A follower of the Home Rule for Ireland and an admirer of the Irish Republican Brotherhood - the realities and losses of one family living side by side in Ireland
I must have been around seventeen when I realized I had never seen my grandfathers in the same room together. They were both quite old by then and this behavior had been going on for well over 50 years.
One lived on a stately farm less than a mile outside town – now sadly buried beneath estates full of houses – the other, a headstone maker, occupied a big old barracks of a house near Wexford’s Selskar Abbey.
The cattle dealer drove into town most mornings for a shave and a whiskey in The Wren’s Nest; he passed close to the headstone maker’s yard, yet their paths never seemed to cross.
By the same token, I never heard either of them say an unkind word about each other.
Lest you think this tale somewhat odd, there were many similar stories in the Ireland of my childhood. Most had their genesis in the brutal Civil War of 1922-23.
This one, however, began some years earlier during the Great War, yet it retains a certain resonance.
You see, the cattle dealer was a follower of John Redmond, leader of the Home Rule Party and a local member of the British Parliament, while the headstone maker was an admirer of Seán MacDiarmada, one of the leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
In a major parliamentary victory in 1914, the bookish, uncharismatic Redmond gained Home Rule for Ireland – something that Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell failed to do in their legendary careers.
Alas, that August the “war to end all wars” broke out between the Allies – Britain, France, and Russia – and the Central Powers of Germany, and Austria-Hungary.
Redmond’s allies in the British Government prevailed upon him to postpone enactment of Home Rule until the war ended. Redmond encouraged Irish men to enlist in the British Army in a show of goodwill.
It was commonly expected that the war would be over by Christmas 1914 and that the young men would return matured and all the better for their great adventure; however, it stretched on until 1918 and over 40 million people would perish in the years of combat.
One of them was my grand uncle, John Kirwan, aged 22, the cattle dealer’s only brother. Thus did the lofty affairs of Europe play out on the narrow provincial streets of Wexford.
John was among 59,247 British soldiers killed at the Battle of Loos over a couple of days in the Autumn of 1915 – in what was later deemed a suicidal advance towards the German lines.
He’s buried somewhere over there – another undistinguished pawn in the “great game.”
His death, however, had grave repercussions in Wexford. John’s mother, my great-grandmother, was consumed with grief and in the whispered words of my granny, “she lost her senses.”
Apparently, she would accost other returned soldiers on the street and demand why they survived while “my John” did not.
My grandfather never spoke about the loss of his brother. He was a taciturn man at best, and I can only imagine that the event deepened his somewhat pessimistic take on life.
The headstone maker always spoke kindly of John Kirwan, and admired his athletic prowess and general character; though he would usually sigh about “the great mistake” such a fine man had made in joining the British Army.
For my grandfather, Hughes was a supporter of the 1916 Uprising – a minority group in the Home Rule citadel of Wexford.
My grandfather Kirwan considered this “Dublin suicidal debacle” the ultimate “stab in the back” to the young Wexford men off fighting the Great War.
John Kirwan considered himself to be no less an Irish patriot than any republican; he gave up his life in a foreign land to achieve Home Rule for Ireland.
Alas for him and the thousands of other Home Rule Irish dead and injured, they were essentially written out of history, for they became an inconvenient fact in the new 26 County Free State where the sacrifice of 1916 was venerated.
Every year, however, on Poppy Day they were uneasily celebrated and memorialized in the streets of Wexford, on a day you can be certain that my two grandfathers took more than usual care not to meet.
Larry Kirwan was the leader of Black 47 for 25 years. He is also a playwright, novelist, and a columnist for The Irish Echo.