No One Can Insult Our Flag: Investigating an Incident in the War of Independence in Waterford

Having recently researched some of the history around First World War commemoration in Waterford in the interwar period, I was struck by one incident in particular: the events which took place on Armistice Day in 1920 in Dungarvan at the height of the war of independence. Dungarvan, in the west of County Waterford, was in that part of Waterford that saw the greatest amount of agitation from the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Unlike in East Waterford, which included the city, Dungarvan and the surrounding area was by comparison a hot bed of raids on RIC barracks and skirmishes with the RIC. Intrigued by the incident which took place in the town of Dungarvan on 11 November 1920, I wanted to investigate further.

So what happened? The story seems to be that on the eve of Armistice Day there was a worry that the events to mark the day would not be respected by the towns people in Dungarvan and so the following morning, according to a report in the Munster Express, that morning some twenty men emerged from the town’s RIC barracks to march through the town, all of them armed. As they went up the street, those stood in the doors of their shops closed their doors around 11.15am while those who didn’t including the head of the local Urban District Council, Mr Brennock, were forced to close theirs.

Entering the store of Dan Fraher, he for whom the Gaelic grounds in Dungarvan are named, they removed both Fraher and a carpenter named Greany to go take the flag down and replace it with the Union Jack. Both obliged the RIC /army insofar as they were happy to take the Irish flag down – referred in the newspaper report to as the ‘Sinn Féin’ flag – but apparently refused to raise the Union Jack. The RIC men/soldiers hoisted that flag themselves, and marched Fraher and Greany back to town with Fraher wrapped in the Irish flag while some waggish young lads whistled ‘Wrap the Green Flag Around Me’. The tricolour then seemingly was brought into the barracks and a Union Jack brought out. Whereupon two other locals were marched under the threat of bayonets back to the castle to replace the Union Jack. Once this was done, the people of Dungarvan were warned not to change the flags again, on pain of shooting with a machine gun in the barracks aimed at the castle. As all of this took place, some enterprising cameramen arrived to shoot the proceedings for the newsreels.[1] Remarkably, a British Pathé newsreel of the incident (though this is clearly posed for the cameras) remains.

Despite this obvious editorialising, this newsreel appears to correspond closely with the report of the Munster Express. That report notes two men – identified in the paper as Jack Keohan and Roger Foley – were then ordered to march up the street with the Union Jack to carry out the replacing of the flag under threat of ‘a prod of a bayonet’. The story was national news, making the pages of the Irish Independent.[2] Certainly, this is the story corroborated by the newsreel. But how would those watching have viewed that newsreel as it made the rounds of British and Irish cinemas in the weeks that followed? We can only speculate, but as Ciara Chambers’ work Ireland in the Newsreels has shown the way in which non-Irish companies like British Pathé filmed this period was highly politicized.[3] This is evident from the title slide which precedes the footage – the editors of the film literally underline that the incident took place on Armistice Day, undoubtedly to stir the anger of the British and those who were against the IRA in Ireland both.

So what was the context of this incident? As I noted above, Dungarvan was one of those places in Waterford where the IRA were an active force and in the months and weeks leading up to Armistice Day in 1920 in the area, there had been a good deal of activity, and indeed success, for the local IRA. This may in part explain the initial removal of the Union Jack and its replacement overnight with an Irish tricolour. Looking at the RIC District Inspector’s monthly reports around this time one certainly gets the impression that tensions were high. The general rundown for Waterford in October notes that the county ‘showed little improvement during the month though it was principally the western portion of the county adjoining Cork which was unsatisfactory.’ Among the incidents the general report for October notes were an attempt on October 11 an ambush of six RIC men on the road to Dungarvan. Similarly, it notes a ‘determined attempt… to murder Const. Cullinane in his house at Kill’. With activity increasing, there was an attempt to attack the RIC Barracks at Tallow by about 100 men though according to the RIC report ‘the attacking party showed little courage and fled on a sound rocket being fired’.[4]

During the month of November things escalated considerably with a constable murdered in Cappoquin, and another two wounded. According to the general report ‘the reasons for the Western portion of the County being so disturbed are that there were too many weak police posts and no police transport so that the area was practically unpoliced and a number of undesirables had come into it.’[5] According to the work of Pat McCarthy ‘The evacuation of the barracks by the RIC was a major boost in morale to the East Waterford Brigade since they believed it was a direct result of their action. It also showed that the brigade was able to mobilize up to eighty men between those involved in road blocking and the attack force.’[6] McCarthy similarly notes of the Ballyduff ambush – the one which took place in October 1920 ‘‘Although it was a small-scale action, it was successful and was a confidence booster for all involved. The British army had been engaged, some casualties inflicted and the volunteers involved had withdrawn without loss. It was also a demonstration that there was an active IRA unit in east Waterford.’[7] The Officer Commanding of the East Waterford Brigade was Paddy Paul, a First World War veteran who in his statement to Bureau of Military History in the 1940s said of his joining the British Army:

‘The catch-cries raised at the time by the Irish Party in support of this recruiting campaign – “the fight for small nations” and “by fighting in France we were fighting for Ireland” – I accepted unquestioningly, and so I conceived it to be my duty to join the British Army in obedience to the appeals of the Irish Party leaders.’[8]

After spells in Macedonia, Salonika and Egypt, Paul found himself back in Waterford and threw himself into Gaelic League activity and in no time found himself in charge of the East Waterford Brigade, which according to McCarthy’s research was a group of just under 400 men in three battalions.[9] With such strong IRA activity under the experienced hand of Paul taking place in the western part of the county, it is perhaps no surprise that the District Inspector of the County, Robert Maunsell, resigned from his post and was replaced by a Capt. O’Beirne at the beginning of December.[10] Thus it fell to O’Beirne to file the District Inspector’s Report for November. O’Beirne’s report, dated 10 December 1920 says that

‘owing to the weakness of the police posts in this Area West Waterford was fast becoming a No Mans Land, or rather Sinn Fein land. We had lost not only control, but even touch with large areas, with the result that undesirables concentrated in this area, and the Ardmore ambush and the Cappoquin shooting were the inevitable result.’[11]

In a remarkable admission of their weakened position, O’Beirne notes in his report too that ‘Raiding for Arms is practically dead. All available arms have been seized by other side.’ Interestingly, O’Beirne’s report makes no mention of the incident in Dungarvan town centre that took place on Armistice Day. This may have been considered too minor an incident by O’Beirne – given the shootings and various raids this seems likely – or it may simply be that he had no knowledge of the incident given when his takeover of the post of District Inspector happened.

With tensions running high between the locals and the police following the various skirmishes in the months leading up to Armistice Day 1920, and with an increasingly confident IRA operating in an area that had been largely abandoned by the RIC in order to concentrate efforts in a handful of barracks instead of the sixteen dotted around the Dungarvan-Cappoquin districts, it is no wonder that someone felt relatively safe taking down the Union Jack from Abbeyside Castle and replacing it with a tricolour. Ewan Morris’ work on symbols of nationality in twentieth century Ireland notes that ‘the tricolour’s transformation into a national flag began during the revolutionary period, but was very far from complete by 1922.’[12] Events like those in Dungarvan, on such a symbolic day itself, may well have aided in that transformation of the ‘Sinn Féin’ flag into the national flag.

[1] Munster Express, 20 November 1920

[2] Irish Independent, 13 November 1920

[3] Chambers, Ciara, Ireland in the Newsreels, Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2012, passim.

[4] RIC District Inspectors Monthly Reports, CO 904/113, October 1920

[5] RIC District Inspectors Monthly Reports, CO 904/113, November 1920

[6] McCarthy, Pat, ‘The Irish Volunteers and Waterford, Part III 1920-1921: The East Waterford Brigade’ Decies, No. 62 (2006), p. 175

[7] McCarthy, ‘The Irish Volunteers and Waterford’, Decies, No. 62 (2006), p.179

[8] Paddy Paul Witness Statement, Bureau of Military History, WS 877, p. 2

[9] McCarthy, ‘The Irish Volunteers and Waterford’, Decies, No. 62 (2006), p.169—


[10] Byrne, Brendan, ‘Law, order and the RIC in Waterford, 1920-1921: a chronology’, Decies, No. 55 (1999), 117

[11] RIC District Inspectors Monthly Reports, CO 904/113, November 1920, dated December 10 1920

[12] Morris, Ewan, Our Own Devices: National Symbols and Political Conflict in Twentieth-Century Ireland, Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2005, p. 35



Filed under Irish History, Twentieth Century

2 responses to “No One Can Insult Our Flag: Investigating an Incident in the War of Independence in Waterford

  1. Adrian Grant


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s