The Attack On Kilkenny Castle, 2 May 1922
Imagine the scene – the Earl of Ossory looks out into the courtyard from his room near the west tower of the castle and sees 22 paramilitaries in a range of garb. The caps are back to front and some wear trench coats. Some attempt at uniformity of dress is necessary to gain belligerent status under the Haigue convention. Appropriately, it was the butler who had called the Earl at this unearthly hour of 5.30 in the morning. The Irish Civil War was just beginning.
Having quickly dressed he felt it better to approach the rebels rather than vice versa. They were heavily armed – it included a Lewis gun and boxes of ammunition. A man who identified himself as the ‘commandant’ greeted the Earl and assured him they had come to defend the castle and indicated that he and his family and staff would be evacuated. The Earl, who detected the soft cadence of a Cork accent and said so, was not buying that one. On the demand for what weapons were in the castle he was able to say that the Black and Tans had taken them. The Earl awaited the inevitable onslaught by Free State troops on his citadel. There were in the castle, aside from the Earl and Countess, 7 maids and 3 manservants.
Gunfire was heard all over the city and got closer. Soon windows began to be shattered in the Castle itself. The Earl and Countess located themselves over the arch on the South side while the staff were in coal cellars near the kitchen on the other side. The Earl said the walls were so thick there it would have withstood a Zeppelin attack. Food was rather scarce as the ‘guests’ had insisted on being given some of the Castle stock. While master and servants cowered under window level in their respective locations the Earl and Countess gathered books, cards, writing paper, cushions, etc to make life as pleasant as possible in the circumstances.
The famous portrait collection was suffering greatly from incoming fire. There is an old military aphorism that ‘incoming fire has right of way’. The Free State troops were isolating the Castle from St Canice’s. This took most of the day. As often happens the major offensive by them was timed for 7 o’clock next morning. The Earl describes what he was hearing from outside – ‘orders were being given followed by running steps. Suddenly we heard a deafening crash, a noise of splintering wood and wild cheering. Curiosity overcame me. I rushed to the window in time to see the gates burst open under the impact of the bonnet of an armoured car. The car stopped in the centre of the courtyard plastering the surrounds with lead. Troops poured into the courtyard, having emerged from the stables opposite the fallen gate.’ The Republicans soon surrendered.
There was still to be one last bit of drama and danger. The courtyard, now full of Free State troops and the rescued Castle staff, was again subjected to gunfire. Troops were seen coming over the hill on the open or east side of the Castle, firing towards it. This was part of the assault plan but it wasn’t synchronised. The firing was friendly fire – however we know it seldom is. Fortunately, it was from too great a distance to do damage. They soon discovered their error and joined their comrades in the courtyard. General Prout, who spoke with an American accent, had led the assault. He had been in the American Army in WW I, serving with distinction in France. He later threw in his lot with the Irish Volunteers. He was invited to breakfast by the Earl. He placed two revolvers on either side of his plate. They were pointing straight at the Countess. On this being indicated to him he very chivalrously apologised and laid them aside.