Friday 30 March 2018

How an Aran Island policeman saved Eamon De Valera's blushes.

                   Eamon DeValera and the Garda from the Aran Islands.

Eamonn De Valera admiring the new statue, after unveiling it in June 1935

The recent unveiling of a replica, by sculptor Maurice Quillinan, of the famous Pádraic O Conaire statue in Eyre Square, Galway, has brought back memories of the day the original was unveiled in 1935. 

President Michael D Higgins and the new bronze replica, which he unveiled on 23rd November 2017

The man chosen to do the unveiling in 1935 was the new Taoiseach, Eamon De Valera and but for the keen eye of a Garda from the Aran Islands, the unveiling would have been much more notable than it was.

Pádraic is one of the most important literary figures in twentieth century Ireland and worked mainly through the medium of Irish.
After a short lifetime as a British civil servant, full time writer, journalist and wanderer, Pádraic died in 1928 at the very young age of 46. Many have mistakenly assumed that he lived to be an old man.

The severe limitations of making a living while writing in Irish, resulted in him being broke and in poor circumstances for the last years of his life. Like many an Irish writer before and since, Pádraic had a great love for public houses and the characters who frequented them.

Pádraic O Conaire (Conroy) Born Galway town 1882 and died in Dublin in 1928.

Older readers may well remember his book, M'asal beag dubh (My little black ass) from their school days and which is still in great demand.
A much loved school book from long ago

We once heard from one of Galway's best known historians, Tom Kenny, a story of Padraic and a friend of his, Tim Keane. Tim lived in a little house, a few yards above high water mark, just past the end of Beach Avenue in Salthill. This writer can remember it well from the early 60s when it was rented out to visiting families during the summer.

It's long gone now and the spot ended up a long way from the shore, when the new prom was built in the late 60s. Tim always had a bed for Pádraic and on one visit Tim was bemoaning the terrible disaster that had befallen him the week previously when a huge sea had washed ashore and drowned most of his hens.
  Pádraic was not long in reminding Tim of ignored advice he had often given him.
"Didn't I tell you often enough Tim, that its not hens you should be keeping, but ducks"
The place on Galway docks where Páraic O Conaire was born in 1882. Although Pádraic is popularly known as "sean  Pháraic" (old Patrick), many are surprised to learn that he was only forty six years old when he died.

Padraic's people came from Ros Muc in Connemara and he spent much of his childhood there after his mother died when he was eleven. He and Eamon De Valera had attended Blackrock college together. The new limestone statue, unveiled in 1935, was by the famous Dublin sculptor, Albert Power and has become one of the most iconic symbols of Galway in the years since.

Dublin sculptor Albert Power with his almost completed statue, shortly before its removal to Galway.
Carved from a single block of  Durrow, County Laois, limestone.
 In the years since 1935 the statue was exposed to both the weather and the vast numbers who felt compelled to have their photos taken with Padraic. The statue was moved on a number of occasions and the final indignity happened in 1999 when some drunken latchicos removed his head.
Although it was recovered, it was decided to restore the statue and then site it permanently in the Galway city museum. Decapitating  a famous statue is not unknown and the people of Copenhagen were almost as outraged as the people of Galway, when their famous Little Mermaid was decapitated twice, in 1964 and 1998.
Galway City museum, near the Spanish Arch, is well worth a visit. Apart from the original statue, the museum is full of reminders of days gone by. The new statue in Eyre Square is a bronze replica of the original.

The new bronze replica, unveiled by President Michael D Higgins in November 2017

The new statue in 2017 as it awaited its unveiling. Not the first time it was covered up before the big day.

In his highly entertaining autobiography, politician and lawman, Patrick Lindsay, recalled the day, or more importantly, the night, before the 1935 unveiling with a mixture of humour and regret.
At the time, he was a student in U.C.G. and in the harsh times that were in it, hoped to embarrass Eamon De Valera. Patrick was not a supporter of Dev and its hard now to fully comprehend just how vicious Irish political life was during those turbulent years.

Cumann na Gael politician, the late Patrick Lindsay(1914-1993), TD for North Mayo.
As we approach the 100 year anniversary of the very bloody civil war, there are bound to be books in the writing, that will shock many who have not fully appreciated the terrible atrocities committed by both sides. 
Attending a political meeting in the 20s and 30s often involved wearing a strong pair of hob nail boots and having a thick blackthorn stick in your hand. Many had a gun in their pocket.
De Valera's most trenchant opponents came to be known as "The Blueshirts".
Padraic O Conaire, in the days when Eyre Square was enclosed by railings.

A couple of nights before the unveiling, Patrick Lindsay, who would later become Master of the High Court, and some friends climbed over the enclosed park's railings and silently approached the veiled statue, which was secured with a string.
 Loosening the string, they proceeded to dress Padraic in a blue shirt, tie and black beret before carefully replacing the veil.
Could the late Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Jack Lynch and the late Fine Gael politician Patrick Lindsay ever have been talking about the day Dev came to Galway in 1935 ?

On the Sunday of the ceremony, they hung around waiting to witness the reaction when Eamon formally unveiled the statue. There are mixed views on how developed Eamon's sense of humour was but there is little doubt but that he would not have been amused. However, it's likely that his wife, Sinéad O'Flanagan would probably have enjoyed the whole thing. Sinéad's influence on the course of Irish history is probably much undervalued.

The late Garda Colm (Coleman) Gill of Cill Rónáin.(1903-1999)

Alas for Patrick Lindsay and his friends, their plans would be foiled by the eagle eyed Guard Pat Joe Gill from Cill Éinne, who ruined the surprise.
While checking the statue, Pat Joe was obliged to remove the string and inspect the sculpture.

The late Pat Joe Gill of Cill Éinne. Seen here with his late uncle.

Patrick Lindsay identifies the man who foiled their plot as Guard Gill from the Aran Islands. At the time , there were two Guard Gills from Aran stationed in Galway town and after some further investigating we are now fairly sure that the man involved was Pat Joe Gill from Cill Éinne. Apologies to those we misinformed before. 
Pat Joe and his 3rd cousin Colm  from Cill Rónáin were known in Galway as Ginger Guard Gill and Black Guard Gill. Colm had two brothers also in the force, Peter in Killorglin and Paddy who ended up in Spiddal (An Spidéal) Both Colm and Pat Joe had arrived in Galway in July 1934. Pat Joe Gill was a brother to the late Matty Gill in Cill Éinne and the late Baba in Cill Rónáin.

Of course as soon as the policeman loosened the string and had a look at Pádraic in his new blue shirt, tie and beret, the game was up and the statue was quickly stripped, just before Eamon De Valera arrived.

Although the plotters were to be denied their moment of glory, they did have some consolation in what happened shortly after.

According to Patrick Lindsay, all the great and the good of the West of Ireland were congregated on a recently constructed platform. For the most part, according to Patrick, the majority were people who just a few years previously, would have crossed the road if they saw Pádraic O Conaire approaching, in case they might have to buy him a drink.

The tendency to ignore troubled souls and artists when they are alive and then celebrate them after they are dead, is not a recent phenomenon it seems. A man to be avoided in life, can often be quickly embraced in death.

So great was the amount of goodness and greatness that climbed on to that stage that, to the sound of splintering timber and loud screams, the platform collapsed. Luckily, the only injury done was to the pride of some of the dignitaries. The amount of injury being relative to how much self-esteem the victims believed themselves worthy of and how loudly they had screamed.

For well over a hundred years, back to Royal Irish Constabulary times, the Aran Islands have been famous for producing very high quality police officers. Hundreds of years of working with precious timber, washed ashore from the countless shipwrecks in the North Atlantic, has also produced generations of very high quality woodworkers.

For this reason, it seems reasonable to speculate that while the policeman on duty that June day in 1935, was an Aran Islander, the carpenter was not.

M. Muldoon