1916: The Byrne Family Story
Sheila O'Leary, now 93 years old, is perhaps the only living person with the distinction of having both parents stationed in the GPO during Easter week 1916. Her father was then Capt. Thomas Francis Byrne of the Irish Volunteers, appointed O/C for Co. Kildare by Padraig Pearse, and one of the Maynooth 15 who marched from the Co. Kildare town to the GPO. Later, during the War of Independence, he was elected Commandant of the 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade of the I.R.A.
Her mother was Lucy Agnes Smyth, a Section Leader of the Central Branch of Cumann na mBan. She was a member of the first aid detachment during Easter week, attending to the wounded in the Hibernian Bank and the GPO. Shortly before Pearse's order to surrender, she was involved in bringing wounded Volunteers from the HQ to Jervis Street Hospital.
These were just two of the many 'ordinary' people who did extraordinary things during the Rising and the War of Independence which followed, and who went on to marry one another, raise a family and lead very normal lives. This is their family's story…
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THE STORY OF 'BYRNE THE BOER'
It's evident from Ernie O'Malley'swords that Tom Byrne was highly respected amongst his peers in the Irish Volunteers. To young volunteers like O'Malley he seemed like a "semi-mythical" being, but to Sheila he was the epitome of a kind and loving father. An imposing figure in height and build, he was very much a gentle giant to his family and friends. He was, however, a more than capable soldier when called upon to serve his country, or indeed another cause which he saw as just.
1916 was not the first time that Thomas Francis Byrne had fought against the might of the British Empire. In 1896, at the age of 19, Tom went to Johannesburg in South Africa to work in the mines. When war became inevitable, he actively engaged with John MacBride, Dan O'Hare, Richard McDonagh and others to form an Irish unit to fight alongside the Boers. Byrne and McDonagh spent a couple of months touring the mines of the Transvaal recruiting Irishmen to fight against the British. The result was the formation of the Irish Transvaal Brigade, under the command of Colonel John Y. F. Blake and Major John MacBride.
During the Brigade's first action, supporting the Boer forces at the Battle of Talana Hill in October 1899, a large number of Dublin Fusiliers were among those captured. Years later, in an article to the Irish Press (26/11/49), he would recall that "The Fusiliers were a nice crowd, British soldiers by accident. Many of them wanted to join our ranks. But we wouldn't let them. In the event of a capitulation the British authorities would have them shot in droves." Another event which he witnessed was the capture of a young war correspondent, Winston Churchill. Byrne also fought in the battles of Modderspruit and Pieters Hill, as well as other engagements during the siege of Ladysmith.
Subsequent defeats for the Boer forces led to a prolonged rearguard action, until finally, in September 1900, John MacBride and the remainder of the Brigade destroyed their weapons, crossed into Portuguese East Africa, and placed themselves in the hands of the authorities. Tom Byrne and his comrades endured a few weeks of semi-starvation on board a prison ship in Delagoa Bay, until they were given the choice of remaining as prisoners or leaving the country. Byrne chose the latter, and after short stops in Trieste and Hamburg, he arrived at Ellis Island and America in November 1900. Years later, in 1946, Tom would receive a medal from the South African government in recognition of his Boer War service. In a special ceremony at Leinster House, the medal was presented to him by Taoiseach Eamonn De Valera.
In 1913, after spending the previous thirteen years working in the mines of Montana, Nevada, Colorado and California, Tom returned to Ireland, as he said himself, "on a short trip", but he elected to stay because the Volunteer movement had started. He attended the meeting held in the Rotunda to form the Volunteers, and became a member of "B" Company, 1st Battalion.
Soon afterwards, Tom was actively preparing for the planned Rising, and took part in many arms raids, as well as both the Howth and Kilcoole gun-runnings. In his Witness Statement, given to the Bureau of Military History many years later, he recalled that "one case was brought to a house in Glasnevin. I called there each day and took a few rifles each time. When a raid was made on the house, not one rifle was found there."
His original orders for the rising were given to him by Tom Clarke a few months beforehand; "Tom Clarke sent for me and said, 'I want you today to go around with James Connolly and go over to Harcourt Street station. In the event of trouble, you are to take charge of that, with a line of retreat through the National University grounds." Byrne duly met Connolly and was given his instructions, but about a fortnight before the Rising, he was summoned by Padraig Pearse and received orders of a very different kind.
He was sent by Pearse to take charge of operations in County Kildare, although he was given no definite orders that the Rising was to take place anytime soon. On Holy Thursday, he received his instructions in a dispatch that the rebellion was to start on Easter Sunday at 4pm and he began to mobilise all the companies in the county. Although the confusion caused by Eoin MacNeill's countermanding order seriously disrupted mobilisation in County Kildare on Easter Sunday, he was one of a group of 15 Volunteers who gathered in Maynooth the next day and succeeded in making it to Dublin to take part in the Rising. Late on Easter Monday, he led the 'Maynooth 15' on their march towards Dublin City, and through the night they made their way across the darkened countryside. After a few hours rest in Glasnevin Cemetery, Tom Byrne and his men eventually reached headquarters in the GPO. There, Cumann na mBan Section Leader Lucy Smyth gave him a basin of warm water to bathe his feet and a pair of clean socks, which he thanked her kindly for. Later, after the surrender and on his way to escaping the city, Byrne "decided to visit the lady who later became [his] wife" to collect the watch and some money he had given her for safekeeping.
The time for rest in the GPO proved short, and he was ordered to take his men and about half a dozen members of the Hibernian Rifles to commandeer a house on Parliament Street with a clear view of City Hall, which was occupied by the British. His orders, to prevent the British from occupying the offices of the Evening Mail, were successfully carried out from the roof of the Exchange Hotel. On Tuesday evening he got word to return to the GPO where he would spend the next two days without sleep as the men under his command were on constant duty at the barricaded windows.
On Thursday, Connolly ordered him to take ten men to Liffey Street and occupy the one house that was still standing there. On Friday morning, seeing that the fight was over, he allowed some of his men, who were deserters from the Dublin Fusiliers, a chance to get away as he was well aware of the fate that would befall them should they be caught by the British. Later that evening he said to the others, "It is all over now. There's no use trying to retreat to the Post Office. Each one of us can now make his getaway". Byrne himself would escape in disguise via North County Dublin and Derry to Belfast, where he spent the next six months. When he eventually returned to Dublin he was appointed Commandant of the 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade, following the execution of Ned Daly. He was noted as being "a trusted commander, a gifted tactician and a daring fighter. A great soldier as well as a perfect gentleman."
On April 28th 1919, Tom Byrne married Lucy Smyth and they moved into a house on Upper Eccles Street. It was here in 1920 that he was arrested by British soldiers who broke into the house in the middle of the night. He was sent first to Wormwood Scrubs before eventually ending up in Brixton prison. After a few months he was released and returned to Dublin but was rearrested later that year and interned at Rath Camp in the Curragh. In 1921, not long after the truce was called, he was one of close to fifty men who took part in a celebrated escape from the camp through a tunnel which they had dug.
In 1922, Michael Collins appointed Byrne as the first Captain of the Guard at Leinster House, a post he held until his retirement at the age of 70 in 1947. While there, he would greet many foreign dignitaries on the steps of the Óireachtas and escort them on tours of the parliament buildings. On one occasion, he greatly surprised a South African diplomat by greeting him in Afrikaans!
This "tall, lithe, slim, soldierly figure with the kindly smile and soft voice" was highly respected in the Dáil. In a newspaper article announcing his retirement in 1947 he was described as "not only an institution; he was of the very soul of the Oireachtas, and it will be long indeed, before Deputies and Senators will grow accustomed to the absence from their sessions of his commanding figure, his natural dignity, his extraordinary tact and his kindly good humour. Tom Byrne was, and is, every inch an Irish gentleman".
THE STORY OF LUCY SMYTH: 'THE NICEST GIRL IN DUBLIN'
Lucy Agnes Smyth was never one to seek attention for her role in the struggle for Ireland's freedom. However, as an active member of Cumann na mBan from its inception in 1914 through to 1921, rising to the positions of Section Leader and later 1st Lieutenant, she very courageously played her full part.
On Easter Monday night 1916, she risked her life taking arms from a house on Hardwick Street before it was to be raided. On Tuesday morning she delivered dispatches around the city, and in the afternoon arrived at the GPO carrying messages. She then took up her position with the first aid detachment, attending to the wounded there and in the Hibernian Bank. On Friday, with the roof of the GPO in flames, a decision was taken to evacuate the building. Lucy was one of a group of Red Cross and Cumann na mBan members who brought wounded Volunteers on the hazardous journey to Jervis Street Hospital, while fierce fighting continued close by. In the years following the Rising, she was an integral member of the Irish National Aid Association and Volunteer Dependents Fund.
Tom Byrne was not the only man whose eye was caught by Lucy. Con Colbert, who was executed for his part in the Rising, was also said to be in love with her. Sheila confirms that she always knew there was a type of "grá" between her mother and Colbert, and Con's sister Lila confirms as much in her BMH Witness Statement given in 1953:
Lila and Lucy would become good friends, and on one occasion when Lila visited her home, Lucy showed her the letters that Con had written to her. She also gave Lila a copybook which her brother had given her with several poems scribbled on them. These were not romantic poems as such but were instead all about Ireland and its struggle for freedom.
Ultimately, it seems, the struggle for Irish freedom took precedence over romance in Con's life, although this shows a not often seen personal side to his character. Sheila believes her mother kept a lock of Colbert's hair somewhere in their house in the Phoenix Park.
During Easter Week, when Fr. O'Mahony C.S.S.p visited the Volunteers at Marrowbone Lane, Capt. Colbert gave him a bulky package to give to Lucy. She never received it, and on hearing about it afterwards, went with Lila to see Fr. O'Mahony. He explained that he had given it to a woman named McNamara, who he presumed to be a member of Cumann na mBan. She had said she was going to the GPO and would deliver it. Lila recounts "spending days and days" searching for it with Lucy, and they were both very disappointed by its loss. Before he was executed, Con also gave Fr. Albert instructions to pass on a last message to Lucy, which he did. She never revealed that message to another soul.
In 1919 Lucy married Tom Byrne, the man to whom she had given a basin of water to bathe his aching feet while in the GPO in 1916, and they moved into a house on Eccles Street. The couple would have been known to the British authorities due to their involvement in the War of Independence, and tragedy was soon to strike them. Early in 1920, Lucy suffered the loss of her first child 'Maureen', following a British Army raid on their house in which her husband was arrested. Sadly, she would have to grieve alone, as Tom was sent to prison in England. It was only as a teenager that Tom and Lucy's daughter Sheila learned of her elder sister's existence. Thankfully, through the diligence of Sheila's daughter Maeve, Maureen's place of burial has recently been established, and the family are very happy that they can finally 'reclaim' her.
Sheila remembers her mother as a very quiet and dignified person. She was a very private individual, who dressed mostly in black in her later years. Much like her daughter, she was a hard worker, and served for a short time in the Department of Labour and the Army Organisation Department, after being hand-picked by Eamon Price. It is a testament to the value they placed on her contribution to the struggle for Irish freedom that when she applied for her military pension in 1936, Kathleen Clarke, Dan Breen and Price himself gave their considerable backing to her claim.
Sheila O'Leary is very much a direct link to the historic events of Easter Week 1916. Not only were both her parents garrisoned in the GPO, she also counts Jenny Wyse Power, one of the founding members of Cumann na mBan and its first President, as her Godmother.
In April 2014, Sheila was invited by the Department of Defence to attend the centenary celebrations of the founding of Cumann na mBan, and she caused a flurry of excitement amongst the historians and dignitaries gathered at Glasnevin Cemetery when she revealed a silver christening cup given to her by Wyse Power. She was delighted to be able to honour her mother's involvement in the movement and says that she never felt so proud in her life as on that day, not for herself but for the women of Ireland.
In 1922, Michael Collins appointed her father Tom as the first Captain of the Guard at Leinster House, and the family moved into what Sheila describes as their 'grace and favour' home, the Gatekeeper's Lodge at the entrance to Áras an Uachtaráin. Sheila remembers with fondness growing up in the idyllic surroundings of the Phoenix Park, where she and her three siblings, Eileen, Lila and Myles, spent their time "chasing wasps, teasing the swans and climbing trees".
She remembers that on one occasion, a wheelchair bound Douglas Hyde, the President of Ireland at the time, gave the four of them a florin each. Another neighbour was Major General Michael Brennan, Irish Army Chief of Staff, who would regularly stop his car in the morning on the way to Army HQ to give Sheila and Eileen a lift to school. As she says herself, her father 'knew everybody'.
Sheila remembers the excitement of accompanying Tom to Leinster House for a visit as a child, and has been invited by John Flaherty, the current Captain of the Guard, to pay a visit in the near future.
In 1941 Sheila started work as a typist in the Department of Industry and Commerce on Kildare Street, directly across the road from her father's 'office'. She would eventually gain promotion to a position as private & confidential typist to Seán Lemass, then Minister for Industry & Commerce (and later Taoiseach), which she says was as a result of being able to spell correctly and type fast. She was an extremely willing and proud worker, but it was one of the great sadnesses of post Civil War Ireland that women were 'put back in their box', and when Sheila eventually married in 1957 she reluctantly had to give up her job.
As her daughter Maeve testifies, Sheila has a wonderful sense of charisma, and her remarkable sense of self can be seen as a reflection of her parents' strength of character. Maeve's adventurous spirit echoes that of her grandfather, and she eventually settled in Australia where she is raising her own family. She is also extremely proud of her grandmother Lucy's involvement in Cumann na mBan and the legacy that they left for the women of Ireland, which is all too often overlooked. Conor, Sheila's son, has inherited not only his grandfather's strong features but also his great enthusiasm for angling.
Lucy was awarded four medals for her service to Ireland, initially for the 1916 Easter Rising and the War of Independence, and later the 50th anniversary survivors medals for each. Tom's three medals were awarded for the part he played in the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and for his time fighting with the Irish Brigade during the Boer War.
As can so easily happen with the passage of time and in a very extended family, Sheila lost track of the medals and had not seen them for many years. However, during the course of our filming with the family, she was reunited with the medals and we were privileged to be able to witness the emotional moment when she got to hold them again.
Tom & Lucy's Legacy
The legacy of Tom and Lucy Byrne is one which they share with the many thousands of men and women who took part in the struggle to achieve Irish independence. It was indeed a fitting reward for their efforts that they were able to raise their family of three daughters and one son under a freely-elected and independent Irish parliament.
Over the intervening years, the Byrne clan has grown to include fourteen grandchildren, thirty-two great-grandchildren, and at the latest count, seven great-great-grandchildren, spread across many countries and several continents.
The story of Tom and Lucy will certainly be celebrated long into the future.
- Written by Colin Farrell