Friday 19 July 2019

'The 1916 secrets my father kept hidden'

Tom Clarke almost met his end before the Rising, as Hugh MacMahon discovered when he dug into his family history. He talks to Celine Naughton

Hugh MacMahon at the Irish Missionary Union, Westland Square, Pearse Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn.
Hugh MacMahon at the Irish Missionary Union, Westland Square, Pearse Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn.

Celine Naughton

Brian MacMahon was a young volunteer eager for action in 1916, but a bout of scarlet fever crushed any dreams he had of fighting for his country. Instead he spent Easter week in Hardwicke Street Hospital, where he listened to the battle rage right outside the window.

"Bullets smashed the windows of the ward and once into the wall a foot from my head," he wrote in his journal. "It was maddening to be there in bed listening to the firing."

His confinement was a blow for the boy who'd come from Coas, Co Monaghan to Dublin to study law in UCD and worked for Tom Clarke, running errands and drilling with the Rising leader at every opportunity. Clarke was so impressed, he handed the boy a gun to carry in the St Patrick's Day parade that March.

He would have been carrying another at Easter had illness not interrupted his dreams of glory.

As soon as he recovered, however, Brian threw himself into the cause and was active in the War of Independence, until a bomb attack in Dundalk left him severely injured.

"He was a semi-invalid for the rest of his life," says his son, Fr Hugh MacMahon, who only recently discovered the extent of his family's involvement in 1916 and the eventful years that followed.

Brian's brother Peadar fought in Stephen's Green before rejoining his own battalion in Jacob's biscuit factory. "Peadar was interned in Frongoch, and in 1920 he was arrested in an attempt to bring guns from Dublin to Cavan, and imprisoned in the Curragh, where he was elected prisoner commandant," says Hugh.

"He later became chief of staff of the defence forces and served as secretary at the Department of Defence from 1927 up to WWII."

And then there was Sorcha, the boys' sister, on the surface a genteel bookkeeper with a fiancé in tow, but also a committed activist who routinely carried guns hidden in her bicycle basket and delivered messages from the GPO, ignoring the dangers she faced.

Records show she left the GPO for various locations over 50 times during Easter week, during which time she was a direct link between Tom Clarke and his wife Kathleen, Sorcha's best friend.

"Sorcha was a main mover in Cumann na mBan," says Hugh. "Late one night, she met Tom Clarke and his friend Sean McGarry, to receive a pistol Sean had for her. Sean started fooling around, pointing the gun at Clarke, who told him to stop messing with it. McGarry assured him it wasn't loaded and pulled the trigger. But it was and just as the gun went off, Clarke stepped to the side and received a bullet wound to the right arm.

"Had he stood still, it would likely have pierced his heart. As it was, he had to practise shooting with his left hand in the days leading up to the Rising. Sorcha postponed her wedding to Tom Rogers because she knew the Rising was planned; they married that November. With her new name, she dropped out of police files as she continued her undercover work delivering messages and guns."

It was a far cry from the elderly aunt who in later years would visit her brother Brian's family in Blackrock, Co Dublin from her home on the other side of the city in Howth. Hugh remembers her as "a formal presence" and "not a loquacious woman". It's only in recent years that he discovered a very different side to the father, aunt and uncle he thought he knew.

"After 50 years in the Orient, I came home from China and Korea three years ago and began to research my family's involvement in 1916," he says. "A cousin directed me to a journal my father had written; I could hardly believe it. There were 30 pages, stuff he'd never shared.

"He first met Rose while he was on the run in the home of his fellow officer Patrick Finegan, but after the explosion, he gave up on dreams of marriage because of the injuries he sustained.

"Years later, Rose's brothers gave her a little ribbing about whether she'd ever settle down and she said, 'The only man I'd marry is Brian MacMahon.' So they got them together again around 1930."

Brian and Rose went on to have five children, two of whom became nuns, and Hugh a Columban missionary priest.

Inspired by these stories, Hugh decided to put together a record for the family. The result is his book, 'A Fist to the Black-Blooded', a family motto that means 'resistance to the oppressor'.

"Who knows why the three siblings from Coas were prepared to risk their lives for the freedom of their country?" he says. "Some people simply live out the spirit on a wider canvas, and from what I knew of them growing up, they were most humble about it."

'A Fist to the Black-Blooded: The MacMahons of Coas', by Hugh MacMahon, is available from Easons of Monaghan Town

Irish Independent

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