20 April 2006

Brothers in arms

Irish Echo

Danny and Sean McLoughlin joined different armies and took different paths, but the bonds between them endured a lifetime

By Peter McDermott
pmcdermott@irishecho.com

Margaret Shiel remembers the laughter between the two men. It was 1956, a very happy time in her life. She was about to get married and her beloved father and his brother were reunited after 30 years.

They had never fallen out, even as the family had torn itself apart. Letters were exchanged intermittently over the years.

They were close as boys, even though they were always a study in contrasts.

Danny McLoughlin, Shiel's father, had the same effervescent, outgoing personality throughout his life. Sean McLoughlin was quieter and more serious.

"He had a lovely manner," recalled his niece, who lives in Beaumont, in North Dublin.

And whereas Danny was a fun-loving musician, Sean was a spellbinding public speaker

The brothers had been Larkinites. Their father helped Big Jim Larkin found the Irish Transport & General Workers Union and stayed with him when he set up the breakaway Workers Union of Ireland.

And Shiel, now 82, worked as a typist for the WUI, and helped campaign for its leader and his son, Jim Jr., when they successfully ran for the Dail on the Labor Party ticket in the 1940s.

She remembered the horse-drawn platforms used on the stump. A mere typist wasn't required to speak, but this gentle, self-effacing woman showed more than once that she'd inherited her uncle's talent for oratory.

"She was always a Larkin fan," said her son Brendan Shiel, who lives in Inchicore, Dublin. She was aware, however, of the great man's flaws, not least an ego as big as his reputation. And this, of course, didn't make him easy to get along with.

"A lot of people had rows with Mr. Larkin," she said. Her Uncle Sean was one of them.

But before that, history would take the two eldest McLoughlins in different directions. Danny joined the British army before World War I, and he was permanently blinded as a result of injuries sustained in battle. Sean was an Irish Republican Brotherhood member who would see action in the Rising that began on Easter Monday, 1916.

Historian Charlie McGuire has said that McLoughlin played a crucial part in that seismic event in Irish history, one that has been underwritten or, in most accounts, simply omitted.

He says that, impressed with his extraordinary coolness under pressure, the injured military commander James Connolly handed over control to the young Dubliner in the Rising's last stages. The myth of the "boy commandant" of 1916 was born. In fact, McLoughlin was almost 21, but, argues McGuire in a recent article in History Ireland, the rest of the story is true and it finds support in documents released in recent years.

The Glasgow-born historian became interested in the topic when researching his doctoral thesis at the National University of Ireland, Galway, on Roddy Connolly, who was 15 when he took part in the Rising alongside his father and went on to a 60-year career in Irish politics.

"I came across repeated mentions of McLoughlin," said McGuire, whose book on the younger Connolly is to be published by Cork University Press.

Ruggie's boys

The McLoughlins grew up in Dublin's North inner city. Their father Patrick "Ruggie" McLoughlin was a coal laborer. (His nickname is said to have derived from his "rugged" appearance.) Brendan Shiel said his great-grandfather was essentially a union man while his great-grandmother Christina was "extremely nationalistic in her views."

They had six children. Danny, born in 1893, was the eldest; Sean, the second, arrived in 1895.

"Ruggie was involved in the Lockout in 1913 and helped organize the union on both the railways and the docks," said the 45-year-old Shiel, who teaches English as a foreign language in Dublin. "Apparently Larkin visited the home in 1913 distributing food. Christmas of that year is well remembered as he gave them herrings - the only thing they had to eat at that time." [The industrial action, which began in August, lasted in some sectors for seven months.]

Before that, Danny McLoughlin had entered the world of work. His last civilian job was in a mattress factory, according to his grandson.

"He was doing very well there and managed to save funds in addition to the money he gave his ma. I reckon she was quite jealous of both him and the woman who was to be my grandmother," he said. "She became convinced that he was earning more than he was telling her. One day she went to the company and insisted that the foreman tell her how much he was earning. Danny was really hurt and angry."

About this time, McLoughlin won a competitive mile race. His grandson said: "Afterwards an army recruiting officer approached him and said that the military would be able to give him really good training and turn him into a top-class runner. He replied that he was more interested in a career in music. The officer said that he could also join the army band."

He initially dismissed the idea but -- family members feel -- he began to see the military as a way of becoming independent of his mother in the most rebellious and dramatic way possible.

He joined up and was indeed sent to train with the band. But when hostilities broke out between Europe's great imperial alliances, Danny McLoughlin was sent to fight. Back home on leave, he passed on some tips on the use of a gun to his younger brother. He was highly skeptical, though, of talk of an uprising.

Sean McLoughlin had been an active member of nationalist organizations such as the Gaelic League and Fianna Eireann since about 1910.

A loyal IRB member, he followed the minority Volunteer faction that opposed the war in Europe, and was made lieutenant of D Company in Dublin under the command of its captain, Sean Heuston.

Rebellion

On Monday, April 25, 1916, Heuston's men took control of the Mendicity Institution on the Quays. It was a holding operation meant to keep British soldiers at bay for a few hours. They held it for 50 hours.

Through those two days, McLoughlin made several hazardous journeys back and forth to the GPO, delivering information and collecting supplies. On the Thursday, Connolly put him in command of a 30-man contingent to hold the Irish Independent offices. That night, McLoughlin viewed the scene from the roof of the newspaper office. He remembered decades later how Sackville Street (now O'Connell) burned: "In front was a roaring sea of flame, leaping to the sky, with the crackle of musketry and cannon-pealing the accompaniment. Behind was another terrific blaze from the Linen Hall Barracks, which had also gone up. It was apparent now we were doomed. No stories of 'landing Germans' would now be believed. It was a handful of daring men facing the wrath of a mighty Empire, with the odds on the Empire."

When he got back to the GPO on Friday, he found that Connolly had been severely injured in the street while observing his unit entering the Independent.

By midday, the GPO was taking direct hits from British shells and was soon itself on fire.

McLoughlin, one source said, "stood out like a rock amidst this confusion, and was now the only man whose orders were being listened to."

Connolly, whose ankle and leg were shattered, suggested that the young Dubliner lead the retreat from the GPO to Moore Street, and that he assume his rank. The other leaders agreed.

This episode was touched on in some important general histories of the Rising, notably Maxwell Caulfield's "The Easter Rebellion," published originally in 1960, but omitted from most others. Written testimonies of the 1913-21 period, commissioned by the Irish government's Bureau of Military History in the late 1940s, and released recently, tend to support the view that McLoughlin was given a significant role in the dying hours of the Rising. (McLoughlin, by then living in England, himself submitted a 47-page text on his revolutionary-era experiences.)

McGuire writes that after the surrender: "A British military intelligence captain, struck by McLoughlin's young age, took him aside and removed his commandant tabs, saying in an 'enigmatic' fashion, 'you have now lost your rank.' McLoughlin reflected many years later that this had been a friendly gesture, and that the captain 'was no enemy.'"

Commented his grandnephew Shiel: "Seeing how young he was and knowing that the leaders would almost certainly be shot, he probably felt sorry for him."

In the course of the next two weeks, Heuston and 14 others of the Dublin-based leaders were executed. McLoughlin was interned first in Knutsford Prison and then in Frongoch Camp in Wales.

Meanwhile, his brother, home on leave in August 1916, got married to his sweetheart, Mary Jesson. Danny McLoughlin had won the Mons Star at Mons in 1914, but when he returned this time to the front at Ypres, he sustained injuries that led to permanent blindness.

Sean McLoughlin was released and in the years 1917-19 was a Volunteer organizer in the Limerick/Tipperary area, acting for General Headquarters Staff in Dublin, at the direction of fellow GPO veteran Michael Collins.

The War of Independence that followed saw him moving back and forth to Britain. McGuire said that in addition to his speaking activities on behalf of the Irish republican cause, McLoughlin was running guns and working as a socialist activist.

In October 1921, he helped Roddy Connolly, who'd formed a close association with Lenin, set up the Communist Party of Ireland, which became the first political grouping to oppose the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in London on Dec. 6.

McLoughlin was militarily active in the subsequent Civil War, again in the Southwest. A senior IRA officer in the Tipperary/Limerick area (and later a Fianna Fail TD) Seamus Robinson recorded that he put him in charge of a flying column. When he was captured, this "Dublin red-flagger," as Free State intelligence reports referred to him, was again lucky to escape execution.

Inchicore strike

McLoughlin was transferred to Mountjoy Prison, where, the left-wing Republican Peadar O'Donnell said he was the most active prisoner there on behalf of the Communist cause. The young radical felt that the anti-Treaty militants were open to his ideas, but he regarded the IRA leadership as "militarily incompetent and socially reactionary," according to McGuire.

Even before he was released from prison in October 1923, McLoughlin had resigned from the IRA.

"The Communist Party put all their eggs into the Republican basket, " McGuire said. The military defeat was a bitter blow to the young party, and it was dissolved in 1924.

That year Larkin set up the Moscow-affiliated Irish Workers' League, a largely inactive group.

While Larkin was on a trip to the Soviet Union, his WUI members at Inchicore Railway Works went on strike, with McLoughlin prominently involved. When the legendary leader returned, he clashed bitterly with his young upstart rival. A strikers' meeting in an Inchicore movie theater broke up in confusion, and Larkin took control again. In McLoughlin's view, the workers had been sold out. Bitterly disillusioned, he headed for Britain.

"My grandmother [who died in 1992] said that at this time granddad had to sell a load of books to help him with the fare for his passage. So it seems that despite everything they were still friends at that time," Brendan Shiel said.

The blind veteran, though, was anti-IRA and loyal to his ex-British army comrades, and his relationship with the rest of the family, most of them staunchly republican, was virtually non-existent.

"They never forgave him for joining the British army," recalled his daughter, who said she grew up not knowing her father's family.

Settling down

Danny McLoughlin now had to concentrate on supporting his wife and five young children.

"He turned his hand to anything that would make a few bob and became very good at this," said Brendan Shiel.

St. Dunstan's, an organization for blind ex-servicemen, had initially trained him at basket-weaving and he learnt how to grow vegetables.

One of his grandfather's jobs particularly intrigues the soccer fan Shiel, a regular at the games of Shelbourne FC. McLoughlin had a lock-up stall, which sold cigarettes and sweets, in a laneway that led to Dalymount Park, the home ground of Shels' rivals Bohemians FC, and the site then also of Ireland's international games.

"My mother and my aunt helped him," said Margaret Sheil.

"He also formed his own little dance band and they traveled all over," she said. Her father learnt, too, to be a magician.

"He was an amazing man," said his daughter.

And aside from his disability, McLoughlin struggled with indifferent health generally as a result of his war injuries until the end of his life.

After a prison term during Britain's 1926 General Strike, Sean McLoughlin's political career tailed off somewhat.

His relatives and McGuire believe that he opted for a quieter life, after years of hectic activity, emotional upheaval (his first wife and child died) and disillusionment.

His retirement was clearly a loss to the political left. A veteran British socialist activist, quoted in an important history published in the 1970s, remembered McLoughlin as the most impressive orator he had ever heard.

He settled eventually in Sheffield, married again and had three children. He worked as a clerk in the engineering department of the city council.

"He was very surprised that they gave him a job; they'd told him that they knew he'd been involved with the IRA," said Margaret Shiel.

During World War II, McLoughlin became an organizer of a civil defense unit in Sheffield and while demonstrating a mustard canister it exploded in his face, causing serious injuries.

"His family say he was never the same after that," said Brendan Shiel.

McGuire said the former activist developed severe health problems and later suffered a nervous breakdown.

Reunion

The historian found letters from Danny to Sean expressing concern about his brother's health. There were also copies of letters written by his niece on his behalf in a bid to win him an IRA pension from the Irish government.

In 1956, Sean McLoughlin traveled to Dublin for the funeral of his sister. The 15-year-old Mary McLoughlin was a currier in the early stages of the Rising, but her mother, via a message to Sean, ordered her home. She rarely spoke to her eldest brother Danny in adulthood.

Shortly afterwards Sean attended Margaret McLoughlin's wedding; he was the only guest from her father's side of the family

Politics was discussed between uncle and niece. "He told me that he was glad Labor controlled Sheffield," she remembered.

It's assumed he'd moderated his leftist views over time. His old comrade Roddy Connolly certainly did. He became a pillar of the Labor establishment and a strong supporter of coalition with Fine Gael.

(Connolly was party chairman from 1971 to 1978. His immediate successor in that position was the firebrand radical Michael D. Higgins, for whom Margaret Shiel worked as secretary in both the Dail and Seanad Eireann, before her retirement in the early 1990s.)

The bonds renewed were maintained. Danny sent letters often to Sean. "I wrote them for him," recalled his daughter.

Sean McLoughlin visited his brother's family on one other occasion, this time with his wife.

He died at Sheffield Royal Infirmary from heart failure and hypertension on Feb. 13, 1960, at age 64. His death went unnoticed in Ireland and no nationalist or socialist grouping was represented at his cremation. His ashes were spread over Howth Head, near Dublin City, by his son.

Danny McLoughlin passed away on Nov. 15, 1961. He was 68.

"I'm really glad that daddy and Sean became such great friends again," Margaret Shiel said.


This story appeared in the issue of April 19 - 25, 2006

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