by Hugo McGuinness
Three members of my family fought in the 1916 Rising and eleven “did their bit” in the War of Independence. So it‘s probably not that surprising that as a child, I grew up with stories, real, imagined, and embellished, of those ancestors and their times.
Of those three “1916 men” the one who most aroused my curiosity was my granny’s cousin, Desmond Ryan. “A bit of a consequence”, according to my great-aunt Polly, or “the son of the fellah who wrote the first Irish play that got him a medal from Yeats and Lady Gregory“ according to my uncle.
Desmond actually was “a bit of a consequence”; however his father, W.P. Ryan, while he did write a number of plays “i nGaeilge” didn’t quite write the first to be performed in Dublin and I’m not too sure about the medal either. W.P. was a journalist, editor, novelist, and socialist. His clash with Cardinal Logue, Archbishop of Armagh, while editor of The Irish Peasant, is chronicled in his “The Pope’s Green Island” and his novel “The Plough and the Cross”, both of which bear fruitful reading today. His 1913 book “The Labour Revolt and Larkinsim” together with his work as assistant editor of the London Daily Herald did much to explain and create sympathy among British socialists for the participants of Dublin’s Lockout in 1913.
W.P.’s inability to toe the line with the bishops saw him return to London, leaving Desmond, “the Consequence”, in the tender care of Patrick Pearse at Saint Enda’s School as a boarder. As most of his Ryan siblings were either in Tipperary or had emigrated, Desmond found himself a temporary orphan save for my great grandparents who promptly “adopted” him and welcomed him into their home.
Willie Moynihan, my great grandfather, was a not very successful publican, and politically, if he had any politics, followed his brother Michael’s line in the Irish Parliamentary Party. Michael was a very successful publican and over a number of decades served as a representative for a number of wards for the IPP on Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) Borough Council. When the IPP took control of Dún Laoghaire, Michael – being their veteran campaigner in the borough – was given the honour of making the opening speech of that session in which he congratulated the Pope on his recent birthday. It caused a sensation at the time. Now while I realise this was far more politically loaded than it appears today, somehow it strikes me as petty compared with the many other problems Dún Laoghaire faced back then.
Despite his humble roots Michael Moynihan at that stage had a number of pubs, a big house on Haig Terrace, a mansion in Killiney, and was about to be made a Justice of the Peace despite a string of convictions for after-hours drinking and illegal gambling schools in his pubs. His gesture, despite the symbolism, always strikes me as just another example of the “re-branding process” which the IPP really stood for and intended to deliver with Home Rule. They might have cut the cake differently but basically it was to be business as usual – just a new name over the door and on the corporate notepaper.
Nobody ever told me how my great-grandparents reacted to having a socialist with a strong sense of Nationalism in their midst. However Desmond was a boy with a mission and felt it his duty to convert the family or at the very least his young cousins even if their parents were beyond redemption. His stories of St. Enda’s fired the children’s imagination, and I still smile as I remember my great-aunt Polly, throwing back her shoulders, raising herself beyond her full height, and summoning some of the worst traits of amateur dramatics, taking off Desmond, taking off Patrick Pearse, taking off Robert Emmet leading the 1803 Rebellion.
Desmond began leaving his copybooks from school in the house when he visited. These were filled with essays on Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the Red Branch Knights, Cú Chulainn, and other mythical heroes. The copious marginal notes and comments by Patrick Pearse drew my grandmother and her sister further into this world of Celtic heroics, standing in stark contrast to the stories of the famine during the previous century told by their parents. A generation later both my mother and uncle remember being equally moved by the same essays which were unfortunately lost during a house move in the 1940s.
As Desmond’s involvement with the revolution grew his visits to the house became less so there was some delight when he turned up in July 1915 with an invitation to go to the funeral of a Fenian from Cork called Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Pearse, the fellah who wrote all those notes and comments in the margins of Desmond’s copy books was going to give a speech. Willie Moynihan didn’t approve of this fellah called Pearse but his wife relented understanding her children’s curiosity and she was fond of Desmond and didn’t want to let him down.
Desmond, not surprisingly, faded out of family stories after that, as Pearse’s exhortation to revolution was too much for a God-fearing, law abiding woman, like my great grandmother. He would go on to write biographies of Pearse, Connolly, Collins, and De Valera, as well as the first major account of 1916 by a participant. His pioneering journalism during the War of Independence did much to counteract the black propaganda of the State murder gangs who assassinated at will back then. However it was his invitation to a funeral which endured in family lore on a day that changed the family’s political axis forever.
Polly could “do” the speech, and recited it with all the subtlety of a Victorian melodrama well into her eighties. She would recall Pearse as “a bit of a fruitcake” or “sixpence short of a shilling”, but despite his questionable sanity would qualify this with “my God! But that fellah could talk!” Remarkably, with the emergence of the Pathé newsreel footage of the funeral in recent years (footnote to link?), she seemed to have taken all Pearse’s movements and gestures in, and even in old age could deliver it as if she had recently studied the film frame by frame. This delightful entertainment of my childhood had deeply affected her and despite occasionally lamenting how dull Dublin became once the British left, it had been a seminal moment at which she became and remained a republican right down to her bones.
On very rare occasions my granny would “do” the speech. But her version was different. She didn’t have her sister’s dramatic flair, but she too had been affected by Pearse that August day. With her a previously unseen veil of steel and determination seemed to come over her; probably that same steely veil that saw her defy her parents and join Cumann na mBan and which enabled her to carry cases of hand grenades and weapons across the city on numerous occasions. Her rendition suggested she had taken the words in and considered them rather than the exaggerated gestures of which her sister Polly was so fond. Significantly it was through this involvement that she met my grandfather, a member of H Company, 1st Battalion, the Dublin Brigade.
As the decade of commemorations gathered momentum, last August saw the centenary of O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral. In many ways it started the countdown to the revolution of 1916-22. Earlier this year I found myself in Glasnevin Cemetery and wandering around came face to face with Rossa’s grave and all those childhood memories came flooding back. It’s difficult, even with all the photographs and the film footage, to really understand just how significant Pearse’s speech was.
Looking at the photographs I wonder just how many lives were changed that day. In its own small way my own family bears testimony to it. As historians and commentators continue to play “what if” in relation to events of that period I found myself doing the same at Rossa’s grave, making similar speculations with what potentially, for me anyway, might have been serious consequences. What if Desmond Ryan hadn’t fired my granny’s imagination so that she went to the funeral? What if she hadn’t been inspired by Pearse that day? Would she have joined Cumann na mBan? More importantly, without being in that circle would she have met my grandfather? The next question doesn’t bear thinking about, because, despite the occasional rocky road, I’ve rather enjoyed being alive, and without that chain of events unleashed by the combination of Rossa, Pearse and that Speech on that August day I might never have been born.
So on the 1st August 2015 I found myself in town at the O’Donovan Rossa Bridge to pay a personal tribute to Rossa, and Pearse, and that speech. In particular I was paying tribute to Desmond Ryan. Because somehow in that crazy way that small events ripple out to have more serious consequences I find myself thinking I owe them for my very existence.
Hugo McGuinness is a historian specialising in the period of history referred to above.