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Most family history researchers will encounter military / paramilitary activities among their Irish ancestors.  Having a decent understanding of their activities adds context, colour and gives us a better sense of our forebears.

The Irish War of Independence was a war of the people, a guerrilla war, fought on the ground with the assistance of friends, neighbours and relatives.  Most had a family member who was actively involved and were more than willing to provide all possible assistance to others.

The following excerpt from ‘The Flying Column – West Kilkenny 1916 – 1921’, 1987, p. 98~101 by Jim Maher, illustrates beautifully the network of support afforded the ‘Freedom Fighters’ in one little pocket of rural Ireland in 1921.

I was recently privileged to visit the places mentioned in the excerpt; to retrace the route, talk to the elders in the area and to photograph the places where the events occurred.  Although, there is no longer a living memory of the incident described in the book, the people to whom I spoke, had a very clear and concise story to retell of the event as they learned it from the previous generation.  They could tell of living relatives and connections to the people in the story, giving it a present day context

Donovan's House, Castlejohn

Donovan’s House, Castlejohn

‘Early on April, 1921 the Flying Column left Cappahenry and moved to Castlejohn, which is just inside Co. Tipperary, but not far from Windgap, Co Kilkenny, and there they stayed at Philip Donovan’s dwelling house.  The active service unit was getting ready to move off from Castlejohn on April 6, but first Ned Aylward, the column commander, ordered an inspection of arms.  All members of the Flying Column went to their rooms in Donovan’s to clean up whatever weapons they had.  Three of them were staying in the same room, Michael Gibbs, Paud Downey and Jackie Brett.  Micky Gibbs was sitting on the stairs, cleaning his rifle, as Jackie Brett passed by him, going up to his room.  Always a lad for ‘caffling’, Jackie threw Michael Gibbs to one side with a push of his arms and they laughed heartily when Micky jocosely swore that he would ‘throttle’ him the next time that he did that.  Ned Aylward and Jimmy Kelly passed by the stairs on their way out to the yard to get ready to put the Flying Column through a parade and drill session.

Jackie Brett went to his room and sat on the window-sill as he cleaned his revolver.  He first took out the magazine, left his revolver on the window-sill beside him and began to clean out the magazine.  At the time he was unaware that he had left a live bullet in the breech of the revolver.  As he worked on, he was in good humour and began to sing a verse of ‘Boolavogue’. Jack Donovan, a teenage member of the Donovan family, came into the room and began to converse with Jackie Brett. During the conversation  he took the revolver into his hand and began to finger it.  Suddenly the Colt Automatic fired because it had a weak spring and neither young Donovan nor Jackie Brett realised that a live bullet was up the breech. Jackie Brett collapsed motionless on the floor.  The bullet had hit him a close range and had gone into the left hand side of his chest and out again through his right shoulder.  Ned Aylward and Jimmy Kelly heard the report of the shot in the yard.  Kelly paused and heard no further sound.

‘That shot has done harm,’ he said to Ned Aylward.

Jimmy Kelly, who had seen service in France with the British army in World War 1 and Ned Aylward rushed into the house and up the stairs.  Kelly took  one look at Jackie Brett and shouted for the first-aid equipment.  Michael Gibbs, always a close friend of Jackie Brett, quickly handed it to him.  He grabbed the cotton wool, tore it into strips and packed it into the bleeding entrance and exit holes in Jackie Brett’s body to try to stem the big flow of blood from his wound.  Jack Donovan, though still in shock, was sent to get the priest and doctor.  Jackie Brett was unconscious until Father Larkin, the curate in Windgap parish, arrived but then he opened his eyes when the priest entered the room.  Flying Column members went out, while Father Larkin tended the dying man.  Soon afterwards Dr Marnell of Kilmoganny arrived at Donovans and he went to the room upstairs to try to save Jackie Brett’s life.

The members of the Flying Column waited downstairs around the kitchen fire, hoping for the best.  Father Larkin was the first to come downstairs and he sat down among the silent freedom fighters.  ‘Jackie passed away a few minutes ago’ he said.  ‘I was lucky to get here in time.’  Dr Marnell came down the stairs, and after sympathising with the members of the Flying Column, he left to go home.  Father Larkin told them to contact him again if they needed his help and he then left.  Ned Aylward thanked him on his way out for coming so quickly to their assistance, when called.  This was the Flying Column’s first encounter with a death in their ranks and it took them a little while to adjust to the shock.  They then knelt down by the glowing kitchen fire and recited a full rosary for Jackie’s soul as they thought of how suddenly the young 19 year-old soldier boy had departed their ranks away from his native Mullinahone and the relations and countryside that he loved so well.  

The members of the Flying Column, huddled together around the kitchen fire, discussed how they would bury the remains of their former comrade.  They knew full well that they were outlaws in their own country and that they could not participate openly in any funeral.  They could not risk bringing a coffin out of Carrick-on-Suir or Callan in case the R.I.C or British military got word of it.   

But Jackie Brett had to be buried.  It was proposed to bury him in a sheet.  Sean Quinn, Jackie Brett’s friend, who had played football with him on the C.J.Kickham team in Mullinahone protested.  ‘I’ll not allow him to be buried in a sheet, ‘ he retorted.  ‘we’ll have to get a coffin for him, wherever it’ll be got’  Quinn would not yield.  ‘Even if we’re all to be shot over it, we must get a coffin,’ he insisted.  Micky Gibbs then volunteered to make a coffin, if he could get some old boards of any sound type.

Accompanied by Ned Aylward and Paud Downey, Micky went over to Frank O’Neill’s in Kiltrassy, to ask if they had any suitable boards for the purpose.  They found Mrs O’Neill in the kitchen.

‘Anything in the house that is of use to you, you can have it,’ she said.  ‘Go up on the loft and you’ll get some timber there.’

Michael Gibbs found to his great satisfaction that the loft contained a pile of rejected coffin boards which the O’Neills had bought some time before.  Micky picked out four of the boards and started to make a coffin.  He started about 9p.m. and he had a  rough coffin fashioned by midnight.  Mrs O’Neill brought out an 18 inch crucifix and Micky put in on the lid of the coffin.

Larry O’Neill, a son of the family arrived home and offered to transport the corpse to the graveyard.  It was arranged to do this, in secret, during the night and to make the minimum noise.  Larry yoked the horse to the cart which had rubber wheels, took the shoes off the horse and put sacking over the four hooves in order to dull the sound of the moving horse and vehicle.  Micky Gibbs and Larry O’Neill, first brought the hand-made coffin  back to Donovan’s Castlejohn, in the horse’s cart.  With them came Nurse Kitty O’Neill, a sister of Larry’s, who was home on holidays and she prepared the body of Jackie Brett for burial.  The Flying Column members them coffined Jackie and carried the coffin down to the kitchen.  Every member of the Flying Column then passed the coffin, Micky Gibbs drove nails into the roughly fashioned rectangular box and to secure it more soundly, Frank O’Neill of Kiltrassy got two ploughing reins and tied the head of the coffin with the strong ropes.  

The Flying Column had sent word out to the local I.R.A. unit in Tullahought and they had gone to Lamoge graveyard and picked a dug grave, which already had been used and would not be needed again by the particular family who owned it.  The Flying Column members followed the rubber-tyred cart, bearing the remains of Jackie Brett, drawn by the horse with the sack-covered hooves, on the silent journey to Lamoge cemetery.  In the half-light Jackie Brett was secretly buried in the deserted graveyard and the Flying Column members, assisted by members of the Tullahought company of the I.R.A. filled in the grave as neatly as they could, in order to disguise the fact that any new fresh grave had been opened in the cemetery.  Before leaving the graveyard at dawn, the Flying Column recited a Rosary for the repose of the soul of Jackie Brett.  It was now dangerous for them to stay any longer in the district. as British forces might come looking for freshly made graves and the next day they moved on though the fields for Kilbricken, near Callan, where they stayed with Madigans, Kirwans, Condons, Holdens and Downeys  

Despite all the exhaustive measures taken by the Flying Column to keep the news of Jackie Brett’s death from the British military, they still got word of his accidental shooting, but they did not know where he was buried.  Still they went searching for the body in order to instigate an investigation into the whole case and they kept their eyes open for newly made graves.  The Tullahought company watched the British military as the searched near their area and when it became apparent that Lamoge cemetery would come within range of the search, they decided to raise Jackie Brett’s coffin again.  Ned Maher, Cussan, Michael Davis, Jack Donovan, Frank and Larry O’Neill of Kiltrassy, Paddy Lee, John Duggan and Pat Holden, Newtown Kells, opened the grave once more and brought the remains of Jackie Brett this time to the farm of Ned Maher Cussan.  There the coffin was taken out to a field which was being tilled for sowing turnips.  A grave was opened in the field and the coffin, containing the remains of Jackie Brett was again interred.  Planks and boards were put over the coffin, to prevent the grave sinking and the earth was then filled in.  All the loose earth that did not fit back into the grave was then taken away and the next morning the horses tilled, harrowed and opened the fresh turnip drills over the freshly made grave in the 6 acre field.

Before leaving the field, the local I.R.A. Volunteers measured accurately the position of Jackie Brett’s hidden and unmarked grave by stepping the distances from the two adjacent sides in the rectangular field.  One day, when the fight was over, they would see to it that the remains of Jackie Brett would be buried in consecrated ground.  But for them and the Flying Column that day was still very much in the future and more of the Column would die before it would dawn.

Lamoge Cemetery

Lamoge Cemetery

A ballad-maker, Paddy Cuddihy, was in business in Callan at the time and he penned a verse in memory of Jackie Brett

‘May the sod lie lightly on you, Sean
And when the fight is won,
We’ll rest you in the Martyrs’ Plot,
‘Neath the shade of Sliabh na mBan.
And rising proudly at your head
Like a sentinel shall stand
Redemption’s sign – with the noble words
“He gave all for Ireland”.’

The Old Cemetery in Lamoge can be seen on this historic map from 1895

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