Brian Murphy on an absorbing family history from the Rising
Grandpa the Sniper is a family memoir and a serious work of national history rolled into one well-written, page-turning thriller of a book. It encompasses both an odyssey of personal and historical discovery for the author, Frank Shouldice, a respected playwright and RTÉ journalist, who set out to shed light on the compelling story of his grandfather and namesake, a veteran of the 1916 Rising.
The author was just 11 when his grandfather, also named Frank Shouldice, passed away in 1974. Regrettably the author never would have the opportunity to have an adult conversation with his grandfather about the nation-changing events he participated in. But, in any case, Frank Shouldice, the veteran republican, was a taciturn man and did not talk much about his freedom-fighting past.
He was, however, an inveterate hoarder of personal letters, diaries and papers, which he kept in a leather suitcase under his bed. This stunning family archive has been buttressed in this book by comprehensive historical research.
In order to do his grandfather's story justice, the author has undertaken an extensive trawl of military, police and government files on both sides of the Irish sea, including the Bureau of Military History here and the UK National Archives in Kew. The outcome is an illuminating account of a significant, but largely forgotten figure in the quest for Irish national self-determination.
Had the political situation been different in Ireland a century ago, Frank Shouldice might be best remembered as a talented Gaelic footballer. Born in Ballaghaderreen in 1892, he moved to Dublin as a young man to work in the civil service while, at the same time, playing football with his adopted county.
Alongside his older brother Jack, who won an All-Ireland medal in 1907, Frank was a member of the Dublin team that in April 1916 won the Croke Cup, a then-prestigious competition contested by the four beaten provincial finalists.
Two weeks after the final whistle, Frank Shouldice was immersed in the Easter Rebellion and his accuracy with a rifle - not a football - was what counted. Sam Maguire, who has been immortalised by the GAA's most renowned trophy, was instrumental in recruiting Jack Shouldice into the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Frank followed his brother. Both became close friends with Harry Boland, another GAA stalwart and militant nationalist.
After the Rising, Boland would become one of the leaders of the independence movement and one of its best organisers. He was closely associated with Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins, though he would split with the latter over the Treaty and the Boland-Collins relationship was also complicated by a tug-of-love over Kitty Kiernan.
This book gives a fascinating insight into an earlier Boland romance with an engagement to Ena Shouldice, the sister of Jack and Frank, that ultimately was to "wilt on the vine". Ena's correspondence to Harry and to her brothers in the post-Rising period was monitored by MI5, indicating the threat the British authorities believed they posed to the realm.
Frank's revolutionary journey really began when he answered the call to arms in 1916. He was not involved in planning the Rising, but felt duty bound to participate. As the fighting developed, a contingent of 'F' company members of the Irish Volunteers, under Jack Shouldice's command, established a stronghold in the vicinity of Smithfield.
Offering cover to his rebel comrades, Frank Shouldice took up a sniping position on a rooftop in North King Street. Grazed by a bullet from the South Staffordshire Regiment and possibly inches from death, it was a time to shoot or be shot.
The twenty-four year old rebel held his nerve and some of the heaviest casualties for the British army in Easter Week came courtesy of his gun.
Shouldice's skills as a marksman are only partly responsible for the carnage.
As the author points out, the arrogance of British officers, their affront that a rebellion could take place, their determination to bring it to a swift conclusion and their callous disregard for the lives of the young men under their command, all contributed to mounting British losses.
The author gives a graphic account of the urban warfare that characterised the Rising, but the most powerful section of the book relates to Shouldice's imprisonment in Frongoch internment camp in Wales, where 1,800 Irishmen were interned after 1916. As a hut leader, Frank bravely protected other prisoners from conscription and was court-martialled as a result.
The author gives an intimate account of how the harshness of the Frongoch regime, the bonds of solidarity among the prisoners and their growing sense of politicisation were central to Ireland's subsequent successful struggle for independence.
Dr Brian Murphy lectures in history at the Dublin Institute of Technology