Monday 21 October 2019

'Aunt Jennie deserves a song' - Damien Dempsey on 1916 heroine

Singer Damien Dempsey pays tribute to a brave ancestor who took part in the Easter Rising

Tribute: Damien Dempsey with a picture of his aunt Jennie. Photo: Arthur Carron.
Tribute: Damien Dempsey with a picture of his aunt Jennie. Photo: Arthur Carron.
Damien Dempsey's great grand aunt Jennie Shanahan (front row 4th from left), was active in the 1916 Rising.

Celine Naughton

Singer/songwriter Damien Dempsey is so inspired by the activities of his great grandaunt during the Easter Rising, he's written a song about her.

Aunt Jennie is a tribute to Jane (Jennie) Shanahan, a trade union activist, member of the Irish Women Workers Union and a key figure in the Irish Citizen Army. The popular balladeer discovered her almost by chance just a few months ago and was moved to pay his respects by immortalising her in music.

"I was searching online to see if any of my ancestors had been involved in the Rising, when my father said, 'Look for your great grandfather's sister, Jennie Shanahan. She was active in 1916.'

"Sure enough, there she was, and as I read about her, the hairs on the back of my head stood up."

Jennie Shanahan joined the Irish Citizen Army in 1913, taking part in army manoeuvres and training recruits. On Easter Monday, she joined the force under the command of Sean Connolly, sent to take Dublin Castle. When they failed to do so, they retreated to City Hall. On the way, she met some British soldiers who mistook her for a civilian and asked if she'd been badly treated by the rebels.

'Oh no, Sir,' she replied. 'They treated me well enough, but there must be hundreds of them up there on the roof.'

Believing her, the soldiers advanced cautiously, giving the garrison of only 20 time to regroup. They held City Hall for 24 hours, thanks largely to Jennie's quick thinking. She was on the roof with Dr Kathleen Lynn when they saw Sean Connolly walk towards them, then fall dead from a sniper's bullet from the Castle.

They were arrested and taken to Ship Street where, according to her account, they were held for a week in 'squalid conditions'. They were moved to Richmond Barracks and later to Kilmainham Jail.

"She was only in her mid-20s when all this was going on, and she was fearless," says Damien. "Jennie Shanahan was a proper hardcore warrior.

"She was from a one-room tenement in Mercer Street and had seen five of her sisters and brothers die in the third world conditions of the tenements at the turn of the last century.

"People like her give me strength to get involved and make a difference. That's why I joined a recent protest about the water charges, when I was spurred to jump on stage and sing James Connolly to connect with that sense of people coming together and standing up for themselves. It was a moving moment. She could have been there with me.

"The signatories of the 1916 Proclamation were a mixture of poets, philosophers and pragmatists with great ideas for the future. Their grandparents would have lived through the famine, or Irish holocaust, as many now call it.

"That generation saw their people starve to death in this land that was known as the 'Garden of England,' with every type of food being shipped under armed guard to English ports as millions starved. In my opinion, the Irish holocaust was the reason the Fenians rose and the 1916 Rising happened."

Following her release from prison, Jennie went on to support the Volunteers during the War of Independence and her house was regularly used for sending and receiving despatches.

"My granny told me her mother and aunt would get her and all her brothers and sisters into the bed on top of the guns if the British Army or the Tans came into the area," says Damien.

"Jennie went on to run a hospital at Cullenswood House, where Padraig Pearse had founded St Enda's school. During the War of Independence, she had to hide out in friends' houses to avoid capture by the authorities.

"When she died in 1936, her coffin was draped in the Starry Plough, the flag of the ICA, and her friend Helena Molony delivered an oration at her graveside in Glasnevin Cemetery. When I think of all she did for this country, I couldn't be more proud, and I wanted to show my respect for her the best way I know how. She deserves a song."

The song has music by John Colbert, great grandnephew of Con Colbert, one of the executed Rising leaders. It will be part of Damien's repertoire at performances in New York and London for next year's centenary commemorations. He'll be in Vicar Street on Easter Sunday, and he hopes to be here for the re-opening of Richmond Barracks, where over 3,000 rebels, including 77 women, were held after the Rising.

Richmond Barracks was handed over to the Free State Army in 1922 and became a landmark of working-class Dublin. A council housing estate was built there in 1924. Now Dublin City Council is redeveloping the site into an interactive multimedia tourist attraction, which will be open to the public from May 2016.

"Discovering my family's connection with the Rising has given me a new perspective," he says. "I can't wait to go back to these places - and now I know who to look out for."

'Aunt Jennie' by Damien Dempsey is one of the songs featured on the album, 'Rising', by Black Bank Folk, to be released in February

Irish Independent

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