Special hall rings with historical significance

Posted By: January 06, 2016

Jim Gibney. Irish News (Belfast). Wednesday, January 6, 2016

St Patrick’s  Hall in Coalisland, inset, with the three plaques which tell a big historical story 

The little hall, opened in 1888, has been at the centre of the political, cultural and community life of Coalisland for over 127 years.

It proudly hosts its history on three plaques on its outside wall which testifies to its importance, not only in the affairs of the people of Coalisland but the affairs of the people of this nation.

The first plaque denotes the hall’s origins and its name: St Patrick’s Hall 1888.

The second plaque locates its historical importance in the affairs of this nation erected at Easter 1966 by Nora Connolly O’Brien, James Connolly’s daughter, “to commemorate the assembly of Irish Volunteers in this hall Easter 1916, prepared to give their lives for Irish freedom”.

And the third plaque unveiled on New Year’s Day was to mark the beginning of this special year – the centenary of the 1916 Rising and in tribute to those who gathered at this very hall on Easter Saturday 1916 on their way to join the Rising in the west of Ireland.

The New Year’s Day unveiling was carried out by a local woman, Nancy Kenny, who has an impeccable republican lineage which goes back through the last 50 years of struggle to the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s.

She was one of the first to join a Sinn Féin cumann dedicated to the memory of local man John Haughey who at 76 years old, while standing at his front door in Coalisland in 1970 was batoned by the RUC when they charged a nearby peaceful civil rights protest. He died a short time later from his injuries. He had been interned on the prison ship the Argenta as a young man in 1921 after partition.

Historical continuity was very important to those gathered outside St Patrick’s Hall (and for the first day of the new year it was a large crowd).

The area’s MP, Francis Molloy, told those gathered he was present in 1966 when Nora Connolly O’Brien unveiled the plaque to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. He said that that occasion marked the beginning of republicans’ involvement in this phase of the struggle for a united Ireland.

Nuala McLernon, one of Sinn Féin’s administrators at the assembly, told me that her father, who was at the event last Friday, was also at the 1966 unveiling and that her grandfather assembled at the hall on Easter Saturday 1916, in preparation for the Rising.

The confusion over whether the Rising would take place or not led to the cancellation of the mobilisation for Tyrone but some of those who had travelled by train from Belfast to Coalisland, in particular the Corr sisters, Eleanor and Elizabeth, from Belfast’s Ormeau Road, travelled on to Dublin with Nora Connolly O’Brien and met James Connolly at Liberty hall and carried messages from him back to Belfast regarding the Rising.

After meeting Padraig Pearse, Nora Connolly O’Brien returned to Dungannon with fresh orders for the Irish Volunteers to take part in the Rising. She had a long association with Tyrone republicans.

Tom Hartley, former mayor of Belfast, Sinn Féin councillor and historian, also spoke at the event and said that he and I were there from Belfast as a connection to those from Belfast who were at the hall on Easter Saturday 1916. He recalled the last time he spoke at the hall was February 1980 and on the platform with him was the then MP Frank Maguire, the former MP Frank McManus and the solicitor Pat Fahy.

For decades the hall has been used as an organisation centre for elections. I was in the hall when Bernadette McAliskey, on crutches, met the world’s media to speak about her and her family’s survival following a loyalist murder bid at their Coalisland home in 1981.

In its 127-year history the hall has experienced many changes in the struggle for a united Ireland.

Last week’s gathering reflected these changed times.

Sinn Féin MLA and minister for agriculture, Michelle O’Neill, was joined by her colleague Linda Dillon, chairperson of the Mid-Ulster council.

Those gathered in the hall in 1966 could never have imagined the electoral status of those mingling in St Patrick’s Hall to mark the start of this momentous year – the centenary of the 1916 Rising.