It was fate that brought my husband and I on vacation from the U.S. to the round table at Gleeson’s, the popular bed and breakfast in Roscommon Town Square many years ago.
Seated at our side, the affable proprietor offered suggestions and pointed us toward local inhabitants who could be helpful in our search for Roscommon’s past. “You really must talk with Ruairí Ó’Brádaigh. He’s an expert on local history, and really into that stuff.”
That recommendation was all that was needed to spur us out the door and down Main Street headed toward the Abbey Hotel. Further along the Galway Road, my husband and I found the proper house number. We had arrived unannounced. Dressed in a suit, Ó’Brádaigh cordially invited us into the parlor, and proceeded to talk with us about the early days of the Volunteers in Roscommon.
Our interview was soon interrupted by a television camera crew from the BBC. Asked to return several hours later, we exited the cottage only to come back for more reminiscences about the Black and Tan War and the men who fought in it. Family medals were shared over tea in the kitchen as the profile of a devout Republican began to emerge.
Born Peter Roger Casement O’Bradaigh in 1932 in Longford town, he was called Rory (the Hiberno-English translation of Roger). During his secondary (high school) years at St. Mel’s, he sat next to the boy who would become this author’s parish priest in Oregon. Father Joe Black well remembered his school chum’s escapades at the old Dillon House in Loughglynn, with the nuns leaning out the second storey windows shouting at the embracing boys and girls, “Not in this holy place!”
His father was an avid Republican who had been badly wounded in the Black and Tan War, and later served as the Chairman of the Easter Rising Commemorative Ceremony. His great aunt, having been burned out of her Belfast home, suffered health problems as a result of the trauma, and spent five years in a mental hospital. Ó’Brádaigh’s mother was an Irish speaker, who instilled in her son not only a love of the native tongue but a reverence for the sacrifices of past patriots. She had been active in the Cumann na mBan.
An eight-year-old’s brush with Republican milestones directed this young boy to a road of political activism. On the morning of 7 February 1940, his father checked his watch, and when the small hand pointed to nine and the longer hand snapped to twelve, the elder Ó’Brádaigh turned to his son and daughter and said, “Kneel down and say your prayers. Two Irishmen now lie into quicklime in Birmingham.” (Peter Barnes and James McCormack were hanged for their supposed participation in a bombing in Coventry.)
Two months later a funeral cortege inched through Longford town amid an assembly of reverential silence which was noted by the young lad. The death march honored Sean McNeela, hunger striker, who had died in St Brecin’s Hospital in Dublin while attempting to be recognised as a political prisoner rather than a common criminal.
The uncharacteristically somber behavior of the townspeople puzzled the youngster. Why were his neighbours and family so moved to quietness? Why were Irishmen dying in Irish jails? His quest for answers to these queries has prompted a lifelong search into the hearts of Irish men and women and into the fiery cauldron of Irish politics.
Rory Brady left Longford in 1950 and headed to Dublin as a student at University College Dublin (UCD). He was soon a student of the IRA as well, and his classroom became the Sinn Féin office in Parnell Square. At this juncture in his life, he changed his name to its Irish form—Ruairí Ó’Brádaigh.
He returned to Longford where he helped to organise local units of the IRA and reported his activities directly to Tony Magan (Chief of Staff at the time). The first unit of the IRA that he organised in Longford was technically under the command of a Leitrim man—John Joe McGirl. Ó’Brádaigh’s primary responsibility was training his men in weapons care and explosives, a job he took seriously at their weekly meeting.
In 1953 he was an elected delegate to the IRA Army Convention. In the spring of 1954, he graduated from UCD with a degree in commerce and a certificate to teach that subject and the Irish language. When the autumn leaves began to flutter that year, he journeyed to Roscommon town where he took a position at the Roscommon Vocational School.