With a view like this from the window of my childhood bedroom, it’s probably not all that surprising that the past has captured my imagination. I grew up conscious that I was living in the shadow of the 80-foot-tall residence of the Plunkett family who had resided at Dunsoghly Castle between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. But very often we take the history of our local area for granted: sites of historical importance are given a passing glance, or not noticed at all, as we go about our daily lives. So I really shouldn’t have been that surprised as I ‘discovered’ plaques for the first time as I strolled around Swords this afternoon with a friend. Pamela’s lived in Swords all her life; I enjoyed childhood summers there playing with cousins and other children who would become lifelong friends. I still spend much of my time there. And yet, before today, for both of us, much had gone unnoticed (apart from Swords Castle, in the park beside which we went to tennis camp in the summer). My historical walking tour of Swords was prompted by my research for the latest book I’m working on: a study of Dublin between 1912 and 1923, which is part of a new series* published by Four Courts Press to coincide with the decade of commemoration. One name stood out today: Richard Coleman.
Born in 1890, Richard Coleman was one of a family of eleven. Main Street, Swords was once lined with houses, long since replaced by businesses, although a few remain. The Coleman family home is today marked by a plaque above an empty shop unit next to AIB.
In April 1914, Thomas MacDonagh visited Swords to recruit members for the newly-formed Irish Volunteers. Richard Coleman was among the first in the area to sign-up. When John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, later urged members of the Irish Volunteers to join the British war effort, Coleman did not follow the majority who answered Redmond’s call. In the aftermath of the split, he was elected captain of those who had remained with the Fingal Battallion of the Irish Volunteers.
It was that Battallion which participated in the famous battle of Ashbourne in Easter 1916. Following a request on the Tuesday from the GPO for reinforcements, Thomas Ashe, who was commanding the Battallion, sent twenty men under Coleman’s leadership to the City Centre where they fought n the Mendicity Institute. When the rebels surrendered, Coleman was arrested.
Following his release from prison in 1917, he campaigned for Eamon de Valera in the Clare by-election of 1918 but was subsequently re-arrested. While in prison, he joined Thomas Ashe on the fatal hunger strike that claimed Ashe’s life. Coleman was later released from prison, but was soon behind bars again. He had been implicated in the so-called German Plot, in which leading members of Sinn Féin were rounded up and arrested. The British authorities used the false claim that members had been plotting with Germany as the pretext for the arrests. Coleman died in prison on 9 December 1918 from pneumonia. His body was returned to Ireland and was buried in the Republican plot in Glasnevin cemetery.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Coleman’s death, a mass, attended by Eamon de Valera, was held at St Colmcille’s Boys National School in Swords. This was followed by the unveiling of a plaque commemorating Richard Coleman, as well as John Crenigan, Peter Wilson and Thomas Rafferty. Many thanks to Jim Bennett, principal of the school, whom I had the good fortune to bump into today and who very kindly showed me the plaque.
Peter Wilson, who had joined Coleman at the Mendicity Institute, was killed in the fighting. He is also commemorated on a plaque at the bridge on Bridge Street.
These are just some of the examples of the reminders of Swords’ history that, arguably for the first time, I paid proper attention to today. Between now and when I leave for the UK at the end of the summer, my plan is to do historical walking tours of areas around Dublin to get a better sense of how the revolutionary period unfolded locally. Recommendations for specific places to visit are welcome!
Update (31/07/13): I visited Glasnevin Cemetery where Richard Coleman is buried. Below is a picture of the stone that marks his grave. You can read my thoughts on the Cemetery here.
* The first book in the Four Courts Press series – Sligo: the Irish Revolution, 1912-23 – was published in November 2012. Further details here.
All images author’s own, photographed at source.