1916 and Me: The relatives’ accounts

‘The Irish Times’ invited readers to share their feelings about the Easter Rising. Here’s a selection of entries from people with a personal or family connection


Ireland was a complex place 100 years ago. It still is

I recall, as a schoolchild, sitting in class and studying the pages of an Irish history textbook. In it was a famous photograph of young men reaching down to collect arms from the Asgard in the Howth gunrunning of 1914.

I knew that the young man with the bugle was my grandfather, but apart from that I knew precious little else about the gunrunning or the Easter Rising and his involvement in those events.

As I studied the history things didn’t become much clearer, as I became lost in dates, organisations, events. It is hard to unravel the threads of history, as the 1910s in Ireland, and indeed throughout the world, were years of tumult and radical change.

Paddy Holahan participated in the Howth gunrunning and the attack on the Magazine Fort, in the Phoenix Park, on Easter Monday. The following Sunday, after days of fierce fighting in the North King Street area, he agreed the surrender of a company of about 50 men upon receiving Patrick Pearse’s order to lay down arms.

In the past 18 months I have met other 1916 relatives to commemorate our ancestors, and I’ve begun to understand and appreciate more deeply the sequence of events that led to the rebellion and what happened that Easter Week 100 years ago. Podcasts, videos, books and military-archive witness statements have helped.

I don’t agree with either a simple mythologising of events or with tendentious arguments that focus on what-ifs. The truth is neither black nor white.

I encourage everyone to take the opportunity of this centenary to read the history of the time, to understand that Ireland was a complex place 100 years ago and, of course, that it still is.

As citizens of Ireland we enjoy what many people the world over would risk their lives for: a democratic republic.  Of that I am enormously proud and of my grandfather’s part in making that a reality.

Ciarán Holahan

A story no family would be proud of 

In 2015 we solved a mystery in our family about a relative we believed had been killed not too honourably. I had understood that my great-uncle John Francis Lydon had been shot in the back on O’Connell Street after stealing a bike from a young girl in the middle of the 1916 Rising – a story no family would be proud of. But this couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Through newspaper articles obtained by members of our family in 2015 we have discovered that he had in fact been killed in Tralee, in 1922, in an ambush.

We learned that, first, John had entered university in Galway to study medicine in 1913. He joined the British army in 1915, serving on the Continent. At demobilisation he went to Dublin to complete his medical course, but when the National Army was formed he was one of the first to join the Medical Corps in Dublin.

As for his death, we discovered that, while attempting to escort a patient to a boat off the coast of Co Kerry, for passage to Dublin, John had been shot in the stomach and fatally injured at Blennerville, along with Driver Magee, who was also killed. They had been ambushed by 50 irregulars who had a gripe with the commandant who was transporting these patients, and who was armed with only a revolver.

John Francis Lydon was 23 when he died. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

For me 1916 is about preserving the past for my children and their children, so that they know the truth about it. Within the space of a few decades an ambush in the middle of the road in deepest Kerry in 1922 somehow became a bicycle theft on O’Connell Street in 1916.

I believe that 2016 should be about trying to understand better a period of confusion and instability. It’s about unravelling a time when neighbours fought neighbours and when suspicions and secrecy and subterfuge covered the land. We need to understand and untangle the past so that future generations can understand better how we became who we are today.

Now is the time to investigate our personal histories and the relevance these events had for all our families. In doing so we are creating a record and a link to the past for future generations for all time.
Robyn Cunningham
Taupo, New Zealand

What would my grandfather think of today’s governments?

The centenary of the 1916 Rising has affected me greatly. After my father died I had in my possession a photograph of my grandfather Patrick Joseph Byrne standing in uniform at the lying in state of O’Donovan Rossa, in 1915.

I knew little about Irish history, as I spent my early years in England, but I now know he was a brave man. He fought in the GPO and bore the stretcher that carried James Connolly.

I try to imagine the courage it took to take up a gun and go out knowing that you might die but believing in your heart that it was the only way to change things. It would have been so easy to sit back and take the “king’s shilling”, which most people in Dublin did at the time.

Patrick went on to be a detective in Dublin Castle and had a distinguished career in the Garda.

I worry now that the king’s shilling has been replaced by greedy capitalism. I see the homeless, the mentally ill and people who chose to live outside the norm being treated with disdain.

My grandfather fought not for money but for a caring society, and I wonder what he would think of today’s governments.

Looking at how Ireland has changed in the past 50 years or so, I am grateful for the sacrifice that was made in 1916. I am very proud to live in the Republic of Ireland. I just hope my children and grandchildren will be too.
Joan Byrne
Lucan, Co Dublin

The mystery man my grandfather met in a Dublin pub

In April 1916 my uncle, who had just turned 11, picked up an eye injury in Co Kerry, a condition serious enough to warrant a transfer to a Dublin hospital. His father – my grandfather John Nolan – accompanied him to Dublin in Holy Week.

To get a break from hospital visits John Nolan frequented a pub or two during the course of the week and happened to befriend a particular man. They got talking, my grandfather telling him how he happened to be in Dublin and saying that he intended to stay into the following week, while his son was recuperating.

Without telling him the reason why, his Dublin acquaintance begged John Nolan not to stay in Dublin the following week and urged him to go back to his home in Kerry before the weekend.

After a lot of persuasion my grandfather reluctantly did travel down to Kerry by train on Holy Saturday, April 22nd.

News had spread of Roger Casement’s capture, after he came ashore from a German submarine, and while my grandfather’s train was stopped at Limerick Junction on his journey to Kerry, the train bringing Casement from Tralee to Dublin was there also.

He never found out the name of the acquaintance he met in the Dublin pub, who must have known of the impending rising when he was so adamant that my grandfather not stay in Dublin during Easter Week. I often think about that man, who he might have been and if he survived the Rising.
Martin Collins
Tralee, Co Kerry

The Easter Rising changed my parents’ fates

My mother and father came from different backgrounds and religious denominations and would have been very unlikely to meet socially in the normal course of events. The Easter Rising changed their fates. My mother’s father worked at the GPO. He and his family – my mother and her three siblings – lived on Lindsay Road in Glasnevin in Dublin. Grandpa was in the GPO, working as a telegraphist on Easter Monday 1916, sending out telegrams about the war wounded and dead.

I don’t know how much warning they got, but he and his fellow workers realised they were in danger, ran upstairs and barricaded themselves on the top floor of the GPO. They were later taken prisoner by the rebels and taken down to the basement. He never told me whether he had been ill treated.

After what must have been a traumatic experience he decided to retire from the post office. This he did soon after the Rising; he moved his family to a smallholding on the southside, where in 1922 my father stayed as a paying guest.

My father’s father was a doctor who lived on the quays on the north side of the River Liffey. My father was a student at University College Dublin in 1922; he wanted to avoid the violence of the civil war raging in the centre of Dublin. He was also sitting exams and could not risk getting from the north quays to UCD every day. That was why he had to board with my mother’s parents on the southside for several months.

It was while staying with my grandparents that he met my mother, who was studying for her Leaving Certificate and needed a tutor in mathematics.

Nine years later she sailed to join my father in India, where he was a lecturer, and they married. Had it not been for the Easter Rising my parents would probably never have met.

I was born in Ireland in the 1940s; I now live in the midlands. When I was young very little was spoken about those times. There was an almost total blank in our knowledge of Irish history between 1916 and 1924. Even within the family everyone seemed afraid of their own past. I wish I knew more of my grandfather’s experience of being a prisoner of the rebels.
Alison Badrian
Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath

The statue Joseph Plunkett carved

My mother’s family knew one of the 1916 leaders, Joseph Plunkett. Her parents were acquainted with Joseph’s parents, Count Plunkett and his wife. My grandfather, an architect, was friendly with Joseph Plunkett, and they apparently used to visit one another and walk about, discussing the arts, among other things. My grandfather, also named Joseph, would have been about 10 years older than Plunkett.

My mother and my aunts used to tell us children about a little statue of St Patrick that stood on a family mantelpiece, about how Plunkett carved it from a piece of stone when he was in hiding at their family home in Dublin.

In recent years I came across the book on Plunkett in the 16 Lives series, written by Honor Ó Brolcháin, a great-niece of Plunkett, in which I found two references to my grandfather. They are both entries in Joseph’s diary, dated September 1911.

I think of what a shattering piece of news it must have been to my grandfather’s family to hear of their friend’s imprisonment and execution in Kilmainham Gaol.

Whether it is ever possible for a country to gain its independence and restore its identity peacefully is a question that could be endlessly debated, but it is certain that those who led the Rising of 1916 were full of an unselfish vision and ideals praiseworthy in their essence.

They willingly sacrificed everything for the cause of freedom. We need to remind ourselves, in these days and especially during this centenary year, to cherish our freedom and to live in it with a deep sense of responsibility and an enduring spirit of gratitude.
Anne Burns
Ballinteer Road, Dublin

My grandmother’s Rising stories were frightening

My grandmother Mai Dowling was born on November 22nd, 1908, and lived in Pimlico, in the Liberties in Dublin, until she married.

I heard her stories of the Rising, and to a child they were quite frightening.

Early on Easter Monday morning of 1916 her father had taken her out to the seaside – Dollymount Strand – and they had to walk home, as the trams stopped. She knew that as long as she saw the sea she was a long way from home. She became very tired.

She witnessed, I think, one of the first horses and riders being shot on, presumably at Butt Bridge, that day. Her screams led a soldier to push them into a doorway to protect them from the shooting. She gave the soldier her First Communion rosary beads, to protect him, and he gave her a bullet. She remembered hiding with a dog under a table, listening to soldiers marching.

She lived her life loving Ireland, proud of being Irish, and this was known by all her family, passed down to grandchildren, great-grandchildren. She died in 2005.

Living my life in Ireland, I think with time and travel comes an appreciation of our country, of everything that has happened both good and bad in the past 100 years. We have achieved a lot and learned a lot.

I like living in Ireland, but I moan, like a lot of us, about everything and nothing. Our history has made us what we are today, and that history is inextricably linked to Great Britain. We are socially conscious of suffering all around the world. We are aware of other countries’ struggle for independence, and I think this stems, in no small way, from our own fight for freedom and independence.

Today we are making tomorrow’s history, and we are living under different threats, global threats; I am glad that we live in harmony with our nearest neighbour, Great Britain.

It is good for Ireland, for our younger generations, for our prosperity, so I welcome that we acknowledge everything that went on before 1916, during 1916 and since, learn from it in the best possible way.

That will keep us, as my dad and grandmother used to say, a great little country: we always were and are.
Irene Kavanagh
Newbridge, Co Kildare

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