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(Above) Volunteer Michael Joseph Courtney (1901-93)
F Company (Kilmainhamwood) 4th Battalion, Meath Brigade, IRA, 1921

Volunteer Michael Joseph Courtney was the ninth and youngest child of Patrick and Rose Anne Courtney. He was born in 1901 in Kilmainhamwood County Meath and attended the local national school. 

Michael's father Patrick was a blacksmith from Maheracloone in County Monaghan. His mother was Rose Anne McCabe, the daughter of Thomas and Rose McCabe also from Maheracloone.

The McCabes farmed a large holding of 56 acres.  

Tom Courtney, his eldest son, reflected the older and more conservative views of his father and he was also politically involved with the UIL and the IPP, and he was the recording secret-ary of the local branch of the AOH.

However, Tom's more radical side was working for the BLM looking for land for the people and cottages for the labourers.

Tom was an Irish speaker and attended Gaelic League classes and was also a fine footballer, playing with

(Above) The stairs from the dungeons of Kilmainham Gaol to the East Wing, showing the contrast in light between above and below. 
Photograph: Micheal O DOibhilin. (C) Kilmainham Tales Teo.

Patrick and Rose Anne met and married in 1882 in their home county of Monaghan. The newly-weds moved the short distance from Monaghan to Meath and  Patrick and Rose set up home in the small two-roomed cottage at the foot of Church Hill in Kilmainahmwood. 

Rose Anne had 7 surviving children. Mary Teresa was born in 1888 and was known as ‘baby’ all her long life. The second child, and first son, Thomas (Tom), followed in 1889.  Another daughter, Lucy, was born in 1893 and another son, Patrick E, in 1994.  Known as ‘P’, he was named after his father. The next child, Roseann, was born in 1896 and was named after her mother. The second last boy born, Bernard, was born in 1899, the last of the Victorians.

The last child born, Michael, was the first of the Edwardians and the first born in the 20th century. 

Bernard was the closest in age to Michael and they were also the closest of friends within the family. 

Michael's Mother Rose Anne died from Bright’s disease in 1908 when he was just six and his older sister Lucy died at 19 from TB in 1912.

From 1901 until 1923 the Courtney family was heavily involved in the political, social and economic life of the village. Patrick Courtney, their father, led the way through his involvement with the Unitised Irish League (UIL), the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), and the Back to the Land Movement (BLM). 

both the local Kilmainhamwood and Kilbeg Volunteer GAA Clubs.  Lastly, he was a fine musician in his own right and a member of the Fife and Drum Band.

Mary Teresa, the eldest child, was a member of the Cumann na mBan and a supporter of Sinn Fein.  

Lucy, the second daughter, was a member of the Gaelic League in Edengora and the Temperance Society in Kilmainhamwood and all sisters were fine singers. Benny, a member of the Irish Volunteers and a supporter of Sinn Fein, was also a supporter of the GAA.

‘P’ Courtney was identified with the GAA and also played with the Fife and Drum Band. Michael, the youngest, was a keen sportsman and played football with three clubs, Kilmainhamwood, Nobber and the Kilbeg Volunteers.  He was also a member of the IRA and a keen supporter of Sinn Fein.  A well-known musician, Michael played regularly at local ceilis. 

Michael and Benny Courtney joined the Kilmainhamwood Company of the 4th Battalion of the Meath Brigade in 1917 and both were actively involved in the War of Independence and the Civil War until 1923.

Michael helped the Sinn Fein candidate Arthur Griffith during the East Cavan by-election and the General Election of 1918 - supporting Liam Mellowes in that contest. His elder sister Mary Teresa was actively involved in the Cumann na mBan at this time.

When the War of independence began both men were involved in IRA operations in the area. The activities of the local IRA Company included the destruction of Kilmainhamwood RIC Barracks and local bridges, raids for arms, and intelligence operations, guarding prisoners, column operations and the storing and repair of arms and ammunition.

After the destruction of the RIC barracks they became wanted men and were hunted relentlessly by the Crown Forces, Military, 'Tans and Auxis across North Meath.

While they were “on the run” their family home was raided up to 3-4 times a week. Their sister Marie Teresa, a member of Cumann na mBan, faced up the 'Tans during each raid and had to watch the house being wrecked and livestock bayonetted and shot.

A large force of South Wales Borderers and 'Tans was based at Whitewood House about a mile from Kilmainhamwood.

Once, when family members were held for questioning, the 'Tans used them for target practice as they ran down the long avenue of the House.

Michael was eventually captured on June 11th 1921 while on active service with three comrades - Paddy Cassidy, Patrick Gogarty and James Cassidy.

Badly beaten by the Black and Tans, they were first taken to Whitewood House and then to Navan Barracks and several days later to Arbour Hill Military Prison before being sent to Collinstown Internment camp for a few weeks.

They ended up in Kilmainham Gaol in early August 1921 and remained there until 8th December 1921.

While in Kilmainham Michael Courtney spent three days in the pitch black dungeon cells and was nearly blinded by the light when he was brought back up the stairs to the East Wing.

While in Arbour Hill they exercised in the yard where the 1916 leaders were buried and in Kilmainham Gaol they exercised in the Stonebreakers' Yard where the leaders were shot.

A handmade wallet was made in Kilmainham Gaol which the family still has.

Released, the men returned home to their families.

When the army split over the treaty they joined the Republican forces.

95% of the Volunteers in Meath were Pro-Treaty while others were Neutral. 

Therefore the few anti-treaty volunteers including Michael and Benny moved north and continued the fight against the new National Army. 

Michael was once again arrested in Feb 1923 and he spent 6 months in Dundalk prison. 

Paddy Cassidy visited him there and Michael was given the opportunity to sign out, but he refused. 

Michael escaped from Dundalk prison in September 1923 and he said himself he has not been seen since!

Ultan Courtney

The picture at the head of this article was taken at his sister’s wedding on the 8th June 1921 in Dublin just three days before he was arrested by Crown Forces 

The information in this article is taken from Ultan Courtney's book "The Blinding Light: Michael Courtney, Kilmainhamwood 1901-1923". 

The book is not available to buy, but may be consulted in the major libraries and archives.

The book is being distributed to the following libraries, and should be available to read in them shortly:

Bodlein Library Oxford
British Library
Cambridge University Library
Dublin City Library
Dublin City University
Fingal Library
Kilmainham Gaol Archive
Kilmainhamwood School
Meath County Library
National Library of Ireland
National Library of Scotland
National Library of Wales
National University of Ireland, Cork (UCC)
National University of Ireland, Dublin (UCD)
National University of Ireland, Galway (UCG)
National University of Ireland, Kildare (Maynooth)
Trinity College Dublin
University of Limerick

In addition, a strictly limited number of PDF copies are available direct for the author. E-mail Ultan for further information here

To read more on prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol, go here and follow the links. 

(Left) The Stonebreakers' Yard in Kilmainham Gaol, scene of 14 executions by firing squad after the Easter Rising, 1916. It was in this yard that Michael Courtney and others played handball  in 1921.
Photograph: (C) Kilmainham Tales Teo.

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