WHO FEARS TO SPEAK OF ‘98? REVULSION AT ETHOS OF O’CONNELL’S REPEAL

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 2 mins.)

In 1843 the lyrics of In Memory of the Dead were published anonymously in The Nation but it seems to have been an open secret in Dublin political circles that the author was John Kells Ingram. As often happens, the song became known by its opening line “Who Fears to Speak of ‘98” and years later Ingram admitted having written the lyrics. Though it never once mentions Daniel O’Connell, taken in context of its subject, time and where it was published, the song was a blistering attack on the politician and his Repeal of the Union organisation. Yet while Kells Ingram was many things, he was no revolutionary — unlike the editors of the Nation and many of its readers.

Plaque indicating former location of The Nation newspaper in Middle Abbey Street, Dublin, premises bought out ironically by The Irish Independent. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

John Kells Ingram was a mildly nationalist mathematician, economist, philosopher and poet who was selected to write expert entries for the Encyclopedia Britannica. But although he was no revolutionary it is clear that he felt a distaste for O’Connell’s distancing himself from the memory of those who had risen in rebellion four decades earlier.

John Kells Ingram 1823-1907 (1890) by Sarah Purser (1848 – 1943). (Photo sourced: Internet)

Supporting O’Connell initially, The Nation sought to create a patriotic and indeed revolutionary culture through its pages. One of The Nation’s founders and editors, Thomas Davis was perforce also one of the periodical’s contributors and his compositions The West’s Awake and A Nation Once Again are still sung today, the latter very nearly becoming Ireland’s national anthem. The lyrics of Who Fears to Speak celebrated historical memory of resistance and lamented death and exile, the latter to the USA, where many of the surviving United Irish had gone (“across the Atlantic foam“). Davis’ In Bodenstown’s Churchyard, commemorated and celebrated Theobald Wolfe Tone, remembered as the father of Irish Republicanism and martyr.

Portrait of Thomas Davis (Sourced on: Internet)

Three years after co-founding The Nation, Thomas Davis died of scarlet fever in 1845, a few months short of his 31st birthday. Two years later, in “Black ‘47”, the worst year of the Great Hunger, the Young Irelanders finally and formally split from O’Connell’s Repeal Movement and in 1848 had their ill-fated and short uprising – again jail and exile for the leaders followed. Just under a score of years later, 1867 saw the tardy and unsuccessful rising of the Fenians with again, resultant jail sentences and exile (in addition to the executions of the Manchester Martyrs).

Two years following the rising of the Young Irelanders, in 1850 Arthur M. Forrester was born near Manchester in Salford, England (the “Dirty Old Town” of Ewan McColl) and in 1869 his stirring words of The Felons of Our Land appeared in Songs of a Rising Nation and other poetry (Felons reprinted by Kearney Brothers in a 1922 collection including songs by Thomas Davis). Songs of a Rising Nation was a collection published by the militant and resourceful Ellen Forrester from Clones, Co. Monaghan, who struggled to raise her children after the early death of her husband and included poems by her son Arthur and daughter Cathy.

Felons of Our Land indeed contains some of the themes of Who Fears to Speak (of which Arthur was doubtless aware) but in addition those of jail and death on the scaffold. By that time, the Young Irelanders had been added to the imprisoned and exiled, some in escape to the USA but others to penal colony in the Australias. And Forester added the theme of pride in our political prisoners:

A felon’s cap’s the noblest crown

an Irish head can wear.

and

We love them yet, we can’t forget

the felons of our land.

Twenty years after the publication of The Felons of Our Land, in 1889, another Irishman, Jim Connell, writing in SE London, would contribute the lyrics of the anthem of the working class in Britain, The Red Flag. Although commonly sung to the air of a German Christmas carol, Connell himself put it to the the traditional Jacobite air of The White Cockade. Connell, from Crossakiel in Co. Meath, also invoked historical memory and included the theme of martyrdom in explanation of the flag’s colour:

The workers’ flag is deepest red —

it shrouded oft’ our martyrs dead,

And ‘ere their limbs grew stiff and cold

their life’s blood dyed its every fold.

Jim Connell (Sourced on: Internet)

The traditions and themes of resistance and struggle are handed from generation to generation and song is one of the vehicles of that transmission. But songwriters borrow themes not just from history but from the very songs of the singers and songwriters before them. In 1869 Arthur M. Forrester wrote in Who Fears to Speak of ‘98:

Let cowards mock and tyrants frown

ah, little do we care ….

Jim Connell, three decades later, took up not only the themes but also that line:

Let cowards mock and traitors sneer,

we’ll keep the red flag flying here.

End.

APPENDIX

References in lyrics to themes

of exile:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

Some on a far-off distant land

their weary hearts have laid

And by the stranger’s heedless hands

their lonely graves were made.

But though their clay

be far away

Across the Atlantic foam …

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

…We’ll drink a toast

to comrades far away …

and

…. or flee, outlawed and banned

In The Red Flag (1889)

None.

of imprisonment:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

None.

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

(Apart from the title and refrain)

… though they sleep in dungeons deep

and

Some in the convict’s dreary cell

have found a living tomb

And some unseen unfriended fell

within the dungeon’s gloom …

also

A felon’s cap’s the noblest crown

an Irish head can wear……

In The Red Flag (1889)

Come dungeons dark or gallows grim ….

of martyred death:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

Alas that might should conquer right,

they fell and passed away …..

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

….. Some on the scaffold proudly died …

In The Red Flag (1889)

….. their life’s blood dyed its every fold ….

and

….. to bear it onward til we fall;

Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,

this song shall be our parting hymn.

of cowards and/ or traitors:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

Who fears to speak of ‘98,

who blushes at the name?

When cowards mock the patriot’s fate,

who hangs his head for shame?

He’s all a knave or half a slave

Who slights his country thus …

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

…. And brothers say, shall we, today,

unmoved like cowards stand,While traitors shame and foes defame,

the Felons of our Land.

and

Let cowards mock and tyrants frown,

In The Red Flag (1889)

. ..Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer (repeated in the chorus, sung six times)

and

It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man’s frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.

of the higher moral fibre of revolutionaries:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

Repeated reference in every verse to such as

a true man, like you man and you men, be true men etc.

Alas that Might should conquer Right ….

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

… No nation on earth can boast of braver hearts than they ….

also

And every Gael in Inishfail,

who scorns the serf’s vile brand,

From Lee to Boyne would gladly join

the felons of our land.

In The Red Flag (1889)

The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.

and

With heads uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.

of eventual victory:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

… a fiery blaze that nothing can withstand …

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

None – but inferred.

In The Red Flag (1889)

It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last;
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.

SOURCES AND REFERENCES

John Kells Ingram: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Kells_Ingram

https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Kells-Ingram

Arthur Forrester: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/the-felons-ofour-land-frank-mcnally-on-the-various-lives-of-a-republican-ballad-1.4185803

Ellen Forrester https: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Forrester

Lyrics Felons of Our Land: https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2010/10/12/felons-our-land

Jim Connell and The Red Flag: https://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/jim-connell-and-the-red-flag/

Monument to Daniel O’Connell in Dublin’s main street, now named after him. (Photo sourced: Wikipedia)