Every Dark Hour
A masterful gripping book
I was so lucky to meet Niamh O'Sullivan during a trip to Dublin in 1996. I remember the passion that fired her answers to my questions and how she unearthed document after document.
I was in Kilmainham Jail in search of my great aunties, Maire and Nellie Cleary, who'd been jailed by the Free Staters in early 1923. Niamh was Kilmainham's Jail's - by then a museum - archivist. More than twenty years had passed since Maire and Nellie Cleary had shared their stories with me in a little kitchen in the Upper Dorset Street Fire Station. They were old women in 1973 and I was really only boy.
It's one thing to hear the stories. It's another to cast your eye over written words that bring to life something as noble as political incarceration. Without Niamh O'Sullivan I might never have seen Maire's poem 'Oh boys who died for Ireland' or properly grasped the context of that moment in time for the Clearys of Dublin. Nellie was only 17 years of age when she was ripped from her mothers arms in a Dublin streeti
Home for the Cleary women in 1923
Niamh O'Sullivan has brought 22 years of work in Kilmainham to life in a her book Every Dark Hour - A History of Kilmainham Jail. It's hard not to shed a tear as she takes you to the final minutes of the lives of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Poignant, tragic words that leave you wondering about faith and belief but certain about man's capacity for courage.
These were Catholic men who spoke as if they did genuinely believe in immortality. 'I have not words to tell my love of you, and how my heart yearns to you all. I will call to you in my heart at the last moment,' Patrick Pearse had written in his final letter to his mother. Was it really that easy!
Notwithstanding the poignancy of these moments, it's when Niamh documents the stories of the Civil War women that my heart races. Most of us know about the Countess Markievicz, privileged and famous, with her gun at the ready. But for too long so many of the other women, scores of them dragged from tenements in inner Dublin, have been neglected. One after another they come to life, fierce and defiant 'Irish Republican Prisoners of War' swearing allegiance to the republic.
Although Maire Cleary doesn't make it into Niamh's book I can see her there on the stairs surrrounded by guards, refusing to leave her comrades on hunger strike, when the order arrives that the women are to be forcibly relocated to another prison, the North Dublin Union. Maire and her sister never married. Nor did they recant on their view of the British Empire and its role in the Irish Civil War.
If there's a distinctive power in O'Sullivan's book is that she has created something gripping and profoundly insightful whilst rarely, if at all, interceding in the story. Like the embroidery created by the Kilmainham women to wile away the days, there's a seamlessness about O'Sullivan's writing. The stories and letters, and the graffiti from prison wall emerge on the page like pieces in a jig-saw puzzle. At journey's end I can't help thinking I know so much more about political incarceration and the importance of believing in something. So too have I learnt something about women.
And yet for all its greatness the book leaves me with too many unresoved questions. I want to know more about these women. What were they really like when the lights went out and talk turned to life and love? And what prompted the Free State propaganda machine to lampoon them as neurotic? Maybe that's for the next edition!