Midland families’ stories feature in new Val Cox book

The arrival of the Black and Tans, the Civil War, the foundation of the Irish Republic were all milestones along the road to the formation of the Irish state – and there are countless families around Ireland where people grew up hearing first hand accounts of those times.

The current pandemic is an episode of a similarly seismic nature, but over the long months of lockdown, journalist Valerie Cox tracked down people willing to delve deep into their memories and share the stories which were the lore of their youth.

Among them were several midland families through whose accounts we get an insight into how life was during those times. The result is the engaging ‘Independence memories: a people’s portrait of the early days of the Irish nation’, published by Hachette, giving anecdotes that show how these significant historical events impacted on families, and giving a behind-the-scenes insight into various incidents and events that helped shape this country.

“This book was mainly written through the magic of the telephone and Zoom calls,” says Valerie, a familiar face from shows such as Tonight and Ireland AM, explaining the impact the Covid restrictions had on the process of interviewing her subjects.

Despite the fact that she was denied the opportunity to meet her interview subjects face to face, Valerie emerged with amazingly engaging interviews, spiced up with some surprising detail, such as the reminiscences of Sr Ethna Swan and her brother Professor Des Swan from Lobinstown in Meath, who remembered their grandmother growing tobacco on her farm at Carlanstown, near Kells, and who recalled that when they wanted refreshments while attending the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, it wasn’t Coke or Fanta that was on offer: “If you were thirsty you went up to a boy scout and he gave you a scoop of buttermilk!”

Offalian Martin Meleady was, Valerie was told, “the Che Guevara of the Tullamore area”.

Martin’s story was shared with Valerie by his grandson, Martin Mulrennan, who revealed that not alone was his grandfather the quartermaster of the Offaly IRA Brigade, but three of his grandfather’s six sisters were in Cumann na mBan (the other three became Holy Faith sisters).

Among the responsibilities of the Meleady sisters was that of delivering messages and weapons, by bike, to volunteers around Tullamore, Clara, Kilbeggan, Ballycommon and Killeigh.

Martin Meleady lived at Croghan, and his grandson recalled as a seven-year-old seeing his grandfather in a contretemps with a political adversary in Tyrrellspass one day.

Stories of the Egan family of Croghan, near Tyrrellspass are also told in the book. Valerie writes: “They fought in the Civil War and produced a TD, an army chief of staff and a son who studied medicine with Kevin Barry.”

The family was divided in its views during the Civil War and for a time afterwards, but a proud day for the younger generation was when the president of Ireland, Seán T Ó Ceallaigh came in the 1950s to attend a feis held at Croghan Hill, accompanied in his official capacity by the army chief of staff Major Liam T Egan.

The savagery of the Black and Tans is recalled by a number of interviewees, but one of the most shocking accounts is of how at a pub in Fermoy, when asked to keep the noise down as there was a man seriously ill next door, they responded by entering the house and taking the patient out and throwing him in the Blackwater River, where they then attempted to shoot him. They then set fire to his house.

The book is a fascinating read: “I really loved writing this book, engaging with people whose parents and grandparents lived remarkable lives and whose contribution to the Ireland we have today may not have been documented until now,” says Valerie.