On the 100th anniversary of Patrick Pearse’s surrender — on the last Saturday of April 1916 — a never-published letter reveals how Irish men in different uniforms found they had a lot in common.
By Niall Murray
From a large family in east Cork, John O’Brien had emigrated to London in the decades before the Rising and worked as a banker in Leyton.
Despite the background of a family active in the Land League, like many Irishmen in England he signed up in 1914 to an Irish regiment.
With the Royal Dublin Fusiliers 10th Battalion, he was stationed in Dublin at the time of the Rising. While we are not sure if he was involved directly in suppressing the six-day rebellion, he was required with colleagues to escort a small group of prisoners to British jails in the weeks that followed.
In the six-page letter reproduced below, John gives his east Cork pal Chris Clohessy – who had earlier also lived in London – a detailed account of their journey.
The uplifting description of events that transpired between the soldiers of both sides of the short rebellion reveal also the conflict that must have torn many Irish men in British uniforms during the Great War of 1914 to 1918, but particularly in the years after the Rising.
As much a personal story of one soldier’s experience, John O’Brien’s tale is a parable that could be used to explain the complex web of political, military, personal and family stories that define this phase of the Irish revolution a century ago.
And like so many of other such stories, there are no happy endings for all the characters.
Eoin MacNeill would be remembered in history as the man who almost ended the famous Rising that inspired men and women of Ireland to join the cause of political independence from Britain.
Some of the other prisoners would go on to lead significant roles in the War of Independence, and in the early political life of the country that followed it.
But John O’Brien, despite his kindness, did not have such a successful – or a long – future.
He has nonetheless – through his letter home to Cork a few weeks short of a century ago – left a legacy for his descendants to remember him by.
And in so doing, he shines another chink of light into the lives, the thoughts and the emotions of both sides that took part in the Easter Rising
Letter from a guard for rising rebels