The Complexities of Remembering

Ireland-2016-largeThe sun blazed over Owning on Wednesday morning last; the calm of the morning broken by the squawks of the crows flying overhead, and the yelps of children happily playing in the yard of the nearby Primary School.
Visible from the beautiful South Kilkenny village, a dusting of snow sat atop the summit of Slievenamon, while beyond the Suir Valley, the higher climes (and climbs) of the Comeragh Mountains were altogether more powdered.
Tufts of cloud broke the blue skies, with the yew trees within the grounds of the 1798-built Church of the Assumption springing skyward, like grasping, oversized green claws.
Thoughts drifted towards rebellions, be it 1798, 1848 or indeed 1916, when prompted to visit this graveyard last week, having sat in Garter Lane the previous night, enthralled and immersed by Jim Nolan’s new play, ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’.
And I felt compelled to visit Owning Graveyard – and not for the first time in recent years – to stand before one particular grave unique to that serene location.
The gravestone, the wording of which faces Piltown, reads: “The Royal Irish Regiment 8786 Private J Flynn Royal Irish Regiment 2nd June 1916 Age 44 Died of Wounds Received In Action 1916.”
Private John Flynn, a native of Carrick-on-Suir, was a member of the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) 2nd Garrison Battalion.
His is a grave I’ve stood before on several occasions in recent years; the absence of any floral decoration a consistent feature through all that time, albeit perhaps not that unusual given that Private Flynn has been dead for a century.
Until Wednesday last, I’d assumed that John Flynn has sustained fatal wounds on the Western Front, one of the 200,000-plus Irish-born servicemen to wear British uniform during a War that was anything but Great. I assumed that he returned home from the front to convalesce in what ultimately proved the final months of his life.
But, upon my return to the office, a relatively minor level of research revealed a different outcome, part of what Nolan’s play referred to as “the inconvenient truth” of 1916.
Private Flynn didn’t sustain his wounds on foreign soil. He was wounded on the streets of Dublin in Easter Week.
On Easter Monday, April 24th, 1916, the Royal Irish Regiment came under attack from volunteers, under the command of Eamonn Ceannt (and Vice Commandant Cathal Brugha), who had occupied the South Dublin Union (now St James’s Hospital).
As historian Paul O’Brien notes: “The sudden occupation and battles that erupted in the grounds of the Union prevented both sides from evacuating hundreds of staff and patients. A running battle was fought throughout that Monday through the hospital corridors with both sides suffering heavy casualties.
“There were many civilian casualties as innocent people were caught in the crossfire. The Royal Irish Regiment managed to retake many of the buildings after fierce fighting. However, to their dismay, the Royal Irish Regiment were ordered to withdraw and return to barracks. They objected strongly but withdrew from the complex.”
By Friday, April 29th, the RIR had occupied Great Britain (Parnell) Street and a day later were positioned on Sackville (O’Connell) Street, when the rebels, under Padraig Pearse, unconditionally surrendered to Brigadier-General William Lowe.
I’ve not yet been able to ascertain when exactly Private Flynn sustained his injuries that week, but his is a story and his is a death that I suspect will not be commemorated in Dublin this Easter, or Owning this June.
Of course, a great many of the 460-plus who died during the Rising will, on the whole, remain footnotes to the most tumultuous week in our history, so John Flynn is not alone in that respect. But he should not be forgotten.
The following item featured in The Munster Express dated Saturday, June 10th, 1916, headed ‘Carrick-On-Suir Soldier’s Death in Dublin.’
It read: “Private John Flynn, Royal Irish Regiment, a native of Carrick-on-Suir, died in Dublin on Friday last. Deceased was through the fighting in the first couple of days of the recent rebellion and was wounded. The remains were met at Carrick station by a large crowd of sympathisers. The late Mr Flynn was through the Boer War and rejoined his old regiment soon after the outbreak of the present war. He was well known and respected in Carrick-on-Suir and much sympathy is felt for his widow and family in their bereavement.”
For most of the 20th Century, those Irishmen who fought in World War I (with fatalities ranging between 35,000 and 50,000, depending on what data one assesses) were, in general, off-topic. Persona non grata. Airbrushed from history. Traitors.
But the opening of the Messines Peace Tower in 1998, the first time an Irish government recognised all Irishmen, north and south, who fought together in World War I, catalysed a welcome change in that narrative.
Speaking at its unveiling, then President Mary McAleese stated: “These too are Ireland’s children as those who fought for her independence are her children, and those who fought against each other in our country’s civil war – and of course the dead of recent decades – their children’s children – who have not known the peace for which they yearned. To each let us give his or her acknowledged place among our island’s cherished dead.”
The status of the Irishmen who wore British uniforms on the streets of Dublin during Easter Week remains a somewhat divisive discussion within “the complexities of remembering”, as stated in the programme notes accompanying ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’.
Private John Flynn’s grave in Owning is hardly known by that many of us, but Jim Nolan’s masterful work led me back to that graveside, and helped me unearth some detail about another casualty of Easter Week 1916. I for one shall not forget him.

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