An Irishman's Diary

 

Tom McEllistrim was born in Ballymacelligott, near Tralee, Co Kerry, in 1894. He joined the Irish volunteers in 1914, fought in the War of Independence and took the republican side in the Civil War. He was a TD for Kerry North from 1923 to 1969. As a long-serving Munster Fianna Fail TD, he strongly supported Jack Lynch for Taoiseach in 1966, following the retirement of Sean Lemass. He died in 1973.

In an extensive taped interview with Nollaig O Gadhra in 1970, when memories of old battles were still fresh, he showed no bitterness, expressed no regrets, and was remarkably generous when talking about his political opponents. He gave his views in a matter-of-fact style and without emotion, despite his involvement in turbulent events.

Asked about the Civil War, he said: "The Civil War was a godsend to us in this country, because were weren't trained, we weren't disciplined, we hadn't a proper civil spirit - the fellows that went through the Tan War, with that kind of freedom they had during that period, it spoilt them, with the result that the Civil War chastised us on both sides and we were better citizens afterwards."

Fascinating insight

That interview, of close on three decades ago, was made into a programme by Radio Kerry's head of news and current affairs, Fiona Stack, and journalist Tom Lyons, and broadcast under the title, From Soldier to Statesman - the McEllistrim Years. It provides a fascinating insight into the thinking of a generation who became politically active in the early part of the century and whose careers spanned war and peace.

McEllistrim recalled discussing the impending 1916 Rising with Austin Stack, and on Easter Sunday marching at the head of 40 men from Ballymacelligott to the Volunteers' headquarters in Tralee. They expected to be part of the Rising on that day, or some days later, and brought rations with them.

In Tralee, he was introduced to Robert Monteith, who had accompanied Roger Casement on his ill-fated trip from Germany to Kerry with arms.

He was asked by the head of the Volunteers in Tralee to take charge of Monteith. McEllistrim took him to his home in Ballymacelligott. "He stayed with me for four days and four nights. We slept in the same room, we actually slept in the same bed. Every night we went for walks."

Monteith was later moved to a house in Castleisland, before going on to Limerick and eventually escaping to America.

McEllistrim was later arrested, jailed in Tralee, Dublin and in Britain. While in prison, he heard about the executions that followed the Rising.

War of Independence

Released before Christmas 1916, he returned to Kerry, participating in two high-profile incidents in the War of Independence. In April, 1918, he led the attack on Gortatlea barrack. "The two RIC men inside surrendered with their hands to the wall . . . a shot was fired into the barracks from outside, killing one of our men. In all, we lost two men . . ." McEllistrim recalled that he and his men had no fear, "except the fear that we could not do the job."

The RIC men involved in the shootings came to Tralee to attend an inquest in June. "Two of us decided, John Cronin and myself, that we would go into Tralee and shoot the two fellows who shot our comrades in Gortatlea. We came out on the street in front of them as they came out of the courthouse. We had two shotguns . . ." The RIC men were wounded.

He was joint commander of the IRA column which attacked a British provisions train at Headford Junction in March, 1921. Twenty-eight people, all but two of them soldiers, were killed. He recalled: "When the battle was over, there were 28 bodies lined up dead inside in that platform."

In the Dail, he observed some of his opponents in the Civil War take their place in the two coalition governments preceding 1970. Of them, he said: "It was very difficult for them to have a common policy, I agree. But they did not do any harm." He believed there was little difference between governments. "Whatever ministers are there, they try to do their very best."

Son in politics

He attempted to discourage his son, also named Tom McEllistrim, who served as a Minister of State, TD and senator, from entering politics, believing it to be a hard life. But he had no regrets about his own long involvement. "I always say that, that we were privileged - I've often said that, and yet I'm meeting old IRA men - remember, I said, we were privileged, because the opportunity came in our time, others didn't get that opportunity at all."

He described his whole life as "a paradise."