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Brocaire Books
War and an Irish family

Conor Cruise O’Brien, who would have been 100 this week had he lived, once ascribed republican militancy to the influence of mothers who passed on what he obviously considered to be a malign gene to their offspring. In my case it was my grandmother.

When I was a child she would tell me stories about 1916 and the Tan War. She was a fierce Collins woman and voted Fine Gael all her life despite my grandfather having been involved in a number of strikes and her sons tending to the republican side of the equation. She was not, however, unsympathetic to the Provos.

Which some might consider a rather strange combination but I have found that it is not unusual. When I was on the run one of the few trusted conduits of messages between me and Dublin was a died in the wool blueshirt. The common factor was old family involvement in the revolutionary times, and an instinctive dislike of British soldiers wandering about any part of Ireland.

I was at a family christening the day Lord Mountbatten and the paratroopers were killed. One of the guests leaned over my granny’s shoulder as we watched the RTE news and said “Isn’t that terrible Missus Treacy.” My granny had a booming voice and announced to all assembled that she did not recall “anyone ever asking them to come over here.” She was especially proud of her own family’s involvement in the troubled times.  And before that.

Her family were Dublin Fenians and apparently her grandfather had worked with Joe Brady, one of the Invincibles executed for the killing of the Chief Secretary and Undersecretary for Ireland in May 1882. My favourite granny story, however, is that her grandmother named Mulvany had been James Stephen’s “chaperone” for a time after he escaped from Richmond Prison in 1865 and took a boat to Kilmarnock, allegedly disguised as a woman.

Well, that was my granny’s story anyway, and I was not going to contradict her. Some of the details certainly match the historical record. Her brother Dan Hannon was a member of the Active Service Unit as was her brother in law Jack Dunne. Both were “out” on Bloody Sunday. As I think was her cousin Johnny Wilson. Her brother was arrested at the burning of the Custom House and sent to Ballykinlar camp in Down. Under an assumed name as he might have been sentenced to death had they known who he was.

All three like my granny took the Free State side in the civil war, and her brother was in Kerry with the Dublin Guards. Byrne was thrown out of the army after the Army Mutiny in 1924 when unreconstructed Collins people attempted to stage a coup in reaction to the failure of the new state to pursue the “national objective.” Wilson I think rose to fairly high officer rank in the new army.

One thing my granny never spoke about was the Civil War, although she made it apparent that her bete noir  was de Valera. Even almost a half century later the wounds from that tragedy had not fully healed. One of my uncles, Declan now sadly passed away, once told me that when he arrived into the house in his Fianna Éireann uniform that my granny’s sister Kathleen who was visiting swung him around the kitchen! Fine Gaelers were not so effete in the 1950s obviously.

My grandfather Treacy from Tipp was a good friend of Paddy Kinane who were neighbours in Upperchurch. Kinane had been the OC of the IRA Brigade in that part of Tipp and was later elected as a Clann na Poblachta TD in 1948. My grandfather, same name as myself except Mattie rather than Matt, had a very strange back story.

Not sure how he managed it, as they were small farmers on top of a hill in north Tipp, but he became a seminarian in Kimmage Manor, training to be a Holy Ghost priest. He was expelled when he was reported to the college for smuggling probably messages from Dublin to Paddy Kinane. Seminarians wore a surplice and even the Tans apparently observed a sort of hands off approach to searching them. Just as well for the rest of the Treacys I suppose that he was thrown out.

He became variously a barman and insurance agent and played hurling for Dublin. I have no idea how they met although I suspect it was through the GAA. When Tipp beat Dublin in the 1961 hurling final my father was with my granny at the final and when they arrived home, granny pointed at my granddad who was puffing at his pipe looking pleased with himself and announced: “Not one word out of you Mattie Treacy.”

On my mother’s side, her mother who was from Gowran in Kilkenny remembered the house being raided by the Tans. in fact I suspect what she remembered was the house being raided by the Free Staters as her brother Peter was locked up during the Civil War.  Of course the Tans might have been there previously. On my wall is a piece of wood he carved in jail which reads: “Peter O’Neill, Kilkenny Prison, Dec. 1922. Diehard.”

Like many republicans he could not get work after the civil war and emigrated to Preston in Lancashire. He died before I was born but his wife and son used to visit every year. I wondered if they ever knew about his history as I seem to recall that they were devoted to the British royal family. Not that it matters. Republicans have had somewhat strange relations with the Windsors over the years.

Anyway, what prompted this was reading something by a former prisoner from Belfast about his family and experience over the years. The pervading sense was one of disappointment. That is what I recall about my grandmother. Apart from not talking about the Civil War, it was clear that her dreams of youth had not been fulfilled. Such is life, I suppose.



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