The Man Who Is Mrs brown - British soldiers shot my dad
In our exclusive serialisation of the new book by Sunday Life associate editor David O’Dornan, the remarkable back-story to Brendan O’Carroll is revealed.
LYING in a pool of blood on a Dublin street, wounded after being shot, lies a young boy. He has only a slight pulse. Beside him, his father lies dead.
They were shot by officers from the Black and Tans, World War One veteran British soldiers sent in 1920 to assist the Royal Irish Constabulary as the Irish War of Independence became a brutal and bloody affair.
They were targeted because they were republicans. Dragged from their family shop and frogmarched out onto the street, they were placed on their knees and the soldiers demanded information. When they refused, the officers cocked their rifles and pulled the triggers.
The shopkeeper was shot three times and killed instantly, while the little boy was hit once in the shoulder. His life was ebbing away, except the boy, just nine years old, didn’t die. A journalist who came upon the scene saved his life by carrying him to the nearby Richmond Hospital. That young boy was Gerard O’Carroll.
The next day, over breakfast, the journalist recounted the story to his family including his eight-year-old daughter Maureen. As fate would have it, Maureen grew up to fall in love with Gerard, the boy whose life her father saved, and they would have 11 children — the last to arrive being a certain Brendan O’Carroll.
Brendan’s grandfather Peter and his adult sons were in the Irish Republican Army which emerged after the Easter Rising.
“He owned a small store in Manor Street in Dublin,” said Brendan. “And although he was quite safe and his cover hadn’t ever been blown, his three eldest sons, my father’s three eldest brothers, were active soldiers. They weren’t covert soldiers. And they were well-known.
“This British contingent came around to the house at 7pm one evening and said, ‘Look, we want to know where your three sons are.’ And what he would do is he’d lead them into the store while he was putting on his boots, they’d help themselves to a pack of cigarettes or a couple of sticks of candy and then leave.
“He was putting on his boots and they said, ‘You know, we’re coming back tonight. And if you don’t have the information where your sons are, we’ll kill you.’ He took it with a grain of salt. And they arrived back at about 10pm and the three sons were upstairs. When they heard the banging on the door, the sons escaped onto the roof and started to make their way across the rooftops to get out of the area.
“My dad, who was nine at the time, he went down with his father. They didn’t even give (my grandfather) a chance to put his boots on. He opened the door, and they said, ‘Kneel down.’ And they put a gun to his head and they said, ‘So where are three boys?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. And if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.’
“And they said, ‘Are you Sinn Fein?’ And he said, ‘Born, and I’ll die.’ And they said, ‘Then die.’ And they shot him three times — once in the head, once in the chest, and one in the stomach. And then they shot my father... and left him for dead.”
Brendan says he still has newspaper cuttings of the time, reporting the killings, detailing how the soldiers pinned a notice to his shirt when he was lying on the ground that said, “This man is a traitor to the Queen...”
The circumstances of his father’s survival and marriage to the daughter of his rescuer, is an extraordinary twist of fate that determined the existence of one of the biggest showbiz stars Ireland has ever produced.
But Brendan’s formidable mother, Maureen, who would become the first woman elected to the Irish parliament, also had fate to thank for her own existence.
Her parents were all set to elope to America and had tickets bought for the ill-fated Titanic ocean liner, only for a change of plan at the eleventh hour. “The story was that my mam’s mother made an announcement that she was about to marry a man who actually was older than her own father,” said Brendan. “She was 18 at the time, and this guy was 44. And her father wasn’t having any of it.
“So they decided in secret that they would elope. And my grandmother over a couple of weeks, little by little, snuck her clothes out of the house. And when she had them all ready and all out, she was ready to go to America.
“They were going to elope to America, which in that time, I’m talking about early 1900s, eloping to America meant never coming home. There was no four hour, five hour flights home. So she sat up the night before she was to leave, and was quite upset about her father, who she was at this stage probably really fighting with.
“The thought of saying goodbye to her mother the next day, with her mother thinking she was just going to work and never seeing her mother again, was very upsetting to her. While she was sitting up in the kitchen of the home, her mother came down and in the middle of the conversation, my grandmother eventually told her mother what she doing, that she was eloping to America.
“Her mother said, ‘Look, if your dad knew you were this serious, he would relent and you could have a proper marriage here in Ireland.’ So she convinced my grandmother to wake up her father, which she did.
“He went berserk, but then calmed down and agreed that rather than elope they should get married here in Ireland. My grandmother went around, told her boyfriend, who was delighted, and he went down to Heuston Station in Dublin that day to sell the tickets that he’d bought for the elopement.
“The tickets were to get the train to Cobh, at that time it was called Queenstown, to pick up the Titanic heading for the United States of America. He sold the tickets to a newly graduated police officer and his wife who just got married. And they went away — they were going away on a break. And he sold them to him.
“Fast forward 35 years and my mam is heading a police commission to try and establish a women’s police force in Ireland, and the first in Europe.
“At that time, the attitude was women can work in the police force, but only, you know, as secretaries and whatever, but not in uniform. And she wanted to establish an Irish women’s police force. She was up against a board of police chiefs, one particular hard nut guy. He wasn’t having any of it.
“After work one Friday evening, she was walking through St Stephen’s Green, in central Dublin. She bumped into this police chief. It had been a pretty acrimonious day, so the conversation was kind of stand-offish. So he said, ‘Good night, safe home.’ And she said, ‘I’m not going home, I’m going over to the Shelbourne Hotel, where I’m going to have a scotch on the rocks. And I’m going to tell the waiter to keep bringing it until I can’t pronounce it.’
“So the policeman laughed and he said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll join you for one or two.’ So she said OK. So they started walking together. And on the way, she said, ‘There’s a telephone in the hotel. You can ring your wife and tell her you’ll be late.’
“He said, ‘I’m a widower.’ She said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Is your wife long dead?’
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘actually, she drowned on the Titanic. I was lucky to have survived. But she didn’t make it.’
“And my mother stopped and said, ‘Did you buy the tickets off a gentleman named McHugh? And he said, ‘Yes, I did.’ And she said, ‘That was my dad.’
“So they went into the Shelbourne, had copious amounts of scotch. And the next day, history records, the Ban Gardai (the Irish Women’s Police Force) was founded.”
With such a remarkable family history like this, it was clear that Brendan O’Carroll was born to be different.
The Man Who is Mrs Brown: The Unauthorised Brendan O'Carroll Story by David O’Dornan, is available now online from Amazon and in all good bookstores, priced £7.99.
Belfast Telegraph Digital