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 (in this case Volunteer Thomas Dwyer’s) , 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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