James Brady soldier, musician, teacher, folklorist

James Brady, better know locally as Jimmy, was born c1896 in the townland of Tullywaltra, parish of Knockbride, Co. Cavan to Terry and Anne (nee Sullivan). He was the fifth generation of Brady’s to own the same 60 acre farm since 1798. By Anna Sexton

Born with great ability to learn, he quickly absorbed information from an early age, whilst growing up in a happy home amidst a closely-knit and supportive community.
Being an only child, he listened attentively as visiting adults conversed around the fire during their ceilidhe most nights of the week.

At five years of age he could quote most of Colmcille’s prophecies. He attended the local school in Drumanespic infrequently, during the summer he was needed at home on the farm. Master Clarke, the teacher there had trained at the Model School, Bailieboro, and provided night classes at his home during winter months. Children of all denominations who had missed school during the summer happily availed of this service. James loved Irish culture, language, music, song and dance, his favourite being the fiddle - it being the first instrument he had first heard being played at his home. But there was little time for a lad of his age to learn the art as duty called upon his resources.

Following the 1917 election of County Plunkett, James having reached his 20th year of age, decided to offer his service to Ireland’s struggle for independence. He expressed his thoughts to his father and family, his uncle encouraged him to ‘go to the west’ where he would learn much about ‘organised resistance’ first hand from long-serving freedom fighters in that region. When the last of the violent snowstorm at that time had ended, he set off on foot for Cootehill station. After several change of lines en route, he finally arrived by narrow-guage rail in Drumshambo. He found lodgings for the night and a job in Arigna mines the next day. His first days pay for piecework was ten pence, this increased to £1 per week out of which he paid 16/= to a landlady for his keep.

He quickly joined the local IRA ‘Flying Column’ and whilst part of a group protesting in a land dispute, was battened, badly injured, arrested and ended up amongst 1,300 other prisoners in the Curragh Camp. The regime there was inhuman, and rigidly enforced by the Crown Forces. Searchlights scanned the grounds, with sentries positioned in watch-towers under order to ‘shoot-and-kill’ anyone attempting to escape. Inside, as prisoners feigned conformity to the rules, thoughts centred on an escape plan. James Brady mustered support for his planned tunnel-leading underground from his cell to the area beyond the external wall of the camp. Using only a makeshift corkscrew they slowly dug, removed and stored the clay in their pockets or pillowcase, ‘secreting’ it away to waste ground used by prisoners during daytime exercise. When the project was completed, a message was dispatched to Michael Collins’ headquarters asking that personnel from there be sent to the Curragh to act as guides in placing escaped prisoners in ‘safe houses’ following their exit from the tunnel. The message was duly delivered to Collins via a prisoner's relative - a Father Smith. On the same day it arrived, a surprise raid on Collins’ headquarters by Crown Forces led to the discovery of the message and an immediate search for the tunnel commenced at the Curragh. The prisoners had been all relocated in different quarters, and when it was discovered after seven days, a meitheal of prisoners was forced to fill it in.

Undeterred, James and his crew quickly recommenced another tunnel at a depth of 11ft under cells and out walls. One hundred prisoners made their escape through this, and using safe houses along the way, arrived in Collins’ Dublin headquarters where they were welcomed, given food, civilian clothing and rest. Afterwards they were dispatched to various locations to continue their service. After spending a week with his family in Tullywaltra, James, as instructed, rejoined the ‘Flying Column’ in the west.
(Many years ago, the Irish Press published an account of the tunnel escapade, without any reference to James Brady as engineer!)

During the Civil War, James and 30 others with Sean Hyde O.C., operated from makeshift headquarters, a ‘dug-out’ on the edge of Lough Key, with an exit by water and another into woodland on the Rockingham Demesne. This group was ambushed on several occasions during its terms in that area.

Fulfilment of a
long-term ambition
When peace was restored, James returned home to live on the farm. Soon he acquired an old fiddle-determined to master the art of ‘learning by ear’ tunes played by neighbouring musicians when visiting his home in earlier years. An injury sustained to one ear during wartime left him permanently deaf, so he was compelled to resort to learning music ‘by note’. He went to Dublin in 1942 and bought a copy of ‘Petre’s Book of Music’ for 4/6d and ‘O’Neill’s Music of Ireland & Moores Melodies’ for £1 in a second-hand bookshop on the Quays. Through sheer persistence of effort he gradually accomplished his aim, and took his place amongst the best at house seisiuns or on concert platforms.

By the 1950s, Cavan people had become attracted to a different music culture - that played by the big bands in dance halls and at carnivals. This craze would have completely obliterated traditional music by the 60s, were it not for the effort of James and a few other conservationists who actively encouraged and organised classes in the homes of many youngsters throughout a wide area.

He enjoyed passing on tunes laboriously learned from books or in listening to old gramophone records of ceilidhe bands. Interested parents elsewhere soon sought out his services, and gradually he gave classes seven nights per week.
His group known as ‘The Flying Column’ was comprised of his very best pupils. It performed at many events throughout the region, some going on to become accomplished musicians in later years.

James demanded a high standard of behaviour and dress code, forbade the wearing of jewellry, nail varnish, or the use of perfumed products by anyone in his class! Any sign of disinterest or lack of concentration was cancelled by ‘a rap on the knuckles’ with his bow! This irked some parents, who, as the old saying goes ‘put the dog on him’ - in other words told him to leave and not return! James took insults as compliments and never felt it a burden on his broad shoulders!

Alongside teaching the fiddle to hundreds of children throughout the week, he found time to record volumes of local folklore, songs, poems etc. His contributions are now stored in the archives of Folklore Commission.

In latter years, he retired to live in Bailieboro town before his death. I was unable to find a headstone marking his final resting place in Knockbride cemetery. His unstinted services deserve commemoration today.
May the sod rest lightly on his earthly remains - agus ar dheishlaimh De go raibh do anam a Sheamus.