1 July 2016
One of the primary functions of our archives service is to respond to research enquiries and to make information available to researchers. We receive enquiries from a variety of sources and on a range of topics but this year one issue has dominated; enquiries relating to the involvement of Sisters of Mercy in the Easter Rising 1916. One of the more interesting enquiries came from a former student of Carysfort Training College, who as a student in 1959-1961, remembered seeing a letter on display in the student library written by Eamon de Valera after he was sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 Rising. She wanted to know something of the letter’s provenance and its connection to Carysfort.
We checked the archives we hold from Carysfort college, but could find no trace of this letter or any paperwork relating to it. Upon further enquiry of various Sisters who had worked in the college we learnt that it might have been donated to a public body with Kilmainham Gaol or to the national museum being the most likely destinations. We immediately made contact with the Office of Public Works and other relevant agencies to establish what had become of this precious memento of 1916.
While awaiting a response we continued our search through the Carysfort archives for material relating to de Valera and found a copy of an agreement between the college and Mr Edward de Valera appointing him Professor of Mathematics from 19 September 1906 on a salary of £120.
The college account books show that by March 1916 he was earning £16.3.4. Intriguingly, his final payment in early April 1916 was £33.6.8 or two month’s salary.
Thankfully, we received a positive response from the Office of Public Works who confirmed that the letter had been donated to Kilmainham Goal on 16th October 1963 by Mother Teresita McCormack, President of Carysfort Training College. They provided us with a copy of the letter which is dated Kilmainham Prison May 9th, 1916 and reads as follows:
Dear Mother Gonzaga,
I have just been told that I am to be shot for my part in the Rebellion.
Just a parting line to thank you and all the sisters (especially Mother Attracta) for your unvarying kindness to me in the past and to ask you to pray for my soul and for my poor wife and little children whom I leave unprovided for behind.
Ask the girls to remember me in their prayers.
Goodbye, I hope to be in Heaven to meet you,
E. de Valera
(I expect you will have no difficulty in filling my place)
The OPW also provided us with the following details of the donation:
“Mother Teresita gives the following account of how the letter came into her possession: Mother Gonzaga, to whom the letter is addressed, was principal of the training college while de Valera was Professor of Mathematics there. Apart from being associated with him as a member of the staff, Mother Gonzaga was a close friend of his, and Mrs de Valera. Mother Teresita, who was herself a student during de Valera's professorship was also a friend of the de Valeras.
At Easter 1916, Mother Gonzaga was ill and had been transferred to Baggot St. Convent, the Mother House of the Order. She died there during Easter week, never having heard that de Valera had 'gone out' in the Rising. 'Her funeral, to Goldenbridge Cemetery, was turned back three times by the military.'
Some time after Easter, Mrs de Valera called to visit Mother Teresita. She had with her a pad, or jotter, which contained 'several letters' written by de Valera in Kilmainham. ('The Chaplain gave him the pad, I suppose.') Mrs de Valera removed the letter addressed to Mother Gonzaga. She was 'dejected and miserable' said 'It's not worth bothering about anything now, Mother Gonzaga dead and Dev gone to prison for life,' (or words to that effect), and she threw the letter into the fire ('Yes we had a fire- in May- just a bit of fire.'). Mother Teresita 'rescued' the letter from the fire and kept it. The nuns having been advised not to have anything about the convent which could be regarded as in anyway 'seditious', Mother Teresita gave the letter to her brother for safekeeping. He, too, feared raids and hid the letter 'in a tall vase' where it remained for twenty years, after which he returned it to Mother Teresita. She had it mounted, embellished with Celtic tracery by Ruby McConnell of Dublin, with a photograph of de Valera in Volunteer uniform above it and a sunburst beneath it as 'she believed the Easter Rising was the dawning of a new era.'
She had the letter framed and the frame enclosed in a pad-locked case which she arranged to have fixed to the wall in the library at Carysfort, where it remained until she had it removed for transfer to Kilmainham, In the course of a letter, dated 10th October, 1963, Mother Teresita says: 'Though loth to part with my precious letter I think Kilmainham Museum is the proper place for it and so I gladly give it. You may be able to do something towards preserving it. It was written by Mr de Valera immediately after he had heard that he was to die and, as you might expect, in pencil. Some treatment might be required to keep it legible. You may collect it at your convenience and I hope you may be able to leave it in its frame- just as it is now.”
The Carysfort collection also includes a letter from the Office of National Education, dated 12 June 1916, approving the appointment of Miss Cecilia Ryan as Professor of Mathematics in succession to de Valera.
He was still in prison at that time, his death sentence having being commuted to penal servitude for life. The letter writer was not to know that de Valera would return to Carysfort on many occasions over the years, not in his old professorial post, but as a lifelong friend of the community, as Taoiseach and as President of the Irish Republic; the republic in pursuance of which he had left his post in Carysfort in April 1916.
Mother Teresita did the state some service by donating this small but significant item to Kilmainham Gaol Museum but, without the enquiry from the former student, we would have known nothing of this letter as no paperwork remained in our archives documenting its existence or what had become of it. Where items of historical significance are donated to museums or other external bodies we need to document the transaction. This helps to preserve the provenance of historical items, allows us to deal more efficiently with enquiries about such items and records for posterity the contribution of the congregation to the preservation of our national heritage.
By Marianne Cosgrove
Mercy Congregational Archives