Unraveling the story behind John O’Brien’s letter reveals the romance, tragedy and history of 1916.
by Niall Murray
John O’Brien’s letter was addressed to Christopher Clohessy in Cork.
The surname was spelt with an ‘i’ at the time, the spelling used by Private O’Brien in his letter.
Chris was born in Bloomfield, Midleton, in east Cork on Christmas Day, 1880. According to his nephew, John Clohessy from Mayfield, Chris’s mother always said he kept her awake for Christmas dinner.
“He was a very intelligent man, and spoke several languages,” John recalled of his late uncle.
His linguistic skills meant Chris Clohessy did a lot of travel in his early life, having a job with Thomas Cook.
He had moved to London probably around the turn of the century.
“Chris was there when London were in an All-Ireland final and he was friends with quite a number of the team,” John told the Irish Examiner.
It was in the English capital that John O’Brien and Chris Clohessy had became friends, both being natives of east Cork. John Clohessy discovered a letter published when he was going through his uncle’s papers after his death.
Chris had had returned home some time around the outbreak of World War I, the same time that John O’Brien was enlisting in the British Army.
“Apparently John O’Brien and himself kept in touch. There was an exchange of letters,” John said.
“After I first found the letter, the 50th anniversary of the Rising was coming up. A colleague of mine made a copy and typed it up,” he recalled.
But after unsuccessful attempts at the time to make contact with the family of Peter Paul Galligan, mentioned in it, the letter lay untouched for many long years until the approach to this year’s centenary of the 1916 Rising.
Chris Clohessy spent many years working in Sutton’s coal in Cork city where he settled after returning home, and he died in 1965.
John O’Brien was killed less than six months after parting with his 10 rebel prisoners.
Following the wipeout of dozens from the 10th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Private John O’Brien and his friend Lieutenant Jack Guisani — the son of a doctor from Cork — were buried together.
“His commanding officer, Captain Lloyd Blood told his family that he died instantaneously without making a sound,” says John’s grand-niece Muireann Ní Dhomhnaill.
She and her family were very moved to recently see the words written by John in his June 1916 letter, providing a legacy for those descendants who never knew him, but had heard of him.
Muireann’s grandmother Molly was John O’Brien’s sister, but they were among a family of 14 children born to Robert O’Brien and Mary O’Brien, nee Clancy, from Tallow, Co Waterford.
Some of the political overtones in the British army private’s letter may be attributable to the background of his parents. They moved the family from their original home in Conna in east Cork, because of the Land League activities of Robert, a rate collector.
Like many young men in late 19th-century Ireland, John moved to London and had worked as a banker. In 1911, however, there were still four of his younger siblings — of 13 still alive at the time — living in the family home of the time in Ballinacurra near Midleton.
Another brother Dan also joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, but as a member of the 6th Battalion of the regiment. It is easy to imagine that John may have looked very similar to Dan, of whom the family has a photograph with his sister Molly when he was home on leave from the front to London, sometime around 1916.
While these two brothers joined the British Army, like so many other Irish men at home or overseas, other family members took different routes in their lives.
The Kathleen to who John refers in the last page of his letter was the eldest sister in the O’Brien family. She too had lived in London, working as secretary to a senior manager at Harrod’s department store.
It was there that she met Seán Hurley from Drinagh in west Cork, a pal in London of a young Michael Collins. The two left for Dublin in early 1916 as wartime conscription was being introduced, but only one survived the Easter Rising.
As John told his friend Chris in Cork, Seán died of gunshot wounds in Dublin where he fought with the Irish Volunteers — although it was on Saturday, April 29, the day of Patrick Pearse’s surrender, that he died.
After a recent call for information about the Kathleen O’Brien to whom he was engaged, the Irish Examiner helped those planning to mark the centenary of Seán Hurley’s death in west Cork track down Kathleen’s family — who will be represented there this weekend. While she had no children herself, Muireann Ní Dhomhnaill from Rinn, Co Waterford had also researched her subsequent life story.
After the heartbreak of losing her fiancé in 1916, Kathleen O’Brien returned to Cork three years later and became involved in Cumann na mBan, the women’s organisation that actively supported the Irish Volunteers and IRA in the War of Independence.
A colleague of activist Mary MacSwiney, she joined her on hunger strikes, including one in protest at the imprisonment of Mary’s brother Terence MacSwiney in 1920. Kathleen later married Tim Daly from Cork and they lived in Newbridge, Co Kildare until her death in 1960.
But 1916 was a year of tragedy for the O’Brien family, as in the days before the Rising saw the deaths of both John and Kathleen’s mother Mary, and Mary’s mother Margaret Clancy, who lived with the family remaining in east Cork.
Not too long after, John and his army comrades were eventually shipped out with others of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers 10th Battalion. In the bloody campaign of the Somme where thousands of Irishmen died at the end of 1916, his battalion was one of the worst impacted.
On November 13, 1916, as many as 80 of the 315 10th Battalion casualties of the entire war may have happened.
At 10am on that Monday morning, Private John O’Brien died as a result of machine gun fire at Beaumont Hamel. He is remembered at the war memorial at Thiepval.
Brave young man
Although the date may have been inaccurate, the news of John O’Brien’s death at the front was reported as follows, in the Cork Examiner on Thursday, December 7, 1916:
KILLED IN ACTION
Intelligence of the death in action of a gallant Midleton soldier , Private John O’Brien, of the 10th (Commercial Battalion) Royal Dublin Fusiliers, has been learned with regret in this town and district.
The deceased was the eldest son of Mr. Robert O’Brien, rate collector, and was fatally wounded in France on the 15th November.
Prior to the war , Private O’Brien had held the important position of cashier in the Leyton branch of the London City and Midland Counties Bank, which he resigned over two years ago, volunteering to join the colours, and was posted to the Royal Dublin Volunteers that formed a unit in the Irish Brigade. He was a very intrepid and brave young man, and fought with distinction in the recent “Big Push” in France.
Much sympathy is felt for the father and brothers and sisters of the deceased in their sad bereavement.
These are some of the men whose kind-heartedness was recalled by John O’Brien
PETER PAUL GALLIGAN
In 1916, he helped lead the Easter Rising in Enniscorthy. He went to the GPO in Dublin at first, but was sent from there by James Connolly with orders for the south-east.
Galligan called the shots largely in Wexford, although Seamus Doyle was in charge of the Volunteers’ Brigade in the county. He had taken and took part in the operation to cut off the rail line to Dublin. This prevented military reinforcements reaching the capital from Rosslare after the Volunteers took over Enniscorthy in the early hours of Thursday morning of Easter Week.
He was sentenced to death but, after executions were stopped, was sent instead to Dartmoor prison with a five-year sentence.
In 1948, he described to the Bureau of Military History in 1948 being transferred by Private John O’Brien and others after about a week in custody.
“In our party were Eoin MacNeill, Sean McEntee and Teddy Brosnan from Kerry. We travelled by B. & I. boat from the North Wall to Liverpool and from there to London and on to Dartmoor,” he said. “Our escort was a detachment of the Dublin Fusiliers. They were good fellows and treated us well.”
Galligan was released in June 1917 and returned to his native Cavan, where he was a regional Volunteers organiser during the War of Independence in between many arrests.
He served on the Irish Volunteers national executive and was TD for Cavan in the first two Dáils, from 1919 to 1922. He stayed neutral in the Civil War. In later years, he owned a gentleman’s outfitters off Henry Street in Dublin, at 1 Post Office Buildings. He died in 1966.
Kevin Galligan, biographer of his grandfather Peter Paul Galligan, said the letter shows the human side of the 1916 story: “It gives a sense of the empathy that Irish men on both sides ha. Peter Paul had no hatred towards the soldiers escorting them who were part of the British police force, which was typical of the man,” he said.
From Virginia, Co Cavan, Peadar Slattery was wounded during Easter Week in the GPO, where he was attached to Proclamation signatory Joseph Plunkett.
It is not entirely certain if he had the rugby-playing credentials suggested in John O’Brien’s letter, but other evidence points to him being the Slattery escorted by the 10th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
Being a graduate structural engineer, he was appointed an Irish Volunteers commandant and director of engineering on Good Friday, 1916, two days before the Rising was due to begin.
Although sentenced to death, this was commuted to eight years penal servitude.
He was released in June 1917 and spent much of the next year making bombs and explosives.
During the War of Independence, by now in his early thirties, he was engaged with the IRA in counties Meath and Cavan, with duties that included training Volunteers in explosives and in the cutting of roads and bridges to disrupt military and police movements.
Ahead of the Civil War, Slattery joined the National Army in April 1922 and was involved in operations at Drogheda in June that year. After his military career, which included a period as Commandant in the Army Corps of Engineers, he later worked with Rathmines and Rathgar Urban District council, and with Dublin Corporation. He died in 1954.
Born in 1891, he became leader of the Castlegregory company of the Irish Volunteers in 1913.
Prior to the Rising, Tadhg and fellow Volunteer Pat ‘Aeroplane’ O’Shea were asked by Kerry Volunteers Brigade boss Austin Stack to recruit local pilots to guide the Aud into Tralee Bay. The selected pilots saw the German vessel being boarded by the British Navy on Good Friday, after it arrived earlier than expected.
Despite the issuing of Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order on Easter Saturday and a prohibition on Volunteer assemblies, Brosnan marched his men through Castlegregory a week later on Sunday, April 30. With six others – Abel O’Mahony, Michael McKenna, James Kennedy, Michael Duhig, Daniel O’Shea and his brother, John Brosnan – he was arrested and brought to Ballymullen Jail before being court-martialled at Richmond Barracks in Dublin.
Brosnan was sentenced to 20 years penal servitude with 15 remitted. He was released in 1917 but served a further prison term until 1918.
He served as Officer Commanding the 4th Battalion of the Kerry No. 1 Brigade of the IRA and was active during the War of Independence. He was involved in attacks at Lispole, Killorglin and Castlemaine. Brosnan opposed the Treaty and was arrested by Free State soldiers in 1923. He emigrated to the US after the Civil War.
Tadhg Brosnan was one of more than 100 people from Kerry to be arrested after the Rising. For details of some of the others, see an extract here from the new book Kerry 1916: Histories and Legacies of the Easter Rising – A Centenary Record, edited by Bridget McAuliffe, Mary McAuliffe and Owen O’Shea (Irish Historical Publications).