By Eamon Murphy
Sean O’Byrne was from Gorey Co. Wexford and was one of the most prominent local republicans. He was very active in the struggle for Irish independence, most notably in the 1916 Easter Rising.
Sean’s first introduction to nationalism was in 1905 when he joined the Gorey branch of the Irish language and cultural organisation, the Gaelic League. The cultural revival occurring in Ireland at that time brought with it a new sense of patriotism across the country and Gorey was no exception to this rising nationalism and it experienced its own renaissance with the establishment of a new political party, Sinn Fein, in 1907. The party of Sinn Fein was only established in 1905 by Arthur Griffith and was quickly spreading across the country. Sean O’Byrne was at the inaugural meeting of this new party in Gorey. There were about twelve other founding members of this new branch of the political organisation. Courtown local Sean Etchingham was its first Chairman.
By 1909 a new group called Fianna Eireann was formed in Dublin by Bulmer Hobson and Countess Markievicz. This was a Boy Scout movement with a nationalist outlook and was set up in response to Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts and Gorey was one of the first towns outside of the capital to form a sluagh (branch). Sean O’Byrne was influential in the setting up of the local branch. Liam Mellows as national organiser for the Fianna was a regular visitor to Gorey to inspect the scouts and give support wherever he could and Sean O’Byrne assisted Liam in many of these duties.
Sean O’Byrne also became a member of the Gorey circle of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.) around this time. It was secret organisation that aimed to overthrow British rule and establish an independent and democratic republic. The Gorey branch of the I.R.B. was a small circle but they still played an important role in keeping the patriotic flame burning in Gorey until another major event occurred in 1913.
In 1913, the Irish Volunteers were formed and Sean O’Byrne attended the first historic meeting in the Rotunda in Dublin on November 25th. A week later Sean O’Byrne, along with fellow local man Sean Etchingham, attended a meeting of the Volunteer Executive at the request of the committee, at Wynn’s Hotel in Abbey Street. Some of the personalities present at this meeting included Patrick Pearse, The O’Rahilly, Liam Mellows, Eamon Martin, Bulmer Hobson, Joseph Plunkett, Con Colbert and Eoin MacNeill. Sean O’Byrne requested that a number of committee members from the executive travel to Gorey to attend and speak at a public rally organised with the intention of starting a local branch of the Irish Volunteers. Shortly after Christmas on January 6th, 1914, Patrick Pearse and Michael J. Judge of the executive committee, travelled to a meeting in Gorey, which was organized by Sean O’Byrne and Sean Etchingham, and held in the local Town Hall. The two guest speakers stressed the importance of such an organisation in the town. It was a momentous occasion and Sean O’Byrne pulled out all the stops in organizing the day’s events. Two local bands were present and led the parade which followed a route from the Ram’s Arms Hotel along the Main Street to the Town Hall on the Arklow Road.
Approximately sixty Gorey men signed up on that first day with Sean Etchingham asked to head up the local branch. Sean O’Byrne became Treasurer. The Gorey branch of the Irish Volunteers was very successful and regular weekly parades were held in the town.
In 1914, Sean O’Byrne cycled to Kilcoole to take part in the gunrunning. Sean and a group of four other men detained two R.I.C. constables while the Dublin Volunteers made their way back to the capital with the newly landed rifles and ammunition. Once they were satisfied that the Dublin men were well away, they released the two R.I.C. men. Sean then cycled back to Gorey that night after only arriving a few hours previously from his home town.
In 1915 Sean O’Byrne marched in the funeral procession of Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa with his Gorey comrades, including Sean Etchingham and James Gleeson.
In November of 1915, Sean O’Byrne and four other members of the Gorey Branch of the Irish Volunteers took part in the commemoration of the Manchester Martyrs on Vinegar Hill in Enniscorthy. The event was addressed by Patrick Pearse.
In 1916, Sean cycled to the Volunteers headquarters in Enniscorthy along with five other committed local Volunteers to take part in the planned activities that were to take place. Sean was involved in the removal of railway lines around Enniscorthy to prevent and delay the arrival of British Troops. On his way back to Gorey to mobilise more Volunteers later in the week, the word came down from Dublin of the surrender. A few days later Sean was arrested by local R.I.C officers in Gorey who knew of his activities as he was by then a known and prominent republican.
Sean O’Byrne was sent to Wandsworth Prison in England and spent about 5 weeks there until he was transferred to the infamous Frongoch prison Camp in North Wales but was released 8 weeks later in August of that year.
Little is known of Sean O’Byrne’s activities in the years following the 1916 Rising and the subsequent War of Independence of 1919-1921 but it is likely that he took part in the reorganisation of Sinn Fein in the town. He was probably on the run during this period as Sinn Fein members were targeted by the R.I.C. and later by the ‘Black and Tans’, and many raids were to take place in Gorey during this period. On November 21st 1919 twenty houses were raided with many of them damaged by the ruthless R.I.C. officers who were targeting local republican sympatisers and Sinn Fein officials. A number of weeks earlier the home of the Secretary of the Gorey branch of Sinn Fein and of the Gaelic League, Mr. James Gannon, was ransacked as they confiscated all his Irish language books. He was sentenced to three months in prison for allegedly possessing documents that breached national security. Two local brothers John and William Breen were arrested for apparently trying to obtain arms, a few days later another nine unnamed locals were also arrested on similar charges. Gorey women and children were not immune to the persecution either and in April of 1920, the local R.I.C. assisted by the ‘Black and Tans’ savagely set upon a gathering of civilians in the town. Many women and children were wounded in the incident.
For many years following the independence period Sean O’Byrne served as a local town Commissioner and was its Chairman on several occasions. Sean O’Byrne also represented the town of Gorey on Wexford County Council many times over the years. Sean O’Byrne lived out his days in his beloved Gorey and is buried in the local St. Michaels Cemetery. His influence and standing in the town is always fondly remembered and he was honoured with a naming of a local housing estate in Gorey. His portrait still hangs on the walls of the Town Council.
by Eamon Murphy
Sean O’Byrne Witness Statement BMH
Thomas Dwyer Witness Statement BMH
Robert Kinsella Witness Statement BMH
Irish Bulletin 1919-21 Volume one, Auburn Historical Society
F.X.. Martin, Leaders and Men of the Easter Rising
Michael Fitzpatrick’s History of Gorey Volume six
Interviews with local Gorey people
Special thanks to Pat Curran and Reddy Mick for providing me with this great photograph of Sean O’Byrne