Offaly History welcomes this contribution from Pat Nolan and is delighted to be able to include it in our Fifty Blogs for the Decade of Centenaries. This story, and much more, will soon be uploaded to our new Decade of Centenaries platform on www.offalyhistory.com. The portrait is from chapter one of Pat Nolan’s ‘The Furlongs – The Story of a Remarkable Family’, published by Ballpoint Press in 2014. Our thanks to Pat and his publisher.
At around midday on a Thursday afternoon in July 1921, up to 20 IRA members parked their bicycles not far from New Ross post office. A number of them surrounded the building on all sides while others filed inside, dressed in their civilian clothes and without any form of disguise. The staff had just finished sorting the morning mail and the town was relatively quiet. At first they didn’t pay any heed to the men, presuming they were linesmen – post office officials who had charge of the telegraph system. However, when they drew out their revolvers and yelled “hands up” the innocence of the staff’s initial impression was laid bare.
One of the volunteers saw a lady using the telephone in the public office and jumped over the counter, quizzing her as to the nature of her conversation. Satisfied that she hadn’t been relaying any details of the raid, the phone was quickly dismantled and the telegraph wires cut.
The key of the safe was demanded from the postmaster. When he had the temerity to demur a gun was pointed at his head. The leader of the group was rather young but ran a tight ship. He barked out the orders and it was clear that the group was well organised with each man having been assigned a specific task. They spread around the building, rifling through drawers for anything of value and pocketing it; cash, postal orders, stamps, savings bank certificates.
Amid all the excitement, the entrance of the post office remained open so as not to arouse suspicion with the local RIC barracks barely 400 yards away. People continued to enter the building as they went about their normal daily business but no one was allowed to leave.
The stakes were raised though when a British Army officer strolled in with the intention of buying stamps. No sooner was he through the door when he noticed a man with his hand on a revolver in the breast of his coat. He looked around and saw the volunteers behind the counter, calling the shots and swiping what they could. He bided his time and tried to make himself inconspicuous. After some 20 minutes he made a run for the door and sprinted all the way to the barracks, quickly informing the police of the heist. Both military and RIC personnel swarmed to the scene in lorries with more following on bicycles.
By the time they mobilised themselves, however, the volunteers’ work was just about done. Before the building was surrounded most of the raiders had fled on their bicycles though word hadn’t yet reached one of their men guarding the back entrance. When he finally realised that he was isolated and that the crown forces were closing in, he made a run for it down Quay Street.
“Hands up,” shouted a soldier who gave chase. The volunteer hesitated and reached for the revolver in the right-hand pocket of his trousers. “Hands up,” the soldier cried once more. It was enough to avert a shootout which, given that he was now heavily outnumbered, the volunteer would almost certainly have lost. He raised his hands and was disarmed. He was seized and brought up to the barracks, shipping more than a few belts from officers along the way.
People on the street stopped and wondered what all the commotion was about. Margaret Moloney had travelled the few miles from Raheen into New Ross for some shopping with her mother, Anastatia, and they were drawn towards the sight of this man being hauled up to the barracks. Margaret, just 13 years of age and on her school holidays, wondered who he was. “That’s a Furlong from Raheenakennedy,” she was later told. The Furlong household was only a couple of miles across the fields from where she lived near Adamstown, yet she wasn’t familiar with this man at all.
Tom Furlong had signed up with the republican movement four years earlier when barely 16 years of age. While Wexford was a focal point of the 1798 rebellion, it had also played its part in the 1916 Easter Rising when the towns of Enniscorthy and Ferns were taken by rebels who only surrendered once their comrades in Dublin had finally been defeated. Like many young men of the time, Furlong’s head was turned by events of 1916 as support for republicanism mushroomed across the country.
After going through the usual drilling and training in the early years, his first big assignment was in connection with a raid for arms on the Clonroche barracks in April 1920. Furlong, armed with a shotgun which he wasn’t required to discharge on this occasion, manned the main barricade on the New Ross road as the attack dragged on for more than five hours.
The following December, having since joined a flying column and alternated between that and the local Adamstown company, he enjoyed a more prominent role in an attack on Foulksmills barracks and fired some 50 rounds over the course of a four-hour stand off. The volunteers eventually had to withdraw having made no significant inroads and with their ammunition exhausted.
No RIC men were wounded on that occasion, though Furlong was involved in several sniping missions on the same barracks thereafter, one resulting in the wounding of a constable. By now he was on the run and in hiding from the British forces and between significant assignments would engage in activities to disrupt road, rail and electricity lines, while houses were also frequently raided for arms.
As he was the only man captured from the New Ross post office job though, it was always likely that there would be moves to make an example of him. The day after his arrest he was imprisoned in Waterford ahead of a court martial in the city less than two weeks later, facing the charge of carrying a Webley revolver. When he was arrested and disarmed, the revolver was found to be loaded with dum-dum bullets in all six chambers. The nature of his ammunition didn’t do him any favours, with expanding bullets having been banned from international warfare by the Hague Convention of 1899.
As the case closed, Furlong was asked if he had any statement to make. He condemned the officers for the “brutal” manner in which they abused him on his arrest. The judge frowned and reached for one of the bullets, holding it up.
“A soldier does not feel inclined to be very kind when you find a man with this kind of ammunition on him. What did they do to you at New Ross?”
“They kicked me,” Furlong replied, “in the street, before they brought me to the barracks. They struck me with their rifles and boxed me into the face.”
The judge quizzed him as to whether he had reported any of his bruises to the prison doctor. Furlong replied that he hadn’t, presuming it would have been a pointless exercise. Military witnesses stepped forward and, naturally, played down any rough house treatment that may have been meted out, suggesting that any thumps he got were earned for barbed responses to their queries.
It was all conjecture in any event. With the ammunition on his person when arrested and three witnesses, two military and one police personnel, testifying against him he never stood a chance of acquittal; the main issue was whether he would be sentenced to penal servitude or death. The former seemed more likely at first before the latter was settled on: Tom Furlong was to be executed.
Although the Anglo-Irish Treaty wasn’t signed until December 1921, the War of Independence effectively ended months earlier when a truce was agreed, bringing about a ceasefire. Guerilla warfare had forced the closure of many rural barracks across the country such as those raided by Furlong and Co as crown forces retreated to stations in more urban centres.
The British feared that this brand of warfare would continue indefinitely and with spiralling costs given the deployment of their troops, not to mention casualties and the fierce criticism they were receiving at home and abroad for the barbaric nature of their reprisals on innocent civilians through the actions of the Black and Tans, they pushed for a resolution. A truce was eventually agreed on July 9 and came into effect two days later, paving the way for the negotiations which eventually resulted in the signing of the Treaty.
Tom Furlong and his fellow volunteers raided the post office in New Ross on July 7. His court martial in Waterford was held on July 20. At its outset he had railed against the authority of the court and refused to recognise it given the truce that had come into effect days earlier. His words fell on deaf ears initially and may have seemed like nothing more than a man bleating in desperation for his salvation but, as it turned out, there was more than a ring of truth to his assertion.
While he may have been set for execution, it eventually came to pass that the truce would grant him and others like him a reprieve. Tom Furlong dodged a death sentence and was released in January 1922, the month after the Treaty was signed, though his time behind bars wasn’t finished yet as one of the murkiest and most unseemly episodes in Irish history was soon to unfold: The Civil War.
Wexford, like many other counties, was deeply divided by the Civil War. The South Wicklow-North Wexford Brigade of the IRA supported the Treaty but the South Wexford equivalent, which numbered Furlong among its membership, didn’t. Having been united in one cause, they now turned the gun on each other. It has been said that Wexford was a county that saw more fighting during the Civil War than in the War of Independence. At one stage the anti-Treaty forces took control of the county before the Free State Army wrestled it back. The anti-Treaty side, for example, constantly disrupted railway lines to frustrate the Free State’s ability to govern; a spate of killings was often the response by way of retaliation.
A couple of weeks after Furlong was released from prison having been granted his amnesty, he took up station full-time at the New Ross barracks, which was no longer under British control. He remained there until the Civil War broke out in June 1922 and took part in it to a small degree on the anti-Treaty side. Along with three others, he fired a few shots at Free State Army troops coming into town in a number of lorries as well as a number of attacks on posts in New Ross but none of these episodes amounted to much.
After skirmishes in Enniscorthy he was arrested in Ballyanne in July with the Civil War very much in its infancy. At first he was interned in New Ross before being shifted to Kilkenny, from where he managed to escape that winter though only made it about 600 yards from the jail before being immediately recaptured.
The time may have passed slowly but it was maybe just as well that Furlong was locked up with the number of casualties mounting on the outside. However, those who were jailed weren’t always spared a bloody fate either. In March 1923 three anti-Treaty prisoners were executed in Wexford Jail having been arrested for possession of firearms the previous month, which led directly to three Free State soldiers being shot dead in Furlong’s local village of Adamstown. The following day another man was shot dead in the same parish by way of response from the Free State.
The Civil War eventually concluded in May 1923 with the anti-Treaty side finally admitting defeat and Tom Furlong was released from prison, having since been relocated to the Curragh in Co Kildare, in January 1924.
He returned home to the family farm in Raheenakennedy. He was the third of four sons to Mike and Anne and, not being the eldest, would never have any chance of inheriting the farm. That would fall to his brother John and though the farm was only big enough to support one family, he and his wife Ciss never had children while the next brother, Jim, didn’t marry and remained on the family farm throughout his life. The youngest boy, Mick, later opened a bar and grocery store on Quay Street in New Ross.
With no long-term prospects for him on the farm and his recent history with the IRA and time in prison having done little to promote his position in the family’s pecking order, Tom reckoned he would need to be innovative and look beyond Adamstown in terms of how he would eke out a living. However, there was more to life than work.
Coming to the late 1920s Margaret Moloney was no longer a teenage girl but a strapping young woman. From another farming family in nearby Raheen, she was the second of five children. The clergy held an inordinate influence in Ireland at the time and, if a beast was sick, the priest tended to be sent for rather than anyone of veterinary expertise. As youngsters, Margaret and her friends would often jump over a ditch if they noticed a priest coming towards them on the road. If he saw them first, the expectation was that they would kneel until he had passed.
Those quasi acts of defiance apart, she remained a deeply religious woman throughout her life and it was through attending Mass at Raheen Church that she first began to exchange glances with Tom Furlong, the man she had seen carted up the street to the RIC Barracks in New Ross a number of years before. They later became acquainted and then embarked on a relationship. They were something of a peculiar couple in ways as Tom stood at just five feet seven tall while Margaret towered a few inches over him.
Nonetheless, they complemented each other well on the whole and, before too long, decided to marry and elope. They took their wedding vows at half past eight one morning in Raheen Church in front of two witnesses and immediately headed for Dublin, where they stayed for six months. Years later, Margaret would often joke of how she was treated to a “six-month honeymoon” in the capital. From there they relocated to Cavan briefly, where Tom came across a job advertisement for a ploughboy on Deegan’s farm in Tullamore.
Tom Furlong knew how to work a farm better than he knew anything else. Moreover, he enjoyed it and had a flair for it, not to mention an appetite for hard work to match. He applied for the job and was hired by Frank Deegan, for whom he would work for several years to come.
Tom and Margaret initially took up residence in Puttaghaun on the north side of Tullamore before settling in a two-bedroomed house on O’Moore Street a few years later for an initial weekly rent of six shillings and sixpence a week (6/6d). It would remain the family home for 60 years from then on.
Tom didn’t spare himself in terms of workload. Margaret would make her way up to the Deegan farm in Clonminch with a bottle of tea and a sandwich for him in the middle of the day. He’d pull the horse in for a few minutes, feed up on whatever she had and set off about his work again. He rented a patch of land on Church Road and kept a few bullocks and cows and chickens and reared pigs as well as having an ass for working on the bog. His livestock were always well fed and sought after at the local mart.
Margaret didn’t leave her farming instincts behind her in Wexford either and picked up the slack while Tom worked during the day. When a sow was farrowing her motherly nature was always apparent, staying up at night rubbing her belly and making sure she didn’t smother the offspring. Her sons still remember her hauling buckets of slop that seemed like they would pull her arms from the sockets.
In later years, Tom worked in the building trade with a local man named Larry Young, as well as the Flanagans, while continuing his own relatively modest farming activity on the side. He never learned to drive and while working in construction was a regular sight around Tullamore, wheeling his tools and materials around town on a buggy from one job to the next.
He retained a strong republican outlook though very rarely spoke of his Old IRA past with his sons or anyone else for that matter, but then Tom Furlong always was a man of few words. Most information the boys gleaned on the matter was from their mother. For years, the family would holiday at home in Wexford and the trips down there would take in many of the landmarks that dominated Tom’s volunteer days. Martin remembers passing under a bridge in Macmine once when his father remarked, “That’s where the train came off the tracks” in reference to the practice of derailing that was common in the war years.
When on those summer breaks in Wexford, the men would sit around and talk of the old days though the children were too carefree to take an interest at the time. If they did, they’d be sent on their way in any event.
“I remember one time we were going to Wexford,” says Tom junior as his father touched ever so briefly on his escape from prison in Kilkenny once, “and we went out past Kilkenny Castle, and he said, ‘There’s the road that we tunnelled under, we came up in that field there’.”
He also remembers his mother mentioning how his father soldiered with famed Tipperary volunteer Dan Breen and was shot in the thigh when on the run in the Knockmealdown Mountains with him one day. The wound bothered him to a degree for the rest of his life. “He walked with a limp, when he was tired or that,” adds Tom junior, “he’d be shifting weight.”
Tom Furlong’s anti-Treaty stance was reflected in his staunch support for Fianna Fáil for the rest of his life, with Eamon de Valera a huge political hero of his. Fianna Fáil’s long-serving Laois-Offaly TD Nicholas Egan could always count on the Furlong vote. “He was a big Dev man,” says Tom. “Didn’t matter what Dev said, that was it.” Years later when Margaret attended Dev’s funeral, she was elevated to a more prominent position at the service when it was noticed that she was wearing her late husband’s war medals on her chest.
So fanatical were Tom Furlong’s republican beliefs that he railed against the notion of celebrating his birthday, which fell on July 12, “Orangeman’s Day in the North”, as he called it. Not long after he settled in Tullamore with Margaret, she gave birth to their first son, Micheál, on July 13, 1929.
From then on, father and son celebrated their birthday on the same day.
Some copies of the book are still available at €15 each and all proceeds go to Dóchas Offaly Cancer Support Services. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for copies or call to our history shop at Bury Quay, Tullamore.
Pat Nolan Twitter: @pat_nolan