Fr Nevin helps Desmond Fitzgerald

Witness Statement

Fr Eugene Nevin's evidence

Bureau of Military History

The Saturday of Easter Week 1916

Saturday afternoon a young lady member of Cumann na mBan evacuated from the GPO came to know if I could receive and conceal for the night one of the leaders, not giving his name. Having consulted Fathers Joseph and Kieran, now collaborating with me, I answered yes. I would meet him any time he came in the Church not in the retreat as extreme caution had to be exercised, the local Rector being strongly opposed to the Irish Volunteers and everything they stood for.

It should be recalled and pity it is that it has to, that the Insurrection was unpopular with the vast majority of Dublin people, Catholic and Protestant alike, many of whom were ready to co-operate with the Authorities in suppressing what they to disparage called ‘the riot’ and in rounding up the ‘rioters’.

In due course, after a short interval, the young lady returned with Desmond Fitzgerald, travel-stained and weary. I met them in the Church, but what to do immediately, with time pressing and the danger of detection imminent, was a serious problem, for we could not take him into the house in the then state. However, as he told us he was in no need of food or refreshment of any kind, all he wanted was some quiet place to sleep, as he hadn’t had a wink even, for the past week, we thought in the circumstances the Organ gallery, safest, though incongruous in ordinary times, but any port in a storm.

To improvise a makeshift lie-down back of the big organ was a matter of a few moments only, and no sooner prepared that he threw himself down on it and was fast asleep straight away. Having locked the inner and outer doors and taken the keys away to assure safety and freedom from disturbance, we left him ‘alone in his glory’, a ‘warrior taking his rest’ if not ‘with his martial cloak around him’, with a cloak that effectively covers all the worries and troubles of the day.

The hours wore steadily on filled with the excitement of historic happenings. Saturday’s Confessions were to be heard, anxiously inquiring callers had to be soothed in many cases until evening and the night came when the Church had to be cleared and closed. Then the Brother Sacristan Benignus having, as he thought, got everyone out of the Chapels and Confessionals, was disturbed because as he told us he could hear someone snoring but where, after much searching and listening, he could not make out. We knew all about it, set his mind at ease and asked him to keep the matter secret, which indeed he did.

Having managed to prepare a room, bed and supper in the Retreat, we about 10 o’clock released our prisoner and led him by hand stealthily in the darkness, for gas and electricity being cut off there was nothing but candle light.

He was now fully refreshed by his long sleep and we all four together in his room talked far into the night on the situation in general and plans for his immediate future. He was anxious to go next day to his wife and children in Bray even though it entailed the danger of arrest there or before reaching it. We suggested disguising himself clerically and giving him a bicycle that would take him to Maynooth where we knew a priest there who would we were certain do the needful afterwards. But he was all for home.

How he managed to get away from Headquarters after the surrender and avoid capture is of interest to know and not a little amusing. Educated for the most part abroad, his general appearance, refined manner and address was cosmopolitan rather distinguishably peculiar to any country. His style, also, of speech devoid of accent was as far removed from the least approach to Irish brogue or mannerism as anything we can imagine. When, therefore he presented himself at the military post held by English Tommies and politely sought permission from them to pass he was, to their minds, the direct opposite to what they pictured – the sans-culotte mad Irish revolutionary republican, and he had no need to pose as, what he was to them already, an Englishman escaping from the ‘bloomin sin feeners’. And under that role, unwittingly thrust upon him, but willingly accepted in the emergency, he successfully and successively passed through barrier after barrier that lay between the GPO and Mount Argus.

So far so good. But it won’t be so simple to get clear of lynx and many eyed detectives of the two police forces a paternal government has provided for our safety. His name prominent in all the activities of the Volunteer Movement was well known to them and as it didn’t appear on the list of those captured at the fall of the GPO, he would prove a valuable prize for someone ambitious of promotion. His appearance too could not be mistaken: tall, handsome, well set up, distinguished looking with a profusion of loveliest hair that disdained all manner of head gear and rendered him conspicuous above his fellows. He had therefore to be disguised as an ordinary Seán Citizen and for this purpose he decided, I’m sure not without a squirm to sacrifice his precious locks and wear a cap or hat for head covering,

Sampson shorn of his locks was shorn also of the giant strength the Lord had endowed him with, suffering other and serious consequences.

But if Abslaom, the recalcitrant son of King David, had a hair cut that morning before engaging in the Ephraim Forest battle, it is possible there would not have to be recorded the bewailing lament at his death of an over-indulgent and too fond a father in that ‘high chamber over the gate’ of the city.

We anxiously hoped and prayed for success to the transformed Desmond who, having attended the 10 o’clock Mass next morning, mingled with the departing congregation and was soon lost to sight among them as they dispersed. It was the last I saw of him until he returned from Prison fifteen months later.

He went straight to Seamus O’Kelly’s, Rathgar, as the first stop in his eventful journey home which I understand he reached that evening and strange to say though ‘wanted’ and sought for by the Authorities he was there unmolested for over a week. Then a large body of police reinforced by a Company of soldiers with a machine gun, we presume ‘on information received proceeded to his house in Bray, surrounded it’ and took into custody ‘one of the King’s rebelly Irish enemies’.

This denouement was fortunately in striking contrast to the tragic endings of the two instances I have quoted from Holy Writ; for by now the Bloody Assise, that was handing out freely death sentences on prisoners of war since the surrender had begun to feel satiated with killings and content with life sentences or deportation. Had Desmond Fitzgerald been among the captured Headquarters garrison, he without a doubt, would have had to face the firing squad; and I remember him in our Saturday night’s talk contemplating his possible fate in case he failed to escape. ‘I don’t mind being shot’ he said ‘but to be hanged is too awful’. As a rule those under sentence of death are not given the option of choosing the manner of their taking off, but whether it is a luxury to be shot instead of bing hanged is I think debateable. I hope I and my friends may manage to escape both alternatives but there is the notable case of one who didn’t – St Thomas More. When told the King, by special favour, had commuted his sentence of hanging and quartering to that of decapitation his reply was: ‘I pray God that none of my friends will ever have need of such a favour’ as jestingly he went to his death saying to an attendant ‘Please help me up the steps, I’ll shift for myself coming down’. In both shooting and hanging, the end being the same, it is the principle at stake, not the manner of death that matters.

Oliver Plunkett was hanged and in revolting circumstances Archbishop Hurley of Cashel; so were many other bishops and priests with hundreds of lay people who died for the Faith.

And who can enumerate the hosts of Irish patriots who, like Robert Emmet, suffered a like fate.

This page was added on 02/04/2016.

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