David O’Doherty has a fascinating family history with a unique insight into the events of 1916

Author and comedian David O’Doherty tells Richard Fitzpatrick about his grandfather, whose memoir gives a unique insight into the events of 1916
David O’Doherty has a fascinating family history with a unique insight into the events of 1916

DAVID O’Doherty has done some exceptional things. He’s one of only four Irish comedians to win a prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Award. He’s published several books. He’s written and staged theatre plays for children. He’s fronted TV shows, appeared on QI, and his new comedy album, You Only Live, is riding high in the charts. He has not, however, had “a good war” unlike, say, his great-grandparents who were at the epicentre of Ireland’s revolutionary years a century ago.

“The reason I know about this,” he says, “is because my grandfather died in 2006. Six years before he died, he wrote a book — mainly for us — about where the family had come from. But then academics started to become interested because there was a lot of new history in it that people didn’t know about. It was called My Parents And Other Rebels. It was about the period 1916-23. I come from a highly influential family in a way and can’t help but think that I’m a terrible disappointment to them.”

His great-grandfather, Seamus O’Doherty, was a Derry man. He was a member of the IRB military council that plotted the Easter 1916 Rising, although he played an off-stage role during the fighting.

He was tasked with stopping Bulmer Hobson from scuppering the rebellion. Hobson was one of the old hands of the IRB. Tom Clarke and the other rebel leaders had sidelined him. There was a danger Hobson was going to spread the word about Eoin MacNeill’s Easter Sunday countermanding order — a last-minute attempt to call off the revolt — so his old comrades kidnapped him.

“1916 was quite unglamorous for the O’Dohertys,” says O’Doherty. “My great-grandfather had Bulmer Hobson locked in a cellar in Drumcondra. That was his job for Easter Week. He let him out at the end and apparently they shook hands and had a cup of tea: ‘Yeah, well, see you again some time.’ ”

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After the rebellion, he was deported to Britain, imprisoned, and went on hunger strike. His wife, Kitty, was left to raise their three small children. She was a formidable lady. She was Cumann na mBan’s quartermaster in 1916. Padraig Pearse was a friend. They used to go boating together. “He was a dreamer, she said, but unfortunately he never had the money to bring his dreams to fruition.”

She found out about the Rising three weeks beforehand from another friend, Thomas MacDonagh, who told her: “Within three weeks, we will have a stir.” Years later, in her 50-page statement to the Bureau of Military History, she reported: “I knew that the Rising was planned. I knew that it was coming. It was always: ‘Good-bye, and here’s to the day.’”

It was a bracing time for her. She ran messages for Tom Clarke and kept the printing matrix for the 1916 Proclamation.

She also helped with gunrunning. She and her husband used to stash guns for the rebels in a ‘glory-hole’ under the stairs of their house. Sean MacDermott introduced her to Michael Collins for the first time on the Wednesday before the Easter Rising.

Her son, David O’Doherty’s grandfather, only met Collins the one time.

“They lived on Jones’s Rd, just beside Croke Park,” says O’Doherty. “During the War of Independence, granddad remembers going out to the loo — the loo would have been in the garden — and he shut the door of it and Michael Collins was standing behind the door, just with his finger over his lips. Collins said: ‘Finish your wee, and tell your dad I’m out here and come and get me when it gets dark.’ The G-men were always standing on the wall at the end of the garden, watching the house because there was guns and whatnot going through the house.”

We Are All in the Gutter, But Some of Us Are Looking at David O’Doherty is on at The Everyman, Cork, on Wednesday, and at Vicar Street, Dublin, on Friday.

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