Untold stories from families reveal another side to history

Pat Dolan, Sarah-Anne Buckley and Ciara Boylan. “A lot has been written about the history of the period, but not about family histories,” Pat says. Photos: Joe O'Shaughnessy.
Pat Dolan, Sarah-Anne Buckley and Ciara Boylan. “A lot has been written about the history of the period, but not about family histories,” Pat says. Photos: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Lifestyle – Descendants of key players from troubled times contribute to Family Histories of the Irish Revolution, a new book that reveals stories previously untold publicly. Judy Murphy talked to the people behind the project.

Scratch the surface of any Irish family and it’s likely that you’ll find an ancestor who was involved in Ireland’s fight for freedom, particularly during the War of Independence. Many ancestors also took part in the Civil War, but that’s more tricky.

A new collection, Family Histories of the Irish Revolution, offers a new insight into that era, via a series of personal stories, told by descendants of key players from those troubled and exciting times – many of these stories, from all parts of Ireland, were virtually unknown until now.

The accounts are by current or retired employees of NUIG/UCG and were commissioned by the university’s Institute for Lifecourse and Society (ILAS Centre). According to President Michael D Higgins in his foreword, these accounts “are gifts to those seeking to achieve an open, wide, inclusive and balanced view of our shared past”.

Director of the ILAS Centre, Professor Pat Dolan, feels they offer a different perspective on history.

“A lot has been written about the history of the period, but not about family histories,” he explains.

Pat instigated the project and, happily, for those with an aversion to such things, the result is “not a set of academics with their heads up their arses”.

Instead, long-dead people are brought to life thanks to family memories, backed by historic research. Cork-born British Army officer Jack Murrough, who was involved in quelling the 1916 Rising, sits alongside Irish revolutionary and social radical Peadar O’Donnell, and the remarkable Dubliner Eilish Dolan, whose revolutionary journey spanned two countries and three religions, as well as a writing career.

An account of volunteer Martin Savage, ‘Sligo’s working-class hero’, dead at 22, was written by his niece, Angela, who played her own part in revolutionising Irish society in the 1980s and 90s when she lectured in Chemistry at UCG. Her social conscience led her involvement with Amnesty International, the Samaritans and to co-founding AIDs Help West at a time when AIDS was much misunderstood and, generally, a death sentence.

There’s Limerick-born volunteer Paddy Maher, executed by the British Government in 1921 for his role in a 1919 ambush, although the evidence pointed to his innocence. Paddy became known as one of the “Forgotten Ten” and his body, which had been buried in the grounds of Mountjoy Jail, was only repatriated to Ballylanders Cemetery in Limerick in 2001, according to the moving account by his great-grandnephew, Liam Ó hAisibéil.

Pat Dolan knows from his own family just how tumultuous the early years of the 20th century were – he co-authored a chapter in the book, charting the life of his aunt Eilish Dolan. So, he was interested in the period. His job as director of the ILAS Centre also drew him to this project, given the Centre’s remit of linking older and younger people through inter-generational engagement.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.