When acclaimed author, Anne Chambers, launched her latest book at Turlough Museum to mark Mayo Day, it was an event that met three separate objectives.
‘For the Cause – A Castlebar Family’s Stand for Irish Freedom’, is first of all a most-readable account of the tangled history of the birth of this State, told from a local perspective. It is also, one suspects, a setting straight of the record of Castlebar’s contribution to the national struggle, a record which, it is believed, has often been played down in the telling of Mayo’s fighting story.
But most of all, it is the remarkable story of three siblings of a Castlebar family who gave their all – and at considerable cost to themselves and all around them – in that troubled decade of 1914 to 1924. The three members of the Chambers family – John (Dailie), Anne’s father; his brother, James (Broddie), and their sister, Annie – had played senior roles in that struggle, providing leadership and inspiration beyond the call of duty.
And it was entirely appropriate that the book was formally launched by Mark Mellett, kinsman of the author and Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, and grandson of Annie who, when the dust of war had settled, married Jack Mellett whose home and motor business was located on the Green.
It is difficult for an author to write dispassionately about her own family but, ever the professional, Anne Chambers’ story is told both with full regard to the facts and a dutiful respect to the generation which preceded her. For the local historian, the book is an invaluable guide to the evolution of the struggle from earliest days right through to the final curtain of the Civil War – a confrontation in which the Chambers brothers had taken a trenchant, anti-Treaty stance.
The deprivation and hardships suffered by these young men (and they were all young men) who took on an empire and endured the atrocities of Black and Tan rule would be, to today’s reader, almost unbelievable. And perhaps it was the rashness of youth which sustained them as they traversed the inhospitable terrain of west and north Mayo, living in ditches, pursuing and being pursued, wet and cold and hungry, and always within inches of death.
But if the book is about courage and fortitude and loyalty, it is laced with vignettes of warmth and humanity and tolerance. Of Jimmy Swift having his injured toes amputated on a kitchen table in Skirdagh following the Kilmeena ambush, and being carried to safety on John Chambers’ back across the mountains. Of the IRA volunteers, having been denounced by Archbishop Gilmartin, having to travel to the Augustinian Abbey in Ballyhaunis to have their confessions heard by sympathetic Friars. Of John Chambers and his men capturing two British officers near Ardvarney and, on deciding to release them, being gifted with a beautifully crafted, mother-of-pearl-inlaid revolver, which, later on, would play an amusing part in Dailie’s life.
Like so many of the comrades in arms, John and James Chambers rarely spoke about those days. Maybe they had seen too much needless killing; maybe the glorious dream had turned sour when, in the end, Irishmen turned their guns on Irishmen.
John Chambers’s poem about his father is included in the book. Its opening lines read:
‘He seldom spoke about the past, observed a civil pact of silence on the war; dismissing questions with a shrugged reply. That’s done with now, we’ve got what we deserve’.