In 1923, Kevin O’Higgins, then the Minister for Home Affairs described the ‘Dáil courts’, ‘Republican courts’ or ‘Sinn Féin courts’, which had been abolished in 1922, as an ‘improvised system of justice’ that: … was forged more as a weapon against the British administration in exceptional times and exceptional circumstances than as a definite system which would meet and answer the needs of normal times.
I am meeting one of County Leitrim’s illustrious sons, Noel McPartland, whose grandfather, John McPartland, was a judge in those courts.
“He was a judge from 1918 until the Civil War started. It would have been illegal in terms of the English system. They would be court-marshalling some fella for something and he would be the judge at that particular trial, signing documents and all that. He supported the cause right up to the treaty. He was anti-treaty.”
Later he worked as a haulier, mainly collecting and delivering coal from the Arigna coal mines. The McPartlands opened their newsagents and confectionery shop in Drumshanbo in 1885 and kept it going until 1994 with Noel’s mum running it until she was 90.
It became one of the casualties of the Black and Tans’ visit to the town, however, when they burned it out in 1922.
“My father, Hubert, worked in the shop but he was also a hackney driver and the Black and Tans heard that he had driven some of the local IRA fellows to a meeting in Ballinamore. The front door, which was also the entrance to our house, was blown in, they destroyed the stock and set fire to the shop.
“The attack happened at night, the family were all in bed but they got out safely as the fire was confined to the shop. Of course there was no fire brigade at that time, it was the bucket brigade. Buckets of water put the fire out. They also damaged my father’s car, which was also his livelihood.”
But the Black and Tans didn’t stop with the McPartlands’ shop, going on to burn several premises in the town.
“They burned a house up the road near the church, a man who was very involved in the IRA. They burned his house to the ground, and almost burned the occupants as well but they were got out on time.
“They were completely uncontrollable. People were very much afraid of them. They were the dregs of an army that was sent over here. They went around and abused people, beat people up for no reason, and that was everywhere, not just Drumshanbo.
Noel McPartland spent 5 years in the US Army
“My father was on de Valera’s side. Dev gave a great speech here in 1932, I have a film of it. It was during the 1932 election. My father was a de Valera man all his life.”
Afterwards, Hubert and another man from the local cumann, Willie Moran, were delegates at the treaty talks in the Mansion House in Dublin.
Then Hubert married a local girl, Bridie, who had emigrated to America in 1925. She visited home in 1927 and met Hubert and returned for good in 1930. When they married – in the Pro Cathedral in Dublin – they moved in and ran the shop. They had six children, three girls and then three boys. Moira, 90, is a St Louis nun in California; Frances is 88 and living in New York, and the youngest sister, Rosalie, died in 2017.
“Then we have the three boys – Noel and Sean (I’m a twin) (sadly, Sean passed away on September 17 this year), and the youngest, Ronnie.
“Because my mother and a lot of her brothers emigrated in the 1800s and early 1900s, my mother always thought the answer to everything, especially living in Leitrim in those tough days, was to get them off to America. Educate them and send them to America!”
And Hubert had the unenviable task of driving most of his children, one after another, to the boat in Cobh, County Cork, or later to Shannon airport as they emigrated to America.
“Moira went first, she went out there on the missions. After Sean did his Leaving Cert in St Mel’s in Longford (that’s where we attended boarding school), he went to America in 1956. I stayed on here for another couple of years doing different jobs, and then I emigrated in 1958; I went to Chicago and then on to New York.
“My younger brother, Ronnie, lives in Howth – he’s a retired Aer Lingus pilot. He went to school in the Franciscan college in Gormanstown, County Meath. His class was the first class in it when it opened. The school had been located in Multyfarnham in County Westmeath, but they bought this place and he was in the first class in about 1954.”
Noel remembers his parents as “a great couple, very religious, very into their family. We had a good childhood, even during the tough years. My mother didn’t suffer fools gladly, now; she didn’t like anyone who was trying to pull a fast one. She was a very tough lady. She had to be.”
Noel completed his Leaving Certificate and started his working life in 1951 as a junior assistant master around Drumshanbo. Back then, women had to retire from teaching when they married, so there were plenty of opportunities for a young, newly qualified teacher in the local schools.
Noel was living at home with his parents at the time and he remembers one particular night very well. “We were listening to the radio, it was Radio Luxembourg, and there was a knock on the shop door. It was one of the coal miners from Arigna, in his twenties, but a big man.
“Come on,” he said to me, and we walked up the street. We got into a car and travelled to the home of another miner where our job was to collect gelignite that had been taken from the mine. I was sweating! He opened the boot of a car and there were five or six sticks of gelignite in a bag. I immediately asked what would happen if we were stopped on the way home. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.’
When Noel returned home, the door was locked and he had no key. His father was sitting up waiting for him. ‘“Where were you?” he asked me. ‘“Up the town,” I replied.
“Then he gave me a slap on the side of my face and sent me spinning into the shop. I got caught up with these guys and my father saw and he knew who they were. Then I told him what I had been doing and thank God I told him. He gave me the best advice ever. He said, “If you’re caught with those guys again, you may go to jail, but you will never come back here.” That woke me up. He had been through it all in the twenties; he had seen it all. He wasn’t a man to talk an awful lot about those things.”
Noel had already been introduced to the IRA through his friend’s brother but he says their main interest was in having access to a car!
He recalls the evening he was introduced to John Joe McGirl in a pub in Ballinamore. “I remember walking into the pub and the place was packed. My friend’s brother introduced the two of us as “two men who wouldn’t be afraid to shoulder a gun”. We just looked at one another – our interest was in the car! After the meeting we went to a marquee dance in Mohill. Later, we got involved in the 1957 general election and we canvassed for McGirl, who topped the poll.”
Noel says feelings were very high following the killing of Seán South and Fergal O’Hanlon on New Year’s Day in Brookeborough. The two were part of an IRA military column that planned to blow up an RUC barracks in the town. But it was a botched operation, and in the ensuing gun battle South and O’Hanlon were shot dead by the police.
Noel still has his father’s ledgers. He was a man of few words. When Noel and his twin brother were born in the Rotunda hospital in Dublin in 1936, the ledger entry is simply ‘Dublin with Mother’ and on his return to Drumshanbo three days later, ‘Drumshanbo with Mother’. No mention of the twins!
Noel says they had a good childhood but he and his twin hated school. “School was really a jail. Sean and myself were sent to boarding school in Longford, and we were noted renegades.”
Their parents would send them to boarding school for the three months coming up to Christmas “to get rid of us; we would go in September until Christmas Eve and then return home”.
Noel’s own American odyssey included working in the Hilton hotel in Chicago and being drafted into the US army around the time of the Cuban crisis; he spent five years in the military.
“After boarding school,” he says, the American army was like a holiday!”
He spent 30 years working for Lairds Jams in Drumshanbo and was named ‘Leitrim Person of the Year’ in 2019 for his work in supporting the development of the old site into ‘The Food Hub’ and the establishment of ‘The Shed’, home of Gunpowder Gin and the first distillery to open in Connacht in over a century.”
Independence Memories: A People’s Portrait of the Early Days of the Irish Nation By Valerie Cox. Published by Hachette Ireland in Trade Paperback and eBook / £14.99.
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