Monday 18 June 2018

I never knew my grandfather who fought in 1916 - but I have now truly remembered him

Defence Force members parade during the 1916 centenary celebrations. Photo: Maxwells/PA Wire
Defence Force members parade during the 1916 centenary celebrations. Photo: Maxwells/PA Wire

Ciaran Byrne

At sombre and official events, it seems all you ever hear is the flap and flutter of a stiff flag as the breeze catches and snaps in its folds.

In Dublin's O'Connell Street last Sunday, that sound had an undeniably affecting quality as Fr Seamus Madigan led the nation in prayer at the State Commemoration of 1916.

After the national flag was lowered, the head chaplain of the Defence Forces began a Centenary Prayer of Remembrance.

"We remember the men, the women and the children of 1916 whose short lives and big dreams extended the horizons of our hopes. In your mercy the faithful departed find rest."

His words echoed across the street. A few heads gently lowered and tears rolled down faces. "As we reflect on our past, we thank you for all the courageous people of Ireland who dared to hope and dream of a brighter tomorrow for our country and all of its citizens," added Fr Madigan.

I certainly agreed with that. Sitting in O'Connell Street with my father, Tom, we represented the Byrne family as we remembered his father, Patrick Joseph Byrne, who on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, walked in to seize Boland's Mills with his colleagues in A Company, 3rd Battalion, Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers. And, remarkably, among his fellow volunteers in Dublin city that day were his three brothers, Christopher, Joseph and Henry. A band of brothers indeed.

The events of last weekend provided a remarkable experience for not just our family, but for thousands of others from across Ireland and the world, as the Easter Rising Centenary Commemorations, perfect in tone, reached a climax.

And perhaps that was the beauty of the 1916 Centenary; for many it was the opportunity to properly acknowledge, for the first time in many cases, the roles played by our relatives in changing the course of Irish history all those years ago.

Easter Sunday 2016 was an extraordinary, inclusive occasion in so many ways, offering as it did a means for people unsullied by misguided allegiances to remember and reflect on what happened in 1916. It was a day for citizens, not 'causes', it provided depth and context, and allowed different stories to be heard. Even the politicians played their part, taking a back seat and allowing the pomp and ceremony to dominate.

Ask anyone about last weekend and the one word that resonates is pride; pride in remembering our relatives' sacrifices, pride in President Michael D Higgins's eloquent and conciliatory speeches delivered at various sites over the Easter weekend, and pride in the Irish republic, imperfect as it is.

It's still very much a work in progress, as it should be.

It was a uniquely Irish occasion, like an All-Ireland Sunday with people 'up' for the day, full of chat and eager to explain their links. 'Who are you connected to?' was a familiar refrain.

There were relatives of The O'Rahilly up from Kerry sitting next to some of Joseph Plunkett's people, who had come from Sligo, distant cousins of Patrick Pearse from Wexford and us Byrnes, in our case representing family in Cork, England and the US. Everyone had a story, it really was a people's commemoration and even in the parade of military hardware, there was a clear theme of Irish peacekeeping, not Irish conflict, at its heart.

I have no idea what my grandfather felt as he faced into the tumult of Easter Monday of 1916, followed by the prospect of a brutal internment in England, Frongoch and Ballykinlar.

When he and his comrades first heard that the senior leaders were to be executed in Kilmainham jail, I suspect he was heartbroken. But as he was frogmarched through the streets of Dublin with hundreds of his fellow volunteers and loaded onto a ship for England - and prison - I imagine he was indefatigable.

Of course, I'll never know these things for certain because I never met him. Granddad died in February 1962, 10 years before I was born, and not living long enough to see the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966.

How I wish I had known him. It would be fair to say that growing up I knew very little about his involvement in 1916 and his subsequent successful career in the Defence Forces, partly because I never really asked my father much about him, and even for the wider family, there was little then available in the way of public records.

But plain old curiosity, technology and the onset of the landmark anniversary changed that for everyone.

And that has been one of the other great triumphs of the Centenary; the opening up of archives that have helped to shape a fuller picture of what happened and bring to life the stories of the people at the heart of these seismic events.

All over Ireland and the world, advances in online research and digital tools have allowed millions of people to discover detailed official records and understand their relatives' roles in historic events.

Children, especially, are energised and engaged with Irish history like never before, thanks to the Centenary programme.

Digitisation, led by Military Archives in the Defence Forces and other initiatives such as the placing of the 1911 Census online, has resulted in huge volumes of information becoming available to better understand why people did what they did 100 years ago.

"Remember where you come from," my father has always told us. Last Sunday, us Irish did exactly that, and it's to the great credit of the Centenary's organisers that people were able to do so on their own terms.

Irish Independent

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