Tonight, I had the great privilege of meeting the grandson of the song’s author, Peadar Kearney.
It happened when I went to a talk by Colbert Kearney, an emeritus professor from University College Cork, who spoke about his grandfather’s life and work. Colbert was an excellent speaker, entertaining and informative as he started by reading the lyrics to some of his grandfather’s not-as-well-known works. In discussing Peadar, he mixed material from his own research with material from a book by his cousin, Seamus de Burca.
The song was written around 1907 and is famous for having been sung by the Easter Rising rebels as they were leaving from a burning General Post Office where they had been holding out. According to Colbert, Peadar was close friends with many key figures of the Rising and subsequent war of rebellion and civil war, including Michael Collins.
Colbert traced his grandfather’s life in those times, describing him as very active in the Irish Republican Brotherhood — likely one of the organization’s key leaders, although the secrecy surrounding the Brotherhood makes it difficult to tell. He never knew his grandfather, who died in 1942, and said he never discussed the man in depth with his father, either. But the affection and pride Colbert had about having him as a relative was evident in the talk.
One of the things I am realizing — and it makes being here at the time of the 1916 centennial all that more poignant — is that because Ireland is such a small place that its history is very personal to people, even today. The person you meet on the street might have a family member or otherwise close connection to a key element of the country’s history — like the UCC students who had a professor who was related to a confidante of Michael Collins.
I always had a sense of that closeness to the national history, even among Irish emigrant and Irish-American friends back in Rochester. But it really stands out being here, and I realize more than ever before what an important part it plays in Irish identity.