The light of other days


Photographs of past events carry a particular fascination, and when those events are as dramatic as those depicted in this book, they can be quite compelling. Inevitably, the quality of some of those reproduced here is poor - especially where they are reproduced from contemporary publications - but many are remarkable in their clarity, most especially those recording the funerals of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. Several show Collins's successor in office, W.T. Cosgrave, with his usual modesty, in the second row of mourners.

But this book contains other interesting material, including family recollections by his nephew and namesake, Michael Collins. These have a particular interest because the author's mother, Nancy O'Brien, was a second cousin of Collins who, in extraordinary circumstances, became one of Michael Collins's key agents within the British administration.

As an official in the Post Office, she was called in by the then Under Secretary, the Honourable James MacMahon, in late 1919 and given the task of decoding messages from London to the civilian administration in Dublin Castle. So little did the British administration know of her that she was told by MacMahon that she had been chosen for this task because of her dedication and her lack of interest in Michael Collins! Of course, she made contact that same day with her cousin through Joe McGrath, and was told by Collins that daily between 2.30 and 3.30 she was to get any information she thus acquired either to Joe McGrath, to Liam Tobin or to my father (who was then Director of Publicity for the underground Dail Government).

Features of this book are reproductions of both the Illustrated Record of the Sinn Fein Revolt In Dublin and of the Brunswick Press's Souvenir Album of the Dublin Fighting, 1922, the latter of which, it appears, may not have been circulated at that time.

I read with interest in the 1916 Illustrated Record, which I had not previously seen, that a Volunteer was shot raising the Tricolour over the City Hall, which was then stormed and the flag taken down. It adds that "this is said to have been the flag intended to hang over Dublin Castle".

That explains something that had always puzzled me: why did Patrick Pearse feel it necessary to instruct my mother on Easter Tuesday to bring a Tricolour (inadequately wrapped in brown paper, according to her) from the GPO to Dublin Castle, which he believed had finally been captured? He was misinformed - as she found when she reached the gate and came under fire. I can now see that this sortie was necessary, not because the Volunteers who attacked Dublin Castle on Easter Monday had failed to bring a Tricolour with them, but because they had lost that flag at the recapture of the City Hall later that day.

Although this book is primarily about Michael Collins, it does not in fact tell us anything about his time in the GPO in 1916. Now, my father, having been in gaol for a seditious speech until shortly before the Rising, was not part of the GPO garrison. So when he arrived there after delivering the message to Eoin MacNeill that his countermanding order had itself been countermanded by Pearse, he was put in charge of the upper floor with the cafeteria, with instructions to ration the food supply so that it would last for a three-week siege. This he did with the help of a girl from Liverpool with catering experience, and the daily rations that resulted from this exercise were somewhat exiguous.

But Collins, refusing to allow his men to go hungry because of what he considered to be a quite unrealistic order, arrived on his floor and, characteristically, demanded at the point of a gun a more adequate provisioning for them! Loyalty to those under his command was already in 1916 a key characteristic of this charismatic leader whose life and death are celebrated in this handsome volume.