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Extract 'I knew that it was too dangerous to bicycle down O’Connell Street, for fear of being shot'

An extract from the memoir of Republican Máire Comerford, about an incident during the Civil War.

MÁIRE COMERFORD (1893–1982) was described by the media as the ‘Jeanne d’Arc of the republican cause’. She was an Irish Republican from County Wexford who witnessed central events of the Irish Revolution 1916-23 and remained a committed historical researcher, republican activist and writer until her death in 1982. She worked as a journalist for the Irish Press for over thirty years, editing the Women’s Page, and was last arrested in 1974 for her republican activities, aged 81.

As a worker for Cumann na mBan, Sinn Féin, the Dáil and the White Cross, travelling throughout the country, moving arms, carrying dispatches, finding safe houses, researching atrocities, her lively intelligence and powers of description make her an invaluable witness. She experiences raids, prison vigils, funerals of her comrades, and dangers of all kinds, but nothing cuts as deep as the sense of utter betrayal following the signing of the Treaty in 1922.

Hilary Dully, documentary filmmaker, film teacher and writer has now brought out a new edition of Máire Comerford’s striking revolutionary period memoir. This first-hand account includes Comerford’s original text, written mainly in the 1940s and ’50s, and new material unearthed from her extensive archive.

Here, Máire describes an occasion during the Civil War, July 1922, when she arrived at the Hamman Hotel after leaving the Four Courts, following surrender there. 

53 Maire at home in St. Nessans 1980 Maire at home in 1980

There was a great crowd of people in the Hamman Hotel when I arrived there. Éamon de Valera was sitting in conference, and all wall seats were occupied. Hundreds of bath towels made a pyramid in the centre of the foyer and this, being the only place out of earshot, had been chosen by Father Albert to hear confessions. As long as he sat there, men came to him. There was an unending chain of men moving up the stairs with filled sandbags. I saw one man suddenly collapse to the ground; but the next man stepped over him, and the work went on. The victim was dragged out and somebody told me there was nothing wrong except that he was dead tired.

The hospital was in the billiard room. I was sent in there for a rest, which I now needed. The seats were recessed all around the room, and very comfortable. The roof was glass. Doctor Joseph Brennan was in charge. I noticed that his billycock was hanging nearby and, remembering from my hunting days that hats can save heads, I asked him why he was not wearing his. The doctor just shrugged and asked, why should he? ‘It would be nice for you to have it on when this roof comes down,’ I replied. He put it on rather quickly then! I drifted into a doze, but was shaken awake when I heard the word ‘fire’.

I saw Cathal Brugha, framed in the door beside me. His parabellum, butt to the ground, was against his knee. Cathal held it carefully that way, and looked down to his feet, adjusting them to the outer doorway. In this way he made absolutely certain that neither his person nor his weapon would infringe on the hospital. He told us that the place was on fire and that we should be ready to obey all orders; but meanwhile to stay where we were. While waiting I fell asleep again. When I woke up the fire alarm was over.

Oscar Traynor, that very kind and gallant man, who had been OC Dublin Brigade since the death of Dick McKee, gave me some instructions on how to use motor gears. He demonstrated with ball change and gate change, at the rear of the Hamman. After that I drove a Corporation ambulance from Stanley Street back to HQ. My next job was to visit our posts in Parnell Square, Barry’s Hotel and Moran’s to see if they had wounded. The men in Parnell Square tricked me with a drunken stranger, who had been troubling their post. Now they pushed him into my ambulance.

Not knowing the nature of the case, I asked where I should bring him. ‘Anywhere you like except here,’ came back, as I moved off. The ‘patient’ was behaving like an earthquake in the locked ambulance. I was afraid to open the door and unwilling to keep driving until he sobered, I drove up with a sweep to the front of the Mater Hospital; instantly their white-coated team, with stretchers, ran down the steps. My drunk fell into their arms and I left him there, ignoring their protests, which followed me. On this trip I got my first sight of the petrol-can mines our side used to prevent traffic on the streets we were holding. Sometimes the can on the road was no more than an empty one, with the cord attached to resemble electric cable; but it could be, and sometimes was, the real thing.

Bullet holes

Every time I woke up after a sleep, or returned from some duty, the interior of the Hamman and the neighbouring buildings looked different, as the men burrowed from house to house to make new ways in and out, or facilitate for defence. Once I could not find my bicycle until I saw it in the latest street barricade. Cathal Brugha went out himself to bring it in and when I examined the frame it had several bullet holes – which did not seem to weaken it at all because it was a good old Pierce from Wexford.

The Daily Mail described me as cycling down Sackville Street to the chagrin of a cinematographer operator, who at some personal risk was filming amidst the shooting. ‘That girl,’ he declared, ‘has ruined my picture. I’ve risked my life for nothing for no one will believe that serious fighting is taking place if a girl cycles through the thick of it.’ I would like to think that his ‘ruined’ shot lies still in some forgotten vault of rejected out-takes!

55 Maire at 89 with Brits out poster 1982 Maire in 1982

We began to have far too many prisoners as Garry Houlihan’s party, of the 2nd Battalion, captured Free State posts, which, only a short time before, had been established near our position. Cathal Brugha was worried about the safety of these harmless and puzzled men, recruited under false pretences, and who did not want to fight us. He asked me and my comrade, Muriel MacSwiney, wife of the late Terence, to escort them to their own line. By then it was dark – perhaps the Sunday night – and we set off at the head of 120 men marching towards Parnell Street from the rear of the Hamman.

As we walked, I could hear the uneasy speculations of the prisoners. Finally, some of them asked us where we were taking them; we replied that we had to treat them strictly as prisoners of war, according to the rules. The prisoners expressed anxiety and said that they did not want to be given back. I told them that we had our orders but that we had no power to make anyone follow us if they did not want to. The men were worried that they were in uniform and did not know the city. It would be difficult for them to get away.

I had to admit it was beyond my power to help them. In Parnell Street, and in Hill Street, I continued to shout, ‘Any Free Staters here?’ – as it would have been flat against Cathal’s orders to put the prisoners in danger of being fired upon by their own side. At last, an angry voice answered, ‘No, only Republicans.’ I told them that Cathal Brugha was sending prisoners to safety, and asked if they could help. Some officers came out onto the street and we handed the soldiers to their care. As we went away their remarks to the prisoners were anything but kind.

Our main force was withdrawing from O’Connell Street. Someone asked me to guide a man, under doctor’s orders to be evacuated, but who did not know the latest way out.
We exchanged greetings with a very dishevelled Seán McEntee, who seemed to be in charge of the building on the other side of the lane. He waved us through a hole into another street. Here we had to jump in and out through somebody’s cab in the centre of the barricade. As we reached the next street corner a file of Free State soldiers were just appearing, perhaps a hundred yards away.

The leader, a decent man, waved us a signal to take cover quickly. In next to no time we were at the top of a tenement building looking for the way onto the roof. All the people there seemed anxious to help our escape. A point of significant importance now was that the man in my charge was dressed, from head to floor, in new clothes – his own having been spoiled, he was authorized to replace them from one of the shops under our control.

Now this new raiment might very soon cost him, at least, his liberty. Quickly an action by barter got underway, and his coat, hat and trousers, even his shoes, were exchanged for the well- worn working clothes common to the area. Our friends completed the job by fixing him up with a Union card; we all waited and watched while he walked out into the street, and away.

Back at the hotel

I chanced going back to the Hamman. Cathal Brugha was sitting alone on the low steps that were between the front and back levels of the hotel at street level. His extreme fatigue was evident. ‘What about a cup of tea,’ I suggested, very quietly. He accepted without protest. Art O’Connor TD, who described himself as a non-combatant, was doing his duty in the kitchen. In contrast to the position in the Four Courts, we were fairly well off for food in the well-stocked hotel. There was meat cut into portions, which we boiled until each bit looked like a walnut; there were tins of pears and peaches, and plenty of eggs – these we boiled hard, and brought them around; there was an abundance of Jacob’s two-penny sponge cakes but I do not remember any bread.

I took down the names of the seventeen men who were now prepared for their last stand. They stood behind the narrow openings between sandbags in the windows on the first floor. Their eyes were tired from watching out over the then quiet-looking and empty O’Connell Street. Dr Dorothy Price, and, if I remember correctly, Dr Kathleen Lynn, had a first-aid post, perhaps over Hickey’s shop. One of them gave me an injection, and I slept there.

The next day Art O’Connor gave me Cathal Brugha’s dinner, and I went looking for him until I came to the roof. It was a beautiful day, with the sun beaming. When Cathal came to the skylight, he invited me to come out and rest awhile, in the valley between two roofs. The sunshine was lovely but the talk was spoiled because his attention was divided between his job and the certainty he felt that I would mortally endanger myself by putting my head up, if he took his eye off me for a moment. Cathal gave me a dispatch, which, he said, needed a reply. He explained that he could no longer spare a man to watch the back exit of the hotel; that being so, I would have to return at a fixed time – either 7 pm that evening, or 7 am the following morning, whichever suited.

Before leaving I went to the adjoining roof where Countess Markievicz was positioned for sniping. She was in her usual state of being alert with a rifle poised; her particular enemy was a soldier on Elvery’s roof, and the shooting was in full swing. I admit to being somewhat repelled by the sniping, which I didn’t like. I gave Con a meal and left, without expressing my thoughts. I would not have liked to be lying on a roof trying to kill someone, but this seemed to be what they were at.

I went out onto the street without incident. Towards evening that day Seán T. O’Kelly gave me a verbal message in reply for Cathal. I cannot be sure that I remember the exact words but the sense of it was that they had confidence that Cathal Brugha would not unnecessarily endanger the lives of the men under his command. This happened in 23 Suffolk Street, and I waited there for 7 pm. Caitlin Brugha, Cathal’s wife, came in and we chatted together. I told her everything I knew of the situation. She was worried about my safety and suggested that we change clothes, and we did this.

Almost at the moment when I should have left, someone came running with exciting news – the fire brigade had taken Cathal Brugha, and the remaining men, out on O’Connell Street. Dublin Fire Brigade were popular heroes at that time and when they were mentioned nothing was impossible. Seven o’clock went past while I waited for more information to make my decision whether or not to go back to the Hamman. Why go there if there was no one in it? Waiting for 7 am, I went to sleep under a table outside the first-floor office in Suffolk Street.

To have been sleepy so often seems extraordinary when I look back and remember nobody else sleeping at all. This time I was roused by a Cumann na mBan comrade, Maura O’Connell. She had an urgent message for the men of the Dublin Brigade; Railway Street, near Amiens Street, was full of armoured cars and they seemed to be unguarded. She urged me to bring this news to Frank Henderson, Captain of F company, Dublin Brigade, who, Maura suggested might capture the armoured cars and use them to relieve the Hamman (by this time we knew it had not been cleared earlier in the evening). It seemed to be important news. I told her that I had to return to the Hamman with my message for Cathal at 7 am.

36 American  StudioPic Maire Comerford 1923_24 Máire in the 1920s

Maura insisted that there was time for both things. It was the dead of night. And, while I peevishly wondered why Maura didn’t bloody well deliver the message herself, I nonetheless determined that I should take the information, which seemed important, to Henderson.

I knew that it was too dangerous to bicycle down O’Connell Street, for fear of being shot. I decided my best chance was walking out in the street, in full view of both sides, at least in as far as the amount of light would enable any of them to make out a solitary pedestrian on the lonely streets. I was extremely tired and every street landmark became the target of a separate effort. Frank Henderson was in Murray’s in Home Farm Road, Drumcondra; When I finally got there, Mrs Murray, a member of my own branch of Cumann na mBan, was on sentry and she woke Frank for me. He informed me that his men had been sent home to sleep and he could do nothing until they returned, but that would not be until some hours later. Frank insisted that I stay where I was, listened to my message for Cathal, and promised that I would be called in time to deliver it for 7 am.

I was asleep in Murray’s during the last stage of the fight in the Hamman. The next time I saw Cathal Brugha it was his dead body, when Cumann na mBan mounted a guard of honour over it in the Mater Hospital. I did my best to stand motionless, just at the corner of his shoulder.

I remember watching flies moving on his face, before someone, noticing that I was about to collapse from exhaustion, called me out of the guard. Linda Kearns told me afterwards that Cathal had watched for me at 7 pm, and feared that I might have been hurt. Linda and Kathleen Barry were there until the very end, and saw him fall.

On Dangerous Ground By Máire Comerford, edited by Hilary Dully, is published by Lilliput Press and out now. 

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