DOC Series: Lily O’Brennan

A member of Cumann na mBan, in December 1921 Lily O’Brennan (1878–1948) was on the secretarial staff of the treaty delegation, working at Hans Place, London, throughout the negotiations. An anti-treaty republican, O’Brennan was arrested during a raid on the anti-treaty headquarters at 23 Suffolk Street in November 1922 and, following this, was interned in Mountjoy and Kilmainham jails. She was not the only member of her family involved in nationalist political action: her sister Fanny (Áine, originally Frances Mary) was also a member of Cumman na mBan, and in 1901, had married Éamonn Ceannt, a signatory to the 1916 Proclamation and who was executed for his involvement. Both Lily and Áine were also active during the Rising.

UCD Archives holds a small but important collection of Lily O’Brennan papers. The collection consists of series of letters, some censored, written to her sister during her imprisonment in Mountjoy and Kilmainham jails and the North Dublin Union (1922–3). They reference prison conditions, the health women on hunger strike, and other contemporary political events. Letters that Lily received in return refer to censorship of correspondence, house raids and general civil war conditions. The collection also contains letters to Fanny Ceannt from Robert Barton in Mountjoy Jail and Hare Park Internment Camp (1922–3). There are also two diaries: Lily O’Brennan’s jail diary from the period of her internment and Ceannt’s diary from 1947, which mostly notes social commitments. This collection was given by Lily O’Brennan’s nephew, Rónán Ceannt, to Máire Comerford, who deposited it in UCD Archives. It was catalogued by Eilis McDowell.

Lily Brennan’s Jail Diary

Brennan kept each day in her jail diary throughout January and February 1923, and then intermittently until July. It contains a précis at the beginning of events from her arrest on 9 November until 31 December 1922, and a short poem. The daily entries include details of prisoner arrivals, releases, and conditions. She also writes about the organisation of prisoners , politics outside the jail, and hunger strikes.

Memoranda from 1922

9/11/22 Arrested

23/11/22 Mary McSwiney released

28/11/22 H. Murphy, 18 Kerry girls arrive

17/11/22 first 4 executed Kilmainham

24/11/22 Erskine executed Portobello?

30/11/22 3 more executed

29/11/22 attendants removed after offer of internment camp conditions

29/11/22 Mrs C [B?] & myself interview Gov about attendants

30/11/22 Sigle, Rita, Máire, Ethna remain out—

Battle of the stairs

Letters & parcels stopped for 2 days


26/11/22 P. Connell [formed] Mrs. Cogley, BOM & LOB

P. [Hasset] co-opted later

2/12/22 Mrs C & BOM ask gov to divide food into 3 lots, agreed to take food

Letters & parcels resumed.

29/11/22 internment camp conditions—scrub & c. [cook]

Decided on 30/11/22 to sweep our cells only.

1/12/22 Sean Hales shot

8/12/22 4 executions here

13/12/22 2 shots fired into E. Coyles cell on into Sadie Dowlings—latter ill.

No-one into E. Coyles cell


Though prison gates & prison walls

My freedom steals from me,

There’s a world of vision in the heart,

That holds sweet memory.

And all the world is just the same,

The sky, the moon, the stars,

And God, who reigns o’er [very] heart

Can steal through prison bars,

4/1/23


P13/1 Jail Diary of Lily O’Brennan, UCD Archives.

December 29 [1922]

Doctor Comes. [?] interviews him in Máire McKee’s cell. Máire v. ill. Hear about sick prisoners. I am very down-hearted tonight over men. I am praying very hard.

P13/1 Jail Diary of Lily O’Brennan, UCD Archives.

Saturday 10 February 1923

Miss O’Flaherty tells me about the burning of her home. Liam Lynch’s reply to Deasy’s letter. Fr Flood calls—no confessions till next Sat—French History class. K O’Farrell arrives, tells us they are on hunger strike in [Mountjoy] since Thurs night—[P?] asked them to apologise & repudiate section of Irish women who had done damage

P13/1 Jail Diary of Lily O’Brennan, UCD Archives.

Monday 19 February 1923

Meeting at night of prisoners about Annie. [?] the doctor. Sym[pathetic] hunger strike threatened for Wed. [Mrs Medlar Harris] arrives. Meeting of prisoners. Before matters concerning all prisoners are discussed they press election of [Mc?]. Minority claim right to hold a meeting first. We decide not to have one but to agree to rep. Nora reads a statement at general meeting. They must have [Mc? Our side withdraw, I am in bed with chilblains. Annie sends for me. She is in floods of tears over split. I try to explain & [calm] her & get other side to agree not to send letter to Gov[ernor] yet. … I scrub my cell & fix it up. Get paper about Fan’s house being wrecked. Letter from Norín. BOM sees Gov[ernor]. Promises our rights in meantime while he negotiates.


Correspondence

The correspondence in the collection is mostly from Brennan’s time in prison. Prisoners were only allowed to write one page for each letter (her first is two pages), so Brennan’s prison letters use a very small script with all the margins used. The content of the letters is restricted by censors and some letters have parts cut out or blacked out.

Mountjoy Female Prison

10/11/22

Dearest Fan,

I was taken off from “23” after the raid on the premises 5 O’C Mrs Cogley, Miss MacArdle, Miss Bermingham, Miss [Devaney] & {?}. We were brought to Portobello. It was about 8 O’C. We were transferred to Mountjoy. Mrs Gallagher attempted escape near gate but was brought back. 

I would like clean combs, blue knickers, night dress, pair of stockings, clean jumper, handkerchiefs, my comb & brush & sponge &c prayer book. Could you see that a change of [?] is sent in to Frank Gallagher also to Mrs Gallagher. Someone would do this for you.

I would like a few cigs & matches & fruit or anyone else you like occasionally also a few books. Write to Da for me. Give my love to Molly &c. 19 women prisoners here of us.

I have nothing to read. Send me an Irish & a French story, I shall make use of my time, also French phrase book. Writing pad & some envelopes. I am so sorry you  are so ill & all this bother but there is no hurry if you are still in bed, only I know my mother will be anxious. I shall write a letter to Rónán. Send me an odd paper. Give my love to everyone. May, yourself and mother particularly, 

Lilly

26/11/22

Dearest Lily,

Although I have not written to you, you must not think you are forgotten at this hour of sorrow. All you friends are constantly talking of you and pitying you, as they realize all that our beloved Erskine meant to you. But even at the last moment he remembered you. Last night I received from Portobello a letter which he wrote to us both. He said he was honoured to get the same death as Eamonn & that it brought him nearer to us & Eamonn. I shall not risk sending it to you to read as I should never forgive myself if anything happened to it. He went down as you can well believe with colours flying & an example to us all of Christian Charity. One of his last sentences was “I am at peace with the world & bear no grudge to anyone and I trust that no one bears a grudge to me.”

Telegrams of sympathy have come from all parts & from many unexpected quarters.

We are having mass for him at 10 O’C on Friday next, first Friday so you can all join in spirit at it. I am sure you friends inside were very sorry, especially anyone who knew him. Molly is as you would expect, as brave as he would have wished her to be. He said in his letter how sorry he was you had been taken, but he knew it would not daunt you. Our letter was delivered intact, but poor wee Bobbie’s was badly censored, wasn’t that very hard? He also wrote to Bob. I wonder if he got it? 

Da has been a great comfort to Molly. Young Erskine is going back to school in a couple of days and Bobbie —to show his courage—returns tomorrow Mon. All through the period of waiting the poor child went to school. He was so proud when he saw his father Sat week, to say he was going every day. He was actually in school on Fri when the news came & Molly sent Dr Lynn to fetch him, as she did not want him perhaps to read it on the placard.

All here are very well thank God. [Attie] called last evening to offer her sympathy.

Would you send me a line when you leave down your laundry as its hard to go up so far only to be told there is no parcel. I was up on Sat with clothes for Bob, but got nothing from you. 

Best love from all,

Fanny

Yours of 24th rec this morning. I’ll see about the Mays again. My mother got yours this morning—the middle portion was cut out.

P13/10 Letter from Lily to Fanny demonstrating both forms of censorship: blacking out words and sentences and cutting out whole portions of text, UCD Archives.

Mountjoy Jail

30th November 1922

Dearest Fan:-

I was delighted to get your letter. I was hoping E would send a note. I wished to let him know I was praying for him but I am sure he understood. I knew Molly & the boys would be simply splendid—worthy of him. [Sentence censored] Well, I have only got the Independent on two occasions for the three weeks I am in. I am sorry Rónán is suffering from the chilblains again but the weather is very cold. I shall write to him in a few days. His writing was tremendously improved. We had a lovely letter from Miss MacSwiney—to us all. [Honor] Murphy was realeased on Monday evening & yesterday we received a huge box of chocolates from her last night. There are 37 of us here now. On Tuesday night the 7 of us from “23” gave an entertainment to the rest. We had a concert & charades. It was great fun. We have a game of bridge every night in our cell. It is the real thing!!!

[Paragraph censored]

I got the Independent today. This is the 3rd I have received.

I shall be in spirit with you all —before our [allow] here—for 10 o’c mass tomorrow—several others as well.

My love to you all.

Lilly

Did you get attaché case?


This post was written by Kate Manning, Principle Archivist, UCD Archives.

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