At 7pm on Easter Sunday 23 April 1916 the members of Portlaoise Company, Irish Volunteers under the command of Eamon Fleming mobilised as part of the plan for a nationwide rising. Their job was to attack rail lines in their area linking the south east to Dublin and thereby delay any British forces arriving from Britain itself and moving on Dublin via Waterford or Rosslare. The countermanding orders issued earlier that day by Eoin MacNeill which along with the failure of the Aud to land its cargo of arms, prevented the planned nationwide uprising taking place, had not reached the Portlaoise Volunteers. They now split into a number of groups. One group, comprising, Eamon Fleming, Michael Gray and Michael Walsh travelled to Maganey, County Kildare and blocked the railway line there. Another group, comprising Patrick Ramsbottom, Laurence Brady, Thomas Brady, Patrick Muldowney, John Muldowney, Colum Holohan and Michael Sheridan, destroyed the rail line at Colt Wood, County Laois and cut railway signal and telegraph lines in the area.
Other members of the Company are referred to as having been under arms during the week and one, James Ramsbottom, is stated to have been sent by Eamon Fleming to County Kilkenny during Easter Week as part of efforts to make contact with other neighbouring Irish Volunteer units to find out what exactly was happening in the Country and what they should do.
Later on Easter Sunday night one of the Colt Wood group, Patrick Ramsbottom, allegedly fired the first shots of the Rising, when he opened fire on railway employee William Dalton who failed to stop when challenged. Dalton had been sent on foot from Portlaoise to check the situation following signal failures on the line. It is unclear whether the shots Ramsbottom fired were directly at Dalton or were only warning shots fired over his head. In any case Dalton escaped unscathed and returned to Portlaoise, apparently reporting only that telegraph and signal lines had been cut. Dalton had only a hand held lamp for light and having had to put this out after being shot at, possibly did not see that the rail lines had also been cut. At any rate, later that night a small engine, with a single carriage attached carrying some RIC men and railway employees coming to further investigate the situation, derailed at the spot. Again no one appears to have been seriously injured.
In the meantime the Colt Wood group travelled to the home of Laurence and Thomas Brady at Lalor’s Mills, where they were later joined by the group returning from Maganey. This group had increased to four in number with the addition of John McGuire. McGuire had been cutting the railway line between Bagnelstown and Athy before joining up with Eamon Fleming and his group. Later during the week they would also be joined by Eamon Fleming’s brother Padraic. Padraic Fleming, with another individual named Frawley, had broken into Wolfhill RIC Barracks on Monday night and got away with a revolver and a bayonet but no ammunition.
Despite efforts to make contact with the rebel leadership in Dublin and other Volunteer personnel and units in County Kilkenny, the Portlaoise Volunteers took no further active part in the Rising. They remained under arms based in the vicinity of Lalor’s Mills. Refusing the entreaties of a local priest to surrender they instead decided to go on the run following the collapse of the Rising. All of them managed to evade capture and most would go on to play some part in the Independence struggle in the years ahead. Later all twelve would apply for military service pensions and 1916 Service Medals with mixed results.
Throughout the lifetime of the military service pensions the standards for achieving recognition for service for claimed 1916 activities differed between Dublin and the rest of the country. Importantly however at no point was a clear precise definition of what actually amounted to “active service” during 1916 outside Dublin was ever set out either in the legislation or by the Referees or pension officials. However from the evidence on the files it is clear that certain qualifying criteria were adopted for such service, particularly by the Referees operating under the 1934 Act. The end result was that qualifying “active service” was open to interpretation and could and did vary over time. There are a number of apparent discrepancies and anomalies regarding the awarding of 1916 service outside Dublin in the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC) and, as will be seen, the situation regarding the awarding of pensions in respect of 1916 service among the Portlaoise Company is one of them.
Broadly speaking the view held by the officials administering all the military service pensions acts from 1924 onward was that during Easter Week the city of Dublin was a war zone. In practice carrying out any military or military related activities under orders or serving under arms anywhere in Dublin, regardless of the intensity or duration of the fighting in that location, could qualify an applicant for the receipt of pension for 1916 service. Thus for example service in relatively quieter areas such as Jacobs was treated as on a par with service in Church Street or the G.P.O.
Given the intensity of the fighting in Dublin compared to what happened elsewhere in the country it was felt that a clear distinction should be drawn between Dublin and the rest of the country. It was always felt that the service of those in Dublin had to be differentiated from the large numbers across the country who, though they had mobilised on Easter Sunday and maybe even stayed under arms awaiting orders or standing to for much of the week, took no active part in the Rising. At the same time it was also recognised that significant activity had taken place outside Dublin – for example in counties Galway, Wexford and Louth – and that this service should receive some recognition but not as being on a par with Dublin. The picture in terms of the award of pensions for 1916 service outside Dublin under the 1924 Military Service Pensions Act is complicated by the fact that a pension could only be awarded to those who had active service with the pro-Treaty National Forces during the Civil War as well as the necessary qualifying pre-Truce service with the appropriate organisations. Thus the majority of 1916 veterans, who either went pro-Treaty or remained neutral during the Civil War, were excluded from even applying for a pension. Women were also effectively excluded under the 1924 Act as service with Cumann na mBan was not recognised. As a result Brigid Lyons Thornton, who had Civil War service as a National Army Commandant and also served during 1916, was the only woman to get a pension under the 1924 Act.
Of the Portlaoise 1916 veterans, only Michael Gray, John McGuire and John Muldowney had the necessary Civil War National Forces service to qualify under the 1924 act. While all three received service pensions for their War of Independence and Civil War service only McGuire received pension recognition for his 1916 service. As with almost all pension applicants successful or unsuccessful, it is never stated explicitly on their files why Gray and Muldowney’s 1916 activities were not recognised or indeed why McGuire’s was.
The introduction of the 1934 Military Service Pensions Act removed the necessity for Civil War service of any kind, opened up the receipt of pension to those who had fought against the Treaty or had remained neutral or inactive during the Civil War, as well as to the members of Cumann na mBan. However the differentiation between 1916 service in Dublin and elsewhere remained. For the first ten years or so after the introduction of the 1934 Act qualifying for 1916 service outside Dublin remained very difficult – even in areas such as Galway, Wexford and Louth, where members of the Irish Volunteers had either open fire on, or exchanged fire with, police or military. In such areas it appears that the Referees set out that the applicant had to have fired a shot to receive a pension. This was difficult for many applicants even from these areas. For example the Irish Volunteer occupation of Enniscorthy had required very little actual shooting and not even all of those present during the actual armed engagements in County Galway even had firearms, never mind actually managed to fire a shot.
Laurence and Thomas Brady, Eamon and Padraic Fleming, Colum Holohan, Patrick Muldowney, James and Patrick Ramsbottom and Michael Sheridan all applied for pensions under the 1934 Act. Only Eamon Fleming received recognition in 1938 (posthumously – he died earlier that year) for his 1916 service and this really because Fleming had been sent by his fellow IRB member, and 1916 Proclamation signatory, Sean McDermott to take charge of the Portlaoise Volunteers the week before the Rising. The Referees would recognise those individuals who it was judged, but for acting under orders which took them out of Dublin, would have taken part in the fighting there. The service of those locals who served or acted alongside those sent from Dublin was still not however recognised.
Laurence and Thomas Brady, James Ramsbottom and Padraic Fleming all received service pensions between 1936 and 1938 but not for their 1916 service. Meanwhile Patrick Muldowney, Patrick Ramsbottom, Michael Sheridan and Colum Holohan had their applications rejected completely at this stage. However Muldowney, Ramsbottom, Sheridan and Holohan would all receive service pensions which recognised their 1916 service when they applied once more following the enactment of the 1949 Military Service Pension Act. Crucially, in the wake of a Supreme Court challenge in 1945 on behalf of unsuccessful 1916 Galway applicants, and the introduction of the 1949 Act, the qualifying standard for those applying for 1916 service outside Dublin was reduced. As a result, although “active service” remained undefined, the criteria of having fired a shot disappeared and a large number of previously unsuccessful 1916 applicants from outside Dublin were now successful.
In the meantime the award of medals for 1916 service had been introduced in 1941. Among the rules governing the awarding of this medal was that if an applicant had applied for a service pension, then he or she had to have received pension recognition for 1916 to actually receive a 1916 Meal. (Veterans, or their dependants, who did not claim for a pension or a service certificate in respect of their 1916 service, had to prove that they would have qualified had they done so.) Service pension recipients who did not receive pension recognition for their claimed 1916 service would not qualify for the medal. As a result only John McGuire, Eamon Fleming, Patrick Muldowney, Patrick Ramsbottom, Michael Sheridan and Colum Holohan were awarded 1916 Service Medals. Perhaps prompted by these awards the other former members of the Portlaoise Company began to reapply for recognition of their 1916 service. Unfortunately however they had left it too late. They would have needed to apply to have their pension applications reopened but unfortunately, following the introduction of the 1949 act, this option was open only to previously unsuccessful pension applicants, not to successful applicants unsatisfied with the extent of their award. Thus despite the almost identical nature of their service neither Michael Gray, John Muldowney, Thomas Brady, Laurence Brady, James Ramsbottom nor Padraic Fleming would ever receive 1916 medals or any form of official recognition for their action in 1916.
The case of the Portlaoise Volunteers is just one example illustrating discrepancies regarding the award of 1916 service outside Dublin to be found in the collection. For example there is also the case of the awarding of recognition to just James Ruane of the party of Irish Volunteers who captured arms from a group of National Volunteers near Balla, County Mayo. All of which means that while the MSPC is without equal as a resource for students of the 1916 Easter Rising it must be approached and interpreted with caution and certainly cannot be seen as providing a definitive answer to how many actually took part on the Irish side in the 1916 Rising.