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
Family history: a selection of documents from the archive of Éamonn O’Modhráin, who was imprisoned in Frongoch and in Wakefield in 1916. Courtesy of Robbie Doyle
Family history: Michael Hanna with a letter written by his grand-uncle Wesley Fletcher Hanna, dated 1916. Photograph: James Flynn/APX
Family history: Robert Doyle with a collection of 1916 correspondence and memorabilia that belonged to his wife’s grandfather, Eamonn Moran. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Family history: Michael Gorman with family letters from the 1916 period. In the foreground is a photograph of his father, Michael Gorman, with Helena Moloney, dressed for a party given by Casimir Markievicz. Photograph: Eric Luke
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.