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Art O’Donnell (1890–1973)

By Paul Markham


See also: Frongoch Manuscript of Art O’Donnell

Art O’Donnell was born in 1890 at Tullycrine, Co. Clare. He received his primary education at Tullycrine N.S. and Cooraclare N.S. He trained as a teacher at St. Patrick’s Drumcondra, Dublin. He had a most distinguished career during the War of Independence when he served terms of imprisonment in Belfast’s Crumlin Road, Mountjoy, Cork and Dundalk prisons as well as several English jails. He was Commandant of the 7th Clare Battalion of the Irish Volunteers.

Art was one of fifteen children born to Simon and Mary O’Donnell. She was an aunt of Con Colbert who was executed in 1916. Art was a popular figure in Ennis where he resided for a long number of years during which he was employed on the clerical staff of Clare County Council. Art married Hannah O’Keeffe and had five sons in family; Colm, Hugh, Simon, Sean, Fr. Con.

In the second week of July 1913 Art O’Donnell of Tullycrine became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, while attending St. Patrick’s Training College, Dublin. When the College broke up for the holidays Art returned home to Tullycrine with anti-enlisting leaflets which he was to distribute in West Clare. The leaflet read:

“WAR IRELAND –GERMANY- ENGLAND. War is imminent between England and Germany. England’s cowardly and degenerate population won’t make soldiers. Not so the Germans. They are trained and ready. What will England do? She will recruit Irishmen to fight Germany for her. She will then, when finished with them fling them back to the workhouses of Ireland reeking with foul filthy diseases.”

The above was distributed after Mass the following Sunday and those attending had something else to talk about other than the weather. In 1914 Art took up a teaching post in Low Island near Kildysart. He retained a great interest in national matters. In August 1914 the Ulster Volunteers, who were founded in 1913 were split into two groups. One followed John Redmond and the other taking their stand on national matters alone. Art founded a small group of his own in Kildysart in 1914 together with Sean McNamara, Martin Griffin and Frank McMahon and each were sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Their aim was to push the anti-war propaganda. Eventually this circle became attached to National Headquarters. Art was a first cousin of Con Colbert from Athea and through his contact with him, he became convinced that a nation-wide rebellion was inevitable. He organized a battalion in Kilmurry McMahon in 1915, which had 40 members. They trained regularly. Peadar Clancy (a native of Cranny who resided in Dublin) was contacted and the company was affiliated with Irish Volunteer Headquarters. The Clare County Board of the Irish Volunteers was formed by Rev. C. Culligan C.C. Carrigaholt. He was elected chairman, Jeremiah O’Brien was vice-chair and Michael Brennan was secretary. Meetings were held on a regular basis to keep members familiar with local and national events. Commandant Colivet of Limerick had jurisdiction over the Clare Brigades and he divided Clare into 4 battalions (1) Meelick to Killaloe with Micheal Brennan in charge, (2) Crusheen, Inch, Ennis and District – S. Mac Conmara in charge, (3) North Clare, Corofin, Ennsitymon with H.J. Hunt in charge, (4) West Clare – Lissycasey to Loop with Eamonn Fennell as Commandant and Art O’Donnell as Vice Commandant. There was great activity in the West Clare Brigade during Holy Week 1916 – all empty cartridge cases were collected and sent to Limerick. They were also informed that a General Rising was to take place on Easter Sunday. But because no arms had arrived and Casement was captured there was confusion as to whether or not the Easter Rising would take place. When no orders had been received by Easter Saturday it was decided to call off all immediate operations but to keep the Battalion mobilized. Eoin McNeill’s notice in the National papers calling off all parades for the Easter Sunday convinced everybody that no Rising was going to take place. Consequently while the Easter Rising was taking place in Dublin, Clare was relatively peaceful except for the extra surveillance by the local R.I.C. on known Volunteers. By Saturday the news had spread from Dublin and known Volunteers were given a fairly hostile reception by the public. Well known Volunteers were rounded up and put in prison in London. Later they were put into Frongoch Interment Camp, amongst them was Art O’Donnell.

A manuscript Art wrote while in Frongoch has survived and was donated to Clare County Archives by Art’s son, Hugh. The manuscript can be viewed on Clare County Library’s website.

He was released at the end of July 1916 and immediately brought the local battalion together and started to train them. All available arms and ammunition were conserved and stored safely. By Christmas 1916 an Independent Clare Brigade was formed. The county was divided into eight battalion areas. Art O’Donnell was Commandant of the local brigade. An election took place on July 11, 1917 because Major Redmond died. Eamonn de Valera was selected to fight the seat for Sinn Fein. The results were as follows; De Valera – 5,010 Sinn Fein; Lynch – 2,035 Irish Parliament Party. This runaway victory caused great excitement and rejoicing throughout the county. The Volunteers paraded and drilled publicly and once again were rounded up and most sent to Mountjoy Jail Dublin. Art O’Donnell’s sentence was two years hard labour. He was later transferred to Dundalk Jail where all prisoners went on a general hunger strike. After a few days of this the prisoners were released in groups over 3 or 4 days under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ act. The death of Tom Ashe after hunger strike swept over the countryside like wildfire and volunteer activities were renewed more vigorously. Numbers doubled and a public drill campaign was continued – local captains and commanders were all on the run and the R.I C. were kept busy raiding houses in the locality for them. Art O’Donnell, because he didn’t return to prison on the date specified on the ‘Cat and Mouse’ order was captured during one of these raids and sent to Derry jail. In November 1918 World War 1 ended and the prisoners were released in December. West Clare Brigade elections were held in January 1919. The results were as follows: Brigade Comdt. – Art O’Donnell, Vice Comdt. – Sean Liddy, Adjutant – Jack O’Dwyer, Quartermaster – Paddy Tubridy.

1st Battalion - Cranny, Coolmeen, Kildysart, Labasheeda – Paddy Clancy
2nd Battalion - Kilmurry, Kilmihil, Kilrush, Killimer – John Flanagan
3rd Battalion – Cooraclare, Cree, Doonbeg, Cahermurphy – Dan Sheedy
4th Battalion – Coore, Mullagh, Quilty, Kilmurry Ibrickane – Christy McCarthy
4th Battalion – Kilkee to Doonaha – Eamonn Fennell

Connections with West Limerick companies were maintained by means of boats manned by Volunteers from the Labasheeda and Killofin Companies. By mid 1919 orders were received from G.H.Q. (General Headquarters) that all members of the enemy forces both police and military were to be shot on sight. At this stage the law and order had completely broken down and there were lots of disputes over land which was affecting the morale and discipline of local battalions. At a meeting on November 1st 1919 in Cree the first Sinn Fein Circuit court in the country was established. President was Fr. C. Culligan C.C. Kilmihil, B. Higgins Carrigaholt, J. McInerney, Doonbeg, B. Crowley, Tullagower and P. Kelly, Cree were other members. Art O’Donnell was Secretary and Registrar. The first court with the above members was held soon after at O’Donnell’s Tullycrine. All people concerned had to sign documents beforehand consenting to abide the decision of the court. A set of rules were drawn up and submitted to Austin Stack, Minister of Defence, Dail Eireann for sanctioning. In 1920 ambushes were undertaken to comply with 1919 G.H.Q. orders. Ambushes were carried out on the Black and Tans at Tullycrine, Drumdigus, Burrane, etc.

In November of 1920 Art O’Donnell again was arrested and interned at Ballykinlar Camp near Belfast. He was held there until 1921. The local company under Jack Coghlan and Commandant Willie Shannon remained actively involved in all West Clare activities right up to the Truce.

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Art O'Donnell