The recent publication of the book, ‘Remember Us’, by the Tiernaur Oral History Group is nothing less than a monumental achievement. It is a story that needed telling, and yet its subject matter is so comprehensive that its compilers must, at times, have felt overwhelmed by what they had taken on.
Subtitled ‘The People’s War, Newport, 1914-1924’, the book charts the flow of those troubled years in a countryside where the thirst for independence ran deep. But it is far more than that, because it is the story of the hundreds of small, unrecorded incidents that never made their way into the history books, but which were of vital and memorable significance to the people of the local townlands and villages.
‘Remember Us’ is a scholarly work in its meticulous research, its commendable impartiality, its attention to and respect for detail, but it is more than another conventional history book. It is the story of ordinary people who did extraordinary things, told in their own words, and recounting without rancour their experiences of a time which, we need to remember, is still within living memory.
Its tone is familiar and neighbourly, it is of neighbour talking to neighbour, it is the tracing of family connections, the ‘do you remember’ of days when young men and women (and we forget just how young they were) answered a call that promised them little more than danger and pain and persecution.
A column as short as this one would do scant justice to such a landmark publication, but its core message is eloquently put by Mick Mulcrone in its introduction. “‘Remember Us’,” he writes, “is about the unheralded men and women of the Newport area who played a part – and paid a price – in the struggle for national self determination. For every man who carried a gun, numerous men and women provided logistical and moral support. Families gave shelter and sustenance in safe houses. Even children sometimes had a role to fill. For the men who did the fighting, their neighbours, friends and relations became the sea in which they swam, and the sources from which they drew inspiration and a sense of purpose.”
And that is why a chapter deservedly devoted to Michael Kilroy is counter balanced with chapters like ‘The Price People Paid, ‘Family Stories’ and ‘The Women of Cumann na mBan’, as well as chapters of individual stories and firsthand accounts of unrecorded courage and patriotism.
An exhaustive canon of appendices covers everything from lists of participants to a roll of honour, from roadside monuments to the compensation claims made in the aftermath of the conflicts. The book is greatly enhanced by its sketching in of the background that led to Newport playing such a pivotal role in the people’s war of 1914-24. It traces the origins of republican fervour back to the events of 1798, and relates the awakening of the cause through the Famine, the time of the IRB, land agitation, the Volunteers and the electoral rise of Sinn Féin in 1918.
In ‘Remember Us’, we hear the firsthand words of a people who lived under a reign of terror, and who refused to yield, with a vividness and an honesty we could not get in an academic tome. In so many cases, the experience left mental and emotional scars that a lifetime failed to erase.
The book gets its title from a poem to the forgotten heroes, written by Michael Chambers. ‘Remember Us’ is its central plea. It is a plea that has been answered in full by the Tiernaur Oral History Group, whose editorial committee comprised Peggy Cadden, Seán Cadden, Breege Hyland, Mick Mulcrone, Peter Mullowney, Kathy Ryder and Benita Stoney.