Frank Cunnane's Last Letter - The British Connection
by Nollaig O Gadhra

The ease of passage and the constant movement of Irish people over to Britain and back again is one of the facts of Irish life that strikes people when they research any aspect of Irish history since the Famine. Be it Michael Davit's escape from Famine horrors in Co. Mayo or the sall agus anall wanderings of Padraig O Conaire before World War I, the reality of the common labour market, common language, commercial free trade, lack of passports or travel restrictions all stand in contrast to the relative isolation of Ireland from the rest of the world in those days. 

Access to the outside world for most Irish people of whatever outlook or background was through Britain first. Whatever cultural, linguistic or intellectual contacts that had been maintained even in Penal times with continental Europe, and with the friendly Catholic powers in Spain, France, Austria and even Russia and the Vatican were finally reduced to a trickle after the triumph of the British Navy over Napoleon at Trafalgar. 

It is true that new opportunities for the Irish abroad were developing in America, in Empire colonies and even in places like Argentina. But one of the problems about researching these matters in detail derives from the fact that at home, Ireland (all 32 counties of course), was, after 1800, "an integral part of the U.K." So that very many of those who made their way to America, made it to Liverpool or other British ports first, and frequently worked in these British ports for a while before gathering up enough money to pay their passage to the New World. 

The further integration of trade and travel between the two islands was developed very effectively in the railway era. So that in the generation of Home Rule agitation before World War I, one does not always realise the extent of travel and exchange between London and the west of Ireland, for example, between Glasgow and Donegal/Derry in the North west, even between Cork and South Wales at a time when "breaking the connection with England" was out of the political agenda altogether apart from a tiny minority of I.R.B., Fenians, G.A.A. and Gaelic league activists. Even after 1916, and during the Sinn Fein revival that followed, the close integration between Britain and the isle to the west that decided democratically to break the connection, in the 1918 General Election, was one of the realities that proved both an advantage and a Terrible Beauty for people like Michael Collins, and others engaged in jail-escapes, gun running and arms importations through ports and naval systems that were totally dominated by the British at the time.

This thought occurred to me recently when writing about the six men, five from Galway, and one from Mayo, who were shot by a Free State firing squad in the Old Workhouse in Tuam, Co. Galway on 11 April, 1923, towards the end of the civil war in Connacht.

Four of the Galwaymen were local lads, Francis Cunnane, John Newell and Michael Monaghan, all from Headford, and Martin Moylan from Annaghdown - Eanach Dhuin of the Raftery poem fame.

Sean McGuire, from Cross, Cong, Co. Mayo, was the 17 year old younger brother of General Tom Maguire (most of the family used this spelling) T.D. for South Mayo / South Roscommon and Commander of the 4th Western I.R.A. Division. The sixth man Seamus O Maille, came from Oughterard in the west of the county, but was said to be particularly active in the Civil War period in North-Eastern Co. Galway, if only because, it is claimed by Free State troops, because he had a boat on Lough Corrib which enabled himself and his men to escape across the lake to Connemara, when things got hot in the Headford area! O Maille is, therefore, held up as a true example of the Irish guerrilla fighter who adopted his hit and run tactics to the natural amenities of the area he knew well.

But O Maille was also active in the "England campaign" - less romantic but a brutally realistic aspect of the Irish war of Independence that is mentioned less often these days for obvious revisionist reasons. The "England campaign" of 1920-21 consisted of plans to burn Liverpool docks and other economic targets and indeed to fire on the homes of high-profile Auxiliary and Black and Tan officers, then engaged in terror in Ireland, under the general direction of Michael Collins, Director of Intelligence, General Richard Mulcahy, I.R.A. Chief of Staff, and Cathal Brugha, Minister for Defence. The fact that the British captured some of these plans in a brief case which Michael hAodha lost while escaping from a raid in Dublin, where some of the top leaders were almost captured, early in 1921, meant that many of the targets and plans for Britain had to be revised.

But Rory O'Connor, a qualified railway engineer, who had explosive expertise from his years in Canada, continued to plan for urban attacks in Britain until his arrest in May 1921. In fact, Seamus O Maille from Oughterard was arrested in Britain and jailed on suspicion of involvement in the "England campaign". He was released after the General Amnesty that formed part of the Treaty settlement in 1921, only to return to Connemara and take up the campaign again in 1922, but this time against the Free State forces that were seeking to dislodge the I.R.A. anti-treaty forces that took over many of the barracks in Munster and the West in particular, as the British troops vacated 26 counties.

That a man who had worked in Britain, in 1920-21 should die two years later at the hands of the new Free State army which Collins helped to set up and Mulchahy commanded during the Civil War is one other tragic and ironic case from this dark and troubling period. But we get a good insight into the idealism, the almost childish innocence of the I.R.A. Volunteers who died in Tuam and elsewhere during the Civil War. 

The last letter of Frank Cunnane, also from Headford, and the sixth man to be shot in Tuam, (see pages 83/84 of Civil War in Connacht) to his mother the night before he was shot is perhaps typical of the type, even if it is perhaps better written than some others. But the circumstances in which we gained a copy of this "Last Letter" in the course of researching the Tuam Civil War incidents is also of interest, if only because it has another "British Connection", that is also a useful national historical footnote.

The copy of the letter was sent in 1983 to Councillor Frank Glynn of Milltown, who was a Sinn Fein Chairman of Galway County Council in the early 80's and was also Chairman of the Tuam Old Workhouse memorial Committee. The letter came from Padraig de Bhaldraithe - a relative of Tomas de Bhaldraithe of English-Irish dictionary fame - normally resident in Dublin, but who, like all the De Bhaldraithes, had West Clare and Limerick connections. Padraig de Bhaldraithe explained, that while holidaying in Carrigaholt in West Clare, he had come to know a certain Ms. Kathleen Talty from Rananiska, Kilkee, who was, apparently, the woman who baked the famous cake into which Collins, Harry Boland and friends put the famous key that enabled Eamon de Valera to escape from Lincoln Jail in the Spring of 1919.

Ms. Talty was, it seems, a teacher of mathematics in Manchester (probably a past pupil of Dev's at Carysfort?) and it is suggested in the De Bhaldraithe letter that Dev probably stayed with his former pupil - or in a "safe house" provided by her within the Irish community in Manchester, for several days after his dramatic jail-break. In later life, Ms. Talty returned, in retirement, from Manchester to live with her cousin Mrs. Thomas Morrissey, at Tarmon, Kilkee. Mr. Morrissey was a relative of de Bhaldraithe - hence the inside knowledge and the historical insight into the cake she baked for the cause of dear old Ireland, in 1919!

The De Bhaldraithe letter (of 1983) goes on to explain that when Ms. Talty died, two private and obviously treasured documents were found in her handbag. One was a letter of tribute from Dev in 1919. The other was the last letter which Frank Cunnane wrote to his mother the night before he was executed with five other republicans, by former comrades in Tuam's Old Workhouse on 11 April, 1923. The Cunnane letter, though written fairly clearly, was in pretty shabby shape after all those years, but De Bhaldraithe went to the bother of deciphering it and then getting his young son to type it out on his "toy" typewriter, before sending the original fragile copy to the National Museum.

De Bhaldraithe further states that Ms. Talty was familiar with many of the leaders of the independence struggle at the time, and believes she helped Liam Mellows to escape to America after 1916. In the case of Cunnane, he suggests, however that he may even have had the status of a "boyfriend" - which would explain why this teacher of Maths. who never married, ended up with the letter Frank Cunnane wrote to his mother, the night before he was shot. 

The relationship of the Cunnane family to Ms. Talty is not clear, but the fact that she ran a "safe house" in Manchester (where "big fish" De Valera laid low after escape from Lincoln Jail) raises the possibility that Frank Cunnane may also have been in England at some stage. As part of the "England Campaign" along with Seamus O Maille? Cunnane had 12 brothers and sisters and some relatives of these might have further information? That Dev should have his jail-break cake baked for him by a teacher of Mathematics, from County Clare in Manchester is only one other insight into the complexities of the British-Irish relationship that surfaced in research into the darker days of the Civil War in Connacht, a few short years later.

Search Page