EYE ON THE PAST NO. 1457
IT’S one of my many regrets that I didn’t realise the elderly lady whom I met in the early 1980s was once the Officer Commander of Cumann na mBan in Athy during the War of Independence. She was Mrs. Christina Phelan, formerly Christina Malone of Barrowhouse, who was then living in Convent View. I have before me a copy of a letter she wrote from 85 Haddington Road, Dublin on 14 June 1946 in which she refers to Cumann na mBan ‘first organised in Athy in 1919’. Previous information available through the chronology prepared in 1949/’50 for the Bureau of Military History staff noted that the Cumann was established in Athy in July 1914, just two months after the Irish Volunteers were formed in the town. Miss Bridget O’Mullane, executive member of Cumann na mBan and its official organiser was the person sent from Dublin headquarters to organise the female section of the Irish Volunteers in Athy.
The local members of Cumann na mBan were headed up by Christina Malone and amongst the other members was her sister Mary. Family connections with members of the Irish Volunteers saw brothers and sisters joining up to play their part in the struggle for Irish independence. Amongst the Cumann na mBan members was Mrs Julia Dooley of Duke Street, whose husband Michael was chairman of the local Sinn Féin club and whose daughters Esther and Gypsy were active members. Esther Dooley would later marry Joe May who had been imprisoned for almost a year in Ballykinlar internment camp. Joe’s mother, Margaret May of Woodstock Street, was also a member of Cumann na mBan.
Esther Dooley’s membership of Athy’s Cumann na mBan ceased when she joined the staff of An t’Oglach’, whose editor was Piaras Béaslaí, director of publicity and editor of that Republican newspaper. The newspaper, which was first published in August 1918, was occasionally edited by Bulmer Hobson and by Ernest Blythe. Esther Dooley worked for Béaslaí as a typist and as a messenger bringing copy material for An t’Oglach between Béaslaí’s office which were constantly changing between Cabra Park, Gardiner’s Row and North George’s Street to the printing offices at 10a Aungier Street.
Béaslaí wrote a letter from his home at 82 Lower Drumcondra Road, Dublin in 18 June 1946 in which he described the work undertaken by Esther Dooley as ‘very dangerous’ Esther also acted as typist for the Dublin Brigade, whose headquarters were in Gardiner’s Row as well as working for the I.R.A. Director of Intelligence, Colonel J.J. O’Connell. Mention was also made by Béaslaí of Esther Dooley’s contacts with Erskine Childers and Michael Collins. Perhaps of greatest importance to the Republican movement was Esther’s regular contact with Lily Merrin who worked in the British Army Command in Dublin Castle. It was Miss Merrin who furnished vital intelligence information via Esther Dooley to Michael Collins and his team, which was of considerable benefit to the Republican movement.
Other female members of Athy Cumann na mBan included the sisters Rose and Kathleen McDonnell. Regrettably I have been unable to get any information in relation to these two brave women. Christina Malone was the daughter of James and Mary Malone of Barrowhouse and her brother was James Malone, who in my time in Offaly Street lived in St. Patrick’s Avenue. Christina’s father was I believe a brother of Michael Malone of Dunbrinn. Was he, I wonder, also a brother of the Barrowhouse poet, Fr James Malone, who spent his priestly life in Australia? There was also a family connection between Christina and Eamon Malone, the I.R.A. commander of the 5th Battalion. Can anyone help to clarify the relationship?
The family links between the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan were very apparent within the Dooley family of Duke Street. Julia Dooley, wife of the Sinn Féin chairman was the aunt of Paddy and John Hayden of Offaly Street, both of whom were members of the Irish Volunteers. Indeed, John Hayden who was at one time Brigade adjutant of the 5th Battalion was arrested, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in Portlaoise jail during the War of Independence. As mentioned earlier Julia’s daughter Esther married the former Ballykinlar prisoner Joe May, while another daughter, Kathleen, married Eamon Malone of Dunbrin who for a time served as Officer Commanding of the 5th Battalion Carlow Kildare I.R.A. brigade. Eamon was another local Volunteer who was arrested and imprisoned in Mountjoy jail.
Another family with members in the male and female units of the Volunteers were the Lambe family of Upper William Street. Alice Lambe was a Cumann na mBan member, while her brothers Frank and Peter were active members of the Irish Volunteers. Three other members of the Cumann na mBan I have not yet been able to identify. They are Julia Whelan of Kilmoroney, Mrs John Whelan of Ballylinan and a Miss Murphy of Maganey.
This week saw the publication of a book by Eunan O’Halpin and Daithi O’Corrain which identifies the 2,850 mem, women and children who died during the years of rebellion between April 1916-December 1921. ‘The Dead of the Irish Revolution is a work of many years research which will help to give us a better understanding of the consequences of Irish political violence of the past. The death of John Byrne of Gracefield, Ballylinan was recorded. He suffered fatal burn injuries while engaged with other Volunteers in attempting to destroy the abandoned Luggacurran R.I.C. Barracks in April 1920. I have tried in the past to identify John Byrne but have been unable to do so.
I was very interested in the editor’s views on the controversy surrounding the late Canadian historian Peter Hart’s analysis of the Kilmichael ambush of 29 November 1921. Tom Barry, for whom I have great admiration, claimed that a false surrender by members of the Crown forces resulted in the killing of some Auxiliaries after they had surrendered. The savagery of guerrilla warfare was captured in the evidence of the only Crown force survivor which supported the claim that some of the Auxiliaries were killed after surrendering or as they lay wounded and helpless. This claimed the Editors ‘would not have been a unique occurrence as there are various incidences before and after Kilmichael where the I.R.A., the police and the military killed, wounded or surrendered captives after combat.’ *This is a book which should find a place on the shelf of anyone interested in the War of Independence.
Athy’s past in the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War is a narrative which has yet to be satisfactorily outlined. The research continues to ensure that those local men and women who gave their commitment and some their freedom and their lives in pursuit of a political dream can be remembered and honoured.