Eunan O’Halpin: My middle-aged, middle-class, revolutionary great-grandfather

PJ Moloney was elected for Tipperary South in the first Dáil and opposed the Treaty

Sinn Féin leaders  1919. Thirty-six elected members were in jail. P Maloney on left in second row. Photograph: Hulton Archive

Sinn Féin leaders 1919. Thirty-six elected members were in jail. P Maloney on left in second row. Photograph: Hulton Archive

 

PJ Moloney (1871-1947), my great-grandfather, was elected for Tipperary South in the UK general election that took place just weeks following the end of the Great War.

He attended the first meeting of Dáil Éireann in Dublin on January 21st, 1919. That same day, Volunteers of the Third Tipperary Brigade, which had been established in 1918 at a meeting in Moloney’s home on Church Street, Tipperary, shot dead two policemen escorting a load of gelignite to a quarry at Soloheadbeg outside the town. This fortuitous conjunction of political and military action initiated the War of Independence.

Moloney trained as a pharmacist in Limerick, where he married a shopkeeper’s widow with three children. She bore him four more. He established a pharmacy in Tipperary town, and evidently prospered: his sons attended the Jesuit boarding school at Mungret, and his daughter became a doctor. In 1915 he was chosen as the president of the Irish Volunteers in Tipperary following the split with the Redmondites.

Moloney was confident that 'the martyr’s blood has not been shed in vain'

After the Rising, he was arrested and deported as part of the countrywide crackdown on activists. A political rather than a military figure, he was freed in July 1916.

In May 1918 he was one of many prominent Sinn Féiners swept up during the “German plot” scare, being released in December. Detained once more early in 1920, he was freed in April after 23 days on hunger strike in Wandsworth prison.

It is hard to assess the consequences for his health and business of such incarcerations. By 1919 all his children were activists, his daughter Mai in Cumann na mBan and his sons Jim, Con and Paddy in the Irish Volunteers/IRA.

By contrast, their older half-brother William Hannon, who had been commissioned in the British army in 1914, served as an RAF pilot until 1923, when he joined the Free State army’s fledgling air arm.

By the autumn of 1920 all the sons were officers of the 4th battalion, and all were on the run. The youngest, Paddy, and the battalion commander were killed by crown forces in a fight at a relative’s farm in May 1921: the RIC reportedly acted “on information received”, suggesting the involvement of an informer.

While a prisoner in Barlinnie jail in Glasgow after the Rising, Moloney began a forthright 19,000 word account of his political evolution from fervent Parnellite – “Parnell was my ideal of a great leader. His personal magnetism had some wonderful power to create enthusiasm especially in young and ardent minds” – to loyal Redmondite.

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But when war came in 1914 Redmond “deserted Ireland’s interests . . . when he advised young Irishmen to fight for Ireland’s freedom in France, then I saw he had failed to grasp the finest opportunity ever given to an Irish leader to wring, if necessary, from England a full measure of justice . . . it was his weak policy which was responsible for the gallant lives lost in the fight for Irish freedom in Dublin during Easter Week”.

Martyr’s blood

Moloney was confident that “the martyr’s blood has not been shed in vain”. The journal suggests a man possessed of fortitude, discipline, fluency, and humour, and also reflects both his strong Catholicism and his anti-clericalism, the latter probably a legacy of Parnell’s fall.

The Home Office refused to return this seditious list of woes. The journal remained in the safe keeping of the British state, and is now in the National Archives at Kew. The confiscation had unintended results for posterity, because most of what I know of my great-grandfather comes from the document.

His home, pharmacy and personal effects were destroyed by fire in an unofficial police reprisal in November 1920 on the night following an IRA ambush nearby at Lisvernane in which four RIC men were killed.

PJ Moloney – a middle-aged, relatively prosperous pharmacist, with seven children and stepchildren – may not sound like a typical anti-Treaty politician

Moloney’s son Jim (1896-1981), my grandfather, had been involved in the planning of that ambush.

Moloney opposed the Treaty. Addressing the Dáil in December 1921, he did not recite his own narrative of imprisonment and loss, or speak of his dead son. Instead he simply observed that TDs stood “between two Hells . . . I will not willingly consent to go back into the British Empire”. In the civil war of 1922/3 his sons served on Liam Lynch’s anti-Treaty IRA staff, Con as adjutant general and later deputy chief of staff, and Jim as director of communications. In March 1923 they were captured, Con being badly wounded, after a running fight in the Glen of Aherlow.

Revolutionary record

Although possessing obvious credentials for politics in post-conflict Ireland – his own revolutionary record, his slain son Paddy, his strong local base as a well-known pharmacist – Moloney did not contest the 1923 election.

This most likely reflected not profound disillusionment, but the need to concentrate on rebuilding his life and business. He later successfully re-entered the electoral fray at local level as a Fianna Fáil county councillor. None of his surviving children followed him into politics. Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and other senior anti-Treaty figures attended his funeral in September 1947, when Tipperary’s Dan Breen TD recalled that Moloney “gave his three sons to the fight . . . that Paddy had died in it”, and that “only the mothers of his own Tipperary . . . will ever know the amount of good” he did as a pharmacist “in the big flu of 1918”.

I cannot recall my grandfather ever speaking of Moloney. This perhaps partly reflected Jim’s natural reserve – he seems never to have talked to his children of his own War of Independence and Civil War experiences, or of his dead brother – but it was also because of a rift within the family.

PJ Moloney’s wife Hannah died in 1924. He subsequently remarried. This occasioned the departure from Tipperary in 1926 of Jim and his dynamic bride Kathy (eldest sister of Kevin Barry)  – see “One Woman’s Civil War in Ireland”, Irish Times, May 23rd, 2013 – and their newborn twins.

Many years ago I saw a letter from PJ written in 1928 explaining that he had had unexpectedly to bail out an improvident relative, and so could no longer provide any financial support for Jim and his growing family.

His characteristically matter-of-fact valediction was along the lines “I don’t know how you are going to manage, but there’s no point in us all going under. Your loving father”. I was told Moloney and his eldest son never spoke again. It does not take a civil war to split a family.

PJ Moloney – a middle-aged, relatively prosperous pharmacist, with seven children and stepchildren – may not sound like a typical anti-Treaty politician. But, as Dr Mary Staines and I have recently argued in Liam Weeks’s and Michéal Ó Fathathartaigh’s The Treaty, close analysis of the TDs of the first and second Dáil disclose no significant distinguishing economic, social or familial factor that might explain the Treaty stance of individual TDs. In that, the first cohort of elected Irish politicians are very similar to the generations who have followed them into Dáil Éireann.

Moloney’s 1916 journal will be published in two parts in forthcoming numbers of the Tipperary Historical Journal.  

Prof Eunan O’Halpin is Bank of Ireland professor of contemporary Irish history at Trinity College Dublin

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