The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
We are drawing to the end of a period of remembrance and reflection on the events that took place during the period 1912–1923 and the emergence of the Irish state as we know it today. These commemorative events have been referred to as the Decade of Centenaries (www.decadeofcentenaries.com)
As we proceeded through the decade of commemoration, it became apparent that little was known or reported about the many women who were active throughout this period, with some notable exceptions such as Constance Markievicz and Mary MacSwiney, but including thousands of other women. Mary McAuliffe has pointed out that there has been a failure to see the women of 1916 and the subsequent years as historical figures. An additional strand has been added to the Decade of Centenaries online resource. ‘Mná 100’ is an online women’s initiative for the final phase of the Decade of Centenaries Programme and continues to work in highlighting the role of women in the revolutionary period (www.mna100.ie). Caitlín Kingston was one such woman.
Caitlín Brugha (nee Kingston)
Caitlín Kingston was born in Birr, Co Offaly, in 1879 to William Kingston and Catherine Roche. The Kingstons were quite prosperous and owned a large store in Main St, Birr dealing in groceries, spirits and delph. They also owned land outside the town. Caitlín had two brothers, John was a Holy Ghost priest in Rockwell College and Charles was Offaly County Secretary during the difficult period of 1900 to 1921, steering the county through the minefield that was local government during the transition from British rule to Irish rule. She had two sisters, Máire who went to live with Caitlín and helped her raise her family after the death of her husband, Cathal Brugha, and Hanoria/Nora who joined the Sacred Heart order of nuns in Roscrea. Caitlín herself was educated in Roscrea. On the death of her father William in 1904, Caitlín helped her mother to run the business. However, they sold that business in 1910 and moved to Dublin.
Caitlín first met Cathal Brugha in Birr where she was an organiser of Irish language classes that were run by the Gaelic League. Cathal, formerly Charles Burgess, a Dublin man, had established a business, Lalor Brothers, with the two Lalor brothers, that manufactured and distributed candles. While travelling on behalf of Lalor Brothers, selling, and distributing candles to churches throughout the country, he was also an organiser for the Gaelic League, and later for Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Cathal and Caitlín married in Dublin in February 1912 and went on to have six children, five daughters and one son.
Charles Burgess was born in Drumcondra, Dublin in 1874, the 10th of 14 children to Thomas Burgess and Marianne Flynn. He was educated at the primary school in Dominick Street followed by Belvedere College. Charles was forced to leave school early following the failure of his father’s business and bankruptcy. He excelled in several sports and was a good swimmer and gymnast. He also enjoyed cricket.
Charles joined the Gaelic League/Conradh na Gaeilge in 1899. He learnt to speak Irish and changed his name to Cathal Brugha. In 1908 he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He went on to recruit for the Irish Volunteers from 1913, and participated, along with Sean T O Kelly, in the landing of the second consignment of guns from Germany at Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, on 1st August 1914, following the Howth Gun Running on 26th July. During the Easter Rising in April 1916, he was deputy leader of the 4th Battalion in the South Dublin Union, now St James’ Hospital. Eamonn Ceannt was the leader. Cathal was seriously wounded suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds. He was not executed along with the other leaders owing to the severity of his wounds and was not expected to live. He recovered after a year but was lame for the rest of his life and in constant pain. During the period 1917–1922 he was active in uniting the IRB and the Irish Citizen Army, in reorganising Sinn Féin and in adopting a new constitution for Sinn Féin. He was elected a TD for County Waterford for Sinn Féin in 1918 and he chaired the inaugural meeting of the 1st Dáil on 21st January 1919. He became Minister for Defence in April 1919. Cathal Brugha rejected the terms of the Treaty in January 1922. He died on the 7thJuly 1922 during the Civil War as a result of a gunshot wound.
Whereas much is known about Cathal Brugha during the period 1912–1922, particularly with the publication in 2022 of a biography Cathal Brugha ‘An Indomitable Spirit by Daithí Ó Corráin and Gerard Hanley, there has been very little recognition of the role played by his wife Caitlín. Ó Corrráin and Hanley have gone some way to rectifying this by devoting much of the final chapter in the biography to Caitlín.
Caitlín was equally committed to the cause of independence as her husband Cathal. During his frequent absences she endured raids on their home by armed police and soldiers which were quite terrifying both for her and their young children. During the Easter Rising in 1916, Áine Ceannt, the wife of Éamonn Ceannt, their son Ronan and Áine’s mother stayed with Caitlín. Cathal confided in Caitlín, and she was aware that plans for the Rising were hidden in the back garden of their house in FitzWilliam Terrace on the Upper Rathmines Road which Cathal instructed her to destroy following the Rising. She was, undoubtedly, very busy during the period 1916–1922 as four further children were born. She now had six children to care for and raise.
(Photo 2 of family)
Brugha family photo with 5 eldest children (c.1920)
Following Cathal’s death in July 1922, Caitlín issued an instruction that, ‘apart from relations and intimate friends, the chief mourners and the Guard of Honour should include only the women of the Republican movement’. This was, she said, a protest against ‘the immediate and terrible civil war’.
Photo 3 notice re Cathal’s funeral and Photo 4 of Caitlín at the graveside with the four eldest children
Caitlín’s commitment to Cathal and to the cause for which they both stood is further demonstrated in a letter that she wrote to her friend Lucy Hegarty the month after Cathal’s death in which she speaks of how proud and privileged she was to be Cathal’s wife. She goes on to write ‘My greatest consolation is that he gave his life for our country’s freedom and that the children have the memory of such a father to treasure in the years to come’. (Photo 6 – Letter to Lucy Hegarty?)
Caitlín’s letter to her fried Lucy Hegarty (August 1922)
Caitlín was politically active during the period following Cathal’s death. She went to Glasgow in September 1922, accompanied by two of her children, on a fund-raising mission. She attended a meeting in London in December 1922 denouncing the Treaty. She accompanied Dr Kathleen Lynn to Glasgow in January 1923, and she went to Manchester on 21st January 1923, along with Kate O’Callaghan, the widow of the Lord Mayor of Limerick, Mary MacSwiney and Maud Gonne McBride, to commemorate the Independence of Dáil Éireann.
Caitlín went up for election as a candidate in County Waterford in August 1923 and she headed the poll. She refused to take her seat along with other Sinn Féin Republican deputies in protest at the vote of allegiance. She supported the release of Republican prisoners and was a strong supporter of the Irish Prisoners’ Dependent Fund. She was re-elected to the 5th Dáil as a Sinn Féin TD between June and August 1927. Sinn Féin did not put up any candidates for the September 1927 election. Caitlín appears to have withdrawn from active political life at that point.
Election photo of Cathal & of Caitlín
However, Caitlín had a family to support. Cathal had not drawn any salary during the period of the 1st and 2nd Dáil, and Caitlín refused financial support from the Free State government. She established a business in 1924, with the support of her brother Charles Kingston, initially in Nassau Street selling Irish goods, but soon turning to a menswear store in O’Connell Street, close to where Cathal was shot in 1922. This business, Kingstons Menswear, thrived and continued to expand for several decades. The experience that Caitlín had gained helping her mother run the family business in Birr, following the death of her father in 1904 must have stood to her. It should also be acknowledged that her other siblings were also supportive. Her three eldest daughters were sent to the Sacred Heart Convent in Roscrea where her sister Nora was a nun, and Ruairí was sent to Rockwell College at the age of seven where Caitlín’s brother John was a Holy Ghost priest. Finally, her older sister Maire who was much loved by the Brugha children, lived with Caitlín, and helped her raise the family following Cathal’s death.
Caitlín died in December 1959, a few days short of her 80th birthday. She remained loyal to Cathal and to the ideals they both held dearly. She signed her name as Caitlín, Bean Cathal Brugha to the day she died.
Ó Corráin, Daithí and Hanley, Gerard: Cathal Brugha: An Indomitable Spirit. Chapter 8, After Cathal. (Dublin, 2022)
McAuliffe, Mary: Reflections on History, Feminism, Activism & Politics, Remembering Caitlín Brugha,TD for Waterford 1923–1927. Based on a paper given at a Centenary Commemoration event by the Waterford Commemoration Committee. (Dungarvan, December 2018)
Hogan, Margaret, historian from Birr, Co Offaly, who had done research on Caitlín and the Kingston family and participated in the B’í mo Mhamó programme on TG4 in 2012.
Our thanks to Deirdre Stuart for this important article on a celebrated woman from Birr and who was very much part of our national story.