Oranges and chocolate were exotic extravagances in my childhood; pointers to a future when these would become normal daily purchases and not occasional luminous luxuries. In our 1950s childhood home in East Mayo, an orange was a sporadic treat; the fruit was carefully peeled, divided in four, the white pith discarded and each succulent segment lustily relished by us four siblings. As for the bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in its wild-Atlantic blue wrapper, this was one of my mother’s few indulgences. When my father returned from an outing to the nearby Ballyhaunis, there were no surprises. Each time he opened his coat pockets, lifting out the treats: a brown paper bag of sticky sweets for us children, a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk for our mother.
On Wednesday afternoon of Easter week, 1916, just a month before my mother’s birth, a young couple sat on grass at Killiney Hill, Dublin, looking out on a peaceful panorama of water and sand. The artist Cesca Trench and her friend Diarmuid Coffey, an Irish Volunteer, were enjoying their picnic treat of oranges and chocolate purchased in Dun Laoghaire. It was a tranquil scene, almost like summer, with the blue misty water of the bay curling around the sand. It seemed impossible that there was a revolution going on in Dublin at those very moments. Diarmuid looked white and tired. Cesca was worried. The atmosphere was tense at home in Temple Hill, Terenure, she told him. She felt pulled apart; her mother needed her and was worried that her daughter could be arrested at any moment.
Cesca Trench was an unlikely nationalist. Born into a leading Anglo-Irish Protestant family, she was reared in a vicarage in Kent. Her three brothers had joined the British army on the outbreak of war two years earlier.
Cesca’s interest in Irish nationalism blossomed on Achill Island, west of my Mayo birth place, when she attended Scoil Acla gatherings in 1912 and 1913. In Achill, she sketched endlessly, walked the strand at Keel Bay, took Irish lessons, and exulted in ceili dancing and pipe music in the evenings. It was in Achill that she first met the tall, gangly Diarmuid Coffey who relentlessly wooed the reluctant young artist. Soon, she was deeply involved with Cumann na mBan.
Cesca was incredulous when, on Easter Monday, she heard that the Sinn Feiners had risen up and taken all the main bridges in Dublin. The action seemed to her totally mad. But she woke on Tuesday morning full of determination. She tore cloth into strips for bandages, bought needles, iodine and lint in Terenure, and headed out on her bicycle. She cycled down Grafton Street, round by Henry Street, leaving her bicycle at No 91 for fear of getting a puncture in the broken glass. She walked boldly to the GPO door and gained entry. That evening she wrote in a notebook with a cherry-brown cover: ‘..I saw things I shall never forget, a row of young fellows kneeling and saying their prayers and two priests came in while I was there, and began to hear confessions kneeling by the side of them; at a little distance a Proclamation to the people of Ireland – of the Irish Republic…’.
On Killiney Hill next day, she asked Diarmuid if she could call on him as a witness if arrested. He reassured her. ‘There’s nothing so calming to the mind as a beautiful view,’ he said. He was still hopeful that she would agree to marry him; he wouldn’t give up. He had recently written proclaiming his love yet again: ‘I know I don’t always think you right and often think I wish you didn’t do some things, but I love you desperately all the time…’
The Rising was quickly over. Cesca was not arrested. She remained busy with her art work and her Cumann na mBan meetings and a year later, in March 1917, finally agreed to marry Diarmuid.
The wedding took place in April 1918, just days after the death of Cesca’s beloved brother Reggie at the western front. Six months into the marriage, Cesca fell victim to the flu epidemic sweeping Europe and died on 30th October 1918. The last entry in her diary was for a Cumann na mBan meeting which she never attended.
Surely, in the years and decades that followed, in the years when my parents grew to adulthood in an independent Ireland, surely Diarmuid Coffey would have recalled an idyllic afternoon savouring oranges and chocolate with Cesca on a grassy hill in Dublin as revolution surged through the capital.
The Irish story is bad and getting worse if we are to believe Morgan Kelly in today’s Irish Times.
Maybe it’s time to get some perspective – and some solace – from our history. We can do it online through The Irish Story, a digital first publisher of concise ebooks and short, snappy features on Irish history. Their very first ebook is The Story of the Easter Rising (15,000 words).
In the features and ‘Today in Irish History’ sections we can dip into varied and vivid scenes from our past. Some pieces I enjoyed:
- The Trials and perils of Dublin’s Victorian Policeman
- The Birth of Lady Gregory
- Belfast Blitz
- Bianconi’s first coach service
- Titanic strikes an Iceberg
- Four ‘Bloody Sundays’ in 20th century irish History.
Dip into the stories and maybe you’ll come out with a sense of perspective on our contemporary tale of woe. Worth a try.
Photo credit: informatique photostream