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Gonzaga’s links to the Rising

Gonzaga College SJ launched an exhibition about the links between present and past pupils of the College and the events of 1916 at home and abroad on Monday, April 18, 2016. The exhibition has fifty display panels detailing the diverse involvement on the part of family members of College alumni, pupils and staff. The exhibition was prepared by Transition Year students in collaboration with teachers, Mr Barry McCann and Ms Anne Nevin and our Archivist, Mr Michael Bevan.

Clearly, given that Gonzaga did not open its doors until 1950, no members of the College could actually have taken part in the events of a century ago. The links, however, between Gonzaga families and some of the highly significant participants were clear, if perhaps none-too-well remembered: MacNeill, Brugha, Mulcahy, Fitzgerald, The O’Rahilly…

The thrust of the research was to establish more extensive genealogical connections to events both at home and abroad and extending the focus to the current decade of commemorations. Our materials included a variety of print and online sources, as well as accounts provided by family members who contacted us. In fact without the assistance of a significant number of families, the exhibition would have been a paltry one.

The intention was to show that despite its youth the College has real and meaningful links to our nation’s history, and to mount the evidence around the school to awaken student interest in the current commemorations.

The research revealed a quite remarkable – and largely unexpected – number of connections, not only to those involved in active rebellion but to those who, often in the same family, fought with the British Army in the Great War, or were members of the Society of Jesus at the time. The project was never intended as celebration or iconography but to reflect the fact that in the Ireland of 1916 there were multiple (and often conflicting) ideas of loyalty and legitimacy; different ways in which one could fight and die for different visions of Ireland.

The display panels begin with the general background of an individual, then outlines his or her participation in events, and concludes with details of other members of the family and their actions at the time. The panels include a family tree tracing the connections between the subject and the Gonzaga community, either current student, staff or alumnus. There are currently at least 25 students in the College with significant links.

It is not only the number of additional Gonzaga families with links that fascinated us – close relatives of Ceannt, of Plunkett, of Tom Clarke; of the Tannams (three Gonzaga families) and Ned Daly, Denis McCullough and Kitty Gibbons and many others, to cite only the nationalist side. The extraordinary network of intermarriages and regional closeness produces what must nearly be the subject of a doctoral thesis in sociology or demographics.

The College’s recently installed display cabinets (they do not aspire to archival standards) contains an additional display of memorabilia, some of extraordinary interest and some which it has been thought wise to replace with facsimiles. On display for the launch was an unpublished original letter written by Michael Collins (grand uncle of the O’Mahonys) to Kitty Kiernan (great grandmother to the Walshes) dated 20th December 1921, expressing his fears for the out-come of the Treaty debate; George Henry Morris’s letter to his wife from France written 12 days before the news that he is reported ‘wounded and missing’, and the poignant telegram from his brother some two months later informing of the discovery of the body; an original pen-and-ink drawing by Grace Gifford of F.J. McCormick and Eileen Crowe (grandparents of the Judges) and some mementos of the life of Fr John Delaney SJ, provided by the Jesuit Archives. In addition, the cabinet has a variety of medals, family photos and original publications, including the medals awarded to Frank Kelly (grandfather of the Pittions), a copy of Pearse’s Irish War News, dated 25th April 1916 and Terence MacSwiney’s The Ethics of Revolt.

The launch of the exhibition was marked by a panel discussion on the challenges of researching and presenting the Easter Rising in a modern context, held in the Coulson theatre. After an opening address from the Headmaster on the issues surrounding national commemorative events and how they are used in the construction of the myths or narratives of nation states, a group of Transition Year students gave a presentation on how the exhibition had been researched and presented. They also talked about their personal reflections and insights on some of the anecdotes and accounts they had uncovered.

The lively and engaging panel-discussion was deftly chaired by Conor Mulvagh (Class of 2004), UCD’s Coordinator of The Decade of Commemorations, and included Michael Laffan (Class of 1963), Cathal Brugha (Class of 1966), Michael McDowell (Class of 1969), Eunan O’Halpin (Class of 1972), and Ruan Magan (Class of 1986). Each of the panellists was invited to give their personal reflections on how the issues of commemoration had changed over time, their different experiences of how Irish history had been taught and presented to them while in Gonzaga, their opinions on the current 1916 commemorative events, and insights about issues around the remaining events of the Decade of Commemorations. It was noted that the speakers were reflective of differing times and attitudes as their studies in Gonzaga coincided with significant key events such as the 50th anniversary of the Rising, the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Bloody Sunday, and the hunger strikes of 1980-1981. For example, the role of Cathal Brugha in the school’s 50th anniversary commemoration (including raising the national flag and a reading of the Proclamation) was recalled despite the fact that he himself had only a vague memory of it – the veracity of the account was corroborated on stage by Michael McDowell. Ruan Magan recounted being called to the Headmaster’s office with his brothers on account of wearing black armbands at the time of the hunger strikes and being asked to remove them. However, with remarkable foresight his grandmother (Sighle Humphreys) had sewn them on and he and his brothers were instead sent home! Various representations of the Rising in film and literature were also discussed. The role and positive influence of previous Gonzaga history teachers (Fr Stephen Redmond SJ and Fr Joe Brennan SJ) was acknowledged by a number of the speakers. The enthusiastic participation of members of the audience in the closing question and answer session was testament to the level of interest shown by all involved.

A simultaneous display of books and articles was mounted in the Sutherland Library by Siobhan McNamara, College Librarian, and online computer links to Witness Statements in the Bureau of Military History files as well as to the Military Services Pensions site were made available.

The exhibition continues throughout May in the corridors of the school.

If you have questions about the content of the exhibition or panel discussion, please email 1916 Project Committee at 1916gonzaga@gmail.com.