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.