Though many people involved in the revolutionary period from 1916 through the War of Independence and the Civil War were subsequently reluctant to talk about their experiences, family members still learnt a lot from them.
Perhaps because they felt a responsibility to ensure the contributions of their forebears will be remembered, the descendants have fascinating stories to tell, some of which have been collated into what will undoubtedly be a much-referenced historical archive in the future.
Almost two years ago, the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht commissioned Maurice and Jane O’Keeffe to compile an oral history collection of interviews relating to the 1916 Rising. The project is part of a decade of commemorations to mark the event. Ninety-nine people, some very old, were interviewed. They include children, grandchildren, and other close relatives of people who were involved.
Among the voices heard on the tapes is that of Maureen Haughey, widow of ex-taoiseach Charles J Haughey and daughter of ex-taoiseach and freedom fighter Seán Lemass.
She says her father did not hold grudges following the killing of his brother Noel in the Civil War. “His total focus was on the future of the country and in attempting to create prosperity for that future,’’ she recalls.
Descendants of other leading figures of the period, including Éamon de Valera, Michael Collins, and Captain Henry de Courcy-Wheeler, staff officer to General Lowe, commanding officer of the British forces in Dublin at Easter 1916, who took the surrender of the Republican leaders, have also been recorded.
Captain de Courcy-Wheeler’s daughter Dorothea Findlater remembers climbing to the top of the water tower at the Curragh with her mother and nanny and seeing flames glowing into the sky over Dublin during the rising.
Michael Collins is mentioned by several interviewees, including his friend Joe McGrath, who fought in the Rising and later became widely known for his involvement in the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes.
His granddaughter Mary McGrath says Joe warned Collins about the dangers of going to West Cork, on the eve of his departure from Dublin for his native place, in Aug 1922. Collins was killed soon after in Béal na mBláth,.
The O’Keeffes, from Tralee, have been working on the Irish Life and Lore Series since 1990, making more than 3,000 hours of audio recordings, but the 1916 project is their biggest and most challenging to date. The work involved travelling widely at home and overseas to interview people.
For instance, Maurice O’Keeffe went to Hong Kong to meet Fr Joseph Mallin, aged 100, a missionary believed to be the only surviving child of an executed leading figure in the Rising. He is the son of Michael Mallin. The many raids on the Mallin home by British forces are recalled, as are reminders to Joseph Mallin by his sister Maire, of their visit to Kilmainham Gaol on the night of their father’s execution. It was his father’s wish that Joseph should become a priest.
Mr O’Keeffe said many of the descendants can still feel the sacrifices involved, the pain endured, and post-traumatic stress suffered in some cases by their relatives.
“We found a huge passion among them and a need to tell their stories to keep the experiences of their mothers, fathers, or other close relatives, alive,’’ he said.
“It’s as if they almost feel a responsibility to ensure the legacy of their forebears should be written properly into history. And they also discuss the reluctance of many of the people who had been involved in revolutionary activity to talk about their experiences afterwards.’’
But for the project, much of this important material would have been lost owing to the advanced ages of many of the people who have been recorded.
At least two of the interviewees have died since the project began — Liam Deasy, of Bandon, Co Cork, and Kitty Murphy, Knocknagree, Co Cork.
The late Mr Deasy’s uncle, also Liam Deasy, and other members of the family were intimately involved in the struggle in West Cork and Liam Deasy, whose brother Pat was killed in the Kilmichael ambush, aged only 16, wrote a book about his experiences, Towards Ireland Free.
Mrs Murphy, who died recently aged 91, was a niece of Patrick O’Connor, from Rathmore, Co Kerry, who died after being shot during an attempted retreat from the GPO in 1916. Among other things, she recalls the strength and endurance of Patrick’s mother, who lost her husband and two sons during one week in 1916.
Old recordings are also included in the collection. A 1966 BBC radio interview with Fionan Lynch, in his Dublin home, has him recalling a day-by-day account of the Easter Rising, highlighting rumours, confusion arising from the countermanding order of Eoin MacNeill, and executions.
The 56-minute recording, made shortly before his death, never aired.
Lynch, who was granted a reprieve from a death sentence, fought on the pro-Treaty side in the Civil War, was a Sinn Féin TD and later a Fine Gael TD, and held various cabinet ministries from 1911 to 1932. He ended his working life as a circuit court judge.
The 1916 Oral History Collection consists of 111 recordings of over 150 hours of edited and tracked audio material, accompanied by an illustrated catalogue. It was launched in Dublin by Heritage Minister Jimmy Deenihan yesterday. A book based on the collection, To Speak of Easter Week, by Dr Helene O’Keeffe, will be published by Mercier Press in autumn 2015.