Saturday, 26 November 2016

A woman in Ballyshannon remembers the 1916 Rising period in Dublin


Susan and Cecil Stephens


The fascinating memoirs of a lady who spent the greater part of her life in Ballyshannon, reveals the role played by her, in events in Dublin during the 1916 period and later, and are now published for the first time. Susan O’Daly, as a young woman in Dublin, witnessed the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Rising and learned of the execution of one of her teachers, Thomas McDonagh, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. She acted as a courier during the independence struggle and was a classmate of Ernie O’Malley. Susan also took a keen interest in Gaelic culture, was an Irish speaker, and engaged in the politics of the day. In the 1918 Election she canvassed for the Sinn Féin party and was present in the Mansion House for the opening of the First Dáil on the 21st January 1919. In her memoirs she tells of the destruction in the heart of Dublin, the effects of the Great Flu of 1918 and her meetings with Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith.

Early Days of the G.A.A. in Ballyshannon

Meanwhile back in Ballyshannon Cecil Stephens of Castle Street, was immersing himself in Gaelic culture. Branches of the Stephens’ family were engaged in the commercial life of Ballyshannon with major interests in hardware, stationery and fancy goods in Castle Street and an extensive drapery business at the bottom of Main Street where the Saimer Court Shopping Centre is located today. Susan O’Daly, a native of Monaghan, had a family link with Ballyshannon as her uncle Fr. James O’Daly was curate at St. Joseph’s Church in the town. He was actively involved in the formation of the Aodh Ruadh Hurling & Football Club in October 1909. The meeting that formed the new GAA Club was called by Fr. O’Daly a native of Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, who placed a great emphasis on the promotion and preservation of not alone Gaelic games but all aspects of Irish culture. Fr. O’Daly became the first President of the club and subsequently two of his nieces, Susan and Mary, who would have regularly visited him, married two related local businessmen, Cecil and John Stephens. Cecil Stephens was the first secretary of the Aodh Ruadh Gaelic football club and also was secretary of the Gaelic League who were engaged in the promotion of the Irish language. Susan O’Daly married Cecil Stephens in 1922 and resided in Ballyshannon for the remainder of her life. Susan has left her memoirs of life in her native County Monaghan, her exciting student days in Dublin during the 1916 period and her subsequent life as a teacher and a mother in Ballyshannon. This article reflects on the 1916 period in Dublin through the eyes of a woman who witnessed the historic beginnings of this country.


Group of men on road and footpath outside Stephens premises and home.

A Witness and Participant in Events in Dublin in 1916
Susan O’Daly was a first year student at University College Dublin in 1916 and like many other students was on Easter holiday, back in her native Clonturk in County Monaghan, when the Rising commenced. On her return to Dublin she witnessed the destruction and smouldering buildings:

The city was practically deserted and only a couple of small groups were in Grafton Street whispering fearfully with white faces. There was nobody then till we came to O’Connell Bridge. There was the smoke rising from the broken glass and rubble that had fallen all-round the G.P.O. and across the road, and more smoke and rubble about Capel Street and in the Liberty Hall area.  I don’t think we could have got through the heat and smoke and very likely the Dublin Metropolitan Police would not allow us through.

Susan gathered up some broken glass and other bits of rubble outside the G.P.O. to keep as mementos of the Rising. She was actively involved in the Gaelic League and her sympathies were with the Rising, and she remembered attending frequent masses for the repose of the soul of deceased rebels. Many students were in active sympathy with the fight for independence and she regularly attended at Kilmainham and Mountjoy jails, when those arrested were being transported to the North Wall on their way to English jails. Students then marched beside the military escorts to show solidarity with the detainees, cheered on the prisoners and broke through the ranks of the military.These impromptu gatherings of students were often organised by her classmate Ernie O’Malley who was a major figure in the guerrilla war during the War of Independence. The air of unease was everywhere in the city and Susan recalled those uncertain day:

The arrests went on, the city was packed with military armed to the teeth. We were beaten to the ropes, our leaders’ dead- and those who had gone to fight in Flanders for small nations were completely disillusioned. It was not just the executions that turned the whole country into a rebel camp, these were many of the factors but unknown to us teenagers the underground had already taken root.

Susan noted how the executions of the leaders of 1916 played a crucial role in turning public opinion in favour of the rebellion. Also the impact of the 1916 Rising on the Irish born troops, in places like Flanders in Belgium  in World War One,  must have been one of confusion, as the 1916 Rising took the general population completely unawares. Susan was also appalled by the slums and by the dirt, rags and immense poverty in Dublin in 1916.

Student Days and Revolutionary Meetings
Susan O’Daly had been a past pupil of St. Louis Convent in Carrickmacross where she successfully obtained a county council scholarship to attend University College Dublin. Her family background was modest as her parents had a three roomed thatched house with a hearth fire, a settle bed in the kitchen and a few stools and basic fittings. The scholarship meant that she could receive an education that otherwise might have been beyond her family means and she certainly made the most of her opportunity. She completed a B.A, a B. Comm. H.Dip. and graduated with first class honours and first place in the B.Comm. class of 1920. As a young student she was very much taken with the fashions of the day and noted that there were no teenagers in her youth just ‘school girls’ or ‘young ladies’. The girls wore their hair long or in plaits but on entering the university grounds they had to put their hair up. Hats were always worn out of doors by both women and men. There were no cosmetics in use, just a touch of powder to take the shine off their features. There were no low necks, except evening dresses, and skirts were long. For entertainment they went to a lot of ceilídhes, dances and concerts in the Round Room of the Mansion House:

In Powerscourt House in Parnell Square we danced and had supper, all for 2/6- while upstairs the I.R.B. held their meetings. I suppose in case of a raid they could mingle with the dancers. Usually some of the St. Enda’s boys would call for us.

Susan Daly was familiar with some of the activities of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.) who had planned the Rising and also knew students attending Patrick Pearse’s all Irish school called St. Enda’s. She had a flat in a house in Harcourt Street and recalled attending meetings, in the house, attended by Belfast rebels and Ernest Blythe and Darrell Figgis were in attendance.

The 1918 Election and her role as a Courier to Michael Collins
The 1918 Election saw many young people including Susan O’Daly canvassing for the Sinn Féin Party. She recalled that, with a friend, she canvassed all the house on Leeson Street in Dublin. She also remembered cycling to Newry, a distance of 75 miles, to assist with the election there by helping out in the committee rooms. Fortunately she got back to Dublin in a van which also carried her bicycle.  Also in 1918 she assisted in nursing duties during the devastating Big Flu commonly called the Spanish Flu which killed millions all over Europe. She recalled a constant stream of hearses moving thorough O’Connell Street on their way to Glasnevin Cemetery ‘all day every day’.  The university was closed and she offered her services to assist the suffering flu victims. Back at home in Monaghan the Great Flu also had an impact on her family, with her Aunt Mary suffering great pain and anguish as two of her young children died from the flu. On completion of her B.Comm. she was looking for any kind of work and was interviewed by Arthur Griffith, the Sinn Fein leader; she also remembered meeting Michael Collins when she and another girl delivered a message to him.:

I went to 6 Harcourt Street to ask Arthur Griffith for a job of work. He was very shy and quiet and asked me how good I was at Irish. I told him truthfully that I could read and write it better than I could speak it, and he said he was in the same boat and that’s exactly all I remember about it. But that was a time when Arthur Griffith was a very ordinary individual, not likely to go down in history. The same applies to Michael Collins whose hide-out I visited accompanied by an older girl with a message of some sort. He was working at a typewriter in a cellar-like room in St. Ita’s in Rathmines. I think that it was part of the St. Enda’s school (for girls). I thought him a rough diamond.

Susan O’Daly later taught in the St. Louis Convent in Carrickmacross, and the Technical school in Naas. Whilst in Naas she frequently acted as a courier, during the War of Independence, bringing dispatches to and from Dublin where she frequently spent the week-ends. She was ‘not in the know’ but was a young woman who was willing to play a part in the national struggle. This was during the dangerous days of the War of Independence when the Black and Tans were active, ‘the atrocities were mounting up and the jails filling up, and it was a losing fight for the rebels’. She frequently brought messages from a Mr. Maher in Naas to various people in Dublin which she delivered by bicycle. Frequently the messages were for Michael Collins:

More or less weekly he gave me an envelope containing ‘information’ and this I was to smuggle to Kingsbridge and surreptitiously slip it to one Sean O’Connell, a porter. He then took it over and handed it to Michael Collins who at the time was staying hidden in the Ossory Hotel in Gardiner Street. I forget the name of the lady who owned the hotel-she hid him well! I just don’t remember how long I continued doing this job, but even when I was away doing summer courses I used to return frequently to the flat for weekends and do any job that was wanted.
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Maher had been a member of the R.I.C in the offices in Naas. All communications between the British Military in the South and Dublin Castle, passed back and forth through Naas, where Maher typed a copy before forwarding them. The typed copies were then passed on to Michael Collins through couriers like Susan O’Dolan. On one occasion Maher gave Susan O’Dolan a note of appreciation from Michael Collins:

Mr. Maher gave me a note from Michael Collins, to me, about three typewritten lines signed by himself about his appreciation of my work! I kept it a long time, but we had been visited in the flat in Naas by the R.I.C. and I got cold feet. As I had no sure place for hiding it in a small flat, Mollie and I decided it would be better to burn it. Actually we were raided by the Military, and a woman searcher later, and they searched every inch of the flat.

Mollie McCarthy whom she mentioned above was a friend from her Cumann na mBan days in Dublin and who was working in the Munster and Leinster bank in Naas, where they shared accommodation.

Susan O’Daly an Eyewitness to The First Dáil  
On the 21st January 1919 the Sinn Féin elected members refused to attend the parliament in Westminster but, instead, declared their independence by meeting in Dublin. This was a challenge to the British government and was at the beginning of the War of Independence. Susan O’Daly got an invitation to witness this historic event and was among the audience, in the Mansion House Round Room, who looked on in some trepidation but with a sense of great pride.

I have a vivid recollection of the whole procedure- Fr. Flanagan began with a prayer. Then the reading of the proclamation in Irish, English and French and on to the roll call every second name called, met with the response “Faoi glas in nGallaibh” (in prison in England) and this rang out through the whole building. I can still hear it! Outside, Dawson Street was packed with people, spilling over into Molesworth Street and St. Stephen’s Green.

 Fr. Flanagan, the priest who said the prayer at the beginning of the First Dáil, had been stationed, at an earlier stage, in Cliffoney Co. Sligo, where he championed the people’s right of access to the turf bog which was being denied. Susan recalled that there was a tremendous air of excitement around the meeting of the First Dáil, but this was tinged with fear that there would be a raid by the British military, with perhaps wholesale arrests and shootings.

I wonder how many in the Round Room and in the streets outside thought the whole performance an act of sheer madness-the idea of defying the might of the British Empire. What reasonable person could think it possible that a Dáil could ever be established! Certainly not in 1919; it just couldn’t happen! But it did!

Cecil Stephens and Married Life in  Castle Street Ballyshannon

AGM notice for  Aodh Ruadh Hurling and Football Club 1910
Cecil Stephens was the first  Secretary.

On her marriage to Cecil Stephens in 1922 Susan O’Daly devoted her life to family, the business and their shared love of Gaelic culture and music. She would still be remembered by members of the community, as she was engaged in the extensive family hardware and fancy goods business on Castle Street in the town. A teacher by profession, with her commercial training, she was well suited to keeping the financial records for the business. She also established an Argosy lending library in the shop and this was popular with the local population, as they could rent books, at a nominal cost, long before the days of television and public libraries. Her husband Cecil played an active role in the development of the G.A.A, the Gaelic League and was a member of the delegation from Ballyshannon to the Boundary Commission in Enniskillen in 1925. Cecil Stephens was for many years Town Clerk, Conductor of Ballyshannon Brass and Reed Band, Conductor of the local Musical Society and a founder of the Donegal Democrat along with John Downey. 

Susan and Cecil Stephens had four children; Donal, Nan (Sister Colmcille), Aiden and Cecil. Susan Stephens died on 7th May 1979 and is interred in Abbey Assaroe alonside her husband Cecil. Very few outside her family circle knew that Susan Stephens (nee O’Daly) had been in Dublin during the 1916 period and that she had been active in Cumann na mBan, acted as a courier in the War of Independence and had participated in much of the beginning of modern Ireland.

This article is dedicated to the memory Cecil Stephens (Jun.) son of Susan and Cecil Stephens who shared his parents’ love for Ballyshannon. 


Local History book available in Local Shops or for Postal Delivery. Ideal Christmas Gift.

"Ballyshannon Genealogy and History" available tp purchase in The Novel Idea, Ballyshannon Museum, O'Neills, Clearys and Local Hands in Ballyshannon. Available also in Four Master's Bookshop in Donegal Town. For postal details contact anthonyrbegley@hotmail.com


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