What is a social object and what does it do?
According to American Museum Director Nina Simon, a social object is something that can initiate a conversation, allowing people to engage with each other through focussing on a third thing. A social object, she argues, is one that will allow strangers to connect with one another through a shared interest and shared experiences relating to that specific object.
Simon also tells us that such objects can exist in the real world or in the virtual world of the internet. They can share several qualities which she lists as:
- Personal: an object the visitor can have a personal connection to, with an immediate story to tell
- Active: something that inserts itself into your space, sparking a conversation between strangers
- Provocative: something that is genuinely surprising to the visitor
- Relational: objects that invite personal use, and require co-operation with others to be used
At Clare Museum, a letter placed online for public access purposes in 2002 became a ‘social object’ when some people who had a personal connection to similar letters relating to the same person, Patrick Hennessy, encountered our letter online.
Each of these people had a story to tell about why they were researching this man who had been executed so long ago: some had a mysterious heart-wrenching letter in their family but had no idea who this person was or if he had been executed as the letter appeared to suggest. In some cases, people made contact to tell us they had another letter addressed to somebody else, written at the same time by Hennessy. Some were trying to find a suitable home for a letter they knew to be important, because it held such meaning to their parents or grandparents.
What follows is the story of Patrick Hennessy, his letters and how one of them in the museum collection became a ‘social object’ online. The experience resulted in the creation of relationships around it and other letters. Through the conversations our letter generated, other letters came to light and many questions were answered. Thanks to the relationships that were formed from these conversations, the old barrier of silence that had surrounded the executions of two Clare men during the Irish Civil War was broken down.
The Ó Siocháin letter
In November 2001, a letter was donated to the Clare Museum collection. It was written by a man called Patrick Hennessy in Limerick Gaol on 19 January 1923 and it was to be donated on behalf of an Ó Siocháin family in Dublin. The letter was significant because it was Hennessy’s ‘last letter’, written on the eve of his execution alongside his friend Con McMahon, during the Irish Civil War.
The letter was written in black ink. It had been read and reread so many times over the years that somebody had used sellotape to hold the creases together. It obviously carried great meaning to the person who possessed it.
Accompanying the letter was an undated cut-out newspaper article from the Irish Press newspaper, probably dating to the 1960s. The article requested information about the letter and Patrick Hennessy in particular.
The letter reads as follows, complete with the punctuation as written by Hennessy:
Dear Seán and all the boys,
Ye hardly knew tonight, that Con and myself are to be executed, at 8 O’C tomorrow morning. Found guilty, on frivolous evidence of course, our lives sworn away, but we are dying for Ireland, still true to the Republic, to the last. Money could not buy us. I am leaving my cigarettes to be divided among the ‘Clare Section’. A cigarette will go a long way. It will only be a little token of remembrance of me. Distribute them as far as they will go and say a prayer for me.
I think it is your voice I hear singing now. As for me, I am in the best of spirit, and expect to face my death like a soldier, and a true Irish one. I forgive my enemies, even those that swore away my life and I forgive them from the bottom of my heart, for there is a God to judge them as well as me. It is a thing we all have to face some day, no one can avoid it.
Fr McCreidy, Quin, came to see Con and myself tonight and I am in right good spirit knowing that I am going to Heaven. They can only kill my body, my spirit, still will live, though the cold, silent grave, will unfold her arms to receive me [words missing due to tear] we will all meet in Heaven.
Do not shed tears for me, if you do let them be tears of joy, for there is joy in my heart tonight, knowing that I will be with God, tomorrow for ever and ever.
Good bye comrades, for evermore, P Hennessy
Underneath this, written by the transcriber is:
Executed in Limerick Gaol January 20th 1923.
In the early stages of the Civil War, particularly during the summer of 1922, Michael Collins had worked hard to try to bring the pro and anti-treaty sides together to avoid conflict. After he was killed in action in west Cork on 22 August 1922, the leadership of the Free State government decided that executing anti-treaty IRA, known as ‘Irregulars’, as common criminals was the resolute action required to end the Irish Civil War. Consequently, under the Public Safety Bill, the government could legally execute anyone found in possession of either firearms, ammunition, or explosives without proper authority. This would be very relevant in the Patrick Hennessy story.
Who was Patrick Hennessy?
Volunteer Patrick Hennessy was a member of his local Clooney Company, 1st Battalion of the Mid-Clare Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. He had been active in the Irish War of Independence and had taken the anti-treaty side, along with many in his Brigade, during the Irish Civil War. In 1923 he was also the County Secretary of Clare GAA, so he would have been well known in nationalist circles. A hurler on the Clooney team, Hennessy had tried out for selection on the Clare hurling team that won the 1914 All-Ireland senior hurling title, the first for Clare. Clare also won the All-Ireland junior hurling title that year. He was not picked to play.
In the early hours of the 16 January, 1923, Patrick Hennessy and Cornelius (Con) McMahon, his brother Vincent and a young man called John D’arcy, all anti-Treaty IRA were hiding in a dugout, pitched into a hillside between the Ireton farmland at Lassana and Con McMahon’s homeplace at Feenagh in the parish of Clooney. Pro-treaty Free State troops arrived in lorries and approached the dugout to make arrests. The men attempted to escape resulting in Hennessy being shot in the ankle. They were arrested for their role in the destruction of the railway station at Ardsollus near Quin a couple of days before, an operation intended to deter the activities of the pro-treaty forces. Hennessy and McMahon were executed four days later for having ammunition without proper authority, though Hennessy claimed in a letter to his sister Theresa that:
There was nothing on us but afterwards the military found some stuff in a cock of hay and charged us with it but we are innocent.
It is strongly held to this day that Patrick Hennessy and Con McMahon were betrayed locally and were framed by those who arrested them. A total of 77 anti-Treaty IRA volunteers or sympathisers were executed during the Irish Civil War, between 17 November 1922 and 30 May 1923. On the day of Hennessy and McMahon’s executions, four others were shot by firing squad at Tralee Barracks and six were executed at Custume Barracks, Athlone.
The Murphy Letter
In February 2002, Clare Museum launched its first website. It featured photographs of artefacts from the museum collection, and it included a photograph of the Ó Siocháin letter with some information on Patrick Hennessy.
About a year later, New York-based Ellen Murphy was researching a puzzling letter written to ‘Jennie’ by a man called Patrick Hennessy that had been included among papers kept by her great-aunt Agnes Bourke of Kilrush. These papers had been inherited by Ellen’s father in the US when she died in Clare in the early 1960s. The letter was a mystery to the Murphy family as they did not have any relative called Patrick Hennessy. An internet search resulted in Ellen discovering the letter to Seán we had placed online. Following an exchange of emails between Ellen and the museum, the Murphy family agreed to donate their letter and some other items related to the revolutionary period in Clare found among the Bourke papers, to Clare Museum.
Research by Ellen Murphy revealed that Jennie was the sister of Con McMahon, the anti-Treaty IRA man executed with Hennessy. In the letter to Jennie, clearly his sweetheart, he adds a post-script:
Oh Jennie, little did we think that what we did for sport on Novembers night when myself and Con drew the saucer of clay that it was to be our fate.
He was alluding to a game that he had played with Con and Jennie, a Samhain custom, that foretold death.
The Gardiner Letter
In 2004, the presence of the Ó Siocháin letter online resulted in the donation of another Hennessy ‘last letter’ to the museum. Chryss Gardiner from New York had a copy of the same letter, with some differences. It was addressed to ‘Dear John and all the boys’, instead of ‘Seán and all the boys’, had different handwriting, and had ‘Father Quin’ for ‘Father McCreidy, Quin’. Chryss had no idea who Patrick Hennessy was or how her family came to possess the letter. It was donated to Clare Museum via a relative in Ireland in 2005.
It is interesting that in the Ó Siocháin letter, the name of the priest and his parish, ‘Father McCreidy, Quin’, is smudged, with the surname being almost impossible to read. In the Gardiner letter, the transcriber skipped the surname and called him ‘Father Quin’. It is tempting to suggest that the Gardiner letter was copied from the Ó Siocháin version, with the transcriber simply leaving out the name she could not read, but that would be speculative.
At about the same time, Patricia Benker, a descendant of Patrick Hennessy’s Aunt Emily, sent a scanned copy of a postcard with Patrick’s picture on one side. Emily was living in the United States at the time of the executions and the postcard had been sent by Patrick’s mother.
In the image we see a young Patrick Hennessy with a moustache, dressed in a three-piece suit. An albert chain for a pocket watch is visible in the picture, and hanging from it are five medals, and at least one (the first on the left) is almost certainly a GAA medal. This is not surprising, given Hennessy’s strong connection to the GAA and it resembles other hurling medals from that period, including the All-Ireland medal of 1914.
An annotation on the reverse of the Benker postcard reads:
Poor Patrick, Died January 20th 1923.
While almost everyone who possesses a copy of a ‘last letter’ believes they hold an original, no two letters have the same handwriting. The reason for this is because Cumann na mBan copied Hennessy’s last letters and distributed them widely to sympathisers and family members in 1923. They were written in pen and ink and served as reminders of Hennessy’s sacrifice, his martyrdom for the republican cause. Indeed, relics of martyrs were a common feature in the lives of Catholics in Ireland at that time and were very much part of Irish culture. According to the family of Con McMahon, which possess a ‘last letter’ from Con, original letters were written in pencil as ink pens were not allowed in prison, because they could have been used as weapons.
Other letters, other contacts
In 2005 there was a flurry of interest in the Patrick Hennessy letter online, revealing that he wrote at least three ‘last’ letters on the eve of his execution to:
- Seán/John (no original of this letter has come to light)
- Jennie (only two copies are known to exist, no original is known)
- Theresa, his sister. (The original was sent to Australia where she lived and remains there. There are no known copies)
Copies of these letters were held among the papers of families in several US states, England and Ireland, where they were often the focus of curiosity. But not all of those who contacted the museum had their own copies of a letter. Among those without a letter was Patricia Hayward from the UK, and she had a most remarkable story to tell. Her grandmother was in labour, giving birth to her father, Pauric Ireton, in a farmhouse when the men were apprehended in the dug-out nearby.
In order to escape the commotion of the birth, my great-uncle, Patrick Ireton, strolled out to a nearby hillfort on our land and climbed up to the old elm tree there to smoke a cigarette. Suddenly he noticed a skirmish in the field below: Free State troops (some of whom he recognized) clearly had the anti-Treaty men under arrest. Patrick, whose leg was injured, was being half dragged out along the ground through one of our fields; Con McMahon, pinioned between two soldiers, noticed my great-uncle up in the fort and saluted him solemnly. They were gone. My great-uncle ran back to the farmhouse to tell my grandfather (his brother), and as he rushed through the door he was greeted with the news that my father had just been born. That was the last sighting of Hennessy and McMahon in Clooney; they were executed in Limerick Gaol four days later.
My father later emigrated to England where he first told me this story when I was ten; he had come upon an article about a Hennessy last letter in the Irish Press, and this provoked his telling me the powerful family anecdote. We would revisit the story years later together, and I have since spent many years researching the events that took place in the course of those few days.
Patricia Hayward’s account is a remarkable piece of oral history. What is also remarkable is the mention of a Hennessy letter article in the Irish Press in the 1960s. Could that have been the Ó Siocháin letter? While we can never be sure, it seems most likely that it was.
All contacts by holders of letters were made by email to the museum. With their permission, the curator was able to put many of them in contact with Ellen Murphy who was researching original sources relating to the arrest and execution of Hennessy and McMahon in the Bureau of Military History in Dublin. This included Patricia Hayward who also conducted her own research using family connections in Clooney to record the memories passed down through the Hennessy, McMahon families, and indeed her own family.
According to Patricia Hayward:
We have gathered some astonishing anecdotes from the holders of copy letters down the years, and the fact of their being copies in no way diminishes their significance. They are usually treasured by those who have bothered to retain them.
Ellen Murphy authored a paper on her research in the journal of the Shannon Archaeological and Historical Society, The Other Clare, in 2006.
Ultimately, the two women came together to host a public talk on the events surrounding the arrest and executions on 20 January 1923 at Clare Museum. It was here that the power of the Ó Siocháin letter as a ‘social object’ achieved its greatest results: The talk was well attended by people connected to the Hennessy and McMahon families, and by interested members of the community. Many of those in attendance had not been enthusiastic about the talk for fear of opening old wounds but came along out of loyalty to others.
However, they need not have been apprehensive as the actual experience was profoundly different. They were outlined by Patricia Hayward as follows:
- A McMahon family member agreed to a ‘one night only exhibition’ of an original Con McMahon ‘last letter’ in the museum. It had never been shown in public before.
- A member of the audience stood up that night and revealed his father, a doctor, had had the thankless task of identifying the bodies when they were eventually released back to the families in 1924. He eventually provided a great deal of additional information to Patricia and Ellen subsequently.
- When Patricia reached the end of her own section of the talk, she noticed a number of people in the audience were actually weeping.
- In the days following the talk, several strangers who had attended approached both women in the streets of Ennis to tell them they had never attended anything quite like it before but could not say why; another who was very suspicious of the event stated she was ‘deeply moved’. A relative of Patricia Hayward stated:
That night showed us that it is okay to talk about these things, as long as you do it without recrimination. The whole idea was new to us; we had been brought up to never mention it.
The Ó Siocháin letter is a ‘social object’. It has started conversations between strangers around the difficult and divisive subject of the Irish Civil War and the executions. According to Patricia Hayward, the lecture and the exhibition which accompanied it on the night had a
…cathartic effect on many people present. It did indeed break down barriers, a key one being the barrier of silence that had hitherto surrounded the whole issue of Civil War executions.
She also feels that the letter, in terms of Simon’s list of qualities for a social object, is ‘Active’ in that it inserts its way into a person’s space and instigates conversations between strangers.
The presence of the Ó Siocháin letter online validated many people’s own Irish Civil War related memorabilia and made them more inclined to share those artefacts. In some cases, the owners were oblivious to their wider interest, value or importance.
Emails relating to the Ó Siocháin family’s Patrick Hennessy letter ceased in 2007, just as suddenly as they started, as if another silence had fallen.
However, in 2017 another version of the Ó Siocháin letter was donated to the museum via Tipperary and the UK.
That is a story for telling at another time…
The author would like to thank Patricia Hayward for reviewing a draft of this paper and for her observations and helpful anecdotes in relation to her experience of the letter as a ‘social object’.
Mac Conmara, Tomás, (2015), ‘High Prestige – The Story of Clare’s All Ireland Hurling Champions of 1914, published by Clare Museum, Ennis
Murphy, Ellen D., ‘The Patrick Hennessy Letters’, The Other Clare, Vol. 30, 2006, Shannon Archaeological and Historical Society. [copies are available from the Clare Local Studies Centre]
Simon, Nina, (2010), ‘The Participatory Museum’, [Accessed 16 January 2023)
Mick Early on 20 January 2023: