An Irishman’s Diary on 1916, compensation and a case of conscience
At issue were a number of curiously belated compensation cases arising from incidents during the 1916 Rising
The first, second and third decennial anniversaries of the 1916 Rising passed with little by way of commemoration. This is not hard to understand. The first in 1926 was only three years after the end of the Civil War. The second and third, in 1936 and 1946, were low-key affairs. De Valera, taoiseach since 1932, was undoubtedly concerned about the possibility that the dissident republicans from whom he had parted company in 1926 (and some of whom he had locked up during the second World War) might try to make political capital – or worse – out of these anniversaries.
That said, it is possible to wonder whether the timing of a series of court cases in May 1936, close to the 20th anniversary, was entirely coincidental. At issue were a number of curiously belated compensation cases against the state arising from incidents during the 1916 Rising itself, the War of Independence, and the Civil War. All were heard in the Circuit Court in Dublin by Judge Cahir Davitt, himself a veteran of the Republican courts.
If the applicants thought that this was a good omen, they were to be disappointed. A Peter Murtagh, of Dalkey, was awarded £12 in response to a claim for £16, six shillings and threepence for groceries taken from him by the IRA in February and March 1923.
Lawrence Nugent of Templogue had an impressive array of witnesses to the destruction in 1920 by British troops (who had also commandeered his motor car) of the contents of his shops in Baggot Street and Mount Street, leading to a claim for £1,985 (almost €130,000 in today’s values). His witnesses included Frank Gallagher, later editor of the Irish Press, and a TD, Seamus Burke, who testified that the Baggot Street shop had been used by many IRA men in 1919 “as a place of security and rest”. Unimpressed, Judge Davitt awarded a modest £300, or just under €20,000.
Thomas Keena, a farmer from Ballycumber, Offaly, claimed for £65 and 10 shillings “in respect of clothing and trophies which were removed from his Dublin lodgings” when he was arrested by Free State troops in 1923. Davitt awarded him £27 and 10 shillings.
Seamus Ó Maolfinn, who had commanded volunteers in Jacobs factory in 1916 and had subsequently been sentenced to death, a sentence later commuted to 10 years, and who had been released in 1917, received an award of £235 against the loss of stock in his grocery shop in Summerhill, which he estimated had a value of £500.
These stories, however, can be set beside another, much stranger one from west Cork. During the War of Independence, the local IRA placed a bomb against the door of the RIC barracks in Drimoleague. When it exploded, a mill owned by JJ Beamish, just across the road, suffered some collateral damage, which was the subject of a similar claim, duly satisfied by the British authorities prior to the Treaty.
Beamish was the great-uncle of Matt Kingston, a friend of mine for many years, who was principal of the highly regarded vocational school in Bantry until his untimely death some years ago, and who told me what happened.
When Beamish was seriously ill in the late 1950s, he called Matt to his bedside and entrusted him with a commission which would, he told him, alleviate his conscience. The amount of compensation he had received, he told Matt, had been in excess of the cost of repairing the mill.
He now wanted Matt, who was shortly to go to UCD as an agricultural student, to take with him the surplus, together with compound interest accrued over the intervening decades, and give it to the government.
So Matt travelled to Dublin as a student with all the money – several thousand pounds in all, in banknotes – which he kept in a suitcase under his bed in the Albert College, then the UCD agricultural school. He contacted the attorney general, Aindrias Ó Caoimh (who also had west Cork connections) who told him that he had to work out whether he should accept it, and what he should do with it.
The situation was neatly resolved when the government accepted the money and promptly recycled it to Drimoleague in the form of a grant to buy land for community purposes.
A win-win result, I think you could say.