Among those listed as interned in Frongoch in 1916 is an Edward Tierney whose address is given as the Falls Road, Belfast. There is also a Tierney tentatively listed among the Belfast Battalion volunteers who mobilised that Easter. So who was Edward Tierney?
Tierney’s name and address appear in the list of Frongoch internees compiled by Sean O’Mahony (in Frongoch: University of Revolution). No other details, other than the surname appears on the list of Belfast Battalion volunteers who mobilised in 1916 that is held in the Military Archives in Dublin. However, it is clear from the internment records that the Edward Tierney in Frongoch was more usually known by a Gaelicised form of the name, ‘Eamon O’Tierney’. O’Tierney had arrived in Frongoch quite late, having been transferred there in July. Harry Colley recalled that he and O’Tierney were taken into military custody from the hospital in Dublin Castle. They were marched to Kilmainham before their transfer to Frongoch. According to Colley, he and O’Tierney struggled to complete the next march from Kilmainham to the North Wall, where they were shipped to Frongoch (below). O’Tierney had been in the hospital since the surrender of the republican forces at the end of the Rising.
O’Tierney, who was described by Jeremiah O’Leary as always having being highly-strung, had suffered some form of collapse after being taken prisoner. One account states he was unconscious for as many as six weeks in the hospital. For a number of weeks afterwards, O’Tierney was also subject to severe headaches and what was described as ‘confused episodes’ and ‘loss of reason’. An account of his experience during the Rising appeared in the Irish Independent in January 1953. The area in which he fought, North King Street, witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the Rising. O’Tierney was called the ‘Hero of Reilly’s Fort’ for his exploits in recovering an Irish Republic flag under fire. The flag had been placed on a lance that had been stuck into the ground at the centre of the North King Street and Church Street crossroads. F Company had used a pub on one of the corners of the crossroads as a stronghold which became known as Reilly’s Fort. It had come under sustained attack from British troops supported by armoured cars.
By the Friday, Reilly’s Fort had been under constant fire for sixteen hours and the decision was taken to evacuate it and retreat up Church Street to a barricade outside the Franciscan Church. The defenders were then joined by O’Tierney and others who had been defending the barricade in Mary’s Lane. When the Reilly’s Fort garrison was criticised for not bringing the Irish Republic flag and lance with them, O’Tierney went out, apparently under intense fire, and retrieved the flag and lance.
O’Tierney’s collapse after the Rising seems to be a manifestation of post-traumatic stress, presumably arising from his combat experience. In Frongoch, O’Tierney took part in the hunger-strike which began in early November. After several days on the hunger-strike, O’Tierney began to present further psychological reactions, but due to the conflict with the authorities in Frongoch he was denied medical care. For some ten days he experienced further confused episodes, including paranoid delusions about being conscripted. On the 20th November he again collapsed, which the other prisoners again described as being down to ‘loss of reason’. A few days later, on 24th November, the internees’ leaders, including Michael Collins, wrote to the authorities expressing their concern at O’Tierney’s condition and stating that he had been denied medical treatment. On 25th November, he was moved to an asylum at Denbigh where he stayed until 1917.
The 1953 series by Piaras Beaslaí that described the ‘Hero of Reilly’s Fort’.
So how had O’Tierney ended up in Dublin for the Rising?
Despite his recorded address, O’Tierney had actually arrived in Dublin from London, not Belfast. Immediately prior to the Rising, he had been in a party of eight that carried over twelve suitcases of arms and ammunition, arriving in Dublin on Good Friday 1916. Realising the Rising was about to take place, he refused to leave. O’Tierney had used the cover of a G.R. (Georgius Rex) armband of the British Home Guard when travelling between London and Dublin. The role of London-based Irish republicans in the Rising and subsequent independence campaigns has often been overlooked (eg Michael Collins spent over nine years in London).
O’Tierney had been one of those who had built up connections with Germany using letters addressed to prisoners of war. This was possible through his work in shipping as he was directly in contact with boats and captains travelling to Scandinavia and Germany. O’Tierney’s shipping connections meant he was invaluable in the attempts to procure arms and he was involved in organising the shipment of arms that was to come with Casement prior to the Easter Rising. He had even brought back one consignment of ammunition from Hamburg personally.
He had also been among the original members of the Irish Volunteers in London, commanded by Michael Collins. Their volunteer unit had, at first, created a relief committee for those affected by the 1913 lockout which then became the United Irish Associations (with O’Tierney as secretary). O’Tierney was also active in the Irish Self-Determination League.
Another one of the early recruits to the Irish Volunteers in London, Jeremiah O’Leary, records that Eamon O’Tierney had actually been born Edward Turnley. In the 1940s, Seamus Kavanagh recalled that Turnley had told him that his family background lay in Fermanagh and Monaghan and that his father was Grand Master of a Masonic Lodge there (Turnley himself was Presbyterian although he apparently converted to Catholicism while in hospital in Dublin Castle). Turnley reputedly said he had come over to London as a child to be educated and ended up fluent in twelve languages. His obituary, though, states that he came from a prominent unionist family in Antrim, rather than Fermanagh or Monaghan. Piaras Beaslaí (in the 1953 Irish Independent article) states that Turnley originally came from Fermanagh and that his father was a freemason and he had uncle who was an admiral. However, the quality of Beaslaí’s information is shown by him mistakenly giving the English form of Turnley’s surname as ‘Tormley’.
Seamus Kavanagh states that Turnley did first joined the Gaelic League to learn Irish, then, as he met various active republicans including some with Belfast connections like Henry Shiels, Alf Monaghan and the Wards, he became an active republican himself. His interest in the Irish language supposedly arose after a period of time in which he had been a heavy gambler and was drinking excessively. During one such night, a British army officer made, and then lost, a huge gamble. The officer immediately left the room and shot himself. Seemingly, that turned Turnley from drinking and gambling and he took up the study of Irish instead. In the Gaelic League he met Michael Collins and it was Collins that is said to have made an Irish nationalist out of Turnley. Turnley remained active in the Gaelic League as well as the Irish Self Determination League in London. He had first joined the Clapham branch of the Gaelic League in 1910.
In 1917, Turnley was eventually discharged from Denbigh asylum. A letter writer to the Irish Independent in 1953 (in response to Beaslaí’s article) recalled that Turnley was then constantly followed by Scotland Yard in London. His professional skills were such, though, that even after his release, he was still in demand by employers. At the same time, and despite the surveillance, he remained heavily involved in republican activities in London under Sean McGrath and Sam Maguire. He also gave political speeches at various events, such as one where we spoke with Countess Markievicz and Herbert Devine at the Roger Casement Sinn Féin Club in London on 5th December 1919 and was promiment at various Gaelic League and Irish Self-Determination League events.
Aodh de Blacam, who knew Turnley well in London, mentions him in his novel about the London Irish, Holy Romans. He also included a brief memoir of Turnley in the London Gaelic League’s occasional magazine, Guth na nGaedheal, in March 1922. He quoted what he claimed to be Turnley’s own words, “…That we shall win our freedom I have no doubt; that we shall use it well I am not so certain… That should be our final consideration, and we should make this a resolution – our future history shall be more glorious than that of any contemporary State. We shall look for prosperity, no doubt, but let our enthusiasm be for beautiful living; … we shall take pride in our institutions …. as securing happiness of the citizens, and we shall lead Europe again as we led it of old. We shall rouse the world from a wicked dream of material good, of tyrannical power, of corrupt and callous politics to the wonder of a regenerated spirit, a new and beautiful dream; and we shall establish our State in a true freedom that will endure for ever.”
Also included in the article were what de Blacam described as verses that Turnley had loved:
I cannot count the years
That you must drink like me
The cup of blood and tears,
Till she to you appears-
But Éire, our Éire shall be free !
You consecrate your lives
To her, and you shall be
The food on which she thrive
Till her great day arrives :
When Éire, our Éire, shall be free.
She ask you but for faith :
Your faith in her takes she,
Amidst defeat and death
As draughts of Heaven’s breath –
And Éire, our Éire shall be free!
In 1920 Turnley moved from London to Cork where he transferred to the local I.R.A. unit (2nd Battalion). After a bout of appendicitis he needed an operation from which he didn’t recover and he died on 17th December 1920.
So who was Eamon O’Tierney?
Eamonn O’Tierney was indeed born as Edward Douglas Turnley at St George Hanover Square in London in 1890 (this was also the name under which his death was registered in Cork in 1920). His family moved to Ashford, Staines in Middlesex around 1894 after his brother Alfred was born, although their mother died soon after Alfred’s birth. His father, Edward Echlin Turnley remarried in 1895, to Emmie, and had four further children and continued to live in Ashford. Edward Turnley was a senior civil servant. A clue to his Irish connection is given in the name of his house in Ashford, ‘Drumnasole’. Drumnasole, near Glenarm, was the Irish seat of the Turnley family. Edward Turnley himself had been in born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1855 to William Echlin Turnley and Maria White. William Turnley was a British soldier who had join the 54th Foot at the age of 14 in 1845, rising through the ranks to become Quartermaster in 1863 (with the equivalent rank of Captain) and then transferring to the more prestigious 1st Foot Regiment in 1871 and retiring with the equivalent rank of Major. After his retirement he lived in East Brixton and Lambeth in London. Turnley’s military records show that he was born in Belfast in 1831. At his marriage in 1851, his father’s name is given as John Turnley. The name Echlin used by the family suggests that there is some connection here between the Turnley and Echlin families, both of whom had residences near the mouth of Strangford Lough (where John Turnley and John Echlin were Justices of the Peace in the late 18th and early 19th century).
John Turnley had built a new house for himself, Rockport House (now a school), at Craigavad on Belfast Lough while his brother Francis, who had amassed a fortune in the East Indies, built Drumnasole House. The Turnleys were actively involved in Belfast’s business community and there was even a Turnley Street in the city centre (roughly where Stewart Street meets East Bridge Street today).
William (Edward Douglas Turnley’s grandfather) may have been a son of John Turnley of Rockport, although references to him suggest he had no legitimate children. Either way, the Turnley family clearly had some connection to the Drumnasole Turnleys. William, a retired army major, lived not far from his son Edward Echlin Turnley and his grandson Edward Douglas Turnley and died in 1904. It is possible Edward was given some sense of his Belfast roots by his grandfather. This is presumably what later prompted Edward Turnley to give his address as Belfast. How far the Turnley’s were prominent in unionism isn’t clear, though. The surname and Drumnasole appears on the lists of donors to the UVF in the 1910s but there is nothing to indicate that the Turnleys were particularly prominent in unionist politics.
Some of the inaccurate memoirs recorded about Turnley may have been badly remembered. But he may also have casually gave out misleading information about himself as a standard security precaution. Certainly the cumulative impact of his clandestine work importing arms and the physical danger of the Rising itself appears to have brought on some sort of breakdown. At least the Gaelic League in London did remember him, though. From 1937, Feis Lonndhain included an annual essay competition named in his honour which continued until at least the late 1950s.
More recently, another member of the Turnley family, John Turnley, was active in the SDLP in the 1970s, leaving to help found the Irish Independence Party in 1977 (his father tried to disinherit him over his political views). He was shot dead by the UDA in June 1980 after arriving at a public meeting in Carnlough. He was one of two prominent Protestant supporters of political status for prisoners in the H Blocks and Armagh to be shot dead around that time. One of those convicted over his death, Robert McConnell was prominent in the Ulster Unionist Party on his release.
And Rockport House school, which that John Turnley had attended, was based in the house originally built by one of his forebearers and namesake. The school itself was founded by Geoffrey Bing whose own son of the same name attended the school and was later a Labour MP for Hornchurch. In 1950 he published “John Bull’s Other Ireland” a widely read critique of the Unionists abuses of civil rights in Ireland.