Who do you think you are?
By Antonia Senior
Despite my profound and enduring love for history, I have never been particularly interested in genealogy. But a recent email from my American cousin uncovered a story so interesting that I want to share it. It has been haunting me. Forgive the self-indulgence.
The email from Neal, my mother’s sister’s boy told me that an amateur genealogist in Massachusetts has completed a wide and arching family tree, and added Neal and I at the bottom of it. Our mothers were O’Donovans, and grew up in rural Cork. The line on that side of my tree is a mingling of O’Donovans and O’Briens going back generations, as cousins married cousins to keep what land there was in the family.
I knew of the two famous branches. My Grandfather’s cousin was Tom Barry, who was a famous guerrilla commander in the Irish War of Independence. Another claimed cousin was Frank O’Connor, the short story writer, whose real name was Michael O’Donovan. On reading his autobiography, I discovered he loathed the boozy, brawly O’Donovans, but I shall continue to claim him. On those black doubtful nights when I question my path, knowing that there is a renowned and brilliant author on my tree is a solace.
|Frank O'Connor: a reluctant relative|
|Tom Barry: Taken from his book, Guerrilla Days in Island|
But reading through the email from Massachusetts, a nugget leapt out of the pages. On an O’Brien line, there were the sons of my O’Brien great-grandmother’s sister. On one of them, there was one line and no lower branches: Donal O’Brien. Executed in Cork gaol in 1921.
There were no dates. Just this one, bald line. I asked my mother. She recognised lots of names from that side of the family, including Donal’s siblings. She knew of Donal’s brother, Paddy O’Brien, who commanded the IRA volunteers from Liscarrol, their village. But she had never heard of Donal.
I went looking for him.
Donal and his brother Paddy were on the run in 1921, and staying with other republicans in a safe house in County Cork. The Black and Tans discovered their location and surrounded the house. Paddy shot his way out, but Donal and another man from Liscarrol, Jack Reagan, were wounded and captured by the British.
After a military trial, Donal and Jack were sentenced to death. From rootling about in newspaper clippings and the archives, it seems that execution of that sentence was delayed until their wounds healed. Clearly, Donal’s wounds healed first, and he was shot by a British firing squad. Jack Reagan was luckier. Indeed, my Mum remembers him and his wife living in Liscarrol when she was growing up. Perhaps his wounds festered on until after the ceasefire in July 1921.
I found a report, and picture from the 1948 commemoration book for the executed volunteers, which is kept at Cork gaol – now part of the University.
Despite the disconnect on the names – I am pretty sure this his him, as his birthplace and timing of death fit. He was only 19 when he was executed. Do you get the impression that the big moustache was an attempt to look older? The face behind it looks so young, and so serious of intent. How did his older brother Paddy feel, after escaping the ambush and leaving his wounded younger brother behind? What about their Mother, my Great-Aunt?
My novelists’ instincts, such as they are, are abuzz with all the unanswerable questions from which plots spring.
So tell me, fellow History Girls, who is in your tree?