Charlie Weston is the foremost personal finance journalist in Ireland. I’m also proud to say that he is a very good friend. In this article for the Irish Independent, he explains the extraordinary place his family holds in the history of the 1916 Rising. Alas, a hundred years later, things have “changed utterly”, as Yeats would say. Right now, we are celebrating the unifying forces that brought people together to fight for freedom, yet our own political parties can‘t unite enough to form a government to run the country. What Charlie’s ancestors would have to say about that state of affairs is probably unprintable, but read on and learn about one family’s unique contribution to those seismic events of 1916 that paved the way for independence.
A man I have known for a long time was surprised to see me at a press conference recently for the launch of a report on life in Ireland in 1916. The Central Statistics Office (CSO) had put together a fascinating databank laying bare the low life expectancy, the grinding poverty and the chronic overcrowding of 100 years ago.
The figures were so stark that statistician Helen Cahill admitted at the press conference that she was in tears compiling the report, such was the deprivation back then. But my friend was puzzled to see me at the launch of ‘Life in 1916 Ireland: Stories from Statistics’.
“With a name like Weston, you guys must have been on the British side?,” he suggested, only half joking.
On the contrary, I replied, there were four Westons involved in the Easter Rising. He was taken aback, because it is a claim to fame that few can match.
Four of my direct descendants fought in the Easter Rising. Both my grandfather Charlie Weston and my great-uncle Bartle Weston took up arms that fateful week. And their sisters Thomasina and Julia Weston — who are my great-aunts — were members of Cumann na mBan.
The women acted in intelligence liaison roles for Commandant Thomas Ashe of the Fingal Brigade during the week, carried messages between units, helped prepare food and were involved in burying the dead.
That two brothers and two sisters from the same family rose up is fascinating. That the four Weston siblings lived to tell the tale, be awarded medals and military pensions, and that Charlie Weston went on to become one of the first officers of the Irish Free State Army is nothing short of extraordinary. It almost goes without saying that I am immensely proud of my family’s role in the Rebellion.
Whether you agree with what they did or not, it is hard not to see them as brave.
But what were they thinking, getting involved in a fight where they were bound to be on the losing side, and quite possibly killed? Why did a family with such an English-sounding name have such staunch republican views? And what would the rebel Westons make of Ireland today?
Unfortunately, they had all long died by the time I was born. My father, a great family historian, has also since passed away. But I have always known that we Westons had no truck with the British empire. If you look at the 1911 Census return for the family, you will see that the four Weston siblings, along with their parents Patrick and Kate Weston, all indicate that they could speak and write in both English and Irish.
That is a major clue to the fact that this was a rabidly republican household, based around a small homestead at Turvey, between Donabate and Lusk in North County Dublin.
The family deeply resented British rule in Ireland. We Westons claim to be able to trace our lineage back to Molly Weston, who died on her white charger on the Hill of Tara in the 1798 Rebellion. I can’t prove this relationship, but it has always been part of family lore.
Recently, a family member traced the Weston name in Ireland to the time of the Flight of the Earls in 1607.
Given the family history, it is not surprising my grandfather Charlie Weston was an avowed nationalist from an early age. In school, he developed a love of Irish history that led him later to join the Gaelic League. He also became a musician, playing and co-founding the Black Raven Pipe Band.
In 1913, as the Home Rule Crisis deepened in Ireland, he became a physical-force nationalist and joined the Irish Volunteers as a member of the 160-strong Lusk Company. He became a Volunteer because it gave him a chance to “burst the English domination”, his Bureau of Military History deposition shows.
The rest of the family was similarly imbued with a strong distaste for English rule.
According to my late father and his sister, Ena, Charlie Weston was someone with a keen sense of the unjustified nature of British rule in Ireland. Not everyone shared his view at the time.
When some people who knew him saw him cutting telephone wires during Easter Week 1916, they asked: “Charlie Weston, are you gone mad?” But he was not an aggressive man. People who knew him tell me he was most unassuming, soft-spoken and never boastful in later life about his role in the fight for freedom.
Given the nationalistic leanings of the family, it was hardly surprising that they would end up in an armed rebellion. Charlie and his older brother, Bartle, were part of the 5th Battalion, Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, known as the Fingal Brigade in North County Dublin.
This unit was under the command of Thomas Ashe, a charismatic teacher and gaeilgeoir. Originally from Kerry, he taught in Corduff, near Lusk. He died after going on hunger striker in Mountjoy. Charlie was a lieutenant of the Lusk Company, and Bartle joined the Swords Company.
Contrary to the myths surrounding the Rising, these men were well trained, according to historian Paul Maguire. The other myth-busting fact is that the Fingal Brigade was successful in its military objectives, unlike other engagements during the Rising.
The Fingal Volunteers won the so-called Battle of Ashbourne, forcing the surrender of an armed constabulary force, whom they disarmed and released after a five-hour battle. Eight RIC officers were shot dead, 18 wounded and some 96 prisoners taken, despite the volunteers being fewer in number.
They had very different tactics to those used in the city, as the Battle of Ashbourne represented the first time guerrilla warfare was used, offering a blueprint for future conflicts. This allowed them to defeat superior numbers.
In the lead-up to the battle, Charlie Weston led a unit that bombed bridges and attacked RIC stations around North County Dublin. In Donabate on the Wednesday, my grandfather demanded the surrender of the barracks. The answer was a revolver shot.
His section and the RIC then engaged in a firefight. However, the RIC men soon gave up, when “Weston broke the iron shutters of the barracks with a sledgehammer”, according to British historian Charles Townshend’s book on 1916.
Charlie’s older sister Thomasina joined Cumann Na mBan in 1915, soon after it was founded. During Easter week she acted in an intelligence liaison role, under the command of Ashe. On Easter Monday, her duties included contacting the volunteers who had failed to mobilise due to confusion over whether the Rising was going ahead or not.
According to her handwritten statement when applying years later for a military pension, her role during the Rising included “keeping in touch with Volunteer camps, taking orders from Comdt Thomas Ashe, and associated activity as a unit in battalion operations, in scouting, intelligence work, and in providing food and clothing, etc”.
She remained with the Fingal Brigade through Easter week, treating the wounded from the Battle of Ashbourne and helping with the removal and burial of the two volunteers who had died. Thomasina, whose married name was Lynders, also collected information on RIC and British military movements, carried dispatches and directed to camps Volunteers who wanted to join up.
After the Rising, when Donabate man Michael McAllister refused to surrender, Thomasina hid him in her house for seven months. When the Volunteers were released from prison in Britain, she organised a reception and collected funds for them.
Her role must have been 1important because a copy of War News — a pamphlet that was printed in Dublin, probably on the evening of Easter Monday, — is dedicated to her by Ashe.
It read: “To Thomasina Weston from T Ashe, Commandant, 5th Batt Dublin Brigade, AIR, April 27 1916 (Killeck)”. AIR stands for Army of the Irish Republic.
Her sister Julia (Mary) Weston was another of the 250 women involved in the Rising.In her own words, Julia’s role involved “keeping in touch with volunteer camps and taking orders from Comdt Ashe” along with scouting and intelligence work, and providing food. Her pension papers describe Julia as having the rank of Acting Confidential Intelligence Officer.
Ireland was clearly misruled by Britain at the time. Poverty was rife and in 1916, Dublin was one of the poorest cities in Europe. We should not forget that the threat of conscription was hanging over the people of the island.
And the odds were overwhelmingly against the rebels. Just a few hundred brave men and women took up arms against an empire that comprised a fifth of the world’s population, knowing that they probably were going to their deaths. Others see the Rising as our ‘Origin Myth’, kicking off a period of armed struggle that unleashed decades of death and destruction on these islands.
Yes, the use of violence is always problematic, but we were an oppressed people and should cherish those brave enough to have stood up to the imperial bullies.
Many historians feel that partition was inevitable, with or without the Rising, with such strong Unionist opposition to Home Rule in the North.
But my view is that the sacrifice of the rebels awakened the Irish nation from its slumbers and unleashed our vital energies. It was our Storming of the Bastille, and it cleared the way for an independent State.
Yet those brave men and women would doubtless be appalled and shamed at our loss of sovereignty when the EU and IMF had to bail us out in 2010. The fact that bankers, and their weaselly advisers, are still dictating terms to a free people would, I am sure, be seen as scandalous by the Weston rebels.
That lawyers, pharmacists, accountants, auditors, senior public servants and consultants are making good in a still-fragile and badly-damaged economy would also be seen as a betrayal of the ideals of the Rising.
Our failure to form a government, decades after the Westons joined the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal, would have seemed strange to them, I guess. Because the four rebels would feel it surely is high time to end the great split in Irish politics.