The First World War and the Easter Rising of 1916 cast shadows which despite the passing of several generations have tended to obscure our understanding and appreciation of what enlisted soldiers and volunteers alike had to endure during and after those conflicts. Sometimes the men on the opposing sides were from the same family and many are the stories which have come down to us in the intervening years of a brother fighting in a British uniform on a battlefield in Flanders while a sibling as an Irish volunteer fought against Irish troops in the Irish capital.
Mary McMahon of Butler’s Lane had a similar story for me when I met her last week. It was her paternal and maternal grandfathers who were on opposing sides 100 years ago. Her mother’s father Edward Keegan was an Irish Volunteer who fought in the South Dublin Union, while her father’s father, Robert Gourley, enlisted in the British Army and was sent to France on 18th July 1915.
Edward Keegan was an actor who performed in Synge’s ‘On Baile’s Strand’ on the Abbey Theatre’s opening night on 28th December 1904. He was also player – member of the original Irish National Theatre Society. A member of the Gaelic League he was instrumental in the founding of St. Laurence O’Toole GAA club in October 1901 and was a founding member of St. Laurence O’Toole pipe band.
An active member of the Irish Volunteers he was a member of “C” Company 4th Battalion Dublin Brigade. He fought in the South Dublin Union under Eamonn Ceannt and was engaged in repelling an attack by British troops when he was seriously injured on the evening of Easter Monday 24th April. Shot through the lung he was removed to hospital where he was treated under the care of Dr. W. Cremin. Detained in the Union hospital for four months he was later transferred to Beaumont Convalescent Home. By the time Keegan was discharged from hospital on 25th August his employer had dismissed him. Prior to his engagement in the South Dublin Union he had been employed in the Advertising Department of the Irish Times and the then Unionist paper regarded his involvement in the Rising as disloyal to the crown.
Edward Keegan had a continuous history of ill health thereafter which curtailed his job opportunities until he was appointed in a temporary capacity in 1922 as a stock taker in the Department of Local Government. He was still employed in that temporary position 16 years later but after further deterioration in his health which resulted in extended sick leave his pay from the Department was stopped. Edward Keegan died on 20th September 1938 from bronchitis which was directly related to the lung wound he had incurred 22 years earlier. He was just 55 years old.
On the 25th anniversary of the Easter Rising the Abbey Theatre authorities erected a plaque to commemorate the Abbey actors, playwrights and staff who had participated in the Rising. Regretfully Edward Keegan’s name was not included on that plaque, but the omission has now been corrected.
At the same time Robert Gourley, a native of Derry, had enlisted to fight in France. He survived the war and with his second wife and family lived over 51 Lower Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street, Dublin. He died ten years after Edward Keegan, aged 65 years. His son Alexander married Molly Keegan, daughter of the 1916 veteran, bringing together two families which history had put on opposing sides during the 1914/18 war.
Recently several generations of the Keegan and Gourley families of several generations came together in Wynn’s Hotel Dublin to celebrate the life of Edward Keegan as part of the 1916 commemorations. It was in Wynn’s Hotel on 11th November 1913 that Eoin MacNeill and a small group first met to plan the rally held in Dublin’s Rotunda 12 days later at which the Irish Volunteer movement was formally founded.
The short life of Edward Keegan was celebrated by his descendants and the descendants of Robert Gourley and in honouring the 1916 Volunteer both families were acknowledging that loyalties of the past are in the Ireland of the 21st century no longer divisive in a mature and all embracing nation. The Irish men and women of Easter 1916 and their British Army counterparts, whether soldiers in Flanders or Dublin, deserve to be remembered with honour. The Irish Times, which dismissed Edward Keegan for disloyalty in 1917, recently purchased his 1916 medal at a New York auction and that medal will soon go on public display in the Irish Times building. Attitudes have changed in the Irish Times and indeed they reflect the changing attitudes in today’s Irish society.
The death last week of Athy born Michael Keane, the last editor of the Sunday Press, at a relatively young age, is a tragic loss to Irish journalism. Michael who attended the local Christian Brothers School was part of that brilliant group of students who graduated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was editor of the Sunday Press when the Press newspapers closed and was remembered by his colleagues as a brilliant journalist.