Thursday 22 August 2019

Unearthing Fenian roots

Biographer Helen Litton only found out by chance about her family's strong links to 1916, writes Kim Bielenberg

Kathleen Clarke, Tom's wife and Ned Daly's sister.
Kathleen Clarke, Tom's wife and Ned Daly's sister.
Author, Editor and Historian Helen Litton at her home in Ballsbridge. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Thomas Clarke
Thomas Clarke's handwritten letter to his wife Kathleen Clarke before his execution

The biographer Helen Litton comes from a family that is steeped in the history of 1916, and the tumultuous events that followed.

Her grandfather James O'Sullivan fought with 1st Battalion in the Rising, and was there until its final moments when the rebels surrendered on Moore S​t​reet.​

James later married Laura Daly, a member of a well-known nationalist family from Limerick. ​She was a sister of the 1st Battalion commandant Ned Daly, who was renowned for his military prowess during the Rising as his volunteers held crown forces at bay for days on the northside of the Liffey.

Ned, who was James O'Sullivan's best friend, was the youngest participant​ in the Rising to be executed.

Another Daly sister, Kathleen, married Tom Clarke, the Fenian veteran who ​was the first man to sign the Proclamation. One of the most prominent of the 1916 widows, Kathleen Clarke, went on to become a TD and Lord Mayor of Dublin.

Helen ​Litton​ has been involved in the campaign to save the buildings on Moore Street where some of most dramatic events of the Rising unfolded.

She believes that not enough has been done to recognise the contribution of Clarke, seen by some as the central figure in the Rising.

"There should be some memorial to Tom Clarke in the capital. One of the Ballymun flats was named after him, but that has since been demolished."

She also believes more should be done to commemorate Kathleen Clarke and Ned Daly.

"The railway station in Bray is named after Ned Daly, but he had no connection with the town."

Helen says she grew up in a household where the events of 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War were not talked about.

"We wouldn't have discussed it in the home. My mother is a pacifist, and she had no time for republicanism. She is the sort of person who switched off the television when Gerry Adams came on."

It was when Helen went on holiday to Limerick to stay with her grandparents that she learned more about her Fenian roots and the strong links with 1916.

Her great-grandfather Edward was a Fenian who was jailed for his role in a rebellion in 1867. He had nine daughters and one son, Ned, but died young.

When Edward died, his brother, a much more prominent Fenian, John Daly, became the father figure of the household and ran a bakery, which became a focus for republican activity in Limerick.

John Daly and his nephew Ned did not get on, however, and the younger man eventually moved to Dublin. Helen says: "It is said in the family that no two Daly men could ever live in the same house happily.

"John Daly felt his nephew Ned grew up spoiled rotten, surrounded by women. Ned was not John's idea of a man - he was very interested in his appearance and he loved to sing in a beautiful baritone voice.

"Ned's ultimate ambition was to be a soldier - but he did not know where to go with it, because he could not join the British Army. He studied military manuals."

Ned Daly's ambition was fulfilled when he joined the Volunteers, and he rapidly rose up the ranks to become Commandant.

"He was respected as a commander during the Rising, because he was a good tactician. He altered his plans according to the circumstances, and pulled back where necessary."

Helen describes how Kathleen Clarke faced an unimaginable ordeal after the surrender, when both her husband Tom and her brother Ned were sentenced to death.

"On the eve of Tom Clarke's execution, she visited him in Kilmainham Jail, and then on the following day she also visited her brother before he faced a firing squad."

Helen Litton has written biographies of both Daly and Clarke. She also edited Kathleen Clarke's memoir, 'Revolutionary Woman'

Irish Independent

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