Joseph Brennan & the Irish War of Independence

Published in Personal History, War

The photograph of Joseph Brennan above was taken c. 1920, age 23.

The photograph of Joseph Brennan above was taken c. 1920, age 23.

One day in the late 1970s, the natural curiosity of childhood led me to my parents’ sitting room in Co. Roscommon and a press full of books, papers and assorted trinkets. Two objects attracted my young eye. One was an old book with a signature dated 1857 concerning the biblical story of Adam and Eve and ‘The Fall’. The other was an old bronze medal, depicting a soldier standing proudly to attention and the Irish word ‘cómrac’ inscribed on its supporting brooch. The book turned out to be John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the decoration was the Irish War of Independence Medal.

But at this stage of my life I knew little about the War of Independence 1919 – 1921, still less about 17th century, Miltonic epic poetry. Nevertheless, the burgeoning historian within me knew there was something special about these old artefacts, which had just presented themselves to me from the past. Initial investigation revealed to this young enthusiast that the book had once belonged to a Thomas Dunnigan of Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare and the medal belonged to one Joseph Brennan of Cloghermore, Elphin, Co. Roscommon.

My grandfather was born on the 20th September 1897 and died on the 18th February 1971, seventeen months before I was born. He was thus the only one of my grandparents that I never met. On the 11th February 1921, having decided to join the Irish Republican Army, he was involved with some fifty other IRA volunteers in an attack on the RIC barracks at Elphin. Documents in the Ernie O’Malley Papers in UCD and the Bureau of Military History in Cathal Brugha Barracks record the young revolutionaries armed with rifles, shotguns, revolvers, bombs and landmines.

Nearby roads to Strokestown and Boyle were blocked off in order to prevent the expected enemy reinforcements. Yet despite such an array of weaponry, the nocturnal raiders failed to take the well guarded and fortified barracks or set it ablaze. One large mine was planted in the fireplace of a house next door, but it failed in its efforts to unleash the requisite carnage. Neither did the smaller handmade devices live up to their destructive promise, causing only minor damage. Shots were exchanged, but at midnight Michael Dockery of Elphin and Sean Connolly of Longford, realising that there was no Trojan Horse at hand, gave the order to abort. The attack ultimately failed but, as the history of rebellion in Ireland attests, it was always the ‘gesture’ that really mattered.

The tragedy of the Irish Civil War that followed the War of Independence is reflected by what subsequently happened to my grandfather. He did not escape unscathed. He was later shot and wounded in Strokestown, not by the British but by one of his own, erstwhile comrades. But he survived to see the birth of the Irish Republic and the birth of his thirteen children.

Meanwhile, as a child it had gradually become apparent that I was growing up in a ‘Fine Gael’ household. Some of my friends at school took exception, stating with equal vigour that they inhabited a ‘Fianna Fáil’ abode. Of course none of us knew what any of this really meant; to us, it was the same as choosing either Man United or Liverpool. It was children engaged in what sociologists call ‘binary’ thinking: ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘black’ and ‘white’.

Over the ensuing years as I learned more about Irish history, it all became very clear. After the War, my grandfather had decided, like Michael Collins, that no more could be achieved by violence and he came down on the side of peace. He came down, along with the majority of the Irish people, on the side of the treaty negotiated with Great Britain on the 6th December 1921. Some of his comrades however, with undoubted similar conviction, elected to oppose it. Pro-treaty members of Sinn Féin/IRA founded Cumann na nGaedheal in 1923, and in 1933 it became the dominant force in the newly constituted Fine Gael.

Although briefly a member of the new Free State Army, my grandfather eventually abandoned the military life to set up a small farm at Cloghermore, Elphin. The Army Pensions Act of 1923 provided an income for those volunteers who had fought on the pro-treaty side, and with the accession of Fianna Fáil to power in 1932, it was later extended to provide for those who had fought on the anti-treaty side. Yet despite his withdrawal from the army, Joseph Brennan’s household would remain decidedly ‘Fine Gael’ for decades to come. Up until now that is.

And the medal? As I navigated through my teenage years such things became less prominent on my scale of importance. Yet later in my twenties, my growing love of history led me back to the old press in my parents’ house. My family, by nature not hoarders of historical artefacts, were in the process of clearing out any extraneous matter that they could lay their hands upon. I panicked. The medal could not be found. In time I found the old book and I gleefully took it away with me and into my protective care. And eventually after a further frantic search I finally found the old medal; and with one grateful eye on history, I happily took it away into care also. Its distinctive black and orange ribbon was missing, but the future arrival of e-bay ultimately put that wrong to right. Two versions of the medal were issued in January 1941; one presented to those who were considered not to have been on ‘active service’ during the War, and one with the ‘cómrac’ (‘combat’) inscription, which was issued to those volunteers who had been involved in actual combat.

Joseph Brennan married Mary Kate Quinn on Saint Valentine’s Day, 1927. He would go on to have thirteen children and his numerous grandchildren are scattered all over the world. The War of Independence medal will one day pass down to his great-grandchild: my son who, one hopes, will form and cultivate his own love of history and learning.

If my grandfather’s assailant that day in Strokestown had possessed a better aim, I would not be here today to write this short piece in his memory. And thus is the fascination of history, the fascination of the ‘what ifs..?’ There are those who promote the notion that we are ‘here for a reason’, yet others remain unconvinced by this idea. It would appear instead that all our lives are held precariously in the spinning wheels of historical chance. We thus possess no other reason to ‘seize the day’.

Stuart Brennan was born in Co. Roscommon in 1972. He is a qualified history teacher and gained his MA (History) from Dublin City University in 2009. 

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