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Lee family gathering for Fethard book launch

Published 1 year ago 31st July 2021 by Joe Kenny

Members of the Lee Family gathered outdoors on Tuesday, July 6, to celebrate the deferred launch of Fethard Historical Society’s recently published booklet, ‘Thomas Lee 1900-1921’, who was shot by Crown Forces on Friday, March 4, 1921, one mile outside Fethard.

Ms Mary Hanrahan, Chairperson Fethard Historical Society, welcomed the Lee family and gave the following brief introduction to the evening before introducing the main guest speaker, William Lee, Cork.

“In commemorating Thomas Lee, we acknowledge his life, his sacrifice and, we remember everybody who fought for the independence of our country and especially those who died in that cause. History is so very important and remembering it is also important and, in that spirit, we undertook the publication of this book. It’s not to revisit old wounds or to stir up any kind of agitation or ill feeling, but to acknowledge, remember and honour – that’s what we’re doing here tonight launching this booklet.

Going forward, when people read this, we would hope they realise the enormity of the sacrifice not just of the young man Thomas Lee who gave his life in 1921, but also the aftermath – the fall-out for his family and how that legacy resounded through the generations. In doing so, gives us pause for thought. One hundred years, historically speaking, is not a very long time at all. It gives us time to reflect and to look at where we are today and that hopefully going forward that sacrifice will inform the choices we make as a nation.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but to publish a book it takes a society and more. A huge advantage was that John Lee had already worked on this article and had the knowledge and passion for the subject. We also had Gerry Long and his archive of information available to us. To put the story in context of the time we think you’ll agree that John Cooney gave a clear and concise background to the period in his article. We thank Tommy O’Brien who was the initial liaison between the society and John Lee in Cork. For those of you who know the Historical Society, Joe Kenny is a crucial link in everything we do when it comes to publishing and did his usual excellent job of editing and layout. We were really delighted to have photographs from the Lee family albums and from Joe Kenny’s archives which included many photographs of local volunteers from that period.

The Fethard Historical Society also wishes to acknowledge the ongoing support of Róisín O’Grady, Heritage Officer; Anne Marie Keaveney, Arts Office & Heritage Office, Tipperary County Council; and Mary Darmody, Tipperary Studies, Thurles.” The booklet is now available free of charge to read online at: www.fethard.com/lee/

Volunteer Thomas Lee – In Tribute (Address by William C. Lee at launch)

I am honoured to speak to the Fethard Historical Society at the launch of this booklet to commemorate the life and death of Volunteer Thomas Lee. I do so on behalf of the Lee family.

We meet this evening more than 100 years from Thomas Lee’s untimely death on 5th

March 1921. I am conscious that we are less than one mile from where Volunteer Lee was shot and wounded. His body was anointed by Fr. Ryan as it passed this public house; we are close too to what was then Fethard military barracks where he died less than twenty-four hours later. This is an important place.

There are many different aspects of this matter that we could speak about tonight. My focus this evening is to look briefly at some of the challenges faced by the Irish Volunteer movement, to consider whether the Volunteers were successful in their revolutionary aspirations and the legacy left by Thomas Lee and his generation.

Difficult circumstances

The degree of difficulty faced by the Irish Volunteers at the start of the Irish War of Independence cannot be over-stated. They faced a hugely determined and well-resourced adversary in the British government located in Westminster. The British Empire was then a world superpower and could draw on huge economic and military resources with colonies extending across Canada, East and South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand. It was strongly motivated to prevent its nearest colony from breaking from the Empire by force; such a precedent could not be permitted.

In comparison, in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916, the IRB and the Irish Volunteers had had their leadership executed or imprisoned and were somewhat demoralised. The Volunteers lacked equipment, munitions, training and finances.

What they did not lack was a well- articulated political revolutionary position provided in the Proclamation of the Republic read by Pádraig Pearse in front of the GPO in Easter Week of 1916:

“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.”

W.B. Yeats put poetry to this period with his lines:

I have met them at close of day Coming with vivid faces From counter or desk among grey Eighteen century houses

The core republican values of liberty, fraternity and equality, often relied on by Irish rebels since Tone and Emmet, continued to fire these Irish revolutionaries and find their place in the Proclamation. They now could also rely on the considerable support of large sections of the Irish people.

The Volunteers’ task was to take a what had been an obedient and compliant Irish colony and shake it from its from its sometime unionist or moderate nationalist leanings towards a more revolutionary path to independence and sovereignty for Ireland. British government and media propaganda had long unfairly characterised the Irish as being backward and unable to govern themselves, that somehow, we were genetically unworthy of self-government and doomed to failure.

Violence from 1916 – 1921

The 1916 Rising had left the Volunteers in no doubt that any Irish independence would only come with huge personal sacrifice, hardship and death. As is very well documented in the booklet, the scale of the violence through the years of 1919 to 1921 was enormous. The decision to adopt guerrilla-war combat tactics against the RIC, Crown Forces and Black and Tans was militarily very successful but left any captured Volunteers open to immediate reprisal with such reprisals often spiralling into all out attacks on the general population most infamously in events such as the burning of Cork and the shooting of players / spectators in Croke Park.

After prolonged warfare, the Volunteers successfully brough the British government to the negotiating table and the Treaty Negotiations in 1921 lead to the creation of the “Sáor Stat” or Free State. While not acceptable to a significant number of the Volunteers and indeed to their supporters, it was hoped that the Free State would satisfy more than it would disappoint and that some level of peace and normality would return to Ireland.

Instead, the new State found itself in the grips of a terrible Civil War with the Irish people bitterly divided in the immediate period of 1922-1927; some sense of normality only being established when most mainstream political parties agreed to attend Dáil Eireann from 1927.

The early years of the State were hugely difficult with De Valera pursuing further independence through the Economic War with Britain in the early 1930s. As it sought to establish itself, the State faced continual difficulties as Europe again went to war in the period 1939 – 1945. Ireland asserted its independence and neutrality despite pressure

to support the UK and later US war efforts. Shortly after this period, Ireland’s status as a Republic was formally enacted by Dáil Eireann through the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 although many would date the Republic’s formal origins back to Easter Week 1916.

Despite huge economic hardship in the 1950s, political and military instability in the North of Ireland most particularly in the years 1969 – 1996, the Irish State continued to serve the Irish people.

The Irish Republic has continued a disciplined and sophisticated liberal- democratic political process observing strict separation of powers between the Executive (Cabinet), the Legislature in Dáil and Seanad Eireann and in the Judiciary. Unlike many post-colonial states, Ireland has successfully seen peaceful transitions in political power throughout its history, firm in the resolution that true sovereignty lies with the People. Despite the economic hardships and political upheaval in the world in the 20th Century including WW2, the rise and fall of Nazism and Communism, Ireland continued quietly but effectively to protect Irish sovereignty and advance Ireland’s cause internationally. This has continued into the 21st Century and despite some economic boom and bust, Ireland has adopted a long- term strategy to protect the interests of the State and its people.

National Genius

When considering whether the Irish Republic has been a success, I think one must look at many different aspects of Irish life. Irish people now enjoy one of the finest education systems in the Western world. Our economy continues to improve the living conditions of the Irish people are our general prosperity today is far removed from the hardships experienced in the early days of the State. For the fourth time in its history, Ireland has been elected to take its place on the United Nations Security Council and Ireland remains a beacon of prosperity and democracy for the emerging economies in the European Union.

In later life, Paddy Lee referred proudly on occasion to “the shots that were heard around the world” in reference to the Irish revolution in which he and his comrades fought.

I think the Volunteers would have been proud too of the expressions of our national genius as seen in the modern sporting field; victories for Tipperary folk such Seán Kelly in the Veulta a Espana, Mick Kinane in the Prix de l’Arc du Triomphe, Sam Bennett’s Green Jersey in the Tour de France and Rachel Blackmore’s victory in the Grand National remind us of the extent to which the Tipperary people and Irish people can compete and win at world level!

Similarly in literature, our writers and poets such as Joyce, Yeats, Beckett and Heaney are recognised internationally with three Nobel Prizes for their outstanding works.

In 2011, we saw the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, lay a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance to the fallen Irish and further addressed the President of Ireland and the Irish people in our Irish language as “A Uachtaráin agus a chaidre”; she referred to ties between Ireland and England as “firm friends and equal partners”. While such moments are well planned and politically constructed, they point the emergence of Ireland as a strong and independent state and one that all those who fought so hard can be very proud of.

Lee of Fethard

Before concluding, I wanted to pay our personal tribute to Volunteer Thomas Lee.

We are hugely proud of the courage and determination shown by Tommy, his brothers Paddy and Larry and all the Volunteers in Ireland’s War of Independence. Tommy gave his young life to the liberation of Ireland and from some of the small snippets of his life that have been passed down through family memory we know he was a good and able man:

We know he was trusted with the position of local Quartermaster for his brigade at the tender age of 17; We know that he was responsible for holding a number of RIC captive and under gunpoint while his Volunteer colleagues commandeered a significant amount of munitions;

We know that on being chased by the Black and Tans, he put his own safety further in peril by encouraging an elderly man to seek cover as the Tans were approaching to try to capture Tommy.

Having exchanged fire with Crown Forces on 4th March 1921, Thomas Lee was shot and wounded. He was found armed with a revolver which was loaded in four chambers and an unloaded rifle. He was asked to identify himself at the scene and his military file confirms that he replied he was “Lee of Fethard”. His sister Alice and brother Chris continually sought medical treatment for their brother at the time of his death, but it appears his wounds were beyond treatment. We are honoured to share his name and proud too of this place and its history.

After his death and at Tommy’s Military Inquest, his father William Lee confirmed that he had not seen his son in the three months prior to his death. This period was one of the most tumultuous in the war.

Tommy’s Death Certificate records his occupation/profession as Grocer’s Assistant. On the basis of his father’s testimony at Tommy’s inquest, it is clear that he had long left behind the work of a grocer’s assistant. At the time of his death, his profession might more appropriately have been confirmed as Irish Volunteer, Quartermaster and Revolutionary.

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