The Girl With The Beret is a concept album comprised of a series of songs and spoken word tracks, which flow seamlessly from one into the other. Inspired by Kate’s great-grand aunt, Catherine Rooney (neé Byrne), it weaves the story of a young woman caught up in the 1916 Rising in Dublin.
A fusion of alternative folk, popular ballad and classical strings. It gives a unique insight into the perspective of an ordinary girl living at that time and what it meant, as a female, to be involved in the Rebellion.
Rising Men Down
Katie (Catherine) Byrne was the eldest girl in a large family of 12 children and she grew up in No.17 North Richmond
St. Her older brother Paddy joined the Irish Volunteers and she joined the Central Branch of Cumann na mBan, along with her younger sister Alice, in 1915. According to her Witness Statement, on the first day of the Rising, she saw the men marching towards the city centre and her mother told her to get her equipment and follow her brothers. She was supposed to go with her sister Alice to join the rest of the Cumann na mban at Liberty Hall. Instead, however, determined to join her brothers she followed a troop heading towards O’Connoll St., passed Thomas Clarke’s tobacconist shop, towards the GPO. When she got there she asked a man to help her climb up to a window at the side of the building, which she then kicked in and climbed through, landing on some poor unsuspecting volunteer who then proceeded to scold her for being there! Once inside she carried out first aid on the injured men, using her petticoat as a bandage – earning herself the title of The Petticoat Heroine which was printed in the press in later years. She describes in detail tending to many of the wounded, including a man called Liam Clarke who carried a home-made hand grenade which exploded as he entered the post office, beside the telephone kiosk. And while helping The O’Rahilly apply a dressing to another wounded volunteer she noted a group of men queuing up for confession from a priest who had taken up position at the back of the main hall.
Later that day Katie was sent to Hibernian Bank to take up duty there with a couple of other women. They had to cross the street, under fire, in the dark and she describes how the Volunteers were told to hold their fire while they crossed, however bullets still came from the O’Connell St. area. Having stayed the night at the bank she was then asked by a Captain Weafer to go back to the GPO and ask for rations. He told her not to worry, that he would signal that she was crossing so that she would have safe passage. However, when she got to the GPO, she was refused rations until they knew how many men were at the bank and she was asked to go back there, under fire, to get a written message. When she did this, she describes how she rolled the message up and put it in her mouth, before running back over to the GPO.
While delivering these messages and later dispatches, Katie describes running through tenement houses and climbing over walls and balustrades. She encountered several soldiers on her way whom she had to lie to, always using the story that she was an innocent girl trying to get home to her sick mother. What struck me most was the kindness she encountered from people she met on the way. She refers to people offering her tea and one woman even giving her an armchair to rest in for the night.
The Girl With The Beret
While continuing to tend to the wounded in the GPO, Katie was then approached by Padraig Pearse and asked if she would take a dispatch to the Four Courts. She watched Joseph Plunkett, who was looking very ill, write the note by hand before giving it to Mr. Pearse. She noted that Joseph wore a gold bangle on his arm and remarked, to her self, how funny it was to see a man wear a bangle and how she wished she owned it instead. Katie describes how she took her beret off and pinned the dispatch inside her thick hair and then tied it up with a pink ribbon and placed the beret back on her head. She delivered this important dispatch to the Four Courts and afterwards, as she tried to get back to the GPO she describes an extraordinary experience where she narrowly escapes her own death. Having spotted a man she knew, on watch in the top room of a building, she went up to have a look through his field glasses. While doing so a shot was fired, she stood back in the room, and observed the bullet lodged in a door behind her. Having being asked if she was ok, she took her beret off her head and discovered two bullet holes in it.
This is sadly ironic considering the poor and ultimate fate of the man who had given her this note, which she carried hidden in her hair, under this beret. Her brief encounter with Joseph Plunkett, and her reference to his gold bangle seems all the more poignant knowing Plunkett’s own heartbreaking story (being married
to Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Jail just hours before his own execution).
Both Katie’s mother and father played active roles in the Rising and in the years that followed. I remember stories about this wonderful and daring matriarch of the Byrne Family who hid guns in her shopping bag and even in the bottom of her children’s Pram. Katie refers to her mother quite a lot in her witness statement. Following the Rising, during the war of independence, A squad called the Guards of the Active Service Unit was set up and they would have regular meetings at the family home on 17 North Richmond St. Mrs. Byrne, also named Catherine, provided a safe house during this time, feeding and tending to the many men who were involved and needing a safe place to stay. For this she became known as the mother of the Guards. Mrs. Byrne, herself was granted an E grade military pension for 3 and 3/4 years service and at her funeral she received a 21-gun salute from the National Army and a moving tribute from a member of the Old Guards commending her on her bravery as a great Soldier-mother who would remain forever in the hearts of all true Irishmen and women the world over.
In addition to No. 17 North Richmond St being used as a safe house and for secret meetings during the Black and Tan wars, it was also used as a temporary arms dump. Loaded revolvers and live bombs were temporarily hidden in various places in the house including a deep seat, which Mrs Byrne would sit on, usually with one of her younger children in her arms, whenever the house was raided. There was also a secret dump made by the side of the fireplace which, remarkably was never discovered during any of the raids and according to Katie, was still there, covered in wall paper – at the time she made her witness statement in 1952.