On the morning of Good Friday, April 21st, 1916, a very young and excited Colm Ó Lochlainn, a captain in the Irish Volunteers, set out in Dublin on his bike, knowing that he would be leading a group of men to complete a mission that was thought would have had far reaching repercussions for Ireland.
Above, Ballykissane Pier, outside Killorglin, where, nearby, three Irish Volunteers perished en route to on a secret mission. Photo by David Medcalf, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Ó Lochlain served on the special staff of Joseph Mary Plunkett, director of military operations of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Having gained the trust of his commanding officer on other special assignments, Ó Lochlainn realized that his mission was of vital importance.
To get the details, he was to meet up with an officer of the Irish Republican Brotherhood on O’Connell Bridge (then named Sackville Street / Carlisle Bridge ) very early that Good Friday morning. As he cycled toward the bridge, he was approached by Michael Collins -- in his witness statement Ó Lochlainn said there were few words spoken between them – “Mick said, 'Here I will take the bike, here are your tickets, you know what you have to do. There’s the tram.' The orders were clear enough, I was in charge and we had to get to Killarney by train and meet up with two motor cars that would be waiting for us.”
So off went Ó Lochlainn, a Kilkenny native and typographer by trade, to meet with the other men who would be traveling with him to Killarney. The team, chosen for their particular expertise, comprised Limerick man Thomas McInerney, who could drive a motor car; Charlie Monahan, a mechanic and a wireless (radio) installation expert; Donal Sheehan, from West Limerick, who had worked at the War Office and knew the British admiralty codes; Kerry native Dennis Daly, from Caherciveen, who knew the Caherciveen area; and fellow Caherciveen native Con Keating, a wireless-radio operator on a number of ships.
They set off by train to Killarney, where they were to pick up two cars that would be parked outside the train station, and then drive to Caherciveen. Their orders were clear: They were to take control of the wireless station at the nearby College .When they arrived at Killarney, they were met by a Limerick man, Sam Windham, who had experience with explosives -- he drove the first care with Dennis Daly navigating as he knew the way, with Colm Ó Lochlainn as another passenger. The second car was driven by Thomas McInerney [who owned that car], with passengers Charlie Monahan, Donal Sheehan and Con Keating. McInerney was to follow the first car's tail lights.
The plan was to seize control of the wireless station at the nearby College in Caherciveen, by whatever means, so that they would be able to distract British ships that were surveilling the Kerry coastline. They would accomplish this by transmitting false information and then demolishing the wireless transmitter. The plan was to signal the British navy that a German naval attack was imminent off the Scottish coast.
Once British naval forces had taken the bait, and moved from the waters off the Kerry coast, this would then facilitate the landing of the German freighter ‘The Aud’ at Banna Strand, with its cargo of 20,000 German rifles and 10 machine guns. The armaments were, of course, to be distributed around the country, in coordination with Austin Stack at Tralee, to better ensure sufficient weaponry was in place for the Easter Rising.
Pictured, three RIC constables at a checkpoint.
Then the fateful mission began to unravel. The lead car, bearing Ó Lochlainn and Daly, broke down near a checkpoint, and a curious Royal Irish Constabulary officer went to its aid. When this plan had been hatched in Dublin, the assumption was that there would be no security surrounding Caherciveen or the wireless station at the College. Unknown to them, of course, was that the Royal Irish Constabulary had received intelligence of their own -- they were out in force, with the British army as backup, surrounding the Caherciveen area and the wireless station in the College, in particular.
Having managed to convince the officer that they were medical students and tourists, they then realized that the area was securely fortified by the Royal Irish Constabulary and British army. Ó Lochlainn and Daly then set off, checking constantly to ensure that the second car was following them. Then, about three miles further on, they did not see any lights behind them. They waited for some length of time that would have allowed the other car to catch up with them, thinking either that the second car had broken down, or had been caught at the checkpoint. When the second car failed to materialize, they made the decision to abort the mission, and headed back over the hills to Killarney. They slept in the car through the night, and went back to Dublin the next morning to report the mission aborted, not knowing the fate of their four colleagues.
As so often happens in all walks of life, the best laid plans went awry; the second car lost sight of the lead car and had stopped a young girl to ask the way to Cahirciveen, which lay 25 miles to the southwest. The instructions she gave them were “to take the first turn on the right.” On that dark road, passing through Killorglin,with only the headlights of the car to outline the surface of the road, bearing in mind that this was very early days for motor cars and infrastructure, McInerney missed the first turn, which led to the quay, and headed straight for Ballykissane Pier, and beyond, the River Laune.
Some sources would suggest that with the moonlight shining on the surface of the river, the reflection on the water may have been thought to be a continuation of the road. The car was, in fact, heading straight for the river. The car with all its passengers inside went over the unprotected edge and straight into the river, where it was at its deepest and widest. At this point in time, some sources say, McInerney must have managed to get out of the car, but was, however, disoriented and started to swim the wrong way. A local man by the name of Thady O’Sullivan shouted to him, guiding him back to shore with a lamp light.
While McInerney was being cared for by O’Sullivan, other local people such as Patrick and Michael Begley, son and father, the son being an Irish teacher based in Limerick, made dangerous and strenuous efforts to rescue the other passengers, but this proved to be an impossible task. All three men, Sheehan, Monahan and Keating, were thought to be trapped in the car, and at this point the decision to abandon the rescue was made.
At this stage, it was clear that the three other occupants of the car had somehow become trapped in the vehicle and had, sadly, in all likelihood, quickly drowned. O’Sullivan took the one disheartened and cold survivor McInerney back to his house, where he was given towels to dry himself and a hot drink..
McInerney was then advised to go to the Royal Irish Constabulary Barracks and report the incident in the event that any of the other passengers had survived. While away, McInerney's wet overcoat was picked up to dry it, and a revolver was discovered in it. Patrick Begley soon realized that there was more to the night’s events than at first thought.
At that moment, the Royal Irish Constabulary arrived at the cottage to inquire if they had seen anything untoward in the area. Begley hurriedly hid the revolver under a cushion and then sat on the cushion. When McInerney later arrived to retrieve his revolver, Begley advised him that the police had started asking questions about the car driving into the River Luane, and if they returned, as he had no doubt they would, it would be better if they did not find the revolver on him.
Unknown to McInerney at this time, the Royal Irish Constabulary had arrested a man in Tralee, who was connected to the Fenian movement, and putting two and two together, had information that the Fenian could be related to the activity of the sunken car and its passengers. So not to be outwitted by the local people, lo and behold, back to the O’Sullivan and Begley cottages the Royal Irish Constabulary went. Unsurprisingly, they found McInerney sitting in the kitchen,drinking tea. Despite the fact that McInerney stuck to his accounts of the car being full of students on a tour, he was arrested and kept in custody until after the Rising was over. He was then transferred to Frongoch Prison in North Wales, which would house many of the Republicans who were captured after the Easter Rising surrender.
Local fishermen found the bodies of Keating and Sheehan the next day, on 22nd April 1916. They did not know who they were and an inquest was held. It was assumed that they were the bodies out of the car that had plunged into the river on the 21st.
Sheehan was buried as a stranger, in Dromavally Burial Ground, in Killorglin, amidst great sorrow, as the gathered crowd wept openly for a young man to have died, and none knew whom he was. Keating was buried in his native Caherciveen, as he had been identified.
Monahan was found on the banks of the Laune on the 30th October 1916 by a Mr. Sheehy, approximately a quarter of a mile from the quay. His head, one arm and two feet were missing. The trunk of his body, all that was left of him, was fitted with good quality clothes, waterproof trousers, a belt containing two gold sovereigns and a wad of soaked bank notes, more than an average amount of cash even for a man of gentrified background, as it was thought. Also found on his remains were nippers and a wrench, ready and able for the job he never got to carry out. His remains were identified as those of Charlie Monahan. The police did not think an inquest was necessary, so his remains were buried alongside those of Sheehan on Wednesday, the 1st November 1916, at Dromavally Graveyard.
Then, on the 3rd February 1917, the missing bones belonging to Monahan were found by Thady O'Sullivan -- small amounts of tweed material which had rotted, and alongside the material, a six-chamber revolver with an American pattern with 20 rounds of ammunition and a small screwdriver. The bones were interred with his remains by a local priest at Dromavally graveyard. To add insult to injury in these tragic events, Austin Stack [waiting for the illicit cargo in Tralee] was arrested the same night of the car accident, which would have made the distribution of arms shipment nigh impossible as Stack had been the liaison between ‘The Aud’ and the local Irish Republican Brotherhood. As well, Roger Casement, who orchestrated the arms shipment from the German Government, had been captured earlier that day at Banna Strand, about 18 miles north of the accident site.
This tragic story only serves to illustrate the way in which human error, in this case, making assumptions about people and places unknown to planners, often plays a significant role in determining outcomes. Hindsight is a wonderful thing [mmm, or is it?]. In hindsight, we would all, indeed, be perfect.
The 'what if's' began as soon as these tragic events started to unfold in the newspapers; 'What if ' they had managed to divert the Royal Navy as planned? 'What if ' they had not lost sight of the lead car? Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, it is a very interesting and not-often-enough-told story, which should serve as a warning to those who plan operations without having full knowledge of the specific details of planned targets and surroundings.
Suffice it to say, Thomas McInerney, Colm Ó Lochlainn and Denis Daly lived to tell their tales.
A memorial was erected to Con Keating and Donal Sheehan over their graves in 1919. In 1939, 23 years after the tragic accident took the lives of the three volunteers that fateful night, a monument was erected and unveiled at Ballykissane Pier, by J.J. O’Kelly. In 2006, a mural was unveiled at Short Strand, Belfast, to honor Charlie Monahan as one of the 1916 heroes.
* My thanks to Kieron Punch who provided invaluable information about the driver of the first car.