It was only after the IRA ceasefire that I began once again to be proud of my family’s political past. For more than two generations, it’s been doctors, solicitors, dentists and teachers. Like many Irish families we’ve been happy to lengthen our names with the prefixes and acronyms of professional achievement, while glossing over the patriotic killing and the willing sacrifice of an earlier generation that fought two terrible wars for our unborn lives. Now, after Canary Wharf, Manchester and Lisburn, it should have been back to silence and material success. But a complication has emerged, which threatens to bar our family’s return to its amnesiac state. Michael Collins, Neil Jordan’s film, is not about us as a family, but we are part of its revolutionary story and provide much of its romance.
In May 1917, Michael Collins came down for a few days to Longford, one of those anonymous midland counties that tourists in Ireland pass through quickly on the way to somewhere they’ve been told to go. It is a boggy and flat array of fields, interrupted by a few main streets calling themselves towns. Only the partisan eye would call it beautiful, which I do, but then I was born and reared there, going first to school at Granard’s Convent of Mercy and then on to Abbeylara National, where I had three classmates until amalgamation with Springstown swelled our numbers to eight. Back in May 1917, Longford was briefly in the imperial eye. Joe McGuinness, a Sinn Fein prisoner interned by the British after the Easter Rising, had the temerity to challenge the established Irish party for a seat at Westminster. It was to help run McGuinness’s by-election campaign on behalf of their new party that Collins had come down. The place was plastered with pictures of McGuinness in his prison uniform, under the slogan ‘Put him in to get him out.’
Astonishingly, Joe McGuinness won the seat, by 37 votes. He was the first Sinn Feiner elected to Westminster and his success gave an inkling of the great triumph that the Party was to enjoy in the 1918 General Election. It certainly helped McGuinness that his family were well-established in Longford. His niece married a local man and their second son, born in 1930, was my father. As a child, I used to help out at one of the two stores run by Auntie Bee, Joe’s spinster niece. This McGuinness background was a great source of pride to all of us, in those days in the Sixties when it was not complicated to be a Republican. I used to wish that McGuinness was my surname and not this Gearty one that no one could pronounce.
While Collins was campaigning in Longford, a relation of McGuinness’s, Brigid Lyons Thornton, suggested that he stay in the Greville Arms Hotel in Granard, a small town 16 miles from Longford town. ‘Auntie Thornton’, as we called her, was also involved in the Republican movement: on this occasion, however, it wasn’t subversion but match-making that was on her mind. Collins might have been a revolutionary leader in the making, but he was also a grand fellow from west Cork and Auntie Thornton thought he should meet the Kiernan girls from Granard.
The Greville Arms was a small family hotel run by Larry Kiernan and his four sisters, Chrys, Kitty, Helen and Maud, all ‘lovely glamorous girls’, as Auntie Thornton described them to Collins. When their parents died within a couple of months of each other in 1908, Larry, then aged only 17, was left at the helm of a business that included not only the hotel but also a grocery and hardware store, a timber yard and an undertaking business. His sisters were no ordinary country girls. The family’s guardian and relative Andrew Cusack, a draper in the town, arranged for them to be sent as boarders up to Dublin to be educated in Padraig Pearse’s experimental school, St Ita’s. This was an extraordinary decision for any family in Ireland at that time, even more so for one from the depths of the country. St Ita’s was a place where young ladies visited museums in school hours, held classes in the garden and immersed themselves in Ireland’s Celtic culture. The girls there read Yeats and Synge as contemporary writers and steeped themselves in the myths and folklore of ancient Ireland. Above all, they encountered advanced Irish nationalism as a political force. One of their teachers was the daughter of the legendary Charles Gavan Duffy, who led a noble but futile revolution against the British at the height of the Famine in 1848. A few years after the Kiernan girls left his school, Pearse was executed by the British for leading another rebellion.
The Kiernan sisters took a bit of the creative atmosphere of St Ita’s back to Granard on their return. By the time Collins came to stay, they were helping Larry to run the family’s concerns with bohemian zest and flair. They had their clothes designed by a cousin (another Granard adventurer, who had been tutor to a maharajah in India), held grand parties and sang and played music together. Their style and beauty drew the county’s talented and hopeful young to the town, and turned the hotel into a centre of elegance and excitement, a kind of Bloomsbury standing alone in the midlands of Ireland. Before Partition and the triumph of the motor-car, Granard was the sort of place where tradespeople happily stopped for a night on the way to Belfast or Dublin or Galway. It was a humming, prosperous town. Larry became chairman of the district council, bred and showed hunters at the Royal Dublin Show and rode with the Longford Harriers.