Thursday 22 August 2019

Remembering the rising of John Kilgallon

Few would have guessed what could lie ahead for a young man who crashed a stolen car, leaving a woman paralysed, writes Marion R Casey

John Kilgallon, in 1916
John Kilgallon, in 1916

Marion R Casey

'A Merry Christmas, I am free,' / Flashed 'neath the ocean-foam / The smith, a jolly man is he, / His John is coming home.

A century ago, this stanza concluded a poem in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The 'smith' was Far Rockaway, New York resident Luke Kilgallon and 'his John' was one of the Irish prisoners being released from the internment camp in Frongoch, Wales, under a Christmas 1916 amnesty.

The battle for Irish independence earlier that spring thrust 25-year-old John Kilgallon into the international spotlight as part of Rathfarnham E Company of the Irish Volunteers. Known as Pearse's Own, it spent Easter Week in position on the roof of the GPO. Just before the Rising, Kilgallon sent a letter to his parents - Luke, born in Coogue, Co Mayo and Nora Walsh, from nearby Knock - in which he "predicted trouble was imminent" and "cautioned them not to be alarmed, no matter what they heard, as he would be all right".

Nevertheless, the Kilgallons feared their son had been killed in Dublin, and weeks passed before they knew for sure he was alive and in custody.

This was not the first time John had been in trouble with the law. In the summer of 1912, he had succumbed to the temptation of a new seven-passenger vehicle in the family's auto repair garage in a wealthy beach resort 30 miles from Manhattan.

Without permission of its owner, he took it for a late-night ride. Ten young people crowded into the car for a cruise; their return journey ended in tragedy when the car struck another vehicle on a curve, swerved at high speed, flipped over and landed upside down. Four were seriously injured and the rest, including Kilgallon and the son of the town's police chief, quickly left the scene.

With one of the young women paralysed from the neck down because of the accident, John Kilgallon was sued for damages. In January 1915, his parents became liable for $20,000, the equivalent of nearly half-a-million euro today, in one of the largest judgments for personal injuries in Queens County Supreme Court.

By the time this verdict was delivered, Kilgallon was far away.

"I have got another Irish-American for next term," Padraig Pearse wrote in July 1914, following his fundraising tour of the United States. "His name is Kilgallon and his father owns real estate at Far Rockaway. He is quite a young man and will rank as a university resident."

Just how the two met remains unknown, but from the time Kilgallon set foot in St Enda's that autumn his destiny was aligned with that of Pearse.

In early April 1916, Pearse closed the school and only the boarders remained as sentries and munitions workers thereafter. He advised the students to "go to confession and make [their] peace with God" before the Easter manoeuvres. On Holy Saturday afternoon, Kilgallon took what is now a famous photograph of his comrades in full kit in St Enda's quadrangle. Among these were Eamonn Bulfin and Desmond Ryan.

Ryan later recalled Kilgallon's excitement when E Company arrived at the GPO. "Holy gee!" the American cried. "This ain't no half-arsed revolution!" He told surprised postal workers: "This is the business. Thousands of troops and siege guns outside. The whole country is ablaze. Twenty transports are coming in when the submarines have sunk the rest of the warships. We have our own mint. Light your pipes with Treasury notes and fling all but the gold away. When we do things, we do things."

"One of the pictures that stands out in my mind," Bulfin remembered, "is seeing Kilgannon [sic] running round on the roof trying to stop fires."

Such uncontrollable conditions factored into the orders they were given to leave the GPO on Friday. Crossing Henry Street into Henry Place and Moore Lane, "myself, Desmond Ryan, Kilgannon [sic] and all of the St Enda's boys proceeded to break the divisions between the houses for about half the length of the street. The walls were quite thin, and there was no bother breaking them. We reached as far as Price's or O'Hanlon's which was a fish shop".

Following the surrender on Saturday afternoon, they laid down their arms between the Gresham Hotel and the Parnell Monument. They were herded together on to a patch of grass at the Rotunda Gardens and on Sunday morning were marched off to Richmond Barracks. Kilgallon was transferred to Stafford prison in England before being sent to Frongoch.

In a letter smuggled out of the latter by Bulfin's sister, he told his parents: "The authorities said they would release some of us if we would sign a form promising not to take arms against His Majesty's forces and give bonds to that effect. You know there are none of us here who could do that without betraying the cause we fought for, so I suppose we will have to stay. But it is worth it after all for if we signed these forms they would say they were justified in shooting our leaders as we were only dupes who did not know what we were fighting for. But they will never get us to do that, if they keep us here until we rot."

Kilgallon was spared that fate by Christmas 1916 and was deported back to the United States. Describing himself as a "gentleman of leisure", he registered for the World War I draft. On the application, under previous military experience, he entered three years as a captain in the infantry of the Irish Republican Army.

Were one to have speculated in 1912 what the future might hold for the young man who crashed a stolen car while joyriding, it is not likely it would place him at the side of Padraig Pearse four years later. But Kilgallon rose to the challenges of life at St Enda's. He won the respect not only of his peers but also his superiors, as files in the Department of Defence and statements in the Bureau of Military History attest.

Marion R Casey, a historian on the faculty of New York University's Glucksman Ireland House, is the co-author with Ed Shevlin of 'An American in Dublin: John Kilgallon's Rising' in Ireland's Allies: America and the 1916 Easter Rising, ed. Miriam Nyhan Grey (University College Dublin Press, 2016)

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