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Sunday 4 December 2016

Raised on songs and stories of The Rising

Phil Lynch's grandfather was more than a gardener to Padraig Pearse, he was one of the family

Celine Naughton

Published 10/09/2015 | 02:30

Legacy: Phil Lynch at the Gate Lodge, St Enda's, on Grange Road, Rathfarnham, where she was born. Photo: Fergal Philips.
Legacy: Phil Lynch at the Gate Lodge, St Enda's, on Grange Road, Rathfarnham, where she was born. Photo: Fergal Philips.

Padraig Pearse may have employed him as a gardener at St Enda's school in the decade leading up the Rising, but there was a lot more to Micheál Mac Ruaidhrí than tending flowers and shrubs.

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For at a time when Pearse's own father died, Mayo-born Mac Ruaidhrí became like a father figure to the rebel leader of 1916.

Born with poor eyesight, Micheál spent little time at school and couldn't read or write, but notwithstanding this he went on to become one of the best known figures of the Gaelic revival in the closing years of the 19th century.

He began as a child, going from house to house, listening to stories. As an adult, he was dubbed "the greatest seanchaí of our time" by Eoin MacNeill.

His friendship with Pearse began after he went to Dublin where he worked as a gardener for the well-to-do and gave Irish language classes. Not only did Pearse give him a job tending the school gardens in Rathfarnham, he provided a house for Micheál and his wife Alice in the gate lodge after their marriage in 1911. The couple had one child, Brighid, born the following year.

"My mother was the only girl in St Enda's," says her daughter Phil Lynch, who grew up in the gate lodge and now lives in her own family home in a very different Rathfarnham from the country village of her childhood.

"From the age of 10, she used to sit at the table writing down her father's stories, looking up now and then to gaze out the window, wishing she could be playing outside!"

But it wasn't only legend and lore that Micheál strove to protect; he also had great aspirations for an Irish republic and during Easter week, he made his way to the GPO to fight for his country and stand next to his boss, then 36 years to Micheál's 54.

"He spent a day there, but Pearse sent him home to look after his mother and sister, and his own wife and child," says Phil.

"'Look after the women,' he said. He mentioned my grandfather in a song he wrote for his mother before he died:

'Slán leat a Micheál, Slán leat go deo,

Slán leat a Micheál, As Contae Mhuigheo.'"

After the Rising, Micheál was arrested with other rebels and detained in Frongoch prison in Wales, where he recited the rosary for his fellow inmates and taught them Irish. On his release, he took up his work and residence again at St Enda's. The gate lodge remained Brighid's family home when she married in 1946 and it's where she raised her four children; a fifth died as a baby.

"Margaret Pearse, Padraig's sister, hosted my parents' wedding breakfast," says Phil.

"There was a photo in the Irish Press about it. There was no alcohol, because Margaret was a pioneer. My grandfather's friend FX Coughlan gave her away.

"He was leader of the Rathfarnham branch of the Republican Army and often carried a gun. Once, when he was up at the gate lodge, there was a raid on the house. FX jumped out the window and threw his gun in the hedge.

"Years later when the park was to be cleared, my mother told the authorities where to look for the gun and they found it in that very spot."

Phil was born the year after her parents were married and Margaret Pearse was her godmother.

"Every year she gave me birthday presents and I'd go up to the big house to thank her. I didn't start school until the age of six, because Margaret insisted on home-schooling me. She sat at our kitchen table and taught me the alphabet.

"Rathfarnham then was not built up like it is now. We didn't have electricity or running water and it never bothered us. We used candles and oil lamps, we washed in rainwater and got fresh water to drink from the big house.

"My brother Tommy and I inherited our grandfather's love of gardening, but I'm afraid I'm not an Irish speaker. My mother was sorry she hadn't tried harder to make us all gaeilgeoirs - and she did try, believe me! - but the way Irish was taught in school when we were growing up was not very encouraging."

Micheál Mac Ruaidhrí died in 1936. On hearing the news, Eamon de Valera requested the coffin remain open until he paid his respects and when he got there, he saluted him.

"When my mother died in 2004, at the age of 93, we laid her out here in my sitting room," says Phil. "I found it very moving when a friend of my son's, a young man in his 20s who used to sit enthralled listening to her stories growing up, came to pay his respects.

"After sitting with her for some time he strode over to her coffin and saluted her, just as Dev did for my grandfather.

"We should be proud of the people who were part of the Rising in 1916. I certainly am of my grandfather - and not only that he was part of that momentous time in our history, but for his personal achievements too.

"He may have been uneducated, but he left behind a wealth of literature, folklore, poetry and stories. That's a legacy not just for our family but for the whole nation to treasure."

Irish Independent

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