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'Everything has changed, except the things that should have changed'

When a British Army officer returned to the town where he had fought the IRA, no one thought he would end up saying Mass, writes Breandan Mac Suibhne


Front Street, Ardara, Co Donegal, circa 1900

Front Street, Ardara, Co Donegal, circa 1900

Front Street, Ardara, Co Donegal, circa 1900

In August 1961, a Catholic priest, in his mid-60s, accompanied by a younger man, stepped into Kennedy's shop on Front Street in Ardara, Co Donegal.

Con Kennedy, a returned Yank, had established the shop, as a drapery, in 1902. He had been born in Rubble, midway between Ardara and Glenties. It was a place with no prospects - a place, indeed, without a road out of it - and Kennedy had walked across the bog to leave for the American West in the 1880s.

There, he had made money running saloons in the coal-mining town of Gallup, New Mexico, and the railroad hub of Winslow, Arizona. Home on "vacation", he had married Etta Connolly and decided to stay, setting up a business, shipping "sprigging" to the States.

Kennedy died in 1940, and in 1961, his son Mick had the shop, with the business then focused on tweed and knitwear.


Lieutenant Francis Oswin Cave who commanded a detachment of the Rifle Brigade

Lieutenant Francis Oswin Cave who commanded a detachment of the Rifle Brigade

Lieutenant Francis Oswin Cave who commanded a detachment of the Rifle Brigade

On that August day, Mick was behind the counter. The priest noticed him glancing at him.

"Do you know me?" he asked in an English accent.

"I do," Mick is remembered to have replied. "You were the officer commanding the Tans in the Troubles."

The priest was Francis Oswin Cave (1897-1974), who, for much of 1920, had commanded a detachment of the Rifle Brigade, not the Tans, but with Tans quartered with them, in the Mart in the west end of Ardara. The younger man with Cave was his nephew.

Mick had been 15 in 1920, too young for the IRA. However, his parents were prominent Sinn Feiners and a cousin was an IRA intelligence officer. Not surprisingly, then, the teenager had taken an interest in British Army personnel - and over 40 years later he had not forgotten the face of Lieutenant Cave.

The British effectively abandoned Ardara at the end of 1920, withdrawing troops and RIC to Glenties and Killybegs. Cave subsequently served in north and east Donegal. A diary that he kept in early 1921 survives. It reads like PG Wodehouse, with Cave shooting duck, snipe, and grouse, and hunting Irishmen. Among the hunted was Neil Blaney, scion of the political dynasty.

After the Treaty, Cave spent nine years in India and 15 in northeast Africa, watching the sun set on the empire. Retiring after World War II, he published a book on the birds of the Sudan and studied for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1954 and appointed to Sacred Heart College in Sunningdale, Berkshire.

He had been back in Ireland before 1961. The Irish Times's social column noted his arrival at Dublin's Royal Hibernian Hotel in 1951, 1952, and 1953, as it did the comings and goings of other lieutenants, lords and ladies. But this visit, in 1961, was his first return to Ardara.

Over the course of a few days, Cave toured his old barracks, then a Gaeltarra Eireann factory, inquired after "old friends" - nationalist and unionist - and he recalled too the night in August 1920 that he "walked with death" from his lodgings to the RIC barracks. The IRA had then been preparing to attack the barracks, but "because he was alone and unarmed, the attackers hesitated to shoot and he went unmolested... to his command post".

Cave's landlord, in 1921, had been John J. Howley, a Sligo man, who had retired from the RIC to his wife's homeplace.

Sergeant Howley, who "took" the Unionist Irish Times, had lost his first son, Richard, in 1917, serving with the Dublin Fusiliers. Another son, John, joined the IRA during the Truce, and a third, Leo, later a schoolmaster, played Gaelic football for club and county in the 1920s. Such was the place and such were the times.


On Tuesday, August 15, 1961 - the day commonly known as Lady's Day - Cave celebrated 10 o'clock Mass "for the priests and the people of the parish of Ardara". The server was Pax Brennan of Brennan's Commercial Hotel, who, the Derry People noted, "was his former enemy as a member of the IRA in the fight for freedom".

Brennan had been no ordinary "member" of the IRA - he had been a commandant. In 1920, he had been well-known to Cave, with his father's hotel regularly raided by troops and Tans looking for himself and a brother, Charles Luke.

Indeed, by 1920, Pax had already served a prison sentence, in 1918, for drilling, and he would do another stint in 1921. Ironically, when Cave had last been in Ardara, the parish priest, an extreme Redmondite, had regularly denounced the likes of Pax from the altar where he was now a server.

After Mass, Cave met the then parish priest Charles Boyce, for whom he recalled "his early military career".

Boyce, who had been appointed to Ardara in 1948, loomed large in local life. In 1954, when he celebrated his jubilee, he was chairman of the Show Committee, the Parish Council, the Development Association, and the Old Age Pensioners' Committee, and he was president of both the Anglers' Association and the Narin & Portnoo Golf Club. He was also manager of the parish's "Catholic schools" and he had his hand in various other enterprises.

Boyce's tenure - he died in 1962, the year after Cave's visit - spanned the years when Ardara's population, after over a century of decline, scraped bottom: it was only in the 1970s that it started to increase. And so it was the time of the cattleboat to England and the start in the tunnels or on the buildings or the motorway - and home was a cold house for the single girl.

For sure, in 1961, Ardara was on the cusp of change. Over the next few years, the priests turned to face the people, women started to sit with their menfolk in chapel and to drink with them in "lounges", wear trousers, and smoke cigarettes. If the Sixties did not swing, they sashayed.

Still, it was the 1980s before the place slipped the shadow of the conservative order consolidated in the mid-1900s - a change signalled most clearly by "illegitimacy" losing its stigma for both mother and child.

But that, in 1961, was the unforeseeable to come. And so now one cannot but wonder what Cave, back for the first time since 1920, made of what had happened in the meantime - the literal mean time, between an effort at revolution that had failed and his own return, a period in which Fianna Fail had been in power for 23 years and the other crowd for 16 years.


The thoughts of another man who returned are known.

John James McGrath was born in 1905 in Tullybeg, 5km north of Ardara. And in 1928, as a young labourer, he left for New Zealand, where he married and reared a family.

He returned an old man in the late 1970s, to holiday with his brothers, Charlie and George. They too had emigrated, both to Australia, but they had returned, Charlie in 1947 after nine years away, and George in 1962 after 10.

Travelling down from Dublin, John James crossed the Border twice, into the North and out of it.

There, since 1969, at sand-bagged checkpoints were British troops. They may well have belonged to a regiment that had bullied its way around Ardara in his youth. The Dorsets and the Devonshires; the Black Watch, who had arrested Pax; the Highlanders, and Cave's regiment, the Rifles (renamed the Green Jackets) all served on the Border in the Seventies.

Most houses had been thatched when John James left; most now had slate or tile roofs. And almost all had running water and electricity. But poverty persisted and so too did emigration.

Fifty years away, John James knew hardly anyone. He could not settle. And within a week, he left for New Zealand. "Everything has changed," he said, "except those things that should have changed."

Sunday Independent