The Easter Rising family rift that never healed

Gerald Neilan was the first British officer to die in the Rising; his brother was a rebel

Shirley Mowbray never knew her uncle Arthur Neilan and was in her late teens when he died in 1944. Neither did she hear her father Dr Charles James Neilan talk about him and only heard of his existence through another family relative.

The Easter Rising brought grief and misery to many families. In the case of the Neilans it caused a rift which never healed because during Easter Week 1916 Arthur Neilan served with the same men who killed his brother Lieutenant Gerald Neilan on Easter Monday.

The Neilans were a prosperous farming family from outside Roscommon. John and Eva Neilan were part of that tribe that have vanished from Irish life and consciousness - the loyal Catholics.

"My Neilan grandfather (John) died in 1903," Ms Mowbray said. "He had been a justice of the peace, a loyal British subject as people were in the south of Ireland in the 19th century. He had been bought up to be loyal."


That loyalty transmitted to his sons. In 1916, three of John Neilan's now deceased sons, Gerald, Charles and John Alexander, known as Sandy, were serving in the British Army during the First World War. Gerald was with the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Charles and John Alexander were doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Arthur was the youngest son. He was just 18 during the Easter Rising. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and stayed with them when the split came and most of the volunteers joined John Redmond’s National Volunteers.

Gerald was a Boer war veteran who was serving as a policeman in Birmingham when war broke out. He rejoined the army, first the Tyneside Irish battalion and then the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Gerald was leading his men up the quay from the Royal Barracks (now Collins Barracks) on Easter Monday when he was hit by a bullet in the face and died instantly. He was the first British officer to die in the rebellion.

The bullet came from across the Liffey in the Mendicity Institute, a home for the destitute turned into an outpost of the Four Courts garrison. It had just 12 volunteers inside commanded by Séan Heuston.

Before 1916, Eva Neilan had already endured the death of her husband, several children who died before adulthood and an adult son who died of yellow fever in Panama. Now her grief was compounded by the death of another son, Gerald, aged 36, on the streets of Dublin by the same rebels Arthur had joined.

“My father never mentioned Arthur. Years and years later my second cousin told me about him,” said Ms Mowbray. “His mother left food for him (Arthur) at the backdoor of the house when the rest of them would have nothing to do with him. He couldn’t come back to the house because his brothers and sisters wouldn’t speak to him. He had been on the other side.

“It is so, so sad because they should have been a happy co-operative family. They were loyal to the British. They looked on Arthur as a rebel.”

Ms Mowbray's father served in France and in the Mesopotamia campaign during the First World War. Afterwards, Charles and John Alexander went into GP practice together in Seaham, Durham.

“My father never spoke about anything sad because he didn’t want me to be miserable and he had a great deal of sad things in his life. His father died when he was 18, his mother had to leave Roscommon,” she said. “My father was in France having the most dreadful time when his brother was killed in the Easter Rising.”

John and Eva Neilan had 12 children, but only three grandchildren of whom the last survivor is Ms Mowbray who lives in London.

Gerald and Arthur are buried in the same family plot in Glasnevin Cemetery alongside their parents and other siblings. There must have been a reconciliation at some stage between mother and son because Arthur died in his mother's house in Dublin in 1944. He was 49.

The Neilan grave had been neglected and overgrown for many years but has since been cleaned up by the Glasnevin Trust.

Now 85, Ms Mowbray visited the grave and was one of the 3,500 relatives of those who fought in 1916 present in the RDS for the centenary commemorations. “It was a privilege to be there. I thought of all my aunts and uncle. The president’s speech was outstandingly intelligent.”

Her family were not spared the traumas of a second war. The family home was badly damaged by a German bomb in 1940. “There was no glass in the window, the outside door was blown in. I found shrapnel in the wall just above my pillow. War is wrong. I am a pacifist. What did I do to deserve a German bomb?”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times