Colourful Gogarty escapes death by a whisker

Week II

Oliver St John Gogarty releasing two swans into the river at the Trinity College Boat Club,  at the Liffey’s Islandbridge, 1924. Also in the picture is WT Cosgrave (front left), and in the back, WB Yeats.

Oliver St John Gogarty releasing two swans into the river at the Trinity College Boat Club, at the Liffey’s Islandbridge, 1924. Also in the picture is WT Cosgrave (front left), and in the back, WB Yeats.

A precocious and cleverly witty Trinity student in a yellow waistcoat, Oliver St John Gogarty, was to become a close friend of Sinn Féin's founder Arthur Griffith. At its first historic meeting, November 28 1905, Gogarty proclaimed against the 'tyranny of the British government', in the grand manner of a Cicero addressing the Roman senate. But so moving and compelling were his words that when Griffith reported the meeting in his newspaper The United Irishman, Gogarty's speech was the only one he quoted. And he did so at length.

Condemning our dependence on Britain (this is just a brief quotation ), Gogarty attacked the education system for making us so. "Money", he said, "was taken from the Irish people by forced taxation to supply the needs of Irish education. How was this Irish money used to educate Ireland? The language of Ireland was suppressed, the history of Ireland was ignored and mis-stated, the attention of Ireland was turned to a foreign country, the character and tradition of which was the direct contrary of the character of the Irish tradition. The focus of national life was set in London.

"Who was responsible for this? Ourselves! Yes, without either ignorance or apathy so preposterous and absurd a proposition as that a foreign nation could or should rightly educate another would not be tolerated for a moment. England dare not educate us as Irishmen: She would be raising up judges to denounce her and condemn. She taught us for her own purpose and we had taste of the result - narrowness in the primary schools, grinding in the Intermediate, and the final stages of education left unprovided with a university or any means of training either efficient or adequate for national life, with the result that we were dependent on England, for we were trained to be so."

Adored Collins

Later Gogarty, a successful Dublin surgeon, who had swopped his yellow waistcoat for a yellow Rolls Royce, energetically threw in his lot with the IRA in the War for Independence. Richard Mulcahy, IRA chief-of-staff, told Gogarty's biographer Ulick O'Connor that one of the main services Gogarty performed for Sinn Féin, was to allow his house and 'professional' respectability to be used as a social milieu where Griffith could meet people of a different political background from his own.

Gogarty adored Michael Collins, the ruthless exterminator of British agents, whose deadly activities caused such alarm in London that for a while he was the most wanted man in the British Empire. Where once Collins cycled around Dublin directing his intelligence service, now he operated under strict cover. Gogarty's home at Ely Place was open to him, and made available for Collins to meet his colleagues in secret. As a schoolgirl Gogarty's daughter Brenda remembered seeing Collins in their drawing room on several occasions. She overheard her parents worry that she might blurt out at school that he was in their home.

Gogarty operated on wounded IRA volunteers, and forged medical certificates when required. When Linda Kearns and a group of prisoners broke out of Mountjoy in the summer of 1921, he was waiting for them in his famous Rolls Royce. He tore away from the prison 'with rare speed' with Linda safely on board.

Once when Padraic Ó Máille, of Kilmilkin, Maam (a founder member of Sinn Féin and the Gaelic League ), was wanted in connection with the shooting dead of policemen in Clifden, Gogarty drove him from Dublin to a safe house in Connemara. Ó Máille was dressed as a country gentleman in tweed suit and tweed cap, with a false moustache which he had fixed on with spirit gum in Gogarty's house. Gogarty's son, Noll, remembers sitting in the back of the car anxiously guarding a curiously shaped sock, in which was hidden Ó Máille's gun in case of emergencies.

Escaped death

On the evening of January 20 1923, Gogarty,was enjoying a bath after a busy day at his home and surgery at Ely Place, Dublin. Now a senator in the William T Cosgrave government, it was a dangerous, and a critical time in Ireland’s history. The Cosgrave government was locked in a deadly Civil War with Republican forces. Gogarty, who never hid his detestation for de Valera and his cohorts, was a marked man. Suddenly an intruder burst into his bathroom, and pointing a revolver told him to get dressed. The senator was bundled into a waiting car which sped through the city along the Chapelizod road, towards the Liffey weir, a popular picnic site on Dublin's west side. The car stopped at an old boat house, and Gogarty was taken inside. He was told to sit and wait.

Gogarty, 45 years of age at the time, tried to make light of his situation. As the car pulled up outside the boathouse, and he was pushed out, he quipped: "Are you not going to tip the driver?" But as he sat inside he was under no illusion that he was about to be murdered. The men were waiting for either the signal to kill him, or for an executioner to arrive. After talking away confidently and amusingly, he told them that he was frightened, and needed to go for a pee.

He had got dressed in a hurry and had slung his great coat over his shoulders leaving his hands free inside. Two men went with him to the water's edge, when Gogarty suddenly threw his coat back over their heads, and dived into the freezing water. The shock of the cold almost paralysed him, but he quickly recovered, and as a former athlete he was still in good shape. He swam quickly away. The strong current swept him out into the dark, towards the opposite bank. He managed to grab hold of an overhanging branch and hauled himself out. He staggered into a nearby house, but the owner was too frightened to admit him. He staggered on 'a ghost of a man', and collapsed into the police barracks in the Phoenix Park.

It was a sensational story, and headlined in all the British and Irish papers. Gogarty revelled in the publicity, but he was aware that he had only just escaped death by a whisker. Despite all his bravado, he was humble enough to accept that he owed his life to the Goddess of the Liffey. The following year, March 24 1924, after a celebratory lunch in the Shelbourne hotel, and accompanied by his wife Martha (she was a Duane of Rossdhu, Moyard, Connemara ), the country's president WT Cosgrave, and his friend WB Yeats, and others, he released two swans into the Liffey as a gesture of gratitude for saving his life. In his poem "To the Liffey with Swans", he asks the river:

Keep you these calm and lovely things, And float them on your clearest water.

Legend has it that, rightly or wrongly, the swans on the Liffey today are descended from Gogarty's two swans.

Next week: Renvyle, Connemara, was Gogarty’s great escape from his busy Dublin life. But following its burning by Republican forces, he became so disillusioned with Ireland that he chose exile in America.

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