“After 11 pm we began the Rosary. Jack knelt at the end of the table facing the door. When we had said the ten decades, Fr. Michael asked jack if that were enough. ‘Oh no, no, no, go on’, he said, and we finished it and then the litany. During the Rosary, the soldier left the candle on the shelf and it fell, leaving us in darkness. When the rosary was finished, it was about 11.40, and we could but stay beyond twelve”. This is a short exert from the recollections of an Irish Dominican Fr. S. Heuston on his visit to his brother, Sean Heuston (after whom Heuston Station is Dublin is called) on the night before he was shot in Kilmainham Jail for his part in the Easter Rising.
In his recollections of that night Fr. Albert OFM Cap tells how at 1.30 on the morning of 8 May 1916, a military car called at the Capuchin Friary on Church Street in Dublin to collect two of the friars to go to Kilmainham to minister to the prisoners due for execution that Monday morning. He tells how he arrived in Heuston’s cell at around 2.30 am and he found the young man “Kneeling beside a small table with his rosary beads in his hands… during the last quarter of an hour we knelt in the cell in complete darkness, as the little piece of candle had burned out; but no word of complaint passed his lips. His one thought was to prepare with all the fervour and earnestness of his soul to meet Our Divine Saviour and His sweet Virgin Mother… we said together short acts of faith, hope, contrition and love; we prayed together to St. Patrick, St. Brigid, St. Colmcille and all the saints of Ireland; we said many times, that very beautiful ejaculatory prayer: ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you may heart and my soul’.
In all the recent commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising very little has been said about the faith of those who took part in it and how they turned to prayer, particularly the Rosary, during the Rising itself and when preparing for death. Over these months as I have read various personal accounts of the Rising I have seen one particular phrase show up time and time again, “we prayed the rosary”. They prayed it before they went out on that Easter Monday morning, they prayed it as they sat on the roof of the GPO awaiting their fate, the prayed it when after the surrender in Moore St, they were corralled into the forecourt of the Rotunda Hospital and as we have read from the accounts of Sean Heuston’s last hours, they prayed it in their cells as they prepared for death.
We in this generation may not appreciate how the rosary was such a part of the religious experience and prayer of earlier generations. The rosary was the constant companion of our grandparents in their journey through life. In the presence of Mary they meditated on the life death and resurrection of Her Beloved Son and it gave meaning and courage to their struggles.
Today as a nation we may be embarrassed to speak about the faith of the leaders and participants of the Easter Rising, but in their day their faith was not something on the periphery of their lived experiences, it was a central aspect of how they saw themselves and their struggles of life. For them, their faith was not something clean and safe to be practiced on a weekend if nothing else got in the way, but as “they prayed the rosary” in the midst of life’s pains and decisions, their faith gave them hope to face the future and finally death itself.
There are many conflicting appraisals of the events of Easter 1916, but let us not forget that those who fought and died for our nations’ independence prayed the rosary and found hope and life in their Christian faith. Maybe the example of those who fought and died during Easter 1916 might ask us to reflect on the role, if any, our Christian faith, plays in our daily lives. I wonder does our faith give us hope and courage or have we let this wonderful gift slip through our hands as we have left our rosary beads slip from between our fingers.
Fr. John M. Harris, O.P.
St. Saviours Priory, Dublin.