Joe Howley - Leader of the Oranmore Volunteers, 1916

Peter Rabbitt

The Joe Howley Memorial, Oranmore

‘Sensational arrest in Forster Street’ was a headline in a local newspaper in May 1916.  The Galway Express, Saturday Morning, May 6, 1916, one hundred years ago headline was:

A Leader Arrested: at midday to-day the police visited a house in Forster Street and took into custody a young man named Howley, who is stated to be leader of the Oranmore Volunteers.  He was brought to Eglinton Street.

Joe Howley had taken refuge in Rabbitt’s of Forster Street, his uncle’s house following the Galway Rising in April 1916, but was eventually arrested and ended up being transported to Richmond Barracks, Dublin where the leading rebels of the Easter Rising in Dublin were being held and tried.

Galway Town was on tenterhooks Easter Week in Galway following the rebellion that took place on Easter Monday in Dublin and in County Galway from Easter Tuesday, with fighting in Oranmore, Clarenbridge, Carnmore, Athenry and other areas close to the town.

Joseph Howley, from Oranmore, County Galway, was a member of the Irish Volunteers and he mobilized and led a combined contingent of 106 Volunteers from Oranmore and neighboring Maree on Easter Tuesday morning of the 1916 Easter Rising in an attack on Oranmore Barracks but the police, RIC, managed to hold out.  Indeed a second attack with reinforcements from a group including Liam Mellows also failed to take the RIC Barracks and the Irish moved on in the direction of Athenry fearing the arrival of troops from Galway.

Police had moved swiftly that week in Galway town once it was realised that a rebellion against British rule had broken out in Dublin and they began to round up any people with national or Irish aspirations and Gaelic League or Sinn Féin sympathies.  Extra British troops began to reinforce the forces in Galway both by land and sea.  Gun boats were stationed in the bay and some were used as Prison Ships and others shelled what they believed were rebel held positions in an area towards Oranmore.  Fear was in the air as it seemed that the old order was about to change.  The citizens of the town were invited to defend Galway against this new threat.  Many Galwegians were away fighting in Europe as World War I was raging and many citizens felt betrayed by the Rising.  Galway based RIC policeman, Constable Whelan was killed in action that week near Carnmore and others wounded during fighting with the volunteers.  Galway Urban Council and indeed Galway County Council condemned the action of the Irish volunteers and the outbreak of rebellion.  But by the end of that week and with the surrender of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin and with the disbandment and scattering of around 600 volunteers in County Galway, according to the local press, it appeared that would be the end of rebellion against British rule.  But there was to be indiscriminate arrests throughout Galway of people, many of whom had not participated in the Rising and this eventually proved to be a mistake by the authorities.

Why and how did Joe Howley end up in Galway Town?  He slipped into the town after the Volunteers disbanded and sought refuge in his uncle’s premises in Forster Street.  He knew Galway, having attended school in ‘the Bish’ and had been a prominent Irish Volunteer, member of the IRB working with Tom Kenny, Liam Mellows and others prior to the Rising.  Joe’s mother’s maiden name was Mary Rabbitt from Rabbitt’s of Forster Street and following the death of his father, when he was two, in 1897, she had remarried Willie Keane from Oranmore.

Peter Rabbitt was proprietor of Rabbitts Provision Shop, Licenced Premises and lodgings in Forster Street and was also an Independent Urban Councillor having been elected in 1911.  He was faced with a dilemma, particularly as his fellow Urban Councillors condemned the Rising.  It was hoped he might be able to give shelter to Joe and/or use his influence to protect him.  But Joe’s activities before and during the Rising had been noted and It did not take police long to work out Joe Howley’s whereabouts and it was arranged that he would surrender to the RIC in Forster St.  Joe was taken with other Galway volunteers to Dublin.  The Galway Express Saturday morning, May 27, 1916 noted:

… Penal Servitude for Galway Prisoners … The trials have taken place at Richmond Barracks, Dublin, where the prisoners are detained and we understand that police witnesses from this County were at them.  On Saturday the results of the Fields General Court Martial were announced and amongst the names of the following men who resided in Oranmore vicinity, and who have been sentenced to five years penal servitude, two years of which have been remitted:- … Joseph Howley … 

He was one of hundreds deported to England to serve his time.  There he came under the influence of a new breed of leaders including Michael Collins and was to play a major role in the War of Independence in the West of Ireland.  Because of Joe’s part in the Rising in Galway he was a wanted man during the terrible years of war in Galway.  He took part in many skirmishes and was blamed, some believed incorrectly, of being a member of an ambush party on crown forces and resulted in the death of a Constable and the wounding of two RIC police in Merlin Park in August 1920.  Following that attack, British forces went to his home, Keanes of Oranmore, on August 21, 1916 searching for him and burned it and other premises to the ground in a night of mayhem.  Mary Keane and her family had to flee and took refuge in Peter Rabbitts in Forster Street, Galway.

On 4 December 1920 Commandant Joe Howley travelled to Dublin by train to find out, it was believed, from Michael Collins and staff what happened to a caché of arms destined for Galway.  It was shortly after Bloody Sunday and it was a tense time in Dublin.  He was shot leaving Broadstone Station by a group of armed men believed to be a group led by a former Galway Constable Igoe, who had transferred to Dublin and was tasked with identifying Irish Volunteers travelling to Dublin from the West.  Those armed men turned away an ambulance that arrived at the scene of the shooting of Howley and he was taken in a police vehicle to it is believed Dublin Castle where he died from his wounds.  A number of days later his body was returned to Oranmore by train where he was met by his mother and family, relations including the Rabbitts from Forster Street and a large security force that removed all Irish flags and republican insignia and he was buried in Oranmore cemetery.

The death of Joe Howley led Michael Collins and his squad to attempt to deal and eliminate Igoe’s gang in Dublin and enlisted the help of Galway volunteer Thomas ‘Sweeney’ Newell to identify Igoe.  Collins sent his intelligence officer Charlie Dalton and Newell shadowed by ‘Squad’ members to walk through the streets of Dublin a month later 7 January 1921 to identify Igoe for Collins’s Squad but they were accosted themselves by Igoe and his group, police in plainclothes, eventually leading to a confrontation and shooting, leaving Newell badly injured in his lower body and Dalton escaping through the streets.  Dalton’s description of that encounter in his book published in 1929 With the Dublin Brigade and Newell’s witness statements are fascinating and also describe the frustrations of the Squad and Collins in coming to grips with the Igoe gang.

Joe Howley wrote to his mother in October 1916 from detention in Britain and the censored letter that has survived described a life of boredom, conditions were not great and the weather was miserable.  It is clear from his letter that previous correspondence written by him probably criticizing the British failed to get to his mother and this innocuous letter requests information on family activities in Galway and asking his mother not to worry about him, sends his love to her, his step father his step brother and sisters, and his uncles and families in Forster Street.

October 3rd 1916, My dearest Mother I daresay you have been anxious, when you got no letter from me, but I wrote to you six weeks ago, by special permission, and only yesterday the governor told me my letter was suppressed by the military censor.  I suppose for some political reasons but I’ll make sure this one will get through, as I will put nothing in that will catch his watchful eye.  Well dearest mother, I cannot describe how anxious I was about home, every day expecting an answer…I hope you are quite well, and the Boss I hope his foot has improved, Charlie, Willie, Madge and Josie … (When young) I was headstrong myself [censored] … but it pains me very much when I think of you dearest mother and how kind and good you were always to me and my sorrow I feel is for you and you alone, for that reason I would like the lads (at home) to keep right, work well and always stand by you and take your advice. I often thought I had grievances, but I now know the happiness of a good home … The doctor told me (I had) a case of old pleurisy, but nothing to worry about … All my clothes were destroyed as we did not take them off for 3 weeks in Dublin.  Of course we’ll be supplied with clothes … I hope you got a good price for the cattle … I suppose John has all the work gone through, hay, corn and potatoes, poor chap I am glad he wasn’t arrested, and it is a good thing for you too, as he certainly is a good and honest man.  How did you get along at the races, what won the Galway Plate … I hope Peter, Mrs Rabbitt and Johnny are well [next two lines blacked out by censor] … I  dare say it’s impossible to know about what time we’ll get out, however, I didn’t care what became of myself, only you and Boss and family to be alright … This is an unmerciful climate nothing but fog and rain from morn to night [next part censored] … I cannot tell you anything owing to the new military censor … be careful when answering as it may be suppressed as I am longing to hear from home … Don’t forget to write at once, a long letter, and every bit of news about the place … I will write again about (Christ) Xmas.  Tell dearest Maggie to write to me in Nov., you might write yourself too, as I am sure you will want to tell about the land and cattle.  Well dearest mother don’t attempt to come over here it would cost 10 pounds and the visit only lasts 20 minutes.  It would be only ridiculous.  Give my best love to Boss, Charlie, Willie, Madge and Josie (xxxxxxx)…from your fond son Joe …

By March 10, 1917 the Galway Express reporting on a Galway Urban Council meeting that Cumann na mBan had been writing to the Council seeking support for Irish prisoners in English jails and Councillor P. Rabbitt supported their efforts stating that he had knowledge of their poor conditions.

Joe Howley was released from Dartmoor Prison in June 1917.  Public opinion on the Easter Rising had begun to change in Ireland and Galway – The Galway Express June 23, 1917:

Release of Prisoners … extraordinary scenes were witnessed on the way down from the Metropolis to Oranmore on Tuesday evening … all the stations on the line were crowded with a seething mass of people.  Sinn Féin flags, banners and the rebel colours were largely shown … bonfires were blazing en route, and from Ballinasloe and thence to Oranmore the fields were thick with people waving torches and cheering loudly … and at Oranmore where they were met by a crowd of relatives and sympathizers.

Joe Howley, with the support of his mother Mary Howley Keane, née Rabbitt and his comrades were about to embark on the fight for Irish Independence.  A memorial statue to Howley was erected in 1947 now in Howley Court in Oranmore.  The inscription reads:

‘Comdt. Joseph Howley. He led his volunteers in Easter week 1916 and was murdered by English agents at the Broadstone Dublin 1920.  Erected in 1947 by his old comrades of 1916-1920.’


The Howley Monument, Oranmore

Joe Howley Letter, 3 October 1916

Galway Express, 1916-17

Charlie Dalton, With the Dublin Brigade (Dublin, 1929)

Kay Davis, Oranmore in Days of Yore (Galway, c. 2013)

Brenda Furey, The History of Oranmore Maree (Galway, 1991)

The Bureau of Military History (BMH) Witness Statements

Peter Rabbitt is County Librarian of Galway County Libraries. His article was first published in ‘St. Patrick’s Parish’ magazine (Christmas, 2016) (Edited by William Henry)

Comments about this page

  • Originally from Dublin, I live just outside of Boston, and I was having some electrical work done on my house. The electrician was telling me that he had distant relatives in Galway, and that Joe Howley was one of them. I found this article very well written and very interesting. It’s wrong I know, but I’ve always tended to focus on Dublin when reading about 1916. So this has been a pleasant surprise and has made me curious to read more on the West’s contribution during that period.

    By JOhn Farrell (10/12/2020)

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