Friday, April 20, 2018


Diarmuid Bolger

Let me be clear from the outset. This is a marvellous series of lectures on Rebel Irish Women run by GPO Witness History, curated by James Curry and introduced by Diarmuid Bolger.

There has been a pile of work done on the place of women in the Irish revolutionary period in recent times - from the un-airbrushing of Elizabeth O'Farrell to a raft of biographies.

Hopefully it's not too late to redress the balance but the absence of these women from accepted history over the years is nothing short of a national scandal.

Felix Larkin

This month's talk was on Grace Gifford. And sure don't we all know who she was? Didn't she marry that Plunkett fellow in his cell the night before he was executed as a signatory of the 1916 proclamation? Pure romance. End of story.

Well, before I let Felix loose on the story, let me just say a word about the title of this blog post.

The history I was taught in school was plastic history, by which I mean embroidered myth. It was essentially propaganda rather than history and it conveniently skited over messy reality to embellish already over-polished glory.

Understandable, up to a point, maybe, given that I was educated by the Christian Brothers and was surrounded by a society imbued with a high level of tolerance for myth, particularly in its religious ethos.

I have drawn attention elsewhere to the "educational" compromise involved in the presentation of Brian Merriman's Midnight Court in the classroom.

Imagine any Christian Brother having to dwell on a pregnant Grace Gifford's marriage to Joe Plunkett in his cell in Kilmainham jail just prior to his execution.

And the same Brother having to deal with a barrage of questions from a potentially rowdy class of boys who had been taught that a girl's primary purpose in life was to ensnare a man, starting now.

So had our hero Joe succumbed to the temptress? Hard to see how either Grace or Joe would have come well out of that encounter.

So to the flesh of the matter.

Grace was essentially an artist. She had attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (incidentally around the same time as Gordon Brewster). She was a pupil of the artist William Orpen who thought highly of her and painted a number of portraits of her. She relied on her artwork for a living and, despite not being well off, she did much pro bono artwork for the revolutionary movement.

Later, she would quote this unpaid work when applying for a military pension, characterising it as income forgone in the cause.

Her family had thrown her out over her dalliance with, and subsequent marriage to, Joe. They did not approve of this unhealthy young man for their daughter, but there were, no doubt, other grounds, such as a mismatch between her parents' unionist convictions and her espousal of the nationalist cause, though she did not endorse violence in pursuit of that cause.

Her parents had a mixed marriage. The boys had been baptised Catholics and the girls Protestants after the fashion/requirements of the time, but all the children had been brought up Protestants. Grace had converted to Catholicism shortly before her marriage.

Anyway, there I was lapping all this up and taking photos like mad when I nearly jumped out of my skin.

Felix had broken into song, and a fine voice he has too:
Oh, Grace, just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger
They'll take me out at dawn and I will die
With all my love, I place this wedding ring upon your finger
There won't be time to share our love for we must say good-bye
An apparently well known ballad, immortalising Grace, written by Frank & Seán O'Meara in 1985.

Ruth Dudley Edwards in her book The Seven has a neat little piece of exegesis on this chorus, particularly on the last line.
The coy implication that their relationship was unconsummated is challenged by Gerry's testimony that she had uncontrovertable (sic) evidence that Grace had a miscarriage shortly after Easter while staying at Larkfield.
Gerry was Joe's sister.

Ruth, like Felix, is a myth buster and the online vituperation against her pouring out of hard core Sinn Féin/IRA has to be seen to be believed. So I just thought I'd give her an on-topic mention here to help her keep the faith.

If you're still with me, you can hear a version by the Wolfe Tones here.

Mind you, this is as nothing compared to the impact of Felix's public secular singing debut on the GPO audience. Maith thú..

I can't quite remember, such was my state of shock, but I think the image above is of Felix softly hitting one of the high notes.

I've just realised that I have not so far included any of Grace's own work, so here goes.

This is her sketch of Joe done just a month after his execution.

And this is Douglas Hyde in her inimitable cartoon style.

Nearly finally, back to melting plastic history.

The decade of commemorations has seen a huge outpouring of "revisionist" research looking back on history through evidence-tinted spectacles.

This has exploded a host of plastic myths but it has also revealed the underlying humanity of many of the main players, the real environment in which they were operating and the real choices they faced.

In many cases, far from destroying the mythological character, it has made them more understandable and ordinary. That is not to deny them their extraordinary actions but it does make it easier to relate to them.

In the Q&A I asked Felix for his reaction to two recently available sources of evidence: the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements and the Military Pensions Applications.

The Witness Statements were taken many years after the events and clearly needed cross-corroboration to filter out the puff. The Pensions Applications on the other hand were more personal cries from the heart, admittedly with a purpose, but many of them are closer to the events to which they relate.

Felix felt he had got closer to Grace through her pension application.

You can check out Grace's Witness Statement, her Application for a Widow's Pension, and her Application for a Service Pension directly. She was awarded the former pension (£90pa in 1924 rising to £500pa in 1937) but refused the latter pension.

Talks like this can run into unexpected moments of intimacy and emotion. On this occasion we had a contribution from the floor from a lady who turned out to be Grace's grand niece. She was the grand-daughter of Grace's sister Muriel.

James Curry

I don't want to go without congratulating James Curry on his recent doctorate and on his curating of this excellent series of talks. A book in the future perhaps?

I'll leave you with this charming sketch of Grace by William Orpen. You'll have seen a version of it on the cover of Marie O'Neill's book on Grace in the second image in this post.

Sunday, April 15, 2018


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Just looking at their Twitter account, The Long Room Hub is an intellectual and visual ferment 24/7. And why not. It is a great facility and it's in a university.

I ended up there last Wednesday (11/4/2018) at a talk on the very provocative subject you see illustrated on the opening screen in the illustration above. I was certainly looking forward to the talk. The assimilation of Southern Protestants, or what's left of them, is truly a saga in itself. But how I came to be there has a much more obscure cause, or more properly causes.

Ida Milne & Ian d'Alton

I worked with Ian d'Alton in the long defunct Department of Economic Planning at the end of the 1970s. I lost contact with him when that Department was beheaded by Charlie Haughey though I have been aware of his distinguished public service career since. It is only in very recent times that I have bumped into him again and it was this that led me to his talk in the Hub rather than the subject matter as such.

Ida is a different kettle of fish. I had never heard of Ida until recently, when I learned of her forthcoming book, Stacking the Coffins, which deals with the 1918 flu epidemic. I am working on a talk which takes a whimsical look at death in my family. I have infant death, TB, drownings (plural), war and even a possible double poisoning. My plan is to talk about these causes of death in a thematic way and illustrate this with family examples. It was only when I learned of Ida's forthcoming book that I realised I had no examples of flu deaths in the family despite the prevalence of the epidemic at the time.

So my real reason for being in the Hub was Ian and Ida rather than the Southern Protestants as such. But thinking on the matter I figured who better to give a talk on Southern Protestants than two Southern Protestants.

The term Southern Protestants is a contested one. Referring to the Republic as the South has many adverse connotations which it might be wise to avoid, but then what do you say? The Free State has a cut off point in 1937 and the Twenty Six Counties is clumsy, not to mention it reminding us forcibly of the other six. So, as Ian says, Southern is a term of convenience and we'll stick with it.

The talk was a teaser/trailer for a book that is in gestation, or possibly in the labour ward. It's title is Protestant and Irish and it consists of more than a dozen essays dealing with the Southern Protestant experience, many of them case histories.

Eunan O'Halpin

The session was introduced by Eunan O'Halpin who is Professor of Contemporary History in TCD.

I'm not going to go through the talk seriatim. In fact I may say very little about the talk itself as an audio podcast will be available on the Hub's Soundcloud page shortly.

The method of delivery was one I had not come across before. It wasn't quite a duet as the two presenters did not both speak at the same time. More like an agallamh beirte where they alternated covering a few paragraphs at a time. I've no clue how this alternation related to content or authorship. Suffice it to say it gave them both a crack of the whip while the audience got a seamless presentation. Some lessons here for Stormont maybe.

The book's contributions are grouped under three themes: belonging, engaging, and other(ness).

Protestants spanned the full range of Irish life but generally at the top of the heap. Today's generation may well be unaware of this, being less preoccupied with the other person's religion, if any.

The slide above gives some idea of this spread. Some of the names will be familiar but their religion less so.

It is very easy at this remove to underestimate the shock of Southern Independence to Southern Protestants. Could they succeed in belonging to this new, somewhat alien, entity? Did they even want to? How best to engage with it? To what extent would they remain "other"?

How these questions were answered would have implications right down to my own time.

Before the talk, in conversation with Ian, I mentioned the hate counter in Hodges Figgis which was there up to the start of the 1970s. This was an obscure corner at the back end of the shop which was packed with anti Roman Catholic literature. Ian had been totally unaware of it. Mind you it didn't last long after Michael Viney's exposé in the Irish Times but it was interesting that it had survived unscathed for so long.

I picked up a pamphlet advising Protestants never to marry a Roman Catholic. I don't think that would be viewed too kindly today but you could see where it was coming from. The Protestant community was a tiny minority and the Roman Catholic Church insisted that all children of (religiously) mixed marriages should be raised as Catholics.

There was a famous, or rather infamous, case in the 1950s in Fethard on Sea, which is Ida's part of the country. The whole saga was very confrontational across the religious divide and even RC Bishop Michael Browne, or cross Michael as he was known, got involved though Fethard is far from his Galway bishopric. He was one of the terrible trio of his day with Connie Lucy in Cork and John Charles McQuaid in Dublin.

Whatever about the formal confrontation which involved a boycott of Protestant businesses, Ida suggests that there was a much more live and let live process attempting to break out behind the scenes.

Ida mentioned that as far back as 1798 when Protestant ascendancy landowners were being burned out of the big house, her own people were saved by local Catholic neighbours.

I always knew that the GAA was a force for community development but I also thought of it as Catholic. It had not occurred to me that it was also a force for integration across the religious divide.

For historical reasons the business class in Ireland tended to be Protestant at least at the level of management and that took a long time to normalise. Guinness and Dockrell come most immediately to my mind.

If I can be excused a little bit of celebrity puff here to mention Bono. His parents had a mixed marriage (in fact two of them) in 1950 and it did not seem to go down too well with either family. Despite having been married in the Protestant church in Drumcondra, the local curate in Dolphin's Barn dragooned them into a second marriage in his church which he duly registered with the State making them doubly civilly married, a process for which there is not yet a word in the English language, as far as I know. I'm suggesting bonomy.

As far as the rural scene is concerned I'd just mention the experience of Colm Ó Gaora in Bangor Erris in Co. Mayo in the early 20th century.
Colm O'Gaora was a young teacher and a timire for Conradh na Gaeilge. He was new to the Irish speaking Bangor Erris disrict in Co. Mayo when he met a man along the road. "Dia dhuit" (God be with you) says he, in the traditional Irish greeting. The immediate and vehement reply took him aback: "May God and Mary bless you and may bad luck strike you down you dirty old Protestant".
It's a lovely story and it illustrates the depth of feeling across the religious divide in some rural areas. If you want to get the key to the "conversation", and my little bit of "poetic licence", have a look at my review of Colm's book.

There was a fairly lively Q&A after the talk with many contributions and questions from a packed, and in parts, distinguished audience.

I know I haven't done the talk justice and have rambled all over the place. But I'm in my anecdotage and there is nothing stopping you listening to the whole thing once the podcast goes up, and you can read the book once it hits the streets.

Saturday, April 07, 2018


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The occasion was a talk by Diarmuid Ó Gráda on Georgian Dublin - The Forces that shaped the City and it took place in the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) library on 4 April 2018.

The illustration above is of the cover of Diarmuid's book which was published by Cork University Press and launched in the Royal Irish Academy by then Lord Mayor, Críona Ní Dhálaigh, in 2015. I mention this because Diarmuid's talk proved to be a wonderful skim through his book, all 390 pages of it.

Lord Chesterfield

I had not attended a function in these premises before and if I had let myself I could have found my surroundings quite intimidating. There is that hush of entitlement where members silently glide about the place while visitors are afraid to audibly clear their throats lest they draw attention to themselves.

I could have been put off when I encountered Lord Chesterfield, former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and President of the RDS, on my way to the loo (Gentlemen's Cloakroom to you).

However, as guests began to arrive, I was reassured to see the good lord bend his dignity to take on cloakroom duties and serve as a hatstand for the duration. A sign, no doubt, if one was needed, of the ongoing democratisation of this venerable royal institution.

So I felt quite at home and relaxed when I entered the magnificent spacious library where the talk was to take place. In any event, hadn't I been to school all those years ago with the speaker's older brother.

David Dickson

The talk was introduced by David Dickson, whose own magnificent magnum opus Dublin - The Making of a Capital City had been launched in the Dublin City Library and Archive in 2014.

David was lavish in his praise of Diarrmuid's work and in passing drew attention to copies on sale at the back of the hall. Diarmuid, in the course of his talk, reciprocated, praising David's book and acknowledging his debt to David's work.

If you were brought up like me where history is definitive and you just have to learn it off and regurgitate it as appropriate, you could be forgiven for your amazement at how much new work is being undertaken and published on this hitherto "settled" subject.

In the political sphere much of it is unfairly disparaged as revisionism whereas in the archeological and social sphere it is classed as enrichment. In any event, much modern historical research is leading us to question who we are and this, while sometimes quite disturbing, is also very exciting.

David specifically mentioned a collection of drawings of Dublin street scenes from 1760 entitled The Cries of Dublin by Irish painter Hugh Douglas Hamilton which were only discovered in 2002 and were published a year later.

Diarmuid soon got into his stride and took off on a whistlestop tour of Georgian Dublin. He must have been very happy to have had his book published by Cork University Press and launched in the RIA, and now this talk in the RDS.

Before I forget I should say that the place was packed. And I should take the opportunity to compliment the RDS on the wonderful venue and on the high quality sound, including Diarmuid's head-mic which allowed him move about and physically point out things on the big screen.

Diarmuid Ó Gráda

I have referred above to Georgian Dublin's underbelly and that may be a bit contentious as Diarmuid deals with a wide range of aspects of Georgian Dublin. But what his book, and the talk, bring to the table is the result of a career of research on how the man in the street fared in this city, the second in the Empire.

Much has been written on the architecture of the period, on the doings of important people, and on the very dramatic politics of the period. But what was it like for the ordinary citizen, for the artisans or casual traders, for women and for blaggards?

This is all explored in great detail and with great accompanying illustrations.

A Crippled Beggar
from Hugh Douglas Hamilton 1760 (private collection)

Looking at the beggar, you wonder how he got to his present state. Perhaps he lost his legs in a war? Diarmuid then draws our attention to his two hand grips. These allow him to move along without his flesh coming into contact with the dirty, and perhaps diseased, street.

A Parish Watchman
from The Cries of Dublin

There wasn't much of a police force in those days. Each parish had to organise its own watchmen and the smaller and poorer parishes could not afford much on this front. The job could also prove quite dangerous for the watchman.

Drunken grandees attacking the parish watch in Dame St.
from A Real Paddy [Pierce Egan] Real Life in Ireland 1821

It appears that a regular sport among the grandees was beating up the parish watch. Clearly a policeman's lot was not a happy one.

Three Papist Criminals going to Execution
from Hugh Douglas Hamilton 1760 (private collection)

Nevertheless, "justice" was done after a fashion. These three ladies are handcuffed and praying to the Lord on their way to their deaths.

Robert Emmet's Execution
by F W Byrne 1877 (private collection)

And, speaking of execution, here is the Bould Robert Emmet.

If this is the same famous painting I have seen many times before, then I'm staggered. I have only been familiar with it in black and white and this coloured original is amazing. There are all sorts of details standing out, including the huge military presence and the way they are keeping the crowd at bay, mounted horsemen with drawn swords.

Diarmuid made an interesting point in relation to the choice of location for the execution. Apparently criminals were often executed at the scene of their crime.

Although Diarmuid didn't, I couldn't resist showing this detail from the painting. Emmet has clearly been hanged and cut down, decapitated on the block and awaiting his quartering, after which his quarters would be dispatched to the four quarters of the Empire.

If you get a chance do examine this painting in detail.

This is probably the place to mention the excellent quality of the illustrations. It is one thing to have quality digital illustrations on a screen, as we had, but a significant feature of the book is the quality of the illustrations, as you can probably gather from those I have reproduced here. I have taken them directly from the book but only used those which Diarmuid used in his talk.

Displaying the Hat
from James Malton,
A Picturesque and Descriptive View of the City of Dublin 1799

A shopkeeper brings out a hat to show to the lady in her carriage. Quite apart from any class angles involved, the lady will not leave the carriage for fear of soiling her clothes on the dirty street.

A Chimney Sweep
from Hugh Douglas Hamilton (private collection)

This wee boy, unlike his master, does not look in great shape. These children were actually sent up chimneys, often while there were still embers in the fire below. Many of them eventually died of diseases, including cancer, from inhaling the fumes.

Looking South from O'Connell St.
by Henry Brocas

Always the town planner, Diarmuid included this view of the work of the Wide Streets Commissionners. Of course the balance they achieved has since been broken by the construction of O'Connell Bridge House on the corner of Burgh Quay and Dolier Street.

Dublin Brothels 1747 - 1800

Diarmuid has listed all the brothels between 1747 and 1800, giving us the name of the madame, the year(s) of operation, the location, and notes on happenings. The map above gives a graphic representation of locations.

Diarmuid's only comment on this was to mention Temple Bar. I could think of a few more.

This model illustrates the forces influencing urban expansion.

So, if you were offered a choice, would you really like to go back and live in Georgian Dublin?

Not me, certainly not after Diarmuid's talk, and, of course, having read the book.

It is a tribute to Diarmuid's holding power that he did not lose the attention of a single member of his audience despite the hanky panky going on in the aisle thoughout his talk.

Friday, March 30, 2018


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The Dublin City Library and Archive (DCLA) in Pearse St. have been playing a blinder in recent times, actually over the last thirteen years or so since the tarting up and resourcing of the old (1909) Gilbert Library.

Between talks and exhibitions for the public at large and significant inputs into history research projects and publications, not to mention the archiving of material old and new, the place is a powerhouse of Dublin history.

The latest exhibition deals with women on the home front during WWI and it follows closely on a Suffragette exhibition, both of these making a significant contribution to countering the writing of women out of our glorious past.

So let's go in and have a look.

Needless to say, women started into the war in their "traditional" roles in society. They, no more than anyone else, had no idea of how their lives and future roles were to be eventually changed by this continental convulsion.

The exhibition traces the roles they played on the home front while many of their menfolk were away fighting for the King against the Kaiser.

Their activities at home were subsequently downplayed in the male history of the day, but the seeds that were sown in this period eventually grew up through the tangled undergrowth and today's world, had they seen it eventually come to pass, would surely have cheered them up.

I say that though, on reflection, I'm not sure that this would in fact be the case. There's still a long way to go.

This poster is typical of the use of women by the authorities to shame the men into going to war. Poor little (Catholic) Belgium is seen in flames with only a small area of sea between it and the home shore. Taken in tandem with other propaganda messages, this one appeals on more than one level.

What man would leave it up to his woman to go to war in is place? What will happen if the hated Bosch are not stopped? Next thing they'll be on the home shore and your family will be tortured and killed.

And if that didn't work, look at what the hated Bosch did to that lovely nurse Cavell.

I have to say I was familiar with Edith Cavell's name from having seen her statue in London many many years ago, but I had no idea that she had been executed for treason, of all things. That took me aback as she wasn't German. But apparently the Germans had conjured up a bespoke definition of treason which included helping the enemy no matter who you were, where you did it, or where you are from.

Would have saved a lot of paperwork in the case of Roger Casement. And him coming to mind brought up a British inconsistency that I must get to the bottom of sometime: they hanged Casement; shot the 1916 leaders; and refused to shoot Wolfe Tone. Funny old world.

But back to the women. On 9 June 1918, designated as Lá na mBan, and in the days following, thousands of women all over the country signed an anti-conscription pledge where, as well as indicating their opposition to conscription, they undertook not to do any of the work left undone by the men should these be conscripted.

Granted, this was well into the war and, unlike at the begining, its effects were being felt and such glory as there might have been at the beginning had dissipated. Then there had also been the Rising and its consequences.

So the poster above stands in stark contrast to that further up above which attempted to use women to leverage the men to join up.

However, a lot of men had joined up. Some for idealistic reasons, little Belgium and all that. But others had joined for a steady income for their family. And yet others had been suckered into volunteering at the end of a late night's drinking in the pub.

I'm told my grand-uncle, John Burgess, was in the last of the above categories. His joining up didn't make a lot of sense. He was married with at least two and a half children; he was well fixed working in his father's successful shoemaking business which he was about to inherit on his father's impending retirement.

When he enlisted, his father evicted his wife and children from the "company house" in Kilmainham and banished them to a wee box house across the river on Oxmantown Road. I'd say she well needed the separation women's allowance at that stage.

The allowance, which was paid to women whose men had enlisted, evoked many reactions on the home front. The Republican movement opposed the allowance on the grounds, inter alia, that it was irresponsibly squandered by the recipients.

There was mention of drunkeness, idleness and loose morals and the National Union of Women Workers established Irish Women's Patrols, reminiscent of the rural Parish Priest with his shillelagh scouring the ditches for misbehaving couples.

Cumann na mBan were active throughout this period and the exhibition features a book of poetry from Maeve Cavanagh, Sheaves of Revolt, which decried the enlistment of Irishmen into the British Army, was stridently anti-British and was suppressed by the authorities.

Maeve was the sister of Ernest Cavanagh who did memorable cartoons for Jim Larkin's Irish Worker. He was shot on the steps of Liberty Hall during the Rising.

A fine picture of Kathleen Clarke, widow of Tom Clarke, who was a founder member of Cumann na mBan and who served on the City Council with my grand-uncle PJ Medlar, finally knocking Alfie Byrne off his pedestal in 1939 to become the first female Lord Mayor of Dublin City, and that in an election in which Alfie actually cast two votes for her.

When my friend, Felix Larkin, pointed out this wonderful electoral anomaly to me, it reminded me that Albert Reynolds had signed the articles establishing the European Bank for Reconstruction (EBRD) twice and my grandfather signed his 1901 census form twice - all legit and by the book.

An unusual photo of Constance Markievicz, far right. Founder member of Cumann na mBan, sentenced to death for her part in the Rising, first woman elected to the British House of Commons and first woman in the world to become a Cabinet Minister.

Monica Roberts was a young woman who set up a voluntary organization, ‘The Band of Helpers to the Soldiers’ to provide gifts for Irish troops at the front, particularly those serving with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Flying Corps.

Many soldiers wrote to thank Monica and a correspondence then developed. These poignant letters give vivid pen-pictures of conditions at the Western Front and reveal the courage of troops in the face of appalling circumstances.

An ID certificate issued in London with a permit for Monica to travel (return to) Ireland within three months.

A general observation about the exhibition. This is one of a number of recent exhibitions drawing on archives and collections held by the DCLA, including some only recently acquired - Dublin Fusiliers, Jacobs Biscuits, Monica Roberts.

Senior Archivist Ellen Murphy has responsibility for these archives and for this and recent exhibitions. She is doing a marvellous job both behind the scenes in sorting out the archives and then organising their presentation in the exhibitions.

The current exhibition draws on the three archives mentioned and it is encouraging to see how these sources complement each other and contribute to building up a wider picture. Ellen's head must be filling up at a rate of knots of late but it is all grist to the mill.

While I'm at it I'd like to congratulate Monica in the Council's Irish Language Unit on her recent promotion. I have commented on her creative use of the Irish language both in the Jacobs and in the current exhibition. Her good fortune will be the Unit's loss.