Book review by Elizabeth McKenzie
A Biography in the Series 16 Lives, to commemorate the Easter Rising.
ISBN: 978 1 84717 268 6
Heuston Station in Dublin is a bustling, busy, dynamic interchange for thousands of visitors, Irish and overseas. But I would guess that only a small minority of the passengers transiting its large main arrivals & departures hall, would have any idea why it is called ‘Heuston’.
Although he was one of the leaders shot by the British Army for his part in the Easter Rising in 1916, Seán Heuston does not share the same iconic status as several of the other leaders, Pearse, Connolly, JM Plunkett et al in the pantheon of 1916 leaders. He was, (and still is), a shadowy figure about whom not much is known.
The recent biography by John Gibney of Seán Heuston – one in the series ’16 Lives’ – biographies of the 16 patriots who were shot by the British Army after the 1916 Easter Rising –will hopefully go some way to redress this state of affairs.
Heuston was a true-blue Dubliner, born and raised in the slums of Dublin. When he was only nine years old, Seán, his mother and his three siblings were living in Jervis St with two maiden aunts, his mother’s sisters. His father was not recorded as being a member of this household in the 1901 census. But John Heuston did not altogether disappear from his family’s life. Seán wrote to him from prison just prior to his execution and Seán’s mother Maria also wrote to her husband after the execution of their eldest son. Apart from official documentation (birth certificates and the 1901 & 1911 censuses) there is no information available about the family’s everyday social or cultural life. Gibney notes that ‘it is impossible to penetrate the inner workings of Seán Heuston’s family’ (p 35) as, members of the ‘urban poor of Victorian Dublin’, they left ‘few traces behind them’ (p 34).
There is evidence, however, that education was much valued in the Heuston household. The eldest daughter Mary became a schoolteacher and joined a religious order. The youngest child Michael became a Dominican priest. Seán was a diligent and very successful student and an equally diligent and respected employee. He was educated at the highly regarded O’Connell Schools, run by the Christian Brothers, where he became proficient and fluent in Irish. He also achieved excellent results in various state examinations. In the summer of 1907 he successfully applied for a job as a clerk with the GSWR, the Great Southern and Western Railway.
This job took him to Limerick where he was considered to be an exemplary employee, ‘particularly satisfactory’. An upwardly socially mobile trajectory seemed to be his destiny. It was in Limerick that Heuston first became a member of Na Fianna Éireann. Na Fianna was founded in 1909 by Bulmer Hobson and Countess Markievicz, as a youth organisation for boys aged between eight and eighteen. It was hierarchical in nature, non-political but ‘openly militaristic’ (p 48). Heuston rose rapidly through its ranks – it seems unbeknown to his employers, who were of course staunch supporters of the establishment. While he was in Limerick he also became a member of the IRB.
Although he was described at this time as a ‘quiet, unassuming boy’, his excellent memory and knowledge of Irish history and assiduous administrations skills were also noted and put to good use by Na Fianna. He
had a special quality for managing boys and getting the best from them. A fluent Irish speaker, Seán used his own language whenever possible. (p 53)
Heuston became synonymous with the rapid and successful establishment of Na Fianna in Limerick.
In the autumn of 1913, Heuston returned to work with the GSWR in Kingsbridge Station in Dublin. His arrival back in the city of his birth coincided with the formation of the Irish Volunteers. Heuston immediately received a commission in the new organisation and was given the task of doing what he did best – the military training of the rank and file members. It seems he led a double life, by day a diligent and trusted employee of the GSWR and by night and on weekends spending his time on military training and quasi military marches in the Dublin hills. His meteoric rise through the ranks of the Fianna/Volunteers in Dublin saw him become the Director of Training and a member of the Central Council in 1915. By 1916, he was a member of the inner circle of the IRB and an established leader in the Volunteers holding several leadership roles. ‘Prior to the Rising, Heuston was in charge of D Company of the 1st Battalion of the Volunteers in Dublin,’ (p 73)
Although the exact date of Rising was kept a secret by the high command, the Volunteers were feverishly preparing for a military confrontation with the British. In spite of their lack of weapons and the confusion generated by the jitters of the leaders of the Volunteers, the Dublin rebels went ahead with their planned uprising on Easter Monday 1916. The rest, as they say, is history!
In contrast to the dearth of information about Heuston’s personal life, there is a very comprehensive account of the part he played in the Easter Rising. Gibney devotes over half of the biography to the much-documented events, including the family’s accounts of the action of that week. Although there are no indications that Heuston was on familiar terms with the other leaders or even if they had had any influence on his commitment to the Volunteers’ cause, he was obviously a trusted lieutenant of both Pearse and Connolly. Indeed, documents from Connolly, which he was carrying at the time of his arrest, probably contributed to his ultimate fate.
His instructions were to take and hold the Mendicity Institution on the south quays. It never had the romantic association of the GPO in the Rising iconography, but its location – overlooking the Liffey – was considered to be of critical importance to the success of the Rising. It was opposite the Royal Barracks, base of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and not far from Kingsbridge station where Heuston’s employers, the GSWR, would be kept busy disembarking support troops for the British soldiers from the Curragh. His job was to inhibit and disrupt for as long as possible, any British troop movements, which could support the action at the GPO. In spite of being hopelessly undermanned, with totally inadequate supplies of arms, ammunition and food, not to mention lack of experience, Heuston inspired his heavily besieged cohort to hold out for three days. Even Connolly was amazed at their resilience. ‘Connolly was delighted to hear their news and insisted on sending back a congratulatory message’ (p 131).
Of course, it all ended badly and Seán Heuston, one of the last and one of the youngest of the rebels was court-martialled found guilty of sedition and shot in the early hours of the morning of the 8th May 1916. He was only 25 years of age.
Gibney’s narrative is an absorbing and engaging account of Seán Heuston’s life. He draws on descriptions and memoirs of family and colleagues as well as official records to give us as comprehensive an assessment as possible of Heuston’s character and achievements. He overcomes the significant dearth of personal information about Heuston’s early years by giving us a potted history of 18th and 19th century Dublin as a context for the city and the society Heuston grew up in. He also gives us a potted history of Mendicity House, once a grand edifice with associations with Lord Edward Fitzgerald and James Joyce, whose two maiden aunts, immortalised in ‘The Dead’, lived just a few doors away. The blow-by-blow version of the Heuston’s D Company’s performance is vivid and absorbing, interspersed with personal details about family and friendships. The book itself is very portable and while I found the lack of ‘white space’ in the header a bit disconcerting at first, the spacing of the text was easy on the eyes. It is to be part of a boxed set of the biographies of the 16 rebels who were shot in May 1916.