Tuesday, May 31, 2016

James Joseph O'Byrne, Irish patriot

Last week the Irish Times carried an article on the closure of Ardscoil Eanna in Crumlin, Dublin.  Founded in 1939 by James Joseph O’Byrne, a former teacher in the Christian Brothers School in Athy, it was opened four years after the closure of Padraig Pearse’s St. Enda’s School.  Indeed in an interview I had with Denis Langton in 2001 J.J. O’Byrne, as he was known in Athy, was described as a friend of the 1916 leader who was sent down the country to organise the Gaelic League.  

J.J. O’Byrne’s was the son of an evicted tenant farmer from Valleymount, Co. Wicklow, who as a young man attended St. James’s School in Dublin before graduating with an arts degree from University College Dublin.  He subsequently taught in St. Augustine’s School Waterford before taking up a teaching post in Athy’s secondary school in 1916.  He was an active member of the Gaelic League in Athy as well as being a leading member of the local Sinn Fein Club.  The first reference I found to J.J. O’Byrne in the local papers of the time was in the Nationalist and Leinster Times of 11th May 1918 when it reported on his speech at a Sinn Fein meeting regarding difficulties experienced by local traders due to the shortage of silver coins.  Apparently the war time shortage was so severe that the authorities had great difficulty in paying outdoor relief and old age pensions.  A few weeks later J.J. O’Byrne was again a prominent speaker at a Sinn Fein meeting held in Emily Square to protest against the arrest of the Sinn Fein leaders.  He addressed another Sinn Fein meeting in Stradbally towards the end of June 1918 where a fellow speaker was Dr. Higgins, father of Kevin Higgins, both of whom would in later years be killed. 

On Thursday 15th August 1918 J.J. O’Byrne read a statement in Emily Square as part of a nationwide event organised by the Sinn Fein movement.  The statement, which issued after Sinn Fein’s success in the Cavan by-election, under the name of Michael O’Flanagan, Vice President and acting President of Sinn Fein, claimed that both sets of belligerent at the Versailles Peace Conference would have to support self determination for Ireland ‘which has at last emerged into the full sunlight of national consciousness and no power on earth can drive us back.’  The statement I believe was to have been read by P.P. Doyle of Woodstock Street but for whatever reason J.J. O’Byrne had to step in and ensure that the Sinn Fein plans for the day were fulfilled.  Inevitably he was arrested the following day and while kept in custody was not tried for almost two weeks.  The Athy Board of Guardians at its next meeting passed a vote of protest at O’Bryne’s arrest which all the members with the exception of the Chairman T.J. Whelan supported.  Athy Urban District Council also condemned the British government ‘for arresting and imprisoning Irish men without charge’. 

J.J. O’Byrne was one of seven men court martialled in Maryborough (Portlaoise) at the end of August 1918.  The name on the charge sheet read ‘James John O’Byrne’ and the prisoner was reported to have failed to answer when asked if he was J.J. O’Byrne of Duke Street, Athy.  After arguing that he was not handed the charge sheet O’Byrne refused to give his name or to recognise the Court.  Sergeant Heffernan of the R.I.C. Athy gave evidence that on Thursday 15th August at Emily Square he saw a group of approximately 200 men whom O’Byrne addressed.  The Sergeant had a copy of O’Byrne’s statement, the reading of which he claimed lasted for approximately 15 minutes.  He described the statement as the Sinn Fein manifesto.  O’Byrne, he declared, was known as J.J. O’Byrne which was the name on the card in the house in Duke Street where he lived.  Sergeant Heffernan knew O’Byrne for the previous two years to which O’Byrne replied, ‘my names is James Joseph, not James John.’  Convicted as charged O’Byrne was further remanded in custody and two weeks later was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment.

J.J. O’Byrne was married with four young children when he was imprisoned.  He had married Esther Bates from East Wall, Dublin in 1910 having met her at a Gaelic League meeting.  They would eventually have a family of 12 children, one of whom, their daughter Maureen, married Sean Moore of Rheban.  The O’Byrne family lived for many years on a farm in Barrowhouse at a time when J.J. was teaching in Westland Row Christian Brothers School.  The family left Athy in March 1937 and two years later J.J. opened Ardscoil Eanna in Crumlin.  The school was founded on the principles of Pearse’s St. Enda’s School and one of the first teachers employed was Pearse’s sister Margaret.

J.J. O’Byrne died in January 1966 just four months after the death of his wife Esther.  He was one of the many forgotten patriots whose involvement in the Gaelic League and Sinn Fein during the troubled years of the War of Independence made those of us who came after them proud of our town’s past.

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