The testimony of a man aged 91, who died earlier this year, has provided an intriguing insight into the strong republican affiliations of a group of set dancers photographed at a crossroads in Ireland more than 100 years ago.
By Christy Parker
The iconic photograph came to symbolise social activity in early 20th century rural Ireland, yet little had been known for many years about the participants.
The late Manus O’Brien, a retired CIE worker whose mother Abina (Gobnait) is a young girl in the photo, identified several of the dancers to his relatives, retired school teachers Jim O’Malley and Richard Pardi, shortly before his passing.
He confirmed the photo was taken at his birthplace, Knockmonlea, midway between Youghal and Killeagh in East Cork, despite various other counties laying claim to the location for decades.
The information enabled his relatives, along with local resident Bill McCarthy, to align several of the dancers with nationalist organisations and active roles in the Easter Rising. Two of them also played in Ireland’s first official camogie match.
The photograph was taken by the renowned Horgan brothers of Youghal, pioneers of film and photography at the time the photo was taken, circa 1910.
Peg Barry (nee Foley), now in her 90s, recalled Knockmonlea as a bustling community with a forge and other small businesses in the early 1900s. “Dances were held at the crossroads on Sunday afternoons during summertime,” she said.
The landscape in the image, it emerged, remains almost unchanged.
Mr O’Malley, however, believes the scene “was deliberately posed, given the absence of a wooden platform as would be prerequisite for a real dance”. He noted “the hawthorn in bloom depicts summertime, while the lengthening shadows suggest late afternoon”. The image is dominated by the Foley family, of whom Mr O’Brien had identified eight. They were a family of 13 born to Margaret (Peg, nee Long) and her husband Richard.
One son, not in the photo, was Risteard Ó Foghlú, a journalist, author, and prominent Gaelic League member. He had reported on Parnell’s final public speech for the Freeman’s Journal in 1891 and was a translator for the first Dáil.
Ó Foghlú had also served as a manager with the Underwood Typewriting Company, co-founded the Dublin Institute of Shorthand Writers, translated Chekov and Tolstoy into Gaelic, and was appointed Place Names Commissioner by Éamon de Valera in 1946.
The Foleys deeply resented British occupation, possibly having been evicted from the Ponsonby Estate in 1889 during the Land Wars. Various family members were active in the Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers, and Cumann na mBan.
The family ran the Foley Typewriting Trading Company in Dublin and the offices were used as a pre-Rising meeting place by the rebels. “Another brother, Seán, was an inspector in a Birmingham ammunitions factory, of all things, and smuggled arms out to the rebels for the uprising”, Mr O’Malley discovered.
Those identified in the photo include Margaret (Peg) Foley. Her daughter Abina married John O’Brien from Gortroe. Their son Seán played hurling with Glen Rovers and won three All-Irelands with Cork (1952-54), captaining the team in 1952. Michael Foley was a founder member of Manchester Conradh na Gaeilge. He was held at gunpoint by a British colonel during the Rising but was saved when Capuchin Fr Aloysius persuaded volunteers to honour a ceasefire. He also introduced British double agent and Castle spy Ned Broy to Michael Collins. Following a period on the run, he was jailed briefly in England.
Bríd (Brighid) Foley was very involved in Cumann na mBan and spoke of “carrying rifles from house to house” before and after the Rising.
Along with siblings Cáit, Nora, and Micheál she dodged bullets to carry messages and help the injured during Easter week. Bríd also brought the countermanding order from Seán McDermott to Tomás Mac Curtain. Later arrested at home, she slept on Kilmainham jail’s concrete floor for 11 nights before serving six weeks in Mountjoy. Bríd and her sister Maggie played for Craobh an Chéitinnigh against Cuchulainn’s in the first official camogie match, in Navan on July 17, 1904.
Cáit Foley later married Pad Murphy, whose hand she is holding in the photo. Their daughters Ita and Ann still live in the area. Maggie Mountaine was a neighbour who moved in ‘temporarily’ with the Foleys when the Black and Tans burned down her home, but she lived the rest of her life there.