02 April 2006

Mater nuns supported Rising, RIC files claim

Sunday Independent

JEROME REILLY
2 April 2006

BRITISH spies believed the Sisters of Mercy nuns who ran Dublin's Mater Hospital were active volunteers or avowed republican sympathisers during the 1916 Rebellion.

And other secret files compiled by the Royal Irish Constabulary up to 1920 suggest that the wards of the famous Dublin hospital continued to be a hotbed of intrigue and clandestine operations.

"The community of nuns who manage this hospital, the majority of medical staff, the nurses and practically all the students are Sinn Feiners or Sinn Fein sympathisers," intelligence files from the period assert.

The revolutionary ardour of the Congregation founded by Catherine McAuley will come as no surprise to generations of students who learnt to respect the intellectual rigour and fierce independence of the Mercy Sisters.

Catherine McAuley's original House of Mercy for Women was established at Baggot Street in the 1820s - not far from some of the fiercest fighting 100 years later when Ireland struck for her freedom.

The secret files reveal the inability of the RIC to meet the republican challenge, according to Dr Fearghal McGarry of Queens University.

He has written the introduction for a fascinating newly-released batch of material from those turbulent days which offers a new and easily accessible insight into the birth of our Nation and the fiercely fought intelligence battle at its heart.

To coincide with the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Eneclann Ltd, the award-winning campus company based at Trinity College, are publishing the Dublin Castle RIC special branch intelligence files on individual Sinn Fein and republican suspects between 1899 and 1921.

Also known as the 'Personalities Files', these documents contain secret intelligence on more than 450 individuals who were under surveillance, including Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, James Connolly, Roger Casement and Maud Gonne.

The publication, in conjunction with the Public Records Office London, is a reproduction (on DVD or CD) of over 19,000 folios. But what is most fascinating are the accounts of ordinary members of the republican movement all over the country.

Many of the files relate to public servants, demonstrating that teachers, clerks, telephonists, excise officers and even postmen were viewed by the regime as a potentially dangerous enemy within.

Michael Thornton, a national school teacher from Spiddal, Co Galway, is first mentioned in the special branch files in January 1915, when local RIC officers reported that he was "doing all he can to spread the Sinn Fein and pro-German movement."

The special branch was informed that "respectable people" in the Spiddal area thought that it was "too bad" that a man like Thornton should hold the position of a paid government servant. Thornton was kept under surveillance and was arrested for complicity in the Easter Rising on April 25, 1916.

Though released in December 1916, he was dismissed from his job due to his "complicity in the rebellion", and after SF literature had been found in his possession he was deported to England.

After being repatriated to Ireland, Thornton continued teaching in Spiddal, his salary supposedly being met by the central executive of the Teachers' Association and not the British Department of Education.

The case-file contains a letter from an angry parent of a child being taught by Thornton in Furbough [Furbo], Co Galway.

The parent complained that the children were not allowed to speak English and Thornton cursed the English and their language at every opportunity.

The parent pointed out that if this was allowed to continue the children of Furbough would be "taught nothing but ideas of revolution".

On September 23, 1918, British military authorities were informed that "if ever there was a case which clearly justified internment under order of the Chief Secretary" it was Thornton's.

Despite being described as the most "devilish ruffian in Galway", Thornton was appointed by the National Education Board as the permanent teacher of Furbough National School in April 1920.

The files also contain details of other fascinating men and women who did some service in the battle for nationhood. A mapping officer at the Ordinance Survey, Allen Michael Ashe, was dismissed from his employment after being reported for making "a dangerous and disloyal speech at a meeting of the Loughrea branch of the Irish Volunteers". Ashe was reported to hold "strong SF views" and to be publicly expressing "anti-recruiting opinions".

In another file the Strabane postman, Cornelius Boyle, was reported because "on his travels . . . he is stirring up revolts in the minds of the young men on his walk everyday".

Dr McGarry says the files represent a rich source of information about the social unrest of the last decades of British rule in Ireland.

"They provide valuable and often vivid insights into the challenges facing the British administration and the background and activities of the young men and women who had fought Britain's crown forces to a stalemate by the summer of 1921," he said.

'Sinn Fein and Republican Suspects 1899-1921' is available on DVD and CD (€49.90). Contact Brian Donovan or Cathy McCartney at (01) 6710338 or email brian.donovan@eneclann.ie

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