If these walls could talk – Conn Ó Midheach on home and history
An Irishman’s Diary
The soldiers politely provided my great-grandmother with a chair so she could watch the burning of her home in comfort
On May 9th, 1921, the British army moved through the Maine valley in Kerry, burning houses as it went. The action was a punitive one, with the homes of known IRA members being targeted.
One of those was the house my grandmother was born in, where my mother would spend a significant part of her childhood and where, in January of this year, she would die.
One of her final wishes was that the rough-hewn plaque that commemorated the event be resurrected and restored to its place above the front door.
It had been taken down when the house was being renovated and subsequently not put back up for a variety of reasons, one being that my mother thought it was a bit “notiony”, as other houses in the area were burned that day.
The house was indeed a hot-bed of republicanism; its young men had mustered in 1916 at the ice-rink in Tralee only to be sent home by the Eoin MacNeill countermanding order.
It was a home-from-home for many of those of a republican inclination. It was where my grandfather met my grandmother.
He would later walk the yard in Mountjoy as a prisoner and hunger striker with the grandfather of my wife.
Almost 40 years on, while preparing for another conflict to decide the issue of the Border, the house would be where my mother would meet my father for the first time. It would also be where my grand-aunt would have her election HQ when she ran for Sinn Féin in the general election of 1957, garnering 3,171 first preferences.
On the day of the burning the British soldiers marched up the long bohereen to the house, past the fort field with its almost intact fairy fort and souterrain, which, according to family lore, provided shelter for many an IRA man.
They also passed the stone steps up to the front garden with its holly arch cultivated, we were told, by my grand-uncle Charlie Daly, IRB man, Tyrone IRA commander and one of the four shot at Drumboe Castle in Donegal on March 14th, 1923, in the dying days of the Civil War by those who had once been comrades.
The garden the soldiers tramped by also contained a small cannon, with its tiny touch-hole and its missing gun carriage. As children we believed it had seen action in 1798 and was used for many a reprising of Vinegar Hill.
As the soldiers entered the yard an IRA man who was developing photographs in a small back bedroom bolted out of a window and made a run for it.
He was shot, survived and was arrested but walked with a limp for the rest of his days.
The troops ordered the family out of the house after reading the official proclamation designating it a reprisal. They politely provided my great-grandmother with a chair so she could watch the burning of her home in comfort.
The house, dating from the early 19th century, was promptly rebuilt, although the thatch was never replaced. Instead corrugated iron has sufficed, providing those who sleep under its eaves a very pleasant lullaby when it rains, as it always does, in Kerry.
It was in that same house that a battered and bloody Stephen Fuller would seek refuge after he and eight others were strapped to a mine by Free State troops in Ballyseedy. By some miracle of ballistics, he was thrown clear. The others were blown to bits.
The family deemed the burning of the house a fair price to pay in the war which, in Kerry at least, seemed to be going their way. The Headford ambush had happened the previous month and the Rathmore clash just a few days before.
On Sunday 9th, 2021, there was a small, pleasant family gathering in the garden with its holly arch and little cannon to commemorate the burning. The plaque, bearing the newly picked out inscription “Officially burned by Crown Forces on May 9th, 1921”, once again adorns the lintel.
There are grimmer commemorations to come for the family, the county of Kerry and the country as a whole.