My Grandfather the IRA man, My Grandfather the RAF man
My father’s father, Barney Duffy, after whom I’m named, took part in the events of Easter 1916, albeit in a non-combatant role. A thirteen-year-old half-starved product of the tenements, he was a messenger boy for Eamon de Valera’s division at Boland’s Mills during the week of fighting. Within earshot was one of the bloodiest engagements of the Rising, the Battle of Mount Street Bridge. Although de Valera’s command saw no direct action, they were heavily shelled.
Exactly what my Grandfather saw or felt that week we will never know. These were dangerous and deeply divided times, and one did not wear their politics on their sleeves if they wanted to live long. What we do know was passed on in conspiratorial hush from great-aunts: tales of hidden guns, house-searches and dubious goings-on. One story recounted is of how, during the War of Independence, a nineteen-year-old Barney was at a card game when the Black & Tans suddenly raided. The lined-up men were subject to arbitrary decimation, an officer executing one of the card-players with a pistol-shot to the face. In something of an own-goal, it later transpired that the hapless victim was a British Army soldier at home on leave.
The savagery of the times apparently had a sobering effect on Barney. He ducked out of political activism by the time of the even more bloody Civil War. He had kids to care for by then. In fact, his young wife Molly would go on to give birth to 15 children over the next 30-odd years, the youngest of whom was my Dad, who wrote a book on the family history.
My mother’s father, Johnny Quinn, was born two decades after Barney, in the mid-1920’s. He was a child of the Free-State, as the island once again receded into a peaceful backwater. He joined the RAF as a nurse early in WWII. There was no work to be had in Dublin, and as the eldest son he had a duty to make a path for his younger siblings. I was fortunate enough to have lived with my Grandad for a year when I was a teenager. I later discovered that he was more candid with me about his wartime experiences than anyone else in the family – something I feel privileged for.
Johnny didn’t have an easy time of it in the service. He was stationed in Kent and sent every penny he made home. His family in Dublin sent care packages to him – none of which he ever received. The packages would usually be intercepted at the officers mess and the spoils divided among them. Often he was summoned there so they could mock him to his face. They called him “Paddy” and “potato eater,” but he learned to remain composed and endured it with dignity until he was demobbed after the Berlin Airlifts in 1950. He worked in the burns unit, treating severe injuries of some of the very same men who had tormented him. He was the kindest, gentlest and most generous man I have ever known.
So painful were my grandfather Johnny’s memories of RAF service that he proudly refused its pension on retirement, finding his Irish state pension sufficient. He became an important man in North Inner-City Dublin in the 1950’s and 1960’s as a union rep. His base of operations was in Cleary’s pub on Amiens Street where he had his own snug on which hung a plaque “Johnny Quinn’s Bunker” in reference to his war service. There was a certain stigma to Irishmen who joined the British Army, but non-combatant roles were tolerated and even joked about, as Johnny’s plaque demonstrated. (Incidentally, the snug was used as the filming location of IRA commander Michael Collins’ prefered drinking refuge in the film of his life).
Both my grandfathers played their role in history and I am proud of them for that, but neither were fighters and I’m grateful for that too. They were both exemplary fathers to their children and worked hard to give them the best in life, and they passed on a rich heritage. Barney and Johnny only met a couple of times, before Barney’s death prior to the hasty wedding of my parents (where I was already growing in my mother’s belly). I have often wondered what they made of each other at those meetings, these two looming characters in my life story. One thing I can be certain of, is that on the occasion no words would have been wasted on politics – who fought or who served the British – it wasn’t an issue or a consideration, even though matters continued to rage up North. Indeed, I am the first in my family to ever bring up this contrast between the two.
I believe myself to be of a generation of Irish that rolls its eyes or excuses itself from the table at the slightest hint of sectarian talk. I never met an Englishman I didn’t like, even after three years living in the UK. I don’t think in terms of “us” and “them” at all – we are perhaps the most closely related of two cultures anywhere in the world. The very concept of nationalism seems terribly outdated. Easter 1916, however, is important. Not in a patriotic sense, but in an historical one, and nothing more. I feel that most Irish people, wherever they are in the world, would agree. It is part of our identity, part of our creation myth. And it’s not simply about the moral superiority or brutality, treachery or martyrdom, on either side – it’s about the experience of the common people and those who came after them to carry that memory.
Part of this article, about Barney Duffy, appeared in interview form in The Guardian on March 27th, 2016.