As a young girl of 13 years, I loved to listen to my grandmother tell me all about what life was like for her when she was my age. I would beg her to tell me about school and her family life and struggled to understand how she managed without television. Her life seemed like a different world to my own. My favourite story was about the mysterious wooden box. I enjoyed the story over and over again as I grew to be a young woman. I didn’t really understand the significance of the wooden box story at my young age which was not unlike my own grandmother who was also 13 years old when the mysterious box arrived.
It was a stifling hot day in 1916. It was Easter Monday and as well as enjoying the rare summers weather for the 24th of April, my grandmother Annie, her sister Margaret and her parents George and Mary Hamill, were also enjoying a rare family day out at the seaside in Dun Laoghaire. As they made their return to the train station to go home, they were informed by the station master that all the trains were cancelled as there was some kind of dispute happening in the city centre. As they stood among the other stranded day-trippers, word spread through the crowd that the events happening in Dublin were no little dispute but something of a momentous nature.
As her father was a member of the British Army, he was anxious to get home to find out what was happening and thus they set off on foot to return to their home in Rathfarnham. On the way home, they watched as large plumes of black and grey smoke rose up into the sky from the direction of the city centre. Everyone they passed on the street were anxious to pass on what knowledge they knew of the events in Dublin. With each passing stranger, the story of what was happening grew in size, making the air heavy with excitement. The GPO had been taken over by the Irish Republican Army and they were at war with the British, they were told.
During the week that followed the Rising, Rathfarnham became a strange place to live. My grandmother recalled how their neighbours who had always stopped for a friendly chat, now seemed to pass each other quickly, looking down on the ground; talking to each other in stiff stilted conversations. People they had known for years and years now looked at one another with curiosity and some reserve. Who was supporting the Irish Republican Army and whose loyalties lay with the British? As George Hamill was a saddler for the British Army, my grandmother felt that her family were signalled out more than others. Ironically, little did she or her neighbours realise just how involved in the 1916 rising her family was about to become.
The knock on the door came about 5 or 6 days after their day trip to Dun Laoghaire. It was very late at night and everyone was asleep. She heard the muffled voices of her father and some other men in the kitchen. My great-grandmother stood at the top of the stairs listening and waiting but the girls were told to be quiet and go back to sleep. They shared that same sickening feeling, fearing the worst, fearing that these men had come to take her father away to fight in the British Army against his fellow countrymen. It was therefore with great relief that Annie found her father at their kitchen table the next morning. The arrival of the large wooden box in the centre of the room could not go unnoticed however.
Her father was sitting with his head in his hands and her mother was walking around the box as if in some kind of trace. Every now and again, they would look at each other, then back at the box and back to each other again. The girls were told to go out outside and informed not to open their mouths about the box. My grandmother always laughed as this remembered this part of the story as her curiosity about the box was replaced with anger over not getting any breakfast. When the girls arrived home later that day they immediately noticed the large wooden box had been removed. They were informed in their father that the box had been delivered to their house for safe keeping and it was never to be discussed inside or outside the house. Weeks, Month and Years passed by and the Wooden Box was forgotten by my grandmother and her sister. They had more important things to think about at the ages of 13 and 15 years, as she recalled with a twinkle in her eye.
3 years later while home alone and looking for clothes to dress up in their parent’s room, they found the Wooden Box again. It had been placed under her parent’s bed and covered in a red velvet blanket. Curiosity got the better of them that day and they took it from under the box to find out exactly what was in this mystery box that their parents refused to discuss. The Wooden Box had no marking on it but it was securely locked and no amount of attempts to pick the lock worked for the girls. The Box and its contained remained firmly inside. When her parents returned home that day, they knew the girls had been at the box and sit them both now to discuss it. Her mum obviously now believing the girls were at an age to understand the importance of leaving the box alone started to fill in the details of the night the box had arrived.
My grandmother remembered her mother’s whispered tone as if to say it out loud would bring trouble to the door. They were told that the box had been delivered to them by members of the Irish Republican Army with strict instructions; that it was to be hidden well, never discussed with anyone, and it would be collected in due course. Having a member of the British Army in No.8 Main Street, Rathfarnham qualified their home as a ‘safe house’, despite being directly across the street from the courthouse which was then under British Rule.
After that day, the wooden box remained in its spot under the box and was never tampered with again by the girls. Shortly after Ireland was declared a Free State in December 1922, six and half years after the wooden box was delivered; it was collected in the same manner as it was delivered, in the middle of the night by members of the Irish Republican Army. Her parents were thanked for their services to the cause and that was it, the box was gone.
The Wooden Box was discussed for many nights around their dinner table after it was gone. Each member of the family had their own theory on what the box had contained. Even as an old woman of 72 as she told me and my brothers the story, she firmly believed she knew what was in the box. She would always nod her head and say that of course, she wasn’t sure but we knew in her heart, she truly believed she was right. We will never know the real contains of the wooden box that lay under the bed for six and half years at; its secret died alongside the many men and women who gave their lives to make Ireland the Free State we all live in and enjoy today.