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Where Research Might Lead
What's Around the Corner?
I've discovered that conducting research about a person who lived in the not too distant past is a fascinating but sometimes disturbing experience.
In this case, the subject of this research is Gearoid O'Sullivan, the central figure of my tentatively titled book: "In the Shadow of a Rebel Flag: The Quiet Passion of Irish Patriot Gearoid O'Sullivan." Against the backdrop of the Irish Cultural Revolution, Celtic scholar, teacher and barrister Gearoid O'Sullivan brought passion and inspiration for a Gaelic-infused homeland when he took part in the Easter 1916 Irish 'Rising, in which a few hundred "poets and dreamers" took on the English Army. Gearoid had the honor of raising the rebel flag high over the General Post Office in Dublin, headquarters of the ill-fated "revolution."
Later, Gearoid -- a man known for his brilliance from an early age -- would become an indispensable and influential confidante to his closest friend, cousin and frequent roommate, the larger-than-life Irish leader Michael Collins. Following Collins' assassination by anti-Treaty forces during the Irish Civil War, it fell upon Gearoid to sweep up the remains of a shattered dream.
But as often as my research into Gearoid's life brings new insights, it sometimes delivers disturbing information. Today's email brought a distressing find - a copy of a letter that was copied and sent to me by Kieran Collins, himself descendent of Michael Collins. Kieran contacted me seeking information about Gearoid in order to fill out his family tree project. In turn, as a student at Trinity College, he offered to help me obtain a letter there that I wanted to get my hands on for the longest time. It was a letter Gearoid wrote to the widow of Robert Erskine Childers, a former friend and ally, on the day Childers was executed by the Irish Free State. This execution followed a a military tribunal which sentenced Childers to death. As adjutant general responsible for the Irish national defense force, it often fell to Gearoid to officially inform the next of kin when an execution occurred.
A Disturbing Letter
I'm not sure what I expected to read in an official state letter - I suppose an outpouring of sympathy in this official capacity should not have been expected. The letter Gearoid sent to Mrs. Childer's is disturbingly dry and blunt. It was written shortly after Childer's 7 a.m. execution had been carried out in November 1922. From the perspective of a relative, this letter is troubling to read, and I am trying to imagine what Gearoid would have felt having to write it. The text itself appears to be taken from a form letter of the sort that would have gone out in those days. I wonder many such letters Gearoid was forced to send?
As for Childers, well, he was an extremely complex man. I believe Winston Churchill once said he did more damage to the relations between the Irish and the English, post-Treaty, than any other individual. (I would argue here that deValera played an underhanded role in this regard -- but then it is always the most passionate, if sincere, who wind up paying for remaining true to their convictions, isn't it?)
Childers was an Englishman born to an upperclass family who was instrumental in establishing the free state of Ireland. He fought and strategized with the founding fathers of the new state, who included Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Eamon deValera, Harry Boland and many others, including Gearoid. Childers also accompanied Collins, Griffith, et. al. to the Treaty talks in London. But he would later turn on those who voted to accept the Treaty and who vehemently led Republican forces in opposition of those who were pro-Treaty -- even though the Irish populace showed its support for the Treaty in a special election.
By a terrible twist of fate, Childers was captured and tried and sentenced to death after being found in possession of an illegal gun -- a gun that, ironically, had been given to him by Michael Collins himself. Many individuals received severe prison sentences or were put to death by the fledgling "provisional government" of the new state. For those who were trying to lead this new state, there was pressure from the English to squash the rebellion or else (with the threat of a return of English forces in Ireland). Many believe Orangemen in Northern Ireland agitated for a Civil War in the free Repubic; indeed they carried out merciless executions of Irish Catholics in and around Belfast - sparing not even children from their unconscionable actions.
That Chllders was Englsih and yet an Irish patriot isn't in itself so unusual. Several beloved historic figures who once sought Irish liberation, were of an Irish-Anglican background. Immediately coming to mind is Wolfe Tone, the mid-18th century revolutionary viewed as the father of Ireland's Republican movement. Sentenced to death by Ireland's English occupants for participating in a daring, if doomed, invasion of Ireland in concert with France, Wolfe Tone was captured and sentenced to death by hanging. Insisting to die by bullet "as a soldier," a request that was refused, he slit his own jugular vein rather than face an English hangman and ultimately died from his self-inflicted wound..
Another legendary Anglo-Irish figure was Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish Parliamentary member serving in the British House of Commons. Parnell achieved remarkable success in bringing Orange and Green forces together. He was ultimately successful in instituting land reforms in Ireland which, among other objectives, did much to ameliorate the difficulties of Irish peasant farmers who were forced to pay exhorbitant rents to absentee English landholders. The tragic irony is that they were paying to farm lands their ancestors most likely owned until it was seized by the English during Oliver Cromwell's merciless conquest of Ireland.
Meeting Gearoid's child is a double-edged sword. I am adamant that the book I write will follow the truth as closely as possible. And yet, as I've said, I feel protective of Sibeal and by extension, of the way her father is remembered -- finally.
I also fear what I shall discover next. Gearoid's life was so private that fact-finding has been quite difficult. I'm getting a general sense of his story, and even real dialogue from speeches he gave and such. But I will also have to create dialogue that I can only imagine might have occurred, which will be structured around the facts I have and theories I've developed. (This is an approach a rather prominent historian/author suggested to me).
I'm writing, but I feel there's still missing bits of information I need to know. I believe my trip to Ireland, which I'm planning for late winter, will provide answers. Only in Dublin will I get the "rest of the story" when I am able to dig into the files of the National Military Archive, where the recollections of many men and women who took part in events of those times are recorded for posterity.
I should note that I've already had an awful lot of help from afar researching my book. A kindly archivist or two in Dublin would take time from his or her usual duties to help out. A local friend's husband knew someone who knew someone and could help with research in Dublin. Three prominent authors - Tim Pat Coogan, Tom Hayden and the late Peter Hart -- each offered advice and a few tips (as well as inspiration from their own works). I've had relatives help out, of course. And there have been con artists along the way too - such as the crew who tried to sell me Gearoid's "authentic" diary circa 1920s, which amazingly was written in ballpoint pen! I owe a great debt to an Irish bartender in a New York restaurant for explaining the Irish school system. I owe many people for thier assistance, and I realize that I'd better start forming a list of people to acknowledge.
Most of all, I owe it to Gearoid to tell his story and to tell it well.None of us wants our heroes to turn out flawed, as too often is the case. Yet I think few real human beings are as perfect as we'd like, or as we'd like ourselves to be. I'll find out more soon, I'm quite sure.