Kathriona Devereux: Buildings, homes, streets and lanes hold many memories...

Kathriona Devereux reflects as we mark the 100 anniversary of the Truce, halting violence of the War of Independence
Kathriona Devereux: Buildings, homes, streets and lanes hold many memories...

Mary McCarthy, Director, Crawford Art Gallery with an exhibition by photographer Dara McGrath called For Those That Tell No Tales. Picture: Larry Cummins

“... practically the whole manhood under the age of twenty-five of the country, except Ulster, are ... fanatically patriotic ... and unless you can kill the whole blooming lot, I do not myself believe that any amount of martial law will bring an improvement …”

So said General Nevil Macready, Commander of British Forces in Ireland, in an assessment of how Britain was going to end the War of Independence.

One hundred years ago the people of Cork were walking the same streets we thread today coming to terms with the newly agreed Truce halting the violence of the War of Independence. 528 people had died in Cork from the start of the war in 1919 to the truce in July 1921 and with the cessation in violence people could possibly begin to imagine a return to normal life and a life free from British rule.

As we ease ourselves back to “normal life” post-lockdowns I have been reading about the forthcoming centenaries of the Treaty Debates and Civil War for upcoming work projects and I’m fascinated to revisit this period of Irish history. 

It all seems much more tangible and relatable than when I first studied it for the Leaving Cert.

Maybe it’s because when I was sixteen years old something that happened 20 years ago already seemed like ancient history whereas now viewing something that happened 100 years ago through my 40 year old eyes doesn’t really seem like that long ago.

Or maybe living through a major historical moment of a global pandemic gives you a sharper lens to look through. As an adult, a worker and a parent I have much greater empathy for what the plain people of Cork went through in the years leading up to the Truce than I did as an indifferent teenager.

It’s easy to forget that by the time the Truce was announced in July 1921 that people had been living their lives in the shadow of the First World War (1914-18), the Spanish Flu epidemic and it’s subsequent waves (1918), the War of Independence (commenced Jan 1919), the murder of the Lord Mayor of Cork Tomás Mac Curtain (March 1920), the death by hunger strike of the next Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney (Oct 1920) and the Burning of Cork (Dec 1920). Plus the countless murders and attacks which became international news in the months and years leading up to the Truce. That level of trauma, angst and anxiety coupled with the regular hardships of early 20th century living and endemic poverty for a large part of the community must have made life in the city very difficult and barely tolerable for some.

The wealth of historical resources available nowadays to armchair historians is staggering and really brings the stories and people from this time to life. So many records have been digitised and are easily searchable online that if you’re not careful you might fall down a historical rabbit hole following an interesting thread of inquiry and emerge a half an hour later very informed, blinking and unable to remember what you were looking for in the first place.

Terence MacSwiney's sister Mary MacSwiney. Picture: (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Terence MacSwiney's sister Mary MacSwiney. Picture: (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

For example following the links on an online biography of Mary MacSwiney, Terence MacSwineys sister and Sinn Féin TD for Cork in 1921, brought me to her original British Intelligence Castle File No. 3742 which described her as “one of the most extreme and dangerous women in Ireland.”

Along with many newspaper clippings from the time her address is noted as 4 Belgrave Place and a quick check of the address on Google Maps tells me that it is the site of Sheila’s Hostel just off Wellington Road. A former teacher at St. Angela’s school, Mary established her own school modelled on Padraig Pearse’s school in Dublin. Her political life overtook her teaching career but I wonder do many of the visitors to Sheila’s hostel appreciate they are treading the same steps as a woman who was instrumental in achieving Irish freedom.

Mary’s other noted address is at Grand View Terrace on Victoria Road and I wonder if the current occupants know their connection to such an important figure.

The buildings, homes, streets and lanes of our city hold the memory of major historical people and moments, if we tune into these stories the banal and nondescript alleys and paths we pass every day come alive.

I was surprised when I popped into the Crawford Art Gallery recently for a quick visit on a drizzly afternoon to be faced by an exhibition that encapsulated much of what had been running around in my mind about our proximity to momentous moments in history. Dara McGrath’s exhibition “For Those That Tell No Tales” depicts this idea in a very tangible way by photographing the unmarked locations of War of Independence tragedies, accompanying texts explain the lives of the people and the places where they perished during the struggle for freedom in Ireland’s War of Independence.

There are photographs of locations all around Cork - The Lough, Shandon Street, Cross Douglas Road - all marking a spot where a life was lost because of the quest for Irish freedom. We walk past these anonymous corners daily without realising the significance of events that occurred there.

So to mark the 100th anniversary of the Truce, why not visit the exhibition in the Crawford or try researching something that happened in your neighbourhood during the War of Independence - I promise it will make the history come alive, just be wide of the rabbit holes!

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