Easter Rising, Enniscorthy 1916: writing about a revolution
Three writers remember three women – George O’Brien his grandaunt Greta Comerford, Roddy Doyle his grandaunt Una Brennan and Colm Tóibín his neighbour Marion Stokes
The 1916 Rebellion began in Enniscorthy in the early morning on the Thursday of Easter week, with the Athenaeum, a building close to the castle in the centre of the town, as headquarters. An emergency hospital and a kitchen were set up by member of Cumann mBan. One member claimed that there were about 70 or 80 women working in the Athenaeum while she was there during Easter week. Some 33 women who participated in the Rising in Enniscorthy were awarded military service pensions in 1934.
In the aftermath of the surrender in early May 1916, the majority of Cumann na mBan members avoided imprisonment. Two prominent members, however, were arrested and detained – Kathleen Browne from Rathronan Castle and Nell Ryan from Tomcoole, Taghmon, were imprisoned in Waterford Jail and subsequently detained in Richmond Barracks, Kilmainham Gaol and Mountjoy Prison. Kathleen Browne was released in early June 1916 while Nell Ryan was deported to Lewes Prison, England, in June and was not released until October 1916. The Republican flag was hoisted over the Athenaeum when the rebellion began and saluted with bugler and firing party.
The three women who hoisted the flag, members of Cumann nBan, were Greta Comerford, Una Brennan and Marion Stokes. Three writers remember these three women: George O’Brien remembers his grandaunt Greta Comerford, Roddy Doyle his grandaunt Una Brennan and Colm Tóibín his neighbour Marion Stokes.
In her book A Woven Silence, Felicity Hayes-McCoy remembers her grandmother’s cousin Marion Stokes in Enniscorthy Castle, when it had been turned into a museum in the 1960s: “In my mind I climbed the winding stair to that … elegant room on the first floor. The steps are cold and worn, and the only light comes in through narrow windows. I’m touching the curved wall with one hand, and with the other I’m hanging on to Marion’s skirt. She was formidable and elderly, square and calm in her tweed coat and skirts, neat shirt blouses and sensible shoes.”
In the early 1960s when the old Castle was being restored in Enniscorthy, I too remember Marion Stokes’s appearance in the same way as Felicity Hayes-McCoy does. When Hayes-McCoy writes about her relative’s “neat, spiky handwriting” on postcards, and pages with an outline of the family history “carefully written in black ink”, I remember Marion Stokes was in charge of writing out the captions for each object in the new museum. Her copperplate handwriting was much admired for its clarity.
In one of the side rooms of the castle, there was a table and chairs and a kettle. When my father and his colleagues gathered here to discuss museum business, children were expected to keep away, go down and visit the dungeon, or at least keep quiet. I remember Marion Stokes’s presence as gentle, kind, tolerant, easy-going.
Among the papers of an aunt of mine was a letter of condolence from Marion Stokes on the death of my grandmother, written in the 1950s. It was a perfect letter of its kind, filled with sympathy, with kind and wise observations, and also an unforced restraint.
I knew, I think, that Miss Stokes had gone to England at some point and worked as a nurse, and then come home to Enniscorthy.
Besides the family history, the only memento that Hayes-McCoy has of her relative is a memory card with a small colour photograph produced after Marion Stokes’s death in 1983.
As she went back to look at the pages of family history outlined by Miss Stokes, she noted how Marion Stokes wrote the date and place of her parents’ marriage and then the names of her eight siblings with no dates of birth except for one, a brother called Thomas who was three years older than Marion.
The entry reads: “Thomas J Stokes. Unmarried. Arrested after Easter 1916, finally interned at Frongoch Camp, Bala, N. Wales. Released Christmas Day 1916, his health impaired. He died at home in Cathedral St. [in Enniscorthy] about 7am Sept 29th, 1917, aged 24 years. RIP.”
Hayes-McCoy points out that since the last of the Enniscorthy men were released from Frongoch just before Christmas 1916, then, when she wrote “Released Christmas Day 1916” Marion Stokes must have meant that her brother arrived home in time for Christmas, as many of the men, including my own grandfather, did. The note also makes clear that Marion Stokes must have been 20 at the time of the Rising.
When it became clear that there would be a drama-documentary on RTÉ television about the Rising in Easter week 1966, my parents invited Marion Stokes to come to our house to watch it. I don’t know if this meant that she had no television of her own, or perhaps she just did not want to be alone watching the programmes. I think she lived alone in the family house in Cathedral Street.
Although this meant that we had a person from history in our livingroom every evening that week, no one spoke about our visitor in those terms. Marion Stokes certainly did not exude any sort of self-importance.
Indeed, it seemed unimaginable that, 50 years earlier, this quiet woman had arrived in the centre of the town in the early hours of the morning to take part in a rebellion. She was not, at least then, a rebellious person.
But it also seemed oddly normal that she was in our house. There were many others in the town alive in 1966 who had also fought in the Rising.
Like Felicity Hayes-McCoy, I have no memory of Marion Stokes even speaking about the Rising, but there was nothing strange about that. Our neighbour Seamus Doyle, whom George O’Brien writes about, had been sentenced to death in 1916. He looked after his roses with great zeal, and was an enemy of the straying football, but he never spoke about the Rising or the death sentence.
It was only years later that my aunt described what it was like to meet her father off the train on Christmas Eve 1916 and be carried by him across the town, but she spoke only briefly about it and seemed to have regretted speaking as soon as she had finished.
The programme, Insurrection, written by Hugh Leonard, was very exciting. It used the illusion of a news report and then moved into the drama of the rebellion in the GPO and elsewhere in Dublin.
By the time it was coming to an end we had been deeply engaged by it, and could recognise the leaders. I wonder if it was one of the few times when adults and children had sat ever together in our house watching the same television programme.
It all went smoothly until the last night. Recently, I watched this last episode again and was surprised at how the scene between the wounded James Connolly and his wife and his daughter came so early in the programme. In this part of the series, Connolly was in bed, it was the last time the family would see him, as he was to be executed in the morning, and they were crying while he tried to console them.
My memory of this scene is that it was much longer and that it came later in the programme. In any case, during this part of the drama my mother, while watching it, began to cry. She ran out of the room and had to be followed and led back, disconsolate, to watch the programme unfold.
The other executions had not affected her, she said, but James Connolly was the last straw. She just couldn’t bear it. I had never seen my mother crying before; she was not given to that sort of thing. It was really very exciting, like we were having our own little drama ourselves in our own house.
But what is strange was that Marion Stokes, who had been there at the time of the Rising and whose brother had died 16 months afterwards, remained silent and placid. She had a sort of stately presence. I don’t remember her being “formidable”, as Felicity Hayes-McCoy does, although she may have had that capacity. She was too polite and dignified for that.
That week in our house she kept her feelings and her memories to herself. It was an aspect of the mystique of that generation who had known such excitement to remain quiet about it and appear restrained in the years that came after. Miss Stokes’s composure was maybe as much a part of the drama as the acting on film, and more mysterious, and, in its own way, perhaps more interesting.
Colm Tóibín’s latest book is On Elizabeth Bishop
Una Brennan was my mother’s aunt. She was my grandfather, Jim Bolger’s, sister. They grew up on a farm in Coolnaboy, in Oylgate, Co Wexford. “The farm is still in the family,” says my mother, Ita. “My cousin Johnny Bolger runs it.”
Jim went to St Peter’s College in Wexford. His mother had wanted him to become a priest. “But when he finished school he didn’t go back to Oylgate. He got a job in the Echo newspaper in Enniscorthy. And there he met Robert Brennan, who later married my aunt Una. I presume there was some connection between the meeting of Bob and Una and the fact that my father worked in the Echo with Bob. But Una and Bob were both in the Gaelic League, so they might have met that way.”
Una had been christened Anastasia. “But when people began to realise they had a language of their own, Irish, she changed her name to Una.
“She never mentioned flags or 1916 or anything connected with it. I knew nothing of her derring-do until recently, when the articles about the centenary started to appear in the papers. I saw it in the Enniscorthy Echo. I don’t remember any mention of Una’s involvement during the 50th anniversary celebrations. She certainly never spoke about it and neither did my father. Like a lot of people of that time, they never spoke of the past.
“She seems to have been quite a lady. But to me, she was a gentle, quiet aunt. A very lovable aunt; I was very fond of her.”
Ita’s first memory of Una is of going to the house in Ranelagh where Una and Bob lived. “I was very small – I was holding my father’s hand. Another time we went to the house, there was an excitement in the air – goodbyes, and all this. I think it must have been the time they were going to America because Bob had been made Irish ambassador.” This was in 1934.
Ita’s mother died when she was three and every summer, from then onwards, she went down to the farm in Coolnaboy. “Una and Bob’s children had been there, before me. They’d lived there – Emer, Derry, Pat and, of course, Maeve, the writer – during what was termed The Troubles.
“I remember, there was an enamel mug in the kitchen window and I picked it up to look at it. And my aunt Bessie said, quite sternly for some reason, she wasn’t a cranky woman: ‘Put that mug back. That’s Pat Brennan’s mug. He used to drink his milk out of that.’
“There was a photograph on the wall of Emer, Derry and Maeve and, under it, written, ‘The three beautiful daughters of the Irish ambassador.’ Someone in the United States had cut it out of a paper and sent it to aunt Bessie. She was very proud of it.
“When Una and Bob came back to Ireland after the War, they settled in a house on the Dodder Road near Terenure, where I lived. And I got to know them very well.
“I thought she was lovely. I was in my early 20s by then; I was working. I remember having a new red coat and displaying it to her. I’d had it tailored and I was delighted with myself. The coat had been somewhat ruefully regarded by my stepmother. But Una said, ‘It’s beautiful, beautiful. It’s perfect.’ I was so pleased with that.
“One time, she came over to tell us that Maeve was coming home from America, and she asked me to come for dinner to meet her. I hadn’t met Maeve since she’d gone to America, before the War.
“I rang the doorbell – and this creature came out. It was Maeve. She was just beautiful. I thought, ‘Oh God, to be so glamorous.’ She had her hair done up and she had a beautiful short-sleeved sweater which clung to her. And pearls. I thought she was the most glamorous woman I’d ever seen. And she was lovely – very friendly. She would have been about 30 then, I think.
“I wouldn’t have said that Una was still a Wexford woman, as such. She was more cosmopolitan. But she certainly still loved Wexford. And when she’d meet my father, there was a great homeliness about them.”
She died in 1958. “Myself and my husband, Rory, went to visit my father and when we arrived Daddy was in a bit of a state. He told us, ‘Una died this morning.’ She’d died suddenly.
“I went over to Dodder Road with my father, and Una was just lying – laid out – on the bed. I was upset, of course, and she was pale. But she just looked lovely.
“My only memory of the funeral is standing in Mount Jerome Cemetery, at the grave. I was looking down at a row of black polished toe-capped boots, all along beside me. It was a row of men, including Dev. I’m sure the others were well-known too, but I didn’t recognise them. There were ministers there, veterans of The Troubles. But I only remember De Valera – once seen, never forgotten.”
I was reared in Lismore, Co Waterford, but my mother was from Enniscorthy. The only part of Wexford my Lismore people knew was what they saw from the boat train to Rosslare. Nevertheless, their view of Enniscorthy was very clear: it was one big Vinegar Hill, fierce historical, bloody, sad and noble.
I should be proud of such a birthplace, an obligation of which I was so often reminded that it seemed like some sort of compensation for my mother’s death there, as though it would help if I saw her untimely passing as part of a larger pattern of injustice, futile resistance and sacrifice.
Such a pattern was very much her birthright, after all, not just by being from the town but because all belonging to her were great Gaels, and I was born standing to attention in their honour, out on my own in comparison to the inferior nationalist credentials of my pals and schoolmates.
This not entirely comfortable position was maintained by assertion, not by the reassurance of actual detail, much less by the confidences of informed discussion. And of course I knew that I was not supposed to gawk at a gift horse. So I sang dumb.
Still, even if there were elements of the family romance in the origin myth my father’s family created for me, it was quite true that the Enniscorthy side were something of a rebel band. I had seen Granny Royce’s wedding photo, she and her man Liam looking like members of a piper’s band, cloaks and kilts to the fore. Liam apparently had a thing about kilts – on account of his nationalist principles, naturally, and nothing to do with his drapery in Slaney Street or anything else.
Granny and her three sisters were all in Cuman na mBan, and they all married men who were “out” in 1916. One even went so far as to marry a Northerner. Of the four, the most forward was Auntie Gret – Gretta Comerford – who raised the tricolour on the Athenaeum, the rebel HQ on Castle Street, along with Roddy Doyle’s aunt, Una Brennan, and Marian Stokes, later a nurse in England.
Gret ran the kitchen for the Athenaeum occupiers, and in 1918 married the man at the head of my handed-down roll of honour, Seamus Doyle (no relation of Roddy’s).
Uncle Seamus, patriot and enigma. An IRB man, a Gaelic League, a Volunteer, an alumnus of Ballykinler, a member of the Second Dáil, anti-Treatyite, and Dev devotee: he was almost too much of a good thing, even by Lismore family standards.
Seamus was Adjutant of the Enniscorthy Brigade. He brought Pearse’s order to surrender back from Arbour Hill, was arrested, tried and sentenced to death, commuted to five years, served in Dartmoor, Lewes, Parkhurst and Pentonville.
Not a word did Seamus tell me of any of this, and reading about his exploits later was difficult and peculiar. They had a kind of glaucous, opaque quality, like presences that had been submerged by the unavuncular silence and distance that are my most abiding memories of him.
I was impressed by how distinguished he looked with his head of snow-white hair, but otherwise he was a 60-year-old, unsmiling, private man, stiff in mien and cranky in manner. I fretted that he wasn’t lovable and that this didn’t seem to bother him. It seemed odd that this was what had become of him – no chat, no visits to or from the few old comrades that remained. No bottle of stout, no strain of a song. Just seriousness to the brink of mourning.
After the fighting stopped, he took little or no part in national life. Instead, he pursued worthy local activities, such as inventorying ruined churches, commemorating ’98 and propagating Irish. All Gaelic all the time, and all-time past-time, his garden the exception. This he tended with great vigilance and palpable ambition, jealously protective of his roses and his scarlet runners.
In those, as in his other pursuits, Seamus had a home front, material to marshal, a rearguard command post that could neither be begrudged or surrendered. A football flying in from the Murphy or Tóibín kids playing on the street was a day-darkening menace, not only a breach of civic discipline but of time and space that told the thin-skinned hero of a freedom quite different from what he had dreamt of and suffered for. He wanted peace, perhaps. But I can only think of it as an enforced peace, holding breath.
It seems that Uncle Seamus has a grá for priests, and I have the impression that he delighted in being under arms. Ranks, orders, uniforms, single-minded groups of men: they made his day. But it’s all only seeming. Although I’ve read about him, I still can’t altogether read him.
He did put on record, though, that he thought himself a born separatist, and that does tally with my memory of him. But in his evident pride in that identity he only saw one side of it, not stopping to consider that there are all sorts of facets – elitism, homosociality, sectarianism, exceptionalism; isolation, too, in various senses, including possibly loneliness, a dull grief for a race lost beyond resurrecting.
In the Athenaeum, in Pearse’s cell, he had a life, strength and spirit distilled into an essence. A life to give to Ireland. Anything else would be second best, although he did it anyway, thinking it perhaps necessary and valuable missionary work, even if it smacks more of embalming. As does his whole posture and presence as I remember them. I don’t mind in the least acknowledging that Uncle Seamus was noteworthy, a historical figure as sound and as sizeable as a totem. But the sense still persists that it was in the ranks of death I found him.
George O’Brien’s most recent book is The Irish Novel 1800-1910