Wednesday 18 September 2019

'Arrested and fed dog biscuits - only the strongest survived'

Marcus Howard has retraced our ancestors' steps to document the real-life hardships of 1916

Heritage: Marcus Howard has produced a video series on 1916 stories. Photo: Arthur Carron.
Heritage: Marcus Howard has produced a video series on 1916 stories. Photo: Arthur Carron.

Celine Naughton

Long before John F Kennedy urged Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country," countless Irish citizens of 1916 were putting their lives on the line for theirs.

Now, thanks to relatives wading through the mists of time to find their own connections with the Rising, local heroes are emerging across the nation to take their place in the annals of history. These were ordinary people, like Arthur Greene, who marched from Dundalk and ended up being thrown in jail and left to sleep on a bare stone floor and fed dog biscuits for his part in the rebellion.

In the weeks leading up to the Rising, Arthur, then a sergeant major with the Irish Volunteers, met with his friend John Kieran in the John Boyle O'Reilly Hall where they moulded lead into bullets.

His mother fashioned fabric into haversacks for carrying ammunition and whenever neighbours dropped by to ask, "What are you making?" she'd say, "Aprons for our granddaughters in Glasgow."

On hearing "Dublin is up!" the Dundalk Volunteers collected a cache of rifles in Ardee, then marched 60 miles and took Tyrrellstown House on the outskirts of the capital.

They heard the gunfire in the city, but were under orders to hold Tyrrellstown for further notice. Eight days later, on May 1, word came back that the rebels had been defeated and they'd be surrounded that night by military and RIC. It was time to evacuate.

They walked mostly by night, resting in barns by day. Within an hour of his return home, Arthur was arrested and taken to Richmond Barracks where he was thrown into a room with 25 others and given black tea and dog biscuits for sustenance. Sean McDermott was executed while he was there. A few days later, Arthur was released.

"The 12 or 14 days from when I left town on Easter Sunday 1916 until my return home again were ones of great physical hardship and mental strain," he said in his witness statement. "I will never forget this experience. It took men of great physical endurance to carry on."

Arthur carried on in a different way when, shortly after the Rising his sister Annie died in childbirth, leaving six children, and soon after that her husband also perished.

Though engaged for two years, Arthur gave up his fiancée along with his hopes and dreams for a family of his own, to raise his sister's children.

"He saw it as the right thing to do," says his great grand-nephew, Marcus Howard, a business teacher and part-time film-maker who's posted a series of documentary videos about 1916 on YouTube.

"I don't think we fully appreciate today the enormous personal sacrifice made by people of that era. It must have been terrifying to take on the might of the British empire, but that's what they did.

"They fought for their country. They inspired India to rise up for its independence. They deserve to be honoured."

And that's what Marcus is doing, by celebrating these often unsung heroes online. He's already posted 22 videos on the YouTube channel Easter Rising Stories and has 18 more in the pipeline, as told by relatives and people with a passion for this extraordinary time in Irish history.

"It's been an education for me," he says. "You learn only so much at school, but it's a far different thing to walk around Mount Street with somebody whose grandfather was one of 13 men holding up 1,600 British soldiers.

"I also accompanied Donna Cooney as she retraced the steps of her great grand-aunt Elizabeth O'Farrell, the nurse who waved the white flag of surrender from the GPO to Jervis Street.

"The O'Rahilly was an interesting story too, because he was against the Rising at first, and ended up leading the last charge. He was shot on Moore Street and dashed to shelter in a doorway on Sackville Lane, now O'Rahilly Place.

"While he lay dying for 36 hours, he wrote to his wife on the back of a letter, 'Tons and tons of love dearie to you and the boys and to Nell and Anna. It was a good fight anyway… Goodbye darling.'"

In the spirit of 1916, Marcus has made these videos as a not-for-profit educational resource for anybody to see.

"I love the way the series has gone in interesting directions I never planned. It started when I watched a video about the campaign to save Moore Street, and just evolved from there.

"Numbers 14 to 17 are to be saved, but the rest is currently under threat of demolition. This is such an important landmark, I don't understand how we can take it away from future generations. It's where the rebels retreated after the GPO, the place that saw the signing of the birthplace of the State.

"It's a site of huge historic interest, not to mention a great tourist location, one which could bring in much-needed jobs. And I say that as a third-level lecturer in business studies. There's great potential to the economy in preserving our heritage."

'Battlefield 1916 - The Laneways of History' will be screened at Wynn's Hotel,| Middle Abbey Street, Dublin on Tuesday November 17 at 7pm. Free admission.

Irish Independent

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