The Fenian rising of March 1867 was yet another attempt to remove the shackles of foreign oppression. After the 1798, 1803, and 1848 rebellions, it was the fourth failed rebellion in 70 years. In this post, we’ll focus on the events of 1867 as they relate to Ballymacoda, and one of its most famous sons – the Fenian leader and Irish patriot Peter O’Neill Crowley.
Peter O’Neill Crowley was born in Ballymacoda on May 23rd, 1832 into a respectable farming family. Through his mother, he was a grand-nephew of Fr. Peter O’Neill, the Ballymacoda parish priest flogged at Youghal in 1798 and later deported to Botany Bay. After his father died when he was still quite young, Peter O’Neill Crowley came under the influence of his grand-uncle, and acknowledged later in life that his involvement with the Fenian’s was inspired by his grand-uncle. The young O’Neill Crowley was well known and respected in Fenian circles, and was known to be a man of principle and a strict pioneer. In time, he became the leader of the reportedly 100-strong group of Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) members in the Ballymacoda area.
On Tuesday March 5th, the day of the rebellion, O’Neill Crowley and John McClure, an American born veteran of the Civil War, led a party to raid the coastguard station at Knockadoon, with the objective being to secure the cache of weapons located there. Among the raiding party were Thomas ‘Bowler’ Cullinane, Jerry Aher, David Joyce and Thomas Walsh. The raid was successful, with the weapons being secured and the coastguards disarmed without a single shot being fired. Taking the coastguards hostage, the group then marched towards Killeagh with the prisoners, expecting to join up with other units from Youghal and Midleton. However, this didn’t materialize as planned, with only a handful of men being present at the meeting place when the party from Ballymacoda arrived. The group of rebels from Midleton had earlier been involved in a battle with the police in Castlemartyr while attempting to raid the barracks there, where the leader of the group, Timothy Daly had been shot and killed.
McClure made the decision to disband all unarmed men, and march with the remaining men and prisoners towards Castlemartyr, where the prisoners were released. Having observed a large group of crown forces at Mogeely about to commence a search of the area, O’Neill Crowley, McClure and others decided to march north in an attempt to merge with other pockets of fighters in the Munster region. While the raid on the coastguard station at Knockadoon was successful – John Devoy called it ‘the neatest job done by the Fenians in the Rising‘ – the wider rising was a failure, and soon the party from Ballymacoda was on the run, eventually reaching Kilclooney wood near Mitchelstown. The group spent a few weeks taking refuge in the wood until being engaged by the British on the morning of Sunday March 31st, 1867, three weeks after the rising. The British had reportedly received information that the group was hiding there, and that same problem that always plagued rebellions and rebel groups throughout Irish history – informers – was to cause the death of O’Neill Crowley.
On the morning of the 31st, Kilclooney wood was surrounded by an estimated 120+ British soldiers, made up of members of the Sixth Carbineers, two companies of the Sixth Warwickshire infantry and a company of Royal Engineers. The men were commanded by Major Bell. A gun battle ensued, with the Fenian group hopelessly outnumbered. O’Neill Crowley was initially badly wounded when he was hit by a bullet which broke a finger on one hand. A group of soldiers began to advance towards the wood, while the rest kept it surrounded from all sides to prevent escape of the group of rebels. McClure and O’Neill Crowley were captured together, attempting to cross a river, O’Neill Crowley was shot and fatally wounded as he attempted to cross. He was attended to by an army surgeon, and a priest was sent for to administer last rites before he died. He was aged just 34, a few months shy of 35.
The priest who administered the last rites, Rev. T. O’Connell, at the time curate in nearby Kildorrery, described the scene he witnessed that morning in 1867 in The Irish Standard 20 years later:
A few particulars in connection with the last moments of Peter O’Neill Crowley may not be uninteresting to your numerous readers at the present moment. I can well recall the memorable morning in March, ’67, when I was hastily summoned to administer to the patriot the last rites of that church which he loved so well. On my arrival at Kilclooney Wood, I found Dr. Segrave, surgeon to the flying column, busily engaged in staunching the wound with one hand, whilst from a prayer book in the other he read aloud – at the young man’s request – the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus. I was greatly touched by the scene, and especially by the exclamation – ‘Thank God – all is right now’, and then turning to the doctor he said ‘Thank you very much, the priest is come, leave me to him’. I saw at once the critical condition of the brave soul, whose heart’s blood was ebbing fast away. I saw that there was no time to lose, and having made him as comfortable as circumstances would permit, by means of the soldiers knapsacks, I then and there, surrounded by the military and police, administered the last sacraments. The fervor and devotion for which he prepared for death – though suffering very much – were most striking, and made on me an indelible impression. His lively faith and firm hope coupled with, if I might so write, his true heroism, so affected me that I could have wished myself in his place. It was whilst kneeling by his side and whispering to him words of consolation that he gave expression with his dying lips to that noble sentiment – one well worthy of Saint Lawrence O’Toole – ‘Father, I have two loves in my heart – one for my religion, the other for my country. I am dying today for the fatherland. I could die as cheerfully for faith’.Rev. T. O’Connell, by then P.P. in Castlemartyr, describes administering the last rites to O’Neill Crowley, The Irish Standard, May 28th 1887
Peter O’Neill Crowley’s body was removed to a workhouse in nearby Mitchelstown, and a short inquest followed which found ‘The deceased was shot by troops whilst in the execution of their duty‘. His body was released to his sister, and brought to Ballymacoda for burial beside his grand-uncle Fr. Peter O’Neill in the churchyard. His funeral cortege was reported to be comprised of thousands of mourners, but it is impossible to get accurate figures. Numerous sources also indicate that his coffin was shouldered all the way from Mitchelstown to Ballymacoda, stopping overnight to rest in Killeagh.
Over the years numerous commemorations have taken place at Kilclooney, notably in 1898 when a memorial was erected (re-erected in 1960), at the 100 anniversary of the battle in 1967 and in the year 2000 when Derek Warfield, historian and ex-leader of the Wolfe Tones group was the guest speaker. A new viewing station was unveiled at Kilclooney Wood in 2013, in advance of the commemoration held in 2017 to mark the 150th anniversary. Peter O’Neill Crowley is also commemorated in numerous parts of Cork and further afield:
- O’Neill Crowley Terraces in Ballymacoda, in Castlemartyr, and in Mitchelstown.
- Peter O’Neill Crowley Bridge (formerly George IV Bridge) on the Carrigrohane road in Cork city.
- O’Neill Crowley statue at the National Monument on Grand Parade in Cork city, erected to commemorate the Irish patriots who died during the period 1798 – 1867.
- O’Neill Crowley Street in Youghal.
- O’Neill Crowley Quay in Fermoy.
- Peter O’Neill Crowley Gaelic Athletic Club formed in the Clonard area of Belfast in 1902 – they went on to win two Antrim Senior Hurling titles in 1903 and 1907.
The memory of O’Neill Crowley is also captured in the folk songs ‘Erin’s Lovely Lee‘, and ‘Peter Crowley‘, recordings of which are available in the collection of the Clare County Library (see references for links).
The Fenian leader John Devoy said of O’Neill Crowley: “Peter O’Neill Crowley was one of the best men in the Fenian Movement, and Ireland never gave birth to a truer or more devoted son. His devotion to the cause of Irish liberty was sublime and his courage dauntless“. It would be difficult to disagree with this opinion.
In a future post, we’ll look at the aftermath of the 1867 rebellion, in particular what became of the other protagonists from the Ballymacoda area who took part in the rebellion.
References and Further Information
Historical Remains of Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge, Ballymacoda / Ladysbridge Community Council Historical Society
Fenian Heroes & Martyrs, John Savage, Published by Patrick Donahoe, 1868
The Irish Standard, May 28th 1887
Recollections of an Irish Rebel, A Personal Narrative, By John Devoy.
Kilclooney Wood and Peter O’Neill-Crowley, Micheál Ó’h0Aonghusa, 2012