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The “father of Irish Republicanism”, Theobald Wolfe Tone was honoured on Sunday afternoon at the Irish patriot’s final resting place, in Bodenstown churchyard in Co. Kildare, a place of annual pilgrimage for Irish Republicans. Irish Socialist Republicans and Anti-Imperialist Action Ireland convened the event including speakers, musicians, singers and colour party, in which the speeches drew on the past to comment on the present and on the future.
WOLFE TONE AND THE RISINGS OF 1798
Theobald Wolfe Tone and others sought the extension of political participation from the Anglicans in Ireland to the Dissenters, i.e non-Anglican Protestants in addition to the Catholics. When efforts in this direction failed1 towards the end of the 18th Century he and others formed the United Irishmen. This was a secret revolutionary organisation, with a democratic, non-sectarian ideology, seeking assistance from republican France to rise against English control of Ireland.
The English authorities occupying Ireland harried the Republican communities (including hanging some individuals), pushing them into uprising in 1798 when they were in some disarray, particularly after the arrest of most of the Leinster Directorate of the United Irishmen in Bridge Street, Dublin. The French ship in which Tone was being brought back to Ireland was captured by an English naval vessel and though Tone was in French Army uniform he was recognised, tried and sentenced to public hanging but apparently cheated the hangman by cutting his own throat, though he died slowly and painfully.
The initial engagements in Wexford and Antrim were successful for the insurgents but Wexford was soon left as the only area in which they had control of most of the county. A small French invasion force arrived too late in Mayo and though again initially successful, the combined French-Irish force was soon surrounded and defeated.
Tone’s body was brought to the small churchyard in Bodenstown and buried there; Young Irelanders leader Thomas Davis later wrote about his own pilgrimage there and composed the “In Bodenstown Churyard” song; since then the annual pilgrimage there has become an important point on the Irish Republican calendar and, at the high point of support for the Republican movement in the latter half of the last century, attended by thousands.
THE BODENSTOWN EVENT
The rally was preceded by a small march led by a colour party to approach the cemetery, where it was joined by others to march into the cemetery. Opening the event, the MC welcomed everyone in Irish before continuing to speak in English, putting the event in its context of history since the late 18th Century onwards up to the present, referencing recent activity of supporters of the ISR, AIAI and the Revolutionary Housing League before going on to introduce the next speaker.
Irish historian Peter Rogers recounted briskly a list of prominent Republican speakers who had taken part in Wolfe Tone commemorations down through the decades (some later martyred). Rogers spoke about the importance of the tradition and its relevance today as in the past and also spoke of his own participation as a young man at such commemorations in the past. Among those who had spoken at the monument, Rogers mentioned James Connolly, Patrick Pearse and Liam Mellows.
Seán Doyle, member of the Irish Socialist Republicans/ AIAI and a housing activist spoke about what the capitalist system is doing to the people in Ireland, particularly in the housing crisis, with deaths on the streets while houses lie empty, along with long-time harm being suffered by the victims in physical and mental health, including suicides.
Doyle stated that any system of law or property that justifies that kind of situation must be done away with, that the health of society over-trumps the property rights of the few and encouraged those who agreed with that to join the Revolutionary Housing League.
The MC noted the importance of internationalism in Irish Republican history including that of the United Irishmen2 and noted the presence of Basque and Palestinian flags before calling forward a recent supporter of the ISR/ AIAI activities from Turkey.
The man was not easy to understand but the gist seemed to be the different ways in which resistance expressed itself apart from armed resistance. The Turkish speaker listed among those the celebration of historical memory, the retention of language, the combatting of fear.
The final speaker was a housing activist and urban geographer who has been doing some research into past housing struggles in Ireland, particularly alluding to past actions in Dublin which CATU (Community Action Tenants’ Union) is researching currently. Republicans had taken part in these and initiated many of them but he felt they did not get the credit they deserved. The speaker mentioned also the 1970s tenant rent strike movement in against Dublin City Council, which is hardly ever mentioned, in effect a mass movement. The speaker maintained that we need to understand the different categories of empty houses so that we can understand the causes and address them but ultimately the cause is the capitalist system. The speaker called for resistance and support for CATU and for such initiatives as James Connolly House.3
CULTURAL PART OF THE PROGRAM
Music and lyrics are an important part of the Irish Republican tradition, the MC commented, before calling up singers to perform at intervals between speakers. Seán Óg accompanied himself on guitar singing the Irish Republican ballads Tone Is Coming Back Again and Soldiers of ‘22. The latter song was one of a number of references by speakers to the counterrevolution of 1922-1924, more usually referred to as the Civil War. The MC commented that the Tone Is Coming Back4 song is rarely heard these days and Soldiers of ‘225 not often enough.
Diarmuid Breatnach preceded his singing of The Plane Crash at Los Gatos (sometimes known as Deportees) by saying that the victims of imperialism are often civilian refugees fleeing repression, or migrants fleeing famine or simple poverty (as we Irish had done), these most vulnerable sections of society then being targeted by racists and fascists. Mexican seasonal labourers hired to bring in the fruit harvests are often hunted if they remain in the USA. In 1948 a USA plane delivering deported labourers to Mexico crashed with everyone on board killed. However the radio news only gave the names of the USA citizen crew and Woody Guthrie composed the song about the incident. Breatnach also mentioned the deaths of trafficked Latin American migrants more recently in the USA and those killed in Morocco while trying to get into the nearby Spanish colony, numbers similar to some recent deaths in the war in Ukraine which become front page news while the migrant deaths may not reach anywhere near there.
The MC, drawing the event to a close, commented that more people had attended the event this year than last but more were still needed to mobilise. He gave his thanks to the colour party, also larger this year and including people who were new to the role, commenting that five counties were represented there. Some of them are women and the MC mentioned as a progressive development the formation of Coiste na mBan (Women’s Committee) within the Anti-Imperialist Action Ireland organisation.
The event concluded with thanks to all present from the MC, also to the National Graves Association6 and the singing of Amhrán bhFiann.
1The English Crown was opposed and rallied opposition to the move among the MPs but self-interest also played a part, in that some landowners feared that power given to the pre-settler indigenous might result in their lands being repossessed.
2The United Irishman had strong links with Republicans in France and in the USA but also with the United Englishmen and United Scotsmen in which the Irish diaspora was active. Irish Republicans had also had links with the movement for liberation from Spanish rule in Latin America in the mid-19th Century and with the Basques and Catalans in the early 20th.
3James Connolly House was the revolutionary re-naming title of a building leased by the Salvation Army on Eden Quay, Dublin, left empty for nearly two years in the midst of a homelessness crisis. Earlier this year it was occupied by activists of the ISR-related Revolutionary Workers’ Union for some weeks before a court-authorised eviction of over 80 gardaí to remove two activists a couple of weeks earlier.
4A song which was part of the ’98 Cantata written in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the Rising. The cycle contained ten songs and was revived again in 1948 on the 150th anniversary. Thomas Francis Mullan was born near Ardmore, Co. Derry in 1860. He taught in Derry and later became headmaster of Faughanvale PES. He collaborated with a Derry music teacher, Edward Conaghan, in the writing of a ’98 Cantata devised to commemorate the centenary of the Rising. He died in 1937.
5Some online sources claim the author is unknown while others give Brian Ó hUigínn as the author, which seems likely.
6The NGA is a voluntary organisation independent of any political party and of the State, from which it seeks no funding; it is the major organisation caring for graves and memorials of the struggle for Irish freedom and has the responsibility of caring for the Tone memorial, which it has renovated in the past to facilitate commemoration events.
Revolutionary Housing League: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1062927280980792
Rent strike Dublin Council tenants: https://dublininquirer.com/2022/06/22/fifty-years-on-a-tenants-union-is-putting-together-a-history-of-the-1972-rent-strike