Few people know the pain of being dispossessed of their land better than the Irish, but tragically in the 1870s, thousands of impoverished Irish immigrants ended up enlisting in American armies that were fighting to push Native Americans off their land.
Irishmen fought and died in the most iconic conflict between Native Americans and the United States Army at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. The defeat of the General Custer’s 7th Cavalry by Native Americans on June 25, 1876 has become legendary. Many people know the story of Custer’s defeat, but few are aware of the role the Irish played in fighting the battle, and in creating the most famous painting of it.
One hundred and three Irish soldiers perished on that fateful day, and yet another Irishman, John Mulvany, realizing the popularity a canvas of the battle would create, painted his iconic “Custer’s Last Rally,” which remains today one of the most celebrated paintings of the American West.
In the 1870s, the hard and dangerous life of an American cavalry trooper was still the best option for many poor, newly arrived Irish immigrants. In 1875, Custer’s 7th Cavalry was full of Irish-born recruits when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the sacred ground to the Lakota. These soldiers must have known the danger they faced when the United States claimed the land and invaded it, despite treaties the American government had signed with the Lakota, guaranteeing them its ownership. The military’s armed incursion into the area led many Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen to leave their reservations, joining the rebel leaders, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, in Montana. By the spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans were camped along the Little Bighorn River – defying a War Department order to return to their reservations and setting the stage for the famous battle.
The charismatic General George Armstrong Custer and almost 600 troops of the 7th Cavalry rode into the Little Bighorn Valley, determined to attack the native encampments. Riding with Custer were over 100 Irishmen, ranging in rank from newly recruited troopers, many of whom could barely control their mounts, to Captain Myles Keogh, a heroic veteran of the Civil War from County Carlow. There were 15 Irish sergeants and three Irish corporals in Custer’s command, the backbone of his noncommissioned officers.
Today, we imagine Custer wearing his trademark buckskin jacket – it was sewn by an Irishman, Sergeant Jeremiah Finley from Tipperary, the regiment’s tailor. The song of the 7th Cavalry was another Irish influence. Just prior to Custer’s arrival in Fort Riley, Kansas, where he took command of the 7th Cavalry, Custer ran into an Irish trooper who, “under the influence of spirits,” was singing “Garryowen,” an Irish song. Custer loved the melody and began to hum the catchy tune to himself. Custer made it the official song of the 7th Cavalry and it was the last song played before Custer and his men separated from General Terry’s column at the Powder River and rode off into history.
John Mulvany, who is known for his paintings of the American West and in particular “Custer’s Last Rally,” also painted “The Battle of Aughrim,” in 1885, which was exhibited in Dublin in 2010. The battle, fought between the Jacobite and the Williamites forces in Aughrim, County Galway on July 12, 1699, it was one of the bloodiest battles in Ireland’s history, over 7,000 killed. The battle marked the end of Jacobitism in Ireland, a movement that aimed to restore the Roman Catholic Stuart King James II of England and Ireland (as James VII in Scotland) to the throne
Before the battle, the legendary Lakota chief Sitting Bull had a vision in which he saw many soldiers, “as thick as grasshoppers,” falling upside down into the Lakota camp, which his people saw as a foreshadowing of a major victory in which a large number of soldiers would be killed. Custer, however, blinded by ego and visions of glory, made a reckless decision to attack the huge gathering of Native Americans head on, saying, ironically, “Boys, hold your horses, there are plenty down there for us all.”
Foolishly splitting his command into three units, Custer tried in vain to attack and envelop the largest concentration of Native American fighters ever to face the American Army. The first assault against the Native American encampment was launched shortly after noon by three companies – 140 officers and men – led by Major Marcus Reno, whose men attacked along the valley floor towards the far end of the camp. Thrown back with many casualties, the survivors scrambled meekly for their lives to the top of a hill. Custer, with five companies totaling more than 200 men, advanced along the ridgeline, commanding the river valley on its eastern side. He further divided this force into two groups, one of them led by Captain Keogh.
There is debate about what occurred when Custer engaged the Native American forces just after 3 p.m. because the General and all his men were killed, so no one from Custer’s command could tell their tragic tale. Archaeological evidence suggests that Keogh and his men fought bravely, being killed while trying to reach Custer’s final position after the right wing collapsed.
On June 27, 1876, members of Gen. Terry’s column reached the Little Bighorn battlefield and began identifying bodies. Keogh was found with a small group of his men and his was one of the few bodies that had not been mutilated, apparently owing to a papal or religious medal that he wore about his neck (Keogh had once served in the in the Battalion of St. Patrick, Papal Army). Although Captain Keogh did not survive the battle, his horse, Comanche, did. The horse, spared by the Native American fighters for its heroism, recovered from its serious wounds and was falsely honored as the lone survivor of the battle (many other U.S. Army horses also survived). Comanche was retired with honors by the United States Army and lived on another 15 years. When Comanche died he was stuffed, and to this day remains in a glass case at the University of Kansas.
White Americans, shocked and angered by the defeat of Custer and his men, demanded retaliation. And they got it. Soon after, over 1,000 U.S. troops under the leadership of General Ranald Mackenzie opened fire on a sleeping village of Cheyenne, killing many in the first few minutes. They burned all the Cheyenne’s winter food and slit the throats of their horses. The survivors, half naked, faced an 11-day walk north to Crazy Horse’s camp of Oglalas.
The victory at Little Big Horn marked the beginning of the end of the Native Americans’ ability to resist the U.S. government, but 37-year-old John Mulvany from County Meath saw opportunity in the tragedy.
12 YEARS OLD IN THE USA
Mulvany arrived in America as a 12-year-old. He went to art school in New York City and became an assistant of famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. He later covered the Civil War as a sketch artist for a Chicago newspaper, developing an amazing ability to capture battlefields on canvas.
Mulvany knew that a painting of the fight would be a sensation. He visited the battlefield twice and also found Sitting Bull in Canada so that his painting could capture even minute details of the battle and its combatants. Mulvany finished the epic 11 ft. x 20 ft. canvas in 1881, which was hailed as a masterpiece, and began a 17-year tour of the United States. The canvas made Mulvany the toast of Chicago, but his good fortune would not last.
Mulvany eventually sold his painting and ended up destitute in Brooklyn, where he drowned in the East River in 1909 in what many labeled a suicide. Mulvany quickly became forgotten, but not the fame of his great canvas, which recently sold for $25 million. Mulvany painted many great works, but they are lost and there is a concerted effort to find these missing canvases. Perhaps we will soon find more works of this great, tragic Irish painter.
Michael Quill forever changed labor relations in the USA. The founder of the powerful union representing New York City’s bus and subway workers, Quill’s numerous achievements helped transform the lives of millions of workers by his setting national standards for equal pay for women and minorities, health benefits and paid medical leave. However, it was his leadership of the 1966 Transit Strike that made “Red Mike Quill” a celebrity, famous for defying the Mayor and a jail sentence, when Quill shut down public transportation in the nation’s largest city.
Born in 1905 into a humble, Gaelic-speaking family in rural Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, which was restive under British rule, Quill inherited his desire to fight for justice from his father. “My father,” recalled Quill, “knew where every fight against an eviction had taken place in all the parishes around.”
During the War of Independence, the fifteen-year-old Quill fought in the 3rd Battalion, Kerry No. 2 Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. On a solo scouting mission, Quill stumbled on a patrol of Black and Tans asleep in a ditch. Instead of fleeing, he quietly stole all their ammunition, gleefully returning home with his stolen loot.
During the war, Quill fought bravely and met almost all the top military leaders, providing him the rare opportunity of personally knowing many of Ireland’s most famous patriots. The war also started in Quill a lifelong animosity towards the Catholic Church. While on the run, Mike and his brother were gutted when their parish priest refused their request for temporary amnesty to attend their mother’s funeral.
Opposed to the Treaty creating the Free State with a partitioned British colony, Quill fought against Michael Collins’ National Army and in the conflict Kerry Republicans suffered greatly, especially at Ballyseedy, where 23 anti-Treaty fighters were murdered with dynamite by Free State soldiers. That fight’s unbelievable brutality and injustice never left Quill.
Being on the wrong side of the Treaty, Quill, unable to find work, left for America, arriving in New York the day before St. Patrick’s Day in 1926 with just $3.42 in his pocket. Through his uncle who was a subway conductor, Quill got a job on the Interborough Rapid Transit company (which ran the original subway system in New York), first as a night gateman, then as a clerk or “ticket chopper”. The IRT quickly employed many of Quill’s comrades who were also ex- anti-Treaty fighters. Moving from station to station, Quill got to know many IRT employees. He learned they craved dignity and wanted to be treated like human beings, but Quill knew this meant fighting. He said, “You will get only what you are strong enough to take. You will have to fight for your rights—they will never be given to you. And you cannot win if you fight alone.”
While working night shifts, Quill, who had only attended national school, used dead time to read labor history, especially the works of James Connolly. To fight the low pay, terrible working conditions and long hours of I.R.T workers, Quinn used Connolly, the leader of the Transport Workers Union in Dublin, executed by the British for his role in the 1916 Rising, as his inspiration, and Connolly’s ideas guided Quill throughout his life. Like Connolly, Quill believed that economic power precedes political power, and that the only effective means of satisfying the workers’ demands is the creation of an independent labor party, which creates and supports strong unions. He would honor Connolly by also calling his American union the Transportation Workers Union and years later, as president of the TWU, Quill only had two pictures on his office wall, Abraham Lincoln and James Connolly.
In his union-organizing activities, Quill got the cold shoulder from many established Irish-American organizations. “When we first started to organize the union, we asked for help from the Knight of Columbus and the Ancient Order of Hibernians”, he said. “We were booed and booted out. The Irish organizations did nothing for us, and the Church campaigned actively against us.”
Rejected by mainstream Irish Americans, Quill was embraced by the American Communist Party, which helped him obtain the money, the mimeograph machines and the manpower to launch the Transport Workers Union. Quill, though, merely used the Communists, while knowing he wanted no part of them. When they thought he should attend “Workers School” for indoctrination, Quill told them he needed no indoctrination and soon left the party.
Fearing anti-union informers, Quill organized the TWU, using the methods of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret Fenian society dedicated to a violent rising against British rule. Employing cells of five so that no man knew the names of more than four other workers in the organization, messages were also sent in half-Gaelic and half-English to confuse company spies, known as “beakies.” One night, the “beakies” attacked Quill and five other activists in a tunnel as they were returning from picketing the IRT’s offices. Falsely arrested over the incident for incitement to riot, Quill gained huge notoriety amongst his fellow workers and the charges were eventually dismissed. On April 12, 1934, fighting back against 12 hour days, six days a week, at 66 cents an hour, Quill and six other men formed the T.W.U.
Quill soon became union President and succeeded in getting his union into the American Federation of Labor. He then began unionizing the other transportation companies of New York. In January 1937, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Coorporation dismissed two boiler room engineers from their power plant in Brooklyn for their union activity. Quill immediately called a successful sit-down strike and the BMT had to reinstate the men, which further raised Quill’s standing amongst the rank and file.
At a time in American history when bigotry and discrimination were commonplace, Quill became famous for fighting prejudice. An ardent opponent of the pro-Fascist Fr. Coughlin, Quill said, “Anti-Semitism is not the problem of the Jewish people alone. It is an American problem, a number one American problem.” He also fought for African Americans against the prejudice of many in his own union. He explained, “The bosses hired you and the same bosses hired the blacks. You are on one payroll; you come to work and leave through the same gate; you punch the same time clock. Unless there is one union to protect all of you, the employer will train these men and use them to displace you—at half your wages.”
Quill became an early ally of Martin Luther King who referred to Quill as “a fighter for decent things all his life” who “spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man.” Quill once asked, “Do you know what I’m most proud of? That in TWU we have eliminated racial discrimination in hiring and in promotions and within the union’s ranks. Blacks, Hispanics, Orientals, American Indians and women are holding appointive and elective office.”
STRIKE AND JAIL
Perhaps Quill’s finest hour was during the Transit Strike of 1966. Newly-elected patrician Mayor john Lindsay wanted to get tough with Quill and the TWU. Journalist Jimmy Breslin summarized the conflict succinctly: “…[Lindsay] was talking down to old Mike Quill, and when Quill looked up at John Lindsay he saw the Church of England. Within an hour, we had one hell of a transit strike.”
Quill attacked the Mayor just as if he were a British soldier, chiding Lindsay for his “abysmal lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of labor relations.” He castigated Lindsay as “a pipsqueak, a juvenile” and jested: “We explored his mind yesterday and found nothing there.” To add insult to injury Quill intentionally repeatedly mispronounced the mayor’s name as “Linsley,” proving that even in the heat of battle Quill never lost his sense of humor.
Then Lindsay made a fatal mistake, jailing Quill, who defiantly said, “The judge can drop dead in his black robes!” While in prison, Quill suffered another heart attack and was sent to the worst of city hospitals. The only person who called Mrs. Quill asking if he could help was Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. No other politician inquired about the stricken Quill. While Quill was in the hospital a deal was reached granting the TWU a 15% wage increase along with improvements in the health, welfare and pension systems. In all, it was a great victory. The strike over, he was released from police custody, but just three days later Quill died at age sixty with many claiming that the stress of the strike led to his premature passing.
Mike Quill left an enduring legacy. Today the Transport Workers Union is composed of an estimated 60 percent minorities and Quill is still revered within it. He had an inclusive vision of labor, which minority workers respected, strengthening the movement. Pete Seeger dedicated a ballad to Quill and producers Macdara Vallely and Paul Miller have made a biographical film about Quill entitled Which side are you on?
POSTSCRIPT: Mike Quill and Vice-Admiral Nelson
In the Dublin City Centre, in the middle of its main street, is a curious steel erection which most people call “The Spire”. But from 1809 until 1966, something else stood there: a granite column with the English naval hero Nelson atop it, very much in the style of the one that stands in London’s Trafalgar Square today.
About 50 metres away from what was colloquially called “The Pillar” stands the General Post Office building, which operated as the command HQ of the 1916 Easter Rising and is therefore a traditional gathering place for State and other commemorations of the Rising.
As the 50th Anniversary of the Rising drew near, Mike Quill contacted Dublin City Council and offered to have the statue removed for free and replaced with a more suitable monument. Quill’s first choice was a statue of Jim Larkin, who led his and Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union in resisting the 8-month Dublin Lockout – the tram crews had walked off their vehicles once they reached the Pillar and Dublin Metropolitan Police had run riot against the people in O’Connell Street shortly afterwards on Bloody Sunday 1913. But Quill offered the Council other options too. A private trust and not Dublin City Council owned Nelson’s Column, he was informed and there the matter rested. Until, on 8th March 1966, the Pillar was blown up by Saor Éire, a socialist split from the Irish Republican Movement, in advance of the 50th Anniversary commemorations.
(Article originally published 2017 in New York Irish History, journal of the New York Irish History Roundtable, abbreviated slightly and reprinted here with kind permission of the author)
In her article, “Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly: A Forgotten Feminist,” Wendy McElroy summarizes the paradoxes in Dr. Kelly’s worldview that make her a complex, seemingly contradictory figure: A labor radical who was deeply skeptical of unions, a medical doctor who opposed state licensing of medicine, a staunch anti-statist who broke with the most prominent individualist anarchists of her day, an ardent feminist who denied that there were “women’s rights” as distinct from “human rights.” (McElroy, “Gertrude B. Kelly”)
Kelly’s seemingly paradoxical and contradictory juxtapositions come into focus, though, in the light of her Irish birth and anarchist beliefs. Individual anarchists, like Kelly, were a group of anti-authoritarian radicals who regarded total individual autonomy and free labor as the answer to the social and economic problems of the day. Kelly believed that overthrowing power structures and maximizing individual autonomy and responsibility would create a truly free society, which would evolve organically once society had liquidated the oppressive state. Because individualist anarchists regarded labor as the source of value and exchanges of unequal values to be exploitative, they may be regarded as a part of the broader socialist movement. Kelly’s views not only were highly uncommon and radical, but they also placed her in direct conflict with the establishment: the church, the state, and the capitalist order.
Shaping Kelly’s perspectives was that in her eyes, Ireland was victim of both capitalism and the British state.
Although she left Ireland at age eleven, the experiences and opinions of her parents profoundly shaped Kelly’s perspectives. She was born into a family of Irish nationalist educators in 1862 in Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary (Co. Waterford identifies Kelly as being born in the same year but in Ballyneale, across the border from Tipperary). Her father was a schoolmaster apparently forced out of his job for his Fenian sympathies. He left Ireland in 1868, five years before Gertrude would join him in New Jersey in 1873. He would become a high school principal, but he and the whole family remained passionately devoted to Irish affairs. Her older brother, John, played a huge role in shaping her anarchist worldview.
Kelly was one of twelve children, but little is known about any of her other siblings except for John who had a profound influence on her attitudes towards Ireland and anarchism. John graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken and went on to earn a Ph.D at age twenty-two in electrical engineering. An assistant for a time to Thomas Edison, Kelly became one of the world’s foremost experts in using dynamos to transmit telephone signals. During Kelly’s lifetime he held over seventy electrical related patents and pioneered high voltage electricity generating and transmission systems.
However, he was not just a man of science; he was also devoted to Ireland and used his considerable wealth generously to advance the cause of Irish freedom. In the 1880s, he wrote articles for individualist anarchist publications including Liberty, Alarm, and Lucifer, which must have greatly influenced his sister. John Kelly spent the last years of his life supporting Irish causes, working closely with his sister. From 1916–18, he served as the president of the Massachusetts State Council for Friends of Irish Freedom. From 1920–21, he wrote a third of the Irish World’s anonymous political commentaries, and in 1921, from July to December, he and his young sister agitated for a nationwide boycott of British goods.
Despite being in America, Kelly still remained keenly interested in events within Ireland. Although she was busy with her medical studies she followed Ireland from articles in the Irish World, published in New York, and the Boston Pilot. Both newspapers featured several stories on the failure of the Irish Land Act of 1870 to improve the lot of tenant farmers, the formation of the Irish Land League in 1879, the subsequent Land Wars, the No-Rent movement, and the indiscriminate evictions of Irish tenant farmers from their land by agents of absentee English landlords. These stories cemented Kelly’s rejection of British imperialism and private ownership of land.
In 1879, John Devoy of Clan na Gael in the United States forged a broad-based coalition called the “New Departure,” with Michael Davitt of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Charles Stewart Parnell of the Home Rule League to create a joint front that united believers in physical force, agrarian agitation, and constitutional nationalism to aid the suffering Irish tenant farmer and demand Irish Home Rule from England. Parnell and Davitt were also members of the Irish National Land League. In support of that initiative Fanny and Anna Parnell founded the Ladies Land League in America in 1880 with branches in Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, and Patterson.
Young Gertrude Kelly became an active member of the League and a vocal supporter of a No-Rent Manifesto published by the National Land League in 1881. Kelly’s understanding of individualistic anarchist philosophy was strengthened by the columns of “Honorius” in the Irish World, an organ of the Irish No-Rent movement. Honorius was, in fact, a pseudonym for the American natural rights advocate Henry Appleton, who contributed frequently to the early issues of Liberty, both under his own name and under the pen name of “X.”(McElroy, “Gertude B. Kelly”)
PROLIFIC WRITER AND FEMINIST
Anger at how British imperialist government had subverted its proper role in Ireland shaped Kelly’s anti-authoritarian worldview. Kelly was not only a dedicated Irish-Nationalist, but she was also a prolific writer and insightful social and political commentator. In articles published in the individualist periodical Liberty and the Irish World she expressed her indignation and abhorrence at the lack of fairness empathy or sense of humanity inherent in the attitude of the ruling elite towards the poor of Ireland. She contributed a number of other well-received articles for Liberty whose founder and editor, Benjamin Tucker, said of her “Gertrude B. Kelly…by her articles in Liberty, has placed herself at a single bound among the finest writers of this or any other country.” (McElroy, “Gertrude B. Kelly”).
Kelly, however, would later break with Tucker and cease writing for Liberty, a sign of her fiery independence. Kelly was more than a mere analyst of Irish anti-imperialism. She was also an avant garde feminist who understood the struggles that women faced, especially poor women, with whom the doctor had a lifelong affinity and her articles for Liberty reflect a keen understanding of the special problems females faced. In one of her articles for Liberty she developed a highly controversial argument about prostitution. Instead of seeing prostitutes as “fallen women,” Kelly saw them as economic victims. Her first article in Liberty, “The Root of Prostitution,” claimed that women’s inability to earn enough money through respectable forms of labor was the root cause of sex work. She wrote: “We find all sorts of schemes for making men moral and women religious, but no scheme which proposes to give woman the fruits of her labor. In her writing, she railed against men forcing women to conform to paternalistic codes of behavior. Men…have always denied to women the opportunity to think; and, if some women have had courage enough to dare public opinion, and insist upon thinking for themselves, they have been so beaten by that most powerful weapon in society’s arsenal, ridicule, that it has effectively prevented the great majority from making any attempt to come out of slavery.” (McElroy,“Gertrude B. Kelly”)
Despite Kelly’s sincere feminism, she could make the following statement that must have alienated her from many of the leading feminists of her day: “There is, properly speaking, no woman question, as apart from the question of human right and human liberty.” She added: “The woman’s cause is man’s— they rise or sink/Together—dwarfed or godlike-bond or free.” She saw women’s struggles in the wider context of humanity’s struggle against all forms of coercion. Women would gain their deserved social status only when all of society had also liberated itself. Kelly also became a militant suffragette, believing that women with the power to vote could solve many of the issues they faced. (McElroy, “Gertrude B. Kelly”).
In Kelly’s eyes both women and men were in fact the victims of a coercive capitalist society. Radical individualists of nineteenth-century America, like Kelly, saw capitalism as the root cause of poverty and social injustice. Kelly subscribed to the labor theory of value espoused by the anarchist individualist theoretician Josiah Warren who posited that capitalists stole the fruits of labor by underpaying the worker for his or her efforts. She also accepted the popular radical belief that capitalism was an alliance between business and government, in which the state guaranteed the rich their privileged position. Kelly considered all forms of capitalism to be what individualist anarchists called “state capitalism.”
In Irish-America, where so many fellow immigrants had climbed the ladder by joining the civil service, her anti-government stance was especially incendiary.
KELLY’S WORK AS A DOCTOR
Kelly’s becoming a physician is an extraordinary story in itself. She became one of the very few women to study medicine and become a doctor thanks to two English sisters, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell who set up the first school to grant women licenses to practice medicine, the Women’s Medical College of New York. Kelly graduated from Blackwell’s school in 1884 with an M.D. degree and became an accomplished surgeon.
If Kelly is recalled today in New York City, it is not for her important role in agitating for Ireland, but in helping the city’s poor through her work as a doctor. Although she campaigned for many deserving causes during her lifetime, her primary focus was on treating the downtrodden and poor working women and their families in the clinics she worked in. She set up such a clinic in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood where she became legendary for surreptitiously leaving cash under her dinner plate when she made house calls at the homes of impoverished patients. Kelly was also a renowned surgeon who, in addition to her work at the clinic, was a member of the surgical staff at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the institution where she had received training. During her medical career she authored and co-authored papers on abdominal surgical procedures and other medical and health care-related issues.
KELLY AND THE RISING
Kelly would play an oversized role in the events before and after the 1916 Easter Rising. In 1901, John Redmond, who assumed leadership of the reunited Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), established the United Irish League of America to raise funds for the IPP and promote its Home Rule agenda in the United States. Dr. Kelly supported the United Irish League, even though its acceptance of continued British sovereignty over Ireland disturbed her. In accepting home rule, she reasoned that it could serve as an intermediary step before launching a nonviolent, anti-British, grassroots campaign that would lead to an independent Irish Republic.
In October of 1914, Kelly issued a call to “women of Irish blood” to join the first chapter of Cumann na mBan formed in the United States. Hundreds of women met at the Hotel McAlpin, where Kelly, Mary Colum, and Sidney Gifford, a recently arrived émigré from Dublin outlined the aims of the organization. Their chapter would follow the lead of Cumann na mBan in Ireland by raising funds and garnering support for the Irish Volunteers formed in 1913 in response to the formation of the anti-independence Ulster Volunteer Force the previous year. The declared aim of the Irish Volunteers was “to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland.” (“Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly” in Feniangraves.net). Chosen as president of the organization, Kelly helped set-up other branches and arranged for speakers from Ireland to address its members, conduct lecture tours and help in fundraising efforts.
When Redmond in a speech called on young Irishmen to enlist and fight in the British Army, it was too much for the anti-imperialist Kelly, who issued the following statement: “May I, as a woman, an Irishwoman and physician, spokeswoman of hundred, thousands of my sisters at home and abroad ask our leaders what it is they propose to Ireland to do—commit suicide? Admitting for the moment that this is “a most righteous war” not—”a war of iron and coal”—a war between titans for commercial supremacy— why should little Ireland have to do what the United States, Switzerland, etc., do not. Is Home Rule to be secured for the cattle and sheep when the young men of Ireland are slaughtered, the old men and old women left sonless, the young women obliged to emigrate to bring up sons for men of other climes.” (“Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly” in Feniangraves.net)
After the Easter Rising, Cumann na mBan’s fundraising efforts were redirected to the support of the thousands of families of imprisoned Volunteers. Kelly and other Irish women activists including Margaret Moore, a Land League veteran and labor leader Lenora O’Reilly led the highly successful fundraising campaign.
In 1917, America entered World War I on the side of the British. President Wilson threatened members of any organizations that protested against the British Empire with jail sentences. Nevertheless, in the same year Dr. Kelly was part of a group that formed the Irish Progressive Party, whose aim was to lobby the government in Washington to protest British imperialism and recognize the Irish Republic.
In 1920, Dr. Kelly would perform her greatest services to Irish freedom. She understood that women could take bold actions, such as in public protests, that would capture popular attention and focus the American public on the continued presence of Britain in Ireland, which violated one of the Fourteen Points identified by Wilson in 1918 as necessary for world peace—self-determination for small nations. The first official meeting of the activist group, American Women Pickets for the Enforcement of America’s War Aims, was held in New York on April 20, 1920, organized by Gertrude Kelly.
With Irish men in America mired in fighting one another, this women’s movement grabbed headlines through a succession of highly effective public acts, some of which created chain reactions across the eastern seaboard of the United States. In September, 1920, Kelly was one of the organizers of a female blockade of the British Embassy in Washington as response to their actions in Ireland. Kelly was arrested for her part in the agitation.
In December, 1920, the women pickets and the Irish Progressive League organized a strike at a Chelsea pier in Manhattan to protest the arrests of Irish-born Australian Archbishop Daniel Mannix, an outspoken foe of British rule in Ireland, and Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, who was on hunger strike and near death. Kelly, Leonora O’Reilly, Hannah SheehySkeffington, and Eileen Curran of the Celtic Players assembled a group of women who dressed in white with green capes and carried signs that read: “There Can Be No Peace While British Militarism Rules the World.”(“Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly” in Feniangraves.net)
The strike which, lasted three and a half weeks, was directed at British ships docked in New York. Striking workers included not only Irish longshoremen but also, Italian coal passers, AfricanAmerican longshoremen, and workers on a docked British passenger liner. According to a New York Sun report it was “…the first purely political strike of workingmen in the history of the United States. The strike became famous and spread to Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Boston. When reporters asked who exactly was behind these protests, Dr. Kelly responded “American women.” (“Gertrude B. Kelly” in Irish Echo).
By the end of 1920, many thought the only prospect for an independent Ireland was an acceptance of partition. Dr. Kelly was a fiery opponent of division and expressed her views on Ireland being divided: “The thing itself is absolutely unthinkable. We have always been slaves, but unwilling slaves. Now we are subscribing to our slavery. I cannot believe that the Irish people will do this. The whole thing is a fake from start to finish. Summed up I would say that after 750 years we have given England moral standing in the world when she has none: it’s a tremendous defeat.” (“Gertrude B. Kelly” in Feniangraves.net)
Nevertheless, partition did take place, much to Kelly’s dismay. Bitterly disappointed, she continued her work treating the poor of the city. In the first quarter of the twentieth century she was on the “must meet” list of every Irish political and literary figure who came to the United States.
Kelly passed away on February 16, 1934. The poor of Chelsea mourned her and remembered her acts of kindness. In 1936, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia named the Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly Playground located in Chelsea west of Ninth Avenue between Sixteenth and Seventeeth Streets in her honor. It was one of five model playgrounds developed in New York City during the mid-1930s. (“Gertrude B. Kelly Playground” in NYCgovparks.org)
The playground is perhaps the only public tribute to a woman who made an outsized contribution to Irish independence and to the City of New York. Perhaps in the future Dr. Kelly will garner more.
The original article in full may be found here, including also a list of sources: nyih32.CobbG_pdf2%20(3)%20(1).pdf
AN GORTA MÓR COMMEMORATED IN SLIGO, DUBLIN AND CELTIC PARK
(Reading time of article text: 5 minutes)
A small crowd gathered at the Garden of Remembrance, Dublin on Sunday afternoon to commemorate the Great Hunger, an Gorta Mór on National Famine Day. Led by a lone piper, they marched through O’Connell St., the city’s main street, some of them in period costume, to the Great Hunger Memorial on the Custom House Quay, North Dock and later on to the iconic sailing ship, the Jeannie Johnson.
With some adults and children dressed in period clothes, some of them tattered to represent the destitution of the starving poor, they marched down O’Connell Street led by the lone piper and turned left at the Bridge, proceeding along to Custom Quay’s North Dock and the Great Hunger memorial. There they were addressed by Michael Blanch of the organising committee and by Niall Ring, Lord Mayor (coming to the end of his year in that role), who had accompanied them from the Garden of Remembrance.
Some sentences in Irish were spoken by the MC of the event and by the Lord Mayor, while Michael Blanch referenced the deadly impact the Great Hunger had on the Irish language (i.e with the depopulation of the main Irish-speaking areas of the western seaboard). The Irish Tricolour came in for a mention in the Dublin commemoration also; it had been presented to William Smith O’Brien by women in Paris during the revolution there of 1848 and the Young Irelanders had staged their own uprising that year also, small and certainly too late, easily crushed by the British colonial forces. The huge Irish diaspora was also mostly a result of the Great Hunger and had contributed significantly to the formation and membership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, also known as the Fenians, founded simultaneously in 1858 on St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin and in New York. The IRB, in turn, had been the main driving force behind the 1916 Rising.
Tourists and other passers-by stopped to watch as wreaths were laid on on the statues of the monument and an Irish-language version of Amazing Grace was sung by a young girl in period costume. A currach (small traditional Irish sea-craft), containing a woman and two young girls in period costume and rowed by a man, pulled into place on the Liffey across from the group; one of the girls placed a wreath in a cardboard box into the river, to commemorate the Irish diaspora and those who had perished during their journeys. Participants then threw single red roses bouquets into the river also and floral wreaths were deposited around the statues of the 1977 memorial by sculptor Rowan Gillespie. And the piper played a lament, Hector the Hero.
The gathering moved on then to the sailing ship the Jeannie Johnson, to hear Evelyn Campbell sing her Famine Song and Diarmuid Breatnach sing Skibereen and Fields of Athenry. After that, some repaired to the Teachers’ Club, where tea, sandwiches, gur cake and biscuits were on offer. By coincidence, a Musical Society were relaxing there too and it was not long before songs from different parts of the world were being exchanged from different parts of the room.
THE CAMPAIGN FOR A NATIONAL IRISH FAMINE DAY
The Great Hunger is the preferred term in English by many for the terrible disaster that struck Ireland in the mid-19th Century, for people starved alongside what was for a while at least, an abundance of food.
For three successive years, a fungus-like oomycete infested the potato crop, staple diet of most of the population. AlthoughPhytophthora infestanshad attacked the potato crops on the European mainland and in Britain also, nowhere was the disaster of the dimensions it grew to in Ireland: nowhere else were the the majority of the population obliged to sustain themselves on the potato while yielding up every other edible product (except perhaps milk) to pay the landlord’s rent on land conquered from the ancestors of the starving, thousands of soldiers and police being on hand to ensure the hungry paid up. “The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight”, wrote Young Irelander journalist John Mitchell, “but the English created the Famine.”
Well over one million Irish starved or died of attendant diseases in less than five years during the reign of Queen Victoria, while ships left Irish ports laden with food and grain was fermented to make lucrative whiskey and beer. Another million emigrated and it is estimated that about one third of those also died – of drowning, of disease aboard ship or of the various dangers migrants faced. Five years after the potato crop failed, estimates put the population of Ireland at around six million, from the over 8 million of before. Over the next decade, another million would leave, paid to go, lied to go, forced to go, or gone out of desperation and loss of faith in any future in the country of their birth under foreign domination.
In 2008 it was agreed by the Irish Government that there would be a national Famine Day in the Irish calendar of national events and it would take place on the third Sunday in May. The State commemoration this year was held in Sligo, attended by Leo Varadkar (who was met by a protest of the Sligo Women’s Cervical Smear Action Group). The ceremony was covered in the RTÉ news which was shown on TV in the Teacher’s Club. Michael Blanch told those present that the campaign he and his wife had started in 2004 through the Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims, had resulted in this national event and that it was also being commemorated by the Glasgow Celtic team in the special jerseys they wore that day (in their Scottish Premiership win 2-1 against Hearts). The symbol is black and white which are the colours of the Commemoration and he had also wanted GAA teams playing on this day to wear it on their jerseys (the Munster Hurling Championship match between Limerick and Cork was also being shown that afternoon on the TV screen in the Teachers’ Club).
On the 5th August 1914 the Supreme Council of the IRB, one months after the British had declared war on Germany, decided in principle to instigate a rising for Irish independence.
On 5th August 1914, one month after the British had declared war, the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood decided in principle to lead a Rising. They envisaged, as many observers did too, that the War would not last long and arming and preparing for an insurrection would be difficult within that timeframe. The war continuing well beyond the at most expected period of a year, provided the IRB with the space to organise, plan, prepare – and also with an ally to arm them: Germany.
The split in the Irish Volunteers caused by Redmond’s speech at Woodenbridge, offering the Volunteers to British Imperialism for the war against German Imperialism and Turkey, left the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood in a position to take control of the remainder, those who declined to fight for Britain and determined instead to fight for Ireland’s independence.
Over a number of months Patrick Pearse became Director of Military Organisation, Bulmer Hobson Quartermaster General, Joseph Plunkett became Director of Military Operations, Éamonn Ceannt, Director of Communications, while Thomas MacDonagh became Director of Training.
The titular head of the Volunteers, the Gaelic scholar Eoin Mac Neil, and such founding figures as The O’Rahilly, while in prominent positions and refusing to follow Redmond, did not embody the same coherence and determination for insurrection as was embodied in the IRB.
That list above contains four of the later signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. Seán Mac Diarmada and Thomas Clarke are missing but, though central figures in the reorganisation of the IRB over preceding years, that is not surprising: the older Fenian, veteran of 15 years in British jail in conditions which, it is said, sent one third of his comrades insane and another third to early graves, preferred to work in the shadows. No doubt he had instructed his student and energetic organiser, Mac Diarmada, to do likewise in so far as possible. However, they too joined the expanded Military Council in late 1915.
The fifth of the Proclamation Signatories missing is James Connolly, who in August 1914 was recovering and rebuilding the Irish Transport & General Workers union,months after the end of their exhausting 8-month struggle against the Dublin employers. But he was horrified by the imperialist war and the pitting of workers against one another, divided by the ruling classes of their respective locations, uniforms of different colours concealing their common interests. Connolly wanted a rising – not just for independence but also against the coming butchery of War. The reorganisation of the Irish Citizen Army, the worker’s defence militia, began to engage Connolly’s energies but he was only sworn into the IRB in January 1916, three months before the Rising.
So many different threads in Irish life – cultural, political, class and nation – had been coming together, to weave a tapestry that would be read in different ways over decades but would still have powerful images, colours and words to move women and men over a century later.
To discuss a thriller-writer who was in jail in the USA for one of the largest payroll heists in US history and who before that was in the H Blocks, an incarcerated IRA Volunteer, is to have most people thinking one is writing about a fictional character – but I’m not. The man exists and his name is Sam Millar.
Millar has a number of novels and a memoir to his credit, all the most recent published by the O’Brien Press. Some of them are detective novels, centred around Karl Kane, a tough private investigator, back-talking cops and gangsters alike. Yes, we’re familiar with the type, from Chandler’ Philip Marlowe to Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Hammet’s Sam Spade or Towne’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown (1974). But if we’ve liked his type in print or film before, them then we tend to like him again. To be truthful, Kane is a bit different: I can’t recall or even imagine any of the others ever opening their front door dressed only in their lover’s short pink dressing gown and falling on their arse, accidentally flashing their tackle at passing schoolgirls. And Kane’s health problems are perhaps more reminiscent of some of the Scandinavian fictional police detective heroes (and heroines) than his fast riposting counterparts in the USA-based stories.
The dialogue and commentary in the Karl Kane novels is good with some very funny lines, his plots interesting and he keeps the story moving along at a good pace, with a few twists along the way. Kane, like Marlowe has a conscience pushing through his hard exterior and though he’s tough he tends not to invite more slaps after the first few. And not every thread in the story is tidily tied up at the end of the book.
The dialogue is not so slick in some of his other novels (one set in the USA) but the conjuring of the ill-boding atmosphere is well done, as is the description of the thinking in the adolescent characters’ minds.
Belfast is where his writing is centred now:
“I have deliberately used (Belfast) as a backdrop for all my crime noir novels for a number of reasons”, he was quoted as saying in a Crime Review author profile “- mainly because I know it so well, but chiefly to bring the imaginary one-dimensional Belfast of badly written novels into the modern era.”
His stories are dark (which is part of the meaning of “noir”) but generally not without humour or redemption, at least for some of the characters. The Police Service of Northern Ireland are not presented as shining good guys and in that Millar fits in with the general attitude to the enforcers of law and order in the detective noir stories: the cast of cops usually includes the downright nasty (and often corrupt), the in-between and the good guy – the latter being the cop who feeds the private investigator information or warns him of trouble coming his way from the cop’s superiors. For the genre and for Millar’s stories it works, providing one doesn’t step back too much to think about the sectarian and often murderous RUC now transformed by name into the PSNI.
However, Millar doesn’t try and paint a rosy picture of a post-Good Friday Agreement society and has been quite open about his own views: “I hate bursting people’s bubbles, everybody wants to believe something like a fairytale has happened over here but it hasn’t”, he said in a 2014 interview with David Henessy in the Irish in Britain weekly The Irish World.
“It’s changed superficially but for working-class Protestants and working-class Catholics it hasn’t changed. There’s still a lot of people out of work, a lot of poverty and it seems the politicians are the only ones who seem to benefit out of this Good Friday Agreement which has been a terrible let down, to be honest with you, especially in nationalist communities.
“But for myself being a writer, of course, I have been able to move away and I felt guilty. You don’t want to turn your back on your neighbourhood but at the same time, I’ve young children. I want them to have a better life…”
SELLING WELL ABROAD
A number of Millar’s books have been translated and sold well in France (where he was won a number of literary awards), Italy, Germany and Poland and some as far as Turkey and Bulgaria. He is not without Irish awards either: the prestigious Aisling Award for Art and Culture; Martin Healy Short Story Award; Brian Moore Award and Cork Literary Review Award, et al.
“I could probably sell more books in Ireland if I kept my mouth shut about what I thought,” Millar commented more recently. Perhaps he’s right. I find it hard to believe I never heard about him until picking out a book by chance in the library, saw it was about a PI working in Belfast and with a sigh, felt obligated to read it. But without any great expectations, having come across some novels allegedly about the Six Counties that seemed to be about somewhere else in the world but also bearing Ulster place and family names. I was glad I chose it and am now working my way through his other published works.
Asking some Dublin Republicans about Millar and his writing, I was again surprised that they had not heard of him, particularly since they would share his view of the Six Counties today.
IRA VOLUNTEER AND HEIST
Millar was brought up a Catholic in Belfast (but with a Protestant grandfather), became politically active and went to jail in 1973, “the first nationalist put away under the Diplock court system. That’s a forgotten historical footnote, except for me”, he says. Released in 1975, his days of freedom were short, like many another in those days and a year later he was back inside after being caught with explosives in Belfast city centre. He joined the blanket protest against the British policy of criminalisation of Republican prisoners.
Released from the H-Blocks in 1982, he got acquainted with Bernadette, now his wife, whom he had known as a child, a few streets away from his family‘s home.
Moving to the USA, in 1993 Millar got involved in the New York Brinks Armoured Car Depot robbery, “the biggest in US history” (in which no-one was killed), for which he got caught a year later and served six years in a penitentiary, to be released by Clinton. Millar wrote about the heist in On the Brinks (2003) and apparently investigators believe that though Millar masterminded the robbery, he fictionalised some of the details in order to protect some accomplices.
Warner Bros. bought the rights to the book for a screenplay before backing out of making the film and a long “and draining” legal battle followed as Millar fought to win back the rights, so as to have some other company make the film.
THRILLER WRITER AND REVIEWER
Writing for the New York Journal of Books, Millar said he had “reviewed tons of books”, in reply to an accusation by Armagh author Stuart Neville that he had indulged in “sock puppeting”, i.e using fake identities to rate his own work highly and do down some others, including Neville’s.
“If you look at my books reviewed by people on Amazon,” said Millar to Nuala McCann for BBC News in September 2012, “you will see one stars and two stars, some by writers. I have never asked Amazon to remove them, nor complained on line about them.
“Ironically, the only book I’ve ever read by Mister Neville I reviewed for the influential website New York Journal of Books,” he added.
“I think if you read it, it wasn’t too bad a review. I get lousy reviews sometimes myself, but take it on the chin. I’ve reviewed ‘tons’ of fiction/crime books for writers, and never given a negative review of any of them.
“If I don’t like a book (after a few chapters) I will not review it, as I do not like to give bad reviews to fellow writers, as I know how difficult enough it is without adding grief.”
Sam Millar has another anti-hero novel (not Kane) novel due out in June, The Bespoke Hitman, as part of a three-book deal with O’Brien. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Dark Souls (April 2003)
The Redemption Factory (July 2005)
The Darkness of Bones (2006)
Bloodstorm: A Karl Kane Book (2008)
The Dark Place: A Karl Kane Book (2009)
The Dead of Winter: A Karl Kane Book (2012)
Brothers In Arms (Stage play 2012)
Black’s Creek [originally Small Town Killing] (2014)
On The Brinks, O’Brien Press (April, 2014) [but originally by Wynkin de Worde (Sep. 2003) then bought by Millar’s present publisher, The O’Brien Press]
The play about the Irish miners in Pennsylvania and their exploitation and the secret society they formed to resist, written by US-Irishman John Kearns and directed by Dara Carolan, received its Irish premiere tonight/ last night (Wednesday) in Liberty Hall.
In the Pennsylvania coalmines of the 1870s, Irish miners resisted their exploitation as workers and the racism they experienced as Irish Catholics to form a trade union. But when their efforts seem to avail them little, drawing on their Irish experience of peasant resistance societies fighting landlords and their agents, some went on to form a secret society: the Sons of Molly Maguire, also known as the “Mollies”.
They suffered unsafe conditions (one fall in a mine with only one exit trapped and killed 110 miners), high prices in the company store and felt they were being cheated even on the agreed wages. Eventually miners began to carry out retribution on informers and on mine-owners’ agents and their property.It seems the “Mollies” used the Ancient Order of Hibernians as a cover but that may also have been political and racial propaganda against them.
The mine-owners engaged the Pinkerton Detective Agency who inserted one of their agents, a CatholicUlsterman called McPartland, among the miners and he gave information on the men leading to their arrest and then gave evidence against them in court.
As the Irish Echo review in the US stated: The play employs an “… effective blending of pageant, mime, kitchen sink realism, and even flights of poetry”. It also has some moments of high drama. An interesting feature from a US playwright is the use of appropriate Irish language phrases at times, reminding us that an Ghaeilge would have been the mother language of many of those migrant Irish while nearly all would have had at least a nodding acquaintance with it.
One phrase used a number of times was “Ní thuigeann an sách an seang” of which I had no previous recollection. Looking it up, I noted a number of meanings, of which the prevalent was along the lines ofthe equivalent in English of “No one knows where the shoe pinches, but he who wears it.” But a deeper examination which I found on another site (see link) gives a darker interpretation, which seems more in line with the play: “It is about more than a misunderstanding by the corpulent of the cadaverous. One variant is, “Ní thuigeann an sách an seang, nuair a bhíonn a bholg féin teann.” This literally means, the well-fed one does not understand the slender one, when his stomach is usually taut. In other words, the well-fed do not understand hunger.
“Another variant is, “Ní mhothaíonn an sách an seang.” The verb ‘mothaigh’ can be translated as either ‘feel’ or ‘hear.’ Use either English transitive verb and it suggests that the satiated simply do not care about the starved.”
There is certainly a wealth of meaning to be found in many of the pithy phrases in the Irish language.
Twenty “Mollies” were hanged (including at least some innocent men) between 1877 and 1879 and this is sometimes said to be the largest known mass hanging of any specific group in the USA – it was not. Nor was the hanging of ten “Mollies” on the 21st June 1877 the largest hanging of one group in one day. The dubious honour for most men hanged of any group and on one day goes to the 38 Dakota Native Indians who were hanged on December 26, 1862. However, the Dakota were hanged by the US military and the “Mollies” were tried in civil courts, so the Mollies can claim the most judicially executed in the USA of one group as well as on one day.
The play employs an “… effective blending of pageant, mime, kitchen sink realism, and even flights of poetry” (the Irish Echo review in the US) and has some moments of high drama. It also employs appropriate Irish language phrases, reminding us that an Ghaeilge would have been the mother tongue of many of those migrant Irish while others would have had a nodding acquaintance with it.
One phrase used a number of times was “Ní thuigeann an sách an seang” of which I had no previous recollection. Looking it up, I noted a number of meanings, of which the prevalent was along the lines ofthe equivalent in English of “No one knows where the shoe pinches, but he who wears it.” But a deeper examination which I found on another site (see link) gives a darker interpretation, which seems more in line with the play: “It is about more than a misunderstanding by the corpulent of the cadaverous. One variant is, “Ní thuigeann an sách an seang, nuair a bhíonn a bholg féin teann.” This literally means, the well-fed one does not understand the slender one, when his stomach is usually taut. In other words, the well-fed do not understand hunger.
“Another variant is, “Ní mhothaíonn an sách an seang.” The verb ‘mothaigh’ can be translated as either ‘feel’ or ‘hear.’ Use either English transitive verb and it suggests that the satiated simply do not care about the starved.” There is certainly a wealth of meaning to be found summed up in pithy phrases in the Irish language.
Its showing in Liberty Hall was its first on an Irish stage for John Kearns‘ play “Sons of Molly Maguire” but it has previously been performed at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York. John Kearns is the Treasurer and Salon Producer for Irish American Writers and Artists. He is the author of the short-story collection, Dreams and Dull Realities and the novel, The World, along with plays including “In the Wilderness”and “In a Bucket of Blood”.
The play received an enthusiastic reception from the audience. Raging you missed it? Don’t worry – you can still catch it tomorrow/ today, that is Thursday 11th May as part of Mayfest at the Liberty Hall Theatre.
The 1916 Rising, to which Moore Street is so closely linked, represented some very important events for the people of the world and it impacted on people in all populated continents of the globe.
FOR DEMOCRACY, EQUALITY
The 1916 Proclamation, printed in Liberty Hall and signed in No.21 Henry Street, just around the corner from Moore Street, is a document not only of clear patriotic and anti-colonial expression but also a democratic and inclusive one. At a time when hardly a state anywhere in the world permitted women to vote in elections, the document specifically addressed “Irishmen and Irish women”. It also clearly expressed the wish of the insurgents to overcome the religious sectarianism which had played such an important part in securing continued colonial rule: “ … religious and civil liberty … oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”
The Rising had expressed the gender equality intentions of the insurgents in more than the words of its address: women fought in the Rising and, in two garrison areas, commanded for awhile. The British colonial authorities recognised the role of some of those women by sentencing one to death, albeit a sentence later commuted, and keeping a number of them in prison even after many men had been released.
FOR GENDER EQUALITY
Irish women organised for and acted in the Rising in two separate organisations: Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen Army.
The women founded as an auxiliary force to the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, later to assert considerable organisational independence, wore their own uniforms and had their own female officers. Women had participated in many insurrections and resistance movements across the world but no insurrectionary force in history ever before had such a consciously women-organised force.
The women in the Irish Citizen Army had formally equal status with men and a number carried arms in the Rising and fired them at the enemy. Men acted on orders from women officers in at least two garrison areas and, in medical matters, also in at least a third.
Such a situation was of great significance in the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality, not only in Ireland but in the world.
FOR WORKERS AND SOCIALISM
The Irish Citizen Army was founded in 1913 as a workers’ defence force by trade unionists and socialists and later as a workers’ army and, despite its strongly anti-colonial stance, until the 1916 Rising, maintained a strict separation from the nationalist republican organisations of the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan. As detailed earlier, it formally recognised women within the organisation as of equal status with men.
Workers’ organisations had existed before, including armed ones but nowhere had such an armed organisation existed outside of armed conflict for so long (1913-1916), led by socialists and with equal status for men and women. In the history of socialist organisation and particularly of a revolutionary and insurgent kind, this was a development of enormous importance.
The 1916 Rising took place in the middle of the first of two huge international conflicts that were later called World Wars. WW1 was a struggle for markets, resources and strategic positions and bases between a number of states ruled by capitalists and those states recruited heavily from among the nations they had colonised; in Britain’s case, that included Ireland.
To many nationalist Republicans, the War represented an opportunity, expressed in the maxim that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. But to many socialists around the world, the War represented a disastrous pitting of the working people under one Power against the working people of another, as well as an excuse for the suppression of demands to fulfill the needs of their workers while the capitalists gathered huge profits. James Connolly was one of those socialists.
Connolly, Edinburgh-born Irish revolutionary socialist, formerly Acting General Secretary of the Irish Transport & General Worker’s Union, had joined the International Workers of the Word, the hugely influential in the USA syndicalist organisation. As well as being an energetic organiser, Connolly was a historian and revolutionary theoretician. Connolly took to heart the resolution formally adopted by representatives of the vast majority of European socialists to oppose war and, should it come, to turn it into class war against their rulers. In the event, Connolly was one of the few European socialist leaders to live up to that resolution: as Commandant of the Irish Citizen Army, GPO Garrison commander in a rising against Ireland’s British colonial masters, James Connolly was also striking a blow against imperial and colonial war.
That aspect of the Rising, of being consciously or unconsciously against War, predated the February Russian Revolution of 1917, also in part an anti-war uprising, by ten months. And of course, predated the October Socialist Revolution in Russia by seventeen months and the nearest uprising geographically to Ireland, also in part an anti-war one, the German socialist uprising in November 1918, by two-and-a-half years. For all these reasons, the 1916 Rising, the Headquarters of which were in the GPO and later removed to Moore Street, was and remains of enormous significance in the world-wide history of people’s movements against war.
AGAINST COLONIALISM IN THE WORLD
The 1916 Rising reverberated around the world. It took place in what had a century earlier been widely regarded as the second city of the British Empire and, when it erupted, did so against the largest empire, in terms of directly-controlled areas and population numbers ruled, that the world has ever known. How can such an event be of other than huge interest, not only to other peoples under British colonial rule but also to those under the colonial rule of France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Spain, Russia and the United States? How could it not have been of considerable interest to socialist revolutionaries everywhere?
Socialists around the world discussed the Rising, at first often criticising it, while Lenin, of huge importance in the socialist movement at that time and some others commented favourably upon it. Consequently, the Rising and the War of Independence was to play an important part in the development of a revolutionary theory around the world that advocated the linking of the struggles of worker, peasant and small farmer, of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism with struggle for a socialist republic.
The Rising was a topic of great discussion in the United States and in Australia, and in the USA of financial and other support, as is well known. Connolly had been active there and had published his songbook in New York in 1910; Larkin was actually there in 1916. For a number of reasons, including the sentencing to death of Eamon Bulfin for his role in the GPO and in Moore Street, a sentence later commuted and Bulfin deported to Buenos Aires, the Rising was discussed in Argentina and in other Latin American countries (where, at that time, the British were the main imperialist power).
It was certainly discussed in the huge country of India (which at that time included what is now the states of Pakistan and Bangladesh), whose revolutionary nationalists had contact with Fenian revolutionaries from decades earlier. The Connaught Ranger mutiny in the British Army was a direct result of the Rising and the War of Independence and, before the mutiny was crushed, the soldiers and oppressed Indians had begun to make movement towards reciprocal solidarity. And we know, from history and the writings of Indian nationalists and socialists, that the Rising and the War of Independence which organically followed the Rising influenced the struggles against colonialism and imperialism in India right up to the Second World War. We are also aware of correspondence between the Nehru and Ghandi families and the McSwineys.
We know also that the War of Independence influenced African uprisings and Ho Chi Minh, later leader of successful wars against Japanese invasion and French colonialism. In South Africa, the Rising must have been a subject of discussion too, at least among the whites. John McBride, sentenced to death ostensibly for his role in Rising was probably in reality being shot for having organised and led an Irish Brigade to fight the British in the Second Boer War, which had ended but fourteen years earlier.
In Britain itself, the Rising influenced the huge Irish diaspora in England, Scotland and Wales and a significant proportion of the insurgent forces in Dublin had actually come from there. The Rising and especially the War of Independence caused a crises of a kind in British socialist thinking, threatening an irrevocable rupture between revolutionary socialists and even sections of radical social democrats on the one hand and pro-imperial social democracy on the other.
This is not the place to discuss this further but that situation, allied to anti-colonial struggles around the world, huge dissatisfaction and mutinies in the British armed forces and a growing strike movement in Britain, provided great opportunities for an Irish revolutionary movement to influence the history of the world in a direction other than that which it has taken.
For all the reasons outlined above, the Moore Street quarter should be of recognised World Heritage Status.
UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE AND OTHER CONSERVATION STATUS
The Irish State ratified the World Heritage Convention in 1991, which qualifies Ireland to apply for that status for the Moore Street quarter. Up to US$1 million is available from the World Heritage fund for the saving and development of a World Heritage site and funds are also available for urgent works to save it. World Heritage status attracts considerable tourist interest and substantial revenue is of course also available to the State and businesses surrounding the area from such tourist interest.
Currently Ireland has only two sites which have been accorded full World Heritage status (one of archaelogical and the other or natural, mainly geological, importance). However, another seven sites are under “Tentative” categorisation since 2010 and Dublin City is one of those. The Moore Street battleground could be afforded that full World Heritage status in its own right, which I believe its history deserves but it can also be used to strengthen the case for full such status for Dublin City.
The ten grounds on which UNESCO currently relies in order to examine the “the unique importance” of a site is admittedly rather restricted in the category of historical importance, particularly in the development of social movements. However, even under the existing list, I would submit that the Moore Street battleground meets four of the criteria: 2, 4, 6 and 8. The USA has the Statue of Liberty and Independence Hall building as World Heritage sites.
Registering under EU programs may also be possible, in particular Horizon 2020.
That was the subject of a debate between historians Tim Pat Coogan and Liam Kennedy on Wednesday 20th, organised by the 1916 Societies’ San Heuston branch and held in Club na Múinteoirí, Parnell Square, Dublin.
Coogan has a long track record as a journalist and historian of a nationalist/ Republican perspective: for nearly two decades Editor of the now-defunct nationalist daily Irish Press, broadcasterand author of many works including The IRA, Ireland Since the Rising and biographies of Michael Collins and Éamonn De Valera. Kennedy is Professor Emeritus of Economic and Social History at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of a number of articles and of books, most of the latter collaborations, including (with L.A. Clarkson et al), Mapping the Great Irish Famine (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999). His most recent, on his own, is Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?(Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2015).
Given that the Great Hunger or Famine is a subject on which historians tend to take oppositional sides and with at least one prominent historian on the panel, I would have expected a very large turnout. Therefore when I arrived and looked at the seats in the large hall of Club na Múinteoirí, I was surprised to see that although there was a respectable number in attendance, some of the seats laid out were unoccupied.
I had got the start time wrong (yes, even though I had shared the poster for the event on my Facebook page!) and so missed some of Tim Pat Coogan’s presentation (but a friend told me Coogan had mistaken the subject and began to talk about the 1916 Rising until he came back on track). When I entered, Coogan was dealing with the Great Hunger’s death toll and referring to the “accelerated deaths” method of calculating population loss that took into account further likely births had early deaths of potential parents not occurred. By that method, Coogan estimated the deaths at two million, not counting those who died on the “coffin ships” or after arrival at their destination.
Coogan said that New York State included study of the Great Hunger under “Holocaust Studies” which he thought entirely appropriate and concluded by stating that the Great Hunger was indeed genocide.
Liam Kennedy then took the floor and began with a personal anecdote of the unveiling of a stained glass window in Belfast, dedicated to the Famine, at which he had been invited to speak some years ago. It was a somewhat rambling story through which his audience sat quietly, awaiting his arrival at the question up for debate.
During his anecdote, Kennedy related that he had, in the course of his speech, referred to punishment shootings and “exiling” (instructions to leave the country) carried out by both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, which had angered in particular his Republican audience, including Gerry Adams (which he described but did not name). So of course, in retelling, he was once again referring to it – in a debate about whether the Great Hunger was genocide or not. Kennedy related this in the alleged context of showing that the Hunger is a controversial subject – of course it is, so it hardly needs any other controversial subjects dragged into the discussion.
Kennedy went on to allude to “amnesia” around the subject of the Great Hunger, which he compared to a similar “amnesia” which he believed attached to the issue of the thousands of Irishmen who had “fought for the Empire (or he may have said “England”, or “the UK”) and for Ireland during WWI.” Yes, it seem to me that he was engaging in a certain amount of coat-trailing in front of his audience which, given the Dublin location and the 1916 Societies host, he must have assumed to have many Republicans in its midst.
Eventually he got the job for which he had been invited and began, helpfully, by quoting part of a definition of “Genocide”. I cannot recall which authority he quoted but a search reveals many definitions, most of which entail intent. One of the most recent authorities is Article 6 of the Rome Statute which provides that “ “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group …” and goes on to describe a number of means of carrying that out.
It was clear that Kennedy was going to rely on denying the intention to cause, rather than to deny the effect of the catastrophe; this was entirely as I expected and it is the stock approach of genocide deniers and colonial apologists (not always the same thing). But in reality he had little to say on this subject, other than to point at the “laissez-faire” nature of the UK Government’s economic policy at the time and the weakness of the Whig party in power, managing a minority government. To be fair, it is extremely difficult to prove lack of intent but all the same I would have expected something better.
In its absence, Liam Kennedy went on to talk about culpability, which is not the same thing – one might be to blame for something which one didn’t, however, intend. And Kennedy spread the net of blame pretty wide, throwing it not only over the British Government but on the Irish middle class (could have done more), the Catholic and Protestant Churches (opposition to emigration and continued church-building), the Irish landlords (absentee or callous), the Young Irelanders (had no solutions), O’Connell’s 40 MPs at Westminster (didn’t raise much trouble at Westminster, although they were supporting the minority government).
Kennedy didn’t stint however on the severity of the Great Hunger nor on its huge impact on Ireland and on its diaspora. On that he said he agreed with Coogan, although his estimate of deaths was closer to 1.5 than two million. Any disaster in which one in seven died was an extremely severe one — it was the worst disaster in Irish history and one of the worst internationally, Kennedy stated. And it was most severe on the poor – and here Kennedy quoted a sentence of Karl Marx – and proportionally struck hardest at the Irish-speaking areas.
THE DEBATE OPENED TO THE FLOOR
When Kennedy finished, the Chairperson Kevin Keane summed up the main points elaborated by each speaker and the meetings was thrown open to questions and contributions from the floor. I wanted to get my comment in early, as I was scheduled to sing as soon as the questions and answers were over; since for a moment no-one stirred, my hand was the first up. Handed the roving microphone, I thanked both speakers and remarked that the question of intentionality did not relate only to the Government of the time but also to the ruling class of the time – the British capitalist class. An analysis of their opinions as expressed in correspondence and in their media of the time, for example editorials in the London Times, has indeed revealed the intention to get rid of the Irish cottier class and, to a degree, the Irish landlord class too. They wanted most Irish agricultural land turned to grazing and deliberately used the opportunity to do so.
Other contributors talked about food leaving Ireland while people starved, the low numbers of Irish permitted to vote; another countered the criticism of the Young Irelanders by pointing to the Rising they attempted in 18481. Yet another contributor pointed to comparisons with famine in other areas due to the potato blight such as the Highlands of Scotland, Belgium and the Netherlands – but did not express an opinion from those studies on the question being debated here. One contributor amusingly took Kennedy to task on standard academic grounds relating to questions on examination papers: “Read the question carefully, prepare your answers, ensure they are relevant …”
RESPONSES OF THE SPEAKERS
Returning to both speakers for the final responses, Kennedy admitted that the Government had wanted to get rid of the Irish cottier class but not by famine and disease. The “coffin ships” were only relevant to one year of the Great Hunger, he maintained and also that the Irish had, according to statistics, survived the journey in better health than for example the Germans, who had a much higher mortality rate during the journey and on arrival. On hearing that, I wondered whether he was taking into account the giant graveyard of Grosse Isle on the St. Lawrence, where “5,424 persons who fleeing from Pestilence and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 found in America but a Grave.”2
Kennedy returned again to the question of the “laissez-faire” economic doctrine and maintained that the rulers of the UK at that time were convinced that government interference in economics was not only undesirable but would make things ultimately worse. He also stated that we should not judge the people of then by the knowledge and beliefs of today – another argument often put forward by bourgeois historians (and to which I was going to reply in a very short poem I had written on the subject).
Tim Pat Coogan had the final say in the debate and wandered somewhat while however displaying the breadth of his learning. With regard to the Catholic Church he related that the Papacy in Rome had dictated to the Irish Church that they should continue building churches during the Great Hunger and he went on to criticise Rome in terms that might come as a surprise to those familiar with Irish nationalists/ Republicans of Coogan’s generation. He accused the Papacy, through a certain Cardinal, of instructing the Bishops in the Church to cover up cases of abuse, by the Cardinal’s admonition that the Bishops were to act as fathers to the priests and not as policemen.3 Coogan also defended O’Connell who was already sick then, dying in 1847, and the Irish MPs, having to go to Westminster, where they were in a small minority, to put their case and to where letters from Ireland could take a week to arrive.
Returning to the subject under discussion, Coogan made the trenchant point that the Government runs the country and ultimately responsibility lies with it; if it does not, then there is in fact no responsibility for anything, he implied. It was a good point with regard to culpability and he went on to deal with intentionality. He drew attention to a London gentlemen’s club whose members were influential in forming Government economic opinion, and a discussion reported among two members that one million deaths would be required to bring Ireland to a healthy economic state while the other disagreed, saying that two million would be required. “The potato blight gave them the opportunity and they took it”, said Coogan. “It was genocide.”
Some points which did not get a response in my opinion were the issues of “bad Irish landlords” and “chaotic land tenancy” and perhaps the others “to blame” apart, of course, from the British ruling class and their Government. Briefly, who was to blame for the absentee landlord situation in Ireland? Who stole the land for them and then protected them and their agents with soldiers and police? Who bought out the Irish Parliament in 1800, giving the political class even less reason to hang around in Ireland? This was the result of invasion, colonisation, planting, repression and bribery – the principal culprit all along was English colonialism.
Yes the peasantry (and landless tenantry’s) situation was chaotic and yes they depended too much on the potato crop. Whose fault was that? Who organised the land in that way (and refused security of tenancy, penalised tenants for improvements by raising the rents, etc)? Who stifled profitable Irish industry if it competed with English and taxed Irish production for the English Crown? Again, British colonialism. Could the country’s economics have been differently organised, to support that population (and even larger) in reasonable comfort? Of course it could — but at that point in history, it would have needed an independent national capitalist class to organise it, something Ireland did not have (and has not had since that section of it she had in 1798 was beaten by Crown forces).
In the last analysis, it does not matter how badly one group or another behaved during the failure of the potato crop – the British Government was the principal body with the power to act to avert catastrophe and the real power behind them, the British ruling class, were the ones with the interest in doing nothing to avert the disaster.
Finally, a thought worth considering: would the British ruling class have tolerated a disaster on this scale in Britain? Laissez-faire economics or not, I am pretty sure they would not.
The 1916 Societies and in particular their Sean Heuston branch have been putting on talks and debates on important Irish historical questions for some time, some of which I have been fortunate to attend. The Great Hunger debate was worth having and the contenders were well known with a track record in historical studies and public fame – the debate promised to be interesting. Despite this however, I found the event overall somewhat flat. Kennedy’s presentation manner was hesitant in speech and devoid of liveliness; Coogan wandered off the core subject too often. One cannot blame the 1916 Societies for that, however.
HISTORY AND “SKIBBEREEN”
I was called up to the stage to sing my song which had been announced earlier; by now there were about half the audience remaining. I explained that the song I was going to sing was called “Skibbereen”, published in Boston in 1880, not far from the time of the Great Hunger, and attributed to Patrick Carpenter, a poet and native of Skibereen. The song is in the form of a dialogue between a migrant father and his son but I sing it as though his dialogue is with his daughter. I also intended to omit a verse, one which has the man’s wife dying in shock during the eviction – I felt that women were much stronger than that.
“That’s revisionist!” interjected Tim Pat Coogan.
“That’s right,” I replied, “but progressive revisionism.”
“It’s revisionist!” Coogan said again.
I felt like reminding him that I had not heckled him during his public speaking. Instead I said
“All history is revisionist. The issue is what kind of revisionism.” “No it’s not – not good history!” Coogan replied.
I turned from him and read a short poem.
ALL our history is important,
not just 1916,
teaching us what we are
and what we have been.
How we came to reach the now;
of those who fought
or those who bowed,
through bloody pages,
down through the ages;
it relives the struggle to be free
and whispers soft what we might yet be.
(Diarmuid Breatnach, January 2016)
I then sang Skibbereen.
As I leaned over to hand back the microphone after finishing the song, Coogan told me his mother had loved that song. I took this as a peace overture and smiled, murmuring something about it being a good song to love. But no, I was mistaken: “And she liked that verse”, he added.
“Well, that was her opinion,” I replied, “and this is mine,” and left the stage.
Liam Kennedy was much more polite. Up in the bar, in passing, he thanked me for the song and added that he had heard the slogan “Revenge for Skibbereen” (also an alternate title for the song) alright but never the song. I expressed amazement at this, since the song is well known and even more so among people of his generation. Kennedy was born “in rural Tipperary” and, I believe, raised there too. There must have been many a kitchen and pub where that song was sung in Tipperary, surely?
1In a longer debate, I could have pointed out that James Connolly himself had criticised the Young Irelanders’ response the the Hunger but that his solution would not have pleased Kennedy either – Connolly wrote that the Young Irelanders should have led the people in breaking open the granaries, feeding the starving and preventing food from leaving the country.
Three members of my family fought in the 1916 Rising and eleven “did their bit” in the War of Independence. So it‘s probably not that surprising that as a child, I grew up with stories, real, imagined, and embellished, of those ancestors and their times.
Of those three “1916 men” the one who most aroused my curiosity was my granny’s cousin, Desmond Ryan. “A bit of a consequence”, according to my great-aunt Polly, or “the son of the fellah who wrote the first Irish play that got him a medal from Yeats and Lady Gregory“ according to my uncle.
Desmond actually was “a bit of a consequence”; however his father, W.P. Ryan, while he did write a number of plays “i nGaeilge” didn’t quite write the first to be performed in Dublin and I’m not too sure about the medal either. W.P. was a journalist, editor, novelist, and socialist. His clash with Cardinal Logue, Archbishop of Armagh, while editor of The Irish Peasant, is chronicled in his “The Pope’s Green Island” and his novel “The Plough and the Cross”, both of which bear fruitful reading today. His 1913 book “The Labour Revolt and Larkinsim” together with his work as assistant editor of the London Daily Herald did much to explain and create sympathy among British socialists for the participants of Dublin’s Lockout in 1913.
W.P.’s inability to toe the line with the bishops saw him return to London, leaving Desmond, “the Consequence”, in the tender care of Patrick Pearse at Saint Enda’s School as a boarder. As most of his Ryan siblings were either in Tipperary or had emigrated, Desmond found himself a temporary orphan save for my great grandparents who promptly “adopted” him and welcomed him into their home.
Willie Moynihan, my great grandfather, was a not very successful publican, and politically, if he had any politics, followed his brother Michael’s line in the Irish Parliamentary Party. Michael was a very successful publican and over a number of decades served as a representative for a number of wards for the IPP on Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) Borough Council. When the IPP took control of Dún Laoghaire, Michael – being their veteran campaigner in the borough – was given the honour of making the opening speech of that session in which he congratulated the Pope on his recent birthday. It caused a sensation at the time. Now while I realise this was far more politically loaded than it appears today, somehow it strikes me as petty compared with the many other problems Dún Laoghaire faced back then.
Despite his humble roots Michael Moynihan at that stage had a number of pubs, a big house on Haig Terrace, a mansion in Killiney, and was about to be made a Justice of the Peace despite a string of convictions for after-hours drinking and illegal gambling schools in his pubs. His gesture, despite the symbolism, always strikes me as just another example of the “re-branding process” which the IPP really stood for and intended to deliver with Home Rule. They might have cut the cake differently but basically it was to be business as usual – just a new name over the door and on the corporate notepaper.
Nobody ever told me how my great-grandparents reacted to having a socialist with a strong sense of Nationalism in their midst. However Desmond was a boy with a mission and felt it his duty to convert the family or at the very least his young cousins even if their parents were beyond redemption. His stories of St. Enda’s fired the children’s imagination, and I still smile as I remember my great-aunt Polly, throwing back her shoulders, raising herself beyond her full height, and summoning some of the worst traits of amateur dramatics, taking off Desmond, taking off Patrick Pearse, taking off Robert Emmet leading the 1803 Rebellion.
Desmond began leaving his copybooks from school in the house when he visited. These were filled with essays on Fionn MacCumhaill, the Red Branch Knights, Cú Chulainn, and other mythical heroes. The copious marginal notes and comments by Patrick Pearse drew my grandmother and her sister further into this world of Celtic heroics, standing in stark contrast to the stories of the famine during the previous century told by their parents. A generation later both my mother and uncle remember being equally moved by the same essays which were unfortunately lost during a house move in the 1940s.
As Desmond’s involvement with the revolution grew his visits to the house became less so there was some delight when he turned up in July 1915 with an invitation to go to the funeral of a Fenian from Cork called Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Pearse, the fellah who wrote all those notes and comments in the margins of Desmond’s copy books was going to give a speech. Willie Moynihan didn’t approve of this fellah called Pearse but his wife relented understanding her children’s curiosity and she was fond of Desmond and didn’t want to let him down.
Desmond, not surprisingly, faded out of family stories after that, as Pearse’s exhortation to revolution was too much for a God-fearing, law abiding woman, like my great grandmother. He would go on to write biographies of Pearse, Connolly, Collins, and De Valera, as well as the first major account of 1916 by a participant. His pioneering journalism during the War of Independence did much to counteract the black propaganda of the State murder gangs who assassinated at will back then. However it was his invitation to a funeral which endured in family lore on a day that changed the family’s political axis forever.
Polly could “do” the speech, and recited it with all the subtlety of a Victorian melodrama well into her eighties. She would recall Pearse as “a bit of a fruitcake” or “sixpence short of a shilling”, but despite his questionable sanity would qualify this with “my God! But that fellah could talk!” Remarkably, with the emergence of the Pathé newsreel footage of the funeral in recent years (footnote to link?), she seemed to have taken all Pearse’s movements and gestures in, and even in old age could deliver it as if she had recently studied the film frame by frame. This delightful entertainment of my childhood had deeply affected her and despite occasionally lamenting how dull Dublin became once the British left, it had been a seminal moment at which she became and remained a republican right down to her bones.
On very rare occasions my granny would “do” the speech. But her version was different. She didn’t have her sister’s dramatic flair, but she too had been affected by Pearse that August day. With her a previously unseen veil of steel and determination seemed to come over her; probably that same steely veil that saw her defy her parents and join Cumann na mBan and which enabled her to carry cases of hand grenades and weapons across the city on numerous occasions. Her rendition suggested she had taken the words in and considered them rather than the exaggerated gestures of which her sister Polly was so fond. Significantly it was through this involvement that she met my grandfather, a member of H Company, 1st Battalion, the Dublin Brigade.
As the decade of commemorations gathered momentum, last August saw the centenary of O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral. In many ways it started the countdown to the revolution of 1916-22. Earlier this year I found myself in Glasnevin Cemetery and wandering around came face to face with Rossa’s grave and all those childhood memories came flooding back. It’s difficult, even with all the photographs and the film footage, to really understand just how significant Pearse’s speech was.
Looking at the photographs I wonder just how many lives were changed that day. In its own small way my own family bears testimony to it. As historians and commentators continue to play “what if” in relation to events of that period I found myself doing the same at Rossa’s grave, making similar speculations with what potentially, for me anyway, might have been serious consequences. What if Desmond Ryan hadn’t fired my granny’s imagination so that she went to the funeral? What if she hadn’t been inspired by Pearse that day? Would she have joined Cumann na mBan? More importantly, without being in that circle would she have met my grandfather? The next question doesn’t bear thinking about, because, despite the occasional rocky road, I’ve rather enjoyed being alive, and without that chain of events unleashed by the combination of Rossa, Pearse and that Speech on that August day I might never have been born.
So on the 1st August 2015 I found myself in town at the O’Donovan Rossa Bridge to pay a personal tribute to Rossa, and Pearse, and that speech. In particular I was paying tribute to Desmond Ryan. Because somehow in that crazy way that small events ripple out to have more serious consequences I find myself thinking I owe them for my very existence.
Hugo McGuinness is a historian specialising in the period of history referred to above.