Easter 1916: ‘They put their country first’

Sheila O’Leary may be the last living person whose parents were both in GPO during Rising

Sheila O’Leary is one of the few people, and probably the only one left alive, whose parents were both in the GPO during Easter 1916.

Her father, Thomas Francis Byrne, known as Byrne the Boer, and her mother, Lucy Agnes Smyth, who was with Cumann na mBan, were both in the building. It is a parental distinction she shares with the late former taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald.

When Nursing Homes Ireland asked for residents to come forward with stories from the revolutionary period, O’Leary, who is a resident in Nazareth House on Malahide Road, Dublin, volunteered.

When the call came to rise, Tom Byrne and 15 volunteers in Maynooth marched to Dublin. Their feet were swollen from their exertions and Lucy Smyth offered him a bowl of warm water to ease the pain. Later Byrne gave his future wife his watch and money for safekeeping.


Now 93, O’Leary is understandably proud of her parents and their part in securing Irish freedom. Her father was 39 in 1916 and had already lived an extraordinary life.

Byrne went to South Africa during the gold rush of the late 19th century. When the Second Boer War broke out, he joined Maj John MacBride's Irish Brigade on the side of the Boers against the British. MacBride was later executed for his part in the Easter Rising. While in South Africa, Byrne witnessed the capture of a young war correspondent by the name of Winston Churchill.

“[My father] used to tell me about life on the Veldt,” his daughter recalls. “I knew a little bit about South Africa. He didn’t talk much about 1916. He talked more about the Boer War.”

Commando unit

Her father was in a commando unit that blew up bridges during the war and would leave notes afterwards for the pursuing British “courtesy of the Irish Brigade”.

Later, he emigrated to the US, joined Clan na Gael and worked as a miner in Montana and California. In 1913 he returned to Ireland on holiday but decided to stay and join the newly founded Irish Volunteers.

O’Leary’s parents knew each other before the Rising. They were proposer and seconder for a Cumann na mBan recruit in 1915. It does not appear the pair were romantically involved at the time of the Easter Rising, but there is a romantic twist to their story which makes it even more intriguing.

O'Leary remembers her father as a "humble, peaceful man" who was mad about fishing. After retiring from the Army, he was made Captain of the Guard at Leinster House. Politicians would call round looking for advice on angling. It was the only time politics intruded on the Byrne home.

“He was like a quiet lamb,” O’Leary says. “When I think back on the interesting life he had . . . Sorry, I’m a little bit emotional.” She checks herself as her voice starts to break. “He had a great sense of humour. My sister used to say that I was his favourite.”

O’Leary worked as a typist for another Easter Rising veteran, Séan Lemass, who went on to become taoiseach. She remembers him as “methodical” and the right man for the country at the time.

Tom Byrne married Lucy Smyth in 1919. Their first child died after a raid by the Black and Tans when Byrne was arrested and jailed. O’Leary was born in December 1921, the same month the Treaty was signed. “I should have been born in 1922, but my mother fell under the cat and I came early.”

Love rival

At the time of the Rising, Tom Byrne had a love rival in Capt Con Colbert, one of the 15 men executed afterwards.

In her witness statement to the Bureau of Military History, Con Colbert’s sister Elizabeth recalled that he was in love with Lucy “and would probably have married her if he had lived. She was a nice, gentle, refined girl. She afterwards married Tom Byrne, of Boer War fame, who was also keen on her.”

Now, almost 100 years on, O’Leary laments the loss of letters that Con Colbert wrote to her mother. He handed them to a Capuchin priest before his execution, but they were lost. When the family went through Lucy Byrne’s possessions after she died, they found a lock of hair which they assumed was from Con Colbert.

Her mother spoke rarely about the events of Easter 1916, but did state many years afterwards that she nursed the wounded James Connolly. She also risked her life ferrying injured rebels from the GPO to Jervis Street Hospital.

“I don’t know where she got that rebel streak from. Her brothers or sisters had no interest,” O’Leary says. “She was very dignified and reticent. Nowadays mothers and daughters are more like friends.”

O’Leary is proud of her family history and plans to take part in next year’s commemoration.

“I want a big party for all the ordinary citizens of Dublin and various parts of the country, a big party for the ordinary people,” she says. “When I think back, they were so brave and so courageous. They put their country first. It is better late than never that they are honoured, but it has taken a long time.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times