'My mother didn't burden us with loss and sorrow'
Fr Joe Mallin, 102, the only surviving child of any of the Rising leaders, reveals what 1916 means to him
Published 26/11/2015 | 02:30
On the night of May 7 1916, Agnes Hickey Mallin, five months pregnant and with her oldest three children by her side and the youngest, two-year-old Joseph asleep in her arms, was escorted to her husband's cell in Kilmainham Jail.
It was said that visitors in an adjoining cell heard the Mallin family weeping loudly as they said their final farewells. Before she left, Michael pressed a letter into his wife's hand, a last goodbye to his beloved family, in which he wrote, 'Una, my little one, be a nun... Joseph, my little man, be a priest if you can'.
Between 3.45 and 4.05 the following morning Commandant Michael Mallin was taken out to the Stonebreaker's Yard and shot for his role in the Easter Rising.
Una did indeed become a Loreto nun and the 'little man' Joseph followed his older brother Seán into the Jesuit order where he's been a priest and teacher for over 80 years. Now 102, Fr Joseph Mallin is the last surviving child of any of the leaders of the Easter Rising.
"This does not place me in any special category," he writes from his home in Hong Kong where he's lived for more than 60 years. Although happy to be interviewed for the Irish Independent's My 1916 series, his hearing is not what it used to be, so we write to each other instead.
How much did he know of his father growing up? Did his mother tell him about the handsome man she met at 17, before he was posted as a British soldier to India for seven years? How they married on his return, by which time his political beliefs had changed profoundly and he joined the rebels fighting the British? Did she recall how he became Chief of Staff and second in command to James Connolly in the Irish Citizens Army?
"Quite wisely, my mother did not talk much about my father," says Fr Joseph. "Rather she let me become aware as I grew up. She did not want to burden us with her sense of loss and deep sorrow. Maybe to do so would have been too difficult for her.
"Her own father had died when she was 19-years-old. He was a Fenian, and exiled, and active in 1867."
So Joseph learned gradually about the father he never knew, from family, friends and historical records. And while there was much to be proud of, there were also questions, one in particular that raised the hackles of some historians.
At his court martial on May 5 1916, Michael Mallin claimed in his defence that he had no knowledge of the Rising and that on his arrival at St Stephen's Green, Countess Markievicz ordered him to take charge of the garrison there. This was untrue. Markievicz had, in fact, been his deputy.
Mallin was reportedly inconsolable that, in his words, "I have left my wife and children absolutely destitute." So was this his primary motivation in trying to mislead the court martial?
"The nurse Cavell's execution had become public," says Fr Joe, referring to the German execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell in October 1915. That a woman was executed was portrayed around the world as one of the key atrocities of the Great War, giving Mallin reason to believe the British would not shoot a woman. But was taking such a gamble the honourable thing to do?
"Could he leave a family of very young children to destitution? Where did his duty lie? Should he risk putting another in peril in his efforts towards his family?"
In the end, Agnes struggled to raise her children in poverty, relying on the support of family and friends for food and shelter.
"Those early years were a time of much unrest. Both sides of our family were involved. These things - ambushes, hold-ups, curfews, raids etc - were part of our days and nights. My mother protected us as best she could. We were destitute, and that scattered us while growing up, but then she had me and my younger sister to care for."
They received great support from Margaret Pearse, sister of Padraig; she ran St Enda's school in Rathfarnham, where Joseph was educated.
"Miss Pearse was of great assistance to us, but does not appear in any public records. There were others, of course. They did not seek recognition, nor did she."
He insists he did not join the clergy out of a sense of duty - "we were never compelled" - and will mark the centenary of his father's execution on May 8 next as he has done every year since becoming a priest. "As heretofore, I shall set aside Mass for my father."
And while he has no plans for Easter 2016 - "I do not plan my day, nor Easter" - he has thought deeply about what the Rising means to him.
"I'm not sure how to answer this question. I could take it - what was the point in fighting for the freedom to choose which way we would use that freedom? Our free will is not to choose what we would like to do, but what we ought to do. The two can be the same in some cases.
"It meant I would meet many who had by their actions shown unselfishness, even though they lost out thereby. I did meet many such people in 1966."
He's been home a few times since the 50th commemorations, most recently in 2009, when he visited Kilmainham Jail and wryly remarked upon admission, "The first time I came here, I didn't have to pay an entrance fee."