The walls are talking

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HIDDEN WITHIN Pat Chambers with his daughter Maggie and Áine Doyle, Conservation Consultant, inside the old shed where the historical letters were found during a restoration. Pic: Conor McKeown


A jam jar hidden in a Newport shed wall held a treasure trove of war history


Anton McNulty

Holding an old jam jar in his hand, Pat Chambers still finds it hard to believe that the same jar was hidden inside the walls of an old shed and undisturbed for close to a century.
“Imagine the whole lot was in that jar,” he marvels. The ‘whole lot’ he is referring to includes letters, receipts and a diary, all of which dated from the time of the War of Independence and Civil War.
The jar and the documentation belonged to Tom Mulchrone, who lived in Doontrusk, a townland close to Furnace near Newport. He was married to Pat’s great-aunt, Mary Hoban.
During the War of Independence, Tom was a leading republican in the area. While he was too old to be involved in the combat side of operations, his home was regarded as a refuge for the West Mayo flying column, which included his nephew Jim Moran from Tiernaur and led by Newport man Michael Kiroy
Located close to the hills of the Nephin Range, his home was an ideal spot for the flying column to come down off the mountains and rest before going back on the run.
Inside the jar contained letters between Tom and his brother, John, who lived in Cleveland but was very much involved in raising money for the IRA in the United States. Other documents include accounts and receipts from the Newport Sinn Féin club and the names of people who had paid their dues and were owed money and expenses.

Almost knocked
How Pat came across the jam jar is a story in itself. The shed where the jar was found dates back to the 19th century and is located beside Tom Mulchrone’s family home. It was in ruins for over 50 years. In fact, Pat was thinking of knocking it down when he learned that grants were available for farmers renovating old farm buildings.
He applied for the grant, was successful and employed local contractors Ryan and Keane to carry out the works. One day in September, he received a call from the builder, Pat Keane, to tell him that one of his lads, James Hopkins from Drummin, Westport, had made an unusual discovery while taking down one of the gables.
“I thought he was messing, but he came over and gave me this jam jar and said ‘There is quare stuff in this’. I couldn’t believe it when I came across [the contents]… I did not know anything about them. The roof was gone off the shed for the last 50 years, and it was a ruin. [The jar] was hidden in the wall beside the window. I remember my aunt Phil in London saying if only those walls could talk you could get some history, and now they are talking,” he said.

‘So excited’
Gathered around the kitchen table of Pat’s home are Yvonne Corcoran Loftus, curator of the Michael Davitt Museum, along with her colleagues, John Reid and Justyna Gruszczyk, who have digitised some of the documents and helped Pat make sense of them.
Despite the age of some of the letters and documents, the majority of them are in good condition, but others will need time to be examined closer to bring out the writing. Included are receipts for goods from Grady’s store in Newport, who were relatives of republican Dan Hoban, who recently died in Newport.
“The funny thing about it is that at the grave last week they mentioned Jim Moran and the Gradys in Newport, and both of those men are in this find,” Pat commented.
Other receipts included expenses owed to former Taoiseach Seán Lemass for visiting Westport to give a speech at an anti-Treaty rally and money paid to the band which welcomed him. There are also expenses paid to a John Walsh for attending the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis.
“Nothing of this nature has been discovered like this before, especially around the era of the War of Independence and Civil War,” explained John from the Michael Davitt Museum as he looked through the documents on Pat’s kitchen table. “That is why we are so excited.”

Clear memories
One of the letters which caught Reid’s eye is one from a man called Frank Gallagher, an Irish American from Cleveland who wrote a letter to The Mayo News in December 1922.
“It is right in the middle of the Civil War. He is writing to William Doris [Mayo News editor] and telling him the situation of the Irish community out there. This fellow Frank Gallagher is anti-Treaty, and a previous letter sent to The Mayo News in September was from someone in Cleveland who was pro-Treaty, so he is trying to redress the balance. The letter is very witty as well.”
Tom Mulchrone and his wife Mary died when Pat and his sister Mary Ryan, who is also present in his kitchen, were young and they have little memory of them. However, his aunt Phil, who now lives in London, lived with them when she was younger, and the call goes through to her.
Now aged 92 years, Phil’s memories of her aunt Mary and Tom Mulchrone are as clear as they were when she was a child when she loved listening to their stories of the time of the Troubles.
“I shed a tear when Pat rang me to say the guys found the letters. It brought back so many memories,” she said. She said she had no idea that anything was hidden in the walls but explained that as the house was regularly raided, Tom would have kept anything connected to the fighting in a safe location.
“I knew the barn well but I knew nothing of hiding stuff. I knew why they did it because in those days they would shoot you [if they found anything]. They left it there [for safekeeping], they would not have forgotten about it.”

A mother’s plight
One of the most interesting and personal aspects of the find is the letters between Tom and his brother John who lived in Cleveland. The two brothers were close and both staunch republicans. Their passion for their beliefs comes out clearly in the hand written letters.  
John was an organiser for the republican cause, and in one of the letters he referenced $1,500 gathered in the US and sent for ‘smokes for the boys’, which is clearly understood to be code for weapons for the IRA.
John Reid explains that in one letter, which is sadly damaged, Tom discussed issues at home and unhappiness at the lack of funds making its way west from headquarters.
“A letter we are trying to put together … it mentions a Keane family. It mentions two brothers and it looks like they were in jail, and the poor mother was at home and she was facing starvation. The local IRA were in dispute with headquarters and they were trying to get funds down for her.
“There was some money which was supposed to have come from America for a fund, but that had run dry, and they were disgruntled down here that headquarters were not sending money to help. [The letter is] in poor condition, but lucky enough we were able to figure out some of the words,” he said.

Little black diary
Tom’s nephew’s Jim Moran, was a sniper in the flying column and along with his uncle took the side of the anti-Treaty during the Civil War. He was killed by Free State soldiers on March 7, 1923, in Skirdagh outside Newport.
In one of the letters sent from John to Tom, he acknowledges his nephew’s death and laments his passing.
“It certainly was a pleasant surprise for me to get a letter from you, but the sad part of it is that your occasion for writing was regarding the death of dear Jim Moran. What a terrible tragedy that Ireland has to bear, such brave boys,” he wrote, while going on to criticise his former comrades who took the pro-Treaty side, describing them as ‘greedy selfish, bloodthirsty betrayers which claim Ireland as their motherhood’.
One of the poignant finds was a little black diary which belonged to Tom and reminded Pat of Michael Collin’s diary recently sold for auction. Among the notes is a song written in homage of his nephew Jim Moran. It would have been lost forever had it not been found. Part of it reads:

Remember Captain Moran when he smiled and went away oh I do remember dear Jim and this is what they say
But alas the trumpet sounded and Jim obeyed the call when his traitors had him surrounded he died to save us all
Old Ireland’s freedom for which his life he gave, he died a martyrs hero than live a State slave
But smiling willing cheery Jim went to meet his God as murder calls for vengeance which they find beneath the sod
Dear Jim smiles down from heaven where he slept with Ireland’s best as he fell beside his comrades in barren bleak Glenhest.

 

MORE: The Michael Davitt Museum team highlights the historical significance of local finds, such as the one above

Next week

Read how Tom and Mary Mulchrone risked their lives sheltering IRA men on the run