This is the text of the oration I delivered last Sunday evening, at the annual commemoration of the Lissarda ambush. Normally held on the nearest Sunday to the anniversary of the event on Sunday August 22, 1920 – two years to the day before Michael Collins died violently elsewhere in the same mid-Cork parish of Kilmurry – it also commemorates the death in the Lissarda ambush of Kilmurry Irish Volunteers company quartermaster, Michael Galvin.
This year’s commemoration was held instead on Sunday, August 28, in deference to the official opening by President Michael D Higgins the previous Sunday of Independence Museum Kilmurry.
When Michael Galvin died here in August 1920, he was almost unique among IRA Volunteers killed during the War of Independence in Ireland.
As a married man, he was quite different to the typical profile of those who had signed up to the Irish Republican Army in the preceding years – one of about 150 members at that time in this parish alone.
We hear very little, in stories of the fallen soldiers in the fight for Irish independence, about the families they left behind.
Because, so often, they were unmarried and had no children, their family stories largely died with them. Apart from roadside memorials like this one, not much is usually known, other than the circumstances of their deaths.
That is not the case with Michael Galvin whose life and death are recalled here this evening – many of whose descendants still live in the area, and some of whom are here tonight.
For not alone do we have details of his death and the circumstances in which it occurred – from the relatively – recent online publication of statements left by participants; but newly-released records also shine a light on the circumstances in which his family were left following Michael’s death.
It is those circumstances I will speak about briefly this evening – not in any way wishing to personalise or single out the Galvin family for what they went through – but to give just a small insight into the workings of the Republic that did eventually follow the War of Independence – and what it meant for those whose loved ones had died to achieve it.
Michael Galvin married Annie Neville in June 1915 at St Mary’s Church in Kilmurry – both of them were aged around 24. Michael then took control of the Neville farm of about 20 acres, nearby at Clomacow, where the couple lived with Annie’s father, Maurice, a man in his late 60s.
Not long after that, in October 1915, the local Irish Volunteers company was formed at Béal na Bláth – on the initiative of Terence MacSwiney and Tomás MacCurtain; but helped locally by people like John T Murphy – an ex-medical student from Lissarda, who had been an officer at county level with the Land and Labour Association, and a local activist for William O’Brien’s All-for-Ireland League – opponents in the strongest sense of the word to the Irish Parliamentary Party who still prevailed at that time, nationally at least – and opponents of anything they might stand for, including that party’s leader John Redmond and his National Volunteers – the much larger organisation left after the 1914 split in the armed Volunteer movement, largely over support of the British Army efforts in the Great War in Europe.
The war was already well over a year old by the time that MacSwiney and locals attracted young men of this parish into the Irish Volunteers. One of the early recruits, Michael was now a small farmer, but was also enterprising enough to supplement his income from a few grazing cattle, with some small-scale cattle dealing, and carting goods for other farmers in the area.
It was small farmers like Michael, local labourers and tradesmen – or their sons – who formed the early nucleus of the Irish Volunteers here in Kilmurry, and in the surrounding communities.
Michael and Annie’s son John was born in September 1916.
It was less than a year since the Irish Volunteers had been formed in Kilmurry – but things had changed enormously in Ireland in the previous 12 months.
The failed Easter Rising of that year – for which nearly 400 Corkmen , who were to have taken part marched through Béal na Bláth, Kilmurry and Lissarda en route to Macroom on Easter Sunday – was largely unpopular at first.
But probably more so than the executions of the rebel leaders – it was the arrest of local men like John T Murphy, and their detention in English and Welsh jails and prison camps in a summer like this 100 years ago, that helped to begin the swing of popular opinion – away from the old nationalist politics – and in the direction of the separatist mind-set to which Michael Galvin, and others like him, had already aligned themselves.
Fast forward another year – to December 1917 – the local company of Volunteers – with Michael now in charge of arms and equipment, as company quartermaster – had more than doubled its membership to at least 70. They were in a procession of Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, GAA and camogie clubs, that marched through Macroom to the town square to hear Eamon de Valera speak. The future President of Ireland had recently abstained from taking his seat in Westminster after being elected member of parliament for East Clare. He was also then, the president of the Irish Volunteers and the rapidly-growing Sinn Féin party.
By August 1919 – when Michael and Annie’s daughter Mary arrived into the world – de Valera had been joined by Terence MacSwiney representing this parish’s constituency of Mid-Cork, as the elected Sinn Féin parliamentary representative – along with dozens of others who were meeting in Dublin, instead of London, in their own establishment – Dáil Éireann.
Some of Michael’s comrades – David Healy, an Irish Volunteers section commander in Crookstown – and others from the neighbouring Farnanes company of the Volunteers, had just served a month in jail for collecting outside Cloughduv church – probably for the loan being organised by Michael Collins to finance the Dáil and its alternative and revolutionary government – which was about to be declared illegal by the British government.
So to Sunday, August 22, 1920 – barely a week after his daughter’s first birthday – Michael was one of the Kilmurry men who rushed here after collecting their weapons from various hideouts. Most of you know what happened but Michael died, probably instantly, after being hit by a police bullet during an exchange of gunfire here with the Royal Irish Constabulary, in what was a hastily-constructed ambush; one that was not supposed to have been reconvened for another few days after locals hostile to the Volunteers had spotted the men lying in wait the day before.
It was the killing of police sergeant Daniel Maunsell from Kerry by the IRA in Inchigeela the evening before that prompted the senior police officers targeted here at Lissarda to travel this road, unexpectedly, from Bandon. And like Daniel Maunsell, – Michael died with a wife and family left to fend for themselves.
Unlike the family of a police sergeant, however, there was no pension at that time for widows of IRA men killed in action.
Annie was left with her two young children – John, nearly 4 , and one-year-old Mary – But also with a farm, meaning she had to hire in labour to earn any meagre income at all in order to feed them and her ageing father. Because of a physical disability he had since childhood, John Galvin was unable to work the small farm in Clomacow when he did come of age. His sister Mary moved back here with her husband shortly after marrying, to tend the farm and care for her mother.
It was not until the early 1950s – over 30 years after her husband’s death and a few years before she passed away in 1956, that Annie Galvin became entitled to an IRA widow’s allowance of £250 a year. In support of her claim, after revised military service pensions law had been passed, letters were written by local man Matt Murphy from Lissarda – who had served alongside Michael Galvin at the ambush here.
By an amendment made in the Dáil and the Seanad in 1959, extensions were made to the provisions of a previous act that paid allowances to the invalided brothers of a Volunteer, if they had also been the deceased Volunteer’s dependant. John Galvin’s was one of three cases known in the Department of Defence at the time, in which a child , whose father was killed on active service with the Irish Volunteers / IRA had a permanent disability before they reached adulthood. But his was ‘the lead case’, the precedent, if you will, around which the argument was built for the changes that ensured such children were to receive the same entitlement as that of an invalided brother, if the initial recipient of the allowance had died. In this case, Michael’s widow – and John’s mother – Annie, had died three years earlier.
While today, we come to expect proper supports for children and adults with a disability – be it physical or intellectual – in 1950s Ireland, not so much existed in the way of public understanding or standards around such matters. Because, however, of the lobbying that occurred on behalf of John Galvin, the case was properly made to the respective Government departments, and properly argued by the civil servants who saw the merits of the case made.
Here was an example in action – of Irish people governing Irish affairs – the kind of governance sought by the Sinn Féin-led national and international political campaign of 1917 to 1921 – and supported militarily by the Irish Volunteers and IRA.
It was a lobby taken up, for example, by men like Sean McCarthy, TD for Cork city – and a successor as Lord Mayor of Cork, of the late Terence MacSwiney –- who had only begun his fateful hunger strike the week before Michael Galvin died.
First raising the matter in the Seanad was Senator Ted O’Sullivan – who had the quick thinking of David Healy’s sister Katie to thank in 1921 when, as a prominent IRA figure from west Cork, he narrowly escaped capture by Crown Forces in Crookstown. In 1956, O’Sullivan told Defence Minister Seán MacEoin:
“Surely it is a reflection on us and on our Government, on our country and on every member of the Oireachtas, that the orphan son of a man killed in action, this child who is totally incapacitated and therefore surely a dependent of that man who was killed…. cannot get an allowance from this State while… there is provision in the Act of 1953 for the widow, parent, brother and sister of such a man.”
Former teachers at Kilmurry National School wrote from their homes in Fermoy and Bandon of their memories of John Galvin as a child, supporting his claim nearly 40 years after he had been their pupil.
Earlier in 1956, Macroom IRA Battalion officer Charlie Browne – who described Michael Galvin as one of the Battalion’s finest soldiers – had written to the Department of Defence in support of the claim for an allowance for John in the months after his mother’s death. But it was John’s sister Mary who had first applied, believing he should be entitled to a dependant’s allowance.
Two decades before that, Annie secured assistance under laws made in Dáil Éireann that provided for financial assistance towards Mary’s secondary education, being the child of an IRA Volunteer killed in action. Complications around the strict rules meant representations had to be made by TDs Sean Moylan, and ex-Macroom IRA battalion commander Daniel Corkery.
In 1935, senior Irish government figure Seán T O’Kelly – whose silk pyjamas were noted by Macroom prisoners when they shared accommodation in a Welsh prison camp in 1916 – received a letter from one of the town’s merchants, JJ O’Shea. He had put young Mary up while she attended the convent school there, as her mother was concerned that the Cork-Macroom train wouldn’t get her to school every morning in time for class.
O’Shea told the future President of Ireland , O’Kelly:
“When you read this woman’s case, you will agree she demands the sympathetic consideration of the present Government who are striving to see established that Republic Mick Galvin gave his young life for.”
Prior to that, in the mid-1920s, the family had the assistance of the Irish White Cross , supported at the generous rate of 10 shillings a week for each child. And with representations made on their behalf by its secretary Áine Ceannt, who knew very well about the pain of losing a young husband. Her husband Éamonn was one of the 16 men executed after the Easter Rising.
In November 1932, Annie Galvin wrote to Sean Moylan:
“Should you succeed on my behalf, you will deserve and receive the earnest thanks of a helpless widow, and two fatherless children who have lost the only one who was near and dear to us in the country’s struggle for freedom.”
Nearing my conclusion, now, let me read for you the words published – above those in which RIC sergeant Maunsell’s widow remembered her dead husband – in a memoriam note in the Cork Examiner which marked the first anniversary of Michael Galvin’s death.
They wring from us
In rich young blood,
They take our very best;
How long, oh Lord
How long the time
Til Éire shall find rest.
Éire did eventually find rest ; perhaps not the Éire that everybody in these parts or around west Cork would have hoped for – and not without a few more years of hardship and violence — witnessed, and suffered, by people in this district and in this parish.
Here in Kilmurry just a week ago, de Valera’s and O’Kelly’s successor as Úachtarán na hÉireann, Micheál Ó hUigínn, reminded those who might denigrate the principles and the bravery of those who took up the political and military fight for Irish independence that, were it not for their efforts, we would not have had him there as President of the Irish Republic.
President Higgins also commended the people living in this parish and this community today – and those who had gone before them – for their ‘active citizenship’. Through their sense of strong pride in their heritage, he said, those who have opened Independence Museum Kilmurry – and those who did not live to see that dream materialise – had managed to gather, and to preserve, over several decades, the everyday and more obscure items, and the stories, which will show the next generation – and those that follow – what it meant, and what it was like, to live through troubled times, in past decades and in past centuries.
And one can hopefully get just a small taste of that sense of ‘community’ – one that is wider than just a place on a map – and of active citizenship, from the story of how just one family – who happened to be natives of this parish also – were helped to stay on their feet and to better themselves and their future generations, i bPoblacht na hÉireann.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir – as ucht bheith anseo tráthnóna, agus as ucht bhur éisteacht.
Most material is based on the following digitised files relating to Michael Galvin and his family, accessed in the online Military Service Pensions Collection of the Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Rathmines, Dublin – 1D42 & D135