Sheila O’Leary (b. 1921), her daughters Emer O’Leary and Maeve O’Leary
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Sheila O’Leary (b. 1921), her daughters Emer O’Leary and Maeve O’Leary


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Sheila O’Leary recalls her early childhood days at the family home in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. The family’s ‘grace and favour’ home overlooked the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin. Both of Sheila’s parents were garrisoned in the GPO in 1916. Her father, Thomas Francis Byrne (Boer Tom), was appointed Captain of the Guard (Superintendant of the Staff) at Dáil Éireann by Michael Collins in 1922. Tom Byrne was born in Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan in 1877. The family relocated to Dublin when he was five years old. His father was a clerk and the family lived in Drumcondra at one time. By 1916, Tom was very well-travelled, an experienced soldier, miner and explosives expert. Sheila recalls the fact that her father Tom was a humble man – ‘a gentle giant’ and a man of integrity who had a strong drive towards social justice. In 1896 at the age of 19, Tom emigrated to the Transvaal where he worked in the mines. Witnessing injustice against the Boers and the agitation for war by the British, he and two other Irishmen, Dan O’ Hare from Belfast and a Kerryman, Dick McDonagh, met to discuss the formation of an Irish brigade to fight with the Boers. They approached John McBride who agreed to be their leader. A letter written by Tom from South Africa to his brother Patrick is extant. In his writings he speaks of his willingness to die for a just cause. Amongst Tom’s tasks were to detonate bridges and delay the advance of the British Troops. After the Boers were defeated, his passage was arranged to New York via Trieste and Hamburg. In 1900, Tom arrived at Ellis Island in America and was met by John Devoy. He spent the next thirteen years working in the mines of Montana, California, Colorado and Nevada. He was a member of Clann na Gael there. He returned to Ireland on a short visit in 1913, and having attended the first meeting of the Volunteers in the Rotunda he elected to stay. Owing to his age and expertise he was very close to the core of the organisational group and was in their confidence. In the months preceding the Rising, Tom Byrne was a frequent visitor to Tom Clarke’s shop in Parnell Street. He received his original orders for the rebellion from Tom Clarke. He was to go with James Connolly to Harcourt Street Station and to take charge of that area when the time came. However, about a fortnight before the Rising he was summoned by Patrick Pearse to mobilise the troops in County Kildare. Sheila O’Leary discusses the Maynooth Volunteers, a band of fifteen men with Tom at their head, who mobilised from Maynooth on Easter Monday and marched to Dublin along the canal to pass the night in Glasnevin Cemetery. Their weapons were concealed in a water tank near the Botanic Gardens. On the Tuesday morning the men arrived at the GPO to be given a rousing reception by Pearse, Connolly and the other Volunteers. Sheila’s mother, Lucy Agnes Smyth, was a member of the Cumann na mBan’s nursing contingent at the GPO and the Hibernian Bank. At the GPO, Lucy greeted Tom with a basin of water for his feet and a pair of clean socks! She was to assist in his escape after the Rising. Her parents never spoke to Sheila about events in 1916 or their national activities at all. She does recall asking her mother as a schoolgirl about the Treaty. Sheila regrets the fact that she knew so little about her parents’ struggle whilst they were alive, or about the Smyth family and Lucy’s parents and seven siblings Maeve O’Leary recalls her grandmother Lucy and her own pride in her grandparents’ decision to fight for their country. She talks about her family research on the Tom and Lucy story over the last few years and her grandmother’s service in Cumann na mBan from 1914. At the time of the Rising, Lucy was romantically linked with Con Colbert. Con sent her a message via Fr Albert the night before he was executed. Con and Tom Byrne were rivals for Lucy’s affections. Following Con’s execution in 1916 Lucy became close friends with Con’s sister Lila. Lucy and Tom were married in 1919. Tragically the couple lost their first child Maureen at seven weeks old, following a raid on their home by Crown forces in 1920 during which Tom was arrested and sent to prison. Sheila has only recently discovered where Maureen, the older sister she never knew, is buried. Maeve reflects on the fact that she identifies with Tom a little with regard to his adventurous spirit and because he too was also an emigrant. (Maeve has lived for twenty years in Australia with her Australian husband and their three daughters). She explains that it was Sheila’s greatest wish to know more of her parent’s 1916 story and to leave their legacy behind for future generations of Irish people the world over. That was something Maeve felt she could help her mother achieve from Australia. Sheila remarks she is only now discovering what her parents went through. Maeve talks about her grandparents seven medals, the 1916 Easter Rising medal, the Service (1917-1921) medal awarded to both, the 1916 survivors medal, the Truce (1921) Commemoration Medal awarded to Lucy and Tom’s Boer War medal awarded to him by the South African Government. The family also have in their possession Lucy’s satin red-cross bloodstained armband which she wore at the GPO while tending to the wounded James Connolly and other Volunteers, and on her harrowing journey to Jervis Street while accompanying the wounded. Sheila recalls her mother’s accident in the Phoenix Park which affected her knee for the rest of her long life. She describes Lucy as an avid reader and a very competent, capable and loving mother. She recalls meeting President Douglas Hyde one day whilst out playing in the Park with her siblings Eileen, Lila and Myles. She also discusses her memories of their neighbours in the Phoenix Park, amongst them Major General Michael Brennan, the Irish Army Chief of Staff. The family moved to Old Cabra Road when Sheila was ten. Sheila has very fond memories of her mother and father, and though she loves the Irish language and her mother was a fluent speaker, she does not recall Irish being spoken in her home. Recently the family was delighted to have discovered a short section of newsreel of the filming of the GPO Garrison reunion photograph taken in 1936, which includes footage of Tom Byrne and Lucy Smyth. In her research Maeve found a first-hand gripping account by Miss M. Reynolds who accompanied Lucy and other members of Cumann na mBan with the wounded to Jervis Street Hospital under fire before the surrender in 1916, and moments before the main garrison evacuated the burning GPO. When the group arrived at Jervis Street Hospital, the severely wounded were taken in but the women were turned away. After the Rising, Tom Byrne succeeded Ned Daly as Commandant of the 1st Battalion, IRA, and he held that post for three years. He stepped aside around the time of Bloody Sunday. Michael Collins later put his name forward in 1922 for the post of Captain of the Guard at Dáil Éireann, a position he held until his retirement in 1947. Lucy Byrne was present at the GPO for the 50th anniversary of the Rising, though by that time her husband was deceased. Another event recalled is a historical presentation to Commandant Tom Byrne of his portrait painted in oils by Seán O’Sullivan RHA. Tom was the last surviving officer, Irish Brigade, Boer War in 1946. Sometimes he would talk to his daughter about life on the veldt in South Africa. He never spoke about fighting at the Battle of Ladysmith, where he was known as ‘Boer Tom’. Tom and Lucy Byrne are buried together in Glasnevin Cemetery with their only son Myles who tragically died in a car accident. Sheila recalls the full military funeral accorded to her father. Sheila remarks that her father’s very first job was at Findlaters and that he apparently bet his first week’s wages on a horse. He was later to tell her that gambling was ‘a mug’s game’. He was also a very keen angler. An anecdote is told about Tom having financed his trip back to Ireland from the mines in Butte, Montana in 1913 with a small win on a baseball lottery. Sheila’s working life began in 1941 in the Department of Industry and Commerce, at the Sweeps premises in Ballsbridge, and she was later transferred to Kildare Street where she would occasionally visit her father at Leinster House. For a period of about eight years she was Confidential Secretary to the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, Seán Lemass. She recalls her working life and some of the personalities she met during this time. Sheila met her future husband, Arthur Joseph O’Leary, at a Civil Service dance and she recalls his love of Ireland and the soil. Maeve speaks about the hidden losses and silent grief endured by her grandmother Lucy, owing to the execution of their comrades and friends. She reflects on the tragic death of baby Maureen and Tom’s many arrests and subsequent imprisonments. Sheila explains that she and her siblings were sheltered from details of their parents’ history.

Additional information


Disk, MP3

Audio series:

The 1916 Rising Oral History Collections


128 kbps

Download time limit:

48 hours

File size(s):

61.30 MB

Product ID:



Thomas Francis Byrne (Boer Tom), Lucy Agnes Smyth (Interviewees’ parents/ grandparents)

Recorded by:

Maurice O’Keeffe – Irish Life and Lore