Tuesday 6 December 2016

Family stories that echo through generations

For some Irish people, the events of April 1916 are part of the very fabric of their families and defines who they are today.

Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30

Family pride: Pat English with his grandaughter Robyn, who is wearing her great grandfathers medals
Family pride: Pat English with his grandaughter Robyn, who is wearing her great grandfathers medals
A young Sean Lemass
Remembering the Rising: Séan Lemass talks to Charles Haughey, who is holding Séan Haughey
A typewritten letter by Séan Lemass on his involvement in events in April, 1916
Historian: Liz Gillis

It is a possession that Seán Haughey cherishes: a photocopy of typewritten text that his grandfather Seán Lemass had dictated to his secretary in 1966. With the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising looming, the then Taoiseach decided to put down his thoughts on his own involvement in one of the most fraught weeks in Irish history.

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"He very rarely talked about his part in the Rising," the former Fianna Fáil TD says. "He was of that generation who didn't share every facet of their lives with others, so this is a document that really gives a sense of the role he played that Easter."

Lemass was just 17 when, "with no word to our parents", he and older brother, Noel, left the family home on Capel Street with the intention of meeting up with the Irish Volunteers in Ringsend. But, on passing the GPO, they met a friend who "brought us inside where we were absorbed into the garrison and given arms".

Noel Lemass would be wounded after being dispatched across the street to the rebels occupying the Imperial Hotel, but young Seán would get a vantage point of the whole of O'Connell Street from his position on the roof of the GPO.

Days of bloody fighting at the GPO and around Moore Street would end in surrender on O'Connell Street. "We spent that night in the open," Lemass wrote, "crowded into the gardens outside the Rotunda and were marched the next morning in long columns under guard to Richmond Barracks in Inchicore."

Lemass's words would appear in the now defunct Studies journal in time for the Jubilee celebrations in 1966. His grandson Seán - who was 10 when he died in 1971 - says the scraps of tales from the Rising that Lemass would share with the family mesmerised him.

Perhaps Lemass's reluctance to talk about 1916 stemmed from a tragic incident that occurred earlier that year when he accidentally shot dead his toddler brother, Herbert. "None of us knew about that until it came to light two years ago," Haughey says. "Who knows what impact that had on him? It must have been very hard. And, of course, Noel was assassinated during the Civil War, so there was a lot of personal anguish there."

Lemass's funeral is etched in Haughey's mind: "I've vivid memories of his comrades from 1916 lining O'Connell Street."

His memories of the 1966 are less clear, although he recalls his father, future Taoiseach Charles, having to attend a commemorative event down the country and thus missing the blue-chip events earmarked for Dublin.

"He had to go to Tipperary (for a commemorative event in honour of Thomas MacDonagh, who was from Cloughjordan) and he took my brother Conor with him. I think he was really disappointed not to be in the capital for all the pageantry because he was such a proud Dubliner."

Pat English's father, Paddy, also saw action alongside Seán Lemass in the GPO. He was a member of the Volunteer's F Company, Fourth Battalion, which was led by Con Colbert, one of the leaders who would be executed in Kilmainham Gaol that May.

"When I was about 16 and working at the Unidare factory in Finglas, Lemass came in for a tour and I was introduced to him as Paddy English. He said, 'I know a Paddy English' and we spoke briefly about the Rising."

Like Lemass, Paddy English didn't talk of Easter 1916 that often. "I'd try to get him to talk about it, but it wasn't easy," his son, a retired printer, says. "I know that he surrendered on Moore Street and was interred at Frongoch (detention camp, Wales) for seven months.

"My mother's brother was Terry Brennan and he was sentenced to be executed, but that was later commuted."

English's interest in the period intensified following his father's death and especially when letters he sent and received immediately after the Rising came to light. They have been donated to Trinity College Dublin's Letters of 1916 project.

He now lives in Ashbourne, Co Meath, a town that also experienced its share of conflict during the Rising, thanks to a gun battle between rebels and the Royal Irish Constabulary. "It's seen as one of the more successful episodes of the Rising," he says.

For journalist and author Dave Kenny, 1916 continues to reverberate through his family. "I'm very proud of their involvement in the Rising," he says, "and every time I walk around the centre of Dublin today, I think of what these streets witnessed in 1916. It's a history that's all around us and it should be celebrated."

His grand-aunt, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, led a group of female volunteers (Cumman na mBan) during the Thomas MacDonagh-led occupation of the Jacob's factory, while her father and brother published the Irish War News journal for Pádraig Pearse.

Born Mary Walker, Nic Shiubhlaigh was a founding actress of the Abbey Theatre, and became acquainted with several future leaders of the Rising. She died in 1958, but Kenny would learn of her role in the Rising and that of her family as a young boy from his father Ted.

Nic Shiubhlaigh faded from public view in the decades after Independence, but towards the end of her life, Ted Kenny persuaded her to allow him to write a memoir. The subsequent book, The Splendid Years, captured her recollections of the Jacob's occupation, a time where fear and excitement mingled

"The great spirit of this whole period was all around us in Jacob's, the enthusiasm, the wonderful feeling that underlaid every worthwhile activity in Dublin in those years," she wrote. No one had any regrets - why should they have had?

"The great thing was that what you had always hoped for had happened at last. An insurrection had taken place, and you were actually ­participating in it. The pity was that it ended so soon. The news of the surrender, when it came, was heart-breaking."

Dave Kenny, who will be publishing his own biography of Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh next year, says it is important that next year's centenary honours these "heroic and brave people" properly. "Let's not dilute it with this talk of commemorating RIC men, DMP (Dublin Metropolitan Police) men and British Tommies."

Historian Liz Gillis has worked as a tour guide at Kilmainham Gaol since 2006, and is struck by the number of people who pass through its doors with stories of their own families' involvement in the Rising. "You really notice it in the weeks leading up to Easter," she says.

"You see grandparents bringing their grandchildren along. There's definitely renewed interest in the Rising and, you sense, greater pride than there might have been just a few years ago."

At the time of the Rising, her great-grand uncle Peter Lynam lived in Kevin Street, just a few minutes walk from the Royal College of Surgeons and the Jacob's Factory, both of which saw fierce fighting.

Gill, herself, lives just up the road today, in the Coombe-Pimlico area. "It was a hot-bed of activity during the Rising and difficult to police because of the warren of streets there at the time. A lot of the local men would have been at the Jacob's garrison."

For her, the legacy of Easter 1916 hits home most in early May, when the leaders were all executed in Stonebreaker's Yard at Kilmainham Gaol. "You never become desensitised to it," she says. "It affects me now even more than when I first started working here.

"Leaders like Pearse were put up on a pedestal afterwards, but at the end of the day the rebels were ordinary men and women who fought for a cause they believed in. They were not born revolutionaries."

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