My latest Essay on RTÉ Arena is about my great grand uncle Tom Ennis. Have a listen here or read on for the full text…
A photograph once inhabited a shadowy corner of my gran’s house in Ballybough. Despite the age and encroaching dark border you could still make out a group of eight people. There was a lady reading a newspaper at the forefront. To the very rear stood two men in military uniform. As a child, my cousin would often grill my gran as to the identity of the people in the photo but there was never much information offered beyond the response of ‘family’.
The Irish have a reputation for being a friendly and open people. Yet for my gran’s generation and many before, intimate, family business was rarely discussed. This probably goes to explain why small talk has evolved into an art form in this country, the skill of incessantly talking but never really saying anything. Some linguists claim that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow. The same can probably be said for the Irish when it comes to terms for the rain.
Spitting. Beating. Hammering. Or perhaps it may only have been pouring on the day my cousin got his hands on a manuscript relating to bygone family. But that detail is unimportant. What is significant is how this manuscript revealed the identity of a number of people in the photo, one of which turned out to be our great grand uncle, Tom Ennis.
Tom was a Major general who’d been associated with the Irish volunteers as early as 1913. Heavily involved in the 1916 rising, he also led the attack on the customs house in 1921, where he was seriously wounded resulting in a permanent limp. A volunteer medical officer saw to him after his escape and told how Tom received a number of visitors as he recuperated in a nursing home on Eccles Street. On one such occasion, Oscar Traynor informed Tom that Lloyd George was to order for barbed wire to be put up all over the country to enforce the suppression of I.R.A. activities. “What the hell does he think we’ll be doing while they’re putting up the barbed wire,” was Tom’s quick response.
Further on, there’s an article which initially seems out of place in a manuscript mostly relating to the Easter rebellion and the war of independence. It refers to a murder in the Phoenix Park, sketching a scene in which a soldier shoots his young love through the heart before turning the gun on himself. The sister of the deceased woman testifies how there was no formal engagement between the couple as her parents disapproved. One of the parents she was referring to was Tom. The murdered girl was his twenty year old daughter, Miss Úna Ennis.
This account followed me around for a time after and I couldn’t help but dwell on how a military man like Tom would have outwardly reacted to a tragedy like this. I wondered if he spoke about his daughter much, if he told those around him how he missed her. Or perhaps he just fixed a photograph to a wall in his house. And if anyone referred to it he would just deflect, distract. And through his silence, allow the truth to merely fade into history.