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Only Woman at British 'Handover'

Only Woman at British Handover
Leinster Leader
“I remember that those trees outside were very small then” was one of the nostalgic comments to come from Athy woman Mrs. Hester May when she recently revisited Curragh Camp. Meeting Curragh Command G.O.C., General Charles McGuinn, at Ceannt Barracks, Mrs. May had come back to recall the first day on which the Irish flag flew over the camp.
On 16 May 1922 – the day on which the “handover” from British to Irish control formally took place – Mrs. May, then Hester Dooley, was the only woman actually present on the Curragh. Now into her eighties, her fascinating recollections of life before and after the war of independence are not just interesting personal memories of people and placenames which have now taken their place in the history books. They also serve to remind us of the very active role played by some women at the foundation of the State.
Born at Duke Street, Athy, Mrs. May was just twenty on that historic date at the Curragh. However, her work experience to date would undoubtedly have made exciting reading on any curriculum vitae. A member of Cumann na mBan, she went to work in Dublin for the late Piaras Beaslai. Many supposedly legitimate businesses in the city at that time were in fact “fronts” for a variety of activities connected to the war of independence in progress. Mr. Beaslai was editor of An tÓglach (The Volunteer), a magazine which was printed “somewhere at the back of Aungier Street”. In the course of her work, Mrs. May was frequently requested to carry despatches and messages and more than once placed her own safety in jeopardy. “I remember occasions when the military (British army) would climb on to a bus to carry out a check. You would have to hide whatever documents you were carrying under the seat”.
Among those she met was Erskine Childers, father of the man who subsequently became Irish President. She remembers, too, hearing the news of his execution at a later date. “It was a bleak day for us when we heard about that”.
Others whom she recollects meeting include Desmond Fitzgerald (father of the current Taoiseach), Kevin Barry and Michael Collins. After Mr. Beaslai departed to the United States, she began to work for others, including General J.J. (“Ginger”) O’Connell, at whose invitation she was on the Curragh on 16 May 1922. She remembers having to ask her parents’ permission on that occasion – they were dangerous days. “You might be travelling home from Dublin by train and have to stop along the route because a bridge had been blown up, or something”.
Towards the end of the war of independence, during the “Black and Tan” period, Mrs. May actually came under direct fire while on her way to Portobello Barracks in Dublin. Joseph May, the man whom she later married and who was also native of Athy, was arrested and interned during the “Black and Tan” era. For her visit to the Curragh recently, Mrs. May wore two medals awarded to her for her service during the war of independence, one of them relating specifically to her activities while the “Black and Tans” were in Ireland.
Following the ending of the war of independence, Mrs. May among others, was officially made a civil servant and, throughout the civil war, continued to do essentially the same work on behalf of the Free State government.
The camp, to Mrs. May’s eyes, has not changed radically although she did comment that there appear to be a lot more buildings. On that day in 1922 she watched the handover from the then H.Q. (now the Civil Defence building).
To mark Mrs. May’s nostalgic trip into the camp. The Army produced the original tricolour to be flown from the Water Tower on that date. The flag is enormous, measuring 150 x 243 inches. The original measurements were 150 x 250 but unfortunately pieces have actually been removed from time to time. The flag had been in the possession of the O’Connell family but was frequently given out on loan for the funerals of veterans and other occasions. It has now been given into the care of the Army and, following consultations with the National Museum on suitable means of preservation, it is to be displayed at Ceannt.
Mrs. May, meanwhile, does not really need a flag to recall her many memories. Now living at St. Patrick’s Avenue, Athy, she has seen a lot of water flow under the bridge since those days, as the mother of eight children and now a grandmother. Her youngest brother, Paddy, served as T.D., and Mrs. May has always retained a keen interest in political developments. No period, however, could be as close to her heart as the years from 1918-23 when going to work in Dublin brought a combination of excitement and, on occasions, terrible tensions.
The birth of the Irish State has been a popular and frequently controversial subject for historians over the years. As an elderly and much respected lady, however, Hester May has gone long beyond caring about controversies. She just likes to smile and say, “I was there”.

Athy woman, Mrs Hester May recalls the occasion in 1922 when she attended the formal handover from British to Irish control at the Curragh Camp

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