead of retiring, he was promoted to become Commander on HMS Gloucester. As he took in Galway Bay that Tuesday morning, he was right about one thing, the West had risen!
Liam Mellows (photo left) was born in Lancashire, England in 1892 to Irish parents and was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He also led the Galway Rising. He had been sent to organise the Volunteers in March 1915. Frank Hynes, Captain of the Athenry branch of the Irish Volunteers, recalled the arrival of Mellows in the town,
“We got word from Dublin that an officer was being sent down to organise and train the Volunteers in County Galway. When he arrived I was introduced to a little fellow with glasses. My impression of him was that he may be a clever lad; he was about 22 year but couldn’t be much good at fighting. His name by the way was Liam Mellows. He came in when the men were lined up, six footers most of them. Liam addressed them, “Now men I was sent down to get you to do a bit of hard work, so I want you to be prepared for a week of very hard work”. I could see the faintest trace of a supercilious smile on some of the men. When he was finished talking, Larry Lardner, the commanding officer of the Galway brigade and himself went off to arrange about digs. Then the smiles broke out to laughing. “Who is the ladeen,” asked one fellow, “who talks to us about hard work?”
About six hundred rebels turned up for the march on Galway city. They reached Merlin Park, residence of Captain and Lady Philippa Waithmore without incident, but word of their manoeuvring scared the local residents into action against them. They got news to the local Royal Irish Constabulary, who sent a small group to confront the rebels at Merlin Park, but sent their main force out on the Tuam Road. They reckoned that the volunteers would try to cut across the Oranmore Road, to storm Galway from the Bohermure side.
Meanwhile, HMS Gloucester was moving into the bay. Galway Bay is approximately 30 miles long by 20 miles wide, with Galway city located on the northeast shore. The three Aran Islands straddle the entrance to the bay, and there are a number of smaller islands scattered throughout the area, keeping the cruiser from getting too close to the mainland. However, the range of their main guns removed any potential limits on the ship’s action around Galway city. It sat off shore on the outer half of the bay, making Morse code contact with the city’s military authorities in Renmore Barracks. By relaying messages through the barracks between the RIC and the ship, the navy had a continually updated report on the volunteer’s location and goals. HMS Gloucester fired the first shells at what they were told was the rebels’ headquarters; the rural town of Athenry, located 4 miles east of Galway city. If you have seen any 20th Century naval films, you can imagine the sight that greeted the coastline residents. There was the flash of light on the horizon, quickly blending with the sunrise; a momentary pause; the sound from the guns running parallel with the high-pitched whistle of the shells over flying the city. The gun crews were relaxed; they hit the fields of Athenry (photo below).
The rebels at Merlin Park got understandably spooked by this and retired to Oranmore village to reconsider their plans. They caught their breath, while news of their new location was relayed through Renmore Barracks to the ship. However, retargeted guns then fired a salvo at Oranmore and the rebels fled on to the deserted Castle of Moyode, three miles north of Craughwell. There was a separate group of rebels, who had occupied the Model Farm at Athenry.
They left before being shelled to join the main party at Moyode Castle (photo right). The rebels carried on with raiding RIC barracks and acquiring guns and ammunition from the captured policemen. The Oranmore RIC station was attacked and captured on Tuesday April 25. The barrack Sergeant was trapped by a crowd of rebels in a house opposite the barracks. Attempts to storm the house failed and Sergeant Healy fired through the front door. After a ten minute standoff, County Inspector Rutledge and a body of policemen charged up the street, dispersing the rebel force. Another group camped out overnight at the Carnmore crossroads (photo left).
They encountered a British army patrol coming out of the city at dawn on Wednesday morning. Michael Newell, one of the rebels at Carnmore, remembers what happened:
“I noticed a girl on a hill at Kiltullagh waving a white apron, apparently in order to attract our attention. I looked to see what was wrong and saw a number of motor cars about half a mile away coming in our direction from Galway City. Captain Molloy ordered us to take cover behind the walls. Just as we had taken cover, fire was opened on us. The cars proceeded to about one hundred yards from our position and then halted. The enemy advanced on foot on our position, firing all the time. Captain Molloy ordered us to open fire, which we did, but the enemy fire was so intense and the bullets striking the top of the walls, we were compelled to keep down, and we were only able to take an occasional shot. The enemy advanced up to the crossroads and Constable Whelan was pushed by District Inspector Heard up to the wall which was about four feet high, the district inspector standing behind Whelan and holding him by the collar of his tunic.
Constable Whelan shouted, “Surrender, boys, I know ye all”. Whelan was shot dead and the district inspector fell also and lay motionless on the ground. The enemy then made an attempt to outflank our position but were beaten back. The enemy then retreated and continued to fire until well out of range of our shotguns. They got back into the cars and went in the direction of Oranmore.”
After this incident all the rebels united at Athenry, where there were about 500 men (from Oranmore, Clarinbridge, Maree, Athenry, Craughwell, Rockfield, Newcastle, Derrydonnell, Cussaun and Kilconieron) armed with just 25 rifles, 60 revolvers, 300 shotguns and 60 pikes. However, the rebel positions at Athenry was exposed and open to attack, and so the rebels retreated to Moyode Castle and Limepark, to the south of Athenry, both of which were deserted ‘big houses’.
Although HMS Gloucester continued sporadic shelling of deemed rebel positions and stayed on station for the rest of the week, its location in the outer half of Galway Bay prevented it from shelling Moyode Castle (photo right shows Galway Bay from the air). Renmore Barracks in the eastern side of the city had a number of British regiments passing through it on their way to the Western Front in France. Although it was the traditional home for the Connaught Rangers, they were not present at the time of the Rising. Royal Marines went from Renmore to encircle and confront the rebels at Limepark on the Friday of Easter Week. Ultimately the Galway rebels were forced to bow to the inevitable. On Saturday April 29, 1916, five days after the Galway rising began, the rebels dispersed and returned to their homes. Mellows and Lardner went on the run. Mellows escaped to New York, Lardner went into hiding in Belfast, and a prominent Fenian, Tom Kenny traveled to Boston. The RIC immediately started to round-up known suspects and many simply for being young adults that were not obviously supportive of the police. They were eventually sent to the Internment Camp in Frongoch, Wales.
The cruiser left Galway Bay on the Friday (photo left shows officers strolling on her deck), taking her part in the Grand Fleet’s exchange with the Imperial German Navy at the Battle of Jutland, on May 1, 1916. After serving with distinction she spent the rest of the Great War in the Adriatic and the East Indies.