Back to Mum, then. When we children were growing up, she often spoke to us about her father – our grandfather, Patrick. Her reports of the man were conflicting, to say the least. Most of the time, she referred to him as “a useless, ould drunk”. She blamed him for her mother taking ill and being put in a sanatorium. And she blamed him for the subsequent break-up of her family, with her brothers and sisters being split up and farmed out to be brought up by aunts and uncles. She had no time at all for the man.
But there were other occasions when she spoke proudly of her father as a war hero. He joined the Irish Republican Army when he was still a boy, she said. He fought in Ireland’s War of Independence. He was a lieutenant colonel. He was Michael Collins’ right-hand man. He was captured and tortured by the Black and Tans. They pulled out his fingernails, wrapped a Union Jack around him and paraded him through his own village. The poor man never recovered from the humiliation and took to the drink.
Now, the thing about Mum is that she was a bit of a romantic, with a lot of fanciful notions about our lineage. We were descended from Brian Boru, from the Kings of Ireland, she told us. We were also descendants of the Black Irish and had Spanish blood running in our veins. And our father – well, he was descended from a long line of Norwegian sailors. Where Mum was concerned, we could never just be ordinary.
As we grew up, we learned to treat Mum’s claims with a pinch of salt. There may have been a sliver of truth in some of them, but by and large we saw them as embellishments. And such was the case with her claims about our grandfather’s war hero status. Yes, in all likelihood Patrick was a member of the IRA and had a minor role in the War of Independence, but that was about it. Well, it was until some recent revelations.
My older sister is what you might call our family archivist. Her research into Mum’s family tree over in Ireland brought her into contact with a cousin, who supplied her with a whole wad of official papers about Patrick. Among the papers was a copy of Patrick’s application back in the 1950’s for a Military Service Medal and Pension. (He was awarded both, by the way. The photo at the top of this article is what the medal would have looked like.) It’s in the detail of that application form where the revelations lie.
It seems that the seventeen-year-old who joined the IRA in 1917 quickly developed into a key figure in his local Unit. He was a messenger. He was a drill instructor and an arms instructor. He looked after the Unit’s guns and ammunition and explosives. A quartermaster in all but name, he may well have held the rank of lieutenant colonel. And he was present during every military operation by the Unit.
But what about Patrick’s alleged connection to Michael Collins? A closer examination of the records shows that for much of the war Collins was very active in North Longford, the very area in which Patrick operated. In fact, Collins’ base when he was in the area, the Longford Arms in Granard, was a short distance from Patrick’s own village. It’s highly likely, therefore, that the two men knew each other. But the Big Fella’s right-hand man? Probably not, but a close comrade at least.
And there’s more. On one of her visits to Ireland, my sister met with Mum’s last remaining sibling, our Uncle Mick. He told her that Patrick was “good with his hands” and had apparently built his own motorcycle when he was a lad. He also mentioned a book he had read many years before, a biography of Michael Collins, in which he remembered seeing an entry that stated: LANE, PADRAIG LT COL IRA. Our grandfather! (Sadly, Mick passed away shortly after that conversation.)
So Mum may not have been embellishing Patrick’s story after all. If his role in the IRA, his rank and his connection with Michael Collins were all as she had claimed, then her account of his capture and torture by the Black and Tans was also likely to be true. He may not have been a good husband and father, but it certainly appears that he was one of his country’s heroes.
Because of our scepticism over Mum’s claims, Patrick has for long been a much maligned man in the eyes of his grandchildren in Scotland. It’s time to rectify that. It’s time to rehabilitate our grandfather. I hope I’ve begun the process of rehabilitation with my story, The Patriot Game. It’s a semi-fictional account of Patrick’s life – semi-fictional, because there are still huge gaps in our knowledge of the man, gaps that may never be filled. Over the last few weeks, the story has been published in three parts on the McStorytellers short story website. You can read Part One on the site and then follow the links to the subsequent parts.
If you didn’t know already, this year marks the centenary of Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916. Over the coming Easter weekend, the Rising will be commemorated in celebrations not only across Eire, but throughout the world. The Patriot Game is my personal way of commemorating the Rising, the brutal quelling of which led Patrick and many other young men across Ireland to take up arms against the British Army.
Erin go Bragh, Patrick!