Living in the Shadow of History: Swords

Dunsoghly Castle
Dunsoghly Castle in St Margaret’s (North County Dublin)

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.

Richard Coleman Family Home
Plaque on Main Street

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.

Battle of Ashbourne
Plaque on Knockesdan Bridge

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.  

The Coleman family plot, St Colmcille’s Graveyard, Swords.
Richard Coleman’s name is recorded on the side of the headstone.

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. 

St Colmcille's Plaque
Unveiled in 1968

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.

Peter Wilson

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

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 21.27.25

* 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.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

20 thoughts on “Living in the Shadow of History: Swords

  1. I lived in Balbriggan as a child, emigrated to London and now live in Kildare. I still have some family in Balbriggan. Will ask them for you.

  2. Should add, a bit like what you say in your post, as a child I was too busy playing to take notice of plaques, etc.

  3. I’ve passed the tower house at Dún Sochlaigh several times over the last decade and it is a very impressive building. Terrible pity that the plans to open it to the general public seem to have fallen through. By all accounts it is/was in a remarkable state of preservation. That can’t last without some sort of OPW intervention.

    1. Hi Séamas, sorry I seem to have missed this. It was once in a good state of preservation, particularly the interior roofing. Unfortunately, structural damage was — as far as I know — caused by the filming of some scenes for Braveheart.

      1. Hi Ciara

        as a local historian I too am interested in the future of Dunsoghly Castle.
        I researched and wrote the complete history of the castle and the Plunkett family. Its entitled “If a Towerhouse could talk: the history of Dunsoghly Castle and the Plunkett Family”, Original Writing, Dublin 2010. Still available through the publisher’s website.
        There are plans to develop the castle and surrounding lands and I understand they have made significant progress lately.
        Id love to hear of your experiences as I read that you grew up in the area.
        I too lived locally , and remember cycling from Finglas to Dunsoghly castle for picnics, when things were much simpler.
        I have put some additional info on if you get an opportunity to check out.

        kind regards

        Eddie Jordan

      2. Hi Eddie, thanks for your message. I knew of the plans by the OPW for the castle but had heard they were shelved due to the recession — fingers crossed they’re being dusted off! Will definitely check out your book. If you visited the area, you might remember my grandmother’s shop at the end of the road?

      3. Hi Ciara,

        and thanks for the reply.
        I have very fond memories of cycling to Dunsoghly with friends, having a picnic, getting the key to the Castle and buying toffee bars and other sweets in that shop. There was another shop near St Margarets as well, a Post office I think??
        I always had a great attraction to Dunsoghly Castle, even as a child and somehow I just knew i would sometime get the opportuntiy to research it and find out all about the Plunketts. i do look forward to the day when it will get the attention and appreciation it deserves.

        best wishes and happy new Year


      4. Yes, that’s right — the shop with the post office attached belonged to my Dad’s cousin. It was probably Mrs Wilson from whom you collected the key? Fully agree, it would be wonderful to see the castle restored and properly maintained.

  4. Ciara, I have a couple of medals and Documents of Richard Coleman’s, whom would have been a great,great uncle of mine. I am going to photograph the medals and scan the docs. They include his last letter to his mother from USK prison and a mail bag strap that he was forced to make while in USK. Maybe you can advise me on what to do with them? Looking forward to hearing any advice. Thanks, Robert O’Leary

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