#Nuture1617 Goodbye, Hello

When we have experienced something we rather hadn’t we describe it as ‘forgettable’. Odd that. The nasty, the regrettable, the unwished-for – these are the experiences that tend to stick in the memory, regardless of our preference to forget. 2016 was replete with such unforgettables. But, for all the bad, bad was not what the year was all about.

In May, my school was Ofsteded and was judged as Requires Improvement. ‘RI’ can sometimes feel like ‘Rather Indigestible’, as we felt that the inspectors missed what we truly are as a school. It has been hard to adjust to our new ranking: we simultaneously lost our lead school status for School Direct; we faced tougher questions from prospective parents at our open evening; some staff have chosen this moment to move on and recruitment in certain areas has been hard to achieve. We haven’t stood still. We have rebooted our approach to ensuring high quality teaching, while remaining firm with our principles that it is about Improving, not just proving. Undeniably, however, it’s been tough.

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‘Requires Improvement’

I’ve had a few great headteachers in my time, and none that I did not admire, but this year saw the retirement of one truly inspirational head: Sue Warrington. She would not want me to recount her life’s work here, so I won’t, short of remarking that this Yorkshirewoman devoted her entire teaching career to the young people and teachers of London. I would invite her to speak to every fresh cohort of student teachers (so that would have been 16 batches) and, although I knew her spiel well, I never tired of hearing it again. She was the greatest advocate of inclusive, comprehensive education I ever met, believing that every young person deserved the same high quality experience of learning as any found in the selective or independent sectors. She devoted her life to achieving this and, in the end, Ofsted told her she had failed. She didn’t fail.

My Dad died this year. In a year such as this one, to report a death seems humdrum. You have not heard of my Dad. He didn’t write a book, or release albums, or appear in films. Mainly he did what dads are meant to do, as in he worked every day and provided for his wife and sons. He didn’t get the education his intelligence warranted, so his pride would have been tinged with a little envy the day this photo was taken in 1990.

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My graduation from Queen’s University Belfast, with Dad.

He had wanted me to study law, not history. He thought I should follow a profession (believing that teaching was not one.) We never quite found a language we could communicate comfortably together in. It took me to this year to work out that that struggle was the thing itself: he wanted to show me he loved me, and I wanted to do the same for him. And, if we could not quite say it, wanting to say it is still something.

Struggling to say the right thing, trying but failing to report accurately the way things actually were: these are the themes of my novel that continue to resonate with me and my family in the weeks following its publication. Those who knew its subject, Dan, the best have liked it the least. They have not enjoyed how I chose to fictionalise his life, and I understand why. I am sorry about that, because I wanted to honour the man and that part of my family. It has been a failure of my writing, and perhaps also of my character: I thought I could meld the factual and the fictional and achieve a new truth. I thought I could do that! But, ‘wanting to say it is still something.’ I have been wanting to ‘say’ this book for nearly two decades, and I am not ashamed of my pride in having it published. I received my author copy and it went on online sale on the day that would have been my Dad’s birthday. 2016 was not all goodbyes.

2017 may contain a few, but I look forward to it positively. My son will sit his GCSEs and, whatever happens, he will do us proud. I will approach the end of my 22nd year teaching in schools, knowing that I am just beginning to know what I am doing. I will write more, some of it fiction and some more stuff like this. And, all being well, 2017 will be more memorable than forgettable.

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Finding Dan – the synopsis

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SPOILER ALERT. If you would rather buy the novel than read this synopsis, then go to http://www.findingdan.com

 

Finding Dan – Synopsis
Finding Dan is part historical fiction, part genealogical detective story. Daniel O’Rourke was ‘the most dangerous man in Dungannon’; Mal is his great-nephew, determined to find the real man behind the legends told by his family. Was he the stubborn patriot, refusing prison clothing and food? Was he truly a great of Gaelic football, despite being broken by prison? And could he really have disgraced his family by fathering an illegitimate daughter?
Finding Dan is a discontinuous narrative. It is, firstly, the tale of how Mal, born in Tyrone but now living in London, makes an uneasy return to his family home to investigate, with his father Frank, the legend of Daniel O’Rourke. This is a legend of evasion from arrest, internment on a diseased ship and hunger strike; it is the legend too of glories on the Gaelic football pitch, and a lifelong principled stand against all things British. But, the more that Mal and Frank search, the less they find of this Dan. Instead they discover a different man, surrounded by people but ultimately alone, never at home from the moment he is on the run, defying description by both family and authority. A new legend is constructed, but is interrupted by the ragged edges of Ireland’s past, its troubles both distant and recent but always ongoing.
The novel begins one day in Coalisland, with Dan spotted pushing his bike up Main Street. This is an unexceptional day, but it will be the last of his life.  Mal, his great nephew is seen first as a boy. He finds an abandoned car, apparently primed to explode. It’s a memory that endures and explains his distance from his place of birth. Mal ignores the warnings of his uncle Phelim not to meddle, and returns to Northern Ireland to take up the research that Frank, his father, has already begun. Records reveal that Dan was considered very dangerous. He was arrested for possession of a Colt revolver, he was heavily beaten in prison for refusing to conform and, before he could be released, he was interned in a workhouse in Larne. Winnie is Dan’s sister, with memories of his time on the run and on the prison ship SS Argenta, of how only a letter from the president of Ireland could persuade him off hunger strike, and of how he came out a ‘broken man’. He had a sweetheart, a girl from Rostrevor, who would have married him only he was ‘not one to marry’. Then Mal hears the startling news of a man in Coalisland who insists that his wife is the daughter of Dan O’Rourke. Is this the mystery, alluded to in a memoir written by Dan’s sister, Molly?
By now the narrative has already been broken. Sean Hales and Padraig O’Maille are two TDs in the new Irish parliament, patriots in the war of independence but now marked men in Civil War Ireland. They talk through the night in a Dublin hotel of their times with Michael Collins, and of his ambush and assassination. They themselves will be gunned down in the morning. Elsewhere, Hegarty is an Irishman, imprisoned in an English gaol for the brutal murder of his landlady. Upon release he will make his way back to Limerick, to kill his disloyal wife in front of the child who is not his. Later we are introduced to a journalist, known only by his by-line Slemish. Following the mysterious death of Breen, his colleague, Slemish inherits the prestigious Searchlight column. He is dogged by McGuffin, both the source of all of his stories, and the apparent possessor of the key to Breen’s death. Is Slemish himself the murderer? Will Slemish evade arrest and board the liner to New York with the sharp-tongued Molly?
We next see inside Dan’s prison file, to read letters from the Home Office demanding his internment; letters to him from his mother and supporters; letters from him to his sister, Molly. Mal is introduced to McConaghy, a man who knew Dan better than most, but who seems at first to shed no new light. McConaghy is the same man who, more than 30 years before, helped a Dublin sportswriter track down Dan to the shed in Creenagh that had become his home. Dan had been merely “a scribbled note in the margins of another man’s story.” The other man was Bob Stack, star of the four-in-a-row Kerry team, who paid an unlikely visit to Coalisland and who made an unlikely friendship with Dan. In his quest for Dan the journalist finds Mrs Jackson, the admirable owner of a Rostrevor guesthouse, who might just have been the girl Dan once loved. Dan tells the writer his whole story, as if it is his last chance to be remembered, but the hack is a has-been and cannot do it justice.
Grim comic relief is offered by the committee to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. While a hapless technician tries to rig up the aerial which will bring to them their 37 seconds of fame, the members of the committee bicker and bring to the fore conflicting and diverging strains of Irish nationalism.
Frank finally receives Molly’s memoir. Contained within it is a denial that Dan fathered a child, and the revelation that he had had a vasectomy performed upon him in prison. Frank is not satisfied until he can read the birth record of the child involved. Dan was not the father. But Frank’s research takes him further, to suggest that Dan had not been on hunger strike either. By the time he meets up with Mal, he is unsurprised to learn that documents fail even to place Dan on the Argenta. The meeting they had put off – that with Dan’s surviving brother, Patsy, in Creenagh – now seems too late. But Patsy and his wife Phyllis will escort them to the boggy cemetery, where Dan lies below a gravestone engraved with the wrong date.
The novel finishes with the events that took Dan to that grave. He is in his new home, too large for him. He is expecting Phyllis, the sister-in-law he rejected but who nevertheless still attends to him, to arrive with his dinner cooked. There is a total solar eclipse and life shuts down. Dan is overwhelmed with regret for a life of missed loves, and he is heart-stricken. Phyllis will find him, and Phyllis will make the trip into Dungannon to register his death. Freed from her burden, she returns to her home in Creenagh.

All conclusions are provisional.

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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.