History of the Rising, in our own words

A project at Trinity College Dublin invites people to share family stories and documents and help put ordinary faces on the tumult of the early 20th century

Fri, Nov 1, 2013, 16:47

When Robbie Doyle’s father-in-law died, five years ago, it fell to him to tackle the junk room at the top of his wife’s family home. It was the room into which “stuff” had been put over the years, stuff to which no one had paid much attention and certainly had not gone to the trouble of sorting through.

When Doyle pushed open the door, much of what was there – papers, newspapers and the like – had attracted the attention of mice in the 170-year-old house. But there was also a large metal box of the sort that in another era might have been a travelling case or for keeping documents safe. The box was well sealed, secure from the ravages of both time and rodents.

“I opened it up and found a treasure trove,” Doyle says, his face still showing some of the excitement he must have felt at the time.

Among the perfectly preserved contents were four notebooks, dating from 1885, 1903, 1904 and 1913, each containing handwritten minutes of meetings held and decisions taken.

The 1885 book appeared to record the first meeting of the Suncroft Branch of the Irish National League, the movement set up in 1882 by Charles Stewart Parnell in succession to the Land League.

The other notebooks recorded the activities of the local branch of Conradh na Gaeilge, the Irish-language movement set up in 1893. The first of these, from 1904, is all in English, but by the third, from 1913, minutes of meetings recording employment of part-time teachers of Irish and so forth are in the language of the Gaelic revival itself.

The big metal box also contained a smaller wooden box, which used to hold Cadbury’s Cocoa Essence. Doyle opened it and found the essence of a man’s prison experiences: a knife, fork and spoon from Wakefield prison, in West Yorkshire, wrapped carefully in paper; a Celtic-style copper brooch with the words “Mountjoy Jail EOM” stamped into its back, a damaged fob watch and a slightly moth-eaten circular cloth badge with A3 56 stamped on it.

Finally, there was a Jacob’s biscuit tin. When Doyle opened it, all became clear. Inside were letters from Wakefield and from Frongoch internment camp, in Wales, which was home to about 1,800 Irish rebels in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. They included Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy. And Eamonn O’Modhráin, from the Curragh, in Co Kildare – or, as he was known to the British, Eamonn or sometimes Edward, Moran, prisoner number A3 56. In the south camp at Frongoch he shared Loft 3 with Collins and Mulcahy.

Rations in the camp were supplemented by parcels from home and from friends of the prisoners. In each mess, men formed little groups who pooled the contents of their parcels and occasionally supplemented them with items bought in the prison canteen. O’Modhráin was in charge of a small group in his mess that allotted these items.

Doyle and his wife, Maeve, were well aware of Maeve’s grandfather’s past in general terms. But it was only with the death, in July 2008, of Eamonn O’Modhráin’s son Lughaidh – Maeve’s father – and the subsequent assault on the unkempt room that the trove of documentary evidence, precious original source material, came to light.

Eamonn O’Modhráin’s political awakening began with his support for Parnell’s INL, which, unlike the earlier Land League, sought more than mere land reform; it was a platform for demanding Home Rule. But as the Gaelic Revival took hold at the turn of the 19th century, he gaelicised his name and eventually signed up to militant republicanism by joining the Irish Volunteers.

His letters home from prison show a curious matter-of-factness that somehow seems odd given the circumstances, although knowledge of the prying eyes of the censor almost certainly played a role. They contain the expected greetings and desired news from home about relatives there, requests for clothes and books, and visits anticipated.

But there is also concern for day-to-day matters on the farm in Co Kildare. “Better buy cakes [cattle feed] now for delivery in November,” he wrote in July 1916, and “Cotton or Linseed, whichever is better value, 2½ or 3 tons. I charged Casey 30/= for ten acres, his own stuff. Let Lewie [his brother] charge current prices for materials. We are not having a bad time here lectures, concerts, Irish classes, football, physical drill, etc had a march into country today . . .”

As a volunteer O’Modhráin ran the 6th Battalion of the Carlow Brigade, which he led in the War of Independence. Notwithstanding the fact that he was fighting a war, O’Modhráin appears to have taken a moral stance against violence he felt was unjustified.

According to Doyle, he and some colleagues were discharged from the volunteers in 1920 for refusing to kill unarmed Royal Irish Constabulary officers in the wake of the death of the republican hunger striker Terence McSwiney. The order came through from GHQ in Dublin in October 1920 and was relayed to them during a secret meeting in Castledermot.

O’Modhráin argued that many RIC in Kildare were on their side and had passed on useful information. Nonetheless, he was expelled but reinstated on appeal.

He took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War but was arrested and interned at the outbreak of hostilities, a fact that “probably saved his life”, as Doyle notes. Interned in Mountjoy, he collected the signatures and messages from anti-Treaty prisoners on hunger strike inside the jail in two tiny, apparently home-made notebooks, which also survived in the big metal box.

In December 1922, while O’Modhráin was jailed, 10 of his erstwhile comrades were arrested by Moore’s Bridge near the Curragh, armed and apparently ready to attack the Dublin-Cork railway line. After court martial, seven faced the firing squad, the largest number of executions at one time during the Civil War.

Among the items in the metal box were copies of letters from the condemned men, written the night before their executions and sent to O’Moráin, as their commanding officer. They were shot dead on December 19th, 1922.

After the Civil War ended O’Modhráin returned to the Curragh and married Margaret Walsh, whose home at Mooncoin, in south Co Kilkenny, had been a safe house for him. He farmed his land by the Curragh, joined Fianna Fáil and remained devoted to the Irish language. He died in 1955.

Five years ago, when Doyle found the box, he didn’t know what to do with its contents. That changed with the recent appeal by researchers at Trinity College Dublin, led by Dr Susan Schreibman, for ordinary families to share letters they had describing events around 1916. Doyle and two other donors to the project showed The Irish Times the originals and other items of family history from the period.

“This project has allowed me to make Eamonn’s documents public without fearing that their content was too banal or uninteresting for a museum,” says Doyle.

‘There is no coddling the military. You stop dead when you are told’
Michael Hanna, a retired academic administrator, has given the project a copy of a 19-page letter written by his grand-uncle Wesley Fletcher Hanna, then an accountant with Switzer & Co, the Grafton Street department store that was amalgamated with Brown Thomas in 1995.

On Tuesday, April 25th, 1916, the day after the Rising began, Wesley returned to Dublin after an Easter visit to Limerick. In the succeeding days he wandered the city, and on Thursday, April 27th, he wrote the long letter that was passed around his many family members, each one initialling the first page to show they had read it.

In a detailed description of what it was like in the city centre, his letter cites numerous locations and buildings and talks of soldiers everywhere with fixed bayonets, of Sinn Féin being in control of several areas and buildings, of “continuous popping of rifles in the distance”, of lorries flying about, of buildings burning fiercely and of mob looting on Grafton Street and Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. Ordinary people tried to muddle through, getting food and moving about safely. But with telephones down, communication was difficult.

Added value
His account is undoubtedly historically significant and adds details to much that is already known about events in Dublin in the week of the Rising. But the added value comes when he describes what it was like to be an ordinary person in the midst of the crisis – a person such as a Mrs D Smith, who showed emergency guests to their rooms “when the windows were fired at and the bullet came through the window frame sending splinters flying, some through her hair”.

“There are very strong rumours that in the City firing has ceased and that surrender has taken place, but as I write they are blazing away up the road and what night will bring forth no one can tell. There is no coddling the military. You stop dead when you are told, a foot farther and you can say “good bye” but if you are quiet amenable you can get along with them all right. They have a dangerous and difficult job – one that I am sure is repugnant to them – to do and they are working for us all.”

On May 10th Hanna was given written permission by the “Competent Military Authority. Lr Castle Yard” to carry a camera around Dublin. The 28 surviving photographs are kept in a home-made album of stiff brown paper with “Sinn Fein Rebellion” handwritten on the cover.

The letter, photo album and several other folders of letters and family documents are laid out neatly on Michael Hanna’s dining table at his home near Tullamore, Co Offaly. In another of Hanna’s letters of note, this one written on July 5th, 1922, he laments the destruction in Dublin at the outbreak of the Civil War.

“Our beautiful ‘Four Court’ is gone up in smoke, only its walls remain blackened & fire marked – the great Cupola is gone but the grand Circular dome remains, precariously dominating the vast ruin. The General Post Office is gone, the Custom House also & now the Four Courts – only remains Trinity College and the Bank of Ireland and all Dublins famous buildings will have suffered. And to what end?

“As I write, I can still hear the rifle shots down in the city and the upper end of Sackville St is, or was at 1 oc, blazing furiously – the Hammam Hotel* (you remember the hotel with the Turkish Baths attached) has been burnt out today. The Gresham may be involved but I don’t know. Roughly it amounts to this, that that part of Sackville St [that] survived the Rebellion has now been laid in ruins and a finish put to the beauties of Sackville St for this generation.

“But it a pity, isn’t it a disgrace to Irishmen? We are a laughing stock to the world.”

Wesley went on to become company secretary at Switzers. After the death of his only child, Merle, in 1993, Hanna’s papers came to Michael, who in retirement has become something of a family archivist. The family is Methodist and, like many other Irish families in the early 20th century, was somewhat Anglocentric in outlook while simultaneously thinking of itself as Irish. Mulling over the papers has had an impact on Michael Hanna, making him feel, in a sense, more Irish than before.

“It took three generations for a true Irish identity to emerge in us and for the umbilical cord with Britain to be broken,” he wrote in a follow-up note to my visit to his home. “But more than anything, the fact that Trinity now has taken this letter and made it part of the national story of 1916 through this wonderful initiative makes me part of that story too in a way that I can now speak about with full knowledge about the place of me and my family in the story of our country.

“That does something wonderful for my identity that has come as a total surprise to me. If I look at my family in 1916 and today, and think of Wesley’s letter and the queen’s visit as the opening and closing chapters of that story, I now know, in a personal way, that Ireland’s history and people really are a rich tapestry of influences. Intellectual knowledge has become personal knowledge. You know that wonderful line of Wordsworth’s from Tintern Abbey, an old school chestnut, ‘the still sad music of humanity, nor harsh nor grating, thou’ of ample power to chasten and subdue’?

“It is that music that has come to me in a personal way through this initiative and I find it quite wonderful.”

*The Hammam Hotel and Turkish Baths, which opened in 1869, were at 11 and 12 Upper Sackville Street. The building was bombed from July 2nd to 5th and was destroyed.

‘They were not on any side. They were on the getting-on-with-life side’
A revealing record of people getting on with their lives during periods of national trauma is contained in the love letters Susan Fitzgerald wrote to Michael Gorman, from 1915 onwards. Both came from Stradbally, in Queen’s County, now Co Offaly. She was Protestant; he was Catholic. They both came from farming stock, she from the larger house – a distance, but perhaps not too great a distance, up the social pecking order from his thatched cottage, albeit a large one.

“They were not on any side [in 1916],” says their son, also Michael Gorman, who is 86. “They were on the ‘getting on with life’ side.”

Michael has transcribed more than 100 letters from his mother to his father, including one, dated December 23rd, 1916, in which she declares, apparently out of the blue, “I find we are totally unsuitable, so I think it advisable to end it once and for ever.” She urges her “Dear Mickie” to return all her letters, so she may burn them. Happily, Dear Mickie ignored her request, and they were together for more than 60 years. But, sadly, Sue took her own advice and destroyed all his letters to her, so only a one-sided correspondence survives.

It records growing love and affection, a courtship in rural Laois and Dublin, the arrival of spring flowers in her garden and what mutual friends were up to. And then, without warning, other events intruded. In August 1915, for instance, Sue mentions collecting for the Red Cross – “I didn’t go near the Shinners,” she remarks – before commenting that all the roses she planted turned out to be climbers.

Another letter, written in May 1919, records Sue’s disappointment that entertaining a visiting uncle means she won’t be able to go with Michael on his first night home for the weekend from Dublin. And then a postscript: “A cousin’s place was raided by 12 men the other night + several guns, silver, jewellery, + any amount of valuables taken . . . Write soon. I’m awfully fed up. Tons of love. Sue.”

Farewell party
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing in young, 86-year-old Michael’s collection is a sepia photograph on the dining table of his Dublin home. It shows a young man, his father, dressed in what looks like 18th-century evening wear. He was attending a fancy-dress farewell party in 1913 for a foreign nobleman returning home.

Casimir Markievicz was going to Poland with his wife, Constance. And Michael Gorman’s partner for the evening, standing with him in the photograph, was Helena Moloney, also dressed for the party. Within two years Moloney, editor of the monthly newspaper Bean na hÉireann (Woman of Ireland), was appointed by James Connolly as secretary of the Irish Women Workers’ Union and took part in the Rising.

Michael and Sue married in London in November 1919.

“They were told by a priest that they could marry in Ireland but would only know the church the night before, and the wedding would have to be at 6.30am, so that they could not invite anyone and give scandal,” says their son. “They went to London because they didn’t want any mess. I was never conscious of the mixed marriage.”

Michael Gorman snr became professor of agriculture, botany and bacteriology at Albert College, on the site of the present Dublin City University, which was amalgamated eventually with University College Dublin.

“She died first,” says Michael, “and I remember my father telling me, six months later, ‘I miss your mother so much. A part of me is gone. I feel like I lost a limb.’ ”

You can see letters given to Trinity College Dublin at dh.tcd.ie/letters1916

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