Monday, September 15, 2014


by AIDAN O'SHEA    © 2/8/2010 

My cousin never saw her father. Bernard died on September 15th, 1941, four months before she was born. A massive heart attack, the hallmark of the O'Shea males, felled him at the age of 39 years. He had been 18 years old in 1920 when the War of Independence erupted in Ireland. It was a conflict characterised by ambush and guerrilla stealth on the Irish side, and by curfew, repression, summary arrest and military trial by the governing British forces. Small wonder that Bernard, a printer by trade and an avid reader, was swept up in "The Boys". This affectionate title for The Irish Republican Army (IRA) conveys the covert support and protection then provided by the local nationalist population.

During martial law and curfew in Cork City in 1920-21, each household was obliged to post a list of family members on the inside of the front door. When raided by the police, or the dreaded paramilitary Black and Tans, Bernard's mother struggled to explain his absence, claiming overtime and night working as the reason. The truth was that Bernard was on the run, living hand to mouth in safe houses between acts of sabotage and violence against the forces of British law and order.

A truce with Britain in July 1921 was followed by a treaty establishing an Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann). The treaty was approved by a majority in the provisional Irish parliament (Dáil) and by the people in a subsequent general election. But Bernard's rebel heart could not accept this half-way house to a republic, and he joined the resistance against the nascent state. This resistance dragged on into a bloody civil war lasting into the early months of 1923. Families, friends and IRA comrades were divided during that dark period.

History tells us that many of the republicans left Ireland after the amnesty ending the civil war, while others regrouped under De Valera to form the Fianna Fáil Party, which won a majority in the general election of 1932. Despite the passage of time and the politicisation of republican support, a small group of so-called diehard republicans vowed to resist the Free State and its partition from the six counties of Northern Ireland. This diehard group re-activated during World War Two (1939-45), in which The Irish Free State was neutral. Bernard went on the run yet again, despite being married with two daughters and another baby on the way. Many republicans were interned without trial by the Irish government to stifle any subversive contacts with Nazi Germany.  Then Bernard's fevered life of idealism, fanatical resistance and flight came to a sudden end in 1941.

So, as I have said, my cousin never saw her father, although she was named Bernadette in his honour.  Neither did I see her father, as I was born a few months after her. But I was thrilled in a childish way by his acts of daring and defiance. I failed to see the struggle that his widow Christine endured, raising three girls in the bleak years of the 1940s, trying to add to her meagre pension by doing housework for others. She died in November 1957, aged 54 years. Bernadette was 15 years old and it was then that I lost her. She went to live with her older sister who had qualified as a nurse in England. That entire branch of the family went to the very country whose imperial power their father had resisted.  A pall of distance and silence separated us.

Fast forward fifty years (1957-2007). Ann Cantwell, a client in my pharmacy at Blackpoool, casually mentioned that she might be related to me through marriage. Her late aunt Christine was married to Bernard O'Shea. Not only that, but my lost cousin Bernadette was writing regularly to Ann from Harvey Bay, Queensland, Australia.  Two email addresses and a couple of clicks of a mouse later, we were in touch!

Bernadette's story unfolded like this. Having left school at 15 without a certificate, she left Ireland at 16, worked in unskilled jobs around Portsmouth, and then joined The Royal Air Force!  Did she hesitate over her oath of loyalty to the Crown? This experience gave her discipline, training and the ambition to progress. She trained as a nurse, married a policeman and they subsequently divorced. At the age of 37, she took an assisted passage to Australia, under a scheme to encourage immigrants from the mother country (UK). She worked in hospitals in Sydney, progressing to the rank of a theatre nurse, and then joined the nursing corps of The Australian Army. There she met Bob Ney, a veteran of the Vietnam War, and they married. They had no children, and now work voluntarily for the many widows and injured veterans of the Vietnam campaign, and laterally of the Afghanistan campaign.

Bernadette and Bob recently spent a week in Cork meeting the lost cousins of her youth, chatting in her lilting Cork accent about her early life in Dillon's Cross and school at South Pres convent.  She was full of enthusiasm for the extended family.   Cork bore her but Britain and Australia made her. She was very pleased to learn that my son is named Cormac Bernard O'Shea, and that he lives in Sydney, Australia.

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