Friday, April 21, 2006

My father's uncle

From the Irish Times, 15/04/2006. The journalist is my cousin, the man mentioned was my grand-uncle.

An Irishman's Diary
Patsy McGarry

My grand-uncle Jim Rogers was a remarkable man. He was a little older than the 20th century, when we met in the 1970s while I was a student working in New York. It was hardly surprising we had not met before.

He left Ireland after the Civil War, having been on the losing side, and came home just once afterwards - in the 1930s, to introduce his young wife to my mother's family at Castleplunkett in Roscommon. There was no room in the new Ireland for a draper's assistant who had taken up arms against the young State.

If men like Jim Rogers did not have independent means there was only one route for them after the Civil War, and that was "out".

He had fought in the War of Independence, was imprisoned in Galway jail - where the Cathedral now stands - and was tortured by the Black and Tans. They captured him one winter night near Ballyhaunis in Mayo, stripped him and plunged him again and again into the icy waters of a local lake to get information, without success. Somehow he escaped and found his way to Ballyhaunis, where the Augustinians hid him in the old Abbey there.

Meeting Jim was an out-of-history experience. He and his wife had retired by then from the shop they had run all their lives on Manhattan's east side and were living just across the river in New Jersey. They had no family.

A small, feisty man with enormous energy, his knowledge and memory of every by-road in north Roscommon was more vivid than my own, though I had just come from there. Surrounded by Manhattan's great towers, his inner geography remained rural Roscommon. And his politics was as green as the county's pastoral landscape.

Blood of my blood, his attractiveness as a personality, his abiding patriotism, the decades of exile from what he loved most confronted me starkly with an inner conflict of my own - deep pride in my country combined with just as deep an unease over our physical force tradition.

Like a lot of young Irish people at the time I was increasingly appalled by reckless, indiscriminate IRA violence in the North. The enthusiasm with which so many of us supported the civil rights movement had given way to an all-pervading nausea before such squalid destruction of life.

Jim too was perturbed by this dirty violence. He had been a guerrilla, but car bombs were not his style. Or bombs in pubs and restaurants. Still, he supported the fight, which he saw as no more than finishing off what was begun in 1916.

We did not argue. Nor did he query my identity, as an elderly Irish-American had after a match in New York's Gaelic Park. "What sort of Irishman are you?" he asked rhetorically, when I questioned IRA methods.

I was reminded of my grand-uncle Jim on reading a remarkable book published recently by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne, of Oregon in the US. Her own grand-uncle was Roscommon man Ned Hegarty who fought in the War of Independence. They Put the Flag a-Flyin' (available from is a fascinating account of the names and activities of "the Roscommon Volunteers 1916-1923". Jim Rogers is there. But one of the more remarkable stories in the book concerns an uncle of Minister for Justice Michael McDowell.

As most people are aware, the Minister's grandfather was Eoin MacNeill, the man who countermanded the order for the 1916 Rising. MacNeill was later Minister for Education in the first government of this State. He also represented the State on the Boundary Commission from 1924 which, controversially, agreed the Border on this island. Such was the criticism MacNeill faced subsequently that he resigned from government. He lost his Dáil seat in 1927.

What is less widely known is that one of Eoin MacNeill's sons, Brian, fought against his father's government in the Civil War. Kathleen Hegarty Thorne recounts how he trained republicans for the North Roscommon Brigade of anti-Treaty forces at Mantua in north Roscommon

during the winter of 1921-22. As Mr McDowell mentioned in his article in this paper last Tuesday, he was killed by Free State forces on Ben Bulben, Co Sligo.

On September 20th, 1922, he and other anti-Treaty soldiers made an unsuccessful attempt to capture the barracks at Tubbercurry. They had already displaced Free State forces from the Moy hotel in Ballina and divided into two groups before escaping into the Ox mountains, followed by Free State troops. At Bonniconlon, near Ballina, they ambushed Free State forces, killing Brig Joe Ring and wounding six soldiers.

Later, an armoured car driver (nicknamed "The Big Fella" after Michael Collins, shot dead the previous month) was killed by the anti-Treaty side, who then broke into still smaller groups, one of which ended up at the foot of Ben Bulben. This group, which included Brian MacNeill. headed over the crest of the mountain but were trapped there by Free State soldiers. The anti-Treaty men surrendered and handed over their guns, but were summarily executed.

In later years Brian MacNeill's sister, the Minister's mother, talked of how, even during the Civil War, her father would give Brian a lift into Dublin in his car, suggesting that the animosity then raging through the country had not divided father and son.

This image of family normality in abnormal times gives us some small idea of how the death of Brian MacNeill in such circumstances must have impacted on his family. And some small sense of the grief it left in its wake.

© The Irish Times

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