Category Archives: Ireland

Fake News: The Sinking of the Athenia, not the Titanic, is the Metaphor of our Time

The sinking of the Titanic is the most popular maritime disaster, an endless source of fascination and metaphor.  Yet it tells us less about our times than the fate of the Athenia.

Depending on the time of year, the SS Athenia of the Donaldson Atlantic Line regularly plied the route from Glasgow to Montreal or Halifax carrying passengers and emigrants.  This time she was headed to Montreal.  After a stop at Liverpool, she made her way around the Irish coast and headed northwest setting a course to take her between Rockall and Inishtrahull, well off her usual track.  This was because it was September 1939 and all merchant ships had been ordered off their usual routes since 22 August.  Though Captain James Cooke and all aboard knew that war had just been declared between Britain and Germany, the trip was deemed safe because as a passenger ship the Athenia was protected by the London Naval Treaty of 1930 which Germany had not ratified but had agreed to abide by its terms.  Under those terms, passengers and crew of merchant ships and passenger liners were first to be put in places of safety before their vessel was sunk.

Oberleutant Frist-Julius Lemp was in command of U-30 based out of Wilhelmshaven on patrol in the North Atlantic since 27 August.  He spotted the Athenia in the late afternoon and followed her for three hours.  It was by all accounts a beautiful evening with a sky shimmering with moonlight and stars, though a heavy swell surged.  As passengers finished the first dinner sitting, they had no idea that their lives depended on what one man would do in an iron vessel in the sea beneath them.

We do not know what went through this young man’s head (he was twenty-six at the time).  All we can say is that Lemp claimed that the zigzag course and its unusual location indicated to him that the ship in his sights was an armed merchant cruiser.  He ordered a torpedo attack.  On board the ship, Quartermaster Bowman saw the silhouette of a submarine against the moonlight.  Some passengers heard a hissing sound as if something passed under the hull.  Then a second torpedo found its mark near the engine room, killing many there,  in the nearby main stairwell, and on the deck nearby.  It was Sunday evening, at 8:50pm, and the second sitting for dinner had just begun when the explosion occurred.  The lights went out and the passengers rushed in panic onto the decks.  The ship was doomed, and the lives of its remaining passengers from its complement of 1,103 passengers, including some 500 Jewish refugees, and 315 crew were in serious jeopardy.

Captain Cooke and his crew were calm and professional.   A distress signal was sent.  They restored calm and the evacuation was orderly.  Mercifully the safety systems on board contained the damage and the ship stayed afloat for hours, though listing.  This certainly avoided a far higher if not almost complete loss of life.  In heavy seas, lifeboats were readied.  Witnesses spotted the submarine on the surface and reported that it fired one or two shells at the stricken vessel, blowing off a mast.  A lifeboat already loaded with passengers broke from its davits causing more fatalities.  Passengers jumped into the sea. The heavy swells meant that lifeboats had to be rowed and bailed; women grabbed oars and used their shoes to bail. Exposure was likely as passengers lacked overcoats and were soaked; some were over ten hours on the open sea.

The destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Fame, and HMS Escort, a Swedish yacht called the Southern Cross, a US cargo ship City of Flint, and a Norwegian tanker the MS Knute Nelson arrived at the scene within hours.  HMS Fame was dispatched to find the U-boat.  Lifeboats were by then spread out, lit by flares, and while calling for help made their way to the  ships nearest them.  One lifeboat tied up only metres from the exposed propeller of the MS Knute Nelson and in the confusion the ship started up her engines.  The great thrashing propeller sucked in the lifeboat, pulverising it and killing fifty.  Some hours later another lifeboat capsized behind the Southern Cross, with ten fatalities.  A Jewish-Russian couple saw their two sons drown.  A young woman was pulled from the water into another life boat but screamed “my baby” and leapt back into the sea. At one point a great school of whales “plunged around the boats”. Others died in the transfers to the destroyers as the sea jostled the lifeboats against the towering hulls.  At 10 am the following morning, the Athenia’s bow reared up and ship sank vertically beneath the waves. In all, 98 passengers and 19 crew died.  28 of the fatalities were U.S. citizens.

The MS Knute Nelson made for Galway with 441 passengers and 90 crew on board.  It arrived at 9:30 am on Tuesday 5 September.  Ten were stretchered off the tender City of Galway, four seriously injured.  The survivors were greeted by a warm reception from hundreds of well-wishers along the dockside.  Nurses from Central Hospital Galway and the Army Medical Corps were on hand and a local committee had prepared food and accommodation in local hotels and guest houses.  VIPs included Dr. Browne, the Bishop of Galway, the Mayors of Galway and Limerick, and the U.S. Minister to Ireland, John D. Cudahy.  Cudahy comforted J.D. Wilkes who broke down, having lost his wife and two children. The Irish Times reported: “It was a motley and somewhat hysterical crowd that trooped down the gangway to the tender…. Men, women and children were in almost every stage of undress, having lost their clothes and belongings.  Seven women were attired in men’s dungarees and trousers lent them by the crew of the Knute Nelson.”

Passengers arriving in Glasgow told similar stories; of the explosion, seeing the submarine, of the shelling, of the desperate rescue and the heaving seas.  Some spoke avidly, some were too traumatised to say anything.  Some smiled at the memory of the whales.  All were sure that is was a torpedo, not a mine or an aircraft.

In London, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy was already swamped trying to organise the evacuation of U.S. citizens from wartime Britain when news arrived of the sinking of the Athenia.  It hugely complicated the effort to get Americans home from Europe.  Since he could not leave London to help the survivors landing at Glasgow, he dispatched his second son.  John F. Kennedy toured the hotels to visit the survivors, get first-hand accounts and assure them that America was there to protect their interests.  With cameras filming, he met with 150 survivors in a hotel and assured them that a liner had been dispatched from America to bring them home.  They would be safe under an American flag.  They protested, not surprisingly, that they would only travel home in a convoy.  JFK’s assurances were to little avail initially.  As reported by The Irish Times: ‘“We definitely refuse to go until we have a convoy,” declared the American college girls among the rescued.  “You have seen what they will do to us.”’  Another pointedly referred to Amilia Earhart saying “a year ago the whole Pacific fleet was sent out for one woman flier.”  Kennedy said he would inform his father.

Eventually most of the survivors were convinced to travel on board the Orizaba though only after its sides were painted with the Stars and Stripes and it was flood lit during the night. They landed at New York on Wednesday 27 September, met by a large crowd some of whom hoped that their loved ones were not in fact lost, that some good news might be discovered.  American Express doled out cash and the Red Cross was on hand to help the survivors who had arrived without luggage or passports.

The news of the sinking quickly headlined around the world.  Details of the attack and the fate of the survivors were followed closely.  The attack was condemned as barbarous and contrary to the laws of war.  The news created a sensation in the United States and Canada.  The finger of blame pointed firmly at Germany but Germany claimed that it did not have a submarine in the area.  Grand Admiral Raeder appeared to believe this in the absence of any confirmation from a U-Boat.  Germany issued a statement pointing to the likelihood of a mine.  The New York Times editorialised; “Now it is real.  In the first twenty four hours of general hostilities….we saw the pattern set…. Part of the ordeal will be waiting for the truth behind conflicting claims, confused reports and veils of military secrecy.”  It noted Churchill’s announcement of German culpability but also Germany’s written assurance that the ship must have struck a mine: “It would indeed have been crass stupidity for Germany on the first day of the war to engage a great neutral Power by torpedoing a ship carrying Americans, and it is equally hard to believe that a British liner under naval escort, in waters presumably well charted, should run into a British-laid mine.”

On board U-boat 30, Lemp appeared to have realised his mistake almost immediately.  He did not enter the action in the log and swore his crew to secrecy.  Escaping the anti-submarine searches, he continued his raiding.  On 11 September he torpedoed and sunk the cargo ship Blairlogie.  All thirty crew survived.  On 14 September Lemp spotted the Belfast built and registered Fanad Head.  He gave chase and seized the ship after putting a shot across its bows.  With the crew and passengers safely dispatched on life boats, Lemp took a risky course of action by pulling alongside and sending a prize crew aboard.  British destroyers and aircraft arrived and in desperate hours of attacks and evasions, crashing aircraft and blasting depth charges, U-30 finally sunk Fanad Head and escaped, heavily damaged and with two RAF crew members on board captured after they had ditched.

After a stop at Reykjavik, Lemp arrived back at Wilhemshaven on 27 September.  He confessed his unwelcome news to Admiral Doenitz.  He had sunk the Athenia, claiming that he thought it was an armed merchant ship.  Doenitz knew he had a problem and that admission of Germany’s responsibility might have the gravest of consequences.  He sent Lemp to Berlin to explain himself to Raeder.  Raeder then briefed Hitler.  In the propaganda war for world opinion in which Germany sought to paint Britain as an antagonist and to ensure that America stayed neutral, it was best to cloud culpability in confusion.  Hitler decided to continue the denial.  The log was altered and Lemp escaped a court-martial.

It hard to know what to make of Lemp’s claim.  The Kreigsmarine were well aware that shipping out of Britain had been ordered to avoid established routes. He had followed the Athenia for three hours.  He had ample time to identify the nature of the craft he was tracking.  Other U-boat captains were well aware of the rules of war under which they operated and they were in many instances commended for their gallantry is ensuring that the crews of merchant ships were seen to safety.  Lemp’s behaviour in ensuring the safety of the crews of the other ships he attacked in the following weeks observed the norms of ensuring the crews’ safety.  Perhaps he had genuinely made a mistake and only realised it when he approached the Athenia after the torpedo attack.  Then why shell it as witnesses reported?  Lemp did not survive the war to tell his version or face justice.  His death was shrouded in some mystery with claims that he was shot by a boarding party or that he committed suicide by going down with his scuttled vessel, U-110, in May 1941.

In the following weeks, Germany conquered Poland and signed the Pact of Steel with Russia.  Hitler turned his eyes to the unwelcome western front and the British Expeditionary Force in France.  If he was to expand the Third Reich eastward, he had to safeguard his rear.  British forces had to be expelled from continental Europe before he turned the full might of the Wehrmacht against the Slavs.   Yet he feared antagonising the U.S. to the point that it might abandon its neutrality.  Like the Lusitania before it, it was feared that the sinking of the SS Athenia might tilt the balance of American opinion.  Yet like the Lusitania, it was hoped that it might not.  For weeks Germany maintained its innocence, contrary to all the eye-witness evidence.

With plans afoot for a major offensive on the Western front, Hitler and Goebbels conferred; it was time for the big lie.  In a national radio broadcast on 22 October, Goebbels presented himself as the prosecuting attorney, in the description of The New York Times.  He declared that the British had sunk the Athenia on Churchill’s orders and that his silence would be his shame.  Goebbels gave a detailed account of how it was done.  A bomb on board was exploded on a radio signal from Churchill.  But it was botched and Royal Navy ships were sent to sink it.  He declared that Churchill stood condemned in the court of public opinion and that he answer the charges that Britain had been responsible, that Royal Navy destroyers had not come to the rescue of the Athenia but had fired on it and sunk it.  Goebbels asserted that German passengers had been refused boarding in Liverpool as part of the conspiracy to ensure that blame affixed to Germany.  Smoking had been banned to avoid setting off the bomb prematurely.  Churchill’s conspiracy, he explained, was designed as part of its war with Germany, to turn opinion against it and induce the U.S. to join Britain and France as an ally.  Germany, he declared, would not let the matter rest until Churchill confessed.  “Stand rascal, and answer us!” They knew it would take time: Churchill, he asserted, “belongs to that type of man who has to have his wisdom teeth knocked from his head before he will give up lying.” The broadcast was repeated on radio wavelengths, disseminated widely in a number of languages, and the ‘account’ published in Germany.

The fake news had its effect in sowing doubts. Maybe it was a Russian submarine, some speculated. As Germany claimed credit for sinking further merchant ships and tankers and as U-boat commanders who sunk the HMS Courageous and HMS Royal Oak (with combined fatalities in excess of 1,300) were treated as celebrity war heroes on return to Germany, the significance of the denial about the Athenia was lost.

It is an odd thing that getting caught out lying about a crime can be seen as a greater shame than an outright admission of a crime.  The more elaborate the deception, the more determined the incentive to avoid exposure.   For the Nazis, it seemed that to get caught out in one lie might lead logically to doubts about its whole ideology. The further removed belief is from reality, the more insistent the doctrine and the denial of inconvenient facts.  Despite all of the atrocities committed by Germany during the war, including the Holocaust, there seemed to be a particular shame attached to the sinking of the Athenia, or perhaps more accurately about the lying about it.  Germany maintained the lie even in defeat.  It was only in 1946 during the Nuremburg trials that Doenitz, faced with the testimony of a U-30 crew member who was on board when the Athenia was attacked, finally admitted the obvious truth that Germany had in fact sunk the ship, that the accusations by Goebbels to the contrary were part of an audacious bid to disseminate what today we’d call fake news.  By then of course, what constituted war crimes had taken on a whole new dimension.

At the time, the sinking of the Athenia convinced many that the war had started in earnest, that headlines about peace offerings in the weeks that followed were mere posturing.  The reports in the Irish press from Galway, like those in media around the world, were detailed and graphic, well conveying the telling dishevelment and trauma of the disembarking survivors.  War was a brutal affair not just for the military but for the innocent civilian, if anyone needed reminding.  There were to be no safe hiding places beyond the jurisdiction of the neutral state.  The rules of war did not necessarily apply and the headlines did not necessarily reflect the reality. In this, the U.S. and Ireland as neutral states shared a perspective.  The U.S. clamped down on its citizens travelling to Europe.  American liners increased fares to Europe by as much as a third.  As more ships were attacked in the Atlantic in the autumn of 1939, and more survivors were rescued and landed at Irish harbours around the coast, the Irish public could not but be aware that they lived in proximity to a deadly struggle between European superpowers.  Neutrality, fragile and all as it was, must have seemed like a good option.

The sinking of the SS Athenia is largely forgotten today.  It has not entered the popular imagination.  Maybe the fake news surrounding is a complicating factor or maybe the fact that the mystery of its fate was revealed in 1946.  Even the Lusitania retains some public fascination.  At almost 1,200 the fatalities were far higher.  Compared to that ‘only’ 98 died on the Athenia.  Questions hovered unresolved about whether in fact the Lusitania carried ammunition; unanswered questions have a long life.

Yet even the fate of the Lusitania pales beside the luminous light cast by the Titanic over the public imagination.  The Titantic’s combination of fate, coincidence, and the morality of class deciding the preponderance of fatalities mesmerises us.  We see in her a microcosm of a form of society that was doomed.  The iceberg is the metaphor for all unbidden and unforeseen calamities in the face of human fecklessness.  How fitting that her distress flares were thought to be celebrations. The random things that sank the Titanic churn in our heads – the ship’s speed, the calm waters, the lack of binoculars, and the attempt to wheel away that just magnified the damage to a fatal degree.  Change one of these things and the ship might have stayed afloat.    She was on her maiden voyage, the fresh paint still pungent.  They said it was unsinkable.  In the sinking of the Titanic, we detect the revenge of the gods.

None of this applies to the Athenia. Its story is human and venal.  There is no fate, just bad luck.  There are no gods, only one man with the power to sink a ship who opted to use that power.  Some weird confluence of impulses compelled him to a great crime.  An instinct for survival, for exculpation after the exhilaration of the act, led him to conspire with his crew to conceal it.  Perhaps he too realised that the consequences for his country might be grave if responsibility was admitted.  And while he was driven to admit what he did to his superiors, albeit he had little grounds to deny it, the system found common cause with him in maintaining the fiction.  You can sense in Goebbels’s insistent accusation against Churchill the audacity, the glee of the big lie. And you can see too that other governments and the public hesitated to apportion blame in the face of the denials and the counter accusations, even in the face of overwhelming testimony.  The power of the big lie is that it begs the question ‘what if…?’  And of course back then there was a widespread and deep faith in government.

From this perspective, the sinking of the Athenia is a more compelling tale for our times than the ineffable qualities of the Titanic.  The Athenia, not the Titanic, is the true metaphor for our time.

 

Eamonn

 

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Small Advanced Economies Initiative, Dublin Meeting

Ireland hosted the Small Advanced Economies Initiative (SAEI) last week in Dublin Castle. Never heard of it, you say. Not surprising as it’s a low profile gathering of officials and policy experts from seven countries that fit the description on the tin. It’s a forum to share ideas on three policy areas, namely foreign affairs and trade, economics and competitiveness, and science and innovation.

The SAEI was inspired and convened by New Zealand and also includes Singapore, Israel, Switzerland, Denmark and Finland. We like to keep it small so we can exchange views informally. It is very lightly managed without a permanent secretariat but the New Zealanders do a great job jollying everything and everyone into place.

In Ireland’s case, the host was a troika of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, my Department and Science Foundation Ireland. We generated a collegial sense of working together on this which really helped generate the creative ideas needed for an engaging agenda not to mention the logistical demands of organising an international visit of some forty-seven delegates.

I am happy to say the delegates were very happy with the agenda and engaged openly and productively on its wide range of issues. We had an opening session on the relationship of small states to big neighbours (Ireland and Britain, Singapore and China) and my presentation on our relationship with Britain was helped by the venue of Dublin Castle where I could point to King John’s tower, the lynchpin of conquest since it was commissioned in 1204 (don’t worry, I got to the Celtic Tiger and Brexit within 5 minutes). Our second plenary was on “The Great Unravelling? Rising civil society discontent with globalisation: Challenge and Opportunity for small states.” We had a very useful presentation and discussion with the OECD on business success in the digital age and what the data was showing. It was clear from this new engagement that the SAEI and OECD could find some useful work to do together.

In the three strands of expert discussions we exchanged views and proposals on small state diplomacy, economic complexity trends, productivity and competitiveness, regional fragmentation, research commercialisation, ODA and climate change.

Aside from our discussions, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan (@CharlieFlanagan), hosted a welcome reception at Iveagh House; Peter Sutherland (Attorney General, DG at the GATT and WTO, EU Commissioner for Competition) was an authoritative and compelling keynote speaker at a dinner at Farmleigh; and the delegates visited Trinity for a briefing on Ireland’s innovation system by the heads of six research centre under the expert direction of SFI’s director Mark Ferguson. Before leaving Trinity, the delegates were shown the Book of Kells, that awesome totem of Ireland’s learned antiquity.

Looking to modern frontiers, FabLabs Ireland hosted a demonstration and discussion on their ground breaking and inspiring work (check out short Ireland video here and international video here), showing the vast potential of new technology to address social and economic issues (website here) by making it available to local communities. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor (@mitchelloconnor) addressed the concluding reception hosted at the Trinity Science Gallery where the delegates were treated to a survey of Irish innovation and business systems by Martin Curley (Professor of Technology and Business Innovation at Maynooth). Not bad for three days in Dublin!

The global context is now particularly challenging with stagnant trade, sluggish economic growth, regional fragmentation, public anxieties about a host of issues, the distortions of negative interest rates, doubts about globalisation and pressures against trade liberalisation, all against the frightening backdrop of climate change whose affects are here now, not in the future.

On our own small states are particularly vulnerable to the bullying effects of events, big institutions and powerful governments. The issues we discussed all related to how small states can cope in a world dominated by the agendas and interests of big powers. How can we advance the interests of our people and leverage our influence for positive outcomes? How can we shape and indeed share our policies to that effect? We and our friends in the SAEI have quite a bit of work to pick up after the Dublin meeting. That’s a very healthy indication of a productive engagement.

Eamonn

DG Trade Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

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Echoes of Joyce, A Morning in Dalkey and Sandycove

Places generate their own atmosphere. Dalkey’s is particularly intense, signalled by a street sign that brazenly says Atmospheric Road. Its narrow winding streets are lined with probably the most varied, personable, and charming collection of dwellings in Dublin, hunkered together at the edge of the sea. The street is patterned like some maze around the village centre.   Even the most humble of cottages has been gentrified, with tiny gardens bursting with flowers. They hold their own with the mansions, manses and tony new builds. The crammed and crowded little restaurant, the Corner Note Cafe (www.thecornernotecafe.ie), echoed Dalkey’s jumbled charm as it served hearty breakfasts for the Sunday crowd.

Breakfast in Dalkey is as good a way as any to start a trip to the museum at the Joyce Tower, Sandycove (@JoyceTower and http://www.joycetower.ie).  It is free to the public and its attendants are a welcoming and informative bunch. A treasure trove of artefacts awaits: books, letters, and photographs of the great man and his circle are within inches of scrutiny. Joyce’s guitar is there with his cigar case, his last walking cane, even his hunting waistcoat made by his grandmother and passed on from his father.

Joyce’s death mask is startling; his blighted eyes look small and shrunken under tiny lids, his nose is strong with a deep dent from a lifetime of wearing glasses, his cheeks hollow.  But death couldn’t dent that chin, strong as an iron mandible. A strong chin was a fitting gift from nature because he led with it for most of his life, challenging the literary orthodoxies and social mores of his time.

However, the true prize is the tower itself. Its thick solid blocks of Wicklow granite were fitted together into a short stump strong enough to withstand a canon ball from a Napoleonic fleet. Its walls are so thick that it seems capable of standing against pretty much anything. The narrow spiral staircase looks like a granite digestive tract. The first landing opens to the famous room featured in the opening chapter of Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus spent an unsettled night.

The narrow and steep staircase continues, leading to the stairhead and round roof top. It is from this stairhead that Buck Mulligan emerges as the great novel begins. I have to say that if Buck Mulligan did indeed walk those perilous stairs delicately bearing a bowl of lather with mirror and razor crossed on top, he was an agile fellow, plump or not.

Being in that room and emerging from the stairhead feels like a significant act, a portal between the real and the fictional. It is as close to actually entering the narrative of Ulysses as one is likely to experience.

The Martello tower at Sandycove is but one of a series built around the Irish coast (except in the northeast, naturally) during the Napoleonic Wars and designed to warn of a French invasion. The gun mounted on top could turn 360 degrees which was probably an added advantage if the natives turned restless.

From the roof one can see men and women diving into the Forty Foot, another star location in Ulysses. It is a gray yet balmy day and indeed under leaden skies the sea in parts is snot green. But here we must part fact from fiction if we can. I, like many people, assumed that ‘forty foot’ referred to the depth of the inlet but my grandfather told me that in fact it referred to the British Army unit stationed at the tower, namely the Forty Foot and Light.

And Atmospheric Road?  Alas no reference to Dalkey’s charm but an inheritance from history when it served as the terminus for the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in the mid-1800s.

Eamonn

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Ferns, Irish History Ground Zero

Larry Smith is a passionate man; about Ireland, about our history and about Ferns as the ground zero of Irish history. An erudite and loquacious OPW guide at Ferns castle, Co. Wexford, he has had an adventurous life as a Garda who has seen service with the UN in a range of conflict zones around the globe. He knows how history works and how people fare when conflict engulfs them. From the roof of Ferns castle a stunning vista of Wexford bocage beckons. Larry points to a conical hill, the infamous Vinegar Hill of 1798, and quotes Heaney’s Requiem for the Croppies, where the hill ‘blushed’ with the blood of the rebels and their families as British grapeshot slaughtered them.

But Larry has a bone to pick.  Not enough visitors come to Ferns. Yet it is the fulcrum of our history, the home and conspiratorial centre of the infamous Dermot MacMurrough who invited the Normans to our conquest. Where would history have taken us without this deed? This is a question to test the imagination. Had there not been a Norman conquest, we would hardly be commemorating the centenary of 1916 not least because small changes magnify through time and the coming of the Normans was to prove no small thing to Ireland at any number of levels.

The Normans altered Ireland in more ways than we like to concede. They brought villages, cottages, markets, manors, estates, revenue, proper castles and incorporated cities. They altered the pattern of regnal wars fought by petty Irish kings and produced great new dynasties that dominated Irish politics for hundreds of years, most notably the FitzGeralds.

Through allegiance to Henry II and King John, the Normans established the connection to the English crown.  John founded Dublin Castle initially as a treasury but ultimately as the irreducible foreign presence that would endure without interruption as the heart of the Pale and seat of British power until 1922.

So Ferns is the holy of holies of Irish history, the fundament of our conquest. We can only understand the significance of 1916 by spanning the time back to the 12th century when Dermot made his plans from his fortress there and acted as agent for the small band of Normans who landed at Bannow Bay and seized Wexford city. They were preparing the way for their Marcher Lord, Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow to arrive with the main force.

And amidst the carnage of Waterford city, Dermot would play father of the bride as he gave his daughter’s hand to the victorious Richard de Clare, Strongbow. Their march north through Wicklow, evading the waiting Irish to the west under the High King Rory O’Connor, would see them take Dublin, a prize the colonists held thereafter for eight hundred years.

When the rebels struck in 1916, their plan to take and hold Dublin was as much a psychological act of defiance.  And for the week that they did so, they achieved something unprecedented in our history of conquest and colonisation.

Dermot would pay a heavy price; his son was hostage to the High King whom Tiernan O’Rourke persuaded to kill after Strongbow and Dermot raided O’Rourke’s kingdom of Breifne.  Dermot would retire to Ferns in the winter of 1170, evidently a broken man, to sicken and die in May 1171.

So think about heading to Ferns for a day trip. If you live in Dublin, it is just over an hour south of the M50. The visitor’s centre is discrete and pleasant and Larry and his team of guides to the castle enthusiastic. The tower that is intact is charming and evocative and the view from the roof is magnificent. You can see why the Normans grabbed this lush and fertile land.  The whipped ice cream in the shop across the road is some of the best in Ireland. Wander down the road to the site of McMurragh’s burial and the ruins of the abbey which he had funded and where he died.

If you’re up for it, head back up the M11 and turn off at Arklow to drive up through Avoca, Glendalough, passing by Lough Tay and via Glencree into Dublin. You will not only be passing through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the east of Ireland but you also might just be tracing that first and fateful Norman march to Dublin.

Eamonn

Coda: Dermot’s fortress was made of wood and had been burned before he had died.  Strongbow and Aoife had a daughter, Isabel, who as a young girl of sixteen was married to probably the greatest knight in Christendom, William Marshall.  As the daughter of Strongbow, she was  an immensely rich heiress. Marshall was in his forties, a tall and impressive man of unequalled martial accomplishments and ties of loyalty to the crown.  Their marriage was apparently a happy one.  With her husband, Isabel returned to Ferns and stood on the knoll of her grandfather’s fortress.  There they built a castle of stone in the Norman manner.  It can only be seen as a act of reclamation by her, a statement of affirmation of her grandfather and his ambitions, and a defiant gesture to the local Gaelic chiefs displaced by the Normans.  Its remains today bear all the scars of subsequent Irish history but the restoration of the remaining tower has preserved its original Norman features and is one of the most evocative and intriguing ones of its kind.

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Ireland and Waterloo: Looking Back and Looking Forward

In Ireland we’re thinking of centenaries but this month we should spare a thought for the bicentenary of an event that involved or affected many Irish and whose outcome influenced the country’s fate.

From an Irish perspective, the echoes of Waterloo are faint. But they are worth recalling because the Irish dimension to the battle was an important one.  The nature of Ireland’s multifaceted response to the French Revolution and to Waterloo also tells us much about Ireland at the time. Moreover, how we reflect on Waterloo tells us much about Ireland today and how in looking back, we are also looking forward.

***

On 18 June 1815, the Irish-born Duke of Wellington, aided by the decisive late intervention of Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher of Prussia, defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo. Since his escape from Elba, Napoleon had enjoyed hopes of triumph for ‘One Hundred Days’. With Waterloo those hopes ended and with them an era.

News of Napoleon’s escape from Elba electrified Europe. Hearing of Napoleon unbound, the recently restored Bourbon Louis XVIII fled Versailles.  The heads of states, diplomats and notables devising the post-Napoleonic shape of Europe in Vienna condemned Napoleon as an outlaw and assembled a coalition of armies to engage him.

From his landing on the Cote d’Azur, Napoleon advanced north through France like some force of nature, gathering troops and intent on splitting and defeating the coalition forces of the Anglo-Dutch and the Prussians. They in turn were scrambling to combine their forces and crush him. He intended to engage them in turn on the plains of Belgium, the game board of European struggles for many centuries.

Napoleon just missed the mark, failing to keep the two armies apart.  His staff officers were rusty; even his famed Marshal Ney showed hesitation, failing to capture the vital crossroads of Quatre Bras on 16 June. That engagement saw three Irish captains die defending it.

On the day of the battle at Waterloo, Napoleon was fatigued or unwell.  Stubborn defence by Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch force held off the ferocity of Napoleon’s trademark mobility of horse and use of artillery. That was fatal because it meant that the French had not won the field before Blücher arrived.  Even still, the climactic battle was, as Wellington remarked, “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” Had Napoleon won, he might just have fought again and even won again. Whether he would have reasserted his mastery of Europe seems questionable. Too many European powers had determined to fight him together.

Napoleon returned to Paris to reassemble an army as the British and Prussians surrounded the city. Rather than see the city stormed, the French surrendered. For Napoleon, the game was finally up and after abdicating he boarded HMS Bellerophon to capitulate to the British.  He was soon was on his way to exile on the island of St. Helena, accompanied by Irishman and surgeon Barry O’Meara, who became his doctor and wrote of Napoleon’s last years there.  Louis XVIII was escorted back into the city by the Prussians who returned him to the palace at Versailles that he had so recently and rapidly vacated.

Waterloo ushered in an era of peace after twenty-five years of war. However not everyone welcomed Napoleon’s defeat.  For many he was the avatar of modernity, the destroyer of ancien régimes, the harbinger of a new era of liberalism.  Irish nationalists had waited for the arrival of his troops in Ireland to rebel once more but such hopes were finally extinguished. For progressives and radical reformers across Europe, his defeat at the hands of the established powers returned the reactionaries to dominance.

With Waterloo Britain achieved its strategic objective in Europe; a balance of power in which it was the central source of influence.  It took this opportunity to establish itself as a world power of a scope unprecedented in modern times. In the16th century Spain had been Britain’s continental rival, followed by France in the 17th and 18th centuries. But because of Waterloo Britain would not face another European rival until the rise of industrialised, imperial Germany in 1871. In a twist of history, the rise of Germany was in part due to Napoleon’s reorganisation of the hundreds of Rhineland principalities into what became the thirty-nine states of the German Confederation.

***

In many ways, Ireland’s destiny was shaped by the strategic threat that Britain perceived it to represent. There is something of the ‘folly of the consequent’ in this. Having conquered and colonised Ireland as its first overseas possession, it had created a resentful population because of land expropriate and systematic anti-catholic discrimination that was designed to ensure that catholics could wield no influence or develop a political leadership. Looking to throw off the English yoke, Irish nationalists naturally turned to Britain’s European enemies for succour and support when opportunity allowed.

Spain landed troops in Ireland to support the O’Neill rebellion at the end of the 16th century. Revolutionary France sent forces in both 1796 and 1798 to support an Irish rebellion. The military thinking of both Spain and France was similar: deploy a relatively small expeditionary force to spark rebellion in Ireland and tie down a disproportionate number of British troops, diverting them from the main theatre of war. (Nazi Germany pondered a similar diversionary campaign though since Ireland was independent at that stage one has to consider its planning as little more than a feint. One might even counter-factually speculate that had Ireland been left alone by England and developed as an independent country, it would not have been inviting invasions from Spain or France.)

Denied opportunities at home because of their religion, leading Irish Catholics had long emigrated to France for education in the Irish colleges there and to seek careers in the church, banking and medicine. They also joined the military, notably the ‘Wild Geese’ of the Irish Brigade, whose decisive intervention had swung the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy in favour of the Franco-Prussian alliance against the British and their allies. That intervention handed the Bourbon dynasty a new lease on power.

Well before the Revolution, then, links between Ireland and France were strong, if tilted toward the establishment. The Irish community in Paris had carved out a niche for themselves under the Bourbons.  Through their wits they survived the threats and turmoil of the Revolution itself.

Back in Ireland and inspired by the French Revolution, the United Irishmen comprised Protestants and Catholics together demanding more liberties from London, in effect self-determination. For the elite Protestant members of the movement this was a particularly principled and brave demand since any realization of their ambitions would have inevitably led to Catholic demands for a reversal of the land appropriations on which the Protestant Ascendancy was established, the very class from which they themselves came.

The United Irishmen sent emissaries to Paris to lobby the Revolutionary government and then Napoleon for support for an uprising back home. These emissaries were in effect leaders in exile, determined to return and lead an Irish revolution. They added a new dimension and much intrigue to the Irish community in Paris in the 1790s and early 1800s.

The United Irishmen were actually initially very successful in their efforts with the Directory and with Napoleon. The Directory dispatched some 15,000 troops along with Wolfe Tone in 1796 but events and one of the stormiest winters in a century conspired to frustrate its landing. For two vital years, the British had the opportunity to weaken the rebels though paradoxically the repression also helped generate the rebellion it was designed to forestall. By the time a French force actually landed in Mayo in 1798 to support the rebellion, the balance of forces were in Britain’s favour and the rebellion savagely repressed.

After the rebellion, Dublin Castle, the seat of British power, used draconian laws, force and intelligence gathering to ensure that any lingering rebelliousness was leaderless and lack organisation.  Robert Emmet’s 1803 rebellion was quickly snuffed out and he executed. The British military built roads deep into the wilds of Wicklow to thwart future rebels taking refuge there again. The squat Martello towers erected to warn of a French invasion were dotted all around the coast except for the loyal northeast.

The political response by London to 1798 was in many ways it most fateful. By abolishing the Irish (albeit Protestant) parliament through the 1801 Act of Union, Britain created a precise and singular demand for Irish nationalists that would define and dominate their agenda until its achievement, namely the restoration of local autonomy.

Despite the defeat of the Irish rebellions in 1798 and 1803, Napoleon still thought that Ireland could play a key part in his plans to invade England. He formed the Irish Legion in 1804 to catalyse rebellion and then lead it, hoping that the sight of the Legion landing on Ireland’s shores in its green livery would foment revolution. But its mandate was uncertain – was it a nascent political elite for an independent Ireland or a spearhead military force? This would dog its development and frustrate the United Irishmen in Paris. The problems of the Legion played into a broader frustration and growing disillusion with Napoleon, leading many United Irish leaders to emigrate eventually to America, much to the satisfaction of watchful British officials.

The Irish Legion’s history was not then a happy one, its officers mainly Irish but its ranks mixed, including amongst Irish soldiers English prisoners of war, Poles and Prussians.  Yet it would earn its place in Napoleon’s Army on European battlefields, the only foreign regiment to be granted a regimental eagle standard.

The 1805 Battle of Trafalgar stunted Napoleon’s ambitions of conquering England, though he would revisit the notion again and with it the role that Ireland might play. As Marianne Elliott notes: “Napoleon’s treatment of the Irish Legion after 1806 became the temperature gauge of his attitude towards Irish liberation in general…..but the conflict between the military and the political conception of the Irish Legion’s role was never quite resolved, in the minds either of the Irish themselves or of the French officials.” (See suggested reading below, p.349)

***

Exiled rebels working with the French is a romantic and compelling part of the Irish story, satisfying to the nationalist narrative. However, it is a partial one because the vast majority of Irish fighting at Waterloo did so in the livery of the British Army, just as they had done throughout modern history. If there were plenty of Irishmen willing to rebel if the odds were good, there many on the other side of the equation; the loyal Anglo-Irish aristocracy filled the ranks of the British cavalry and Irish labourers and weavers (unemployed thanks to the French blockade and then war with America) joined the ranks for an income, adventure and a career.

There is not a great deal written about the Irish in British ranks at Waterloo. On the Irish participation in Waterloo there is one piece of research available on the internet. Peter Molloy’s thesis is, as far as I know, unpublished but it is a vivid and engaging piece of work. He captures well the ferment caused in Ireland by the return of the “Destroyer of Men” (a well earned epithet, since Napoleon’s wars cost about six million lives). You can find his thesis here

Ireland was thrown in excitement and movement by the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba. For most people the immediate visible impact was the surge towards the ports as troops and supplies were moved to embarkation points around the coast.

The Inniskilling Dragoons and Fusiliers prepared for action in what for them would prove to be a brutally heroic engagement. They were joined by the 18th (King’s Irish) Hussars. Molloy records that these regiments comprised the three official Irish contingents at Waterloo. Other Irish regiments that had fought under Wellington’s command in the Peninsular Wars had been deployed to America for the War of 1812. A convoy of troops just out of an Irish port and heading to Bermuda were overtaken and told to head to Belgium, much to their relief. Dublin and Cobh bustled as ships were loaded, anchors weighed and sails raised. You can easily imagine the flutter of conversation at homes and taverns throughout the island at this thrillingly awful turn of events.

Irishmen were enlisted in many British regiments, not just those associated with Ireland. Young James Graham from Monaghan, who had some years before joined the Louth Militia, was now a serving NCO with the Coldstream Guards as the orders came to mobilise.

How many Irish were actually in the British Army at Waterloo is a surmise. By 1830 it has been reckoned that over 40% of the British Army were Irish and while probably not far off one cannot assume this to have been case at Waterloo. From Molloy’s sampling, it would seem that somewhere in the region of 30% of British regiments comprised Irish enlisted men and NCOs. Add to that a good quotient of officers (including three generals) plus camp followers and one can firmly state that Irish representation at Waterloo was very significant indeed and probably not far off 40% even with so many Irish units absent.

Molloy writes:

“Indeed, it is possible to go a step further and argue that the British army of the Waterloo campaign offers a genuinely representative cross-section of Irish society at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Irishmen of all descriptions saw active service in 1815. Some, mostly members of the officer class like Major General Sir William Ponsonby or Captain Edward Thomas Fitzgerald, hailed from relatively privileged and influential backgrounds in the country. At the opposite end of the rank and wealth scale at Waterloo were common soldiers like Private Terence Gallagher of Kilmore, County Mayo; a twenty five year old former weaver who had enlisted into the 1st Foot for a term of unlimited service in December 1813.” (p. 35)

The pace of events accelerated as the confrontation approached, the Waterloo campaign itself lasting a mere four days of furious movement and intensive fighting. Some 200,000 combatants fought in an area about half the size of the Phoenix Park, often hand-to-hand and no more than a couple of hundred yards apart when firing at each other. Casualties have been estimated at up to 54,000 men killed or seriously wounded, along with 10,000 horses dead or injured. The carnage of men and horses in such a concentrated area shocked even hardened veterans.

The 1st Battalion of the 27th (Inniskillings) Foot found itself in the centre of Wellington’s line after a two-day forced march to the battlefield. Their square formation endured repeated assaults by French cavalry and artillery fire. By the end of the day more than half of their 750 troops were casualties. Indeed Molloy writes that “Due to its frequent featuring in secondary literature, as well as the references to the battalion’s stand in a large number of British primary accounts from the battle, it is probably no exaggeration to suggest that the ordeal of the Inniskillings at Waterloo remains perhaps the single most widely discussed and visible element of Irish participation in the campaign” (p. 37).

Our Sergeant James Graham found himself as part of a garrison at a farm complex called Hougoumont on Wellington’s right flank. The French attacked it repeatedly, since if breached and taken they could outflank the Allied forces. They broke in but Graham rushed forward to close the gate and save the day. For that and other heroics, he was recognised as one of two of the bravest soldiers on the day.

Another Irish hero of the day was cavalryman Captain Edward ‘Waterloo’ Kelly whose exploits in the thick of battle earned him his sobriquet. As he wrote to his wife, as quoted by Molloy, “Donnybrooke [sic] Fair was nothing to the fight we had here… there were a great number of wigs on the green” (a figure of speech about gentlemen taking to Stephen’s Green to settle arguments in combat where words had failed them).

***

Had events allowed, the Irish in the British Army could well have found themselves facing off against Napoleon’s Irish Legion. As it happened, on Napoleon’s first abdication the officers of the Irish Legion had sworn loyalty to Louis XVIII, re-establishing the pre-revolutionary commitment of the Irish Brigade to the Bourbons.  Napoleon’s arrival on French soil prompted them to swear loyalty anew to him.  Garrisoned at Avesnes near Calais, they were not called into the battle. One has to think that uncertainty about their loyalty might have played a role in this. After Waterloo and in retaliation for the oath to the great usurper, the restored Bourbon regime under Louis XVIII disbanded the Legion, burned its flags and destroyed its regimental eagle.

Ireland was enthralled and deeply engaged by the ‘One Hundred Days’ of Napoleon’s return. His defeat was widely celebrated throughout the island, notably in Dublin where a new bridge was named Waterloo Bridge in 1816 though today it is better known as the Ha’penny Bridge.  To this day the Wellington Monument dominates the Phoenix Park and Waterloo graces a brace of place names.

After 1815, Irish nationalist agitation for political reform and home rule would dominate the rest of a century bisected by the Great Famine of 1845-51. Daniel O’Connell, a champion of democracy of truly international repute and significance, fought politically for catholic emanicipation, home rule and relief of famine victims.  Wellington actually played a key role in securing catholic emancipation.  This did not stop O’Connell from taking pleasure in goading Wellington, inventing the spurious claim that Wellington responded to jibes about his brith in Ireland by saying birth in a stable did not mean one was a horse.

While constitutional politics would dominate Ireland for the next one hundred years, the republican tradition of armed revolt inspired by the French Revolution would live on in Ireland in secret, a subterranean drumbeat kept alive by oath-bound revolutionaries. The next time Irish nationalists looked to Europe for support, it would be to Germany or “our gallant allies in Europe” in the salutation of the 1916 Proclamation.

Elliot’s masterful account of the United Irishmen and France, Partners in Revolution, makes a crucial point about their legacy: “…it was the myth of noble failure, the sanctity of the hopeless struggle, which paradoxically was to exercise most influence on nationalist imagination, and in the 1848 and 1916 risings, republican nationalists used the myth in justification of rebellions pre-ordained to fail” (p.370).

And as she notes, “in fairness, it was a myth initiated by the United Irishmen themselves when things started to go disastrously wrong.” As we look back on our history, even with the best intentions, Elliot’s points is an important cautionary one about how self-conscious history making is not history but its abuse.

The tragedy of Ireland’s divided loyalties were starkly illustrated when in one engagement in Dublin the rebels of 1916, very much sons of the French Revolution, faced off against the descendent unit of the heroes of Waterloo: The Inniskilling Fusiliers (12th Reserve Battalion) were dispatched to help deal with the Rising and suffered two fatalities and some injuries in the fight.

***

Waterloo lives on in many different ways. Napoleon’s vision of a European power bound under one (his own) rule recalled Charlemagne’s ambitions. Its peaceful manifestation today is the European Union. The EU may not excite British antagonism as Napoleon did but the island-nation’s relationship to Europe remains unsettled enough to generate an upcoming referendum on continued membership.  The United Nation’s reputedly got its name from Byron’s description of the Allies at Waterloo when he wrote ‘Here, where the sword united/nations drew…’ (see History Ireland, May-June 2015, p. 26).

In literature, Stendhal called on his own experiences with Napoleon’s campaigns to paint a vivid picture of the Battle of Waterloo in his famous and charming novel, The Charterhouse of Parma. That would in turn inspire Tolstoy’s famous account of the 1812 Battle of Borodino, the climax of War and Peace when Napoleon’s Grand Armée stumbles and fatally loses its momentum on the way to Moscow. (Indeed, one might note en passant, that Waterloo is unimaginable without the disaster of Napoleon’s Russian campaign since Russian pursuit and Allied convergence led directly to his tenure in Elba: see Russia Against Napoleon by Dominc Lieven and as a companion piece read Count de Ségur’s diary of Napoleon’s Russian campaign pubilished as Defeat, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign with an introduction by Mark Danner. Lieven contradicts Tolstoy by arguing that it was not merely Russian stoicism that won but logistical organisation by the Russian Army that sustained the pursuit of Napoleon all the way to Paris.)

For the 27th Inniskilling Fusiliers, their heroic unflinching defence in the maelstrom of the battle became a part of their soldiering ethos. As the Royal Irish Rangers they were merged with the Royal Ulster Rifles whose own stout defence of Seoul against the formidable “Chinese waves” during the Korean War were pivotal to the communist defeat (see related blogs under ‘Korea’). Having been merged again with Ulster Defence Regiment in 1992, today the Fusiliers live on in the Royal Irish Regiment.

Molloy again:

“Quite apart from historical study, Waterloo remains a cherished battle honour for the British Army’s contemporary Royal Irish Regiment – ultimate successor, through a complex series of amalgamations, to the 27th Foot of 1815. On 18 June 2011, Waterloo Day, the 1st Battalion of that regiment marked its return from a demanding tour of Afghanistan with the awarding of campaign medals. At the close of the medal ceremony, the battalion was marched off the parade ground by its non-commissioned officers: a symbolic nod to Waterloo, with regimental tradition maintaining that so many of the Inniskillings’ officers had been killed or wounded by the close of that engagement that the unit was commanded by its NCOs instead.” (fn. 98)

***

That there is not much written about the Irish at Waterloo is undoubtedly a result to some degree of the great occlusion of British-Ireland created by the struggle for Irish independence. As Irish self-determination was frustrated throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, the republican revolutionaries who had bided their time found events turning their way again. The Rising of 1916 and all that flowed from it sanctified a singular perspective on our historical narrative. The republican nationalist narrative focused attention on the lineage of the victors and their heroes: the United Irishmen, Wolfe Tone, 1798, and Robert Emmet’s doomed 1803 revolt.

We are re-stranding Irish identity with new lineages from history that suffered from the great occlusion. This is in part thanks to the liberation of the Northern Ireland peace process. It is in part a result of our evolution as a society which is increasingly inclusive, a sure sign of our security when it comes to our identity. Time and reflection allows us review our narrative as we approach one hundred years of independence. It is also in part a result of the decade of centenaries now upon us that demand our attention and consideration.

So, for example, Irish involvement in the British armed services during World War I is now acknowledged and commemorated. Irish defence force personnel who deserted to fight in World War II can be acknowledged rather than besmirched and penalised. As this process develops, the exploits of the Irish in the British Army throughout its Empire in the 19th century will overtime receive more attention.

In reflecting soberly and openly on our past, our history can no longer be considered, as Joyce termed it no doubt accurately at the time, a nightmare from which we must awaken.

And how we respond to Waterloo, as we respond to our history in general, tells much about Ireland today and our appetite for reflection on what constitutes our heritage and what it means to be Irish.

As we recover and embrace so many aspects of our past, that is a very positive story of where Ireland stands today, looking back on a far richer narrative than we have hitherto allowed and looking forward to a genuinely inclusive future.

 Eamonn McKee

Tel Aviv

Some suggested reading:

Peter Molloy, Ireland and the Waterloo Campaign of 1815, (MA Thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2011)

Thomas Pakenham, The Year of Liberty, The History of the Great Rebellion of 1798 (New York, 1993)

Marianne Elliott, Partners in Revolution, The United Irishmen and France, New Haven, 1982)

Liam Swords, The Green Cockade, The Irish and the French Revolution 1789-1815 (Dublin, 1989)

Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon, the true story of the campaigns of War and Peace (New York, 2010)

Mark Danner (ed.), Defeat, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur (New York, 2008)

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Ireland Proudly Says Yes

Today the votes cast in Ireland for same-sex marriage were counted.  The sun shone and there was a giddy atmosphere early on as it began to emerge that support for the proposed amendment to the Constitution was going to be approved by a substantial margin. This had been prefigured by the large turnout in Dublin and other areas.

And as the result looked increasingly secure, you had the sense that Ireland had just done something very significant, very liberating and very historic.

It was not simply that Ireland had become the first country in the world to endorse same-sex marriage by public plebiscite. It was that Ireland was reshaping its future, free of imperatives rooted in the past.

And helping to shape that was a whole drove of newly registered voters, mobilization across the board but particulalry among the young, and, movingly, those emigrants who came home to vote, sensing that this plebiscite could and should be seismic. So it proved to be.

The censorious, Catholic, secretive, and occasionally cruel management of intimate human relationships that characterised Ireland since independence was consigned to history. In our fast evolving debate with our past, the present had just won a signal victory.

In a way that was as profound as it was personal, on 22 May 2015 Ireland became a republic in the fullest sense of the term; a polity of citizens, in all their variety, equal before the law.

It has of course been a long time coming and there have been milestones along the way, not least approval for divorce. However, that does not detract from the revolution that the passage of this constitutional change represents. For our Constitution dates back to 1937 and had been crafted by Éamon de Valera for a Catholic country.

Like all constitutions, it stands for what we are or at least what we say we are. As such, the document has been a battleground on issues of intimate human relationships; the role of women, the nature of family, conception and the unborn, the rights of women to control their own bodies, and divorce.

Into this national document, the Irish public in their wisdom and humanity have placed same-sex marriage. The sense of relief and the joy of acceptance by gays in Ireland has been as palpable as it has been touching.

With this powerful endorsement, gay pride is Irish pride.

Eamonn

Eamonn McKee

Tel Aviv

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Sebastian Barry and the Re-Stranding of Ireland

There is a pivotal observation by Dr Grene in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture that ‘it is sometimes forgotten the effort that was made in the twenties to include all shades of opinion in the first Irish senate, but it was an effort that soon lost heart. Our first President was a Protestant which was a beautiful and poetic gesture. The fact is, we are missing too many threads in our story that the tapestry of Irish life cannot but fall apart.’

Irish life is not falling apart because we are in fact re-stranding Ireland in a process of reflection and recovery thanks to the centennaries that are now upon us. As a writer, Barry fearlessly explores what history did to the Irish in the mid-twentieth century.  He has few equals when it comes to summoning into daylight Ireland’s secret histories. In his interlinked novels centred on the McNulty family from Sligo, these secrets and their cruelties are generated for the most part by the dislocations of revolution and the highly straitened and oddly self-conscious society that was Catholic Ireland after indepedence.

For Barry’s central male characters, their tragedy is borne of the changed power structures after British withdrawal. In the novels, men are cheated of a place at home by the sudden turn of history that reshapes the meaning and implications of loyalty; they go to war in British uniform and return to an Ireland in which British service is no longer acceptable (Long Long Way; and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty).  Their fate is to be an emigrant, an exile or even an outcast.

The cruelest fates await Barry’s tragic women. Women are particularly put upon: in post-independent Ireland young attractive women are the dangerous innnocents, liable to incarceration of various sorts (mental institutions or convents) or exile (The Secret Scripture). Most innocent of all were the children born out of wedlock and therefore into shame. Secrecy was shame’s antidote, though the price was heavy. As Roseanne writes of Sligo’s Garravogue river, in The Secret Scripture, the river ‘took the rubbish down to the sea… bodies too, if rarely, and poor babies, that were embarrasments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend of secrecy.’

Secrecy indeed, the heavy price of shame: Shame and secrecy were double entries in the ledger between family and Church. In The Secret Scripture, the terrifying Father Gaunt, whose intense accountancy of public morality and norms has fed his lust for power just as surely as it has strangled any instincts he may have had for mercy and compassion, appears briefly but devastatingly. Not since Bram Stoker created Dracula has Irish fiction produced such a monster.

Jack McNulty, Eneas’ brother, is the narrative voice of Barry’s latest novel, A Temporary Gentleman. Jack’s sad fate is largely of his own making thanks to gambling and alcholism. His larger crime is his capacity to excuse and elude the consequences of his own actions. Only in forcing himself to write an account of his life in the steamy obscurity of a small African town does he find some way to assess it.

For a number of Barry’s characters, the true confessional is not in the Church but in the act of writing. There may be a broader point too; Ireland’s literary tradition is a form of redemption, a corrective commentary and assessment of the more oppressive expectations and narrow official narratives of mid-century independent Ireland.

One could say of course Barry has consigned unflattering roles to the architects of independent Ireland – the revolutionaries, local politicians and priests who define and rule their fiefdoms after the ebb and flow of the struggle for independence. But his novels and his importance as a writer are the richer for that; his very iconoclasm when it comes to the paragons of Irish independence is what give us pause for reflection. Moreover, if the soldier deems to take life, the priest to judge it and the politician to lead it, then they can at least suffer such interrogations in the corrective narrative of Irish fiction.

Association with or service in the British Armed Forces features heavily in Barry’s novels.  It is interesting to reflect on the distance that Ireland has travelled on this issue. Post-independent Ireland’s definition of nationalism was perforce too narrow to embrace the varieties of identity. For as Ireland struggled to free itself from the insistent embrace of the British Empire, a dialect process was set in play that frustrated the moderates and emboldened the radicals who were committed to republicanism and the use of force. Prevarication and delay in promulgating Home Rule (since it had been put on the agenda generations earlier by O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond) had fatally rationalised the arguments of Irish republicanism in favour of armed rebellion, just as machismo, militarism and romantic notions of the battlefield were reaching a climax across Europe.

One of the main casualities of this “de-stranding” of Irish identity in the twentieth century was British Ireland, the web of private associations created by individuals through family heritage, connection, career choice or emigration. It was only in the latter half of the 1980s that Irish service in foreign armies was begun to be officially commemorated in Ireland. As a new diplomat serving in Anglo-Irish Division at the end of the 1980s I recall the novel and delicate consideration of the new protocols of the remembrance service for those who served in the armed forces of other states.

Truth be told, we were only really sensitive of the British services. For in reality a good portion of this sensitivity arose from the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland during the conflict.  The Northern Ireland Peace Process has cleared the space for the current reflection:  Think, for example, of the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday and its redemptive effects.

Remembrance today now unashamedly embraces those Irish who served with the British military. One of the highlights of my time as Ambassador in South Korea was in 2013 when we welcomed Irish veterans who served with British units in the Korean War, mainly in the Royal Ulster Rifles. They and their units had distinguished themselves in the grim pivotal battles to save Seoul. Being part of such events and commemorations is now a regular and welcome feature of the public activities of Irish Ambassadors around the world.

The Ireland-Britain nexus is a much wider community than those who served in uniform, or even the wider catchment of the Anglo-Irish. It embraces all those who, comfortably or not, moved between both worlds even as they kept their travels across the Irish Sea secret or at least discreet. It includes too all those Irish who have made Britain their home and who felt a powerful liberation during President Higgins’ state visit to Britain last year. His visit, and the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 2011, were both profound waypoints in our development as a nation, our understanding of the past, and the re-stranding of Ireland.

Tolstoy once wrote that “A historian has to do with the results of an event, the artist with the fact of the event.” As a novelist, Barry does this fearlessly, poignantly and beautifully.

Eamonn McKee

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