Pierce McCan: died 100 years ago
On March 9, 1919, in the usually serene surrounds of Dualla Graveyard, Cathal Brugha, a member of Dáil Éireann, began to speak in Irish before a crowd of thousands.
They were a weary and emotional assemblage. Many of them had made their way from Thurles, a solemn journey that took three hours. Some of them had been up all night in Thurles Cathedral waking the body of the 36-year-old man that they were about to inter into the ground. Several had made their way from Dublin the previous day when the mailboat, Ulster, has shipped its precious cargo from Holyhead. And a small few had come from Gloucester, near the Cotswolds, to escort their friend, comrade, and son on his final journey.
In beginning his oration, Brugha said that no purer patriot or Christian had ever died for Ireland. In the clay before him lay stretched the most recent Irish martyr, the high-souled, noble-hearted, Pierce McCan.
McCan was born near New Ross in 1882, and he was raised in Ballyowen House, near Dualla. As he grew up in the South Tipperary countryside, it became clear that the young man seemed to have a talent for anything that he put his mind to.
He excelled in his studies in Rockwell and Clongowes, before moving to France for a time and becoming a fluent French speaker. He was a student of agriculture, and when he took over the running of the farm in Ballyowen, his methods were admired by his Catholic middle-class peers.
He had a great interest in equestrian pursuits and was an active member of the local Hunt. His swimming ability was also feted, and before he was 18, he had rescued two people in separate incidents from certain drowning.
His interest in the Irish language began in the early 1900s, and he was an avid Gaelic League organiser. It was through the Gaelic League that he met his future fiancé, Josephine Aherne. His involvement in the League led to a natural progression into the Volunteer movement
He was a key driver in the development of the movement in the early months of 1914. When the Volunteers split in September 1914 over John Redmond’s call to join the British Army, McCan sided with Eoin MacNeil and remained in Ireland. He could not, in good conscience, join the thousands of fellow Volunteers that joined the British army.
Though a much-depleted organisation, and driven underground somewhat, McCan continued to keep the movement alive and by 1916 he was the leader of the Tipperary Volunteers. He travelled to Dublin in Holy Week to receive plans for a nationwide rising that Sunday.
As the Rising was largely an IRB organised event, of which he was not a part, the plans came as a shock to him, but he enthusiastically took them on nonetheless. However, amidst the confusion generated by Eoin MacNeil’s countermanding order in the Sunday Independent on Easter Sunday, he reluctantly stood down all plans in the county. Nevertheless, he was still arrested and conveyed to England where he spent time in prisons near Manchester, and in Reading.
In letters to his fiancé, which would prove to be an ominous foretelling of the fate that would lie in wait for him some years down the road, he complained of the conditions in Arbour Hill Prison, and the complete lack of exercise and fresh air that they were permitted.
Upon his release, he focused on developing the Sinn Féin movement in Tipperary whilst returning to the farming life in Ballyowen. However, his liberty was cut short when he was again arrested as part of an alleged German plot in May 1918. He was among dozens of Sinn Féin members that were to spend the better part of a year behind bars in England. McCan was sent to Gloucester Prison, along with other prominent Sinn Féin members such as the party’s founder, Arthur Griffith.
Life in Gloucester was particularly hard on McCan. For a man so used to the outdoors, the confinement of prison life and the poor quality of the diet took its toll.
Despite this or, perhaps, in spite of this, his fellow inmates remarked upon the high spirits that McCan perpetually maintained. He led classes for prisoners in Irish and French and maintained communications with the outside, doing his very best to keep up with developments in Tipperary.
The cramped and unsanitary conditions that all prisoners, regardless of circumstance, across Britain and Ireland found themselves in meant that a potential outbreak of influenza could run roughshod through the jail cells.
The second wave of the Spanish Flu pandemic was raging across Britain and Ireland by late November 1918. An earlier wave had hit Belfast prison particularly hard, and over 100 political prisoners contracted flu. This led to widespread Sinn Féin calls of maltreatment, which led to authorities in Belfast re-doubling their efforts, keen to avoid any deaths of Sinn Féin prisoners. By the time that the second wave hit, the prison was probably the healthiest place in Ulster.
However, this foresight was not replicated in British prisons. In Usk, south-east Wales, a number of other Irish prisoners contracted influenza. One of the men that was most ill was a Volunteer from Swords, Richard Coleman. Despite having been clearly stricken by flu, he was left untreated for three days where he was left in his damp prison cell. Once a new doctor joined the medical staff in Usk on December 1, he immediately noted that Coleman had pneumonia. He was transferred to a hospital but died a few days later.
Other prisons that housed Sinn Féin prisoners were each struck, in turn, with the epidemic.
In late February 1919, the spectre of the disease visited Gloucester Prison. One of the first men to get sick was Arthur Griffith. Seeing himself as a leader among the prisoners, he was determined to fight the disease “standing-up”, and he self-medicated himself with liberal doses of quinine (which, it is speculated, permanently harmed his health). He sent a telegram to colleagues in Dublin indicating that several people in the prison had been struck down with influenza. Pierce McCan was one of the men that had been removed from the prison and placed in a nearby nursing home. Despite this, Griffith assured that there was no need for panic. A follow-on telegram on March 3 indicated that McCan was doing well and was receiving treatment. The condition of another prisoner, Rory Haskins, a volunteer from Belfast, was of greater concern according to Griffith.
However, over the course of March 4 and 5, McCan’s condition drastically deteriorated as he developed a temperature of over 104°. A solicitor from Belfast, on a business call to the prison, dropped in on McCan expecting to speak with someone recovering from flu. He was shocked to discover a man who he did not think would live to see another day. McCan’s aging parents were immediately notified and they made their way from Ballyowen to their dying son. They were by his side when he died at 2.30am on March 6.
When news reached Sinn Féin Headquarters of the death, they sent Sean Nunan to Gloucester to organise the repatriation of McCan’s remains. McCan’s parents had initially requested that the coffin be brought to Dualla via Rosslare for a quiet ceremony, but keen to use the occasion for propaganda purposes, Nunan convinced them to have a public procession and Requiem Mass in Dublin.
On March 7, the coffin, draped in a tricolour, was brought through the streets of the cathedral city in torrential rain. Taken aback by the sight of a small group of soaked Irish mourners behind the horse drawn coffin, locals congregated and bowed their head in respect unaware of the gravity of what had taken place.
The remains were transported across the Irish Sea aboard the mailboat, Ulster. It docked in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) early on the morning of the March 8.
On the same day of McCan’s death it was announced that all Sinn Féin prisoners in British prisons would be released. This allowed several men including Dr Richard Hayes, MP; Patrick O’Keefe, MP, and Peter deLoughry, Lord Mayor of Kilkenny, to join their fallen colleague on the journey from Holyhead. On the pier welcoming the mourners were Fr O’Dwyer from Thurles; Harry Boland and Michael Collins representing Sinn Féin, and Mrs McGuinness and Ms Smith representing Kingstown Sinn Féin Club and Kingstown Cumann na mBan respectively.
From there, McCan is brought by train to Westland Row (now Pearse Street station). Hundreds of Volunteers and Cumann na mBan form a guard of honour for the coffin as it is brought to the Pro-Cathedral for Requiem Mass. Thousands of people join the procession afterwards to Kingsbridge station (now Heuston station) where McCan is placed aboard the train for Thurles.
The train passes through Sallins, Kildare, Portarlington and Ballybrophy. At each stop the train is met by local members of Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan giving tribute to the late McCan.
There are also large displays in Monasterevin, Maryborough, and Mountrath.
The train arrived in Thurles in the late afternoon. From the station, a procession formed behind the hearse on the way to the cathedral. There, Archbishop John Harty, received the remains.
In his eulogy, Harty said: “This evening I ask you to pray for the repose of the soul of Pierce McCan, who died in Gloucester. In May 1918, he was interned there in connection with the German Plot, in which no just man believes, and of which Lord Winborne, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, said he had no knowledge. During the 10 long months, Pierce McCan was kept in prison, though no charge was preferred against him. Now he is dead and beyond the power, the tyrannical power, of the British government.”
Having laid in state throughout the night, the funeral cortege left the cathedral at 9.30am, led by the Thurles Confraternity Brass and Reed Band. They played the Dead March as they proceeded at a slow pace out of the town, before speeding up to Horse and Jockey before reverting to a slow pace as they concluded their journey to Dualla Graveyard. The cortege consisted of 330 horse-drawn carriages, over 70 motor cars, and 300 cyclists. It was over two miles long and took well over an hour to pass through the town.
After Cathal Brugha’s graveside oration, Fr Matt Ryan led the mourners in a final prayer before the grave of Pierce McCan was sealed. Just as was the case with Thomas Ashe and Richard Coleman in the previous two years, reports on Pierce McCan’s funeral reached audiences all over the world. He was the first elected member of Dáil Éireann to die, and his funeral was the first to take place in the War of Independence.
As the conflict grew over the course of the following two years, McCan’s legacy as a talented young man struck down in his prime struck a chord and his memory was evoked at times such as the funerals of Tomás McCurtain and Terence McSwiney.
- Ger Dooley is a historian who contributed to the Tipperary Star series in 2016 on the Easter Rising