The Dying Rebel: Remembering Seán Hurley and the road to revolution

Posted on: 4th April, 2016

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column will highlight the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world. Pictured above: Church Street, Dublin, May 1916. Image: National Library of Ireland

Throughout Ireland’s long struggle for independence, the ballad, or hero song, emerged as a cultural staple for commemorating historical events and figures in public form. While such songs can often miss the historical complexities of the time periods that they depict, their value can be seen in their ability to provide a window into the emotional and personal elements of the ordinary men and women who participated in such events, a facet, which often doesn’t come across in more formal histories. While the subjects and inspirations for popular narrative ballads are many and varied, they all provide listeners with valuable insights into the subjects that they immortalise in song.

In the popular Scottish ballad ‘The Green Fields of France’ (1976), the anonymous young private William McBride has become seen by many as a successful embodiment of the devastation of war and the ultimate sacrifice given by many young combatants during the First World War, in particular. Similarly, for those who abstained from participation in that conflict and instead rose with Pádraig Pearse on Easter week, the unnamed Irish Volunteer depicted in the ballad ‘The Dying Rebel’ (1961) is a perfect embodiment of the notions of patriotism and sacrifice which lay at the heart of their efforts. In the tune, the narrator tells listeners of the destructive aftermath of the Rising, crooning,

‘The night was dark, and the fight was over,
The moon shone down O’Connell Street,
I stood alone, where brave men perished
Those men have gone, their God to meet.’

The piece concludes with the narrator’s encounter with an unnamed, dying rebel combatant, who in his last moments, recalls his home in Cork and praises the cause for which he would soon perish. Like the ballad of Willie McBride, the musical tale of the anonymous ‘Dying Rebel’ provides an emotive parallel to the stories of many who fell in a likewise manner during Easter week, 1916.

One such story is that of West Cork’s own Seán Hurley.

A native of Maulagow, Drinagh, Seán Hurley was born the youngest of seven children to John and Catherine Hurley. From an early age, he excelled at his studies, first at Drinagh National School, where he attended from 1893-1901, and later at the Clonakilty Boys School. It was during his time at the latter institution that he received the education that would change the course of his life, and send him on the road to becoming a revolutionary.

Given the economic climate of the times, Hurley and his classmates, amongst whom was Michael Collins, were trained with the skills that would allow them to successfully obtain positions in the British Civil Service. After a year’s study in Clonakilty, Hurley passed the Civil Service exam, and set off for a new life in London (around the same time as Collins in 1906). Upon settling into his new urban environs, Seán became a fixture in the city’s vibrant Irish community, joining both the GAA and the Gaelic League. With regard to the former, the athletic young Corkonian joined the Geraldine GAA Club where, along with his former classmate, Collins, he became a fixture on the hurling squad. In addition to his on-field duties, Hurley also represented the club as auditor at the London County Board meetings. It was in this capacity that he was introduced to another West Cork native, Sam Maguire, who had similarly emigrated to find work in the British Civil Service, and was then Chairman of the London County Board. In 1909, not long after making his acquaintance, Maguire, a native of Mallabraca near Dunmanway, initiated Hurley into the revitalised Irish Republican Brotherhood. In the years that followed, Hurley remained dedicated to the aims of militant-nationalism, utilising his positions in the local GAA and Gaelic League to recruit other like-minded Irish immigrants into the ranks of the IRB. However, Hurley’s charm and rapport within the city’s Irish social circles wasn’t confined to recruiting revolutionaries. It was within the local Fulham branch of the Gaelic League that he became acquainted with fellow Cork expat Kathleen O’Brien, who would later become his fiancée.

In 1913, when the Irish Volunteers were formed, Hurley, Collins, and many of their contemporaries in the IRB quickly joined up and began training in what was known as the German Gymnasium at King’s Cross. However, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 soon brought division to the fighting force’s ranks. John Redmond, operating under an expectation that the war would be short, believed that Volunteer support for the British military effort would ultimately lead to the enactment of Home Rule, and thus championed the recruiting call to ‘restore the freedom of small nations’. London native Seán Nunan, who would later become Secretary to Éamon de Valera and was also involved in both the local IRB and the Volunteers at the time, recalled the situation, noting “…a split occurred in the Volunteers, and those of us who were not in favour of John Redmond’s policy moved our headquarters to St. George’s Hall, Southwark. There was a strong body of IRB men in this…including Sam Maguire, Michael Collins, and Seán McGrath — and it was with this group that I associated.” Similarly, Louis Noble, an English-born member of the Irish Volunteers who had been recruited by Collins after the split to provide the anti-Redmonite faction with military training, later recalled that aside from Collins, Maguire, and McGrath, other notable trainees in the No. 1 Co. of the London Irish Volunteers included Hurley and the renowned writer Pádraig Ó Conaire, both of whom he was already well acquainted with through his involvement with the local chapter of the Gaelic League.

By the summer of 1915, the IRB military council had advanced plans for a rising to the extent that many of the Irish Volunteers in London began inconspicuously relocating across the Irish Sea, and joining local units of the Volunteers in Dublin so that they may be ready for any impending insurrection. Playing upon the earlier recruiting rhetoric for the First World War, Seán Nunan, who himself relocated to Rathfarnham, recalled the excitement of the times, noting “Late in 1915, there were rumours that a Rising was planned in Ireland, and many of us felt that there was the place to fight for a small nation…” It was within this excited political climate that on January 13, 1916, Seán Hurley resigned his position in the accounts department at Harrods of London, and returned to an uncertain future in Dublin. Like many of the returned, militant emigrants, Hurley promptly joined up with a local unit of the Volunteers, settling in with the F Company First Battalion. In the days prior to the Rising, Hurley’s fiancée, Kathleen, who was also back in Ireland visiting her sick mother, pleaded to no avail to the young idealist not to participate in the coming events. In the years that followed, she would actually come to share in her fianceé’s idealism and, after relocating from London to Cork, joined the Cumann na mBan. During two terms of imprisonment for her political activities, Kathleen endured two hunger strikes, the latter of which lasted 19 days.

When the fighting of Easter week began, Hurley and his comrades were ordered to secure the Church Street area, so as to protect the Four Courts and interfere with the movements of British troops to and from both the Royal Barracks and Kingsbridge (Heuston) Station. In the days and weeks following the rising, the British command would reflect that some of the most intense firefights had occurred in this general area, extending up Church Street towards Phibsborough.

Shortly before Elizabeth O’Farrell, white flag in hand, traversed the perils of Moore Street to carry the message of Pádraig Pearse’s unconditional surrender to British military officials early in the afternoon of 24 April, Hurley was mortally wounded by a gunshot to the head. In his waning hours, he was transported down Church Street to Fr. Mathew Hall, where a Capuchin Friar named Fr. Augustine Hayden immediately looked after him. Seeing that his situation was grave, the priest sought to provide the dying rebel with comfort, and afforded him the last rites. According to Fr. Hayden in a note written to the deceased’s mother in the weeks that followed, the young man’s final words were, “tell my mother I died for Ireland”. When imagining the reaction of the forlorn mother receiving this word of her son’s demise, one can’t help but hear echoes of the words of the aforementioned ballad, the ‘dying rebel’,

‘My only son was shot in Dublin, Fighting for his country bold, He fought for Ireland, and Ireland only,’

The Harp and Shamrock, Green, White and Gold.

* Special thanks to the Seán Ó Muirthile Historical Society for information included within this month’s column


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