The last farthing in Irish Volunteers chief of staff Eoin MacNeill’s pocket when he was imprisoned after the Rising could be lying in a British Army grave in France.
He gave it as a token of appreciation to an east Cork soldier in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who sang rebel songs with MacNeill and other prisoners on the sea voyage to an English jail.
John O’Brien and others in the escort empathised with the 10 rebels in their custody. He even bought them stationery and posted their letters before depositing them at Dartmoor. In gratitude for their kindness, MacNeill and other prisoners gave small gifts to the army private in his early 30s.
“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,” O’Brien wrote.
His June 1916 letter recounting the journey is reproduced in today’s Irish Examiner — 100 years after the rebels surrendered their positions around Dublin.
He went on to tell his friend Chris Clohessy at home in Cork of the prisoners’ parting wishes that the soldiers would not be sent to the Western Front.
“All they had to offer us was their prayers that we may come back safe and sound from the front, if we go there, which he [Galligan] hoped we would not,” wrote O’Brien.
However, John O’Brien was sent with the 10th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers to France not long after, and he and dozens of his comrades died on November 13, 1916 — six months after transporting MacNeill, Tadhg Brosnan from Co Kerry, Peter Paul Galligan who led the Volunteers in Enniscorthy, and others.
He died instantly after being hit by machine gun fire and was buried beside fellow Corkman, Lieutenant Jack Guisani, 19. Somewhere in the French clay might also lie the tokens given to John O’Brien for his kindness to a fellow Irishmen who wore a different uniform.
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