Dublin’s fastest Sprinter

“Get inside quickly”, Lucy called to Peter Ennis, while holding her front door ajar. “Go straight through to the kitchen, where there is a fire. We’ll get some tea going to warm you up.” Peter passed through the hall to the little kitchen and took the armchair to the right of the fireplace. The fire had been slacked earlier, causing it to be deaden to almost nothing. Lucy, Peter’s sister, fussed with the fire irons, lifting and hammering the fire back to life. She sat in the other armchair opposite Peter and looked closely into her brother’s face. “You’ll be warm again soon, Peter”, aware of his bad chest. “Give me your hat now and I’ll put it away safely.” He handed over the hat, bought especially for that morning’s service. “How did it go?” asked Lucy over her shoulder, re-entering the hallway. “Did you meet all your old friends?” Peter Ennis glanced at the revitalised fire and then around the room, coming to rest on the little redhead son of Lucy, named Austin he recalled. The boy was shy and yet curious enough to leave his mother’s leg to stare at his famous uncle sitting in their kitchen.

Lucy returned, pushing Austin into the kitchen ahead of her. “Say hello to your uncle Peter, boy”, she ordered her son. “Shake my hand, Austin”, Peter said, “and let me take a look at you. Gosh, you are getting very grown up, and a good strong handshake., I am glad to see”, said Peter, as he let the little hand go. “Take the stool beside me, Austin, and we are going to have some tea. The boy climbed onto the stool, as his mother drawled a wet finger across his fringe. The little freckled face looked up into Peter’s and held his gaze. “Were you down at the GPO, uncle?” he asked. “Yes, I made it”, answered Peter. “So many missing now though, however I met some of the old ones. Cecil Kenny and Martin Doyle were there too”, he looked at Lucy’s back, who was putting a tea-tray together. Austin’s fingers tugged at the cuff of Peter’s jacket.

“Can I see your medal, please?” Peter rummaged in his inside jacket pocket and extracted a small rectangle box that held the medal, which he handed to Austin. He felt too scared of losing it to ever actually wear it himself. His nephew’s little hands cradled the medal and his face stared back into his uncle’s friendly eyes. “Tell us about the big race uncle Peter, please.” Lucy interrupted with the tea, and the clinking of china and dinking of culinary took a minute to pass. The fingers again tugged at his arm. “The race, uncle.” “There is nothing to tell, Austin”, said Peter, looking down at the now blazing kitchen fire. “Please uncle, please, for me.” As Lucy removed his drained cup and saucer from Peter; she echoed her son’s wish, “Please Peter, for the boy. No one tells it like you can.” Austin whooshed his stool closer to Peter’s armchair and Lucy placed two more peat briquettes onto the fire. Peter’s gaze followed his sister’s, until the dancing flames captured his eyes and fifty years fell off his aged body. He was again a fifteen year old scholar, from Prussia Street in the north inner city.

He was walking with his school friend James Donnelly on Eden Quay, having come through Stoneybatter and Smithfield at dawn, on that Easter Monday morning, 1916. Fifty years, thought Peter, keeping his face turned to the fire’s warmth. “Well”, said Peter quietly. “My greatest moment was the day before the race ever took place. James and I knew some of the volunteers smoking on the steps of Liberty Hall that morning, in front of the main entrance. One of them addressed us warmly, “Good to see you so early, lads. The place is a hive of activity. If you go into the main office, they’ll soon put you to work” he smiled and laughed along with the others.

“We practically skipped up the steps, past the smokers and into the shadow-filled hallway”, recalled Peter. “Turning left into the general office, we were again washed in bright sunshine, pouring through the large ground floor windows. After taking a moment to adjust to the spring sunlight, we observed the office workers. Men were loading crates of rifles and cartridge belts of ammunition. Others were carrying rifles over the shoulders, some with three or even four rifles across their backs. In the right corner of the office was a separating partition, with space behind for officers to talk in private. Before we could talk to anyone”, Peter said, looking at Austin with a secret wink, “ didn’t James Connolly himself walk out of that space.” Peter stopped for effect, looking for a reaction from the young boy. He also was genuinely moved anytime he thought of General Connolly, as big in his mind today as on that Easter Monday. Lucy smiled, knowing the importance of this story for Peter. “My breathing stopped, Austin”, said uncle Peter. “You know what happened next,” he lent down close to Austin’s ear. Austin waited anxiously. Lucy waited expectantly. Peter slowly drew in his breath and in disbelief eventually continued. “General James Connolly walked past all the other people there, and walked purposely direct to me!” Lucy expelled in union with Austin, as Peter continued in angelic tones. “He grabbed my hand and shook it strongly.

When he let it go, he looked at me as if no one else mattered, and he asked me to walk with him. In awe, I followed him to the side door, next to the Butt Bar. We stepped through the door into Beresford Place, which was full of ICA men and women preparing for a parade. Of course, I had no idea that this parade was actually the start of the Rising! I was just happy to be around the great Connolly himself. They all stopped on seeing General Connolly, and a spontaneous cheer echoed around the street. He acknowledged the support of the volunteers and turned back to me. I will never forget the words that he spoke to me.

“Peter, I need you to do a special duty for me.” He placed his hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes. “Peter, I am sorry that you are just too young for this fight. Now listen, I still need you to be all grown up for me.” Peter Ennis’s eyes moistened in Lucy’s 1966 kitchen, just as they had moistened fifty years before. “Peter, we have to keep Liberty Hall as the centre of Ireland’s Workers’ Struggle. I promised the ITGWU that we would not occupy this Hall during any conflict with the military. However, we cannot leave it totally vacant, Peter. Will you look after it for me; for Ireland, Peter? It is asking a lot, I know, but I need someone who I can trust to come through for me; to release me from a problem that is wearing me down. Will you be my Liberty Hall caretaker?”

Peter Ennis paused to let the importance of General Connolly’s order to sink in. Lucy and Austin were totally caught up in the story by now; their brother; their uncle, single-handed holding off the British Empire from threatening the Irish working class. “Now listen carefully, Peter”, continued James Connolly, “You are not to fight; that is an order. If the soldiers threaten to attack the Hall, and there is no reason to believe that they will, you must clear out. It is essential that you get away. Your best route from here is to travel west towards Smithfield via the laneways north of the river. When I assured General Connolly that I would not let him down; he did something unbelievable, Austin. It was the most wonderful moment of my life.” Peter Ennis took hold of Austin’s little hand and holding it open, palm side up, and withdrew a small piece of worn, folded leather from his jacket pocket. Peter placed it carefully into Austin’s palm. Holding Austin’s hand closed, Peter continued, “James Connolly pulled a bayonet from his leg puttees and cut off a button from his tunic. He placed it in my hand, as I now pass it to you.” Austin opened his hand and unfolded the leather, exposing the carefully preserved ICA tunic button. While Austin still had his eyes cast down, Peter finished his story.

“The next morning, the English navy blew the roof of Liberty Hall in, and like the starting gun of a race I took off out the side door, as arranged with General Connolly. My run was remembered only because a reporter for the Evening Herald witnessed my sprint down Eden Quay.” Lucy handed her brother the newspaper article, one of her treasured memorabilia from the Rising, so that he could read it to Austin. “Reporter O’Leary could not believe his eyes”, ran the paper, as he caught the moment:

“A machine gun is turned on him. Bullets hit the pavement in front of him and behind him, they strike the roadway and the walls of the building along his route and still he runs on and on. I hold my breath in awe as I watch his mad career. Will he escape? He wills…him won’t. ‘My God!’ I exclaim as a bullet raises a spark from the pavement right at his toe. A hundred yards in nine seconds – a record! Nonsense, this man does the distance in five and disappears, his breath in his fist, his heart in his mouth but – safe!”

“That button”, said Peter releasing Austin’s hand, “means more to me that anything in this world. It was given to me by the greatest Irishman we will ever know. Now I pass it on to you for your generation, so that you can know of the true Irish hero, that was your uncle Peter’s boss – General James Connolly.” He wiped his eyes as he looked into his nephew’s face. “So, Austin, my question is will you look after it for me; for Ireland? Will you come through for me and for James Connolly?” Austin looked from the ICA button up to his uncle’s moist face and across to his mother, beaming with pride. Lucy looked proudly back at the two men in her kitchen. Austin carefully kissed the button and safely refolded its leather holder. “I will not let you down, uncle Peter”, he said quietly, “and fifty years from now I will pass it on again.” Peter Ennis would live for a further thirteen years and was always welcomed warmly by Lucy and Austin. He failed to live to see his nephew marry, but would surely have approved of him passing James Connolly’s button on to his daughter, Clare, during the centenary celebrations in 2016. In Peter Ennis’s final year, he had to smile, when two local kids, playing racing on the Upper Gardiner Street footpath, started to run passed him. One stopped suddenly and shouted to his friend, “Get back here, John. Nobody outruns Mr Ennis.” Looking fondly up at Peter Ennis, he told his friend with authority, “Don’t you know that that is Dublin’s fastest sprinter.”

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