Above: Pupils at Lisheen National School have already been busy collecting stories for the ‘West Cork: Stories of the Revolution’ project.
Extraordinary stories about the people of West Cork are coming to light as part of a schools’ history project organised by Skibbereen Heritage Centre as part of Cork County Council’s Centenary programme.
The ‘West Cork: Stories of the Revolution’ project invites primary school children to collect stories relating to the 1916-1923 period from their own area. The project model is based on the highly successful Irish Folklore Commission, which gathered so much important local history and folklore from schoolchildren in 1937. Stories from all the schools in County Cork that took part in the Irish Folklore collection are available online at www.duchas.ie/en.
The aim of ‘West Cork: Stories of the Revolution’ project is to raise awareness of the 1916-1923 revolutionary years among primary school students by asking them to gather history and folklore relating to that period from their own local communities.
Students are being encouraged to speak to their parents, grandparents, other relations or neighbours and to record their stories relating to the 1916-1923 period.
The material collected will form a digital archive of stories, which will be retained by each school and the collection may also form part of a future publication.
Most of the primary schools in the Skibbereen area participated in the 1937 Folklore Commission and that archive is now an in valuable resource. Eighty years later, these stories make for wonderful reading and tell us a great deal about this locality. It is hoped that this valuable archive will serve as an inspiration for the schoolchildren collecting material for the ‘West Cork: Stories of the Revolution’ project as the stories they collect will be there for posterity. What makes this project so special is that the young pupils are writing and collecting their own stories about their own history. In another generation, this information may well be lost.
The project co-ordinators are Margaret Murphy and Philip O’Regan of Skibbereen Heritage Centre and they have visited and outlined the details of the project to the 12 participating schools.
One of the particularly interesting stories already collected relates to an incident in Skibbereen in 1921 when a local woman, Mary McCarthy from Curragh, helped Tom Barry, the Commander of the Third West Cork Flying Column, to survey the RIC Barracks in Skibbereen, in preparation for a raid on the heavily garrisoned town. The story recorded is:
On February 7, 1921 Commandant General Tom Barry and his column were billeted north of Skibbereen town. Barry requested that a young lady should be found to accompany him to carry out a reconnaissance of Skibbereen RIC barracks and its immediate surrounds.
The assignment was not as simple as it seemed as Martial Law was enforced with maximum effect such as that no more than two people could walk together and everyone had to keep their hands where they could be seen from both front and rear during the daylight hours. Then curfew was enforced from dusk to dawn, which meant that no civilian could be outside during this time.
However, there were still young women in the country who were prepared to take the risk to forward the cause of the IRA. There was a cardinal law within the IRA that in whichever battalion area the column was resting, their safety and needs were the responsibility of the local battalion commandant. In Skibbereen that was Cornelius (Nelius) Connolly and his men.
After due consideration, Nelius decided that Mary McCarthy would be the ideal person. Her home in Curragh, roughly one mile from the town, was known as a ‘meeting house’. Nelius knew Mary very well as a trustworthy person so he told Tom Barry about her.
Tom Barry told Nelius to contact Mary McCarthy and make arrangements to meet her the following day at 2pm at the entrance to her house if she volunteered to go. So he met her later that day and, after explaining the dangers of what she was undertaking, she agreed to go. Nelius told her that Tom Barry and he would call at 2pm the following day and they would be in disguise for safety in case of being recognised.
When Tom Barry and Nelius arrived the following day, Nelius introduced Tom to Mary and explained the plan of campaign. Mary was to lead the way on her bicycle, followed by Tom Barry, forty to fifty yards behind her, with Nelius being up to another fifty yards behind Tom Barry.
On getting to the tramway crossing Mary was to alight and put her bicycle into the tramway yard and Tom Barry was to do the same. They then proceeded on foot through the town up to the Square and up High Street. They walked along by the RIC barracks and turned right down by the mill and on to Market Street, which they completed without incident.
But Tom Barry was not satisfied so he requested that they go in Market Street and up around the barracks a second time for another look at the lay of the land, which they did. At the time, there were over one hundred men of the King’s Liverpool Regiment billeted in Town Hall and the Corner House under Colonel Hudson, with up to twenty RIC personnel in the barracks and always the chance of a tender-load of Tans or Auxies appearing in town to enjoy themselves. It just goes to show the tremendous courage of Tom Barry and the reliance he had on himself to do as he wanted to do.
Having completed the circuit for a second time, they proceeded back to the tramway yard where their perilous journey had commenced.
Nelius Connolly was very relieved to see them arrive because getting a lady involved in such a mission could have misfired badly. To place Mary in the company of Tom Barry, who was a highly wanted man, and had he been recognised by the military or the RIC they would shoot without warning and he had no intention of being taken alive. He knew his fate if that happened better than anybody, whereby he would have been court-martialled and executed without mercy because of his track record.
Thankfully, his reconnaissance of Skibbereen RIC barracks and the military installations could not have gone better giving him a clear-cut knowledge of what he would have to contend with later that night.
When the troubles were over, Mary McCarthy got married to Miah O’Sullivan, who carried out a farrier business at High Street, Skibbereen, where they reared their family. Sadly, her name, like the names of many others who did heroic work at that time, has faded into oblivion.
The ‘West Cork: Stories of the Revolution’ project is supported by Cork County Council as part of its Centenary Programme. Muintir Skibbereen Credit Union are also supporting the project by sponsoring two prizes, one for the best individual pupil and one for the best overall school entry.
The 12 primary schools taking part in the ‘West Cork: Stories of the Revolution’ project are: St. Joseph’s Girls’ National School, Skibbereen; St Patrick’s Boys’ NS, Skibbereen; Rathmore NS, Baltimore; Derryclough NS, Drinagh; Caheragh NS, Caheragh; Abbeystrewry NS, Skibbereen; Gaelscoil Dhochtúir Uí Shúilleabháin, Skibbereen; Scoil Naisiunta Cleire, Cape Clear; Lisheen Mixed NS, Lisheen; SN Bhride National School, Union Hall; Leap NS, Leap, and Ballinacarriga Mixed NS, Dunmanway.