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Two Civil War Casualties from South-East Laois

Laois Local Studies > Articles > Two Civil War Casualties from South-East Laois

Above: Grave of Denis Dwyer, Wolfhill

by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence

At the time of the Truce in 1921 Denis Dwyer was a Volunteer in the D (Luggacurran) company of the 4th Battalion, Laois Brigade, Irish Republican Army and James Kealy a Volunteer in the E (Ballickmoyler) company of the same battalion.[1]  A year later Kealy was killed in the Civil War fighting on the Pro-Treaty side, while Dwyer died fighting on the Anti-Treaty side.

Shooting on the Durrow Road

Kealy was shot on the night of the 1st of July 1922, dying of his wounds on the morning of the 2nd after a long circuitous route to hospital avoiding trenched and blocked roads.[2] The fatal injury was inflicted on the Durrow road south of Abbeyleix. This was after the assault on the Four Courts in Dublin, but was the first bloodshed in the Civil War in Laois. Occupied public buildings in Abbeyleix constituted the main Anti-Treatyite stronghold in the county. Kealy had been part of a group of National Army troops traveling from Kilkenny to Portlaoise. They came under fire as they approached Abbeyleix. 

Driving by the local enemy headquarters may seem like a foolhardy route to have taken. It is possible to speculate that they did not yet realise that they would be in combat with the Abbeyleix garrison, because the Free State, owing to perceived division within the Anti-Treatyite ranks, initially planned for a brief localised suppression of their opponents in Dublin rather than a nation-wide conflict.  

Ambush or Almost Accident

It is notable that the accounts of events given by prominent Laois Anti-Treaty leaders distance themselves from the slaying. Lar Brady recounted to the Bureau of Military History that: “On Saturday night, 1st July, 1922, I was in charge of a demolition party proceeding out the Durrow Road, Abbeylaois, when we were surprised by a party of Free State troops returning from Kilkenny. In an exchange of fire, one of the Free State soldiers was killed. The I.R.A. section suffered no casualties.”[3]

One gets the impression of an almost accidental encounter. It is surprising though that they would be surprised by a motor vehicle which would certainly presage its presence with the noise of its engine. Likewise, it is a bit of a stretch to think they had left the way into Abbeyleix from Durrow wide open when they were quite logically fearing attack after the siege of the Four Courts. 

Grave of James Kealy, Arles

Frank Dunne, was formerly James Kealy’s Tan War commanding office, in overall charge as he was of the 4th Battalion. Dunne, who took the Anti-Treaty side, likewise distanced himself from the death in a note which is part of the James Kealy military service pensions file. Dunne wrote “I was supposed to know all the facts about how deceased met his death as alleged by his parents, he met his death attacking Republican Volunteers in Abbeyleix, I have know (sic – no) knowledge of details – as I was not in Abbeyleix area on the night he met his death. This information you can kindly convey to his relatives.”[4]

Newspaper reports on the bloody event describe an ambush, though one could argue they too have their biases.  Ray Finnegan, who as a youth was an eyewitness to the tumultuous happenings in Abbeyleix that July, recounted “The ambush upset the town community greatly”.[5]

Clash at Capard House  

In subsequent conflict in the first week of July the Anti-Treatyites were expelled from their Abbeyleix headquarters and ancillary positions, retreating first eastward and then north.  Ultimately their destination was Capard house, Rosenallis, on the opposite, northern side of the county. Capard house was the dwelling of the Pigott family, such ‘big houses’ were pressed into service as garrisons by all forces during the ‘troubled times’.  It was here on the morning of the 12th of July 1922 that Denis Dwyer met his end.  For what must have been a very long morning a Free State armoured car strafed the palatial mansion with machine-gun bullets sending plaster flying. Dwyer was killed when a bullet exploded the shot-gun cartridges in his pocket. Seemingly he had followed the officer Michael Sheehy outside.[6] Sheehy had come under fire while trying to find a route of retreat. Both of them had been in the Luggacurran company during the Tan War. In his military service pension file Dwyer was described by one of his comrades as “a brave and trustworthy soldier”.[7] As no Anti-Treatyites died in Abbeyleix it is probable that Dwyer was the first fatal casualty in Laois from that side.

Parallel Lives, Parallel Deaths

At the time of the 1911 census both Dwyer and Kealy were schoolchildren — and both aged 11 —so they were entering their teens as the Home Rule Crisis pitched Ireland into a period of political violence. Dwyer’s father was an agricultural labourer, Kealy’s a farmer, though the pension file classifies the farm as “20 acres of very inferior land” in the townland called The Rushes.[8] In his native townland of Shanragh (sometimes Shanrath) Dwyer would have experienced the hustle and bustle of Wolfhill colliery – a railway bridge and siding still remain there today as relicts of that industry. In 1911 the Dwyer family provided lodgings to one of the mine’s workers. Kealy actually worked there as an assistant engineer before enlisting in the National Army. Dwyer’s occupation is listed as blacksmith in the pensions documentation, though he is also reported as having worked in the mines.[9]

[1] Michael Rafter, The Quiet County: Towards a History of the Laois Brigade IRA and Revolutionary Activity in the County 1913–1923 (Naas, 2016) 70

[2] Ibid. 95

[3] Bureau of Military History Witness Statement no. 1427, Laurence Brady.

[4] Military Archives, Military Service Pensions Collection, 3MSRB28 James Kealy.

[5] Rafter, The Quiet County, 95.

[6] Rafter, The Quiet County, 101.

[7] Military Archives, Military Service Pensions Collection, 2RB175 Denis Dwyer. 

[8] Military Archives, Military Service Pensions Collection, F70 James Kealy. 

[9] Rafter, The Quiet County, 101.