When Eleanor Burke eventually asked her grandmother why she never spoke about her membership of Cumann na mBan in Kerry, Ellie Rice replied: “We learned not to speak or say anything because one idle word during that period could cause somebody’s death.”
By Helene O’Keeffe
Speaking to oral historian Maurice O’Keeffe for the Irish Life and Lore 1916 Rising Oral History Collection, Eleanor explained how she only latterly learned the full extent of her family’s involvement in the republican movement. Her mother, Rosalie Rice, who worked in the post office in Kenmare, “would never tell you anything” about her integral part in the IRB plans for communicating with Clan na Gael in the US.
On Easter Monday 1916, using the alias Kathleen McCarthy, 18-year-old Rosalie “filed a telegram to her first cousins, [IRB men] Eugene and Tim Ring, at the Western Union cable station on Valentia Island which alerted America and the world that the Irish had risen”. The coded message read: “Mother operated on successfully today.”
The pervasive domestic silence about the revolutionary period was not unique to Eleanor Burke’s family.
The testimony of the 240 descendants of participants in the Rising suggest Easter Week veterans shared with their children what they deemed “suitable” or “worthy”, but remained silent about those uncomfortable aspects of their revolutionary pasts which they felt, for various reasons, were better forgotten.
All the testimonies are individual and unique, but a pattern shows that humility and self-censorship were among the reasons for silence.
Eamonn Bulfin, for example, the Volunteer lieutenant who hoisted the green flag bearing the words ‘Irish Republic’ over the GPO on Easter Monday, never told his daughter Jeanne “hero stories”, and Jack Shouldice, a lieutenant in the 1st Battalion in 1916, was a “very quiet, modest, gentle kind of guy and not one for courting the limelight”.
This resonates with historian Fearghal McGarry’s observation that the Bureau of Military History witness statements were “characterised by modesty rather than vanity or self-interest”.
Like Rosalie Rice, many interviewees’ parents had been members of the IRB or Cumann na mBan and, as such, inculcated with the imperative of secrecy.
For some veterans, like Dan Holland, the continuity between insurrection and civil war meant “there was a moratorium” on talking about 1916. The fraternal conflict in which erstwhile comrades became bitter enemies “literally traumatised” Eamonn Bulfin and affected his willingness to discuss his experiences of 1916 beyond select anecdotes.
The social context in which the second generation grew up also influenced how memory was transmitted and received. In the deeply conservative Catholic Ireland of the 1940s and ’50s, the family was defined by a “strong, silent” paternal figure and a mother restrained by restrictive gender roles.
In Risteárd Mulcahy’s words, “my mother, [Min Ryan] was like many of the women in 1916” who were “quite political in their interests and in their attitudes, [but] once they got married they retired to the home and looked after the kids”. Female activism and imprisonment — particularly during the Civil War — were subjects avoided in both the domestic and social spheres because, as Mary Dawson in conversation about her mother, Irish Citizen Army member Brigid Davis, observed, “it was frowned upon — what women did at that time”.
For some of the interviewees, the domestic silence was so all-encompassing that the discovery of their mothers’ participation in the revolutionary period was delayed, accidental, or even posthumous.
If the first generation subscribed to the expectations accorded to their gender, so too did their children. In many cases the male interviewees from the second generation struggled to reconcile the roles of mother and revolutionary.
Min Mulcahy (neé Ryan), who was educated in the Royal University of Ireland and a member of the Cumann na mBan Executive, travelled to Wexford with Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order on Easter Sunday and was active in the GPO until the evacuation.
But she is firmly located in her son’s memory as “a devoted wife” to Richard Mulcahy and in charge of what he called a “fairly complicated household”. The idea of revolutionary proactivity was incongruous with the ideal of 1940s motherhood.
The mid-20th-century masculine ideal was that of “upright”, dignified” fortitude, so many second-generation interviewees used interchangeable phrases to denote emotional detachment when describing their fathers.
Colonel Joseph Lawless was described by his son Colm as “a very strong man in every way” and Dr Gearóid Lynch remembered his father, Fionán Lynch, Captain of F Company, 1st Battalion in 1916, as a “a quiet man” who was very “contained”. Thomas Derham’s father Joseph, the garrison timekeeper in the GPO, was a “straight backed man of honour”.
The Rising was a topic reserved for discussion in the company of fellow veterans in the pub or around the card table. Many interviewees remarked on the fragments of information gleaned while eavesdropping on conversations between comrades.
The domestic silence together with the fact that, until the 1960s the history curriculum in schools “stopped with the Act of Union” meant that “the revolutionary decade” was in Nuala O’Faolain’s words, “an era hopelessly beyond imaginative reach”. For their part, the sons and daughters, nieces and nephews demonstrated the very human impulses to “put the record straight”, to eulogise, exonerate, and commemorate.
The third-generation interviewees, children of the liberalised 1970s Irish society, are even more removed from the revolutionary period. That extra layer of distance, together with different cultural and educational experiences, means grandsons and granddaughters are generally more conscious of the period’s complexities.
But theirs are a diluted version of the story, distilled through public memorialisation, collective memory and a vast historio-graphy. In many cases, children of the revolutionaries were sheltered from realities they could not understand; in others, they were traumatised by association or carried the burden of expectation.
Many felt it was their duty to build on the impossible ideals of the previous generation.
The grandsons and granddaughters are less conscious of the echoes of trauma in their childhoods and less concerned, as Thomas MacDonagh’s granddaughter, Lucille Redmond, put it, “with baton-handing”. Their responsibility, as many of them see it, is to plumb the family archives to uncover the truth of their ancestors’ place at the fountainhead of modern Ireland. The centenary of the 1916 Rising offers an opportunity for them to tell their stories.
Helene O’Keeffe is author of To Speak of Easter Week: Family Memories of the Irish Revolution, published by Mercier Press and supported by the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht. The interviews on which it is based can be downloaded at www.irishlifeandlore.com