The Story of Lucy Agnes Smyth and Thomas F Byrne ~ both garrisoned in the GPO during Easter Week 1916
By Maeve O’ Leary
Lucy Agnes Smyth was born in 1882 and lived in Amiens Street, Dublin. She was a fluent Irish speaker.
She joined Cumann na mBan at its inception in 1914 through to 1921 rising to the positions of Section Leader and later 1st Lieutenant in the Ard Craobh, Central Branch. She worked as a salesperson in a milliners and later as a typist.
During Easter Week Lucy hid arms, delivered dispatches and mobilised Cumann na mBan. In 1916 Lucy was romantically linked with Con Colbert, one of the sixteen executed leaders who called her ‘the nicest girl in Dublin.’
I went to a céilídhe with Con shortly before the Rising. There was a lot of prominent people in the movement at it and many of them have since become well known. In the course of the evening he said to me “I’ll show you the nicest girl in Dublin”. He introduced me to Lucy Smith [sic]. I think he was in love with her and would probably have married her if he had lived. She was a nice, gentle, refined girl, a member of Cumann na mBan and a great worker in the movement. She afterwards married Tom Byrne of Boer War fame who was also keen on her at the same time. He was Con’s rival.
These ceilidhs in the lead-up to Easter Week offered a lot more than the usual dancing, singing and social and romantic opportunities. A lot of the planning went on at them as also happened at funerals and concerts. Cumann na mBan were instrumental in organising these events and creating opportunities for planning and liaising of both a social and political kind.
Con Colbert was one of the finest soldiers devoted to the pursuit of Irish Independence and from a very nationalistic family. He put his love of country ahead of his own desire for a wife and family. He said
I know the light must come soon and I will be in it – I could fall in love with a girl as quickly as anyone but I know what my fate will be and I have no intention of bringing that sorrow on any girl.
He was a normal man however with very human desires as well as a soldier prepared to put his country first.
On Holy Thursday Lucy received guns from Con at her house in Palmerston Place where she resided during 1916. During Easter Week she delivered dispatches, and tended the wounded at the General Post Office (GPO) and The Hibernian Bank. Lucy was part of the group of Cumann na mBan nursing contingent who bravely escorted the wounded Volunteers under fire in the battlefield to Jervis Street Hospital around the time of the main evacuation to Moore Street from the blazing GPO.
It is not widely known there were more than the three brave women, Elizabeth O’ Farrell, Winifred Carney and Julia Grennan that remained at the GPO on the Friday evening at the time of the main evacuation of the 300 plus Garrison to Moore Street and surrounds.
This main group left under a hail of bullets to seek refuge in the Moore Street area leaving from the Henry Street exit of the GPO. The group of women that my grandmother was a part of was made up of about nine to twelve women and wounded men, Fr Flanagan, a medical officer John Doyle, Dr George O’Mahony (a British prisoner medical doctor originally from Cork) three stretcher patients wrapped in sheets and blankets, Red Cross men and a group of eight armed Volunteers as escorts. My grandmother had tended the wounded James Connolly in the GPO earlier but he refused to go to Jervis Street in spite of his agonising wounds.
This group left the GPO at about 6.30pm on the Friday evening as the burning roof was about to cave in and the GPO could not be saved. Even earlier on the Friday another group of Cumann na mBan left at around midday and they were later detained at Broadstone Station it was reported and some later imprisoned. The women from my grandmother’s nursing contingent had early stubbornly refused to leave with this group and said they wanted to remain to the last. Pearse said he felt he had no right to stop them remaining to fight with the men. These women knew the risk they were taking and even expected to be ‘burned alive like trapped rats’. It was thought they would go to the cellars in the GPO but that idea was abandoned as there was no escape route.
This group had a life-threatening and hazardous route out of the GPO’s Henry Street exit under a shower of bullets past Moore Street where they were shot at. A bullet took the top of a bottle of ether one of the women was carrying (highly dangerous as ether is liable to explode). No respect was given to the Red Cross flag they carried. They sought refuge The Coliseum Theatre where they prepared to die such was the ferocity of fire coming from the British Parnell Street Barricade at the end of Moore Street and side streets and laneways off Moore Street. After the fighting died down they then tentatively made their way through the GPO Courtyard, the Volunteers tunnelling through houses with pick-axes and hammers and climbing on roofs to lead the way which the women and the wounded followed through to. It was incredibly slow going under traumatic circumstances.
The exhausted group eventually reached Williams Lane on Princes Street where they received conditional absolution from Fr Flanagan, such was the danger. They were trapped between two burning barricades at either end of Williams Lane. They could not go forward of they could not go back. On the priest’s instructions they hoisted their skirts and jumped over the flames to reach safety. They miraculously all survived without a singe, though a flitch of bacon they were carrying got a little overdone, and all supplies medical and otherwise had to be abandoned. They made their way to Abbey Street and proceeded with caution on to the Jervis Street Hospital where they remained overnight on the floor in the dispensary. They had not slept in six days. A nurse entering the room shrieked as she thought they were dead such was the state of them. The badly wounded were taken in and the other Volunteers arrested. Some of the other women’s names in this group were Aoife de Burca, Peggy Downey, Louise Gavan Duffy, Molly Reynolds and Min Ryan.
When this Cumann na mBan nursing contingent left Jervis Street hospital on the Saturday after the surrender they had to pass by the Volunteers lined up at the Rotunda who had surrendered and not let on they knew them as that would have given them away as Cumann na mBan and they were under the guise of Red Cross nurses. This might have been the last time Lucy saw other friends and comrades, brothers, fathers and sweethearts. It may have been the last time she saw Con. Con was garrisoned at Jameson’s Distillery, Marrowbone Lane and was devastated like many of the Volunteers at news of the surrender. In the aftermath of the Surrender we know some of the women were questioned and interned – the women too at Richmond Barracks and Kilmainham Jail.
The signatories and the leaders were executed in the weeks after the rising and this included Con. Following Con’s execution in 1916 Lucy became close friends with Con’s sister Lila.
The question of where Con’s heart was before he was executed was clarified by Fr Augustine’s letter to the newspapers, Con had a dialogue with a soldier regarding to placing the white cloth closer to his heart shown his immense bravery and passion. He was completely immersed in national activities. He was a fluent Irish speaker, bought Irish made products, wore a kilt, was a daily communicant, abstained from alcohol and was also known to have a great sense of humour. In Kilmainham, while awaiting execution. Con refused visitors for fear it would prove upsetting, with the exception of asking to meet the wife of one of his captains who was also a prisoner in the gaol. I do not know if Lucy visited him in Kilmainham Gaol. He was asked why he did not call for his sister Lila. He said he did not like to cause her trouble. He spent the time writing letters to his family, as well as sending a message to ‘the nicest girl in Dublin’ my grandmother. She never revealed what it was. My mother, years later on Lucy’s death, found a lock of his hair amongst her personal items.
We know that Con left Lucy a parcel during Easter Week. It was taken by another woman Rose McNamara who was garrisoned with Con at Marrowbone Lane and who was a good friend of Annie Cooney who also had a romantic interest in Con. Annie said she was deeply attracted to Con Colbert from St Enda’s and went to parties and dances with him, though to her disappointment ‘he was not at all interested in girls, he was entirely engrossed in his work for Ireland’ which we now know is not the full story. There was also a gun that he gave to Lucy that used to be on display at the National Museum in Dublin.
Before Con was executed the very thoughtful and gallant soldier wrote to Annie and her sister Lily and left them his gloves and rosary beads. Con’s concern for his loved ones is evident in the many poignant letters for friends and family he wrote to the night before he died. Lila and Lucy would become good friends after Con’s execution, and on one occasion when Lila visited her home, Lucy showed her the love letters that Con had written to her. She also gave Lila a copybook which her brother had given her with several poems scribbled on them. These were not romantic poems as such but were instead all about Ireland and its struggle for freedom.
Below is a poem that Colbert sent to Lucy in 1915. It is political rather than romantic.
May sharp swords fall on Ireland’s fore
May all her hills be rifle-lined
May I be there to deal a blow
For Ireland Faith and womankind
God’s good mercy, if I fall
And Ireland lives, strongly free
If I live and Ireland lives,
Oh! God is very good to me.
And may the song of battle soon
Be heard from every hill and vale
May I be there with the marching men
Who fight to free our Grainne Mhaol.
In 1919 Lucy married the very handsome and courageous Capt Tom Byrne (Boer Tom) who had arrived in the GPO after marching from Kildare with The Maynooth 15 overnight. As he entered the GPO after his arduous trek leading the Maynooth 15. Lucy brought him a basin of water and a pair of clean socks. He thanked her kindly. He was 6”3 and gave her his watch and some money for safe-keeping. She assisted his escape in disguise up North after the surrender. Neither were imprisoned in 1916.
My grandfather was extraordinary soldier and described by some of the younger Ernie O’Malley as a ‘semi-mythical figure’. Thomas (Tom) Francis Byrne (Boer Tom) was born in Carrickmacross in 1877. He travelled to South Africa in 1896 and worked in the gold mines. Witnessing injustice against the Boers by the British, Tom, together with two Irishmen, Dan O’Hare and Richard McDonagh met to discuss forming an Irish contingent to fight with the Boers. They approached Major John MacBride who agreed to be their leader. Tom and a colleague recruited Irishmen working in the gold and diamond mines. The first Irish Brigade or Commando Unit mobilised and joined the Boers and saw action at Colenso, Ladysmith etc. When it was clear that the British were winning the war, the Irish Brigade, together with the Boers, retreated towards Portuguese East Africa. Tom’s task was to blow up the bridges and delay the advance of the British troops. They finally entered Portuguese East Africa where they spent some weeks of semi-starvation aboard a vessel in Delagoa Bay. Passage was arranged via Trieste and Hamburg to New York where they were met by John Devoy, founder of the IRB. Tom then spent 11 years working in the mines of Montana, California, Colorado and Nevada. He was a member of Clan na Gael in each state.
Tom returned to Ireland on a visit in 1913, attended the first meeting of the Volunteers in the Rotunda that autumn and was appointed Captain, B Company. He was sent by Tom Clarke to be an instructor/organiser in the Galtee Brigade and was involved in the Howth and Rathcoole gun-running operations. In the weeks before the Rising Tom visited Tom Clarke’s shop every day. He was well known to authorities because of his Boer War involvement and is listed as an Extremist in the recently released DMP files as one of the more frequent visitors to Tom Clarke’s shop.
Some days before the Rising, Padraig Pearse gave him instructions to mobilise the volunteers in Co Kildare. Due to the countermanding order, there were only 15 of them with Tom at their head, when they marched to Dublin on Easter Monday via an overnight stay in Glasnevin Cemetery where they hid their weapons in one of the towers. The Maynooth 15 were jubilantly greeted by Pearse and Connolly and received a rousing reception from all the Volunteers when they arrived in the GPO on Easter Tuesday morning. Later in the week, Tom was sent by James Connolly to protect the Mail Office on Parliament Street via the Exchange Hotel and he saw much action there and also around Capel Street Bridge and Liffey Street.
After the surrender, Tom managed to escape in disguise up north with the help of Lucy. In December 1916 after the execution of Ned Daly, Tom was elected Commandant of the 1st Battalion, Dublin IRA, a position he held till 1919. In 1920, he was arrested and sent to Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs for five months. He was rearrested in autumn 1920 and sent to Rath Camp, The Curragh where he and 50 men escaped through a tunnel in September, 1921.
In the years following the Rising, Lucy was an integral member of the Irish National Aid Association and Volunteer Dependents Fund. She was finally awarded a military pension in 1938. She was also awarded the 1916 Easter Rising medal, the Service (1917-1921) medal as was Tom. Lucy was also awarded the 1916 survivors medal and the Truce (1921) Commemoration Medal in recognition of her services to her country.
Tom and Lucy had five children. Tragically Tom was present when their first born child ‘Maureen’ died at seven weeks old as a result of a British military raid in 1920. They went on to have four more children and they called their youngest daughter Lila after Con’s much loved sister.
In 1922, Michael Collins nominated Tom Byrne for the position of Captain of the Guard /Superintendent of the Staff at Leinster House, a position he held for 25 years until he retired at the age of 70 in 1947. He received a medal from the South African Government in 1946 and this was presented to him by Eamon de Valera, then Minister of External Affairs.
Tom died in 1962 and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery with Lucy and son Myles.
Lucy was present at the GPO for the 50th anniversary of the Rising. Lucy was a very private, humble and dignified person. She did not speak of the role she played in the struggle for Ireland’s freedom with her four surviving children Eileen, Sheila, Lila and Myles nor did she leave a Bureau of Military History Witness Statement unlike Tom who did record her significant contribution.
Lucy died in 1972. Maureen is buried nearby with her paternal grandparents. Lucy and Tom are survived by their daughter Sheila, now 94 years old and a large very proud extended family scattered throughout the world.
Maeve O’ Leary is the granddaughter of Thomas F Byrne and Lucy Agnes Smyth
Copyright Maeve O’ Leary