A history of war and Nora


CONNECTIONS:THE PHOTO HERE hangs on the wall of an elderly friend of mine, and that is her in the blue frock. Her name is Maeve, now a retired librarian from Dublin City University. And that is her late sister Noreen beside her in pink. And that elderly and benign-looking bowler-hatted gent in the background is Joe Burke, a Limerick tobacconist. The photograph was taken in Athlone military barracks in the mid 1930s.

It is the connection between the two others in the photo that may prick a few of our bubbles. The soldier is Liam Hoolan, a native of Dunkerrin in Co Offaly. He is father of the two little girls, and he has a revolutionary history. As a member of the IRA, Hoolan fought in the War of Independence. Noted in history for the attack on Borrisokane Barracks, he was commandant of the North Tipperary Brigade, one of the commanders under Michael McCormick, OC of the Third Southern Division. He took the Treaty side, as the saying has it, and became a brigadier general in the newly formed Free State army, or should I write “the national army”? No matter, someone will tell me. He was in command of the Nenagh Barracks during the Civil War.

My retired librarian friend tells me of an incident when her father was visited by his boss, General Michael Collins. Touring the country, Collins was perturbed to learn of “irregulars” manning a roadblock on the main Dublin to Nenagh Road. Hoolan’s response was to the effect that they were “only the McDonnells”, and that the roadblock would be removed by the local people on Sunday so they could get into Nenagh for Mass. Collins’ reaction to this is not for repeating here, and soldiers were immediately sent out to deal with the irregulars. After the Civil War, and following the reorganisation of rankings in the national army, Liam Hoolan served as a major, a rank later redefined as lieutenant colonel, becoming then, as a colonel, OC of the Eastern Command. He retired in 1979.

Now for the connections. The elderly lady beside the soldier is an aunt of that Hoolan family. Her name is Moll Finn. Not a particularly common surname, but more than vaguely familiar to the authorities of Trinity College who recently refurbished their buildings in Dublin’s Lincoln Place. High up on the gable wall they carefully ensured the preservation of an old sign painted on the brickwork. FINN’S HOTEL, it reads to the passers-by on Nassau Street.

Yes, that was Finn’s Hotel, and Moll with her sister Kit Finn owned it. And 30 years or so before this photo was taken, one of their employees had been a young Galway girl called Nora. Yes, we’re getting warm, Nora was the Nora Barnacle who went out a-walking one day and was picked up by a young man called James Joyce. And he married her. And he commemorated that day in setting the date of Bloomsday. And the rest is . . . well it’s not actually history really, because history is written in bubbles. A mistake, because it’s all joined up. Ireland’s literary and military history are all the one, just as the people who created these histories are all the one, and we’re all living in the one big bubble really. And it goes on, right up to now. Remember, the girl in the photo became a librarian in Dublin City University, the up-to-the-minute cutting edge of modern Ireland, a place which we like to believe is far from revolution and history and literature and all that stuff. It’s not. We may not like it, but that’s the way it is. Connections.