“The jury expressed the opinion that something should be done to prevent boys getting possession of firearms.” – Recorded by the inquest jury into the death of 2 year old, Herbert Lemass, in early 1916.*
A little boy, called Herbert, died of a gunshot wound to the head because his 16 year old brother, John, was “fiddling with a revolver”.This happened in the family home on Capel Street, Dublin and a sister witnessed it. Anyone reading this unaware of the people involved would assume that the revolver belonged to an adult family member or perhaps an adult visitor to the house. However, John – or Seán outside of the family – was a member of the Irish Volunteers as was his 17 year old brother, Noel. Seán joined when he was fifteen and went on to fight in the GPO a few months after he had accidentally killed his little brother. After the GPO surrender he avoided arrest because of his age.**
The founding myth of the Irish State is bloody but the establishment view is that it is heroic and that questioning is “revisionist” and a bad thing. When it comes to light that a fifteen year old was allowed to join a rebel army and was given a gun to take home, it doesn’t prompt even the Irish Times to comment. Quite a number of children were among the volunteers and the excuse offered is that this shouldn’t be judged from today’s perspective. Normal shock and outrage are soothed by talk of things being different back then. Apart from the fact that the British considered Seán a child and let him go, the jury’s note at the top of this piece illustrates that in 1916 arming a child was as crazy as it would be today.
There’s nothing new or specifically Irish in mature adults sending young impetuous kids to their deaths. However, in Ireland a national newspaper can publish on the shooting in 1916 of a toddler by his big brother and not even ask what kind of nutters put the gun in his hand and what kind of parents allowed it to happen?
* http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/revelation-of-family-tragedy-provides-insight-into-lemass-s-political-persona-1.1469508 This is a front page report on a longer piece by the historian, Eunan O’Halpin, “Lemass’s Silent Agony”, published in the Irish Times Weekend Review of July 20th 2013