The Arms and the Boys: 1916 and After(from Family Legends)
Uncle Michel was sixteen. When news of the Easter Rising reached Kilrickle in Co. Galway, his mother saw him disappear out the gate on a white horse. The ride to Dublin is a hundred miles. She was standing at a French window.
My father must have been the observer. He was back home for the Easter holidays. Amongst the rank and file of the Volunteers who were kept in ignorance of the Rising the news ‘came like a thunderclap’. Afterwards, with the country flooded with paramilitary police from Ulster (RIC) , the prevailing view was that ‘the insurrection would put Ireland back a hundred years’. My father quoted it in a Memoir dictated in the late 1950s when he was seriously ill. Although he added ‘it may well have been right’, each Easter Monday he liked to recite James Stephen’s ‘The Spring in Ireland, 1916’:
Be green on their graves, o happy spring,
for they were young and eager who are dead;
with all things that are young and quivering
with eager life be they rememberėd.
They move not here, they have gone to the clay.
They cannot die again for liberty.
Be they remembered of their land for aye.
Green be their graves and green their memory.
The truce offered by the British in 1921 came as a great relief to my father and his comrades in arms. By then he was in the inner circle of the leadership, and was taken aback at how easily ‘we got the English out of the country… It had seemed a forlorn hope. The general feeling was the struggle would have to go on for another generation. At the time De Valera’s opposition to the Oath of Allegiance wasn’t taken seriously. We were opportunists, prepared to agree to anything to get the English out… The mere thought of obtaining arms freely and in quantity was what mattered in our eyes. It had to be remembered that we could not muster more than fifty rifles and a few Thompson guns and we did not have even a properly working Lewis gun.’ Indeed, during the truce Michael Collins was gathering intelligence towards rearmament.
Uncle Michael was one of his most active officers, and during the Treaty negotiations he was caught stealing arms from the Queen’s Barracks in Chelsea. Collins was livid as Michael had gone beyond his remit. Released six months later as part of the amnesty, he remained in the army. At the end of the Civil War my father as Director of Intelligence named names in warning the new government of possible army unrest. Michael’s was one of them. His eldest brother Patrick, the Minister of Agriculture, recommended that Michael be commissioned to form a show-jumping team ‘to promote the Irish horse’.
As captain of the Irish Equestrian team (non-playing as he was too tall for show jumping) Michael engaged a celebrated Russian horse trainer, Rodzianko. By 1928 the team won the Aga Khan cup in the Royal Dublin Horse Show against the best riders in the world. The success of the army jumping team did wonders for the Irish horse. And, when seventeen of them performed in the Munich Olympics (1936), Michael was photographed shaking hands with Hitler. My father didn’t speak to him again until I was born, and he agreed to be my godfather.
After the Olympics Michael left the army and became a founder member of Aer Lingus. It is said, he got ‘frostbite in the heart’ from flying the company’s De Havilland Dragon too high without proper thermal protection. One morning at breakfast when I was six and a half a there was a knock at the door, and a policeman informed my mother that Colonel Michael Hogan had died suddenly. The previous April I received a parcel apparently from him. I unwrapped the Russian doll packaging. It was an April Fool’s joke. His death at forty-eight meant I only ever to meet him at my baptism.
His widow, Mary, worked for the Irish Sweep Stake. She came from a horsey family in Limerick, and was a cousin of Kevin Barry, the eighteen-year old student who according to a rebel song ‘died for Ireland/ for the cause of liberty’. An ambush of British army truck went wrong. Collins’s order was to capture weapons, but in crossfire three soldiers were killed. Kevin Barry was hanged in 1920 shortly before the Truce.
How young everybody was those days! Most of the leaders of the Rising were in their thirties. Collins negotiated the Treaty at thirty-two (the forty-year old Dev absented himself in America). My father was twenty-five when he retired as a Major General from the Free-State army in 1923. The oldest member of the first government was W.T. Cosgrave at forty-two. James Stephens’s ‘for they were young and eager who are dead’ hardly holds for two 1916 leaders, James Connolly, forty-seven, and Tom Clarke, fifty-nine. But it was the cause that was young, I suppose, and maybe foolish. The Parliamentary Party led by Redmond was well on the way to Home Rule until the World War intervened.
My ‘maybe’ is thoughtful. If the Rising had succeeded in bringing the young men of Ireland behind the Proclamation it could have saved thousands of them supposedly ‘fighting for Small Nations’. The idea of blood sacrifice that the 1916 Insurrection brought into force resulted in less than three thousand deaths (the majority British) as opposed to at least thirty thousand Irish deaths in World War One. But who is counting? At my father’s funeral in 1963, his former batman during the Civil War told me that ‘as the commanding officer James Hogan was obliged to kill two deserters (to spare his men) and he, the gentlest of men, never recovered from it. They were only boys wanting to join their friends’.