Sunday, 26 July 2015

Mother and Seán

Min Ryan and Seán McDermott

Mary Josephine ‘Min’ Ryan (my mother) was the fifth of eight sisters who were born on a farm in south Wexford near the Barony of Forth and were educated in the early 1900s in University College Dublin or its predecessor. Five of them became teachers and one a scientist.  After qualifying Min spent two years in Germany teaching in a convent there and four years in London, also teaching.  In London she set up the first branch of Cumann na mBan and was closely associated with other Irish patriots that time.

She returned to Ireland in late 1914 and shortly met Seán McDermott.  He was then occupied by working for the IRB with the intention of supporting a rising and was encouraged by his older colleague Thomas Clarke.  They obviously became very close friends, Clarke having suffered many years in the hands of the British because of his republican record and his bombings on the British mainland.  Without these two men the Rising would have never taken place.

In his letter to his family written just before his execution following the Rising, McDermott stated that he had intended to marry Min Ryan.

Min Ryan paid a visit to his cell early in the morning of his execution and a few weeks later visited America to meet John Devoy to inform him about the circumstances of the Rising.  The British had prevented any of the circumstances of the Rising being announced abroad so that John Devoy and the other prominent nationalist Irish supporters were left with little knowledge of what had happened in 1916.  Min was sent to America about six weeks after the Rising and was able to inform Devoy about the circumstances of the event. Her meeting with him is referred in the second volume of his autobiography (Devoy’s Post Bag, 1871-1928).

The telegram to Min from Major Lennon
Forty five minutes after she and her younger sister Phyllis left Seán McDermott's the cell at three in the morning, he was executed. This blog reports her description of their meeting before he was executed and it was published subsequently in a review entitled:-

“The Irish Rebellion of 1916 and it's Martyrs’’
by Mary Josephine (Min) Ryan

The last time I saw Seán McDermott was in a prison cell at Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, at 3 o'clock on the morning of May 12th. He was shot at 3.45 on the same morning. My sister and I were called from our house at 11 pm on the previous night by an armed messenger who carried a despatch from one Major Lennon, saying the prisoner "John" McDermott desired to see us. A military motor car conveyed us to the prison. It would take the pen of some great Russian realist to picture that awful drive through the night, through the streets of Dublin lined with British sentries with their drawn bayonets. The houses were in darkness and there was a hushed silence in the streets. Save for the whizz of our car and the sharp cry of "Halt!" every few yards, as we approached the sentries there was no sound.

The most awful moment was when the shout of the sentries and the noise of the car ceased and the door was silently opened for us to dismount and we found ourselves in front of a great, dark, treacherous looking building, Kilmainham Jail. The thought that here, in this ill-starred fortress, we were going to say good-bye for ever to one of our dearest friends, stunned us. After various ceremonies we were admitted inside the big iron-studded door, and led to Sean's cell. The cell was small. Black and white, I believe, were the colours. The walls were whitewashed, the floor was also fairly white. The door must have been black. There was a raised board in one corner called a plank bed. There was a small rough table near the light on which was placed a tall brass candlestick with a very yellow candle dripping down over it, and a pen and ink and paper. There was a plain wooden stool in front of the table. On the plank bed were a couple of soiled blankets. That was the furniture of the room in which one of the noblest of men spent the last hours of life.

The one discordant element in the setting was the prisoner. As he came to the door with both hands extended, to welcome us, with a smile on his face that seemed to transcend this brutal place, one felt fortitude and confident in oneself once more and a strong desire to show no surprise at the unusual scene. Some how we all acted as if this was one of these places where we had been accustomed to visit each other. Even the two soldiers who were on guard in the cell during the three hours we were there, seemed nothing unusual though somewhat irritating, as any superfluous company is.

We sat on the plank bed beside Sean. We discussed many of the events of the revolution. He told us of what had happened to them after they had been burnt out of the Post Office, the insults hurled at them by the most "civilised" of armies when they had laid down their arms, the inhuman treatment they had received at Richmond Barracks. But it was not by way of complaint he told us of these things. He merely told them as a narrative of events, and personally seemed most indifferent to all their whips and scourges. I suppose he expected no better at the hands of the British military. He did not wish to dwell on these matters.

He preferred to talk of all sorts of casual matters, asking about different people we knew, referring to various happy events of the past, and enjoying little jokes and jests almost as naturally as if we were in Bewley's or in an ordinary sitting-room in one of our houses. He spoke with much affection of several young men and women he used to meet with us, and the most pathetic scene was where he tried to produce keepsakes for different girl friends of his we mentioned. He sat down at the table and tried to scratch his name and the date on the few coins he had left and on the buttons which he cut from his clothes with a penknife somewhat reluctantly provided by the young officer who stood by.

As one looked at his beautiful head assiduously bent over this work in the dim candlelight, one could scarcely keep one's feelings from surging over at the thought that in another couple of hours that beautiful head would be battered by four bullets and that those deep, clear, thoughtful eyes would look on us no more. It was cruel, impossible! They could not shoot him. Surely something would prevent those eight soldiers from shooting a man of such bravery, nobility and simplicity of soul as he who sat at that table scratching his name on a button for some little girl who begged to be remembered to him. At 3 o'clock, on the arrival of the Prison Chaplain, we bade farewell to Sean and left him to spend his last three-quarters of an hour in prayer and in preparation for a more lovely world.

Sean McDermott had an extremely beautiful head, black hair with deep blue eyes, dark eyebrows and long lashes and perfectly molded nose, mouth and chin. An illness about four years ago left him lame and some-what delicate constitutionally, and he often looked a little tired and frail. But it was not Sean's personal appearance that attracted people so much as his wonderful charm. He was extremely popular in all circles in which he moved. He was well known in Dublin, and there was not a town in Ireland, I believe, where Sean was not known and loved by some group of people, generally the representatives of Sinn Fein opinion in the district. He could enjoy himself in almost any setting and make every one around him feel at home. He possessed that ineffable gift of imagination which made him understand his surroundings, and he never came into a social gathering where he was not a distinct addition. With these high social qualities and attractive personality, he never allowed himself to be lured from the rigid path of duty. His duty was his single-minded devotion to Ireland. Sean was eminently a patriot. He loved his country with a passion that at times I scarcely understood. I think he is one of the few young men whom no personal passion could ever have turned away from the work he had set before himself. Full of energy, courage, hope and perseverance, he worked and planned for the independence of Ireland ever since his boyhood. He had tremendous vitality in spite of his delicacy and executed a wonderful amount of work. For the last year his office was always crowded with callers about business in connection with the Volunteers. People came from all parts of the country to consult him on important matters. He seemed to be a sort ofgeneral secretary of several unnamed societies. Secrecy was his watchword ; he never talked of the business he did with others. I would venture to say that Sean McDermott did more than any other man in the work of preparation for this revolution. Practically all the other leaders had professions or business to attend to, but he did nothing else but work for the one object, and yet he was one of the busiest men I have ever met. Since Xmas I have often known him to attend five or six meetings in the course of an afternoon and evening. I feel certain he has gone to his grave with more of the secrets of how the whole plan was developed than any other leader.

One of Seán's final letters to Min
Sean was not at all a literary man, he was not even well read. But anything in literature that pertained to the love of Ireland, immediately gripped his soul. He could recite a poem of Davis or Rooney with the vigor and fire of an enthusiast; he could speak with exceptional ability on Mitchell's "J...Journal" and Doheny's "Felons' Track," and he could make a speech on the life of Emmet and Tone with such vigor and conviction that he left his audience aghast at their comparative inactivity.

He died as he lived. The last words of his address to his countrymen were: God Save Ireland. His death seemed to come to him as naturally as anything else he had done for Ireland. He never once flinched. At 4 o'clock on that Friday morning when the shooting party had done their work, a gentle rain began to fall. I remember feeling that at last there was some harmony in Nature. These were most assuredly the tears of our Dark Rosaleen over one of her most beloved sons. They seemed as naturally to be the tribute of tears of some gentle mourner as were those of his friends who came asking for a button from his clothes or a coin on which he had scratched his name or a thread from the scarf which he wore round his neck. His beautiful body lies quicklimed and uncoffined in a trench behind Arbor Hill. His spirit lives stronger than ever among his fellow countrymen and his name will go down forever in the pages of our history.

Mary Josephine Ryan.

Dublin, July, 1916

Min subsequently married my father Richard Mulcahy in 1919 when he was chief of staff of the IRA.  He too had taken part in 1916 but, unlike McDermott and others, he was simply interned for nine months after the event and lived to fight another day.

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