Lost letters hint at why Harry Boland was unlucky in love

Failed engagement detailed in letters from Ena Shouldice intercepted by Dublin Castle

Much has been made of the love rivalry between close friends Harry Boland and Michael Collins over the affections of Kitty Kiernan, eventually won by Collins. He was believed engaged to the vivacious Kitty at the time of his assassination on August 22nd, 1922, at the age of 31.

Harry Boland, four years his senior, had already been shot dead then, on August 2nd, by Collins’s Free State forces. On his death bed, Boland refused to name his killers. Such nobility of character, however, did not help his luck with women.

One such was Ena (Christina) Shouldice, to whom he had been engaged. She worked as a telegraphist at the GPO in Dublin and knew the Bolands through her brothers Jack and Frank, who were among the 1916 rebels in Dublin. They were arrested after the Rising and jailed at Frongoch in Wales, while Ena remained under suspicion at home.

‘Most disloyal’

In June 1917 under-secretary


William Byrne

at Dublin Castle wrote “the Shouldice family is most disloyal, one was convicted and sent to penal servitude and another was interned in connection with the rebellion”.

It meant Ena was the subject of constant surveillance, whether at home in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, or in Dublin. Her correspondence was also intercepted. Many of her letters were never delivered but were retained on a file in Dublin Castle. One such letter, dated August 3rd, 1917, was written to Jim, a brother in New York.

“You may probably hear of my engagement soon to Harry Boland. One of the Bolands at the Crescent [in Fairview],” she wrote. “You didn’t see him as he was in [prison] with Jack. I rather liked him before the Rebellion – used to go to dances etc with Jack and crowd.

“He’s a bluff hearty fellow – has a bad temper tho!! and isn’t quite as refined as I would like. He’s a wee bit rough. Pity how I can’t get what I really want – it’s not in my sphere here – and people have told me I’m too hard pleased – and I better not go on refusing each one. There were a few others – I don’t know whether I told you – none of them were much to look at or even had anything.”

Later she wrote: “I’m really afraid to go on with it [the engagement] fearing H [Harry] would not understand me – or be kind enough always. He rushed me into promising him and now I feel nervous. I wish I could see light somewhere and also that I could be cured of our sensitiveness.”

To complicate matters further she had fallen for an Englishman. “It’s queer – but that blessed Englishman whose face you didn’t like – always has come back on three or four occasions when I had such an offer and I thought I was happy.

“I was quite happy for first week or two after H + I fixed it up + now I find this Englishman disturbing my peace once more and imagine no one understands me like him. He was altogether more refined than anyone I’ve known and maybe that’s the reason I can’t forget him.

“Of course I’d never marry an Englishman – but there are plenty of Irishmen I wouldn’t marry either. Anyhow if it all goes well and I’m fairly happy – it [marriage to Harry Boland] may come off this time next year.”

Aware of how much she was confiding, she wrote: “You mustn’t mind my talking like this to you but I have to let it out to somebody. I wouldn’t talk (underlined) to you thusly if you were here. You’d make too much fun of me.”

Avoiding wedlock

Jim never got her letter. It only got as far as Dublin Castle.

Eva and Harry Boland ended their engagement but remained friends. She continued to be pursued by suitors however, including a Supt Doyle of the RIC, of whom she said: “The thoughts of marrying him nearly paralysed me.” She never did marry and died in 1965.

Her letter to Jim was discovered earlier this year at Kew Military Archives in London, along with several others she had written. The finder was her grand-nephew Frank Shouldice, the well-known journalist, broadcaster and dramatist. He was researching his grandfather's role in the 1916 Rising.

He says: “On a glorious day in April 2015 I find myself sitting in the library upstairs opening personal letters she wrote 98 years ago . . . There is something profoundly sad about the August 3rd letter. It feels like a violation, the brute realisation that Ena’s most intimate thoughts ended up on a desk at the Directorate of Special Intelligence.”

Frank Shouldice has detailed Ena's story and his family's remarkable role in the Easter Rising in the recent book Grandpa the Sniper, published by the Liffey Press.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times