Monthly Archives: March 2016

The other fighters of Easter 1916

rebels gpo

Rebels in the GPO

FOR the past four months I’ve heard voices. Some scared, some hopeful, some excited and some disillusioned.

They’ve been the voices of, for the most part, young men. Or the echoes of young men in the accounts of their older selves.

I’ve encountered dozens of them in recent months as part of my work compiling The Herald’s 1916 ‘Rising Remembered’ coverage. Many of the voices are contained in the archives of Ireland’s Bureau of Military History (BMH) – fighters’ accounts of what they did and saw, who they shot and who died in front of them, in the Easter Rising. Other information came from family members.

The statements given by these rank-and-file Irish Volunteers provides a street-level account of the events of Easter Week that parallels the grand narrative, which usually focuses on actions of the leaders, their last stand and subsequent executions.

While some Volunteers – like Harry Walpole, who raised the ‘Irish Republic’ flag at the GPO – were present at key moments, others fought out their Rising on the sniper-ridden sidestreets of Dublin. Annie Grange, for one, performed first aid and came under fire at City Hall. Mamie Stephenson ferried concealed weapons between safehouses and rebel outposts.

Some survived despite being injured – like Leo Casey, who sustained eye damage in a firefight in the Grand Canal Street area.

Rebels at a barricade during Easter Week

Insurgents at a barricade during Easter Week

Others did not. John Dwan, whose brother was in the British Army, was shot by British troops on the last day of the Rising at North King Street – his friend pulled him from a barricade but he died of his injuries shortly afterwards. Richard O’Carroll was shot in the chest by a rogue British officer after being captured at Camden Street, and passed away nine days later. His death was recorded as murder.

Statements given to the BMH by those who survived give an indication of the confusion and violence that marked Dublin’s streets that week, 100 years ago.

Joseph Dolan, who took part in the occupation of the South Dublin Union hospital recalled: “The nuns enquired from me if we’d come to read the gas meters”.

Helena Molony, who fought at City Hall stated: “The women had no uniform…I had an Irish tweed costume, with a Sam Browne [belt]. I had my own revolver and ammunition”.

Mamie Stephenson

Mamie Stephenson

Robert Holland, an insurgent in the Marrowbone Lane area, told how: “She was only about 35 or 40 yards away from me and I fired on her. She sagged halfway out of the window. The hat and the small little shawl fell off her and I saw what I took to be a woman was a man in his shirtsleeves”.

The accounts of desperate, dangerous and often grubby streetfighting – punctuated by constant sniper fire, prayer sessions and boredom – are some way from the story of noble sacrifice that was taught to generations of Irish schoolchildren, or the Government’s politically correct, watered-down Rising.

They are worth reading though – if only to remind us of the full story behind the birth of a nation.

The Herald’s ‘Rising Remembered’ coverage can be found here

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My grandfather the teenage rebel

John Cardiff, 1948

On the morning of April 27, 1916 John Cardiff – my grandfather – was one of a group of Irish rebels who mobilised in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. A member of nationalist youth organisation Na Fianna Eireann, he was 13 years of age.

In the hours that followed the group took control of their hometown – which they held for four days – as part of an uprising against British rule.

“The town hall was seized and used as headquarters, outposts were placed throughout the town and sporadic firing occurred. A detachment of Volunteers kept the RIC [police] barracks in Abbey Square under fire from the turret rocks across the [river] Slaney,” Volunteer Thomas Dwyer recalled.

Enniscorthy was the only urban area outside of Dublin to be seized during the Rising. From the Thursday of Easter week to the following Monday it remained under the control of rebels (commanded by Capt Robert Brennan), until the surrender order given by Rising’s commander-in-chief Padraig Pearse was confirmed.

John Cardiff didn’t leave a public record of his activity during the Rising, having died a decade before the Bureau of Military History took statements from its ageing participants, in the late 1950s.

It is known that he was one of 35 teenagers who drilled at the Irish Volunteers headquarters at Mary Street in the town in the year preceding the Rising, as a member of Na Fianna. At this time he, along with others, covertly monitored Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) movements in the town.

During the four-day Rising it’s likely he carried dispatches between units of the older Volunteers, as a number of Na Fianna members did. After the Rising he was not arrested – probably on account of his young age – and likely worked with others to collect and conceal weapons that were abandoned by the Volunteers after the surrender.

Cardiff remained active in Na Fianna in the years from 1917 onwards, as a section commander, maintaining firearms and ammunition and drilling.

Enniscorthy in the years before The Rising

Enniscorthy in the years before The Rising. Pic: NLI

It’s recorded that in 1920 he was Intelligence Officer for Na Fianna in the town, during the War of Independence. His comrade Thomas Dwyer recalls that Cardiff was the co-leader of a group of 25 who raided on a merchant’s store in Enniscorthy that year to search for arms. This was one of a number of raids for arms spearheaded by Cardiff in his role as Intelligence Officer.

But no full account of his revolutionary activities exists, to my knowledge. Like many of his generation all that exists – on the public record at least – is a number of mentions of his name in the statement of a fellow Volunteer (in this case Thomas Dwyer), and a brief account in his 1950 obituary (below).

The latter, published in the Wexford Echo, states: “As a mere boy Sean Cardiff joined the ranks of Fianna Eireann…He was a keen student of Ireland’s history and language. He rose to the rank of Adjutant of the Wexford Brigade, and only his associates fully understand how much his enthusiasm and painstaking work meant in building up the organisation”.

John Cardiff’s rebel story didn’t end in 1920. In 1921 he was arrested by the Devonshire Regiment of the British Army and was imprisoned for a period in Enniscorthy Courthouse. He joined the IRA in 1922 at the rank of assistant adjutant.

Opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty, he took part on attacks on Free State posts in Enniscorthy during the Civil War. After a period ‘on the run’, he was arrested and imprisoned in Newbridge, Co Kildare and The Curragh. In 1923 he spent a period on hunger strike in prison.

Cardiff’s 1921 arrest effectively ended his career as a schoolteacher. On release from prison in 1923 he became a journalist, eventually basing himself in Wexford town and working for the Echo newspaper. He married and had two children. John Cardiff died in November 1950, at the age of 47.

He will be remembered, along with other participants of the Rising in Enniscorthy, at a State commemoration in the town on Easter Monday next.

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Obituary of John Cardiff, Wexford Echo, November 25, 1950 (Click for larger version)

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My old self came knocking at 4am

Notes taken

Notebook keeper

I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

In an era of relentless self-improvement, of life-affirming social media shares and leaning in, we can be quick to forget our former selves.

If only they felt the same. Or kept sociable hours. Instead they return, as Joan Didion points out, unannounced and in the small hours, demanding our attention.

Sometimes this means attractive company. Who wouldn’t want to meet the courageous, if shaken, mountaineer who stumbled off Mont Blanc after a successful ascent? Can I hear his story? Again?

But for every Jekyll in crampons there’s his alter ego, the past self we’d prefer didn’t exist – or stayed incarcerated in whatever mental chamber we imprison our inner Hydes, our Walter Mittys or Ignatius J Reillys.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner realised. The same sentiment runs through Didion’s essay ‘On Keeping A Notebook’ (anthologised in her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and quoted above). She suggests writing down ideas and observations; the information, reviewed years later, will provide us with clues and details about who once were, and who were are now.

Past self

Past self

It’s 50 years since Didion’s essay was published. For most, notetaking in 2016 takes the form of social media posts, and reviewing idle scrolling, or clicking Facebook’s ‘On This Day’ button. The difference now is that our notes are public and, usually, sanitised. The 4am callers tend not to appear.

Cast away, the People We Used To Be are surely unhappy to be erased from our histories. “It all comes back,” Didion repeatedly warns, hinting that, even if we live peacefully with ourselves, we can continue to expect those early morning visitors.

And so I’m on nodding, if not conversational, terms with a young man sick and very tired in an Amtrak waiting room in San Francisco, or the same person, a year or two older, who tore off his time, unused, around Dublin in the early Noughties. And with my other, older, Hydes and Mittys and Reillys, all of whom linger at times in the morning gloom.

It’s just as well that they do. “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget,” Didion cautions. And if I won’t remember my past selves, who will?

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I Left My Heart In An Irish Chip Shop

Haddock and chips at The Saltee Chipper

Haddock and chips at The Saltee Chipper

It was the dish that won the First World War. George Orwell argued that it staved off revolution in Britain the 1930s. It was one of the few offerings that escaped rationing in London’s Blitz.

Yet fish and chips arrived in Ireland by accident – it’s reputed – when Italian immigrant Giuseppe Cervi stepped off a boat in Cork around 1880, mistaking Cobh for New York. Undeterred, Cervi walked to Dublin and wound up selling fish and chips from a handcart near Trinity College – the first person in Ireland to do so.

He may have got the idea from fellow emigrants who’d passed through London, where the first fish and chip shop opened in 1860.

Despite Cervi’s ingenuity it took 70 years for the dish to become a staple in Ireland. When it did, in the early 1950s, the advent of trawler fishing had reduced the cost of fresh fresh (finding potatoes was rarely a problem). The food carts of the nineteenth century were long gone at this point, replaced by the ‘chipper’ – the canteen-like aesthetic of which has remained standard to this day.

Like most Irish people I grew up with the dish. The first time I had fish and chips they were likely bought from the long-departed Grace’s on Bride Street in Wexford (a place also renowned for that local staple, the rissole).

In the intervening years I’ve had fish and chips on the terraces at the old St Mel’s Park soccer ground in Athlone, at MacCurtain Street in Cork after a long reporter shift, on ferries to Britain for summer holidays, and after nights out in my college days in Dublin. The offering remained unremarkably unchanged. Over the years the wrapping moved from yesterday’s newspaper to a generic paper sheet – but it was still handed over, soggy with vinegar and covered in salt, in a steaming brown paper bag.

Old school

Old school

Then, about five years ago, fish and chips changed. Blame the Celtic Tiger, or April Bloomfield, or whoever designed those ludicrous small steel buckets, but fish and chips slowly started to appear on plates in restaurants. I now found myself eating it sitting down, at a table, instead of standing at the back of a packed chipper, or while dodging drunks on a street at 1am.

Gone too was the stodgy yellow flour and water batter, replaced by a lighter beer variety. The chips were now cooked twice over, a time-consuming trick that no doubt had Guiseppe Cervi turning in his grave.

And it was great. As others argued over Beshoff’s or Burdock’s I sat in L Mulligan Grocer or the old WJ Kavanagh and hailed the revolution, one serving at a time.

Until a few weeks ago, when my father sent me a text message from Kilmore Quay, a small fishing village in the south east corner of Ireland, renowned for its seafood. ‘Come here for the fish and chips,’ he wrote, sending a picture of the meal as I remembered it – all angle-cut chips and heavy battered fish.

And so, last week, I travelled the 100 or so miles to the Saltee Chipper in Kilmore Quay. My concession to civilised dining was opting to eat at a table there, swapping the brown bag for a plate.

The haddock I had was caught and battered that morning. The steaming chips were just as fresh. Mushy peas – marrowfats ground into a thick green paste – were an added bonus. To top it off it there was a howling, rain-flinging gale outside – proper fish and chip-eating weather.

There isn’t a moral to this fishy tale. I’ll still order the gourmet fish chips when I’m in the mood, and I’ll try to convince myself it tastes better. But last week, for the umpteenth time, I left my heart in an Irish chip shop.

Kilmore Quay

Kilmore Quay

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