Mairin (Cregan) Ryan
On the evening of Holy Thursday 1916 a young woman arrived by train in Tralee. She came as the trusted emissary of Sean McDermott, one of the leaders of the rising secretly planned for Easter Monday, and she carried with her instructions, arms and secret information about a weapons shipment shortly expected in the area. As a teacher and talented musician, Mairin Cregan was an unexpected choice for such a dangerous and delicate mission, but her intelligence, cool head and commitment won her the confidence of those in command, and would serve her well in the difficult days ahead.
Mairin Cregan was born in Killorglin in 1891, one of four daughters of Morgan (a stonemason) and Ellen Cregan. Her mother was an enthusiast for the Gaelic Revival, and encouraged her children to learn Irish and Irish dancing, and her interest in the language was further developed during her education at the local national school and at the St Louis Convent in Carrickmacross. Later she took up teaching, and in 1914 came to Dublin to study music while teaching at the St Louis High School in Rathmines. By now she had become friendly with many figures in radical nationalist circles. These included the Ryan sisters from Wexford, their brother, and her own future husband, medical student James (Jim) Ryan, Sean McDermott, who was in love with Min Ryan, and Sean T O’Kelly, who would later marry Kit Ryan, and following her death, her sister Phyllis. With these friends Mairin attended ceilidhe and plays at the Abbey Theatre, and was much in demand as a singer at Irish Volunteers’ fundraising concerts.
In April 1916 Mairin intended to travel home to Kerry for the Easter holidays. Before she left Dublin, she was contacted by Sean McDermott, who gave her the name of contacts in Tralee to whom she was to deliver a number of letters and ‘some automatics and ammunition’. What happened over the next few days is recorded in her witness statement given many years later to the Bureau of Military History:
‘I left Dublin on Holy Thursday morning and arrived in Tralee at about 7 p.m. I got in touch with Father Breen, who sent two boys with me to the Skating Rink where I met Austin Stack, Paddy Cahill and others. Instead of skating they were manufacturing bombs and bullets. I delivered a violin case full of automatics and ammunition, also the letters, not knowing the contents. Sean McDermott bad told me, however, that one of the letters was a request for … help … re landing arms which were to arrive in Kerry one of these days. I spent that night … in Tralee.’
The following day word reached the Volunteers in Tralee of Casement’s landing and arrest:
‘That evening, one of the Volunteers arranged for me to travel to Killorglin in the guard’s van of a cattle train going to Cahirciveen. This was necessary because the police were now getting busy about all strangers in the town …
At about ten o’clock on Good Friday evening as I was preparing for bed, news spread through the town of Killorglin that a car [carrying a number of Volunteers] had gone over Ballykissane Quay. With my sister I went there and managed to get hold of Tommy McInerney, driver of the car, and the only one saved … I got him to a house in Killorglin, where he spent the night and where the injury to his leg was dressed. He remained up all night, dozing occasionally and rather shocked, but on the whole, bluffing his way through police inquiries very well …’
With little news of what was happening in Dublin, Mairin set off to return there sometime during Easter Week, and found herself stranded at Mallow. Her account offers interesting evidence of the emerging shift in public attitudes in the aftermath of the Rising:
‘Rumours were rife and I remember one cold and miserable evening, while in the waiting room of the station, a man came in with yet another that “the military had mown down the Volunteers in front of the G.P.O.” I, being worn out with fatigue and frustration, began to cry. To give an idea of the attitude of the general public at that time … one of those present turned to console me saying, “It is only the Sinn Féiners that were killed”. This enraged me and I turned on them saying, “But it is the Volunteers I am crying for. My friends are among them and fighting too”. It was remarkable that in a very short time, first one and then another, began to murmur, and the little crowd began to argue and take sides, This was the first public expression of any sympathy I experienced, however people may have been feeling privately.’
After The Rising
Back in Dublin, Mairin found some of her friends dead, and many others in gaol. The latter included Jim Ryan, who had been chief medical officer in the GPO during Easter Week, and was now imprisoned in Frongoch. Dismissed from her teaching post because of her involvement with ‘these rebels’, she found employment in schools in Ballyshannon and later Portstewart, and continued to be active on republican business, working for the Prisoners’ Dependents’ Fund, and canvassing for Sinn Fein in the 1918 general election. In 1919 she married Jim Ryan, and moved with him to Wexford, for which constituency he had just been elected Sinn Fein MP, and where he was now practising medicine. Interned by the British from December 1920 to August 1921, Jim suffered another term of imprisonment under the Free State Government, during which he went on a 36-day hunger strike. As a member of Cumann na mBan, Mairin was herself involved in republican activities, and in 1921 was briefly imprisoned and subsequently went on the run. During this time she worked with Robert Brennan, director of Foreign Affairs in the Sinn Fein government, in the course of which she carried clandestine messages to Sinn Fein representatives in London and Paris.
During the 1920s the Ryans moved to Kindlestown House in Greystones, where they would rear their family and live for the rest of their lives. A founder member of Fianna Fail, Jim served as a TD for forty-seven years and as a minister in several governments, before retiring in 1965, while Mairin became a prolific and successful author of children’s books, plays and newspaper articles. A drama Hunger strike, produced on Radio Eireann in 1936, drew on her own experiences as the wife of a hunger striker, while her publications for children included Old John (1936), a collection of tales told by the shoemaker Old John, which includes enchanting illustrations of his ‘family’ – blue terrier Kruger, goat Nanny, and little red hen, Circin Rua. Another children’s book, Rathina (1944) is an idyllic story of family life in a house clearly based on Kindlestown House. Both books were dedicated to the Ryan children, the former to Eoin and Nuala, and the latter to Seamus.
Jim Ryan died in 1970 and Mairin in 1975 and they are buried together in Redford cemetery, Greystones. Her papers are now held by the National Library of Ireland, and Greystones Library holds copies of Old John and Rathina, presented in 2016 by the Greystones Archaeological & Historical Society in memory of a remarkable and distinguished local resident.
Owen O’Shea, Dr Mary McAuliffe and Bridget McAuliffe (eds), Kerry 1916: histories and legacies of the Easter Rising. A centenary record (Irish Historical Publication, 2016),
Jim Ryan, 1916 and the Ryans of Tomcoole (privately printed, 2016)
Jim Ryan, ‘Mairin Cregan’, The Kerry Magazine, no 23 (2013), pp 50-51.
Mairin Cregan Papers, National Library of Ireland. Listing at https://www.nli.ie/pdfs/mss%20lists/159_MairinCregan.pdf
Bureau of Military History WS 416, Mrs James Ryan (Mairin Cregan), http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/bmhsearch/search.jsp?querystr=mrs+james+ryan