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Cathal Brugha Centenary

July 9th marks the centenary of the burial of Cathal Brugha, TD, Óglach, Céad Cheann Comhairle Dáil Éireann, agus Aire Cosanta. (Note his Fenian neighbour in Glasnevin – the top right of the photo.) In March 1919 he delivered the graveside oration for his friend Pierce McCan in Dualla.

9 JULY 2022

My thoughts go to Gerard Shannon who had been asked to speak but was unable to attend, yet still sent his speech for me to look at: Fergus ‘Farrell’s biography and James Quinn’s article in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. My thanks to the National Graves Association, to Séamus, for inviting me to fill in. It is an honour.I would like to welcome you all here today, and most especially members of the family of Cathal Brugha.

There is no doubt that any study of Cathal Brugha will show a complicated man of fierce determinism and principle but modern historical research has proved more sympathetic than the previous one-dimensional portrayals of an obstinateman of little vision or purpose. He was obsessively devoted to Ireland and the cause of Ireland’s independence.

Those who knew him thought him considerate and kind but to others he appeared strict and aloof, not one for discussion or debate.

We must remember that what any of us believe at any point may be misunderstood, may change or be misrepresented. Each man and woman lived their lives then as we do now. They dreamed and worked and struggled, made mistakes, they fought and risked their lives and could not stop themselves from being faithful to their beliefs, their sacrifices and the sacrifices of friends and family; all those who had paid the price of civil disobedience, outright rebellion and desperate war against the imperial enemy.

Their‘new generation’ that had been baptized in the Fenian faith and could do no less than see it through. They readied themselves for the blood sacrifice that they deemed necessary to break the bonds of foreign rule and give a voice to those who lived in misery and despair; who eked out a desperate existence in awful conditions in the city slums and amid rural poverty, always at the whim of landlords, employers, politicians, military and an unsympathetic uncaring administration.

As the new century dawned, the Gaelic revivalists, republicans and nationalists had come together in celebration of the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion: triumphant in failure – a call to arms, to a people, as yet unfree!

As Tom Clarke said at Bodenstown in 1914 and 1915, the time for talking was over. The Irish Republican Brotherhood moved quickly now to gather support. They brought the body of the old Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, from America and buried him in Glasnevin as a hero. PádraigPearse’s oration on the 1 August 1915, was magnificent, if not prophetic.

… they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds

these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

The men of revolution saw opportunity in England’s difficulty.A Rising was set for Easter, 1916; in truth the clock was wound, it was time to hear it strike!

And, onto this stage, came a band of 1600, Irishmen and Irishwomen, to shake an empire.

In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she received her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland now summoned her children to her flag and struck for her freedom; declaring the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the control of their own destiny. The new Irish Republic claimed the allegiance of every Irish man and Irish woman, guaranteeing religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens, cherishing all the children of the nation equally…

The battle hymn of the republic which had been sung at every nationalist event since Davis had written it in 1844 rang out across the city and the world. In the darkness of night, as the guns of an empire bore down upon them in the shell of the ruined post office, they rallied round and sung A Nation Once Again and a Soldier’s Song, by Peader Kearney, which, at that time, had not been translated into the Irish language and was not yet the anthem of a nation; a song that roused a people toward nationhood.

The 1916 Rising was initially unpopular. The Rising caused a great deal of death and destruction and disrupted food supplies. Rebels who surrendered, were hissed at, pelted with refuse, and denounced as ‘murderers’ and ‘starvers of the people’.

Slowly, public opinion began to change with the staggered executions of brave young Irishmen, mass arrests and the incarceration of over 3,500 men and women, many of whom had nothing to do with the Rising.

Tragic, awful, terrible, beautiful stories played out on the lips of strangers – of Connolly, joyous, dignified, unrepentant, executed while strapped to a chair or the Gifford sisters whose husbands were both executed:Muriel was married to Thomas MacDonagh and Grace Gifford married Joseph Plunkett hours before his death.

The men and Women came home from prison. The Struggle began anew. 1919 witnessed the first sitting of the Dáil; a representative Parliament which refused to take their seats in London and established themselves in their home country. Sometime after this, Canon Charles O’Neill wrote a song, which remains the quintessential song of the Easter Rising, ‘The Foggy Dew,’immortalising Brugha in the process

Oh, had they died by Pearse’s side,

 or fought with Cathal Brugha
Their names we’d keep, where the Fenians sleep,

 ‘neath the shroud of the foggy dew

Individual politics and chosen paths aside, we today stand among some of the greatest names of those turbulent years of the revolutionary period. Cathal Brugha remains for us one of those, one of Pearse’s Fenian Dead – a historic figure whose actions and more so whose perceived character still gives cause for debate today.

We remember the man who died on 7 July 1922, the man who could see no alternative than walking out two days earlier from the ruins of a burning building into an enemy held lane, having organised the surrender of the small rearguard in his care, walking out pistol or pistols in hand, to his fate. We may see some great heroic gesture, some suicidal death wish amid a blaze of glory or the only action available to a man of principle and faith. You cannot imagine the scene without that accompanying sense of awe of pride and regret, that oft repeated story of an unidentified National Army Officer who stated that if the old guard had of been there they would have let him expend his bullets and took him – a good Irish story – we can understand the sentiment contrived to cover the genuine loss felt at the death of a great man – but he did not want that.

Not long after his death a handwritten note was found in his pocket. It was an extract from one of the Treaty debates in January of that year.
‘.. if our last man was lying wounded on the ground, and his English enemies howling round him with their bayonets raised ready to plunge them into his body… if they asked him, ‘Now you will come into our Empire?’ – true to that tradition that has been handed down to him, his answer would be, ‘No I would not.’’

Brugha had this note on him as he met his death.

“Let no man dare, when I am dead,to charge me with dishonour; let no man attaint my memory by believing that I could have engaged in any cause but that of my country’s liberty and independence….” – Not Brugha but Robert Emmet in 1803 but it certainly could have been him.

Yet his supposed enemy Michael Collins, deeply moved by his death, said of Brugha: ‘Because of his sincerity, I would forgive him anything. At worst he was a fanatic though in what has been a noble cause. At best I number him among the very few who have given their all . . . that this country should have its freedom. When many of us are forgotten, Cathal Brugha will be remembered.’

Let us remember him. But let us remember Charles, son of Thomas and Maryanne Burgess born on 18 July 1874 at 13 Richmond Avenue, Fairview, Dublin; the tenth among fourteen. A child with 13 siblings who grew up in a nationalist home to become a devout Catholic and competent sportsman and athlete. His first job as a clerk and then travelling salesman that in some ways would define his career in his own business endeavours later when he co-founded a candlemaking firm called Lalor Ltd, based at Lower Ormond Quay; his position an important cover for clandestine activities within the IRB and the Irish Volunteers, the offices becoming an important centre for Republicans through the period of the Rising tothe War of Independence.

Let us remember his devotion to his wife Kathleen Kingston whom he met in 1909 at a Gaelic League meeting in Birr, Co. Offaly, marrying her in 1912. And their six children: Maire Caitlin or Nollaig 1912, Nora or Noinín 1913, Brenda born 18 May 1916 while her father struggled for his life in a Dublin Hospital; Ruairi 1917; Fidelma 1919; Nessa 1922 – all whom lived to old age – remember the man, the son,the husband, the father who risked all in the struggle for his country and the Republic proclaimedin 1916.He who with the few in bloody protest for a glorious thing would be remembered: Like Margaret Pearse’s sons – he was faithful and had fought.

He had joined the Gaelic League in 1899 and was devoted, to the culture, to the language and to the cause; changing his name to Cathal Brugha and becoming President of the Keating branch in 1908, a position he would hold until 1922. The time came for action and he joined the IRB in 1908 and the Irish Volunteers in 1913, becoming Battalion Adjutant by the following Spring. In July 1914 he helped secure guns landed at Howth from the Asgard impressing others with his abilities and coolness under pressure. According to Darrell Figgis ‘No-one would, could look at Brugha without perceiving his consuming, terrific, relentless courage. He was a born fighter… a sword… that would be shattered before it would bend.’

On Easter Monday, 1916, Brugha was second-in-command to Eamonn Ceannt of the Dublin Brigade’s 4thBattalion who took control of the South Dublin Union which saw fierce fighting. On Thursday of Easter Week Brugha was badly injured by a British grenade. His comrades could hear him taunting the English soldiers

 ‘Come on you cowards, till I get one shot before I die. I am only a wounded man. Eamon, Eamon, come here and sing ‘God Save Ireland’ before I die.’

Ceannt found Brugha sitting up, his back resting against the wall, his ‘Peter the Painter’ pistol to his shoulder and waiting for the first move of the British to enter the building.

He suffered 25 wounds: ‘5 dangerous, 9 serious and 11 slight’ – the worst being his left foot, hip and leg and he had lost a huge amount of blood. Eventually he was escorted to hospital and while a warrant was issued for his arrest the doctors thought he would die of his injuries and he remained in convalescence until he was released. He carried shrapnel in his body and walkedwitha limp and suffered great discomfort in later life.

Brugha was heavily involved in rebuilding of the movement in the critical years after 1916, resigned from the IRB and became a member of the new Volunteer executive. He was Chief of Staff from late 1917 to April 1919 and was even directly involved in a plot to assassinate the British cabinet.

He was returned as an MP for Waterford in 1918 but refused to take his seat and joined the other Sinn Féin TDs in Dail Éireann in January 1919, chairing the first session in the Mansion House as Ceann Comhairle.

After the Declaration of Independence was read, Cathal Brugha said (in Irish): “Deputies, you understand from what is asserted in this Declaration that we are now done with England. Let the world know it and those who are concerned bear it in mind. For come what may now, whether it be death itself, the great deed is done”

He served as President until de Valera took over in April after his escape from Lincoln Jail. Brugha then became the new Minister for Defence but refused a ministerial salary.

On that day of the meeting of the first Dáil, the first shots of the War of Independence were fired in Co. Tipperary. A predatory guerrilla war, the rebels no longer willing to be surrounded in teetering tenements and ground to dust at the whim of long range artillery. Flying columns wreaked havoc on regular and irregular Crown Forces; the Black and Tans and Auxies hated now as much as Cromwell had been for centuries.

Brughaand de Valera would have preferred a more conventional war but it was neither pragmatic nor realistic. Brugha insisted on the introduction of an oath of allegiance of the Irish Republic, to be taken by all Dáil deputies and IRA volunteers, to ‘support and defend the Irish Republic and Government of the Irish Republic, which is Dáil Éireann, against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’

He was effectively on the run during the War of Independence though he continued to run his business and indeed his Ministry out of Ormond Quay.

He refused to join the Treaty delegation and was defiantly anti-Treaty, opposed to a dominion settlement of 26 counties which was not the Republic he had fought for, or was proclaimed in 1916 or, as he believed, voted for by the Irish people in 1918 or 1921.

In the Treaty debates he launched a personal attack on Michael Collins who had been identified by Griffith and the Press as ‘the man who won the war.’ While there is no doubt this blighted his reputation, Brugha remained defiant and dedicated to his republican ideals.

There were others like Brugha who could not compromise, or forget the sacrifices made by their fallen comrades, and the nation was plunged into a bloody, bitter Civil War which began with the attack on the Four Courts.

Brugha did his duty andjoined the ranks of the Dublin Brigade IRA, in the city. Saying goodbye to his wife and children he remarked, ‘I turned out in 1916, my heart throbbing with delight at the prospect of striking at the enemy we all knew; I go forth now scarcely knowing whereto I go.’ 

He served as part of the garrison fighting around O’Connell Street which was decimated by shelling and gunfire. As the Dublin Brigade evacuated the city Brugha oversaw the rearguard action. He was noted to be cool, calm, determined and admitted he had no intention of surrendering.

Eventually cornered and with the building untenable he ordered his small contingent to surrender, including the three women who had remained, Kathleen Barry, Muriel McSwiney and Linda Kearns. He took up his pistol or pistols and walked calmly into the laneway. Linda Kearns said he walked toward the National Army barricades shouting ‘No Surrender.’ He was shot in the thigh but the bullet pierced the femoral artery. Linda Kearns held the artery as he was transported to the Mater Hospitalwhere he was tended to by his wife Caitlin in his final hours. It was reported he was ‘perfectly conscious, happy and determined, but entertained no bitterness.’ At 10.45am, on 7 July, Cathal Brugha, legendary soldier of the Irish Republic died.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Caitlin, remained to raise six children on her own. In 1924, she founded Kingston Ltd, a drapery business, was active in republican politics, and remained, for the rest of her life, dedicated to thememory of her late husband. Their son Ruairí also entered politics and became Fianna Fáil TD for South Co. Dublin (and married Máire, daughter of Muriel and Terence MacSwiney.

Let us remember Cathal Brugha, soldier, politician, husband, father son; iconic figure of the Rising and the Irish Republican struggle. Let us remember the men and women like Brugha who sacrificed so much, that we might have a better future; particularly the civilian men, women and children whose homes became a battlefield and whose lives became forfeit to the dreams of nationhood.

Suaimhneas síoraí go raibh ag a n-anamacha uaisle

As Cathal sat wounded and bleeding in the ruin of the South Dublin Union, goading his enemies to attack, he recalled the song God Save Ireland. I think he would have thought it appropriate to quote the last verse

Never till the latest day, shall the memory pass away,
Of the gallant lives thus given, for our land;
But, on the cause must go, amidst joy and weal and woe,
Till we make our Isle, a nation free and grand.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir

Mario Corrigan 9 July 2022


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