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Mislaid Memories by Michael Connolly

Writing.ie | Magazine | Mining Memories | Tell Your Own Story
Mike Connolly

Michael Connolly

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As my old long departed friend Ernie used to say “old age is not for the fainthearted” and who was I to argue with Ernie’s take on the subject: as he was at least thirty years older than me at the time of his profound utterance. Now with the passing of years, I have advanced into old age where Ernie once stood and I can vouch for the fact that old age can at best be overrated and is definitely not for the faint hearted. A point in fact is the question of age and the problems of memory, recent or short term memories are particularly problematic, whereas long term memories are in a different category completely. Let me explain.

I have found the following and I pass it on as a guide to the legions of fellow citizens who are approaching what is often referred to as “the golden years”. This phrase was obviously coined by someone in his late twenties or early thirties who espoused long and untidy hair and strange dress habits…but I digress.

A strange phenomenon I’ve noticed regarding old memories goes like this. Old tales and associated memories of previous experiences lie hidden in a locked chest; that is, until the correct person comes along and finds the right key to the chest and unlocks and releases a flight of old memories. Such a person has come into my life and uses the key frequently and you would be amazed at what comes out for an airing. Recently, the key to opening the memory chest was a brief reference I made to my grandfather and his life as a young boy living in the Dublin / Wicklow Mountains.

Some of you with an interest in Irish history will be aware of a Wicklow rebel named Michael Dwyer, who was the bane of the British Military in the period of the Rising of 1798. He is often regarded as being one of the first to come up with the concept of guerrilla warfare. His successful tactics were responsible for the building of a network of “military roads” which currently are such an attraction for visitors and locals in the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains.
In 1798, Colonel John Skerret a member of the Durham Fencibles suggested that a military road across the mountains would allow troops to move quickly and observe rebel movements, also, at the time there was the added threat of a French invasion. As the mountain roads at the time only ran east to west, it was decided to build a military road, which would run north to south, from Rathfarnham in County Dublin to Aughavannagh.in County Wicklow, with spurs that would connect to barracks at Glencree and Laragh.

A survey was undertaken by Captain Alexander Taylor of the Royal Irish Engineers and construction work commenced in 1800 and would end with the construction of 36 miles of road, five barracks and two bridges. The barracks would be built at Glencree, Laragh, Drumgoff , Aughavannagh and the Glen of Imaal. The work was undertaken by British soldiers who were paid a shilling a day, while officers were paid five shillings per day and Captain Taylor who supervised the work received the princely sum of fifteen shillings per day.

When the work was completed in 1809 the total cost was £43,500 which worked out at twice the proposed budget estimated by Taylor. Nothing new there, when it involves over-running on budgets.

The five barracks ceased to be of much military significance after Michael Dwyer surrendered and was shipped to Australia in 1805 and they had a relatively short life as military installations. The last two which are still standing are at Glencree and Aughavannagh. The barracks at Glencree was at one stage was used by the Christian Brothers as a reformatory while Aughavannagh, I know from personal experience having slept there on a number of occasions; was run as a youth hostel by the Irish Youth Hostel Association until it was declared unsafe and closed down.

I know you are anxious to get to the connection to my grandfather but I thought it necessary to put in a bit of background information before I got to the nub of the story. My grandfather whose name was Michael was born in Kildare and lived with his parents as a small boy in the area of Celbridge. The family lived in a cabin on a small holding including his parents Richard and Ellen and his grandfather William and his wife, but as you can imagine as the small holding only measured a little over two acres their existence could only be regarded as precarious.

This prompted Richard to leave the area with his young family and go in search of employment elsewhere. He succeeded in obtaining a job as a labourer and shepherd in Kilakee on an estate belonging to a local landowner named Lord Massy.

We move on a few years and we find in the year 1867, my grandfather Michael, a young lad of eleven years living with his parents in a small cottage in the area of Kilakee. For those of you not familiar with the area it’s close to Montpelier Hill near the summit of which to this day, stand the gaunt ruins of the infamous Hellfire Club.

The weather in the area surrounding Kilakee in that year was almost as variable as it is currently experienced in Ireland and in March, spring was delayed as winter held the countryside in an icy grip. Snow covered most of the area, with constant showers of sleet, rain, snow and severe frost were a daily occurrence. It was bitterly cold and visibility was at times down to few feet.

The period around 1867 was also a time of feverish activity among rebel forces who opposed British rule and a resurgence of Wicklow and Wexford rebels many whose grandparents and uncles had been followers of Michael Dwyer, were active in the Young Irelander’s movement. Insurrection was in the air and plans were afoot to mount a battle in the area around Tallaght Hill in County Dublin. The plan was to lure some of the British garrison who were stationed in Dublin to come to Tallaght thus weakening the defence of Dublin where another attack was due to take place.

At the same time as these miserable weather conditions prevailed, the inhabitants of the cabin were expecting another event. Michael’s mother Ellen was heavily pregnant and an arrival was imminent, suddenly, the silence was broken by the sound of marching feet. Richard jumped up and opened the door and in dark and difficult visibility discovered a crowd of men some armed with pikes and others with rifles and pistols standing in the yard.

The leader, a man in his mid-forties explained to Richard that they were a mixed group of Fenian rebels from Wexford and Wicklow who were charged with making their way to take part in the battle of Tallaght Hill. Some had come over the very same military roads that had been laid down by the British military in their attempts to capture Michael Dwyer a hero from an earlier era. The leader further advised Richard that due to the poor visibility they were lost and needed a guide to get them to the site of the battle.

Richard explained how he couldn’t leave his pregnant wife as the birth was imminent and how he would need to go some distance to summon a midwife to assist in the birth. The rebel leader was desperate for a guide and it was then that my grandfather eleven year old Michael came forward and said, he knew the way to Tallaght and would be able to guide the rebels to the rendezvous. So it was agreed after some objections from his father that Michael could go with the rebels on the understanding that as soon as they reached Tallaght Hill, Michael was to be sent home and not allowed to stay and see or get involved in the battle. This was agreed between the father and the leader and the group set off in the direction of Tallaght led by an eleven year old boy.

True to his word, the rebel leader sent a reluctant Michael who wanted to see some of the action, back home to Killakee. He trudged through the packed drifts of snow and ice and the occasional flurries of snow, to arrive home cold, weary and hungry. He was greeted on his arrival with the news while he was away doing rebel work his mother had produced a baby brother who would be called Richard after the baby’s father.

History tells us the battle of Tallaght Hill was not a roaring success, at best little more than a skirmish, as the rebels were soon routed and some escaped to fight another day. Such is the way the results of battles are decided, there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser.

What of the family who were involved on the side-lines of this event. Richard the father had been a witness to a number of failed attempts by rebels to oust the British and all had ended in failure. This cemented his view that freedom would only be achieved by Parliamentary means and he adopted the principles of Daniel O Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. One of his mantras was the words uttered by O Connell, ‘the altar of liberty totters when it is only cemented by blood.’

His son Michael on the other hand chose a different path, especially when his grandmother, his uncle and cousins were evicted from the small holding in Celbridge in 1883. Michael, went on to marry and father sixteen children six of whom in time would join Jim Larkin’s fledgling union and the Irish Citizen Army and take part in the Easter Rising of 1916. His son Seán who was a captain and in charge of the garrison that seized Dublin’s City Hall would pay the ultimate price in the Rising as he was shot by a sniper who was lodged in the clock tower of Dublin Castle.

(c) Michael Connolly

About The Connollys – A Nest of Irish Rebels:

This is the true story about an ordinary Irish family, the Connollys, who were caught up in historical events at the end of the nineteenth century and during the early years of the twentieth century. Many members of the family were involved in the nationalist struggle, which had its moment of glory in the Easter Rising of 1916. Each committed member played a significant role in the Rising, which resulted in the death of one of them. He was Captain Sean Connolly, the Abbey actor, who was described as “the player Connolly”, by William Butler Yeats in his poem Three Songs to the One Burden, one of the poems he wrote in response to the Easter Rising: Who was the first man shot that day? The player Connolly, Close to the City Hall he died; Carriage and voice had he; He lacked those years that go with skill’ But later might have been A famous, a brilliant figure Before the painted scene.

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About the author

Michael Connolly was born, raised and educated in Dublin, Ireland. Following a varied sales career which included selling printing and office equipment, he came to Johannesburg thirty years ago. He has travelled extensively in Europe, the Middle East and North America; interests include writing, art, travel, literature, history, architecture, sailing and walking. Read more about Mike at : www.connollyscomments.com

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