At home with the Plunketts
Memoir: Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, the fourth of seven children born to Count George Noble Plunkett and his wife Mary Josephine née Cranny, was an obsessional collector of family papers stretching back to 1850, and kept detailed notes and diaries of her own life up to her death at the age of 94 in 1986.
The current memoirs finish at the end of the War of Independence. They have been edited by her granddaughter, Honor O'Brolchain, who must have spent long hours researching papers that she describes as enough to fill three lorries. Geraldine's account of her earlier days forms the core of the book. Geraldine was married to Prof Tom Dillon, who was professor of chemistry at University College (now NUI) Galway and who, like Geraldine's family, was active in the separatist movement in the early years of the last century.
The Plunkett family's wealth was established towards the end of the 19th century, when the Count's father, Pat Plunkett, and the Countess's father, Pat Cranny, entered the construction business. It was they who built more than 100 of the fine Victorian houses in south Dublin - on Palmerston Road, Belgrave Road, and many of the roads in Donnybrook and Ballsbridge - and thus helped to create probably the finest Victorian inner suburb in these islands. These properties finished in the tight hands of the Countess, a grip she retained until the time of her death at the age of 86. Little of this wealth was shared with her seven children during her long lifetime.
The Crannys and the Plunketts were among the first Catholic entrepreneurs to emerge from the rigours of Protestant domination. The Plunkett family was dysfunctional and many of its problems - which Geraldine records so frankly - were created by the Countess's unkindness to her own children. She was cantankerous, mean, capricious and dominating, and had a strong influence over the Count, who apparently did little to control her aberrant behaviour.
Geraldine's brother Joseph was one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. He married Grace Gifford just before his execution. Like all the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, Joe left behind an extended family that was steeped in the rhetoric of the Republic and thus passionately anti-Treaty. Two of his brothers remained active IRA members up to the second World War.
The editor includes first-hand reminiscences of the turbulent period 1916-1921. Geraldine was obviously well known to all the nationalist leaders and their families. She attended the meeting of the First Dáil in the Mansion House in January 1919, which she described as quiet and orderly, and without any evidence of triumphalism.
Geraldine moved to Galway in 1919 when her husband, Tom Dillon, was appointed to the university. She lived there to the full until his retirement about 30 years later. She describes the terror there, where the RIC and the Black and Tans were responsible for killings, burnings, the constant raiding of houses and the hassling of the local population. However, there is little information about any organised or formal military activity by the IRA.
Her descriptions do not lack humour. Her husband, like the Plunketts, was a nationalist in the IRA and had spent time in Gloucester jail. On one occasion in Galway he escaped from the house when the Tans came to fetch him. He left with his trousers over his pyjamas but he lost his trousers while escaping. He eventually found refuge with a community of priests. He was cared for there but his presence was reported the following morning to the local bishop. The bishop was disturbed by the event, saying that it was regrettable for a religious institution to harbour him and that it was not to happen again.
Padraic O'Maille's house in Connemara was a refuge for members of the IRA who were on the run. Apparently, 14 RIC officers travelling on bikes became suspicious about the house and its occupants. However, the RIC men were soon attacked by the occupants and a battle ensued that lasted "from 5am to 4pm". The police were soon reinforced by seven lorries of troops and an armoured car with a Rolls engine and machine guns. The district inspector was now in charge. The house was taken but the men had escaped. An armoured train was later sent as far as Clifden and aircraft joined in the search. "Thousands of soldiers and police were out." Some of her descriptions are almost surreal.
Geraldine showed extraordinary energy in all her family and social affairs. She was an unquenchable recorder of her everyday life; she was strong in her views, passionate, outspoken, and probably argumentative, but she was caring, generous and was fortunate to have a sense of humour to protect her from the frugality of her times, the stresses within a dysfunctional family, a somewhat unstable marriage and a dominating, intrusive and long-living mother. The memoirs may be a little rambling at times, but thanks to excellent editing, they do provide us with a good insight into the late 19th- and early 20th-century political and social circumstances of Dublin and Ireland at one of the great transition times of the country's history. The editor, Honor O'Brolchain, deserves our thanks. She had a Herculean task in dealing with such vast sources of material. Above all, Geraldine Plunkett Dillon deserves our thanks for the remarkable archives she has left to posterity.
Prof Risteárd Mulcahy is a retired cardiologist and author of Richard Mulcahy (1886-1971): A Family Memoir
All in the Blood By Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, edited by Honor O'Brolchain A&A Farmar, 341pp. €25