Last Friday was Good Friday and it commenced a long weekend of massive commemorations and celebrations of the 1916 Rising, the event one hundred years ago which led to Irish independence, and eventually to the modern Republic of Ireland. Most of the events and incidents relating to the Rising occurred in Dublin, but there were sporadic actions all around the island of Ireland. Ironically, Wicklow had been the centre of many events leading up to, and following after the Rising, but was itself quiet for the duration of Easter Week 1916.
However, Wicklow is strongly connected with a very important but almost forgotten figure who played a significant role in the events of 1916. Robert Monteith was born and raised in Newtown Mount Kennedy in 1878. He had a distinguished career in the British Army, with the Royal Horse Artillery in India and fighting in the Boer War. He retired from the British Army to work in a Civil Service job in Dublin in 1911.
However, it seems he underwent a major shift in political sympathies when one day his wife dropped his lunch off at his work place and, while returning home, was clubbed over the head by one of a number of Dublin Metropolitan Police Officers who were attacking union members on strike.
When the British Army attempted to re-enlist Monteith as head of recruitment in Ireland for the war effort (World War I) he refused and told them his sympathies now lay with Irish Nationalists, with whom he had become involved. His punishment was immediate – Monteith was sacked from his job and expelled from the city, and told he was not to enter the city limits of Dublin ever again.
With no job, Monteith became more deeply involved with Irish nationalism and a secret republican organisation, the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood). He was employed as a drill instructor with the paramilitary Irish Volunteers at the rank of Captain of Volunteers. He was then sent to America, and from America he travelled secretly to Germany to help train an Irish Legion under the command of Sir Roger Casement, who had been first a hero of the British Empire, but joined the Irish nationalist cause.
The Irish Legion failed to materialise, but instead Germany sent a ship-load of guns to Ireland to aid the rebellion, and Monteith accompanied Casement and another Irish agent in a submarine, and they almost drowned while landing in a small launch on the Kerry coast. Due to illness Casement remained near the beach, and was soon arrested by a certain Constable O’Reilly. Monteith and the third man managed to escape to Cork city, where they learned the ship load of guns had been seized by the Royal Navy. Monteith then had to flee Ireland, eventually reaching Liverpool undetected and signing on to the crew of a steamer bound for New York.
After brief imprisonment in the US (he had been technically assisting Germany) Monteith lived a quiet life, and had a number of jobs. He was still notorious in the British Empire, yet successfully sued to have his British Army pension reinstated after it had been stripped from him, and in 1947 he briefly returned to Ireland with his wife, living for some time in a house on the Sea Road, Kilcoole, here in Wicklow, not far from where he had been raised. He returned to the US due to his poor health, exacerbated by Ireland’s damp climate, and died soon afterwards. He has almost been forgotten in Ireland, although he was almost certainly one of the most important agents of the IRB and Irish Volunteers. The true extent of his involvement and activities will probably never be known.