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Ida O’Hora -McGrath; Ballina’s Soldier of Cumann na mBan

 

 

By Sinéad Mitchell-Brennan

Educational Facilitator,

The Jackie Clarke Collection, Pearse Street, Ballina.

 

In early January 1945, Pheilim Calleary, future TD for North Mayo, penned a handwritten letter of support to the Military Service Pensions Board on a behalf of a Ballina woman, well known to him from his days of active service with the North Mayo Brigade of the Old IRA.

 In his letter he stated “…this lady was the best in the…Brigade Area and the most active of Cumann na mBan in this district”

The lady in question was Mrs. Ida McGrath (neé O’Hora) of Garden Street and later Pearse Street Ballina, and wife of Martin J. McGrath. Calleary was in no way overstating the case of this formidable woman, whose lengthy pension application has recently been made available by Bureau of Military History. These remarkable files reveal the fascinating tale of a daughter of Ballina who made a strike for Ireland’s freedom, one hundred years ago.

 

Ida was born to Michael and Kate O’ Hora in 1899, the second eldest of four children. She attended school at Ballina’s Covent of Mercy. The 1911 Census shows Ida’s widowed mother Kate as the head of household and proprietress of a small grocery shop in no. 3 Garden Street. Ida was just 12 years old and could not have foreseen that in the decade which followed, she would be at the centre of an unprecedented period in Irish history, which played out in a most dramatic fashion on the streets of Ballina.

 

In 1918, at just nineteen years old, Ida set up the Ballina branch of Cumann na mBan- the women’s organ of the Irish Volunteers which pledged to support, fund and ultimately fight for Irish freedom. She was President of the Ballina branch, which had a membership of between seventy and 100 at any given time. She set about recruiting and organising, ensuring that branches soon sprung up in areas such as Rehins, Cloghans and Bonnicnonlon.

 Ida rose to the position of O/C of the District Council. Those early days were dedicated to drilling, parading and learning essential First Aid skills. Dances and concerts were put on, an effective means of raising funds to arm the Irish Volunteers and support the campaign of the Sinn Féin Party in the historic General Election of 1918.

 

With the outbreak of the ‘Tan War’ in 1919, the nature of Ida’s activities and responsibilities greatly intensified. By this time, she had taken up employment in Walsh’s Stationery and Tobacconist store on Knox Street. She lived nearby on the same street. Walsh’s shop was to become more than just a place of work for Ida. As time went on, the premises fronted as a pick-up and drop-off point for dispatches, intelligence reports and weapons for various members the North Mayo Brigade. Dr. John Crowley of Ballycastle was a regular visitor. There was considerable risk involved, given the proximity of the RIC Barracks on Charles Street and later the billeting of the notorious ‘Black and Tans’ at the Moy Hotel, on the very same street. Ida regularly stored caches of revolvers and ammunition under some loose floorboards on the stairs of the shop- “I had a little place”, she wryly told the pension board interviewer.

 With the help of local Brigade member named Waters, she even managed to secure a revolver and three bandoliers of ammunition from a member of the Auxiliary RIC named Nangle, stationed in the Ballina Barracks. Her own home-which doubled as a ‘safe-house’ was raided on several occasions, but as nothing was ever found, Ida continued in her work, undeterred. Half-days, evenings, weekends and every spare moment was spent carrying dispatches and weapons all over North Mayo, often accompanied by her younger sister Florrie, who tragically died in 1926 as a result of TB. A third sister, Bertha, was also an active member of the Ballina branch of Cumann na mBan. Bertha married prominent local Brigade member Willie Lydon in December 1923.

Parcels of clothing, food and cigarettes were made up and brought to men ‘on the run’ and members of the local ‘Flying Columns’. Raising much needed funds for the Prisoners Dependant Funds was a constant concern, and much of the necessary funds and provisions were supplied at Ida’s personal expense.

 

She was regularly dispatched to Dublin, entrusted with confidential communique between local Brigade officers and IRA Headquarters. Michael Collins was personally known to her. She was a trusted intelligence gatherer and surveyed the movements of the local Crown Forces from her vantage point in the town’s main thoroughfare. Her reports were regularly put to good use, most notably on the night of 21st July 1920, when a local column carried out a daring ambush of the RIC/Auxilary nightly patrol at Moy Lane. The engagement resulted in the fatal shooting of RIC Sergeant Robert Armstrong. Ida was in position as a scout near the Barracks on Charles Street on that fateful night.

 

In April 1921, Ida found herself at the centre of one the most shocking events in Ballina’s War of Independence story- the case of Michel Tolan. A 26-year-old tailor and Intelligence Officer, he was born with deformed feet. He was captured by Crown Forces on 4th April 1921 and held prisoner at the RIC Barracks in Ballina until 7th May 1921. Tolan disappeared and there was no trace of him until the body of a man bearing gunshot and bayonet wounds was discovered at Shraheen Bog, near Foxford, in June of that year. The victims’ feet had been savagely hacked off. Ida, accompanied by her good friend and comrade Margaret Sweeney, had visited Tolan on several occasions following his initial arrest and supplied him with clothing, cigarettes and meals for the three weeks of his incarceration.

Tolan had suffered a terrible beating at the hands of the Tans. To ease his suffering in that cold prison cell, Ida brought him warm clothes, woollen socks and a dark green overcoat. This last item of clothing was to become a key piece of evidence in the inquest into Tolan’s murder in November 1921-the description of the coat worn by the victim found at Shraheen matched that of the one supplied by Ida. As one of the last persons to see him alive, her evidence at the inquest- which returned a verdict of ‘Wilful Murder at the Hands of Crown Forces’- was pivotal.

In July 1921 Ida was sent to Castlebar by train to fetch Dr. McBride, who was needed to perform surgery on Volunteer Jim Devaney.  Devaney was badly injured in the ambush of an RIC patrol at Culleens, Co. Sligo on 1st July 1921 and taken to the home of Mary Ann Morrison at Ballyherane, Rehins. Mary Ann was Captain of the Rehins Branch of Cumann na mBan. Ida continued to visit the home of Mary Ann and assist in the care of the wounded man for a full month. The Morrison home was a reliable ‘safe-house’ and sheltered a constant steam of IRA men evading capture throughout those turbulent years.  It was one of countless such tasks undertaken by the women of Cumann an mBan across the land, whose crucial role in the Revolutionary period is beyond measure.

The calling of a Truce between Great Britain and Ireland on 11th July 1921 did not signal a return to quiet civilian life for Ida. She continued organising and recruiting for the Cumann na mBan branches under her remit in the district. She was visited by Miss Plunkett, a high- ranking organiser from Dublin, and three new branches, in Moygownagh, Crossmolina and Lahardane were set up.

 

Ida opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiated in London in December 1921 and thus took the Republican side in the bitter ‘parting of the ways’ which followed. She was appointed a Special Intelligence Officer in the IRA- a testament to the high esteem in which she was held by her fellow male comrades-in-arms. During that tumultuous Civil War period, she carried dispatches for the Republican IRA “every other day”. She set about procuring weapons and ammunition from a most unlikely source- a Free State Officer stationed in the town. With the help of her brother-in-law Willie Lydon, a revolver, a Lee Enfield rifle and ammunition were purchased with Ida’s own monies in support of the Republican cause. Ida’s dangerous espionage work continued as before. The nature of the enemy may have changed, but the risk was as great as ever. Her intelligence reports were vital to the success of the Republican Capture of Ballina in September 1922.

On the morning of 1st March 1923, local Brigade Quarter-Master Denis Sheerin was captured by Free State soldiers. A search of his pockets revealed a dispatch addressed to Ida O’ Hora. At 11am, her home was raided, and Ida was arrested. She was transported to Kilmainham Gaol, where she began an arduous 21-month sentence. The’ Cumann na nBan corridor’ was located on the top floor of the extension added to accommodate female prisoners in the 1840’s. Conditions in the Victorian prison were notoriously abysmal. Inmates were forced to share cold, dimly lit cramped 28- square- metre cells with several others. The harsh treatment of the female Republican prisoners during the Civil War is well documented. Insufficient food rations, frequent searchers in the middle of the night and other tactics of intimidation, designed to break the morale of the prisoners, were the order of the day.

In May 1923, Ida was among a group on prisoners transferred to North Dublin Union-a derelict former workhouse used to house prisoners during the Civil War - where she served out the remainder of her sentence. Those dark days of imprisonment in Dublin brought her into contact with women of national prominence such as Nora Conolly, Grace Giffford-Plunkett and Mary Mac Swiney, to name but a few.

 

In her interview to the Pension Boards, Ida does not give any details of her time as Republican internee other than to clarify the dates of her incarceration. Indeed, the interviewer added a note alluding to Ida’s modesty, remarking ‘Applicant does not overstate her case, which appears to be a very good one.” Perhaps there was more to be gleaned from what Ida left unsaid.

The archives of Kilmainham Gaol are home to a number of Prisoner Autograph books, which have survived form the period. These little booklets contain names, drawings, verses and slogans carefully added by inmates. They were a way of passing the time, recording their experience and expressing political ideologies. Among these faded pages of history, Ida O’Hora’s neat handwriting can be found.

 In May 1923, from Cell 28, A-Wing Kilmainham Gaol, Miss Ida O’Hora, Prisoner 142, inscribed her name and Pearse Street Ballina address in the autograph book of fellow inmate and Tralee native, Hannah O’Connor. Ida added lines quoting PH Pearse: “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”. In June 1923, from her cell in North Dublin Union (NDU), she evoked the words of Terrance Mac Sweeney, the Lord Mayor of Cork who had died following a 74-day hunger strike in Brixton Prison in October 1920; “Not those who inflict most but those who can endure most will prevail (sic.)”. 

Following her release, she returned to her hometown, beginning her new life as a civilian in the new Free State.

In Spring 1938, Ida married fellow Ballina native and former prominent member of the North Brigade, Martin J. Mc Grath. Martin was well known and respected in the town. He served successive terms as Chairman of Mayo Council, Irish Tourist Board representative and was part the Ballina Stepehenites Park Fundraising Delegation which travelled to America in the mid 1960’s.

Ida and Martin operated a newsagent’s shop on upper Pearse Street, in premises that was later McGonigles chemist, noted as one of the narrowest shops in the town. Martin entered the auctioneering business in 1951 and Ida held the position of Old Age Pensions Clerk for the county for many consecutive years. 

 

In her later years, she was a familiar sight to passer-by’s going about their business in Pearse Street, formerly Knox Street- a street which was the constant backdrop for so much of Ida’s fascinating life. Local Ballina men Tom Mitchell and Paddy Gorman recall their memories of Ida in her twilight years, in her home on the lower end of the street, near the site of Ballina’s Tourist Office. Tom was employed as a messenger boy for Lowry’s Grocery Store in the early 1960’s. Paddy also did a stint as a busy messenger boy and worked for Gavin’s in the mid-1960’s.

 

 Both remember Ida sitting on a chair inside the window, the bottom half of which was always lifted up. ‘She would nab you to do a few little messages up the town’, Paddy remembers. Tom adds, ‘She would have a little chat and always give a good tip’. Both men call to mind a small, kindly woman who seemed older in years than she really was- perhaps the hardships endured in previous decades had taken their toll.

Ida O’Hora McGrath died in St. Joseph’s Hospital Ballina on the 11thAugust 1966, the year which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. Ballina commemorated the occasion with a large procession and the unveiling of a new memorial at the Republican Plot in Liegue Cemetery, not far from where Ida and Martin (d.1974) are laid to rest.

I wonder, what did Ida make of it all? Had the new Ireland she risked her life for been achieved, and what would she say of Ireland in 2021?

Her funeral at St. Muredach’s Cathedral drew large crowds. Full military honours were given. The tricolour which draped the coffin was that which had been used at the funeral of Maud Gonne, thirteen years previously. The graveside oration was given by Phelim Calleary (by now a TD for Mayo North). “Never will there be”, he remarked, “another fighting lady in the War of Independence like dear old Ida”.

 

Fifty-five years have now passed since Ida O’Hora- McGrath went to her eternal rest. Her name and heroism have been somewhat overlooked in recent times.

This evening, when I leave the Jackie Clarke Collection and pull closed the heavy front door of the former Provincial Bank, I will be just stone’s throw across the road from the site of Ida’s last home on our town’s main street, where she sat with the window half open and often beckoned my father on his messenger-boys’ bike to ‘do a little message for me…” all those years ago.

 

 There is no plaque for Ida in Ballina; no street will bear her name.

 

Perhaps the words of the Brian O’Higgins song ‘The Soldiers of Cumann na nBan’-one of only a handful of verses written for the women of that brave generation- will spring to mind as I lock the gate and make my way down Pearse Street:

“But do not forget in your praising,

Of them and the deeds they have done,

Their loyal and true-hearted comrades,

The soldiers of Cumann na mBan…”

 

Do not forget Ida…

Ballina’s brave soldier of Cumann na mBan.

 

 

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Pearse Street, Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland

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