The Dead Generations

Watching today’s Easter Rising centenary parade in Dublin I was reminded of an observation my grandfather once made, “If everyone who claimed to have been at the GPO in 1916 had actually been there we would have won the war in less than a week.” He made that observation more than once to be fair.

The Easter Rising lasted for 6 days. Many people are better placed than me to describe the chain of events it triggered: the war for Irish independence; Ireland’s partition into the 26 counties of the Free State and the Six Counties of the north in 1922; the civil war that followed. No Irish family was untouched by these events yet unlike the eruption of genealogical websites for research into the First World War, the stories of the young men and women who fought ‘Not for King or Kaiser but for Ireland’ are more sensitive, controversial, unfinished. Whereas the British (and Irish) soldiers who fought in WWI are seen as heroes who fought a futile war – the ‘lions led by donkeys’ – in the run up to the Rising’s centenary I’ve heard commentators refer to the men and women who took up arms for Ireland as anything from ‘Celtic mystics’ to ‘terrorists’ and many points in between. One of those men was my grandfather. He was not at the GPO but the events of 1916 shaped his life.

Jack NolanJohn Joseph ‘Jack’ Nolan was a cautious motorcyclist. Clinging to his broad back as instructed I would loop my fingers into the old leather belt with its parallel lines of stitch marks where the bullets had once been stored. Just once, when overtaken at a pace still slow enough for a bright ‘hello’ and wave from his younger brother, his huge hands twisted the throttle full-on. We overtook great uncle Tom, reared up on the back wheel and spun across the road to block his path. The brothers dismounted. With the coldest of stares and the softest of voices, grandad took charge.

“In the name of God and the dead generations, Tom. You were touching 40 back there. I have the girl with me.”

Apologies were given and accepted. Horn rimmed spectacles and trilbies were adjusted. A joke was made. And we were back on our way.

As we passed buildings, fields or crossroads my grandfather would throw cryptic, teasing memories over his shoulder. The railway at Wellington Bridge was where he had been the station master for a few days. He pointed out bullet holes in the former police station at Duncannon, then a Bord Failté recommended B&B, and asked, “Do you know why that’s still standing?” Pause. “Faulty fuse.” A small stone bridge over the river Bannon was where the Black and Tans had stripped him naked and beaten him senseless – his life saved by the intervention of a regular British Army officer.

Sometimes we would stop altogether, often at a memorial or a funeral. After one service I asked him about the mourner in the navy gabardine mac with one empty sleeve. She was a survivor of the incident we’d seen commemorated on the roadside in Salt Mills. Not a sentimental man, his eyes misted.

All this was in the 1970s/80s, when old age and reflection seemed to spring a timelock in my grandfather’s mind, releasing a voice that had not spoken since he swore his oath of secrecy, collected his rifle and Sam Brown belt and disappeared into Ireland’s hedgerows, barns and mountains to wage guerilla warfare some 50 years before. The cream and red Honda 90 was transporting us back to Jack ‘Sniper’ Nolan’s days in the Old IRA.

Though I’d heard many stories on the back of the Honda and over cups of tea, it wasn’t until his funeral in 1987 that a fuller account of the risks he had taken and service he had given was unlocked from the archives. His coffin was draped in a tricolor, a TD (MP) gave the oration, and a guard of honour fired a salute over his grave. Two things would not have escaped Jack Nolan’s readily raised eyebrow: Proud though we were at the recognition, the funeral became a tussle between family and state – I was ‘allowed’ to give a reading at the mass instead of a politician, while my brother was on constant alert to remove the ‘state’ bouquet placed on the coffin by stealth and replace it with family flowers, a floral exchange that happened more than once in the course of the event. And the soldiers in dress uniform were protected by a ring of their comrades in combat gear, stationed outside the graveyard to prevent ambush by dissidents intent on stealing the saluting guns. Oh the complexity of it all.

At midnight on January 1st, 1966 we were woken to stand on a doorstep in Finglas with our parents, aunts and uncles to hear the church bells ring-in the 50th anniversary commemorations, followed by mass.  The Republic of Ireland is now another 50 years older, less conservative, more confident. I spent today in proud and loving memory of my grandfather for his role in making that happen.

A little bit of history and a lot of future.

When I first walked into the Carnegie Library in Wakefield almost 3 years ago it was cold, dark, damp, stripped of all its books, but not unloved. Though the staff and users had moved to new premises 12 months beforehand, they and other Wakefield residents held on to their fond memories and hoped the library would somehow be brought back into public use.

Today, following a £3M refurbishment, the building is officially re-opening in its new guise as 34 artists’ studios run by The Art House, Wakefield. The team that made this mighty transformation happen includes an award-winning brass bander, an illustrator, the star of a classic 1980s pop video, a burlesque artiste and a make-up guru. Only in the arts.

In February 2013 my job was to bring the Old Library back to life, guided by plans originally set out in 2011 that had stalled due to lack of funding.

Year one was spent mainly instilling belief that the project would happen, meeting Arts Council funding conditions, securing £1.5M from Europe and transferring the lease from Wakefield Council. Paperwork was involved. Meanwhile, the condition of the Grade II listed library was deteriorating as rain came in through the roof, the windows and the floors, pigeons made merry in the cupola and a tired and emotional citizen of Wakefield propped herself up against the stone balustrade. Both she and the stonework took a tumble.

The following 18+ months were spent mainly instilling belief that the project would happen (that’s a bit of a constant in capital projects), and procuring the contractors – the builders, the asbestos removers, the metal workers, the historic paint samplers. After which:



















18 layers of paint were stripped off the walls to reveal handmade arts & craft tile work.

The original cast iron radiators were blasted and fitted.

A lasagne of floor coverings was peeled back to reveal the original parquet flooring.

A ramshackle history of 20th century wiring was pulled out, along with pipes, conduits and phone sockets.

Historic paint schemes were agreed, disagreed, agreed again.

The weather vane was removed and restored.

Two buildings on slightly different levels became one.

The roof was re-leaded.

Pods and partitions were installed.

Lighting schemes were agreed, disagreed, agreed again.

People said you’ll never fill the studios.

New studio holders and office tenants moved in.

The project was completed – on time and on budget.


Was it worth it? A little bit of history and a lot of future.


Early postcard showing ill-fate stone balustrade

Early postcard showing ill-fated stone balustrade

Built in 1905, Wakefield’s library was one of 660 in the UK and Ireland made possible with assistance from the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. At the time it was criticized for its cost (£8,000 from Carnegie, plus a penny rate levied by the council) and its appearance (a ‘plain, barn looking building’).

The design had been put out to competition. Of 81 submissions, Surrey-based Trimmell, Cox and Davison won the contract. Their budget was based on London prices. Finding materials and labour much cheaper in Yorkshire, they were able to respond to the ‘barn’ criticism by creating a neo-Baroque style topped by a wooden cupola with leaded cap and an ornate iron weathervane.

The foundation stone was laid by lord mayor Henry Childe in February 1905. Carnegie himself – “just a quiet, well-dressed little man, with nothing in feature, figure or apparel to suggest any special distinction except his big head and large top hat” – formally opened the library in June 1906.

So that’s a bit of the history and one reason for preserving the building. The second reason is the people who will be using it.

“… A brilliant resource for Wakefield and Yorkshire. With leading facilities it can host national and international artists, provide a flexible and supportive workspace for visual artists and showcase the best of visual arts.” (Arts Council England, Feb 2014)

The Art House was established in 1994 by a group of artists with a vision to provide fully-accessible studio space, where disabled and non-disabled artists could work side by side. In 2008, The Art House ‘Phase 1’ building opened on Drury Lane in Wakefield, with exemplary access for people with physical and sensory disabilities.

Now, with the doubling of facilities provided through the Old Library project The Art House can continue to develop and work towards removing barriers for artists through residencies, professional development and mentoring and extending its remit through new activity challenging conventional approaches to diversity and the arts.

The opening, fittingly on the International Day of People with Disability, is an opportunity to show off the building. More importantly, it is a showcase for the work of a new creative community of artists who now have a base in the centre of Wakefield.

As the wonderfully committed project team would say, “You’re welcome.”




I’m not wearing a poppy or bowing my head at the dictated angle, but at 11 a.m. today I am remembering my great uncle, Nicholas Cleary.

A merchant seaman born and raised in Co. Wexford, Nick was also a member of the Royal Fleet Reserve which meant two things – he was paid a small allowance to attend training and he was on standby to serve with the Navy in time of war.


This picture of reservists at ‘swordplay’ training was taken in Tramore, Co. Waterford, just a few miles from where Nick lived. I have no idea if he is one of these bearded or moustachioed, slightly half-hearted (he was a republican after all) participants, but I like to think he is.

With the war just weeks old Nick may well have thought he was safe from the call up for yet awhile. But by October 1914 he had travelled from his home in south east Ireland to Donegal in the far north west and was aboard his first Royal Navy ship, HMS Audacious.

On 27 October 1914, Audacious was one of seven ships to sail from Lough Swilly in Donegal to conduct gunnery exercises. 25 miles off the coast, she ran into a German mine. Thinking this was a submarine attack, the Captain hoisted the submarine warning which saw the other ships steaming away to safety. With water flooding the engine rooms, Audacious broadcast distress signals by wireless. The Naval commander, Admiral Jellicoe refused to send battleships to tow her because of the apparent submarine threat. Meanwhile, the White Star liner Olympic, elder sister of the Titanic, arrived on the scene with some of its trans-Atlantic passengers capturing the whole incident on camera.

After struggling to keep Audacious afloat for 11 hours, the crew were finally ordered to abandon ship. She sank shortly afterwards.

HMS_Audacious_crew_take_to_lifeboatsThe crew of Audacious, Nick among them, take to lifeboats [photographed by a passenger on the Olympic]

According to the records, “Jellicoe immediately proposed that the sinking be kept a secret, to which the Board of Admiralty and the British Cabinet agreed, an act open to ridicule later on. For the rest of the war, Audacious‍ ’ ​name remained on all public lists of ship movements and activities. Many Americans on board Olympic were beyond British jurisdiction and discussed the sinking. Many photos, and even one moving film, had been taken. By 19 November, the loss of the ship was accepted in Germany.”

Four years later, on 14 November 1918 a notice officially announcing the loss appeared in The Times:

H.M.S. Audacious.
A Delayed Announcement.

The Secretary of the Admiralty makes the following announcement:—
“H.M.S. Audacious sank after striking a mine off the North Irish coast on October 27, 1914. This was kept secret at the urgent request of the Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet, and the Press loyally refrained from giving it any publicity.”

I wish the story ended there. All hands safe, the Olympic captained by the comically named Captain Haddock, Government attempts to conceal the truth, and an early example of news verification via members of the public sharing pictures. It’s a good story.

Sadly, Nick’s war didn’t end with his lucky escape. By December 1914 he was back at sea as Petty Officer on HMS Clan MacNaughton, a pre-war merchant ship requisitioned from Clan Line Steamers Ltd of Glasgow four weeks earlier and converted to an Armed Merchant Vessel by the addition of guns on deck. The crew was a mix of seasoned seamen like great uncle Nick and young cadets, including 50 boys straight out of training.

She sailed from Tilbury for patrol duties in the North Atlantic a few days before Christmas 1914, but had to put into Liverpool on the way. She returned to Liverpool certainly once, perhaps twice because of handling problems.

On the morning of 3 February 1915 she was in radio contact at about 6 a.m. and reported terrible weather conditions. Nothing further was ever heard from her or the 281 men and boys aboard.

Many commentators at the time believed the loss was due to the guns on deck affecting the ship’s centre of gravity in bad weather. In contrast to the secrecy around Audacious, on 3 March 1915 (just four weeks after she was lost) Mr Bertram Falle, MP for Portsmouth North asked in Parliament

‘If His Majesty’s ship “Clan MacNaughton” was surveyed after her guns were put aboard; and, if so, was she passed and by what authority?’

The response came from Dr Thomas Macnamara, MP for Camberwell North.

The “Clan MacNaughton,” a nearly new vessel of the Clan Line, classed by the British Corporation Registry, was fitted out for His Majesty’s service at Tilbury under the supervision of naval, constructive, and engineering officers deputed to act for that purpose. The armament placed in the vessel was light in comparison with her size, and all necessary stiffening to take it was fitted. Investigations as to the loading and the stability of the vessel were made at the Admiralty, and instructions were issued to the commanding officer of the ship. The Admiralty are satisfied that the vessel was in good condition and seaworthy, and that she possessed ample stability.

Macnamara was also Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty. So… he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Whatever the cause, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean off the north coast of Ireland there is a shipwreck that serves as great uncle Nick’s grave.