IT is one of the seeming contradictions of this year of centenary that, despite our nation’s struggle for independence from British occupation on one hand, there was on the other a sense of duty to what was then King and Country. Many of those who fought for Irish independence had, only a few years earlier, seen service in the Great War under an English flag. Families who were part of the establishment under British rule were to see their sons take up arms as Republican volunteers against the government they so staunchly supported. And the same parents who mourned the death of a son in the fields of France would often suffer the same anguish as their siblings met their death before British guns on their own native soil.
There was a striking example of such entanglement of loyalties at two ceremonies in Castlebar last weekend. On the Saturday, a group from County Laois travelled to pay tribute at the Sheridan vault in the Old Cemetery to Michael J Sheridan, who had fought with the 1st Battalion, Laois Brigade, in the War of Independence.
On the following day, a hundred yards away at the Mayo Peace Park, a wreath was laid to honour Michael J.’s first cousin, Captain Henry Sheridan, who died a hero’s death at the Battle of the Somme in September, 1916.
The entwined history of the Sheridan combatants - in different wars, serving different colours - makes for interesting reading. Michael J Sheridan was a journalist for over 40 years with the Carlow Nationalist, based in Portlaoise. A cousin of the famed opera singer, Margaret Burke Sheridan, his family had owned the Mayo Examiner newspaper early in the century, so journalism was in his blood.
In 1916, Laois was one of the few Republican battalions not to have received news of the countermanding order not to go ahead with the Easter Rising, so that Michael J Sheridan, by that time in his late thirties, led his small company of sixteen volunteers to carry out a series of ambushes on British installations in the Portlaoise area.
As part of this year’s centenary events, the Laois 1916 Commemoration Committee undertook the task of tracking down the final resting place of the sixteen Laois volunteers and holding a suitable ceremony at each, hence the Castlebar event last weekend. Jim Fleming, secretary of the Laois committee, with the help of Ivor Hamrock, of Mayo County Library, located the Sheridan vault in the Old Cemetery in Castlebar, where the ceremony took place.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, the memory of his cousin, Captain Henry Sheridan, was honoured at the Mayo Peace Park. Captain Sheridan had lost his life on the assault on Guillemont on the Somme, just a few weeks after returning from leave in Castlebar where he was recovering from shrapnel wounds. A young man of immense popularity, he had the previous year succeeded his father Joseph as Registrar of the County Court and secretary of the Mayo Infirmary. He took temporary leave from his post to volunteer for service in the Great War, and had been assigned to the front on the Somme as a bombing officer. Recently promoted to Captain, he had shown remarkable courage as the ill fated push to take the German lines was renewed, leading to the desperate carnage of human life of which Captain Sheridan was to fall victim.
And while Captain Sheridan’s burning sense of loyalty was leading him to fight for the British cause far from home, his first cousin, Michael J, with an equal sense of loyalty, was fighting with the Republicans to smash British rule in Ireland. From such tangled, conflicting roots did our nation finally discover its identity.