Éamonn Ceannt was one of the founding members of the Irish Volunteers. His unit saw intense fighting during the Rising but surrendered when ordered to do so by his superior officer Patrick Pearse. Ceannt was held in Kilmainham Gaol until his execution by firing squad on 8 May 1916, aged 34. Who better to write and talk about his life story than his grand niece Mary Gallagher?
So tell us about your Grand Uncle…
Eamonn Ceannt was my grand uncle, so he was the brother to my grandfather. When I was in the university I did history in the 1970’s but I knew very little about my grand uncle because at the time people didn’t really study the 1916. A lot of the information from sources weren’t available. So I worked for many years in a completely different area. About 10 years ago I had an opportunity to retire early so I decided that I wanted to find out all about my grand uncle and the 1916 rising and understand what happened. So I went back to the university and got a masters in modern Irish history and I couldn’t even begin to understand him until I understood the full context etc. so when I had done that I was approached by the publishers O’ Brien press and they were producing a series of book biographies of all of the men who were executed in 1916 so they had asked different people to do this and they asked me to produce this it was very good for me because I had a deadline and I had to and if I was left to myself I might not have managed to finish it.
I was lucky because Eammon’s wife Aine left all his papers and her paper to the National Library. I spent about three years sitting in the library going through all his papers and there was a lot of information, which I could get from newspaper articles, archives that I could get online. So I pulled together all the research, I also had which was very important to my grand father his writings and I never knew him; he died before I was born. He had written a story of his family.
He started writing when his oldest daughter (her aunt) was born in about 1912. So he was writing this all through to about 1920 in the middle of which was 1916 so I had the story which was all about his children’s birthdays and what presents they got when they started school and then in the middle of it he goes to visit his brothers house one day at Easter in 1916 and discovers his brother is about to lead this rising and he was astonished and he didn’t realize how deeply involved he was or anything and he thought that, that was too big a task to take on the British Empire but obviously Eamonn did.
So after the Rising, a few days later Eamonn was to be tried by the court marshal and a few days later he was scheduled to be executed and for me the family part was what my grandfather wrote in his diary about being collected by a British army car about 11 o clock at night and having to drive down and see his brother in jail to say farewell to him knowing that he was going to be executed in a few hours time. When I read that at first, it just broke my heart, it was so sad. I was able to include the story of the family as well as the more military story in the biography and that made it very important to me.
What is the most interesting thing about your family?
The most interesting about my family is that Eammon’s father was head constable in the royal Irish constabulary so he was a police man and that was unusual for a policeman to have a son who would take up arms against the state but one of his others son’s and his oldest brother in the family, my uncle Bill was in the British army. Son in our family we had policemen, British army and Irish republicans all in one family. So I suppose I was lucky that I was able to see it from many different perspectives not just from one perspective. So that basically in a nutshell how I came to write the book.
Did you face any or many obstacles when writing the book?
One thing was literally the amount of research you have to do. Not just on Eamonn Ceannt himself but what else is happening in the world so I had to do a big timeline and make sure I understood whatever he did at a particular point in time what else was happening and what that said about his motivation. Also the hardest thing for me was trying to understand the motivation of somebody. He came from a very conservative background, his interest was sparked by an interest in Irish language and music which was not violent in any way and was how his thinking changed as he felt that the British government were never going to provide home rule for Ireland.
He became very impatient with the other leaders but even with that I find that difficult to understand how someone relates to violence but again I had to remind myself that I had to look at it at the context that there was a huge world war going on and Irish people were being recruited for the British army and that felt it was justified because if you could fight for the British empire you could fight for Ireland as well and also they were very well aware that ulster in the north of Ireland and a similar body had been established to fight home rule so they felt that they were going to be fighting one way or the other but for me I think it is to come from the point of view that somebody from the 21st century understanding how people thought and how that affected their actions in the beginning of the 20th century.
Should your readers expect more discoveries and finding from Mary Gallagher on Eamonn Ceannt or other people?
I hope to write something on his wife actually because after he died, she was very like most women of her time, a stay at home mother, wife but then after he died, she began taking a more public role and she became involved in various bodies but the most important was that which was set up to distribute funds raised philanthropically to widows and orphans, women who had lost their husbands during not just in 1916 but in the civil war that followed and a lot of people were left either temporarily because their husbands were in jail or permanently because their husbands had been killed with no bread winner and during that time women could not really go out to work, it was practically impossible then. So am hoping to write about her and again her papers are at the library which is great.
What the most striking characteristic that stands out when it comes to Eamonn Ceannt?
He was part of the minority trying to revive the Irish culture and music. And Eamonn was interested in music and so was my grandfather. For my grand father it became a hobby but for Eamonn it became much more than that. His personality was much more passionate, his wife used to say that while the others were often enjoying themselves, Eamonn would be in the library reading books. He was much more a serious man than his brothers. But I think as time went on, he became increasingly political and not all of the people were interested in the cultural music but a lot of them did become more political and first of all he joined Sinn Fein the political party and I think he had an impatient personality and he felt that these things weren’t moving fast enough.
But for me what was interesting was to see how two brothers can go two different ways in life but I think that is what happens in family but certainly after Eamonn was executed my grandfather whole attitude towards it after the execution changed saying that this was an over reaction on the part of the British government. And my grandfather who had another brother Bill who was in his 40’s and had spent the war in Ireland training soldiers to go the war front, he was then sent out to the front in about September after Eamonn died and he died in fighting under the western front exactly a year after Eamonn had been executed so within a year my grandfather had lost his two brothers in two different armies.
So do you still feel that there are still some unsung heroes of the 1916 rising?
For a long time, the only people who people knew about were the seven signatories but I think in this whole run up to 2016, there has been much more recognition for all of the people involved whether they be children who were caught in the cross fire or whether they be the Irish soldiers. Well I think that there has been a huge effort to try and rectify that. For example stories like the Euro of military history, where people who witnessed to rising were asked to write their stories and their stories are now available online. Eamonn wife actually told his story and hers and that was a useful piece of information to me but you have to be careful of stories that have been written long afterwards on the basis that peoples memories could not bee that could as they should be or the story has been told so many times that they are telling stories as oppose to the reality.