Stories of Gaol Experiences
As told to Fr Eugene Nevin - July 1917
Fr Eugene's evidence
In the month of July 1917, I called of an afternoon at Woodtown Park, Rathfarnham and was shown into the drawing room, large and oblong as I recollect. Seated at one end, and facing the other end oblong, after a few minutes I saw the door there open and a man I didn’t know enter walking the while towards me. As he approached with hand outstretched I got up to meet his advances. When lo! And behold! It was smiling John MacNeill himself, looking in the pink. Before and up to the Rebellion he favoured a full nave cropped beard, now he was clean shaven; and if as ’tis said ‘noses alter faces’ it must be allowed the shaving off of a full beard is likely to have a similar changing effect and therefore I could not be blameworthy in not immediately recognising him. He had ’with the boys’ returned the day before under the general amnesty, was in grand form and had a bagful of stories, comical and otherwise, about his gaol experiences which he told in his own inimitable amusing way. Mark Tapley, happy, jolly even in the most discouraging circumstances had many emulators amongst ‘the boys’ who besides demoralising the common convicts through the bad example given, went near to breaking up the whole English prison system, by the unconquerable, untameable spirit they manifested.
Their principal diversion, or occupation rather, since they left Ireland, seems to have consisted chiefly in fooling the warders and some of the upper officials too who driven almost crazy by their antics were dying to be rid of them and made no secret of it either. They couldn’t tell where they stood, being ordered by instead of ordering their prisoners until finally it came to such a pass that it was this –‘Either these here men go or we go’. But the amnesty came to the rescue and the Empire was saved for yet another while. Our heroes had now achieved a double reputation; perhaps better say two reputations diametrically opposed and mutually destructive. One acquired at home in their own country – glorious, the other abroad and so bad that it got them thrown out of the English Jails as unfit company for the criminals there confined. Two distinctions which possibly some friends and admirers might feel inclined ‘to bind as a crown unto them’. However, no such thoughts bothered their minds as they entrained together for Hollyhead looking forward eagerly to the happy reunion with their beloved ones anxiously awaiting their return. They were in great spirit and held an impromptu concert on the Mail Boat, consisting principally as might be expected of all the rebel songs they could remember. In one of these there occurs the passage: ‘A felon’s cap’s the noblest crown an Irish head can wear’ when as if by magic suiting action to work the head gear worn in prison was displayed triumphantly and donned by nearly everyone of them. Surely a sentimental journey if ever.
A few months before the release John wrote to someone in Ireland, or someone there wrote to him, I forget which, seeking information about a Cairn or Cromlech or the markings on an Ogham Stone and this was the source of infinite amusement to him because of the problem it set to the minds of the officials. Questioned and re-questioned any explanation or assurance of his could not penetrate, obtusely-minded as they were regarding everything Irish.
What were those cryptic allusions and strange looking foreign names but part of a secret code used in working up to re-enact the last year’s troubles that cost the country so much loss in money, men and prestige? Yes, the situation was serious, intricate, and it was only by recourse to highest authority and intelligentsia that knotted Gordian was cut. ‘It is for to laugh’ as the French would say.