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090219 Tomás Mac Conmara Pic Arthur Ellis.

Clare historian brings 17 years of labour to book with martyrs’ story

A HISTORY project of exhaustive research and work spanning 17 years will culminate with the launch this Saturday of Tomás Mac Conmara’s seminal book on the Scariff Martyrs.

A well-known figure around the county, Tomás, who has done a huge amount of work to record Clare’s oral history, has long been fascinated by the fate of the martyrs and the time they lived in.

“Only since the release was confirmed my mother found a photograph taken in April 2004 with Paddy Gleeson. That would have been the very first interview that I did relating specifically to the Scariff Martyrs.

“It really makes you think back, I was 23 then and I’m 40 now, there were 17 years of research in different ways.

“Obviously you’re not working solely for 17 years on it but for those 17 years you’re observing, taking any opportunity to find more information or to deepen your understanding. That photograph really brought it home that it’s been a long, long time.”

The men were held at the Lakeside Hotel in Killaloe prior to their deaths, but Covid regulations meant that the prospect of holding the launch at such a significant site was not an option.

However Scariff GAA has stepped up and will host the launch in the 1,200-seater, covered, stand at its grounds.

“It was important for me to have a launch because you want to thank people and give people an opportunity to come out.

“We couldn’t really commemorate it in the way that we wanted last year and this is an opportunity for people to get together and so many people have helped me over the years, and you’d want that opportunity to thank them publicly and get together that way.”

More than a century later, the deaths of Michael ‘Brud’ McMahon, Alphie Rogers, Martin Gildea and Michael Egan still resonate in East Clare.

It’s a heady story, with aspects such as the commitment of the young rebels, their betrayal, their subsequent torture, their evident refusal to give up others, the nature of their death, the subsequent withholding of their bodies, and the collective burial.

Tomás spent years and years researching it, and he says it was all time well spent, with a greater understanding only evolving over time. “Something as important as the historical landscape of East Clare and the Scariff Martyrs needs a lot of time to figure it out and to understand it. There’s a big, big difference between gathering information and actually understanding the subject you’re exploring. The time that I’ve given to it has hopefully resulted in a reasonable understanding and hopefully that’s reflected in the book.”

To be able to properly convey the story of the Scariff Martyrs he knew he needed to explain what life was like in East Clare in 1920.

“I wanted, as much as I could, to convey the experience of that time. It wasn’t just to try and give a historical account or sequence of events, I wanted to try and convey the atmosphere, the environment, the fear of living through the winter of 1920, not just for active fighters either, but for people living through that time and the way the period impressed itself on them.”

“The prologue is based on the experience of Margaret Hoey who recalled for me, at the age of 105, how she heard about the incident in her house the day after it happened and the emotion that she felt having heard that these fellas she knew had been murdered. That’s really setting the tone for what I tried to do, to get a sense of what living through that period was like.

“It was a brutal time and it was brutal for everybody. We have to understand that not everyone supported the Republican struggle. There was of course massive support for it across East Clare, but not everyone supported it. The people who were more passive still experienced the conflict, they still had to live through it, the danger and the fear and all of that was experienced by everybody. I’ve tried to capture that and express it in the book.”

Among the wider public there was shock and grief following the deaths of the four, but that would fairly soon change to other emotions such as anger at the Crown forces and pride in those passed.

However, it was another story for their grief-stricken families, for whom the deaths were just devastating.

“Of course they were proud of their sons, but they didn’t want martyrs, they wanted their sons. It’s a different type of experience for the families and at a human level we have to recognise that. The mothers of those men were absolutely traumatised.”

Through years of research, he believes he has a sense of some of the personalities and characters of the people involved.

“My grandmother danced with Michael Egan, Michael Egan was the man (of the four) who wasn’t in the IRA. She used to speak to my mother and my uncle about how quiet and shy and nervous he was when she was dancing with him She was around 19 and he was around 22 at the time.”

Alphie Rogers was more outgoing. “He was probably a bit of a rogue, he was described as a happy go lucky kind of a fella, and tremendously generous. I’ve accounts of him giving stuff away to people.

“Michael McMahon, my sense would be he was a much more serious type of individual. He was hugely committed to the Irish language.”

From a very early age Tomás was aware of the four, but only when he started to dig a bit did he realise that although the broad narrative was well known, the full story hadn’t been recorded.

“It was something I only seriously started to look at in my early twenties with that interview with Paddy Gleeson, and getting the sense from Paddy of having been there, knowing the men, having been at the funeral etc. I started to look and see that maybe the story hasn’t been told. You’d have a sense it’s a very well-known story and it is, but maybe over time I started to realise that there was so much more depth to the story that needed to be told.

“There were aspects of it that were in publication, elements of it, but there was never really an attempt to pull together all the various fragments of the story and put them in a coherent understanding.”

When he talks about history it’s obvious that Tomás feels a very strong sense of responsibility, and he felt he had to take his time with something so important to his own local area. “I needed to build my own skills first. I wouldn’t have been prepared to publish this in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 even. Obviously I was publishing things and had been working in history over those years but because this story is in my own local area and is such a significant story I felt I needed that time. I’m glad I did wait now because I’m a better historian now than I was ten years ago.”

A huge project is behind him now, but he will still be involved in the East Clare Memorial Committee and the events of that time will always be close to Tomás’s heart.

“The Scariff Martyrs and the story of that period will always be a part of my life. I’m very loyal to my local area and community and that won’t change. Obviously the focus of my research will change and I’ll be working on other things, so in that sense I’ll be leaving it, but it’ll always be a part of my life.”

The launch of The Scariff Martyrs will be on this Saturday at 6pm at Scariff GAA grounds.

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.