MEMORIES of my Aunt!
- An Appreciation
- to the late
- Mrs. Esther Purcell
- PADRAIG O SNODAIGH
- Esther Purcell
When my Aunt Essie died lately, in a sense, a family era came to an
end as my father and her surviving brother Tom were too young for
active involvement in the War of Independence.
One of a family of thirteen she was baptised Esther but never known
by it. When one of the Aut Even nuns spoke of God preparing a place
for her and then He would call her by her name, ‘Esther”, she replied,
‘I’d better change my name fast hadn’t I!
This incident illustrates the prevading sense of fun and brave
spirit which remained with her till her last breath and also took her
through bad years and times, made her a pillar of help for her family
and friends throughout her life — and got her through a few bad turns
of her own too.
In the early fifties she was told she had weeks to live. Yet,
months later having made a complete recovery, she not only returned to
a normal lifestyle as wife and mother but continued working hard in
her small grocery shop.
In a sense that I suppose could be expected. She could recall her
Presbyterian grandfather Sam and remembered sitting on his knee in the
early years of the century. Sam’s own long life went almost from the
Act of Union to the Rising and included the death of his first wife
and children in the Famine.
Essie often recalled her brother, Ned being shot dead early in
1923. Carlow Brigade IRA and Cumann na mBan provided honours with
Graiguecullen Fife and Drum Band playing at the funeral procession,
yet his body was not allowed into a church. Herself and all the family
on the morning of his burial were passed at the altar rails for
communion — all the family were deemed excommunicated, it seems.
The censure hurt deeply as the Catholic Church played an important
part in their lives. However they accepted that this animus was but a
passing phase to a family that could, up to that time, trace their
maternal ancestry in Carlow town back six generations.
She recalled after that one priest at least did not let Ned down
without a cleric’s prayer and many of us wondered if that was why this
same priest was never made Bishop.
And she recalled with evident pride and strange delight that her
cousin, the late and much loved by them Jim McCartney, attended that
funeral in mourning but proud too to be in the uniform of the infant
Free State’s army then, of course, in arms against the IRA. About him
many good stories were told, coincidentally, exactly a week after
Essie’s death his widow Sarah’s own gentle and kind life ended another
chapter on this era.
Essie spoke less about her own role — nor did she accept pension or
medal because of her involvement but as a young girl of 17 years she
was jailed in Kilmainham when in April 1923 Cumann na mBan staged a
mass hunger strike. Essie and Nora Connolly (daughter of James) were
ordered off it as too young by the inexorable republican Maire
The following month de Valera issued the order to “dump arms”,
accompanied with a message addressed to:
“Soldiers of the Republic, Legion of the Rearguard”. He told them,
“further sacrifice would now be in vain”, and suggested that, “other
means must be sought to safeguard the nation’s right”. Essie was to
devote the next 64 years in the democratic pursuit of that right.
Essie and others made a tricolour while imprisoned in Kilmainham
and embroidered the words, “Cumann na mBann” on it. Later as the years
took their toll this flag draped the coffins of her Kilmainham
associates. Seamus Murphy of Pollerton Beag is its custodian and made
it available for Essie’s funeral. As she was laid out in the chapel at
Aut Even, her son draped the flag across her, resting her hands on it.
A passing nun (echoes of 1923) said she thought it was “not
appropriate to display the flag in church” but after a very brief
exchange the flag remained.
Pervasive basic goodness
All of which in a sense is now by the way but not that far off
since it all underlines the fullness and pervasive basic goodness of
her life, the deep religious sense, the lively faith and the serenity
that was so movingly recalled by Father Lawton in his funeral homily
as he recollected how his own life was enriched over the last three
years of his acquaintance with her.
Similarly all who knew her will have their own recollections tinged
with sadness of her passing but enhanced by the span of her good life.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh si.
CUMANN na mBAN
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