On the 100th anniversary of Patrick Pearse’s surrender — on the last Saturday of April 1916 — a never-published letter reveals how Irish men in different uniforms found they had a lot in common, writes Niall Murray

From a large family in east Cork, John O’Brien had emigrated to London in the decades before the Rising and worked as a banker in Leyton.

Despite the background of a family active in the Land League, like many Irishmen in England he signed up in 1914 to an Irish regiment.

With the Royal Dublin Fusiliers 10th Battalion, he was stationed in Dublin at the time of the Rising.

While we are not sure if he was involved directly in suppressing the six-day rebellion, he was required with colleagues to escort a small group of prisoners to British jails in the weeks that followed.

Among them were Irish Volunteers chief-of-staff Eoin MacNeill - who had tried to call off the Rising at the last minute as he feared for the inevitable consequences of military defeat.

In the six-page letter reproduced on the following pages, John gives his east Cork pal Chris Clohessy - who had earlier also lived in London - a detailed account of their journey.

The uplifting description of events that transpired between the soldiers of both sides of the short rebellion reveal also the conflict that must have torn many Irish men in British uniforms during the Great War of 1914 to 1918, but particularly in the years after the Rising.

As much a personal story of one soldier’s experience, John O’Brien’s tale is a parable that could be used to explain the complex web of political, military, personal and family stories that define this phase of the Irish revolution a century ago.

And like so many of other such stories, there are no happy endings for all the characters.

Eoin MacNeill would be remembered in history as the man who almost ended the famous Rising that inspired men and women of Ireland to join the cause of political independence from Britain.

Some of the other prisoners would go on to lead significant roles in the War of Independence, and in the early political life of the country that followed it.

But John O’Brien, despite his kindness, did not have such a successful - or a long - future.

He has nonetheless - through his letter home to Cork a few weeks short of a century ago - left a legacy for his descendants to remember him by.

And in so doing, he shines another chink of light into the lives, the thoughts and the emotions of both sides that took part in the Easter Rising

 

Letter from a guard for rising rebels

25418 Private John O’Brien

B Co 10th R.D.F

Royal Barracks

Dublin

Sunday June 18th 1916

Dear Clohissy,

I am at present on guard at the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park so take the opportunity of replying to your letter received a day or two ago. This is a 24- hour job.

We arrived here about 10 o’clock this morning and are to be relieved about the same hour tomorrow morning. I am writing this in one of the 4 turrets – there is a turret at each corner of the fort, you may have noticed – during the intervals of watching out for the King’s enemies, this is the grandest place in the world, the park I mean. As far as I can see there are tents, where soldiers from Wales or from God-fearing England are singing hymns.

The weather is perfect, the park is lovely, the Dublin mountains are in sight and the beer is alright, so what more can a reasonable man want. I really feel that I shall suffocate if ever I return to London.

I am glad you enjoyed your stay in Dripsey. I am sorry I could not have remained longer. I had a pleasant time during the short journey from Dripsey to Cork. Your friends being very agreeable and quite attentive. The good-natured poor old lady insisted on taking me into a restaurant on arrival in Cork, treating me to a good meal and fetching from a neighbouring public house no less than 3 bottles of stout. I would love to be shifted down to Cork or Aghada, lovely though it is here around Dublin.

I shall never forget that trip to Dartmoor, nor the ten interesting prisoners we had to escort. We met them at North Wall, forming up outside the “Black Maria” where they were huddled together.

We were the only passengers on the boat – a cargo boat. However, it contained cabins just like a North Wall L.& N.W. boat, so it must have been specially chartered for us. The prisoners were in the inner cabin, outside the door of which we in turns had to mount guard.

After getting under weigh conversation with the Sinn Feiners soon commenced, and not very long after that we all became friends and Galligan the man who commanded the rebels in Wexford suggested a concert and constituted himself master of ceremonies. He wrote all the names in a book and called them out in turn. Brosnan, a tall handsome young fellow from Castlegregory commenced with “The West’s Awake” which he sang splendidly, laying special emphasis on “let England quake”. Soon Sinn Feiners and Dublin Fusiliers were vying with one another, singing song for song and all delighted with (3) themselves. Galligan himself did not sing, but recited a masterpiece of high treason and sedition as well as of brilliant satire. It was entitled “Queen Victoria’s Jubilee”.

On reaching Holyhead we made ourselves comfortable in the train and fraternised as before. I was so busy in arguing and discoursing and telling yarns with MacNeill, Galligan and Slattery – the Garryowen footballer and Cambridge University man sentenced to death but reprieved owing to severe wounds and the outcry in America against any further executions – that I did not do much duty between Holyhead and Dartmoor. However the duty was not of much consequence, merely consisting of standing in the corridor outside the carriage where the prisoners were. Slattery was a member, or probably a frequent visitor to, the union of the Four Provinces. Galligan gave me a religious medal as a souvenir, John MacNeill his last farthing which he had received from his little son before he left. I still have both.

Dealing with the rebellion, they say they had information leading them to believe that their arms were to be seized, that the arms were their own and that they were determined to resist disarmament (is this spelling correct) that is in the letter, not my question to the death. At any rate, there was no sign of repentance among our 10 prisoners. Poor MacNeill seemed sad at first, having only just parted from his wife and 8 children, but soon cheered up when he found that the members of the escort were Irish – as Irish as himself.(4)

From Dublin to Dartmoor: A 1916 journey

Early in the journey from Holyhead, MacNeill (pictured above) and Brosnan asked me to write to their people, but I succeeded in procuring a supply of notepaper, envelopes and pencils at Weston-Super-Mare, so I was saved the necessity of doing so. At Plymouth, they gave me 11 letters to post.

At Princetown, the station for Dartmoor they shook hands with the soldiers and Galligan made a speech in which, on behalf of himself and his nine comrades, he thanked us from the bottom of his heart, said that we were all genuine Irishmen, that it was the happiest day they had spent for a long time, and that all they had to offer us was their prayers that we may come back safe and sound from the front, letter is underlined there if we go there, which he hoped would not come to pass.

The tears came into my eyes I may confess at the evidence of greatheartedness and generosity on the part of Galligan, the most vigorous and determined rebel of the whole ten. He is a man of about 30, of fine physique, and a staunch total abstainer, like Pearse and many of the other leaders. One of the prisoners was a Galway boy of 16 1/2 who was to undergo penal servitude for three years. Galligan insisted on my accepting 5/- [five shillings], to treat the Fusiliers and to drink to his health.

I wish I could find you a job in Dublin but what chance have I? Since the rising, I hardly see anybody, what with being on guard and standing to (which means confined to barracks). As you may know, the pubs now close at 8 o’clock, also the price of stout and porter is to be again raised. A meeting will be held tomorrow to decide upon the new prices. Hayes is about the only man I know who might be able to secure you a situation.

The first batch of 100 Fusiliers went away yesterday to Kilbride to fire their course, usually regarded as the last stage of training. Were it not for the rising we should all probably be now at the front, whereas we haven’t improved a bit or learnt a bit since Easter Monday.

Has Lar Daly gone back yet? Ask him to call and see me if passing through Dublin. I should like to have a few words with poor old Daly. I have made a note of Con Shea’s address. I wonder if he was in B’gham when we passed through on route for Plymouth. I, too, by the way am sleeping under canvas.

I don’t suppose there will be a settlement of the Home Rule problem. The bigotry of the Orangemen seems to be the great insuperable obstacle, the English appearing to be anxious to see the thing cleared up, owing to the forthcoming election in America and the temper and numerical strength of the Irish there, a great number of whom have seceded from the Redmondite party, and given their support to the irreconcilables.

8.pm – I have just come on for another 2 hours.

There was a big meeting at 1 o’clock today on Sackville St. some thousands of people having gathered together to express their sympathy with the insurgents. They were dispersed by the police, I hear, several arrests being made. We expect to hear full particulars to-morrow morning. (6)

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 died of terrible wounds in the head – on the Friday following the outbreak of the rebellion.

There must have been a good deal of excitement over Joe Regan’s arrest. I suppose you know that Maurice Ahern of Dungourney was deported a week or two ago.

I was glad to have an opportunity of visiting London, although I had but 19 hours there – from 3.30am till 10.15pm. I, with 2 pals, first went to Leyton, where we remained until after dinner, they asleep in bed, I visiting friends in the neighbourhood. After dinner, we started off to see the sights and you bet we travelled some. They didn’t know London so I had to act as guide. In Mooney’s Strand I saw Dan Sullivan, Jack O’Reilly and one or two other fellows I know. One of the fellows on guard with me here to-day is a Munster and Leinster bank clerk who was for 6 months in Midleton. I didn’t know his name. In fact, out of the 17 here, 5 are Corkmen, and 1 a Kerryman.

I must now conclude now as I have a few more letters to write.

Hoping you are quite well.

Your old pal,

John O’Brien

P.S. I saw Jim Green when in London; also Alice and Tess. All three were at Euston to see us off. John

For regular updates on news and features (as well as twitter action action as it may have happened 100 years ago) to mark the revolutionary period follow @theirishrev HERE

 

How 1916 letter came to pass

by Niall Murray

From Dublin to Dartmoor: A 1916 journey

John O’Brien’s letter was addressed to Christopher Clohessy in Cork.

The surname was spelt with an ‘i’ at the time, the spelling used by Private O’Brien in his letter.

Chris was born in Bloomfield, Midleton, in east Cork on Christmas Day, 1880. According to his nephew, John Clohessy from Mayfield, Chris’s mother always said he kept her awake for Christmas dinner.

“He was a very intelligent man, and spoke several languages,” John recalled of his late uncle.

His linguistic skills meant Chris Clohessy did a lot of travel in his early life, having a job with Thomas Cook.

He had moved to London probably around the turn of the century.

“Chris was there when London were in an All-Ireland final and he was friends with quite a number of the team,” John told the Irish Examiner.

It was in the English capital that John O’Brien and Chris Clohessy had became friends, both being natives of east Cork. John Clohessy discovered the letter published here when he was going through his uncle’s papers after his death.

Chris had had returned home some time around the outbreak of World War I, the same time that John O’Brien was enlisting in the British Army.

“Apparently John O’Brien and himself kept in touch. There was an exchange of letters,” John said.

“After I first found the letter, the 50th anniversary of the Rising was coming up. A colleague of mine made a copy and typed it up,” he recalled.

But after unsuccessful attempts at the time to make contact with the family of Peter Paul Galligan, mentioned in it, the letter lay untouched for many long years until the approach to this year’s centenary of the 1916 Rising.

Chris Clohessy spent many years working in Sutton’s coal in Cork city where he settled after returning home, and he died in 1965.

 

O’Brien died on fields of France

by Niall Murray

The tokens of gratitude given to a kindly Irish soldier by leading 1916 rebels reprieved from death may lie beneath the clay in France.

John O’Brien was killed less than six months after parting with his 10 rebel prisoners.

Following the wipeout of dozens from the 10th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Private John O’Brien and his friend Lieutenant Jack Guisani — the son of a doctor from Cork — were buried together.

“His commanding officer, Captain Lloyd Blood told his family that he died instantaneously without making a sound,” says John’s grand-niece Muireann Ní Dhomhnaill.

She and her family were very moved to recently see the words written by John in his June 1916 letter, providing a legacy for those descendants who never knew him, but had heard of him.

Muireann’s grandmother Molly was John O’Brien’s sister, but they were among a family of 14 children born to Robert O’Brien and Mary O’Brien, nee Clancy, from Tallow, Co Waterford.

Some of the political overtones in the British army private’s letter may be attributable to the background of his parents. They moved the family from their original home in Conna in east Cork, because of the Land League activities of Robert, a rate collector.

Like many young men in late 19th-century Ireland, John moved to London and had worked as a banker. In 1911, however, there were still four of his younger siblings — of 13 still alive at the time — living in the family home of the time in Ballinacurra near Midleton.

Another brother Dan also joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, but as a member of the 6th Battalion of the regiment. It is easy to imagine that John may have looked very similar to Dan, of whom the family has a photograph with his sister Molly when he was home on leave from the front to London, sometime around 1916.

While these two brothers joined the British Army, like so many other Irish men at home or overseas, other family members took different routes in their lives.

Kathleen O’Brien in an engagement photo with Tim Daly, who she married in 1924.
Kathleen O’Brien in an engagement photo with Tim Daly, who she married in 1924.

The Kathleen to who John refers in the last page of his letter was the eldest sister in the O’Brien family. She too had lived in London, working as secretary to a senior manager at Harrod’s department store.

It was there that she met Seán Hurley from Drinagh in west Cork, a pal in London of a young Michael Collins. The two left for Dublin in early 1916 as wartime conscription was being introduced, but only one survived the Easter Rising.

As John told his friend Chris in Cork, Seán died of gunshot wounds in Dublin where he fought with the Irish Volunteers — although it was on Saturday, April 29, the day of Patrick Pearse’s surrender, that he died.

After a recent call for information about the Kathleen O’Brien to whom he was engaged, the Irish Examiner helped those planning to mark the centenary of Seán Hurley’s death in west Cork track down Kathleen’s family — who will be represented there this weekend.

While she had no children herself, Muireann Ní Dhomhnaill from Rinn, Co Waterford had also researched her subsequent life story. After the heartbreak of losing her fiancé in 1916, she returned to Cork three years later and became involved in Cumann na mBan, the women’s organisation that actively supported the Irish Volunteers and IRA in the War of Independence.

A colleague of activist Mary MacSwiney, she joined her on hunger strikes, including one in protest at the imprisonment of Mary’s brother Terence MacSwiney in 1920. Kathleen later married Tim Daly from Cork and they lived in Newbridge, Co Kildare until her death in 1960.

But 1916 was a year of tragedy for the O’Brien family, as in the days before the Rising saw the deaths of both John and Kathleen’s mother Mary, and Mary’s mother Margaret Clancy, who lived with the family remaining in east Cork.

Not too long after, John and his army comrades were eventually shipped out with others of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers 10th Battalion. In the bloody campaign of the Somme where thousands of Irishmen died at the end of 1916, his battalion was one of the worst impacted.

On November 13, 1916, as many as 80 of the 315 10th Battalion casualties of the entire war may have happened.

At 10am on that Monday morning, Private John O’Brien died as a result of machine gun fire at Beaumont Hamel. He is remembered at the war memorial at Thiepval.

War graves are marked out in front of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.
War graves are marked out in front of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

Brave young man

Although the date may have been inaccurate, the news of John O’Brien’s death at the front was reported as follows, in the Cork Examiner on Thursday, December 7, 1916:

KILLED IN ACTION

Intelligence of the death in action of a gallant Midleton soldier , Private John O’Brien, of the 10th (Commercial Battalion) Royal Dublin Fusiliers, has been learned with regret in this town and district.

The deceased was the eldest son of Mr. Robert O’Brien, rate collector, and was fatally wounded in France on the 15th November.

Prior to the war , Private O’Brien had held the important position of cashier in the Leyton branch of the London City and Midland Counties Bank, which he resigned over two years ago, volunteering to join the colours, and was posted to the Royal Dublin Volunteers that formed a unit in the Irish Brigade. He was a very intrepid and brave young man, and fought with distinction in the recent “Big Push” in France.

Much sympathy is felt for the father and brothers and sisters of the deceased in their sad bereavement.

 

THE PRISONERS

These are some of the men whose kind-heartedness was recalled by John O’Brien

PETER PAUL GALLIGAN

From Dublin to Dartmoor: A 1916 journey

Peter Paul Galligan — described by John O’Brien as “the most vigorous and determined rebel” — joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1910 and the Irish Volunteers in 1913.

In 1916, he helped lead the Easter Rising in Enniscorthy. He went to the GPO in Dublin at first, but was sent from there by James Connolly with orders for the south-east.

Galligan called the shots largely in Wexford, although Seamus Doyle was in charge of the Volunteers’ Brigade in the county. He had taken and took part in the operation to cut off the rail line to Dublin. This prevented military reinforcements reaching the capital from Rosslare after the Volunteers took over Enniscorthy in the early hours of Thursday morning of Easter Week.

He was sentenced to death but, after executions were stopped, was sent instead to Dartmoor prison with a five-year sentence.

In 1948, he described to the Bureau of Military History in 1948 being transferred by Private John O’Brien and others after about a week in custody.

“In our party were Eoin MacNeill, Sean McEntee and Teddy Brosnan from Kerry. We travelled by B. & I. boat from the North Wall to Liverpool and from there to London and on to Dartmoor,” he said. “Our escort was a detachment of the Dublin Fusiliers. They were good fellows and treated us well.”

Galligan was released in June 1917 and returned to his native Cavan, where he was a regional Volunteers organiser during the War of Independence in between many arrests.

He served on the Irish Volunteers national executive and was TD for Cavan in the first two Dáils, from 1919 to 1922. He stayed neutral in the Civil War. In later years, he owned a gentleman’s outfitters off Henry Street in Dublin, at 1 Post Office Buildings. He died in 1966.

Kevin Galligan, biographer of his grandfather Peter Paul Galligan, said the letter shows the human side of the 1916 story: “It gives a sense of the empathy that Irish men on both sides ha. Peter Paul had no hatred towards the soldiers escorting them who were part of the British police force, which was typical of the man,” he said.

PEADAR SLATTERY

From Virginia, Co Cavan, Peadar Slattery was wounded during Easter Week in the GPO, where he was attached to Proclamation signatory Joseph Plunkett.

It is not entirely certain if he had the rugby-playing credentials suggested in John O’Brien’s letter, but other evidence points to him being the Slattery escorted by the 10th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Being a graduate structural engineer, he was appointed an Irish Volunteers commandant and director of engineering on Good Friday, 1916, two days before the Rising was due to begin.

Although sentenced to death, this was commuted to eight years penal servitude.

He was released in June 1917 and spent much of the next year making bombs and explosives.

During the War of Independence, by now in his early thirties, he was engaged with the IRA in counties Meath and Cavan, with duties that included training Volunteers in explosives and in the cutting of roads and bridges to disrupt military and police movements.

Ahead of the Civil War, Slattery joined the National Army in April 1922 and was involved in operations at Drogheda in June that year. After his military career, which included a period as Commandant in the Army Corps of Engineers, he later worked with Rathmines and Rathgar Urban District council, and with Dublin Corporation. He died in 1954.

TADHG BROSNAN

From Dublin to Dartmoor: A 1916 journey

A blacksmith from Castlegregory, Tadhg Brosnan (left) was the man who sang “The West’s Awake” on the boat journey from Dublin to Holyhead in the company of John O’Brien and the military escort.

Born in 1891, he became leader of the Castlegregory company of the Irish Volunteers in 1913.

Prior to the Rising, Tadhg and fellow Volunteer Pat ‘Aeroplane’ O’Shea were asked by Kerry Volunteers Brigade boss Austin Stack to recruit local pilots to guide the Aud into Tralee Bay. The selected pilots saw the German vessel being boarded by the British Navy on Good Friday, after it arrived earlier than expected.

Despite the issuing of Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order on Easter Saturday and a prohibition on Volunteer assemblies, Brosnan marched his men through Castlegregory a week later on Sunday, April 30. With six others – Abel O’Mahony, Michael McKenna, James Kennedy, Michael Duhig, Daniel O’Shea and his brother, John Brosnan – he was arrested and brought to Ballymullen Jail before being court-martialled at Richmond Barracks in Dublin.

Brosnan was sentenced to 20 years penal servitude with 15 remitted. He was released in 1917 but served a further prison term until 1918.

He served as Officer Commanding the 4th Battalion of the Kerry No. 1 Brigade of the IRA and was active during the War of Independence. He was involved in attacks at Lispole, Killorglin and Castlemaine. Brosnan opposed the Treaty and was arrested by Free State soldiers in 1923. He emigrated to the US after the Civil War.

Tadhg Brosnan was one of more than 100 people from Kerry to be arrested after the Rising. For details of some of the others, see an extract on www.theirishrevolution.ie from the new book Kerry 1916: Histories and Legacies of the Easter Rising - A Centenary Record, edited by Bridget McAuliffe, Mary McAuliffe and Owen O’Shea (Irish Historical Publications).

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