At about four O’Clock, on the afternoon of Thursday, April 11th 1867, the inhabitants of The Aran Islands spotted the black smoke, of a magnificent ship, as it approached Cill Rónáin.
They had seen it earlier that day as it steamed past Ceann Boirne and headed down through the South Sound. They assumed it was heading off on one of its regular patrols.
They would have been well used to ships making a passage past the islands, as they made their way, into and out of Galway Bay.
Soon it became obvious that the twin funneled steamer was heading for Cill Rónáin. Eventually the ship dropped anchor in Cill Éinne bay and the islanders quickly realised that this was no ordinary visit.
|Where some of the policemen got lodgings.|
The islanders noted a large group of armed, uniformed men, gathered on deck. There was speculation as to whether they were military or police. The local coastguard galley along with five of the ships own boats, proceeded to land fifty of the finest of the Galway Constabulary, at the little village of Cill Rónáin.
They were commanded by the Constabulary Inspector for Galway, Francis Nesbitt Cullen (1830-1889) Francis was a native of Armagh and would rise to the rank of Assistant Inspector General of the R.I.C.
A force divided in rank on sectarian grounds, the vast majority of officers to the rank of Sergeant being Roman Catholic, with officers of a higher rank, being overwhelmingly Protestant.
According to a later account in national newspapers, the purpose of the invasion was a hunt for the leaders of the abortive Fenian uprising of early March 1867. It was suspected that a number of Fenians had escaped to the islands from County Clare.
The background to this Irish/American organised and funded uprising, was action in different parts of the country, the most significant being in Tallagh, just outside Dublin. After a couple of skirmishes, the Irish Constabulary had suppressed the revolt and in the process, earning for their force the added title of Royal.
|The abortive rising of 1867. A small band of police confronted the rebels as they headed for Tallagh Hill.|
The American Fenians had the year previously invaded Canada and the home revolt was led by men, many of whom, had seen action on the Union side, in the bloody American civil war.
While most Fenians were from the Union side, it must be recorded that the great hero of our schooldays, John Mitchel of Jail Journal fame, was a fervent supporter of the South and lost two sons fighting with the Confederates.
|John Mitchel. A pro slavery Fenian|
The account of the landing at Cill Rónáin was provided by somebody on the island but as the writer only identified himself as “Fact”, we can only speculate as to who it was.
We would hazard a guess that the author was the local medical officer, Dr. James Johnston Stoney (1811-1869) but there are other possibilities. Dr Stoney was known as a man who put his patients first and was not afraid to cross his fellow co-religionists, who owned and administered the islands.
There is a slight possibility that the letter writer was the Parish priest Daniel Lydon or his curate.
James Stoney was the grandfather of the late American filmmaker, George Stoney, who many of us remember for his time on the island in the 1970s. George was making his ‘Man of Aran’ film critique, How the Myth was Made.
Dr Stoney was twice married and his son and seventeenth child, all living, had been born on Arran the year before in 1866.
James Stoney came to Aran from Borrisokane around 1859, and was to die of a laudanum overdose in June 1869, as he battled to fight a fever outbreak on the islands, while in an exhausted state.
His grandson George did an interview in 1978 with the late Michaelín Gill (Patcheen), which can be viewed in this preview of the film. Here
|A still from the film HOW THE MYTH WAS MADE|
The policemen were billeted around the village and more evidence that the letter writer was the doctor, is that he bemoaned the fact that this fine body of men, were put into unaired beds and that they were not accompanied by a medical officer.
A glowing account of the good behaviour of the islanders followed and the writer noted that the good humour of all reflected on how peaceful the Province of Connacht was in recent times.
The uprising had been confined to skirmishes near Dublin and some large assemblies in Cork, Limerick and Drogheda.
One reason as to why the authorities suspected the islands of harbouring felons, would have been fairly obvious.
After the failed 1848 uprising in Tipperary, the Young Irelander and co-founder of the Nation newspaper, John Blake Dillon (1814-1866) and some friends, had been given refuge on the middle island, Inis Meáin.
John was from the border town of Ballaghaderreen, which makes him either a Roscommon or a Mayo man.
|John Blake Dillon, founder of the Nation newspaper with Charles Gavin Duffy and Thomas Davis|
Not having any Government agents like, police, coastguard or light-keeps, the middle island was a perfect spot for John B Dillon to hide out in.
We can recall an Inis Meáin man once declaring with pride, that his was the only Aran Island, over which the Union Jack had never flown.
Even though he had a large bounty on his head, Dillon was never betrayed by the islanders and managed to escape, first to France and then to America, where he practised law in New York.
And he wasn’t the last person to hide out on the middle island, as J.M. Synge would discover.
He returned in 1855 after an amnesty, and was elected M.P. for Tipperary. John Blake Dillon was the father of the last leader of The Irish Party, John Dillon (1851-1927) and grandfather to the great talker and leader of both the Centre Party and Fine Gael, James Dillon (1902-1986)
|1848 Skirmish in Tipperary|
|A typical American anti Irish cartoon, depicting the Irish as an ape like bunch of terrorists.|
This ship, formerly called the Jacknell, had been used as a privateer during the recently concluded American civil war. The whole project failed, even though they did manage to reach Sligo and later, Dungarvan, Co Waterford.
While most of the men landed in Ireland were captured, the vastly experienced Captain and crew, managed to outrun the Royal Navy and make it back to New York.
The Queenstown based, HMS Helicon would spend much of 1867, intercepting and searching south and west coast shipping, in an effort to intercept arms shipments from America.
An added incentive for the authorities in Galway wanting to visit the island, was the failure of the steamer, “Pennsylvania”, two weeks previously, to get any assistance as it struggled into the North Sound. It had signalled repeatedly for a pilot but neither a pilot nor a coast guard responded.
The American captain had remarked later that it was strange that he hadn’t encountered any Royal Navy ships, keeping watch to the approaches to the west coast.
The Philadelphia was making a passage from New York to Liverpool when it encountered engine trouble and shortage of coal, and managed to avoid the infamous rocks of Galway Bay, before anchoring off Spiddal.
It’s 54 passengers were taken off and brought by train to Kingstown. There was much speculation as to how, in different circumstances, an enemy ship could have come so far without notice.
A humorous story was told of a ships captain berating his pilot after his ship got stuck on a rock. The captain roared “I thought you said you knew every rock in Galway Bay”, to which his pilot responded, “indeed an I do Captain, an that’s one of them”
The Arran invasion force of 1867, divided up the next morning with half of the force going back on board the HMS Helicon, in order to carry out a raid on the middle island.
The other half commenced a search of the big island and it would appear that they didn’t expect to find much, going by the good humour and party atmosphere of the group.
They found nothing and even if there were Fenians hiding out on the islands, there was little chance they would have found them, as the islanders were experts at concealing unlicensed dogs, wrack and other illegal goods, from the six local police and the occasional revenue man.
The letter writer remarks how there is very little serious crime on the island and pointed out how few children are born outside marriage.
His anti landlord position is made clear when he mentions that this good living state of affairs “exists without the much boasted influence of a resident Landlord, or even his agent, the latter functionary only making his appearance twice in the year, with his saddlebag of books and leather purse for gold”
The reference to the saddlebag of books is an obvious dig at the proselytising attempts of the land agent, Thomas Thompson. This would come to a head soon, after the four children of an Aran widow, ended up in Protestant foster care and a bread war and boycott, which became very bitter. A long story we may return to again.
What the island women made of the fine body of young men in uniform, with shiny buttons, boots and belts, topped with impressive headwear, was not recorded.
We can only assume the policemen got a better reception from the women of Árainn in 1867, than their comrades got twenty years later. And that wouldn’t be difficult.
After a fruitless search of the islands, on Friday evening, all got back aboard the Helicon with the intention of heading back to Galway. However, a squall got up and the Helicon Captain, Edward Field, decided to stay on anchor for another night.
This resulted in the policemen having to disembark in the rain and spend another damp night on the island. A few more pounds for the island economy.
The writer speculated as to what the authorities in Galway would think, when their invasion force failed to return at the time arranged. Perhaps another Lord Franklin mystery was about to unfold.
|The Steam wharf in Galway where the policemen disembarked.|
It was noted that this was the greatest influx of visitors since the great gathering of antiquarians, ten years earlier, in 1857, an event we covered in some detail recently.
The antiquarians of 1857 had the good manners to inform the islanders well in advance, so that they could have beds ready for them.
The 1857 visit can be viewed Here
|H.M.S Helicon. Launched in 1865, later converted to Admiralty yacht and renamed Enchantress. Saw action in Egypt .|
220 feet long with a beam of 28 feet and top speed of 14 knots. Broken up in 1889.
The raid of April 1867 was of much less importance to the islands than a series of evictions the same year, on both Árainn and Inis Oirr. This caused much hardship. Eviction notices were issued for seventeen families although only seven were eventually evicted. Most of these were later reinstalled as caretakers.
One Islander in Eoghanacht named Berry, was driven from the island. He had brought a destitute family into the island from Connemara and Thompson felt this family should return to where they came from.
Twenty years later, in 1887, The Royal Irish Constabulary suffered a humiliating defeat at Cath an Chaircir Mhóir, when accompanying a process server as he tried to serve his notices of eviction. We covered that great victory by the women of Cill Éinne, many years ago Here
There would be other raids on the islands by armed officers, the second last being an invasion by the infamous Black ‘n Tans in 1920, when the innocent and unarmed, Lawrence McDonagh, was shot on the Low road, as he made his way to mass. He would die from his wounds, a few days later.
The last armed invasion was the arrival of Free State soldiers during the Irish civil war, as they occupied the old RIC barracks and Coast Guard station. The barracks was later occupied by Ireland’s unarmed police force, An Garda Síochána.
Other than the occasional raid by Revenue officers, hunting down green diesel or patrolling the coast for smugglers, Irish naval personnel on patrol or helicopter crews on humanitarian missions, the Islands have been spared uniformed invasions in recent times.
We look forward to tourist invasions returning, when the danger of Covid-19 has passed
Ml Muldoon, May 2020