Sunday 22 April 2018

'Civil war began in our family long before 1916'

Seamus Gavin tells our reporter how his cousins, estranged brothers William and PJ Doris, have had a bridge in their home town named in both their honour despite 1916 causing a rift between them

Bridging the gap: Seamus Gavin and his grandson Christopher.
Bridging the gap: Seamus Gavin and his grandson Christopher.

Celine Naughton

If Dublin was the epicentre of the seismic activities of the Easter Rising in 1916, its immediate aftermath sent shock waves that spread to every corner of the land. Under the orders of General Sir John Maxwell, reprisals came thick and fast.

The executions of the leaders were followed by a nationwide hunt to purge the country of subversive elements. Within weeks, more than 3,000 people were arrested and over 1,800 interned without trial.

This was payback time. Suspicions of seditious activity against Britain provided grounds for arrest and internment. Blatant unruliness incurred harsher penalties, as 21-year-old Luke Sheridan from Castlebar discovered when he was heard to shout on a sunny July day, 'Up the rebels!' That infringement won him 84 days imprisonment with hard labour. The sentence was later reduced to 28 days when local MP William Doris issued an appeal on his behalf.

However, Doris made no such intervention for his own brother Patrick Joseph, who was rounded up with 30 other locals and packed off to the remote camp of Frongoch in Wales, a training ground for freedom fighters that became known to its inmates as 'Ollscoil na Réabhlóide,' or 'University of Revolution.'

But why journalist PJ Doris was arrested was baffling: not only had he not supported the uprising, he'd written strongly worded editorials condemning it. And why did his brother not plead his innocence?

Seamus Gavin, first cousin twice removed, sheds light on the estranged Doris brothers, who this month had a bridge named after them in their home town of Westport, Co Mayo.

"William and PJ were devout nationalists who founded the 'Mayo News' together in 1892," he says. "They set up the paper to give a voice to the Irish cause and published countless articles attacking British government policies, particularly those that kept Irish people locked in landlordism.

"William was a stringent Home Rule man, a close friend of Michael Davitt and John Redmond. Having helped draft the 'No Rent Manifesto' for the Land League in 1881, he was charged with 'compelling persons to abstain from rents lawfully,' and sentenced to six months in prison.

"PJ was also immersed in the Land League movement, but didn't support Home Rule. For him, nothing short of a completely independent country with its own parliament would suffice.

"When William was elected to parliament in Westminster as Nationalist MP for Mayo West, PJ took over as editor and used the paper to support the increasingly popular Sinn Féin party.

"However, despite PJ's political stance, he didn't believe an armed rebellion had any chance of succeeding. The local volunteers willing to fight in 1916 were so desperately short of arms, all they could actually do during Easter Week was march around the town."

That show of defiance had the police follow them and take their names. On their subsequent arrest in May, most didn't know what offence they were being charged with, only that they were detained under the spurious 'Defence of the Realm Act,' and held in Castlebar before being sent to Dublin and from there, put on board the cattle boats to Britain. But if PJ had never supported an armed uprising, why was he punished for it?

"It's possible that William orchestrated his arrest," reveals Seamus. "There was no reason for PJ to have been interned, but PJ vehemently maintained that William tipped off the authorities, accusing his brother of being a subversive."

The pair who had started out as partners in print were now deadly enemies. PJ wrote daily letters to the prison governor, protesting his innocence and accusing William of having had him interned. He was released on Christmas Day, 1916. He and William never spoke again.

"The civil war began in our family long before it broke out in the country, although both brothers strongly opposed partition," says Seamus. "The first serious rift arose when William supported Irish men volunteering for the British Army in WW1, but PJ's arrest and internment caused a schism.

"Then in 1918, when William lost his seat to the Sinn Féin candidate who was supported by PJ through the 'Mayo News', it was the final nail in the coffin. They never reconciled.

"William moved to Dublin and died in 1926. His body is buried in an unmarked grave in Glasnevin. PJ died in 1937 and is buried locally. Thankfully, the conflict between the two brothers did not pass down through generations.

"William and PJ clearly had their differences, but they both made a great contribution to the cause of Irish freedom, and I'm proud that neither shot anyone as a result of their beliefs. To have a bridge named after them as a public memorial in this centenary year is fitting, because a bridge symbolises hope and unity, connecting two sides that would otherwise remain divided. "

Irish Independent

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