Josephine McNeill Thurles Town’s Forgotten Diplomat

Josephine McNeill (née Ahearne), the Irish Diplomat, was originally born on March 31st 1895, in Fermoy, County Cork. She was the daughter of James Ahearne (shopkeeper and hotelier) and Ellen Ahearne (née O’Brien). Josephine was educated at Loretto Convent, Fermoy, and later at UCD.  Today in Co Tipperary and indeed in her own native Co Cork its citizens have almost forgotten her varied contribution to twentieth century Irish History.

Equipped with a BA in French and German she began her teaching career, teaching first at the St Louis Convent, Kiltimagh, Co Mayo and later in 1917, here in Thurles at the Ursuline Convent. Josephine was fluent in the Irish language and held a passion for Irish music and literature. While here in Thurles she also took an active part in the cultural side of the Irish independence movement, becoming a member of Cumann na mBan and in 1921 became a member of the executive committee of that same organisation.

It was also while here in Thurles, in 1917, that Josephine first met Pierce McCann, latter president of the East Tipperary executive of Sinn Féin and the Commander of the Tipperary Brigade in the 1916 Easter Rising. By May 1918, she was paying regular visits to Ballyowen House, near Cashel, and they would eventually became engaged just before McCann was arrested by the R.I.C. for the second time.  Following this latter arrest Pierce McCann would die of influenza in Gloucester jail, possibly after it was claimed that a doctor had dosed him too strongly with strychnine on March 6th 1919 in a British nursing home.

Indeed when McCann’s corpse arrived in Dublin, amongst those who carried his coffin from ship to hearse and later to the Dublin / Thurles train, were Harry Boland and Michael Collins. In Dublin his hearse was preceded by a group of over one hundred Volunteers and was followed by another group of fifty, as it wended its way for a Mass held at the Pro-Cathedral. Following this Mass, the cortège and about ten thousand mourners walked through the city centre. On reaching the Quays it is reported that a British officer attempted to halt this cortège to allow a British military truck the first right of way. This officer together with his motorcycle are understood to have found themselves floating in the River Liffey, courtesy of a group of bystanders, because of what was perceived as a lack of respect for the dead.

When McCann’s coffin arrived by train here in Thurles, Volunteers from all over Tipperary were represented and the coffin was removed to the Cathedral of The Assumption, where it was received by the then Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Dr. John Harty. On Sunday, March 10th, the funeral left Thurles at 2:30pm bound for buried in Dualla, Cashel, County Tipperary. Note the present McCann Barracks in Templemore, County Tipperary, remains named after him.

Later in 1923 Josephine Ahearn would now go on to marry a man, 26 years her senior, one James McNeill, Irish High Commissioner in London from 1923- 1928.  James McNeill would also serve as a member of the committee under Michael Collins, latter then chairman of the Irish Provisional Government, and would also assist in drafting the Constitution of the Irish Free State. Both Josephine and James greatly resented the manner of their treatment by Eamon de Valera when the Office of the Governor General was suppressed  in 1932. However later, while Minister to Switzerland, Josephine put this same anger and  resentments aside, when de Valera visited Switzerland for eye surgery and indeed it is reported that she went to sit with him during this period of convalescence.

After her husband’s death in 1938, Josephine McNeill became honorary secretary of the council of the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland (FNCI) founded by Sarah Purser in 1924. Their initial stated purpose was “to secure works of art and objects of historic interest or importance for the national or public collections of Ireland by purchase, gift or bequest.” The original list of members represented distinguished men and women from public life in Ireland and included George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats and Oliver St. John Gogarty.

Josephine also acted as chairperson of the executive committee of the Irish Country Women’s Association until 1950. Here she continued to write on Irish social, cultural, and economic issues and was a member of the Department of External Affairs advisory committee on Cultural Relations. She was chosen to represent Ireland at the general assembly of UNESCO in Paris, France, in 1949.

In 1950 Josephine was appointed Minister to the Netherlands by the then party leader, Seán MacBride, himself Minister for External Affairs in the inter-party government of 1950. Seán MacBride himself founded and participated in many international organisations of the 20th century, including the United Nations, the Council of Europe and Amnesty International. Seán would later received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974, the Lenin Peace Prize for 1975–1976 and the UNESCO Silver Medal for Service in 1980.

By her appointment Josephine McNeill therefore became Ireland’s first female diplomat to be appointed in a Ministerial capacity representing the Irish State abroad. Josephine was appointed Minister to Sweden in 1955 and held a joint appointment to Switzerland and Austria from 1956–1960, before she eventually decided to retired from public life.

In her personal life Josephine is understood to have been extremely shy, a collector of fine porcelain, art work, a talented pianist and published authoress; described as a rebel who became a servant of  the people accomplishing more than any other three or four women could achieve in their own lifetime.

Josephine McNeill died on November 19th 1969 while in St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, and is buried in Kilbarrack cemetery, Sutton, Co Dublin.
The Irish writer Brendan Behan referred jokingly to Kilbarrack cemetery in “The Borstal Boy” as “The healthiest graveyard in the country because it is so close to the sea”

The time has come for County Tipperary, if only in the name of its neglected tourism industry, to join forces to remember its contribution to World War 1 and in two years time its massive contribution in 1916.


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