Sunday 18 March 2018

Family brings Éamonn Ceannt's story to life

Relatives share stories of the rebel's legacy with Kim Bielenberg

The front page of the Evening Herald of 8th May, 1916. 'Four More Shot. Edmund Kent among the executed. Twenty others Sentenced', reported the newspaper.
The front page of the Evening Herald of 8th May, 1916. 'Four More Shot. Edmund Kent among the executed. Twenty others Sentenced', reported the newspaper.

As a young man who had just left school, Éamonn Ceannt looked set to become a reporter at the Irish Independent.

He had an interview with the editor, but got cold feet. According to his sister-in-law Lily, "upon learning that he would be on duty by day and by night with little freedom, he changed his mind".

It wasn't that Ceannt was anything other than an extremely diligent young man. He just needed time outside work to pursue all his other interests - from playing the pipes, and teaching and learning the Irish language, to becoming a dedicated political conspirator.

He refused to join the Civil Service, because it was British, but accepted a job with Dublin Corporation on the grounds that its funds came from the people of Dublin. He stayed in his job as a clerk right up until the Rising, and after his execution his wife Áine fetched his final pay packet, which ran until Easter.

These details in the life of one of the forgotten leaders of the Rising are contained in Mary Gallagher's intriguing biography of Ceannt in the O'Brien Press 16 Lives series.

Mary is a grand-niece of Ceannt and came to the work of biographer as a late vocation. She previously worked for Enterprise Ireland and the IDA.

It was only when an aunt died and she read a family diary of the Rising period by her grandfather Michael Kent (Ceannt's brother) that her interest was sparked and she wanted to find out more.

"My grandfather's diary mostly concerned itself with ordinary family life, including children having coughs and colds.

"But in the middle there is a stunning account of some of the events around the Rising."

While Éamonn Ceannt was single-minded and uncompromising in his political outlook and prepared to take up arms, his brother Michael took a sceptical view that would have been quite common among ordinary Dubliners at the time.

Mary says: "My grandfather was quite the opposite to Éamonn. He was an extremely peaceable man."

Michael happened to visit Éamonn on the day before the Rising, when there were Volunteers crowding the family drawing room, with bicycles stacked four abreast on the railings outside. He later recalled: "All through this I had the feeling that the whole thing was a jest: that they were boys playing at being soldiers."

Later that day, Michael drafted a letter urging Éamonn to give up the Volunteers. He said afterwards: "I believed physical force against England with her Super-Dreadnoughts (which could blow up Dublin city from 9-10 miles out to sea) would be utter madness."

But he had to concede that once the rebels had guns, "wild horses would not pull them back".

Michael may have been sceptical, and another brother Bill served in the British army, but Mary Gallagher says they were a close family, and there were few political tensions.

Mary tells how on the eve of the execution of Ceannt his family were taken by British army car to visit him in Kilmainham Jail.

Michael's diary describes how the car travels slowly across the city, and is stopped every quarter of a mile by sentries, their rifles pointing and their bayonets fixed.  

In Kilmainham Jail, "the keys rattle, doors open and we enter to find poor Éamonn, after rising from a little table, lit by one candle.

"He received us and shook hands quite calmly and, after a word or two, put his arm around Áine, bent down with a sweet smile and kissed her lovingly... seeing them wrapped in one another we turned away and conversed with the two sentries at the door…"

Ceannt was executed by firing squad early on the following day. After the death of Éamonn, Áine became more politically active, getting elected for Sinn Féin in local elections and organising fundraising for the widows of rebels, and the families of imprisoned volunteers.

Éamonn and Áine had a son Rónán, who was 10 at the time of Rising.

Rónán is remembered by members of the family as a sad figure, who felt the burden of being the son of a 1916 leader.

A grand-nephew of Éamonn, who is also called Éamonn Ceannt, remembers Rónán coming to visit for Sunday dinner.

Éamonn Ceannt says: "His father had said to him at the time of the Rising that he should look after his mother, and he did so dutifully to the end.

"But when she died he didn't seem to hold it together.

"He was a solicitor but as the years went on, he experienced ill-health and he never really made it economically in life, and he died in poor circumstances.

"He always felt that he could not quite live up to his father's reputation."

In a recently-uncovered letter, Rónán wrote to a family friend: "For years past I have wondered if Mamy (sic) was, in a way, not disappointed in me for not having shown myself as fine a man as my father was."

Irish Independent

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