Over the Back Wall
Irish Volunteer Joseph O’Neill
By Maureen O’Neill
Published in Spring 2016 edition
I was a young adult back in 1972 when my grandfather Joseph O’Neill died – he was 74 years old. You know the famous quote of George Bernard Shaw, ‘Youth is Wasted on the Young’ – well that certainly applies here. Even though at the time my grandfather was given a military funeral, it completely went over my head. All we had ever been told was our grandfather had taken part in the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. He had never spoken about it however, so we knew very little. The one thing that I did remember down through the years was the three-volley salute over his grave; but the significance of that never really registered with me back then; that was until much later in life when I developed a great love of history.
In 2008 my uncle died leaving behind a lot of old paperwork to be sorted through. Of course, there were the usual old photos – which are always so fascinating. The one that really grabbed my attention was the photo of South Dublin Union, Marrowbone Lane and Roe’s Distillery 1916 Garrison, taken in 1966; 60 men and women – all survivors of the 1916 Rising. There in the front row was my grandfather. How could I get more information on what my grandad was up to in 1916? I was advised by a friend to start by contacting Military Archives in Rathmines, Dublin – this was the beginning of a fascinating journey. We knew that he had taken part in the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. He was born in 35 Cork Street, and worked all of his working life in a little bootmaker’s premises at 95 Cork Street. But that was all we knew.
When I rang Military Archives were kind enough to furnish me with some of the documentation that pertained to him. I received along with his Individual Application for a Military Service Pension (1935), copies of his Easter Rising 1916 Certificate and his 50th Anniversary Certificate. These have become family heirlooms and will become the topic of conversation for many years to come. There were however many gaps in the story as the pension application and certificates really only confirmed his service and that he had applied for a pension. In the 1966 reunion picture that I had found in my uncle’s you could see all the veterans wearing medals. Growing up I’d never seen these medals and no one knew where they were. The medals were identified as the 1916 and War of Independence Service Medals. To coincide with the 90th anniversary of 1916, in 2006 the then Minister for Defence, Willie O’Dea TD, announced that the State would replace these lost, stolen or destroyed medals with certificates. With the information Military Archives had sent I applied and was awarded the certificates.
In January 2014, the Military Service Pensions Collection was launched with an accompanying website, this website gave anyone with an interest the ability to research those who participated in period from 1916 to 1923. Some 300,000 documents and files have since been released. Everything to do with my grandfather was now digitalised and online; his birth cert, marriage cert, pension application and Military Service Pension documents, and his Bureau of Military History Witness Statement. The bigger story now began to come together.
The Military Service Pensions had been originally awarded in 1923 to wounded members, widows, children and dependents of deceased members of Óglaigh na hÉireann, eventually legislation was brought in that included the veterans of Easter week 1916, through to 30 September, 1923. These pensions were not handed out at will; the applicant had to prove ‘active service’ during this time and support their application with the relevant documentation before they could be deemed successful or not. In January 1935, my grandfather applied for his pension. The Military Service Pension stated that my grandfather was awarded a pension in 1935 of £20 per annum for four years active service.
Both the Military Service Pension and his Witness Statement put my grandfather at 17 when he joined C Company 4th Battalion Dublin Brigade Irish Volunteers in 1915. I never realised he was so young. The Witness Statement reads:
This is the sworn statement of Joseph O’Neill, (1321) made before advisory committee
22 February, 1935.
Q. What did you do on Easter Sunday?
A. I think we were mobilised for Easter Sunday and it was
called off. I think I mobilised at Emerald Square on the Monday
and went into Marrowbone Lane Distillery. I was there until the
Q. Did you surrender with the rest?
A. No, I saw Mr. McGrath going out over the wall and I had
heard that we were all going to get away. I followed them and
got away over the back wall, into Cork Street. I left my arms
Q. You joined up again?
So, my grandfather at the end of Easter week literally jumped over the back wall and went home. How he did not later get arrested in the roundup I do not know. Joseph O’Neill re-joined his volunteer unit in 1917. This time C Company was under the command of command of Major J.V. Joyce. He continued with his active service-attending company parades and training in the use of arms. One letter on file in Military Archives written by a Patrick Byrne testifies as to my grandfather, ‘carrying out all duties and orders assigned to him’.
The documents also say that in 1917 he attended Thomas Ashe’s funeral. Ashe had been force fed by the prison authorities He died on the 25 September, 1917. His body lay in state at Dublin City Hall and as it made its way to Glasnevin cemetery it was followed by 30,000 people led by armed volunteers – my grandfather was one of these volunteers. One fascinating story is in the witness statement from my grandfather – attested to by a Mr. Joseph McGrath. According to Mr. McGrath, my grandfather was responsible in 1920 for taking from shoes sent by McGrath who was then a prisoner in Brixton prison, an escape plan, which was then delivered to General Michael Collins and acted upon. Correspondence first came from Mr. McGrath’s private Secretary on 25 January, 1935 and went as follows:
I am instructed by Mr. McGrath to acknowledge
your letter of the 23rd Inst. I am to inform you that
it will be in order for you to give his name when
you are making application for a Service Pension.
Mr. McGrath will be pleased to vouch for the
incident you refer to, and generally in respect of
Mr. McGrath’s Private Secretary.
Further correspondence from Mr. McGrath’s was written on 6 March, 1935, and reads as follows:
This is to certify that Joseph O’Neill of 11 Somerville
Ave, Crumlin was under arms in Easter Week 1916 at
Marrowbone Lane. I also certify the fact that O’Neill
was responsible in 1920 for taking from shoes sent by
me from Brixton prison a plan for escape which was
delivered to the late General Collins and acted upon.
If any further details are required, I will be glad if
possible to give them.
Signed: Joseph McGrath.
My Grandfather’s sworn statement on 22 February, 1935, went as follows:
Q. What incident is this which Mr. McGrath is prepared to certify?
A. I am a bootmaker, and when he was in prison in England, he sent me a pair of boots to repair. In the repairing of them I discovered the prison plans hidden in them. I immediately brought them to his wife and she told me on no account to mention it to anyone.
The stories of the Easter Rising and that period of history is made up of a large number of smaller stories, my grandfather’s contribution is part of that bigger story. The majority of the men and women who fought in 1916 never spoke about their experiences, and certainly never attempted to put them on record. I wrote this article in order to pay tribute to the memory of my granddad Joseph O’Neill and to acknowledge his small contribution.