Tragedy in the Connolly family

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 2004), News, Volume 12

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L-R: Lorcan Collins, Shane Mac Thomáis, Conor Kostick

The recollections of Ina Heron, fourth child of James Connolly, are preserved in the recently released Military Bureau collection of archives as document WS 919. As a member of Fianna Éireann she was involved in gunrunning in the preparations for the Easter Rising, and during the Rising she took dispatches into areas that men could not get through. In addition to providing very interesting accounts of the other leading rebel leaders, especially Countess Markievicz, Ina also recalls in her lucid and matter-of-fact style the details of a terrible personal tragedy for the Connollys.

 
In the autumn of 1903 James, now the father of six children, had arrived in New York. If he had hoped for work as a printer for Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party he was disappointed, and only after moving inland to his cousin’s home in Troy did he find work, as an insurance collector for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. It took some time for him to save up enough to rent a house and send off tickets to his family, but in the summer of 1904 they were all set to sail and join him. Ina relates:

 

 

‘One of father’s very dear friends came to spend the last day with my mother and to help prepare us for sailing that night. As there seemed so many of us crowded in the one room falling over one another, each and all of us were afraid to put a nose outside the door in case we would be left behind. The thought of going out to play for an hour or so would not do. This thing—a trip across the Atlantic—was something new to us. We had not heard of this joyride before and one of us would make ourselves scarce and give a little more room for breathing space, until things got to such a pitch that this kindly friend offered to send my eldest sister [Mona] and me to her house which was on the other side of the city and see if we would tidy up her place for an hour or two. My eldest sister did not like the idea of deserting mother on her last day in Dublin and said so, but as she was ever obedient, she got me ready and we went forth on this errand of duty much against our wishes. We had to travel in the tram and she talked about it being our last trip across the city. “This time tomorrow we will be on the high seas on our way out to father. Will he think I’ve grown big? I wonder will he know me?” These were all her dreams. She had herself worn out thinking about him, longing to see him. To be near him for evermore was her last wish on earth. We found the street of my Aunt Alice’s house—as we called her. She had no children and was always interested in our family. My sister was disgusted to find there was no housework to do. Everything was in apple-pie order. She was very vexed. She felt she had been misled into believing that she was sent to be of some assistance instead of being put out of the way. This deception she very much resented as she had been always treated as an adult, and when reasoned with she always accepted the better judgement of her elders and would abide by their decision. She cried for a while and then thought better of it and, looking on the bright side of things, started to anticipate the joys that lay before her that night. “There is nothing to be done. How will we fill in our time for a couple of hours?” The poor child was all worked up with excitement of going aboard a boat tonight and could not sit still. It was really cruel to have sent her on this fool’s errand, she that was so sensitive. Little did her elders dream of the torments and trials she was passing through. She was no ordinary child and therefore needed the time and understanding not necessary for the average girl of her years. She went from one room to another. It was only a small house—a parlour and kitchen and two bedrooms and small garden back and front. When she discovered that the washing had not been done, “this”, she thought, “is the work for me to do”. The fire was in the kitchen range and, as any other little mháthirín would do, she got going on the washing, and, putting me beside her to help by the way—more likely to be better able to keep her eyes on me and keep me out of harm’s way—she let me dabble in the tub of water. Things were going very nicely; all was happy and well. She was one of those lovely people who, whatever she did she had to do well. The washing of clothes had its recompense. She had to boil what she thought called for that thoroughness before she would put them on the line. The largest saucepan procurable was filled with white articles and hot water on the floor. She then removed the ring cover on the top of the range and stooped down to lift up her saucepan which she held with her apron. This apron unfortunately became caught in under the saucepan and when she went to lift up the saucepan to release the apron she realised it had become ignited. I screamed when I saw her all in flames as the flimsiness of her attire was more responsible for the quickness of the conflagration than the fire would have been in the ordinary way. She bid me keep away from her and ran into the back garden where there was a water tap and bending down to reach the fall of water thereby putting the upper portion of her body in more danger and there exposed her breast and neck to the naked flames.

 
The cries and screams of me drew the attention of a man in a nearby garden. He could see the flames. He jumped the garden walls and came to our assistance, putting out the fire the best he could and then taking my poor unfortunate sister to hospital.

 
Such confusion that followed can hardly be described, but it was kept evergreen in my memory from listening to my mother’s reminiscences. I was too upset to be able to give my name or address or even talk, as, on this day of all days, the one subject that I heard the most was America, and that did not make sense to all these kindly people who were anxious to get in touch with the patient’s parents. Nothing could be done. I wouldn’t talk sense. If I could eat something or drink tea or milk I might settle down and they could get some information from me—but no.

 
Meanwhile my mother was feeling uncomfortable at our not returning. Time was slipping by and no sign of us turning up. Then mother came to the conclusion that Aunt Alice’s husband probably returned home earlier than usual with the intention of coming to the boat and seeing us off and that any moment he would appear with both of us in his care. Well, this did not happen, and in an hour’s time Aunt Alice decided she would go and fetch us. There was no need to worry, everything was in order. There was nothing to do; the cabman would call and bring us to the boat and a neighbour was supplying the family with tea. She left in the best of spirits, quite satisfied she had accomplished a good day’s work for her friend. She felt very pleased that things turned out so well. She was happy that we looked so good and more than anxious that we should be a credit to her dear friend in America. Curiously enough, she simultaneously arrived at her door as her husband did to be encountered by a few neighbours who had me in their keeping, and when they got an account of the accident, learned of the child in hospital, their first thoughts flew to mother. What a catastrophe! She, sitting with her brood waiting to go aboard ship that night! How would they tell her? Who would break the news? Taking me in their arms, they both made their way towards returning to mother immediately—to bring her to the hospital there to see her firstborn child lying unconscious, all wrapped in bandages, with her dreams she never lived to see come true, in a sleep she would never come out of. She had passed out of all her suffering and left mother with more cares and heartbreaks than she would ever have wished, had she but known.’

 

 

The records of Glasnevin Cemetery confirm that Mona Connolly, aged 13, died of burns in Drumcondra Hospital on Thursday 4 August 1904. She was buried two days later. The address of her mother, Lillian, is given as 54 Pimlico. The bitter poverty that the family lived in at that time is revealed by the fact that Mona is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, plot number JL 174. The family took the sailing the following week. We believe that a proper commemorative stone should be erected on the plot site. Interested organisations or individuals can contact 1916@indigo.ie.

 

 

Lorcan Collins, Conor Kostick and Shane Mac Thomáis are tour guides with the 1916 Walking Tour.

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