m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

January 1994

Twentieth-Century Witness: Ireland's Fissures, and My Family's

by Conor Cruise O'Brien

Scholar, diplomat, politician, government minister, historian, biographer, anti-war activist, intellectual, playwright, newspaper editor, prose stylist, political theorist, university president, and authority on Zionism, terrorism, Ireland, Africa, post-colonialism, and nationalism: Conor Cruise O'Brien is a man of many parts; his biography, being written by Donald Akenson, a Canadian scholar, will run to more than 800 pages. At seventy-six, O'Brien writes weekly columns for both The Independent (Britain) and The Irish Independent, regularly reviews books for the Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books, lectures at leading universities around the world, and has just published a universally acclaimed intellectual biography of Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century statesman and political philosopher.

"The Cruiser," as he is familiarly known to British and Irish journalists, is a robust controversialist with a Johnsonian eye for cant, especially of the political variety--the kind often used to justify murder. Yet in person O'Brien is known on several continents for his wit, his generous laugh, and his supremely entertaining conversation. Having been thus regaled and informed on several occasions, the editors of The Atlantic Monthly asked O'Brien, a contributing editor of the magazine since 1985, to share the extraordinary story of his life with our readers. Hence this article--the first of a series.

A word about O'Brien's angle of vision. The series might well be titled "This Century in My Life," because O'Brien uses his life as a prism through which to view his times. In the manner of George F. Kennan in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Memoirs, he is concerned with understanding those currents of twentieth-century history that have swirled around him. Where Kennan told the story of the Cold War from the point of view of one of its most discerning and most misunderstood architects, O'Brien is a witness to a current of history newly relevant to the post-Cold War world--that of nationalism, and especially its furious amalgam with religion in the force he has called "sacral nationalism." In this first offering, for example, O'Brien takes us back to the 1916 "Easter Rising" in Dublin to trace the tragic part his family played in that violent episode. Beneath this dramatic portrait of a family and a people sundered by politics, however, O'Brien is ever on the hunt for the lethal mixing of God with country which has spilled oceans of blood throughout this century of nationalism and which, from Bosnia to Northern Ireland, still curses the world.

We are pleased to present scenes from one of the noteworthy lives of the century.

Ireland's Fissures, and My Family's

The first sound I can remember is a series of booming noises, which woke me up. The cause of the noises was the bombardment of the Four Courts, Dublin, beginning at 4:07 A.M. on Wednesday, June 28, 1922. I was then four and a half years old. That bombardment is generally considered to be the beginning of the Irish Civil War, which lasted throughout the remainder of my fifth year and into my sixth.

The background to the bombardment, and the political and military setting of my early life, need to be told, if the reader is to understand the rest of the story. These were as follows:

Up to December of 1918 all Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, along with Great Britain. Representatives freely chosen by all the Irish constituencies sat in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. My maternal grandfather, David Sheehy, was one of these representatives. He had started his active career as an organizer for the Irish Land League, the great agrarian combination that shattered the power of the Irish landlords in the 1880s. In consequence he was elected to Westminster as a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and sat there from 1885 to 1918. The policy of the IPP was to induce Britain, through parliamentary pressure, to grant Home Rule to Ireland. Home Rule did not mean independence; it meant autonomy within the British Empire, a goal then generally accepted by most Irish people.

The goal seemed about to be achieved when, on May 9, 1912, the Third Home Rule Bill was carried in the House of Commons, an event that in the next two years was to take the whole of the United Kingdom to the verge of civil war. The Protestants of eastern Ulster--what is now Northern Ireland--pledged themselves to resist incorporation in a Home Rule Ireland, and armed themselves in proof of their determination to resist.

It soon became clear that eastern Ulster could not be included in Home Rule Ireland unless the British forced it in. The British government did not see how that could be done, and had no inclination to try to find out. So it would be Home Rule with Partition: the nationalists (Catholics) could have Home Rule, which was what they wanted; the unionists (Protestants) could stay in the United Kingdom, since that was what they wanted. In retrospect this settlement, in its general character (though not in the precise form it was to take, in 1920), seems to me sound: respectful of the realities on the ground, and of the principle of the consent of the governed.

That, however, was very much not how it appeared to nationalists at the time (or since). Nationalists of every shade regarded Partition as a betrayal, a capitulation to naked force. It never occurred to any nationalist that the determination of a million Ulster Protestants to stay in the United Kingdom represented any kind of moral force whatever. Symmetrically, no unionist ever conceded that the desire of three million nationalists for Home Rule had any moral force whatever. In any case, each community had a low opinion of the general morals of the other, so the idea of the other as representing any kind of moral force was too outlandish to be entertained.

We can observe in many contexts that people bent on seceding from an established political entity are always outraged when someone else tries to secede from the political entity they are bent on establishing. We see this today in various parts of the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. It was strongly manifest in Ireland on the eve of the First World War. Nationalists held that they had a right to secede from the United Kingdom but that unionists did not have the right to secede from the entity the nationalists themselves sought to create: Home Rule Ireland.

Among those who held these opinions were my father and mother: nationalists of the mildest and most tolerant description and, of course, constitutional nationalists, as opposed to physical-force nationalists. Most Irish nationalists were constitutional before the First World War. My mother, born Kathleen Sheehy, was a teacher of Irish in a technical school; she is the original of Miss Ivors, the Gaelic-language enthusiast, in James Joyce's story The Dead. My father, Francis Cruise O'Brien, was a journalist on two moderate nationalist newspapers: The Freeman's Journal and later The Irish Independent. He was an agnostic, and had produced an edition of W.E.H. Lecky's history of the rise of rationalism in Europe. He had also written a tract intended to refute the unionist contention that "Home Rule means Rome Rule." Home Rule Ireland would, he thought, be quite a tolerant and secular sort of place. He was to find out, in the early years of the new state, that the "Rome Rule" gibe had a lot more substance to it than he had bargained for.

As a boy, of course, and also as a young man, I accepted my parents' interpretation of the Home Rule crisis of 1912- 1914. I can no longer accept that, but I respect my parents' feelings about those transactions, quite independent of the validity of their interpretation of them. There could be no mistaking, in their faces and their voices, the depth of the personal anguish they both experienced as they contemplated that turning point in the history of Ireland (and of the United Kingdom).

The Return of the Gun

The source of the anguish was not the "loss" of eastern Ulster--not by any means. Few Catholics and nationalists in what is now the Republic of Ireland have ever cared all that much about what is now Northern Ireland, and my parents were no exception. The source of the anguish was the impact on us, inside the Catholic and nationalist community (of what is now the Republic), of the tragic and unexpected flaw that became apparent at the very moment of the seeming triumph of the Home Rule cause. The Partition of Ireland compromised the constitutional nationalists in the eyes of their own constituents. And the fact that Partition had been conceded only after a show of force by unionists was seen, by an increasingly influential group, as legitimizing recourse to force on the nationalist side. The creation and arming of the Irish Volunteers (Catholic nationalists) followed on the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (Protestant unionists).

Moderate nationalists and extreme ones interpreted the sequence of transactions in much the same way. As my father put it, speaking of Ulster Protestants and unionists, "The Orangemen brought the gun back into Irish politics." Patrick Pearse, who was to provide the inspiration for the Easter Rising of 1916 (to which I shall come in a moment), put this thought with a significant difference, but the principle is the same. Pearse was replying to certain nationalists who were jeering at the Ulster Volunteers for their military posturing. Pearse said, "I think the Orangeman with the rifle a much less ridiculous figure than the Nationalist without a rifle."

As I say, I share, or rather inherit, my parents' feelings about the transactions of 1912-1914 (as distinct from their intellectual interpretation of the source of their grief). I am their son, after all, and my grandfather's grandson. I have what Irish Republicans (extreme nationalists) used to call "the bad parliamentary drop." The "drop" there is a drop of blood, meaning that Republicans detected, in the families of members of the old Irish Parliamentary Party, a genetically transmitted inclination to be pro-British. They had a point, of sorts. The members of the Irish Parliamentary Party, including my grandfather, were pro-British by comparison with the Brit-hating Republican tradition, from the Fenians to the modern IRA, and I, too, am pro-British, in the same sense. When I listen to such Republicans going on about the Brits, and quite often about me personally, I comfort myself by recalling the neat verdict on such as these pronounced by an unidentified wit: "He has a mind like an unripe gooseberry--small, bitter, fuzzy, and green."

When my father said that "the Orangemen brought the gun back into Irish politics," he was omitting the nationalist contribution. It was the nationalist insistence on including the Orangemen in a united Ireland against their known and fervently declared wishes that made the Orangemen "bring back the gun." But no nationalist, however constitutional, could ever manage to see it that way. I see it that way now because I have ceased to be an Irish nationalist.

When Imperial Germany's invasion of Belgium precipitated the entry of the United Kingdom into the First World War, the Irish Parliamentary Party, in the House of Commons, declared its support for the war effort. This might seem surprising in view of what nationalists generally regarded as a betrayal over Partition. But most Irish Catholics still wanted Home Rule, even without eastern Ulster. There was at that time general (if grudging) acceptance in Ireland of the Irish Parliamentary Party's position, and Irish Catholics joined the armed forces in large numbers. Among those who did so were my mother's two brothers, Richard and Eugene Sheehy, and also Tom Kettle, the husband of my mother's sister Mary. (Mary, who was a great beauty, had been secretly admired by James Joyce, but didn't take him seriously. Tom was an MP, handsome and charming, and "brilliant" in more-obvious ways than Joyce was.) My father was in favor of the war effort but not fit to serve; no recruiting sergeant would have looked at him twice. He had been a premature child and was small and thin to the verge of emaciation. But he was high-spirited and verbally aggressive, with a neat turn of phrase. He wanted to make recruiting speeches, but my mother put her foot down. She said that someone who could not fight on his own account should not go around telling other people it was their duty to fight. Fair enough--but I think there was more to it than that.

My mother was the youngest of the six Sheehy siblings. The eldest, and much the most forceful personality, was Hanna. Hanna was married to Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. Both Hanna and Frank were feminists (hence the hyphenated name), socialists, and pacifists. They were against the war effort, formally on socialist and pacifist grounds (with possibly a dash of feminism as well). But again, I think there was more to it than that. Frank was very close, especially from 1914 to 1916, to James Connolly, who was to be joint leader, with Patrick Pearse, of the Easter Rising in Dublin. Connolly was the leading socialist in Ireland, and the initial bond between the two men was their common commitment to socialism. But from the outbreak of the First World War until his death in 1916, Connolly's real and passionate commitment was to revolutionary nationalism. As a recent biographer, Austen Morgan, says, "In August 1914 Connolly became a revolutionary nationalist." Skeffington went a long way, though not all the way, with Connolly in that direction. His pacifism had been subject to deviation even before the war. In March of 1914 his name appeared on a list of the members of the "army council" of the Irish Citizen Army. He dropped out shortly afterward; he was clearly torn by conflicting feelings. In May of 1915 he wrote an "Open Letter to Thomas McDonagh," reproaching him for having "boasted of being one of the creators of a new militarism in Ireland." McDonagh--who, like Connolly, was executed for his share in the Easter Rising--was, in the terms of the rhetoric still habitual to Connolly and Skeffington (though it was increasingly perfunctory in Connolly's case), a "bourgeois nationalist," which perhaps made his militarism more conspicuous than that of the socialist Connolly. Skeffington never addressed any such rebuke, or any known rebuke, to Connolly, whose Workers' Republic was becoming increasingly violent in its revolutionary nationalism at about the same time that Skeffington admonished McDonagh about militarism.

Nine days after his open letter Skeffington was arrested and sentenced to six months' imprisonment for his public attacks on British militarism. With characteristic courage and determination he went immediately on a hunger--and then a thirst--strike. Seeing that he was clearly prepared to die if not released, the British set him free after seven days. They were sufficiently unnerved to allow him to proceed to the neutral United States on a lecture tour, although the object of his journey was quite clearly to engage in propaganda against American support for the Allied cause. After his return to Ireland, Skeffington "reported his impressions of the new world" at a meeting chaired by Connolly. When a speaker proclaimed, according to the Workers' Republic, that she "did not want the war stopped until the British Empire was smashed," Skeffington countered by proposing a debate on "peace now." Yet the bloodthirsty speaker--Constance Markievicz, later sentenced to death (but not executed) for her share in the Easter Rising--was expressing Connolly's view. In the following month (on February 18, 1916) Markievicz, ably supported by Connolly, won the support of a Dublin meeting for the motion that Ireland could only benefit from a prolonged war. Skeffington was still a pacifist, but his loyalty to Connolly does not seem to have been shaken by Connolly's adoption of this extravagantly nationalist and militaristic position. Skeffington continued to write for Connolly's Workers' Republic, at a time (March and April of 1916) when that paper was clearly on an insurrectionary course. And Skeffington retained Connolly's confidence to the end. Connolly had nominated Skeffington as his literary executor; he would not have taken this step had he not known that Skeffington, despite his pacifist scruples, was in full ideological sympathy with him. It seems that Skeffington's pacifism by this time had become limited to a personal determination not to commit any act of violence. But he risked his own life, in a nonviolent way, and lost it. Connolly, until the eve of his execution, did not know that his literary executor was already dead: shot by British troops in the course of the rising that Connolly and his friends had started. I shall come back to that.

Between King and Kaiser

The wartime conversion of pacifist (or near-pacifist) socialists into nationalists was a universal European phenomenon in 1914. But it generally involved support for the war effort. In Ireland, since Irish nationalism (in its intense forms) is anti-British, aroused nationalism took the form first of opposition to the British war effort and then, in 1916, of contributing to the war effort of the Central Powers.

At the beginning of the war Connolly had ostensibly been neutral. Across the front of his union's headquarters, at Liberty Hall in Dublin, was a banner reading WE SERVE NEITHER KING NOR KAISER BUT IRELAND. But as the war went on, the causes of the Kaiser and Ireland began to coalesce. In October of 1915 the Workers' Republic identified Imperial Germany as (according to Austen Morgan) "a nation resisting dependency." By December of the same year the message was clearer and louder. Constance Markievicz presented a marching song to Connolly's Irish Citizen Army: "The Germans Are Winning the War, Me Boys." By January of 1916 Connolly had joined the military council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organization that, although it had nothing socialist about it, was preparing for an insurrection, for which it sought aid from Imperial Germany. The Proclamation of the Republic, in Easter Week of 1916, referred to Ireland as supported "by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe." In the minds of the more politically sophisticated planners of the rising, that event was to provide credentials for admission to the eventual peace conference, which was of course expected to be dominated by the Central Powers. At least two of those planners, including Pearse, intended that at that peace conference the Crown of Ireland should be offered to a German prince, a member of a Roman Catholic branch of the house of Hohenzollern. The authors of that project were two of the seven signatories, along with James Connolly, of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

All this was very far from the intellectual world normally inhabited by Francis and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. But they were now near to it emotionally, through their association with James Connolly--an association not diminished by Connolly's mutation from a socialist into a revolutionary nationalist. Paradoxically, it was Frank's pacifism, even more than his socialism, that commended him to Connolly at this time. In theory pacifism was universal: opposed to all war efforts everywhere. In practice each pacifist lived in a particular country, and the activity of any particular pacifist damaged one particular war effort, and so benefited another one. An Irish pacifist impeded the British war effort, mainly by slowing up recruiting. Most Irish opponents of the British war effort were not pacifists; they were extreme nationalists. But the nationalists had a warm welcome for Irish pacifists, whom they saw as valuable allies, adding a humanitarian and cosmopolitan touch to the common cause. In those years pacifists were not welcome in the houses of most constitutional nationalists, who were committed to the war effort. The Sheehy-Skeffingtons kept up connections with their relatives "on the other side," but the conversation must have been restricted to items of family interest. Very few other pacifists were around, and those that were must have been worried about the Sheehy-Skeffingtons, especially when Frank's name appeared--however briefly--on the list of members of the army council of the Irish Citizen Army. Unionists hated pacifists, and in any case unionists and nationalists--of whatever description--did not mingle socially. So the only circle where the Sheehy-Skeffingtons were really welcome, having a sense of being on the same side on the things that mattered, was that of the extreme nationalists. It is not surprising that they should have taken something of the tone and mind-set of the circle in which they were welcome. Just as exalted nationalism came to replace socialism in the case of James Connolly, so exalted nationalism came to replace both socialism and pacifism in the case of the Sheehy Skeffingtons. In both cases something of the old vocabulary remained, but the uses to which it was put, and the feelings underlying it, had greatly changed.

The enormous chasm that had opened in the heart of Europe in the late summer of 1914 sent fissures, both large and small, first through the rest of Europe and then throughout the world, splitting people in every country. One tiny fissure of a fissure ran through our family, dividing supporters of the Allies from opponents of the Allied cause, who were thereby supporters of the Central Powers, objectively speaking.

The pro-Allies section was much the larger. My three uncles, Richard and Eugene Sheehy and Tom Kettle, were in British uniform. The other pro Allies people were my grandfather, David Sheehy; my father; and my aunt Mary, Tom's wife. (My mother, as we shall see, rather straddled the divide.)

There were just two anti-Allies people: Frank and Hanna. But they were a formidable pair, and thoroughly convinced of the justice of their cause, although they were probably not conscious of how much that cause had changed since the outbreak of the war.

A Family Split by Politics

The constitutional nationalists never felt particularly comfortable with their cause: support for the British war effort. That went a bit against the grain for Irish nationalists of any description. My father, for example, had been quite an advanced nationalist before the war. He had been lowered by a party of other advanced nationalists onto the organ at a conferring ceremony of the National University of Ireland, to prevent the playing of "God Save the King." (This had been far too advanced for my grandfather, because the Irish Parliamentary Party, hoping to achieve Home Rule through the support of the British Liberal Party, was opposed to gestures tending to alienate all sections of British opinion.) In wartime, gestures like that descent on the organ were the exclusive preserve of Frank and Hanna's friends, the extreme nationalists. My father and grandfather were now allied in condemning all such gestures for the duration of the war. But my father must have been a little ill at ease in his newfound respectability, and my mother would have sensed this, and worked on it.

My mother, through my father's known position, appeared as belonging to the "constitutional" camp, and did not challenge that position. But she kept on close and friendly terms with the Sheehy-Skeffingtons. I used to be a bit puzzled at my mother's firmness in getting my father to drop his recruiting project. This seemed a bit out of character. In my experience as a boy, my mother always seemed to take her lead from my father. She was known as the nicest of the Sheehys, in favorable contrast to her formidable sisters, Hanna and Mary.

So I was a bit puzzled at the firmness. I ought not to have been, for I would not have come into existence without that underlying firmness. When my mother fell in love with my father, in the first decade of the century, her parents forbade her to marry him, for reasons that seemed obvious to them. My father had no money and poor prospects, was clearly in poor health, spoke with an unsuitably grand accent, and--to cap it all--claimed to be a more advanced nationalist than my grandfather. So David and Bessie put their feet down. My mother was looked on by her parents as the most loving and biddable of all the children, so she was expected to obey without question. Instead she defied her parents. They were strongly backed by my mother's brothers, Richard and Eugene, by her sister Mary, and by Tom Kettle. Of all my mother's siblings, only Hanna supported her marriage. Hanna was strongly supported by Frank.

It was a passionate and lacerating debate, and Frank's determination swung it. On one occasion, at my grandparents' home at 2 Belvedere Place, Dublin, Frank addressed my grandparents about their arrogant unkindness to their youngest daughter. Richard Sheehy, who was present, became outraged at Frank's disrespect to his father and mother. Frank, like my father, was a small man, while Richard was hefty, and a rugby player. Richard picked Frank up bodily, carried him to the front door, threw him down the front steps into the street, and slammed the door. Frank picked himself up, went back up the steps, and knocked on the door. Richard opened it. Frank said, "Force solves nothing, Dick," walked past him into the house, and resumed the dialogue that Richard had interrupted. This seems to have been the decisive moment that unnerved the Sheehys. At any rate they gave in, and my existence followed.

My mother once said to me, "I give in on all the little things, but if a big one comes, I don't." I can now see, in distant retrospect, why the recruiting issue was one on which she had to make a stand. My mother's reasons were personal, not political. The Sheehy-Skeffingtons had been against the war from the beginning; Frank was soon to be engaging in anti recruiting activities (which were to cost him his life). If my father were simultaneously engaging in pro-recruiting activities, he and Frank would be on a collision course. It would have been a nasty collision. Frank was a pugnacious pacifist, and my father had the gift--traditionally esteemed and feared in Ireland--of saying wounding things in a memorable manner. And a collision between Frank and my father would have meant a collision also between Hanna and my mother. For my mother this was an unbearable prospect. She loved and admired Hanna, and was deeply grateful, all her life, to both the Sheehy-Skeffingtons for the support they had given her at her moment of trial. So she induced my father to keep his opinions about the war to himself. In the light of later developments in Ireland in the course of that war, he must have been glad that he had done so.

The Easter Rising

The year before I was born, 1916, is remembered in European history (and also in Northern Ireland) as the year of the Battle of the Somme. In Ireland it is remembered as the year of the Easter Rising. There is something paradoxical about this, since Irishmen were killed in vastly greater numbers on the Somme than in Dublin during and after the rising. But those killed because of the rising--and especially the sixteen leaders executed after it--have about them, in retrospect, an aura of sacral and sacrificial nationalism, while those who were killed in the Somme came to be seen, in the version of nationalism that became official in Catholic Ireland in 1918, as having thrown their lives away for no good reason.

Two members of my family were killed that year: Francis Skeffington in the course of the Easter Rising, and Tom Kettle on the Somme, in the following September.

At the beginning of the rising many shop windows in Dublin's main thoroughfare, O'Connell Street, were shattered by the firing. Inevitably Dublin's poor (and probably a few others as well) started helping themselves. Frank Skeffington went downtown to try to stop the looting. In my youth I used to wonder why a socialist should be so anxious to stop the poor from benefiting. A socialist would not approve, of course, but why feel the urge to be a volunteer policeman?

Having pondered the relationship between Connolly and Skeffington, I now think that the role of looting stopper was one assigned to Skeffington, probably implicitly rather than explicitly, by Connolly. The proclamation issued by the 1916 leaders, including Connolly, shows them to have been worried lest their cause be dishonored by "cowardice, inhumanity or rapine." Looting was rapine. Patrick Pearse's second communiqué issued during the Easter Rising contained a specific reference linking the question of looting to the question of honor: "Such looting as has already occurred has been done by hangers-on of the British Army. Ireland must keep her new honour unsmirched." Connolly must have known that looters would emerge when windows got broken and the police were off the streets. Connolly would have seen the looters as not only dishonoring the cause in general but also specifically dishonoring the working-class contribution to the cause, including his own contribution. The task of stopping the looting was a suitable one to assign (or leave) to a pacifist. Skeffington, who was committed to Connolly's cause but not to serving it in Connolly's way, must have been glad and proud to be allowed by Connolly to serve it in his own way. Connolly and Skeffington were drawn to their deaths by a common passionate commitment to the nation and its honor. As Marxists they were supposed to despise "the nation" as a bourgeois idea and "honor" as a feudal one. But their ideology did not govern their feelings.

Frank and Hanna both knew that Connolly and Pearse were headed toward insurrection, and their feelings on the subject diverged somewhat, Hanna's being perhaps somewhat more militant: "I think Connolly was right to go on once they got so far," she wrote to her son, Owen, many years later. She added that her husband "thought otherwise, feeling that any rising was foredoomed."

On Easter Monday, 1916, the day the rising broke out, Frank Skeffington set out for the General Post Office, in O'Connell Street, Dublin, where he knew the rebels had established their headquarters. The police had abandoned O'Connell Street, and looters were everywhere, smashing shop windows and helping themselves. At the GPO, Skeffington reported on the looting to Connolly, who refused to intervene. Connolly sent Hanna off with food and dispatches to another rebel garrison, the College of Surgeons, in St. Stephen's Green. On the following day, Tuesday, Skeffington was back in O'Connell Street, trying to organize a citizens' defense force to stop the looting.

It was of course very dangerous for any civilian to venture out in O'Connell Street, which was the main center of hostilities during the Easter Rising. But it was especially dangerous for Frank Skeffington. He was unfavorably known to the British military in Dublin, both for his anti recruiting activities and for his association with the rebel leader James Connolly. And he was a conspicuous figure, bearded and wearing knickerbockers--in both respects like a miniature version of George Bernard Shaw.

Frank was picked up by a British patrol headed by Captain Bowen Colthurst and taken to Portobello Barracks. (I tell this story in the form I remember hearing it from my mother.) On the way the patrol encountered a young civilian, whose name was Coade. Coade was carrying rosary beads in his hand. The sight of them infuriated Colthurst, who was a Protestant fundamentalist (and later found to be of unsound mind). He asked Coade what he was doing. Coade replied, "I'm coming from my devotions, sir." (Rathmines Catholic Church is near Portobello Barracks.) Roaring "Take that for your devotions!" Colthurst struck Coade on the head with the butt of his revolver, killing him instantly. Skeffington said, "I'll see you pay for this, Colthurst." Colthurst left Skeffington under guard at Portobello Barracks with instructions that he was to be executed if there was any further rebel firing. Pursuant to Colthurst's instructions, and as the rebel firing continued, Frank was shot by a firing squad in Portobello on Wednesday morning. All through Thursday, Hanna could learn nothing about what had happened to her husband, or where he was. Leah Levenson and Jerry H. Natterstad, the authors of her biography, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Irish Feminist (1986), wrote,

On Friday morning Hanna's sisters, Margaret Culhane and Mary Kettle, decided to go to Portobello Barracks to see if they could obtain any information about Francis. There they talked with a Captain Bowen Colthurst, who denied any knowledge of their brother-in-law. Puzzled by the vehemence of his denial, they nevertheless accepted his story since they had no intimation then that a murder had even been committed, let alone that he was the one who had ordered it.

On the evening of the same day a British patrol led by Bowen-Colthurst raided the Skeffington home in quest of treasonable material. Hanna was at home, knowing of Frank's arrest but not of his murder. Her son, Owen, then aged seven, was with her. The raiders were noisy, brutal, and destructive, as raiders usually are. Owen started crying. Hanna said, in a cool, clear voice: "Don't worry. These are the defenders of women and children."

Shortly after Frank's murder Tom Kettle came home to Dublin on leave. When his daughter Betty (who had been staying with her aunt Hanna) saw him, she took fright at the sight of the uniform and ran away. Tom was distraught and considered resigning his commission, but decided to volunteer for active service. He was killed at Givenchy, Somme, five months after his brother-in-law had been murdered by soldiers of the army in which he was serving.

The circumstances of the Skeffington murder were embarrassing for the British government, then a Liberal one, headed by H. H. Asquith. Hanna was pressing for a public inquiry. In July she went to London to see Asquith about this. He offered her a large sum of money in compensation, and offered to pay for the education of her son at a first-rate school. The implicit proviso was that she drop her demand for the inquiry. Hanna refused. Asquith asked whether she had considered that her son might later reproach her for that decision. Hanna replied, "If my son were to grow up into a person who could reproach me for that, I would care nothing for anything he might say." Owen did not grow up into such a person.

The Passion of
Frank Skeffington

Imust have been about seven years old myself when I first heard, from my mother, the story of the deaths of Frank Skeffington and Tom Kettle. That would have been in 1924, in the immediate aftermath of the Irish Civil War. My mother told the story very carefully and deliberately. She strove for balance between Frank and Tom. Both were brave men doing their duty as they saw it, although they saw it in different ways. That much was obviously true. But the story itself--both as my mother told it to me and in its wider context, as I learned about it later--didn't make for balance. It strongly suggested that Frank had been right, and Tom wrong, in relation to the war effort. The Irish Parliamentary Party, which included Tom Kettle as well as my grandfather, had supported the war effort from the first day --a decision that was warmly welcomed in Parliament on that day and totally taken for granted thereafter. Regarding the most important event that occurred in Ireland--the Easter Rising--the passionately urged pleas of the party first to avert, and then to stop, the executions of the leaders of the rising went unheeded. Catholic and nationalist Ireland felt outraged by the executions. But the ones who felt most outraged were the constitutional nationalists, because they were the ones who had been let down and made fools of. Tom Kettle's personal outrage at the executions--a feeling shared by all Irish Catholics in British uniform at that time--was vastly magnified by the murder of his brother-in-law and, most poignantly, by the spectacle of his daughter Betty running away from the sight of his uniform. A disappointed, disillusioned man, Tom Kettle died for a cause he no longer believed in. And his widow's bereavement was further darkened by her knowledge of that ultimate disillusion. Frank Skeffington was to be vindicated by the same events that disillusioned his brother-in-law. He had been opposed to the war effort from the very beginning, and the events of 1916 in Dublin seem to have shown him to have been right.

As my mother told the story, both men had laid down their lives for Ireland, and I should revere the memories of both of them. All the same, there was a difference. Tom's course was honorable but mistaken, and he had come to know this. He had indeed fought for Ireland, as he believed, and he fully expected to die for it. But when he was facing death, it was in the bitter knowledge that it was not, after all, death for Ireland. Frank, on the other hand, had been clear-sighted in his course throughout.

In my adolescence, brooding over the parallel lives of Tom and Frank (and I have brooded over them at intervals throughout my life), I couldn't see why my mother seemed so sure that Frank had died for Ireland. Socialism and pacifism were his causes, and the occasion of his death. I couldn't see the link between the causes and the occasion, or between either and Ireland. It all seemed pretty incoherent. It doesn't seem that way any longer. As indicated earlier, socialism and pacifism had become recessive for Skeffington. What had become dominant was the exalted nationalism of Pearse and Connolly. Frank died defending the honor of Ireland--as conceived by Pearse and Connolly--against the looters. That is indeed dying for Ireland, by the most exigent standards.

Frank's story made far more impact on my imagination than Tom's. Tom died "out there," one of millions of casualties, in a land then unknown to me. But Frank's story was unique, vivid, dramatic--and it had happened where I lived. Every Sunday my mother and I and Aunt Mary--Tom's widow--attended mass in Rathmines Church (neither my father nor Hanna went to mass). That was the church where young Coade had gone for his "devotions" before leaving, clutching his fatal rosary beads, for his rendezvous with Bowen-Colthurst and death.

At one level of my imagination the story of Frank Skeffington blended with the Passion and death of Jesus Christ. The image must have been suggested by the thought of the bearded pacifist being hustled through the streets by brutal soldiery to his death--a thought that blended in my mind with the Stations of the Cross in Rathmines Church. The Dublin Via Dolorosa stretched south through O'Connell Street, then west for a bit along Dame Street, then south again, through George's Street and Camden Street to Portobello Bridge, and over the bridge to Calvary in Portobello Barracks.

The Passion image should not mislead anyone into thinking that my feelings toward Frank Skeffington resembled those of a devout Christian toward Jesus Christ. Not at all. My attitude toward Jesus Christ was made up of puzzlement, discomfort, and awe. My attitude toward Frank (whom, of course, I never actually knew either) was closely similar. Frank, I was told, was a martyr. I agreed: he was a martyr in the most literal sense, in that he exposed himself to death in order to bear witness. I wanted to bear witness, all right--and have borne some--but I didn't want to die. There was a general assumption all around me (or almost all; my father didn't share in it, although he expressed this only by having nothing to say about the matter) that to follow in the footsteps of Frank Skeffington was the finest course a young person could pursue. Considering where those footsteps had taken him, I didn't agree. And I didn't want to follow in Tom Kettle's footsteps either. Yet there was attraction there as well as repulsion; the combined result was a kind of wary fascination that has lasted all my life. Also, there was something distinguished about having a crucifixion in the family.

When I came to know more about the personalities of the two men who had died the year before I was born, I found that I would have liked Tom but not Frank. Tom in his heyday had been a most attractive human being: witty, humorous, and strikingly handsome, a notable talker, kind and companionable. He may have been "wrong" politically, but as a human being he was all right. But there seemed to me, from what I heard from my mother, to be something wrong with Frank as a human being. He was consistently priggish and occasionally cruel, and when the cruelty appeared, it took priggish forms. My mother told two relevant stories that shocked her, greatly though she admired him. My great-uncle Father Eugene Sheehy drank quite heavily in his old age for consolation. Frank, of course, disapproved. On one occasion Frank took Father Eugene's bottle of whiskey and poured it down the sink before the old priest's stricken eyes. The other story concerned Frank's son, Owen. Frank was a disciplinarian, but his principles forbade corporal punishment. So his way of punishing Owen was to lock him up for hours in a completely dark room. When I heard those stories, I decided I was glad that I had never had to contend with Uncle Frank. But I kept that opinion to myself. It was literally unspeakable in our family, belonging in the realm of blasphemy. Even today, as I write it, I shiver slightly.

The End of the
Parliamentary Party

The Easter Rising was unpopular in Dublin at the time, but a revulsion in favor of the rebels followed the execution of fifteen leaders. The executions were spaced out over a period of weeks. The last man executed, out of the fifteen, was James Connolly. Wounded during the rising, he had lost the use of his legs, and as he faced the firing squad, he was strapped to a kitchen chair--a detail that increased the nationwide revulsion.

The revulsion was primarily against the British, but it also told against the Irish Parliamentary Party, with consequences that directly affected my family and its standing in the community. Rebel sympathizers spread the story that the party had cheered the news of the executions. One such sympathizer was Arthur Griffith, later to be President of the Irish Free State. One day he was telling this story to a Dublin crowd that happened to include my grandfather, David Sheehy. David mounted the platform, confronted Griffith, and shouted, "You lie! You lie and you know you lie!"

Grandfather was right. Griffith was lying and knew he was lying. The Irish Parliamentary Party had vehemently opposed the executions and had demanded their cessation. All the same, the party's position with regard to them was uncomfortable. The Liberals, then in government, were the party's Home Rule allies, and the party's influence with its allies had been insufficient to avert the executions. (Actually the Liberal government in this period probably did not have sufficient influence with the military to avert the executions, but the public was unaware of this factor.) And the party could not break with its allies over the executions, because the alliance represented its only hope of winning Home Rule at the end of the war. So my grandfather and his friends were in deep trouble. A government decision in April of 1918, at the time of the last great German offensive, to introduce conscription in Ireland drove them near to despair. The entire party withdrew from Westminster to mount a protest in Ireland. This tactic rebounded, because it was seen as an acknowledgment of the failure of parliamentary action, the policy to which the party had been committed since its foundation.

Conversely, the withdrawal of the Irish MPs was seen as confirming the validity of the principles of the Sinn Féin Party, representing the ideals of the Easter Rising. Sinn Féin fought and won the elections of December, 1918. The Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped out.

I was just over a year old at the time of those elections, which had negative implications for the status of our family, and therefore for my own prospects in life. In the Ireland of before December, 1918, my grandfather had been a person of considerable consequence--one of the most senior members of the party, and the right-hand man of its last leader, John Dillon. The family's sense of its own importance in the first decade of the century was ironically acknowledged by James Joyce in Ulysses, in the passage in which he recorded a conversation between my grandmother, the wife of "Mr David Sheehy, M.P.," and a deferential priest, Father Conmee.

If Home Rule had been achieved by the parliamentary route, David Sheehy would certainly have had a seat in the Irish Cabinet. Our whole family would have been part of the establishment of the new Home Rule Ireland. As it was, we were out in the cold, superseded by a new Republican elite. To be connected with the Irish Parliamentary Party had been an asset; it was now a liability.

"The Troubles"

The only member of our family who now had prestige was Hanna. Hanna had escaped from Ireland toward the end of 1916, dressed as a sailor (according to family tradition), and had reached America, where she had lectured on "British imperialism as I have known it." Her object was, of course, to try to keep America from entering the war on Britain's side. Her anti-British activities won

her many friends and admirers in Sinn Féin, and she was part of the new Ireland in a sense that the rest of our family was not.

I am sure that Hanna, in that lecture, stuck to the literal truth of her terrible experience of Easter Week, 1916. The only distortion in her lecture was contextual, in the implication that this extraordinary episode was typical of British imperialism as Hanna had known it. Actually our family's relationship to British imperialism, up to but not including 1916, had been a fairly comfortable one. Hanna's father was still sitting in the Imperial Parliament at the time she was speaking. In the heyday of the Second British Empire, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Irish had been among the ruling peoples of the empire. The Irish Parliamentary Party had made and unmade governments of the empire. Its importance was recognized by no less an imperialist than Cecil Rhodes, when he sent a large donation to Charles Stewart Parnell. Irish people were prominent in the Indian civil service and in the colonial service--and this at a time when neither India nor any other colony was represented in the Imperial Parliament. Hanna's brother Richard Sheehy had been a legal adviser to the governor of St. Kitts, in the West Indies.

Most of the people who voted for Sinn Féin that December did not realize that what they were going to get was guerrilla war against the forces of the Crown. If they had realized that, they would probably not have voted for Sinn Féin. But Sinn Féin in its election campaign made it appear that its objective--sovereign independence for all Ireland--was obtainable by peaceful means. It would appeal to the peace conference at Versailles, relying on President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, especially self determination. The peace conference Sinn Féin had now to appeal to was, of course, that of the victorious Allied and Associated Powers. But those who had prepared the Proclamation of the Republic, in 1916, were thinking of an entirely different peace conference: one dominated by the Central Powers, the "gallant allies in Europe" referred to in the proclamation. The idea that the Peace Conference of the Allied and Associated Powers would even give a courteous hearing to people who thought of the defeated Central Powers as their gallant allies belonged in the world of fantasy. Sinn Féin knew that, but the electorate did not, and swallowed the bait.

Those who were elected in December--or, rather, as many of them as were at large--met in Dublin on January 21, 1919, as Dáil Éireann (the Parliament of Ireland). They declared the independence of Ireland and prepared to govern the country as if the British were not there. They did not explicitly declare war on Britain, but as it happened, the guerrilla war broke out on the day the Dáil met, when two policemen were shot dead in Tipperary by armed men who were (in theory) responsible to the Dáil.

There followed two and a half years of rebellion, repression, reprisal, and counterreprisal, with plenty of atrocities on both sides. From March of 1920 to the summer of 1921 the British tried to stamp out the rebellion by the use of a force popularly known as the Black-and-Tans, after their uniforms, which were a mixture of police black and military khaki. This force was licensed to carry out collective reprisals and generally terrorize the population. My earliest memory is of an encounter--an entirely harmless one--with a Black-and-Tan. I was about three years old, and my nursemaid, Sadie Franklin, was taking me for a walk on the Rathmines Road, in the middle-class South Dublin suburb where we lived. The Black-and-Tan was sitting on a gate. Sadie started when she noticed him and hurried me on past him. I looked at him. He was a small man with a rather sad expression, and he just sat there, slowly swinging a revolver up and down. But he had clearly frightened the wits out of Sadie, without doing anything at all. As I was a bit frightened of Sadie, this achievement made a strong impression on my infant mind.

During this period, popularly referred to as the Troubles, Hanna was serving as a judge in the Republican courts set up by the First Dáil. This is hard to reconcile with her pacifism. The violence that had Ireland in its grip in those days was the result of the Dáil's attempt to replace existing institutions with institutions of its own, including courts. Those courts were in fact an integral part of the rebellion. You may be sure that no one was ever brought before a Republican court for the murder of a policeman. If any Republican was asked about that, the orthodox answer was (and still is) that the killing of a policeman who was in the service of the British Crown was not murder but a legitimate act of war. But that was not a distinction that a pacifist could explicitly acknowledge.

In my youth I thought that Hanna had been driven--understandably, by grief and anger at the murder of her husband--away from pacifism and into emotional nationalism and association with the Republican war effort. In much later retrospect, and after giving more thought to the relationship between James Connolly and Frank Skeffington, I no longer see any inconsistency between Hanna's position and Frank's. Both powerfully felt the tug of emotional nationalism and insurrection. Both came to interpret pacifism in a minimalist manner, as requiring their own personal abstention from violence but not precluding alliance with violent rebels in a civil capacity. Hanna's membership in the Republican court was entirely consistent with the role assigned (as I believe) to Frank Skeffington by James Connolly on the margin of the Easter Rising: keeping it from stain.

In July of 1919, at a public meeting in Dublin, Hanna declared, according to her biographers, that Ireland "was returning to the tradition of Wolfe Tone, of Robert Emmet, of the Manchester Martyrs, and of the leaders of the Easter Rising--all of whom had fought and died for that tradition." That tradition--of physical-force nationalism--was of course altogether incompatible with the pacifism for which she and her husband had stood, up to the outbreak of the First World War.

These events and positions were important, and puzzling, to me as a boy. The strongest influence on me was that of my cousin Owen Skeffington. Owen saw himself as faithful to his father's causes: pacifism and socialism. He was in fact more faithful to these causes than his father had been; it is impossible to imagine Owen joining an "army council," even briefly. Owen was firmly and explicitly opposed to the Republicanism of the IRA. His mother was ambiguous and reticent about this, but in fact gave support to the IRA throughout the twenties and thirties, in a civilian capacity. Whenever an IRA man was sent to jail, convicted of whatever crime, you could count on Hanna to be among those calling for "the release of Republican prisoners." Owen neither joined in those calls nor criticized his mother for making them. The relation between mother and son was affectionate but politically and philosophically fraught, heavily charged with mutual forbearance expressed through cryptic silences. The rest of us--my father, my mother, Mary Kettle, and me --were aware of the difference and the tension but never referred to them. It was a taboo zone. Like Owen, we all refrained from challenging Hanna's repeated calls for the release of the Republican prisoners. To that limited but real extent we were all under the spell of "the Republican movement," which is the respectful way of referring to the IRA. I was over fifty before I was able to break that spell completely, and by that time both Hanna and Owen were dead.

The Siege of
the Four Courts

Let us now return to the historical narrative, at the point where we left off: the summer of 1921. By this time both sides were getting tired of rebellion and repression. A truce was arrived at, which came into force on July 11, so that negotiations for a treaty could take place. On the British side, the foundation for a workable settlement had by then been laid, through the passage of the Government of Ireland Act in December of 1920. That act set up two political entities: "Northern Ireland" and "Southern Ireland." "Northern Ireland" was the entity that is still known by that name; "Southern Ireland" was the rest of the island, now known as the Republic of Ireland. The representatives of the majority in Northern Ireland accepted the act, and the Parliament of Northern Ireland was opened by King George V on June 22, 1921, a few weeks before the opening of the treaty negotiations with the Sinn Féin leaders. These leaders all, of course, rejected the Government of Ireland Act. But it was the object of the British Prime Minister to get the Sinn Féin leaders and those who supported them to accept something that would be territorially identical, and in other ways similar, to the "Southern Ireland" of the act.

The Sinn Féin leaders--Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, and Arthur Griffith--all knew that what was obtainable through negotiation would be similar to "Southern Ireland" but with some improvement on it. The British were not about to hand over Northern Ireland, whose Parliament their King had just opened, and even if they had wished to hand it over, they couldn't have delivered.

Both Collins and Griffith, who signed the treaty, and De Valera, who rejected it, knew that the Republic proclaimed in 1916 was not obtainable. De Valera's own version (Document No. 2) of what should have been obtained was so similar to the actual treaty that hardly anyone knew what he was talking about. But less complex minds, among the rank and file, saw the treaty as a betrayal of the Republic and no better than the Home Rule with Partition that the Irish Parliamentary Party had been reviled for being willing to accept. If this was the outcome, all the sacrifices had been in vain. And there was much force in this argument.

The Dáil, however, by a small majority, and after an extremely bitter debate, ratified the treaty that set up the Irish Free State (territorially identical with "Southern Ireland"), and a subsequent election returned a majority of supporters of the treaty. But these democratic transactions had no validity in the eyes of those who rejected the treaty. They were not to be governed by the outcome of any consultations restricted to the living. To them, the only mandate that counted was that of the Proclamation of Easter Monday, 1916, on behalf of a personified Ireland. "In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood. . . . The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman." This document was signed by seven men and has been felt by some Irish people in every generation since to be sanctified by their blood sacrifice, perpetually binding and above all man-made laws.

A party of men imbued with these convictions occupied and fortified the Four Courts, Dublin--the center of the Irish legal system--on April 13, 1922. They were left in possession until after the post-treaty elections, which took place on June 16 and gave the pro-treaty party a majority. The new government, headed by Michael Collins, decided to tolerate no longer this armed challenge to its authority, and the bombardment of the Four Courts began on the morning of June 28.

When the guns woke me, just after 4:00 A.M., I was interested but not frightened. I was not frightened because my father was not frightened. I trusted him absolutely, and if he was not frightened, there was nothing to be frightened about. Nor was there. Our house was more than a mile away from the scene of the action, on the south side of the city, and the guns were pointed north, across the Liffey.

I was told later that when my mother started at one explosion, I reassured her: "Don't worry, Mammy, it's only an eighteen-pounder." Obviously I had learned this from my father. On consulting a textbook recently, I was pleased to find that his information had been accurate: the two field guns used for the retaking of the Four Courts were indeed eighteen-pounders. More significant to Republicans than the caliber of the guns, however, was their source: they were on loan to the Free State government from the British Army. That became part of the Republican Black Legend of the Irish Civil War.

But the Black Legend did not prevent the Free State from winning the civil war, a year later. Nor did it inhibit the leaders on the losing side, and most of their followers, five years later, from successfully working the democratic institutions they had once attempted to overthrow. The Republic of Ireland--as the former Irish Free State is now known--became a stable democracy. But few would have predicted that outcome at the time of the bombardment without which it would not have been achieved.

Sacral Nationalism

All my life I have been both fascinated and puzzled by

nationalism and religion; by the interaction of the two

forces, sometimes in unison, sometimes antagonistic; and by the manifold ambiguities in all of this. But it wasn't until I came to write the above autobiographical essay that I began to realize that the relation of our family to this insurrection had been significantly different from what I imagined.

Thinking then in more literal terms than I can now, I had thought of Frank's pacifism, socialism, and agnosticism as completely antithetical to the mystical, messianic Catholic nationalism of Patrick Pearse, identifying the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ with the crucifixion and resurrection of a personified Ireland. Owen saw his father's position as antithetical to that of Pearse, and I long saw Owen's father through Owen's eyes.

I now believe that the positions had once been antithetical, but that the antithesis had ceased to exist by Easter of 1916. It was James Connolly who had broken it down. As late as December of 1915 Connolly had mocked Pearse's mystical militarism and sacramental exaltation of "the red wine of the battlefields." But by 1916 Connolly had fallen under Pearse's spell--an expression that has to be taken almost literally in the circumstances. By February of 1916 the former Marxist was writing like a person hypnotized by Patrick Pearse:

But deep in the heart of Ireland has sunk the sense of the degradation wrought upon its people--so deep and so humiliating that no agency less powerful than the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to recover its self-respect. . . . Without the slightest trace of irreverence but in all due humility and awe, we recognize that of us, as of mankind before Calvary, it may truly be said, "without the shedding of Blood there is no Redemption." [See C. Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly, pp. 318-319.]

Frank was Connolly's disciple, as Connolly's choice of him as his literary executor makes clear. So when Connolly became Pearse's disciple, Skeffington became Pearse's disciple at second hand, though with reservations. He could not take arms along with Pearse and Connolly, or use the Pearsean language, which was so exotically at variance with that of his own old ideologies. Connolly, as we have just seen, had already jumped a similar fence, with some panache. But the fences were only similar, not identical. Connolly had never been a pacifist. Skeffington must have winced, at least at first, at Connolly's new vocabulary. Yet he did not demur. He was being pulled toward Pearse in the wake of Connolly.

In 1940, twenty-four years after the deaths of Pearse and Connolly and Frank Skeffington, I was on the Great Blasket Island, then Gaelic-speaking and now uninhabited. I heard a famous local storyteller, Peig, give her version of Frank Skeffington's death: how he was struck down by Bowen Colthurst as he came out from mass with his rosary beads in his hand. The folk memory had conflated the figure of Skeffington with that of the boy Coade. At the time I thought Peig's version absurd. I then still thought of Frank as Owen did: as a militant agnostic. He certainly had been that, but I don't think he was by Easter, 1916. The whole enterprise of the Easter Rising, which Frank served in his own peculiar way, was one of exalted Irish Catholic nationalism. James Connolly, who had also once been an agnostic and a Marxist, was to be fortified by the last rites of the Church. And I think Frank would have gone the same way had Bowen-Colthurst permitted, which of course he would never have done. So the folk intuition was not so far off.

Hanna's Night

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington took part in the protests that turned into a riot on the fourth night of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. On the first night of Plough, February 8, 1926, W. B. Yeats, the directing spirit of the Abbey Theatre since its foundation, made the occasion something of a political demonstration. This was less than three years after the end of the Irish Civil War. Yeats was a member of the Senate of the Irish Free State, having been nominated to it by the victors in the civil war, and he invited some of the luminaries of the Free State government to the performance and dinner. Gabriel Fallon, a close friend of O'Casey's, suggested that Yeats hoped the play would "score over his Republican enemies." This was an understatement. Yeats knew that the play would drive the Republicans almost out of their minds. They would see it as both the hijacking and the defilement of the 1916 rising, by the poet-senator who had betrayed its ideals. In the conditions of post-Civil War Dublin, violent protests were certain. Yeats had no objection to that. He enjoyed real-life theater, with the Abbey at the center of the excitement. O'Casey, on the other hand (a little like Salman Rushdie later), seems to have had no idea of the fires he was kindling.

The first night, with a safe Free State audience, passed off without incident. As Hanna's biographers tell the story: "On the second night, there were some audience objections when the Republican flag was brought into the pub in Act II and on the third night these protests were even more pronounced and seemed to be directed at the young prostitute." Gabriel Fallon is described as having seen the protesters "as divided into two groups: those, like Hanna, who objected on nationalistic grounds and others who found the play morally offensive." This is rather too neat, and too cerebral. The whole protest was both nationalistic and religious (not moralistic). For Irish Republicans the Easter Rising was (and still

is, for those who are killing in its name) a sacred event--as Pearse intended it to be, timing it accordingly. The Plough and the Stars was felt as a desecration. Both the pub and the prostitute were part of

the desecration, which occurs when the Republican flag is brought into the pub and when Pearse's voice is heard proclaiming the Republic in that unhallowed context.

The second and third nights of Plough were the warm-up. The big night was the fourth, Thursday, Hanna's night. Eamon de Valera--then seen as the heir of Pearse and Connolly--had appointed Hanna director of organization of Sinn Féin, and I have no doubt that she organized the Thursday-night demonstration. Her biographers wrote:

All accounts agree that on Thursday night, disapproval climaxed in a Republican demonstration: all seem to agree that Hanna led it. . . . During the second act she arose and shouted that the play was "traducing the men of 1916." From that point on nobody could hear the dialogue on stage and minor battles were breaking out in various parts of the theatre. Through it all, Hanna continued to orate. [Hanna's feminist biographers are uncomfortable with her passionate nationalism--C.C.O'B.] Before the fourth act began, Yeats brought in the police and the hall was cleared of protestors. Hanna, leaving the theatre under police escort, made one last dramatic speech. "I am one of the widows of Easter Week," she said. "It is no wonder that you do not remember the men of Easter Week, because none of you fought on either side."

In Hanna's mind Frank had joined the sixteen executed leaders of the rising. And in spirit he did indeed belong with them.

The Ghost
of Patrick Pearse

The controversy continued in print, in The Irish Independent, between Hanna and O'Casey. There was one sentence in the exchange which I read with another of those shivers, when I came across it recently in Hanna's biography. Referring to the spirit of 1916 she wrote, "That Mr. O'Casey is blind to it does not necessarily prove that

it is non-existent, but merely that his vision is defective."

O'Casey's vision already was defective, in the literal sense, and he was threatened with blindness. Hanna, being a civilized person, would never have deliberately alluded to a physical defect of an opponent. But the demon of nationalism, which had her in its grip, selected, through her unconscious mind, the metaphor that would hit the enemy at his weakest point.

At the end of the same letter, she took a swipe at Yeats: "`For they shall be remembered for ever' by the people if not by the Abbey directorate."

This was an allusion to the punch line of Cathleen ni Houlihan, which Yeats had written at a time when he, like Hanna now, was in the grip of manic nationalism, in his case through Maud Gonne, Hanna's friend and ally. Still, considering the heat of the circumstances, she dealt gently enough with Yeats, whose poetry she admired. She knew about good writing, and could appreciate it even coming from an ideological enemy. I owe a lifelong debt to her for that characteristic, for it was she who first introduced me to good writing, through the works of that great British imperialist Rudyard Kipling. She gave me The Jungle Book for my ninth birthday. That was near the end of the year of The Plough and the Stars.

The climax of the controversy took the form of a public debate between Hanna and O'Casey, which of course Hanna won hands down. Her biographers wrote,

When O'Casey's turn came, he had to face an already hostile audience. His vision was bad, his glasses blurred, and he had great difficulty deciphering his notes. After struggling for some five minutes, he said that he could not go on and sat down. Hanna sympathized, sensing that, had he been an experienced public speaker like herself, he would have "had a lot more to say."

Possibly, as she watched O'Casey's performance, Hanna experienced some remorse for that metaphor of hers. Shortly after that grisly encounter O'Casey left Ireland for good. Having experienced, on more than one occasion over the years, brief touches of my aunt Hanna's cold and measured wrath, I can well understand O'Casey's flight, after bearing the brunt of her all-out attack. Yet the odd thing is that although I was more than eight years old at the time of these stirring events, in which a leading member of our family was a protagonist, I have no personal memory of all this. I didn't read newspapers at the time, we didn't have a radio, and these matters were never discussed when our extended family met for the regular Sunday dinner at my mother's house. Divisive subjects were avoided there, in the presence of the young, and this was one such. My father, my mother, and my aunt Mary could not possibly approve of what Hanna was doing, but they were not going to argue with her on a subject that made Frank's ghost walk. Owen --who must have suffered intensely in those February days--did argue with his mother, to no avail, but did not say anything to me about any of this at the time.

About four or five years later, when I was better able to understand, Owen let me kpa few careful words, that he did not share his mother's attitude toward O'Casey's play, and I was certainly glad of this. Owen was putting me quietly on my guard against the excesses of nationalism, notably the Irish kind, and I was to heed that warning, not immediately but increasingly in later life. Owen implied (and, I'm sure, believed) that his father, too, was opposed to nationalism, and I also believed that for a long time. Yet I can see now that Hanna was never more precisely faithful to her husband's ideas, in the shape those ideas had taken by Easter, 1916, than she showed herself to be in this episode over The Plough and the Stars. For the case against the play was that it desecrated the Easter Rising, by showing a group of Dubliners, including a whore, in a pub, listening to Patrick Pearse proclaiming the Republic. This was nothing less than the dramatic and retrospective equivalent of the looting that Frank sacrificed his life in an attempt to stop. In the terminology of Pearse's communiqué, the rising was being "besmirched." Both Frank and Hanna were committed, in heart and soul, to the defense of the immaculate conception of the Irish Republic. Both would have jibbed at that wording, wrongly scenting a sneer, but I have no doubt that it represents the underlying association of feelings, in their cases as in those of Pearse and Connolly.

This is the first of several articles.


Copyright © 1994 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1994; Twentieth-Century Witness; Volume 273, No. 1; pages 49-72.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture