A founder actress of the Abbey Theatre, Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh spent Easter 1916 in Jacob’s Biscuit Factory with Tom MCDonagh, writes her grandnephew Dave Kenny
My grandaunt, Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh (Mary Walker) was a founder actress of the Abbey Theatre and its first leading lady. On its opening night in 1904, she played Kathleen Ní Houlihan while four other members of her family were either acting or working in the theatre. The Walkers were committed nationalists and saw the Abbey as the route to an even greater drama: Pearse’s Passion Play.
I’ve just published her memoirs, The Splendid Years. It’s her first-hand account of some of the events — and people — that shaped Irish history.
Maire’s beauty and talent captivated audiences and critics at home and abroad, and her admirers included the Pearse brothers, Countess Markievicz, Maud Gonne, Synge, Plunkett, MacDonagh, and John B. Yeats.
The closing section of the book tells of her role as Cumann na mBan leader in Jacob’s during the Rising. On the day she ‘fell in’, her father, Matthew (69), was entering the GPO to offer his services to his IRB comrade, Pearse. He spent the week printing the Irish War News with my granduncle Charlie and his son-in-law Joe Stanley. After the Rising, Matt delivered Pearse’s farewell letter to his mum.
Meanwhile, my granny, Gipsy, was carrying despatches for ‘Charlie Burgess’ (Cathal Brugha).
Maire arrived at Tom MacDonagh’s garrison just as the barricades were going up.
Here is an abridged version of her account of the surrender.
“‘My God … It’s Maire Walker! How did you get in?’ Tom MacDonagh lowered his head and shook it from side to side. A typical gesture. He seemed very much at ease.
“He was standing just inside the door of Jacob’s in the full uniform, cloak, cap and accoutrements of a commandant. He was talking to his second-in-command, Major MacBride, who was still in civilian clothes. The next most senior officer was Michael O’Hanrahan, the quartermaster, who was executed within a day of his commandant. We were childhood friends from Carlow and when Michael was concussed during the fighting, I took extra care of him.
“Within an hour all the interior defences had been built up. Sacks of flour lay waist-high across the windows, loop-holed at convenient points. Figures crouched behind these, peering down silently into the streets. There was an eeriness about the place; a feeling of being cut off from the outside world.
“That first day, we had nothing to make a hot drink of. Eventually we found some slabs of cooking-chocolate which we stewed in a boiler. I recall bringing a mug of this syrup up to one of the roof-towers and handing it to a sniper. He took it and gave me his rifle. I raised it into the air, looked along its sights and fired a round.
“‘My God, Miss Walker,’ he said. ‘If you’re going to fire my gun, at least aim it at somebody.’ I smiled at him and said: ‘I’ve always wanted to fire a shot in an Irish rebellion, but I’ve never wanted to kill anyone.’ He was bemused by this.
“When darkness settled, a group of Volunteers entered the bakeroom with candles which they set about the room in empty biscuit boxes. The boxes formed a huge circle; intensifying the darkness beyond. The whole garrison, with the exception of sentries, gathered inside the circle and knelt. Someone started the Rosary.
“Soon the whole building vibrated with the rise and fall of mumbled voices. Now and then you could hear the noise of firing, through the prayers; a strange background sound you could never, never forget.
“I saw Tom MacDonagh often during this first day, and throughout the week. Tom was an excellent leader, hiding his worries behind his good humour, and never allowing anyone to think other than that the fighting was going well.
“The great spirit of the revolutionary age was all around us in Jacob’s. You never thought much about what the result of it all would be. What might happen if we lost meant nothing: life or death, freedom or imprisonment, these things did not enter into it. The great thing was that an insurrection had taken place, and you were actually participating in it.
“The pity was that it ended so soon. The news of the surrender, when it came, was heartbreaking.
“On Saturday, the sound of artillery pounding the GPO gradually died down. Pearse had surrendered. On Sunday, a messenger arrived with the news. MacDonagh at first refused to accept her despatch, maintaining that he would not take orders from Pearse as a prisoner. After some persuasion he agreed to meet General Lowe at St Patrick’s Park.
“Inside Jacob’s there was now much speculation. Everybody waited for Tom to come back. After his return he went straight to the Staff Room. A few minutes later all officers were ordered to report to him. They were gone a long time. Then he sent for me. When I went in, he was standing beside Major MacBride. He said, very simply: ‘We are going to surrender.’ His voice was quiet, disillusioned.
“‘I want you to thank all the girls for what they have done. Tell them I am issuing an order that they are to go home. I’ll see that you are all safely conducted out of the building.’ I started to protest, but he turned away. One could never imagine him looking so sad.”
I went downstairs and into the bakeroom. I will never forget that scene. Almost everyone in the building had assembled on the ground floor. The announcement of surrender had not been taken well. There were shouts of, ‘Don’t give in … we can’t give in now!’ Everyone was talking at once. I saw a man throw down his rifle and put his hands over his face.
“Another was smashing the butt of a gun against a wall. Some of the men seemed confused, as though they could not believe it. The officers were calling for order and trying to explain why surrender was necessary.
“MacDonagh came in. He climbed onto a table and held up his hand. The noise died away at once.
“‘We have to give in,’ he said. ‘Those of you who are in civilian clothes, go home. Those in uniform stay on. You cannot leave if you are in uniform.’ He stepped down.
“A Volunteer officer, Thomas Hunter, pushed his way through the crowd and climbed on to a bench. He held up his arms and shouted: ‘All I say is, any of you who go home now ought to be ashamed of yourselves! Stand your ground like men!’ There was a murmur of approval. No one moved.
“I gave the girls MacDonagh’s order. They did not want to leave. I could understand their feelings. They were my own; I did not want to go, myself. Tom thought the sight of the girls being arrested might upset the men — he wanted everything to go as quietly as possible. He pushed through the crowd to me and asked, ‘Will you go now, please?’
“‘I don’t know, Tom. All the girls insist on staying.’
Major MacBride intervened. ‘It would be better for you to go,” he said. As we shook hands, he asked that a message be taken to some friends at Glasthule. Tell them that we had a good week of it,’ he added.
“I recognised a young Volunteer officer entering the building: Captain Eamonn Price. He was instructed by MacDonagh to marshall the garrison for the surrender. He would go on to become a Major General and Director of Organisation for the IRA, fighting alongside Michael Collins. Nine years later, surrounded by the ghosts of dead friends and comrades, we were married.
“I left Jacob’s feeling confused, disappointed and very tired. Along Camden Street the shop windows were shuttered. Everything looked strange, even the street was different. It was as though I had never seen it before.
“Despite what was going on inside, Jacob’s looked dark, very empty. Dublin seemed unnaturally still.”
Abridged from ‘The Splendid Years – Memoirs of an Abbey Actress and 1916 Rebel’, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh with Edward Kenny. Edited by David Kenny, New Island, €15.95’.