A better future for all

Living

FÊTING A FREEDOM FIGHTER Gerry Coyle at the launch of his book, with former taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Gerry Coyle’s new book delves into the gripping life of his father


Oisín McGovern

A YOUNG man from impoverished Erris stops the eviction of a widow and is sentenced to three months in jail.
While there he is radicalised towards the cause of Irish freedom, soon becoming a trusted confidante of Michael Collins. On the orders of IRA General Headquarters, he makes numerous trips between Liverpool and Scotland in a dodgy Austin packed to the roof with firearms and explosives destined for the hands of Irish Volunteers.
He is instrumental in the burning of 17 warehouses and two timber yards by the Liverpool docks in retaliation for the Bloody Sunday massacre. He is apprehended after being chased through the Scottish countryside carrying the largest dectected consignment of explosives in British history.
When his captors threaten to shoot him at dawn, the 24-year-old replies: “Why wait ’til dawn? You are as well to shoot me now.”
He is initially charged in Liverpool before being sent to Scotland, where he is tried and imprisoned on charges of conspiracy.
Following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty he is released from prison. Within two days of returning to Irish soil, the new state is engulfed by civil war.
While serving in the newly formed National Army, he evades death when he is shot in the cheek, neck and arm during an ambush in Swinford. Two weeks later, with his arm in a sling, he travels to the funeral of Michael Collins to carry the slain general’s coffin.
In 1924, the newly elected TD is back in the dock, this time at behest of the Irish Free State. A bizarre trial ensues where his IRA activity is cited as evidence of ‘criminal’ history. He his jailed yet again, becoming the only TD in history to be disqualified from office in such a manner.
Three years later he receives a letter informing him that his application for an IRA pension has been refused. With limited means, he rears a family of nine children in two rooms in a barren Erris townland, his heroic deeds forgotten and disregarded by the state he fought to liberate.

Recordings
This is not the plot of a Hollywood film.
It is the remarkable story of Henry Peter Coyle from Dooyork near Geesala, which is now documented in a book by his son Gerry, a long-time Fine Gael county councillor.
Long before he knew anything about his role in the struggle for Irish freedom, Gerry adored the ground his father walked on.
“An absolute gentleman,” is how he is summed up by his youngest son.
“When I see the police in England saying he was ‘the most important, most daring, and most wanted Sinn Féiner in Scotland or Ireland’, that couldn’t be the same man that I knew. The quiet, placid, straight-thinking man that seemed to just leave stuff behind him.”
From speaking to local people, young Gerry Coyle quickly realised that his father’s story was different. “Your father was a great man,” they used to say.
One day in the 1970s, Gerry sat down with his elderly father and hit ‘play’ on an old tape recorder to find out what exactly they meant. During those interviews, Henry would recall the names, locations and deeds of those who fought alongside in remarkable detail.
Talk of Michael Collins or the Civil War always drew tears from a man with a spirit forged in the furnace of adversity and a body battered by bullets and back-breaking summers picking potatoes in the fields of Scotland.
Gerry’s mission to document his father’s epic tale brought him to libraries and military archives across Ireland, England and Scotland. By his own admission, some of things he discovered ‘kept him ‘awake at night’.

Smart people
“What surprised me was how untrained and inexperienced soldiers brought the might of the British Empire to the negotiation tables in the first place,” Gerry reflects.
“The few things that surprised me was how someone like Michael Collins, one person, could radicalise a whole generation. There were no smartphones, there were no smart TVs, but there seems to have been an awful lot of smart people.”
This book is not just about Henry Coyle.
Listed throughout are the names of dozens of instrumental co-conspirators in Henry’s fight for Irish freedom.
Names like Joe Vize, Charles Strickland, Sheila Brown, Kathleen Brown, Elizabeth Kerr, Neill Kerr, Kate Lee and Paddy Daly.
These are just of the people who Gerry Coyle describes as ‘Ireland’s forgotten freedom fighters’, men and women who deserve proper recognition for their role in creating the Ireland of today.
But what was it that drove Henry Coyle – and many others – to such heroic if not downright audacious lengths for the cause? A poverty-stricken childhood and three months in a Sligo jail cell had something to do with it, according to his son.
“He witnessed people struggling just to live. He said to himself, ‘There has to be a better way than this. Why should we be like this?’,” Gerry tells The Mayo News.

Strange events
Henry Coyle’s struggle for Ireland often cost him his freedom and almost his life. But his sorrow did not end there.
His arrest for allegedly bouncing a cheque worth €28,965 in today’s money saw him tried, jailed, debarred from serving as a TD and stripped of the right to an IRA pension.
Exactly why this happened remains a source of regret and confusion.
“The saddest and the strangest thing was nobody seemed to have asked at the court, ‘Where did the cheque book come from? Who’s was the cheque? Was that a volunteer cheque book that was being used before? Where did the cheque come from? Why did the bank manager stroke off Rotunda and put Belmullet on it?” Gerry asks.
“How it was let happen, or how it happened, it baffles better legal minds than mine.”
In later years, Henry Coyle was ‘appalled’ to see British troops returning to the north of Ireland. He was equally repulsed by the indiscriminate killing of civilians by the IRA during The Troubles, something neither he nor his comrades ever set out to do.
His Erris homeland remains isolated, deprived and impoverished. Generations were banished from her shores over the decades, including every single one of Henry’s siblings.

Pride
Were he alive, would Henry Coyle be proud of the Ireland of today? “Yes,” his son Gerry replies without hesitation.
“You can criticise Micháel Martin, Leo Varadkar. You won’t be taken out, you won’t be threatened, you won’t be shot,” he says.
“He’d be very proud of what Ireland has achieved at the world stage too. It’s there at the United Nations, it’s there making decisions at the global scale that it wasn’t allowed to before.”
The recent handover of the office of An Taoiseach from a Fianna Fáil leader to a Fine Gael leader was described in one Sunday Independent column as proof that Civil War politics was ‘well and truly dead and, buried somewhere in an unmarked grave’.
Gerry Coyle agrees with the suggestion of parallels between this historic moment and the overriding message from his book – that we must never let the past define us, as people and as a nation. “If people had bad chapters in their lives – and my father had several bad chapters in his life – but it didn’t stop him from being a wonderful father and a grandfather and everything else,” Gerry says.
“We cannot change the past, but we can influence the future by what we do in the present, and if we do good stuff in the present, there’ll be a better future for all of us. If I can pass on to others what Henry and Molly Coyle passed on to me, the world will be a better place for us all to live in.”

‘Henry Coyle: A Forgotten Freedom Fighter’, by Gerry Coyle, is available now in all good bookshops.