Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Uncle Mickey

Michael O'Brien in the uniform of the Irish Free State army, about 1923
This is Eileen’s Uncle Mickey, her father’s eldest brother. He's one of those people who habitually attracts the sobriquet “larger than life character”. Till now I never had a decent photo. His grandson Patrick brought it a few weeks ago.  For joining the Free State Army Mickey was widely reviled within the family and accused of being a turncoat. An expression I never fully grasped until Eileen told me of the following episode that occurred around 1985 (by which time Mickey had been dead some years). Eileen was with her Uncle Joe (Mickey’s younger brother) in a pub in Kilworth a few miles from here called The Butchers. An old codger accosted Joe and asked him if he was Mickey’s brother.  I say asked but it was more in the nature of an accusation. You really need to hear Eileen tell this story, I don't do it justice. Next he loudly proclaimed that Mickey had turned his coat, making the while a theatrical show of turning his own coat inside out and displaying the lining. Uncle Joe remained cool under the provocation and confined himself to muttering “he did the bastard”, which had the effect of releasing some of the tension.

Now I need to say that this coat turning business is something that Eileen and I disagree on. Mickey is held to have supported the wrong side in the 1922-23 civil war. The pro-treaty government side that is. But to my way of thinking Mickey’s conduct was perfectly consistent. During the War of Independence he gave his allegiance to Dáil Éireann and after the 1921 Treaty he continued to give his allegiance to Dáil Éireann. It seems to me that it was O’Connor and de Valera and their followers who turned their coats. They disregarded the Dáil vote to accept the Treaty, and started the Civil War. But within Eileen’s family that’s never been a popular view.

Taken this afternoon: the borheen where Jonty confronted Mickey; perhaps, for all I know, the very spot. In 1922 it was a rough unmetalled track. From here the family home was about half a mile further up the hill. Our house is about half a mile down, to the left of the picture, which was taken by my friend Mark.
Another story. This one was told to Eileen and me by another brother, Uncle Jonty, when in his eighties, not long before he died. Jonty would have been 18 at the time of this incident, the fifth in a family of 11, and Mickey was the eldest, age 22, and you need to keep that dynamic in mind. It would be late 1922 I imagine. Jonty had joined the anti-Treaty IRA and was on manoeuvres in the vicinity of the location of this afternoon's photo. A Free State Army truck drove along the road (right outside the window where I'm writing this) and out jumped Uncle Mickey in his uniform and strode up the borheen, up the hill towards the family home. Jonty ran to intercept him and challenged him. Maybe he said “Halt who goes there” I'm not sure. Anyway, Mickey brushed him aside, retorting “you know very well who I am, I'm off to see my mother, now shoot me or get out of my way”. With genuine regret in his voice Jonty told us that he was not under orders that night to shoot, so had to let him go. Quite chilling actually. Some years later Eileen was discussing Neil Jordan’s recently released Michael Collins film with some old fellows in Ballyporeen who confirmed the story and added that Mickey was lucky to survive the night. Men came to the house looking for him, but didn't find him as his mother had hidden him out in the fields.

18th August 1922: one of the Crossley Tenders in the convoy
Mickey used to claim (but no-one can positively confirm this) that he was at BealnaBlath on 18th August 1922 the day Michael Collins was shot in an ambush there. A defining event in Irish history. I've been in touch with the Collins 22 Society. They haven't succeeded in compiling a complete list of those present, though they are still trying.  There were 20 soldiers in two open trucks known as Crossley Tenders. For all anyone knows Mickey was one of the soldiers in that photograph above.

Of course his claim to have been at BealnaBlath on 18th August may not have been a claim to have been on duty in the actual convoy that conveyed Michael Collins. Doubtless troops would have been despatched urgently from Macroom as soon as the report came in. Suppose Mickey was amongst these, that would still count as being at BealnaBlath on 18th August. Or indeed the whole thing could just be a colourful tale he made up. BealnaBlath is in Co Cork about 80 miles from here. 

Mickey had huge charm. Eileen remembers him from when she was five. After falling into a clump of nettles she had to have iodine, and fled from anyone who threatened to apply the dreadful stuff. But when Uncle Mickey called her she ran to him even though she knew he would hold her down while the purple stinging liquid was dabbed on her nettle burns. I'm sorry I never met him. Eileen says he would “light up a room”.

Mickey’s descendants have only sketchy details of his participation in the War of Independence and the Civil War. 

Black & Tan Medal (no bar)
The image is of a medal Mickey was awarded, known as a Black & Tan Medal, in reference to the Black & Tan War, the popular name for the War of Independence. The official description is Medal, without bar, to persons whose service is not deemed to be active military service, but who were members of Oglaigh na hEireann (Irish Republican Army), Fianna Eireann, Cumann na mBan or the Irish Citizen Army for the three months ended on the 11th of July 1921. July 1921 was the start of the Truce period: so this indicates that in the War of Independence Mickey had a non-combat role of some sort. However, I've seen a website which claims that despite the official description it would be wrong to conclude that all those who received the medal without the Bar were not in combat; in many cases men who had confirmed combat records did not receive the Bar, and the reason came down to politics and money - the Bar brought with it a pension.

If Mickey applied for a War of Independence pension (which Patrick says he likely did, and was rejected) and a Free State Army pension, files will exist. All medal and pension applications are being processed to be available to the public in 2016, an event eagerly awaited by historians and family researchers. The date has been selected to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

The old cliché 

Uncle Mickey’s story illustrates the old cliché about the Civil War pitching brother against brother. But Eileen says there was remarkably little animosity within the family arising from these events. Nobody spoke of them and it was years later that she first heard the stories I've related here.

Mickey’s son John (Eileen’s cousin) has some memories worth sharing. Chief amongst these, that his father was a devoted follower of Michael Collins and from time to time would literally cry about his being assassinated. This would turn into a tirade against Dev (de Valera), whom he held to be responsible, fervently praying that he should be shot.

John adds: “As kids we took no notice, knowing nothing of these matters, regarding all his mutterings as little short of rubbish. Anyway my mother had a very curt and common sense way of dismissing such things as totally irrelevant and a complete waste of time.”

Mickey’s occasional outbursts aside, John never at any time while he was growing up heard the civil war mentioned, or opinions being expressed anywhere, inside or outside of the home. Nor was it touched on at any school he attended. No more than if it had never occurred. He supposes that in the 1940’s everyone was too close to the events for dispassionate views to be expressed: not history yet, but rather a subject to steer clear of as memories could still be explosive. It was as if the entire nation was in denial, he says. Moreover Hitler and the world war seemed to tie up people’s thoughts in other directions.

John adds that when he was young, relations with his uncle Jonty were always most cordial “so fortunately the incident in the borheen was passed over with no lasting ill effects.”


  1. Fascinating stuff Pete. Eileen's told me the story before of the two brothers and Mickey having to hide at their mother's house, and I could never tire of hearing it. Hearing it from someone who knew the participants just makes history come alive, I think, and it sent a chill down my back just now when I read your post. There must be loads of stories like this handed down families, I wonder if anyone's collected them anywhere? I don't know much about this period of Irish history (seen Michael Collins and The Wind That Shakes The Barley, which was good, and once visited Kilmainham in Dublin), but it just seems much more real when told by people you know rather than written in a history book. If you've got any more I'd love you to post them.

    1. I agree, hearing such a personal family tale makes it seem all the more real. It reminds me, in a way, of being in Cambodia where people would talk openly about their experiences during the Pol Pot regime. This too made the episode seem far more human than reading about it in books.