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Grandfather’s Christmas in Kylemore Abbey

There was much I didn’t know about my grandfather, whom Dublin Castle regarded as a Republican leader

In December 1920, a party of nuns left Wexford for their new home in Kylemore Abbey. They travelled by train, in a special curtained carriage, away from the eyes of men. It was the height of the War of Independence, but they were relatively safe from British troops.

Hidden in the carriage with the nuns was a man. Tom Cullen, my grandfather. Family lore says he was concealed by the skirts of the nuns’ habits.

My mother, Mary Pat, told us this story as children. She said grandad was a Michael Collins man. He worked in Intelligence, and he was “on the run”. He wasn’t the Tom Cullen of The Squad. He was an older man, an architect, and one of his projects was for the nuns who were moving to Kylemore Abbey.

This was shortly after the shocking events of Bloody Sunday, and Tom Cullen needed to get out of Dublin. He travelled to Kylemore Abbey, and remained there for some months, with the nuns.

Before writing this article, I listened to the family stories. I looked at family papers, official documents, and witness statements. There’s so much I didn’t know.

The Kylemore nuns were Benedictines, 16 nuns and a novice. They were bombed out of Belgium during World War I, and re-located to Ireland. Known as the Irish Dames, their convent in Ypres had connections to Ireland stretching back to 1682.

Tom Cullen was a well-known rugby man who captained Bective in 1905. He joined the Volunteers in 1913, then later moved to the Dublin Brigade of the IRA. I didn’t know Dublin Castle regarded him as “one of the leaders of the Irish Republican Movement”.

I didn’t know his family home was searched, his father arrested, his brother afraid of being mistaken for Tom and shot. I knew the Black and Tans ransacked his offices on Suffolk Street, looking for Tom, but I didn’t know a member of his staff was threatened with a gun in his mouth.

As a child, I imagined my grandfather sneaking into the nun’s carriage in Heuston Station, but apparently he flagged down the train in Lansdowne Station, maybe because of his rugby connections. Six months later, in June 1921, Tom married Maisie Delaney who had just graduated from medical school, in Cork.

My mother said they travelled across Europe on their honeymoon. Now I know that Tom’s health was failing. Michael Collins granted leave of absence from military duties, so that Tom could seek medical treatment abroad.

Mary Pat remembered visiting Kylemore Abbey with her Dad, when she was a schoolgirl. To her astonishment, the nun who opened the door exclaimed ‘Mr Cullen!’ and kissed him on both cheeks, French-style. Irish nuns did not behave like that

Maisie’s teenage sister wrote in her diary that the wedding party froze in fear when they heard a vehicle outside on the street, obviously expecting soldiers to burst in. Fortunately, the vehicle moved off and the wedding proceeded. Tom and Maisie travelled to Belgium, France, and then Spain for his hospital treatment. The truce was declared in July 1921, and they returned to a very different Ireland.

After Maisie died, we found an envelope of cut-off signatures: Michael Collins, M Collins, Mick. The signatures would have been used as proof of orders from Collins, which were destroyed. There was a photo album too, from their honeymoon. There’s a picture of Maisie, young and pretty, standing in front of a chateau.

And there was a false passport organised by Collins, in the names of Thomas and Mary Cunningham, with older dates of birth, and deliberately bad photographs.

I never knew my grandad. He didn’t live to see Mary Pat graduate from University College Dublin, or his son Tom play rugby for Ireland in 1949.
A hundred years later, I wonder about that train journey in 1920. Did the nuns know he was going to join them? Was it a complete surprise?

Presumably they knew of his revolutionary activities. And why did the nuns take such a risk? Maybe they were supporters of the rebel cause. Maybe it was their experience of being refugees from their home in Belgium. But there seems to be a personal story too.

Mary Pat remembered visiting Kylemore Abbey with her Dad, when she was a schoolgirl. To her astonishment, the nun who opened the door exclaimed “Mr Cullen!” and kissed him on both cheeks, French-style. Irish nuns did not behave like that.

A generation later, my sister mentioned our family story to the Mother Abbess of Kylemore Abbey. It turned out she was the novice nun of that time. She spoke with great affection of Tom Cullen. One day, Black and Tans searched the Abbey. Tom Cullen was dressed as the boiler-man so they didn’t notice him, but she could see how scared he was.

This year, the Benedictine nuns are celebrating their centenary in Kylemore Abbey. This year we remember how they gave refuge to our grandad, Tom Cullen, 100 years ago.

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