Sunday 12 March 2017

Family trees and hidden stories.

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?


Susan Price said...

Whose on my tree? Nobody of note. On my mother's side, an Irish seamstress named Catherine Hanley who 'did beautiful white on white embroidery' and lived in sin with 'a red-headed Welsh milkman named Jones,' which is where my mother got her bright red hair.
On my father's side a miner of Welsh descent who used to get drunk on a Sunday and tap-dance to the Salvation Army Band while calling out, "Hey Shuck! Look at me!" to his wife and daughters who walked by with their noses in the air pretending they didn't know him.
And a giant blacksmith (I have a photo of him in his blacksmith's apron, holding a BIG hammer and standing head and shoulders above the other men with him.) The blacksmith was always said, in the family, to be Irish but was actually born in Wells, the son of a stone-mason. He was a heavy drinker, had brawling as a hobby and beat his wife and children, who all hated him. He did time in Winson Green because a conductor on the top deck of a tram kept pushing past his pregnant wife. He told the conductor to stop it, but the man carried on. So Great Grandad picked the man up, lifted him above the tram's rail and threw him down to the pavement. Well, he'd been told.

Ruan Peat said...

As a child growing in Devon but knowing of the troubles in Ireland, my dad's cousin was an officer in the British army, while one of the many cousins on my mum's side was listed in the IRA wanted lists. I was not really old enough to understand all the ramifications, just loved the idea of my great uncle Paddy Murphy! Which was from my mum side!
This is just in my own lifetime, my own tree has no one famous and only a few infamous, but lots of characters full of life and stories, like a great great grandfather(or thereabouts) who didn't make an success in the USA and came back! or a milkman who ran off with the takings and the lady from round the corner! back to the 1700's we have an unmarried mother who took ages to find as no one would talk about her! esp the older Victorian family...