22 January 2009 Edition
Interview : Le Chéile honouree for Leinster, Mick 'Avic' O'Leary
‘The Man is here’
MICK ‘AVIC’ O’LEARY is Leinster honouree for this year’s Le Chéile celebration, an annual event, celebrating republicans who have made a unique contribution to the republican struggle. Mick talks to ELLA O’DWYER about his participation in the struggle and his pride and joy at being nominated for the honour.
THE FEEDBACK in preparing for this interview with Mick ‘Avic’ O’Leary (79) showed that he is a very popular figure amongst republicans in his native Wexford and beyond.
“Ah, Mick. You’ll love him. He’s great. He’s lovely.” And these comments coming from hardened republicans! So I was curious as I’d never met the man – or so I thought.
“I’m from An Phoblacht,” I announced myself to him.
Mick Avic assured me that he’d met me before, knew all about me and, “Wait till I tell you about my experience with Tipperary people.” I was envisaging a tormenting over Tipp’s sometimes disappointing performance in the hurling field or – God help us – another onslaught on Dan Breen. Anyway, as we say in Tipp, I let him off’ and off he went into a charming and heart-rending story.
Mick O’Leary grew up in a place called Davidstown, outside Enniscorthy, County Wexford. The ‘Avic’ title was bestowed on him by a local cattle dealer who lived nearby many years ago who used to call all the young men ‘a mhic’ from the Irish language meaning ‘son’. In Mick’s case the name stuck.”
O’Leary’s father fought in the Tan War and the Civil War and his mother was in Cumann na mBan. There wasn’t much money about. “I had a happy upbringing but there was grinding poverty around at the time. It would be common for people to go to a neighbour’s door to ask for a cup of sugar or the like. They hadn’t the Cross of Christ between them.”
Mick Avic has memories of coming across various prominent republicans from a very young age.
“I remember when I was nine years old watching a group of people in a field playing.” It was common in the 1940s and 1950s for young people from rural areas to use the only facility they had, the field, to have a ‘sports day’. Mick recalls on one of those sports days meeting a tall man with a hat slanted on one side of his head. “I saw this man with a bike and he came over to me and lifted me onto a wall overlooking the field. He asked me if I’d like to do a job for him. I said I would and he told me to run over to a man in the field by the name of Philip Storey and tell him that ‘The Man’ is here. Whatever way he talked to me he made me feel six foot tall.” It turned out ‘The Man’ was none other than George Plant.
Tipperary man George Plant was tried under the De Valera government for the killing of an alleged informer called Michael Devereux in 1942. Plant at the time was given the wrong information and the real betrayer was the then Chief of Staff of the IRA, Stephen Hayes. George Plant was shot by a Free State firing squad in Portlaoise on the morning of 5 March 1942.
Mick Avic also remembers that when he was just over 15 years old he and a friend campaigned against De Valera’s plan to have Charlie Kerins executed. Kerins was being put on trial in 1944, accused of shooting a detective called Dinny O’Brien in Dublin. Kerins was convicted of murder on 8 October and sentenced to death by hanging. Mick and his friend – another prominent republican called George Keegan, one of the Edentubber Martyrs – began distributing leaflets condemning the proposed execution. Their campaign came to the attention of local police who approached the school principal with a view to having the two lads expelled. Even the local chaplain was involved in what Mick describes as “a kind of mini-court-martial”. The chaplain was for having the boys kicked out of the school but the principal, another Tipperary man, refused and so Mick stayed on in school until he was 16-and-a-half. Sadly, the young lads were to be disappointed in their campaign and Kerins was hanged in Mountjoy on 1 December 1944 by the infamous British chief executioner, Albert Pierrepoint.
The last time Mick and George met was the day George insisted that Mick see a doctor, as he was visibly ill. As it turned out, he had pleurisy, which later developed into TB, leaving him hospital for over two years during which time his friend George was killed at Eddentubber. “At that time TB was a death sentence. I remember when I heard George was killed. I went numb.”
By this time, Mick Avic O’Leary was heavily involved in the Republican Movement. In later years, during the 1970s, Mick was approached by Dáithí Ó Conaill at a meeting in Enniscorthy and asked to go to Dublin to push a republican agenda inside the trade union movement as a member of the ATGWU.
“A meeting was planned for Enniscorthy and Dáithí Ó Conaill was coming. He was on the wanted list by then and so there was a lot of security around the meeting.
“At the close of the meeting Daithí called me over and said he’d a job for me. He wanted me to get involved in the trade union movement along with a prominent trade unionist by the name of Matt Merrigan.”
As well as helping to organise workers to defend their rights, Mick says that involvement by republicans in the wider trade union movement assisted the overall republican struggle.
From Mick Avic’s time as a trade union activist and many years as an IRA Volunteer, there are more tales to tell but, alas, tales that must await another day.
On a sad note, Mick recalls his wife Gretta who passed away in 1999 at the early age of 52. “We were all numbed when Gretta died of heart failure. It affected the whole family very deeply.”
Mick Avic, who will be 80 years young this April, is still an active republican in south Leinster, working from the Sinn Féin office in Wexford Town. He’s also been active in all strands of the republican struggle since he was a youngster. Congratulations to Leinster for such a great choice of honouree.