19 April 2006

No ordinary women

Mayo News Online

De Facto: Liamy McNally on the matters of fact and the facts of the matter

19 April 2006

The recently-appointed curator to the newly acquired Jackie Clarke Library in Ballina is Sinéad McCoole, author of ‘No Ordinary Women’, a book on female activists in the revolutionary years 1900-1923. Writing in The Irish Times recently, Ms McCoole highlighted the suffering of the women in 1916 and the years following the Easter Rising. She is currently working on ‘Easter Widows, the Story of The Wives of the 1916 Leaders’. She wrote that in the aftermath of the Rising the widows were used for propaganda purposes, the Black and Tans raided their homes; during the Civil War soldiers from the Irish Free State singled the widows out for attack because they represented ‘the Republic’.

It is difficult to comprehend that widows of men who gave their lives for their country could be treated so unjustly by the state. Later on, with de Valera in power, these same women witnessed the State intern and shoot their former comrades. They saw the state preside over hunger strikes to the death. Where men were once comrades in arms they ended up killing each other, replicating the Civil War hatred.

90 years on

This week commemorates the Easter Rising and the seven signatories of the Irish Proclamation are usually centre stage, yet 15 men were executed by the British in the wake of the Rising, including Westport’s Major John Mac Bride. His death certificate, along with a few more, is on view in the Rising exhibition currently on show in Collins Barracks, Dublin. (The exhibition is too cramped and one wonders if it was more a gesture rather than a full-blooded attempt at commemorating people who paid the ultimate price for their country.) Seventy-eight Volunteers were killed in the Rising with about 2,000 interned afterwards.

Many men and women of the time ridiculed those who were engaged in the Rising. The Easter Rising was an exercise in failure from the start, according to many people. What it achieved has been questioned since. Claiming the Easter Rising as a political heritage has been the wont of many political parties. They all want to declare, ‘Our men were there’. They claim it when it suits them and ignore it when it does not.

The politics of blood

All of the country’s major parties are steeped in the politics of blood, not the politics of diplomacy. To listen to some of the pious pandering, emanating from the corners of politicians mouths one would think that some parties were founded in the Vatican. Irish politics is rooted in the bullet and in blood. Regardless of the week that is in it – the blood politics did not start and end in 1916. It was there beforehand and long afterwards.

The Irish Free State would have given many crack-pot rulers a run for their money with their decisions to kill their fellow countrymen. These decisions were taken by the political ancestors of both major parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. One does not have to go back to the 1920s for such brutality. It also occurred in the 30s and 40s. Some will argue that it occurred much later while more will claim the state’s abuse of its position is still going on. Rather than become engaged in the verbiage of which party was whiter than white now might be the opportune time for them all to ask forgiveness for the ‘sins of their fathers’. No one party has a monopoly on innocence. No one party can afford to throw brickbats at any other party.

What is rather galling is to listen to the whiter than white brigades (from many parties) claim that the violence of 1916 cannot and should not be commemorated. It is not the violence that is being honoured but the bravery. Anyone who is willing to give up his life for his country cannot be simply dismissed. While some people might not understand the reasoning behind some action it does not make that action any less brave.

Jackie Clarke

Other people also carry out deeds of selflessness for their country. One such person is the late Jackie Clarke from Ballina. His collection, the Jackie Clarke Library, has been handed over to Mayo County Council by his family for the people of Ballina and Mayo. This collection is unique. Regardless of its value it is the selfless act of what has occurred that is important. The collection contains books, manuscripts, proclamations (including 1916 and the rarer 1917), maps, pictures, pamphlets, letters, etc. It dates from the 1600s to the present – 400 years of Irish history contained in 15,000 documents and over 200 boxes, collected over a lifetime and handed over for the enjoyment of everyone.

The collection has been dubbed as ranking next to the National Archive and Kilmainham Jail collections. It is a joy to hear the Cathaoirleach of Mayo County Council, Cllr Henry Kenny, Fine Gael, describe the collection in the magnanimous terms he has. His heart ‘burns within him with joy’ when he is asked to describe the collection!

Hopefully, what this generous act of the Clarke family will do is encourage other families in Mayo to hand over personal collections to be shared with people from the county and beyond. The Jackie Clarke Library could easily have been sold off like so many items were over the past two weeks in auctions in Whytes and Adams. The late Jackie Clarke and his family had other ideas. He collected items when it was not popular to do so. He put his money where his mouth was. He disregarded the signs of the times when everything swayed against any sense of nationalism. Jackie Clarke stuck by his beliefs. He was Republican all his life and one of his finest acts is now being completed. He was often criticised unfairly in his lifetime. His collection is his reply.

Mná na hÉireann

The people, apart from Jackie Clarke, who made the transition to Mayo County Council possible, were his family, especially the women, his wife Anne and sister, Loretta. The women are again to the fore! Sinéad McCoole has been appointed Curator for the collection for the next three years. This trinity of women is central to the collection. Mayo County Council will be worthy hosts. The Council is the only body that could act as ‘guardian’ to such a wonderful collection. Mayo County Council will come into its own in this project, with great support from senior Council officials, from Des Mahon as County Manager to Séamas Granahan as Director of Services and Austin Vaughan as County Librarian.

There is still much work to be done in cataloguing and in the lay-out of the library, but it will be done. Ballina will become the centre of research for any serious historical student. Down the road is the birthplace of Dr Kathleen Lynn, a prominent woman of 1916 woman and close friend of Éamon de Valera. Her baptismal font has recently been ‘unearthed’ in north Mayo. Dr Lynn’s story is also most fascinating and will become the next serious project that will be spearheaded by the women of north Mayo - the new Mná na hÉireann. No ordinary women.

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