Northern Ireland news

County Derry family's history was intertwined with partition

Former president of St Columb's College, Fr John Walsh's family history is intertwined with the birth of the northern and southern states.
Seamus McKinney

The family history of former president of St Columb’s College, Fr John Walsh is completely intertwined with partition and the emergence of the northern and southern states.

Now a curate in Buncrana, Fr Walsh believes partition and the Irish Civil War forged an enduring friendship between Eamon de Valera and his grandfather, also John. Dev even visited Fr Walsh's Maghera home on one occasion in the 1950s.

“I remember something being up and that Dev was coming to the house in 1953. I don’t remember much, I was only about five but apparently Dev had been up in Portstewart and called to congratulate my grandfather on the birth of his grandson,” the Donegal-based cleric recalled.

From the family home in Maghera, Fr Walsh’s grandfather took the anti-Treaty side in the Irish civil war while his grand uncle, Louis Walsh took the pro-Treaty side. Their sister, Helena Walsh Concannon also opposed the Treaty and eventually served as a Fianna Fail TD and later a Fianna Fail senator under de Valera.

In the early part of the last century, education took Fr Walsh’s grandfather to England to study pharmacy while his grand uncle and grand aunt’s education took them to Dublin and to the Royal University, later University College Dublin.

In Dublin, both Helena and Louis came under the influence of Patrick Pearse who taught them Irish. While he did not take part in the Easter Rising, Louis was radicalised and stood unsuccessfully for Sinn Féin in County Derry in the 1918 general election. After a period on the run in the Glens of Antrim, he was captured and interned at Ballykinlar along with his brother, John. On his release and following partition, he moved to Donegal where he was eventually appointed District Judge.

“My grandfather took the anti-Treaty side; he was a chemist in Navan. After Dev came to power, he asked my grandfather if he would become head of the Gardai (after De Valera dismissed the fascist leader, Eoin O’Duffy in 1933) but he said no.”

Born in 1878 and educated by the Loreto Nuns in Coleraine, Helena Walsh Concannon counted Pearse as a close friend. She eventually became one of Ireland’s foremost historians and Professor of History at University College, Galway.

“Pearse attended her wedding (to Tomás Concannon) and it was also said that he named their home in Galway, Lis Mara. She was a Dev senator until her death in 1953 and Dev attended her funeral.”

Despite their political differences, the family did not let partition or the border divide them. While relations were strained, the brothers and sister remained together, Fr Walsh said.

“They didn’t stop talking to each other and any rift in the family was healed. Their other brother, Fr Richard Walsh – he was PP in Dungiven – was a reconciler and he kept them together. I suppose it must have been hard for my Uncle Louis to cross the border from Donegal to County Derry but he did for family events like funerals and that,” Fr Walsh said.

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