When British soldier John O’Brien wrote home to a pal in his native East Cork in June 1916, he could hardly have imagined a single line would help solve a romance mystery a century later.
But by referring to his sister Kathleen’s boyfriend being killed in the Easter Rising, he has done just that.
Kathleen O’Brien met Seán Hurley from Drinagh, West Cork, in London, probably when both worked at Harrod’s. She was a secretary to the managing director and he worked in the sanctions department which she joined in 1914.
In the same year, Kathleen’s brother John left his job in a London bank to join the Royal Dublin Volunteers, that formed a unit in the Irish Brigade.
The O’Briens came from the Conna area in East Cork but the family moved to Ballinacurra, near Midleton, in the years before the First World War.
Fast-forward to Easter 1916, and Seán, now 29, and his West Cork friend Michael Collins returned to Ireland and fought in the Rising with the Irish Volunteers. But while Collins would go on to a prestigious but shortlived political and military career up to 1922, Hurley was shot and seriously wounded in fighting around the Four Courts.
He died in Dublin the day of the surrender, Saturday, April 29. But as he was not identified it was weeks after his burial before his family learned of his death. It was only when “a London lady friend” with a photograph of Seán arrived in Dublin weeks later that the unknown volunteer who was dead on arrival at Richmond Hospital was identified
The woman transpires to have been Kathleen. But while his family had known he was engaged to a Kathleen O’Brien, little was known of her in West Cork.
Ironically, Seán’s grand-nephew David Hurley recalls that when his father’s uncle was commemorated in Drinagh for the 50th anniversary of the Rising in 1966, representatives of Kathleen were there.
“But contact was lost and we didn’t really know where she lived or anything about her family,” he said.
His own father helped to organise that memorial but he passed away a few years later. But not before he had organised a posthumous 1916 service medal for Seán to be issued to the family. David still proudly keeps the medal at home in Ballinhassig.
“There was always a photo of Seán over the dining room table when I was growing up in Cork City. When we started thinking about marking the centenary of 1916, we wanted to try and track Kathleen or her relatives,” David explained.
The Seán Ó Muirthile Historical Society in Drinagh, named in honour of the 1916 volunteer — the only Cork man killed in the Rising — was formed about two years ago. Margaret Murphy, an officer of the society, put out a public call for information on Kathleen late last year, and research in the meantime identified a Kathleen O’Brien who worked in Harrod’s until 1919.
A process of elimination was pointing to an O’Brien family shown in the 1901 and 1911 censuses as living in Conna and Ballinacurra.
But there was nothing to say where that family’s descendants were now, which might have enabled contact — until this week.
When John Clohessy from Mayfield made contact with the Irish Examiner about a letter his uncle Chris Clohissy (the spelling used by the family at the time) received almost a century ago, one line jumped out. Writing from the magazine fort in Phoenix Park where he was on guard, John O’Brien’s last page opened as follows:
“I don’t know if you know John Hurley, the boy to whom Kathleen was to have been married. He was killed during Easter Week during the fighting in the neighbourhood of the Four Courts,” he wrote.
Although the names of Kathleen’s older siblings were not known to those searching for the family of Seán’s fiancée, the familiarity of his description suggested this John O’Brien — known to have been from Conna — could very well be her brother.
Knowing from John Clohessy — who had no idea of the significance of this particular line in the letter — that John had died in the final days of the Battle of the Somme in November 1916 added further help.
A December 1916 Cork Examiner article reports John’s death, saying the Royal Dublin Fusiliers machine-gunner was the eldest son of rate collector Robert O’Brien. This matched the family which Margaret Murphy and the Drinagh historical society were focused on in the 1911 Census.
But the discovery on the same day of an article on the Waterford County Museum’s website brought the search almost to a conclusion.
Kathleen had returned to Ireland from London in 1919, and married widower Tim Daly in 1924. Before that, she had been a member of Cumann na mBan, and went on hunger strike during imprisonment in the Civil War.
The article was based on information from her grand-niece Muireann Ní Dhomhnaill from An Rinn, Co Waterford, who was this week able to provide Margaret, and Seán’s grand-nephew David, with a photo of Kathleen. The bride-to-be, now 38, is shown smiling happily ahead of her marriage to Tim Daly.
But behind the smiles lay further tragedy. Not only had her fiancée and brother died within months of each other in 1916. Muireann has also shed light on a line in a letter from Michael Collins to Kathleen during his imprisonment after the Rising, which Margaret knew of from a 2011 auction catalogue.
“...in the present circumstances with so many of your dear ones gone, I can only say that I do feel and feel very deeply,” Collins wrote to his dead friend’s grieving fiancée.
The week before Seán’s death in Dublin, Kathleen’s mother and her grandmother had died at her home in Cork within days of each other. Her brother would be killed wearing his British soldier’s uniform before 1916 had ended.
Kathleen herself died in 1960, after living a quiet life in Newbridge, Co Kildare — a life which Muireann had been researching for more than a decade.
Now David Hurley hopes to meet some of Kathleen’s own family, when Seán Hurley commemorative events are held in Drinagh over the May bank holiday weekend.
“It’s just a wonderful story, that we were able to make contact, and it would be lovely to have somebody there to represent the other side of the romance. And now having a photograph of Kathleen too, it’s lovely to have those things because otherwise the links might die forever,” he said.