Soloheadbeg ambush: ‘The men who killed your great-grandfather took shelter in my grand-aunt’s house. I’m sorry for the pain your family suffered’

Descendants of individuals affected on both sides of a key incident in the War of Independence found a way to move beyond that painful legacy through poetry

Anna O Laoghaire shared the painful family history that inspired her to write her poem Sentinels as part of the Poetry as Commemoration project at a symposium on commemorative poetry at MoLI [Museum of Literature Ireland] in October 2023.

O Laoghaire’s great-grandfather was Constable James McDonnell, who was one of two RIC officers killed during the Soloheadbeg ambush in Co Tipperary on January 21st, 1919, leaving Anna’s grandmother and six siblings orphaned. Not long after, the children, ranging in age from 11 to 24 years, were forced to leave Tipperary. Hurt and anger lingered within the family and carried through the generations – but an unexpected moment of healing was about to unfold.

Having grappled with this challenging family history for years, O Laoghaire joined a writing workshop in the Lexicon Library organised by UCD Library’s Poetry as Commemoration initiative in 2022. Led by Catherine Ann Cullen, the workshops were aimed at creatively engaging the public with the material history of the War of Independence and Civil War through documents, letters and photographs.

O Laoghaire used the opportunity to revisit the challenging aspects of her family history, and this endeavour proved to be a cathartic experience, culminating in her poem Sentinels. In it, O Laoghaire wonders whether any kindness was shown to her great-grandfather’s children in the aftermath of the ambush.

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Was there a kindness shown to your orphaned children?

Perhaps a motherly neighbour wiped away the tears

Or left a still-warm apple tart on the back sill at Murgasty?

Listening to O Laoghaire recite the poem as part of the Poetry as Commemoration symposium last year, Annette Condon was riveted by the power of the story and its connection to her own. Condon had taken part in workshops in Tipperary a few months prior led by David McLoghlin, and had composed a poem inspired by the story of her grand-aunt, Marian Tobin, one of Ireland’s first female councillors, whose home Tincurry House in Cahir had been destroyed by British forces in May 1921 (The Destruction of Tincurry House).

In 1919, at the time of the ambush, Tobin was a widow living with her three teenage children when she gave shelter to the members of Tipperary’s Third Brigade, who were responsible for the Soloheadbeg ambush. In The Destruction of Tincurry House, Condon evokes a moving portrait of Tobin dragging a piano onto the lawn and playing God Save Ireland while the Black and Tans destroyed her home and every stick of furniture in it.

The music rising to a crescendo

above the thud of pick and hatchet,

above the staccato bang-bang in each room,

above the vinegar of metal and burning wood.

When O Laoghaire finished her reading at the symposium, Condon raised her hand to share her own connection to the story of Soloheadbeg, saying: “The men who killed your great-grandfather took shelter in my grandaunt’s house that night. I’m sorry for the pain your family suffered.”

Silence followed Condon’s words as the audience held a collective breath. As the symposium was closing, O Laoghaire and Condon embraced in a moving moment witnessed by all. A few weeks later, they met and began to compose two companion poems inspired by their remarkable encounter. Condon’s Encounter in Newman House and O Laoghaire’s Two Women Embrace are available to read in full on the Virtual Poetry Wall and stand as testimonies to a moment of reconciliation through the power of writing.

Our two stories brought us here. They collide, dovetail after a century.

Ghosts watch. Silence falls from the baroque ceiling,

manna drifts along the golden curtains. It washes over the room.

Anna and I embrace.

(Encounter in Newman House by Annette Condon)

Tears in the room witness us

Making our own piece of history

Where the poet’s pen

Is mightier than the bullet spent.

(Two Women Embrace by Anna O Laoghaire)

Over the past 11 years, the Decade of Centenaries initiative presented both challenges and opportunities and, though not without controversy, stories such as this testify to the respectful tone engendered throughout the programme. As the late Dr Éamon Phoenix pointed out, reconciliation is not the purpose of history, but that is not to say that engagement with challenging aspects of our shared history cannot break down barriers and foster understanding.

Furthermore, creative writing facilitates the development of empathy by enabling us to consider events from new perspectives and to foreground the individual human experience. This is evident among the hundreds of poems composed by people of all ages and backgrounds in response to the material history of the War of Independence and Civil War through UCD Library’s Poetry as Commemoration initiative.

Catherine Wilsdon was creative producer of Poetry as Commemoration, a two-year all-island Decade of Centenaries initiative led by UCD Library in partnership with Poetry Ireland and Arts Council Northern Ireland. It was supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media under the Decade of Centenaries programme 2012-2023.

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