A Newry Gael Who Helped To Make History

SOME personalities from the Newry region have gone into the history-books for having played leading roles in crucial episodes of Irish history, over the centuries. One thinks of Clann chiefs 'Red Hugh' O’Neill and Conleth Magennis, John Mitchel and John Martin, Cochron and Lowans, Frank Aiken and Dr Padraig Quinn.

But only one person from the frontier town, South Armagh or South Down could claim to have been involved in one of the Ireland’s most epoch-making events, played out in the Dublin G.P.O. during Easter Week of 1916, - and living to tell the tale!

When the painter and member of Down Co. G.A.A. Board died at his residence in Co Kildare during the 50’s, his funeral was accorded full military honours by the Irish Army, as it passed the Dublin G.P.O., en route to his home in Newry. A large gathering, including Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Frank Aiken from Camlough, attended the interment at St Mary’s Cemetery.

So many people, especially politicians, claimed to have been in the Dublin G.P.O. during that historic week, that they would have filled Croke Park. Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Irish Labour and Sinn Fein trace their origins back to Easter Week of 1916 and the first Dail Eireann. Also, the SDLP would assert that their policy of `a united people` would have been endorsed by James Connolly and Tom Clarke.

British military records confirm that Paddy Rankin from the frontier town was one of that elite band, who are part of legend and folklore, and assumed the role of martyrs to the national cause. Indeed, he was one of the few from the North, apart from Tom Clarke of Dungannon, - a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation, who was executed by firing-squad.

Born at Queen (now Dominic) Street, married to a girl from Ballyholland, Paddy had been involved in the Irish language, music, history and Gaelic football. He recorded his experiences in Memoirs, with an embargo that they should not be published until after his death.

Sponsored by fellow-townsmen, Bob Kelly and Johnney Southwell as a member of the I.R.B. in 1907, along with Frank Patterson, Edward McCann, Patrick Cunningham from Corrinshegoe and Seamus O’Hanlon of Lislea, Paddy Rankin complained that “very little progress had been made between 1907 and 1913. A few meetings were held at Slieve Gullion and Kilbroney.”

So he departed for Canada on a fund-raising and recruitment mission, moving on to New York and Philadelphia. There he met Roger Casement, who would be tried as a traitor, and hanged at Pentonville Prison. Greatly disillusioned by the lack of organisation in America, Paddy returned to Ireland in 1916, when preparations were being made for an insurrection.

But confusion had arisen over reports that the order for a rebellion at Easter, issued by Padraig Pearse, described as President of the Provisional Government, had been countermanded by Eoin McNeill, who had the title of Commander-in-chief of the Army. By coincidence, both men had been on the staff of the Irish College at Omeath, now the Park Hotel, - Pearse as a teacher and McNeill as principal!

Paddy Rankin described how he had “gone round the shops in Newry, and obtained several hundred rounds of shotgun ammunition, which I delivered personally to Dundalk, travelling by train. However, I could not give any promises of help from the men in Newry. On Easter Sunday, Peter Curran and I cycled to Dundalk to find out if the Rising was going ahead, - but to no avail.

“I left Newry on Easter Tuesday morning, and eventually reached O’Connell Street in Dublin. I asked some men to get me through Parnell Street, and they told me to follow them. We went through Gardiners’ Row and landed at Kennedy’s bakery shop. There were no soldiers about, so I went into the shop to buy some bread, for fear of a shortage.

“Then I went to the Parnell Monument. There was a large crowd looking down O’Connell Street, and talking about the Rising. I needed some information before going to the G.P.O. Proceeding past the Rotunda Hospital and into Moore Street, I reached the Coliseum Theatre. People in the top windows of some houses shouted down a warning about a man with large sword, who was causing trouble.

“A young despatch rider came out of the Coliseum, so I got my bearings and entered. There were barriers, with armed volunteers behind them. I was asked my name, and where I came from. I replied: `Newry.` One volunteer said: `Here is a man from Omeath.` That person was Paddy Boyle from Cornamucklagh, who had been working in Liverpool, and came over before the Rising. He was later imprisoned in England, and was drowned in Dublin.

“A short time later, I was taken before Tom Clarke, whom I had known previously. He asked me: `Any news from the North?` I answered: `No.` He thanked me for getting to the G.P.O., and would have been delighted to have hundreds more from the Northern counties, which he loved so well.”

Paddy Rankin reported: “No sooner had barricades of coal been erected, parallel to O’Connell Street, than enemy shells began falling on the G.P.O. building, which caught fire. We had to remove the coal. Then we took a short rest, - a few hours on a bed of bricks and mortar in a corner room, facing Nelson’s Pillar. Later, we started making holes in the walls of buildings adjoining the G.P.O., leading to Henry Street, and removed inflammable material.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008