What do you do when versions of the past just don’t add up?
Some years ago I set about finding out about a man I had never met. I knew there were official documents accessible in the Public Records Office in Belfast, and I knew too that I could speak to – and possibly record – surviving relatives. And, finally, I knew I had the long summer holiday in which to do it all.
So I had the opportunity. I also had something of a motive. The man in question was Daniel O’Rourke, and Dan was my Dad’s uncle: a man I had heard spoken of with much admiration for much of my life. My Dad was going to help with the search, so this might become one of those bonding exercises that take on added significance as sons grow older and move away (in my case, from Ballymena to London.) But, if I did have opportunity and motive, I did not have expertise. I am a History teacher, but I do not claim to be a historian. The story I will recount here will be picked over by some for my hamfistedness or naivety, and I may be guilty of both; I hope, however, that I will be credited with the fairness of my effort.
I try to recall now what I knew before I knew what I know now. Dan lived in Creenagh, a place I had been to but could locate only roughly between Coalisland and Dungannon – the hometowns respectively of my father and mother. This was the O’Rourke homestead, lived in latterly by his brother Patsy and his wife, Phyllis, and their family. Dan, in later life, had been a heavy drinker, often seen wheeling his bike up Coalisland’s Main Street. Children hung off him, anxious for the sweets he always seemed to have. These children, like everyone else, knew Dan for two things: he had been a renowned Gaelic footballer for Tyrone, and he had been on the run from the RIC. My understanding of his politics was sifted from a recurring story told by my Dad, of how Dan always scolded him for kicking a soccer ball, and how he had shown no interest in the fate of the Busby Babes at Munich. Dan was a puritan about his sporting allegiances, and I guessed also about his constitutional ones.
Kathleen Quinn was my grandmother, so I collected stories from Dan’s Quinn nephews and nieces. I was also delighted to spend long summer afternoons with Dan’s surviving siblings, who then included Winnie O’Donnell and Patsy O’Rourke. There are other second cousins of mine whom I wish I knew better, and whom I wish I had spoken to then: I have no doubt that they would have pointed me in other directions. However, the picture of Dan I gleaned from the oral history I did undertake had a consistency and tended to focus on the same range of issues. Dan was the eldest son of Joe and Margaret, born in Dunman. Before moving to Creenagh they had lived in the schoolhouse of Master Kelly. It would be in Derry where Dan received the beating that would give him the lame left leg he would carry for the rest of his life. He refused to wear prison clothes, his cell was deliberately flooded, and the warders left him there naked. He earned his reputation for sticking to his principles and suffering for it. This story, beyond all others, was the one that my oral witnesses kept returning to, and it would be the one most convincingly supported by the documents.
Some said Dan had been involved in holding up the Strabane train, and taking the loot of cigarettes for the IRA. Oddly, although he would be remembered 75 years later for being on the run, there was little remembered about what he had actually done. The G men were frequent visitors to Creenagh (never finding him there!), but my Dad’s recollection that the O’Rourke sisters had had their luscious hair shorn and had been tarred and feathered was demolished by Winnie, one of the sisters. She was angry still that, wherever Dan sought refuge, no one would give it him. If the area redounded with republican sympathies, it did not extend to offering a safe house to stop in.
Before he could be released from prison, Dan was held under the internment orders following the assassination on 1922 of the Unionist MP Twadell. The family maintains that Dan was held in the prison hulk, the SS Argenta. For all that they must have spoken to him about that time, little survives into the family oral record beyond that they were all badly treated. Illustrating that they were largely held below deck, the story has it that they were taller in the morning than in the evenings, as measured by their heads brushing the beams. One uncle of mine held that Dan had jumped overboard into Belfast Lough – he either escaped, or he had to be rescued as he could not swim. Unspecific though it is, Dan’s Argenta experience is the centrepiece of his legend – or at least that which relates to his political affiliations. It was there, it is said, that he and others engaged in a hunger strike. Patsy placed it at 47 days; an uncle said it was more than 60, and that he was prayed for at Edendork chapel ‘as dead’. Patsy and Winnie both said that the men only resumed eating once a letter arrived from de Valera, and she was adamant she had seen it herself.
To Winnie, Dan emerged from prison ‘a broken man’. Despite this – despite the paralysing of his left leg, and despite his starve-to-the-death rage against the system – Dan in short time would rise to considerable heights on the football field. He played at times for the Fianna in Coalisland, and for the Clarkes of Dungannon; contrary to the Ban and his puritan scolding of my Dad, it appears he also played rugby. He represented Tyrone in the Railway Cup in 1928 (beaten by the eventual winners Leinster), he won Senior County championships and the O’Neill Cup. He played for Tyrone for 6 consecutive years. I had to support these assertions by looking to the books, notably The Fianna on the Coalisland side. My witnesses, apart from Patsy, were of course not witnesses to Dan as a player. They remembered medals and trophies, but none of these survived. They remembered feats of a more legendary nature, such as the ability to touch the crossbar with his boot, and the refinement of a technique for lifting the ball into hands. Dan remained a critical fan to the end, and would give my Dad (and, no doubt, all his playing nephews) the benefit of his wisdom. He was undoubtedly good.
How Dan funded his lifestyle divided my witnesses. Although there was a general presumption that he lived without a state or an IRA pension, there was no consensus. The family sawmill business certainly gave him work, and he was reputedly skilled with a file, but there were plenty (perhaps remembering the inebriated Dan of later years) who doubted he ever did much work at all. When he died, he was living on the Ardmore Road on Plater’s Hill in Coalisland, but before that he slept in what was variously described as a shed, a lean-to or a cowshed, in conditions either comfortable or unfit for humans, but which in any case was at the time an outhouse to the main property at Creenagh. This, it appears, was to make way for Patsy, Phyllis and their growing family. When he died (and, indeed, when did he die?) some, but not all, recall the unfurling of the Tricolour.
Dan remained a contrary figure, both in the sense of his refusal to compromise on principle and in that, in the details, the oral witnesses could not always agree. However, overwhelmingly, there could be no questioning of his status, somehow, as a great man.
That is a subjective conclusion. Those who knew him, loved him, watched him or received sweets from him are entitled to that view of him. Indeed, it may be the fairest conclusion. My interest lay, not so much in placing a value on the man, but in enquiring into how he came to receive this evaluation: how had be acquired his legend? My enquiries therefore led me to the records, wherever I could find them: did they affirm this status, or contest it?
It might be obvious to anyone that an oral testimony can continue to grow so long as there are people alive to remember. This implies that, for all those I did interview, there were countless others I did not. But the same may also be true for the documentary record. I closed the book on this 14 years ago, but I am still stumbling across footage and archival material as it is released online. Conclusions, it seems never conclude: they must remain provisional.
What did I find? Dan’s internment file at PRONI mostly comprises letters written between the Home Office and the RUC in Omagh, insisting on the need to intern him for the ‘maintenance of peace and preservation of order.’ Although they label him the ‘most dangerous man in Dungannon’, they say only that he burned out a breadvan and evaded arrest for a long time. The file, and the Tyrone Courier, concur that he was apprehended in March 1922, for possession of a Colt revolver loaded in four chambers, that he regretted not discharging it, and that he refused to recognise the court in Dungannon. The arresting officer was Mullin, the son of the owner of their neighbouring Twyford Mill. Having served his 18 month sentence in Derry by October 1923, he was interned without release and transferred to Larne Workhouse. There are no records of his time there, beyond confirmation of his final release in December 1924 (one of the last) and extracts from three letters to him: from his mother (lamenting the continuing presence of G men at Creenagh); from Annie Timoney (a veteran of the North Dublin Union prison); and from Charlie Magee (an Aughnacloy publican, one of the oldest held on the Argenta.) Visits to the newspaper archive in Belfast and to the Irish Studies Centre in Armagh afforded an impressive insight into conditions upon the hulk. Feargal O’Donnell’s: ‘A Holding Pen for Innocent Men: the Prison Ship Argenta’ provided valuable numerical data, including that the hunger strike had lasted a total of 19 days (not 47, not 65) and had begun in the precise week of Dan’s transfer to Larne. The Irish News and its Searchlight column for the period was apparently the only mainstream organ carrying news of the appalling conditions upon the boat, in the face of official denials. The Republican paper, Eire – The Irish Nation, published dozens of pen portraits, and listed many more names of internees from every county who had taken up the hunger strike. Its November 10th 1923 headline: ‘The Men Who Hunger-Strike for the Living Republic’. Dan, startlingly, was not listed. I recorded every local name that was. Coalisland: Pat O’Neill, F McKenna, J Haughey, P Hanlon, F Cory, J Cullen, Joe O’Neill, Mick O’Neill, Edward Haughey, M Dillon, D O’Neill. Dungannon: W J Kelly, John Mullan, Joe Devlin, P Hughes, J Skelton, P Mallon, Neil McKenna. I accidently spooled forward the same journal to October 25th 1924. Here, my great uncle is named:
“It was in Derry that Dan O’Rourke, of Dungannon, was lamed for refusing to wear convict clothes. His own clothes were taken from him, and his bed was removed; he was left without covering of any kind for days in the cell. Once a warder poured cold water into the cell, then they kicked him until he was so injured that his left leg became half-paralysed. In December 1923, when his sentence expired, he was interned in Larne, and is still a prisoner there.”
Here, almost verbatim, is the story told by Winnie and others. It was as astonishing to find Dan present here as it was to find him absent from the hunger strike roll-call. I could find no contemporaneous document placing him on the boat. Well, the record for that can easily be incomplete, or my efforts not thorough enough. Where I did find extensive coverage of the men ‘who hunger-strike for the living republic’, I did not find Dan among them. But I did find him in Derry, resisting and being punished for that resistance.
And what of Dan the footballer? That aspect of his legend seemed of equal importance to those who knew him. The Dungannon Democrat was regarded to have the best GAA coverage, but it had gone out of business. The Government of Ireland Act had effectively restricted the local game, as so many took up arms. Dan’s playing career was curtailed by national politics, and by personal injury, but what we might know about it is also curtailed by the restricted record. I would have loved to have found a lovingly crafted match report, but had to content myself with team sheets and medal rosters. Still, there can be little doubt, he was the player they say he was. He may not have touched the bar with his boot.
Whatever sporting or military medals Dan may have acquired, they don’t seem to have survived his move from the main house in Creenagh. No one can be sure if he wore an IRA medal at the 50th Anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966. Did he have a pension? Perhaps not. The recently opened Irish Military Archive does list him as a ‘volunteer’ in the 2nd Northern Division, 1st Tyrone Brigade. But it accords him no rank, and he was not among those in the 1930s de Valera era claiming backdated payment for activity in 1922. On many levels, this is no surprise. He was never a Dev man. He was also, it is said, a recalcitrant on the question of the partitionist state. He didn’t have money, and he didn’t put his hand out either.
For all that we did learn about Dan, there was so much that we did not. We did not, for example, find a birth certificate: there was no weighing-in at the General Registry Office, perhaps a matter of non-compliance on the part of his parents. His death certificate, which the GRO did hold, said he died on 2 November 1967, aged 66, a bachelor, a retired timber merchant. It might be easy for the official record to get his age wrong (after all, who remembers how old they are?) but I’m prepared to accept this as the day he died. But, take a visit to the boggy graveyard at St Malachy’s Edendork Chapel, and a document of a different sort tells a slightly different story: as a footnote to the main stone above where his mother and father are buried, Dan is said to have died on 1 November 1968. According to this, not only did his legend outlive him, so did his mortal body for a full year.
So, what have I done to reconcile these conflicting claims on the Dan O’Rourke legend? I have contributed my own, in the form of my newly published novel, Finding Dan.