Sunday, 19 August 2012

Analysis of John McDonnell's Will - what did it mean for the family?

We have seen below the complete transcript of John McDonnell's Will from 1916 (for which I thank my mom's cousin Phylis Devlin for the photocopy).

The evidence contained in the Will appears initially to support the belief that on his deathbed the 76 year old blind man from Dublin left all of his money, four properties and his shares to a single grand daughter, 6 year old Catherine Whelan. 

On further reading, the Will is quite detailed and somewhat complex, yet leaves some crucial areas which are vague and open to interpretation. On the basis of what we know about the life of John McDonnell, a disabled man who climbed his way out of Victorian institutions to become a respected business man and politician, I believe that even on his death bed, unable to write or sign his name fully, this was a man who had very well thought-through ideas about what he was doing and had considered carefully the best way to go about it.

We should firstly understand the context of the time and the local environment in which he was setting out his Will in November 1916.

1916 was the year of the Easter uprising in Dublin and across Ireland. The rebellion, famously centred around the General Post Office on Sackville (now O'Connell) Street had been ruthlessly beaten down by the British army and security forces. Many on both sides of the short lived conflict had died or been wounded, many of the rebels had either been executed or imprisoned and the whole of central Dublin was in disarray. Liberty Hall at Beresford Place for instance, a place that we know was close to the hearts of John McDonnell and his son John as members of the Union movement, was also wrecked during the 1916 uprising.

Aftermath of 1916. Beresford Place, Dublin, showing the wreckage of Liberty Hall,
headquarters of Connolly's ITGWU and also of the Irish Women Workers' Union founded
by Jim Larkin's sister Delia. 

We know that John McDonnell was very involved in politics in Dublin. He successfully stood as a Poor Law Governor on the mandate of Sinn Feinn, he corresponded with Ireland's leading politician John Redmond on the employment rights of blind people and there is strong anecdotal evidence in the family that he gave money to Roger Casement who was executed in London in 1916 for smuggling arms into Ireland in the run-up to the uprising. Without doubt, the old man John McDonnell would have deeply affected personally by the events of that year which took place within a ten minute walking distance of his home on Bolton Street. 

Incidentally, the list of rebels inside the General Post Office between 24th and 30th April 1916 includes the name John McDonnell. It seems unlikely that this was our g-g-grandfather or his son of the same name, as I think this information would have been passed down through the family, so it could be a coincidence (there is also someone with the surname Whelan on the list). Though it has been indicated to me by a third party in Ireland (see my posts on the National League of the Blind) that both of our John McDonnells and possibly an extended family of McDonnells in Dublin were collectively involved in trade union activity alongside the well known Irish trade union leader Jim Larkin.
Recruitment poster for the British
Army in Ireland published 1916

At the end of 1916, Dublin and Ireland were in a state of continuing revolution. Though the uprising had been suppressed both swiftly and brutally and its most obvious leaders executed or imprisoned, a new group of leaders including De Valera and Collins were already planning a more sustained campaign which would evolve into a full blown war of independence. My guess is that as he lay on his deathbed in November 1916, at his bedside was his longtime political ally Nicholas McCluskey who signed as a witness to the Will (McCluskey lived at 47 Bolton Street and was a man previously named on John McDonnell's campaign posters), the old blind man would have been aware that the suppression of the uprising that year was far from being the end of Ireland's efforts to gain independence. He therefore wasn't about to hand over some quarter to third of his hard earned estate to what he perceived to be a violent occupying government by way of death and inheritance tax.

The other significant point about the historical context of 1916 is that Britain and Ireland as a whole were, on all other fronts, at war with Germany in the killing fields of northern Europe. Prior to 1916 about 90,000 young Irish men were enlisted into the armed forces of the United Kingdom. 25,000 Irish recruits had died in the Great War compared to only 64 rebels killed in the uprising. But whatever their loyalties, this was not a good time to be a young man in Ireland or across the United Kingdom generally and the life expectancy of pre-teenage and teenage boys in this era must have been dramatically lowered. A reason therefore to choose a grand daughter as heir over a grandson?

John McDonnell's Will initially states that all of his estate goes to his wife Catherine and that on her death it goes to his grand daughter Catherine Whelan and if anything should happen to her then it goes to a second grand daughter Mary Whelan. However, further on in the Will he describes his wife Catherine as being 'feeble minded' and therefore unable to look after her own financial affairs, significantly in my opinion, he says that she will need the assistance of their daughter and son-in-law Annie and John Whelan to administer things like the collection of rent and the handling of his Marconi shares, as well as the daily care of his widow.

Annie and John Whelan (my great grand parents) are therefore named as executors of the Will as opposed to beneficiaries. Giving them a large amount, if not full control of the estate for as long as the widow Catherine was alive and until their daughter Catherine reached the legal age to inherit which would have been at least 18. Had the estate gone directly to Anne and John Whelan, they would certainly have had to pay more inheritance tax on everything. By delaying the date of someone officially inheriting his estate, was John McDonnell therefore buying time, 12 years of it to be precise, for the family to move money around for the benefit of all?

Did this plan mean that Anne and John Whelan were given full control of the estate without being forced to sell the properties and being whacked by larger amounts of inheritance tax? Did he also name Mary Whelan as back-up to his plan, bearing in mind that these were dangerous times and childhood mortality was high. Naming two grand daughters whilst ignoring his children, grand sons and other younger grand children (including my grandmother, Lily, born in 1915 - so a toddler at the time of her grandfather's death), in my opinion was not an emotional act of favoritism but a well thought out strategy in uncertain times of war on two different fronts. Here was a man determined that an occupying imperialist government, whether that be Britain or Germany, was not going to get their hands on too much of his estate.

Of further significance is the fact that the Will also lays out provision for John McDonnell's daughter Catherine (aka Lally) and his son John, the butcher who it is believed was also blind though not at birth. As with his wife, John McDonnell lays a duty on the executors to provide for them out of money coming in from rents for as long as they remained in the family home at Bolton Street. We know that John eventually married and left Bolton Street though Catherine (Lally) became long-term disabled and died at Bolton Street possibly in the late 1960s / 70s.
Two of John McDonnell's daughters - my great grandmother
Anne Whelan standing and her sister Catherine Barrett seated

The point here being that the full estate could not therefore have been finalised in terms of its ultimate conveyance to the grand daughter Catherine Whelan until these three other individuals had either moved out or died. In the meantime, did Anne and John Whelan remain in control of the estate as executors?        

In the event of John McDonnell's death on 26th November 1916, 24 days after he signed the Will on 2nd November, the Will appeared to go through probate quite quickly, as was another of his wishes and by the 15th December that same year had been processed and rubber stamped for the executors to take control. Was the speed at which the Will was taken to probate another part of John McDonnell's plan to foil the Inland Revenue and stitch things up before they had time to scrutinize his full affairs?   

A payment of £414 . 15 . 2 was paid in Estate Duty, which was still a lot of money in those times and equivalent to more than the value of at least one of his properties. But without knowing the full extent of his estate including the value of the four properties, his shares and money in the bank which was not mentioned in the Will, it is difficult to know what percentage this represented and whether or not he was successful in keeping a decent amount of money from his estate on behalf of the family.

Things may or may not have worked out as John McDonnell intended and it would be interesting to know how everything ultimately worked out in terms of the distribution of the estate. For instance when were the three excess properties sold? How long did the rents and shares continue to pay for the general upkeep of the widow Catherine and others (John and Lally)? In what year did g-g-granny Catherine McDonnell die and can we find out more about her life, character and origins? What amount did the grand daughter Kitty eventually inherit? Did the death of John Whelan in the 1940s, the male head of the family, have an impact on Anne's  continuing role as an executor?

To a large extent the answer to most of these questions is now academic and probably at best speculative, certainly on my behalf. As one of my mom's cousins recently suggested to me, "family history is a hobby". My preoccupation here has been to understand the thinking of an old man nearly 100 years ago. Hopefully my mom's generation, my own generation and the generation of my children and possibly one day their children, are no longer affected by the consequence of John McDonnell's Will, though it has been interesting to speculate about the decisions he was making even on his death bed.      

Whatever the truth about John McDonnell's intentions or whether things turned out as he planned after his death, and I may of course be completely wrong in my theory, the Will of this blind but very shrewd entrepreneur and political campaigner was as fascinating as the man himself.

1 comment:

  1. I am the great grandson of Nicholas McCluskey who you mention in this article, Mike McDermott .