Sunday 4 December 2016

'The 1916 celebrations have helped people connect on a personal level'

Helen Litton, grandniece of Ned Daly - the youngest rebel to be executed in the Rising - tells our reporter of her family's conflicting views on the events of 1916

Celine Naughton

Published 02/06/2016 | 02:30

Sentiment: Helen Litton, writer and grandniece of 1916 rebel Ned Daly Photo: Steve Humphreys
Sentiment: Helen Litton, writer and grandniece of 1916 rebel Ned Daly Photo: Steve Humphreys

The spectacular parade through the streets of Dublin on Easter Sunday last was not the culmination of the 1916 commemorations; it was just the beginning. As centenaries go, this one appears to have captured the imagination of Irish people like no other, and we're in no hurry to let it go.

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Nobody is more surprised by this turn of events than Helen Litton, grandniece of Edward 'Ned' Daly and Kathleen Clarke, and author of two books about 1916.

"The level of interest people have shown has been astonishing," she says. "It strikes me as a new generation reclaiming this important part of history. Almost every school in the country now has a 1916 corner with pictures and poems and stories written by the children. It's like a series of miniature museums.

"This has been an incredible year - and it's not over yet. Communities continue to put on their own local events, and mark the centenary in their own way, thanks to small grants that have made the commemorations very democratic."

The 1916 Relatives Association, of which Helen is a founding member, are happy that their ancestors are being remembered.

"The association was set up to honour all who had fought in the rank and file in 1916 to be honoured, not only the leaders. I've spoken at numerous events, and met families inspired to research their own links who discovered things like granny's old Cumann na mBan uniform in the attic.

"People have really connected on a personal level, and engaged with this part of our history with surprising enthusiasm."

Her own family connection has been well documented. At 25, Ned Daly was the youngest leader to be executed, having commanded the First Battalion in the Four Courts. His sister Kathleen, a founding member of Cumann na mBan, married Tom Clarke, a man twice her age who had served 15 years in jail for his part in a campaign to bomb London.

"Clarke is one of the forgotten leaders," says Helen. "If Pearse was the poster boy for the Rising - a clean-living, Catholic schoolmaster - Clarke was seen as an insignificant shopkeeper with a murky past. He worked behind the scenes, so he got overlooked in the official history."

He's been remembered this year with Dublin's East Link Bridge having been renamed the Tom Clarke Bridge in his honour. However, Helen reveals her mother, Phyllis (91), did not approve of Clarke or the Rising. "My mother is a pacifist who sees armed rebellion as pointless violence and an utter waste of life. She used to say the leaders were misguided, and whatever about the younger men, she had even less time for Tom Clarke, an old Fenian who, in today's terms, might be considered a terrorist.

"I'm ambivalent about it. For me, it wasn't the Rising itself that changed the course of history, but the British reprisals that followed in its wake. Had the leaders been jailed for a few years and then released, perhaps no one would have remembered them as anything other than a pack of fools, but they were more than that.

"These were men of strong feelings, and I'm proud to be related to two of them. However, when I look at Ned Daly, only 25-years-old when he was executed, I wonder would it not have been better to have lived, and helped to build a new Ireland?"

It's this kind of reflection that differentiates this centenary year from the 50th anniversary in 1966.

"The tone then was triumphalist and militaristic, and of course, the Troubles in the North a few years later put a stop to that. There's a different mood this time, one that's more mature and considered."

She remembers her grandfather making the trip from Limerick to be part of the 50th anniversary in Dublin, one of the few times when he reminisced about 1916, "but it was the funny stories he shared, not the painful ones".

"Painful memories will have to be discussed, and atrocities remembered. This was brother against brother, and those things carry on for generations.

"I prefer to focus on the stirring sentiments of the Proclamation, to look at the kind of Ireland that these people hoped to see, which is very different from the country we live in today."

She's also put a lot of energy into the Save Moore Street campaign, which got a boost last month when a High Court judge refused to allow any further work on the site, and declared it a national monument.

"It will have been a pyrrhic victory if nothing is done to save it. This needs to be made into a historic quarter, where people can walk along and see the bullet holes, see where The O'Rahilly died, and where the bodies of civilians lay on the street."

Helen Litton is author of 'Edward Daly' and 'Tom Clarke' in the series 'Sixteen Lives,' and editor of Kathleen Clarke's autobiography, 'Revolutionary Woman,' all published by O'Brien Press

Irish Independent

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