Monday 16 July 2018

Patriot and prisoner - the secret history of my grandfather's war

James Fullam was an enigma, who was mysteriously missing a finger, but a click of the mouse led Gemma Fullam to discover her granddad's Volunteer past

THE MAN FROM GRANARD: Aodan Fullam (Gemma’s dad) with his father, James Fullam, in Dublin in 1955
THE MAN FROM GRANARD: Aodan Fullam (Gemma’s dad) with his father, James Fullam, in Dublin in 1955
The document dated December 19, 1921, that Gemma found on detailing James’s release from internment in Ballykinlar
James was number 266 on the list

Gemma Fullam

The document on read: "Headquarters. Irish Command. . . . 178 internment orders, as shown on attached list, for persons who were released from Ballykinlar. 19 December 1921."

I clicked again, scanning the numbered names. There he was. No 266. James Fullam.

I'd been somewhat indifferent to the commemorative hoo-ha of late, but when history manifests in flesh-and-blood ties, it takes on a different dimension. There, on screen, was evidence of my familial bond to our nation's difficult birth: my grandfather, a prisoner during the War of Independence.

James Fullam was an old man by the time I met him - I was six when he died - but he cut an enigmatic figure.

On visits to my father's homeplace in Ardagh, Co Limerick, Jim would be in his chair by the Aga, fingers interlaced - one a mysterious stump - his face an impassive mask of silent contemplation.

Over the years, I gleaned snippets about the creamery manager from Granard. There was tragedy: in 1936, his wife, Lena, died at 26 from pneumonia, leaving him with two motherless children - Brendan, barely a year old; and seven-week-old Aodan, my father. And there was hope: he married again, to Kerry woman Mary Flynn. They first met in 1937 on the bus to Lisdoonvarna; Jim was reading a banned book, which intrigued Mary. In 1938, after much thought, Mary accepted Jim's proposal. The two boys got a second mam, who loved them as her own; and, in time, three brothers and a sister; Paddy, Kevin, Mel and Feena.

But interned? Here was a side of James Fullam I never knew. It was time to go digging.

My father is now 80, and his memories have dimmed, but he could recall some details of Jim's Volunteer past. "He served under Commandant Sean MacKeon and was interned in Ballykinlar, Co Down. Sean Lemass [who later became Taoiseach] was there at the time, and Ernest Blythe. But he didn't like to talk about it.

"Give [my brother] Paddy a ring," my father suggested. "He might know more."

So I did.

"While interned in Ballykinlar, he was very homesick," Paddy told me. "At that time, if they wished to go to the latrine, they had to be escorted by Tommies [British camp guards]. He said to the Tommy, 'If I made a run for it, would you shoot me?' The Tommy replied, 'I'd have to fire. But that fellow up there,' - he pointed to the watchtower - 'he'd kill you'."

Subsequently, an internee did make a break for it and was shot. Jim said an Act of Contrition into his comrade's ear as the man died. In later years, he had flashbacks that gave him nightmares.

"When the general pardon came [in 1921], he was escorted back to Longford in a Black Maria," Paddy continued. "He was sitting next to an RIC man. The prisoners knew what was happening on the outside and already the split was coming between those on Collins's side and those on Dev's side. A fracas broke out in the van. The RIC man nudged my father, who took no part in the fight, and said, "Ye will kill each other yet". Prophetic words."

Paddy then told me that while my grandfather got a medal, he never got a pension, as he applied too late. Mary fought tooth-and-nail that her husband might get his due, and, to that end, acquired proof of his involvement in the War of Independence, in the form of a letter from the former Captain of D Company, 1st Battalion, an L Kiernan.

Paddy read it out to me.

"I hereby certify that James Fullam . . . was a section commander in D Company 1st Battalion, Longford Brigade. He was a very energetic member of the Volunteers all through the fight and was imprisoned in Belfast gaol as early as 1918 in connection with the movement. When released, he became a more active soldier and was again imprisoned in Ballykinlar until the general amnesty in 1921."

Mary Fullam's efforts were to no avail. Jim never got a penny.

Another Mary Fullam, the wife of my late uncle Brendan, an esteemed hurling writer, told me that Brendan had left an unpublished manuscript, The Mother Who Reared Me, a memoir, which she sent to me. It contains a chapter titled 'Internment', which details events leading to and following Jim's arrest.

The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries had been on an "orgy of looting and destruction" in Granard and were ambushed by Sean Mac Keon and 20 volunteers, who killed many of their number. Round-ups and imprisonments followed.

James Fullam was a wanted man: ". . . the Black and Tans came for James and searched the house. They lined up in the kitchen . . . and cracked their guns on the floor. Mammy thought they'd be all shot. [After] the Tans left . . . Mammy got on her bike and headed for the Creamery where Jim was working to warn him. She was too late. He was already in custody".

Paddy called me back to say: "I think the one thing that probably hurt him most of all was the civil war. That's why he told me the anecdote about the Black Maria. He felt, 'how can it happen that we were both fighting for the same thing and now we're at each others' throats?'. He could justify the part he took in the IRA for what he regarded as the right of the Irish people to have sovereignty. I don't think he could justify people fighting amongst themselves.

"He was a patriot. He sacrificed a lot." Indeed he did.

Today launches online British War Office records relating to the Easter Rising and Irish War of Independence.

Sunday Independent

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