Looking down the Liffey towards Liberty Hall … would the key players in the events 100 years ago recognise the Ireland of today? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Church of Ireland Theological Institute,
Continuing Ministerial Education programme
Introduction to Church History
Wednesday 9 January 2013, 11.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.:
Challenging myths and memories (3): The Decade of Centenaries
As we begin a new year, and wonder what’s going to be different, it’s worth reminding ourselves too that we continue living in the past on this island.
Last year, we began a decade of anniversaries, and we are now into a roll-over series of commemorations of events a centenary ago, recalling the tumultuous events between 1912 and 1922 that shaped not only Irish identity but also shaped the map of Europe.
It is the decade that was marked by the demise of Chinese imperial dynasties, World War I, the Armenian Genocide, the Gallipoli landings, the Battle of the Somme, the Russian Revolution, the Balfour Declaration, the defeat of Germany, the fall of the Hapsburgs, the creation of the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union, the first non-stop transatlantic flight, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the winning of women’s voting rights, and the rise of Communism and Fascism.
But it was the decade too that brought us the modern zipper, stainless steel, and the pop-up toaster. It was a decade that saw the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity, the first US feature film, the debut of Charlie Chaplin, the publication of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Women in Love and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.
For Irish people, this was the decade that saw the death of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, who was born into a Dublin Church of Ireland family. It was a decade that saw the publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, and of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. And it was a decade too that was marked by the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania.
‘The centre cannot hold’
The Rotunda in Dublin … a venue for many of the political meetings and heated debates on all sides in the decade between 1912 and 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The world was so changed and transformed WB Yeats could open his poem The Second Coming with these lines about Europe in the aftermath of World War I:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Dublin Castle … the seat of Government until 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Towards the end of that decade, the Church of Ireland was living with the consequences of a half century of disestablishment. But the Church was more concerned with social political upheaval on this island, and the way we were tearing ourselves apart as a people. Irish identity was changed violently over that ten-year period, so that the lines by Yeats about the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916 could be applied to the whole island and the whole population:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Charles Stewart Parnell, founder of the Irish Parliamentary Party, influenced a later generation of nationalists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
It was a decade that saw the reconstruction of Irish identity through the creation of myths that by-passed the facts, even as the main actors in those myths were still alive.
Language and identity
The Abbey Theatre contributed to the cultural expressions of Irish nationalism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
It is forgotten that modern Irish nationalism had its incubation and gestation in the revival of the Irish language – a revival in which the main players included Dr Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, and Dr Eleanor Hull in hymns such as Be thou my vision (643).
Sean O’Casey, the playwright of the left, was born into the Church of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The artistic expressions of the new nationalism were found in the Abbey Theatre, founded by Lady Gregory, WB Yeats and George Russell (AE), the poetry of Yeats and the plays of Sean O’Casey – all members of the Church of Ireland.
Since 1916, the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin have been transformed into either working class heroes or the personifications of what it is to be Green, Gaelic, Catholic and Irish. But the myths that have been created by those who have a blinkered vision of what it is to be Irish betray the truths of history.
The Garden of Remembrance treats the 1916 leaders as martyrs … but their backgrounds were diverse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Who remembers today that Pádraig Pearse was born Patrick Henry Pearse, the son of a Birmingham Unitarian who had come to Dublin from England as part of the Victorian arts-and-crafts movement?
There are other myths surrounding Pádraig Pearse, including one that he was “President of the Provisional Government,” a post that may have been held instead by Thomas Clarke. There is no manuscript version of the 1916 Proclamation, but on all printed versions, the leaders’ names are not printed in alphabetical order, so that Pádraig Pearse’s name is listed fourth, after Thomas Clarke, Sean Mac Diarmada and Thomas MacDonagh.
Ironically, Thomas Clarke was not born in Ireland but in an army barracks on the Isle of Wight in England, where his father was a soldier in the British army.
Thomas MacDonagh had a middle class education in Rockwell College, Co Tipperary, and was a lecturer in English in UCD. In 1912, he married Muriel Gifford, a member of a well-known Church of Ireland family in Dublin. Éamonn Ceannt, an accountant, was born Edward Thomas Kent, the son of an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary.
James Connolly was born in Scotland and married a member of the Church of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
James Connolly was born in Edinburgh, and spoke with a Scottish accent all his life. After joining the British Army at the age of 14, he spent seven years with the army in Ireland. In 1890, he married Lillie Reynolds, a member of the Church of Ireland, who was born in Co Wicklow.
Joseph Mary Plunkett was the son of Count George Noble Plunkett, and his distant cousin, Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett, was a prominent lay member of the Church of Ireland and a Home Rule MP. The poet was born into a privileged family in Fitzwilliam Street, then an affluent suburb of Dublin, and was educated by the Jesuits at Belvedere and Stonyhurst, a Jesuit-run public school in Lancashire. Hours before his execution, he married Grace Gifford, who, like her sister Muriel MacDonagh, had been born into a prosperous Dublin Church of Ireland family.
In other words, two of the seven signatories were not born in Ireland, one was the son of an Englishman, one had served in the British army, one was the son of an RIC officer, one was born in a British army barracks, one was a titled aristocrat who went to an English public school, and at least three married women who were born into the Church of Ireland.
The General Post Office in Dublin … but the Easter Rising is not the only important anniversary to remember (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
These backgrounds were similar to those of many prominent figures on the Republican side in 1916. For example, Liam Mellows, later executed in 1922 at the height of the Civil War, was born William Joseph Mellows in an army barracks in Manchester, and his father was born in a British army barracks in India.
It should be remembered too in the coming years that while the 1916 Rising was being planned, Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin still favoured establishing a form of dual monarchy linking Ireland and Britain, similar to the dual monarchy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that Sinn Féin did not take part in the 1916 Rising.
Voices for the oppressed
Dr Kathleen Lynn took command of the rebel position in City Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Many of the women who took prominent roles in the Rising were members of the Church of Ireland: Countess Markievicz, the suffragette and a leader of the Irish Citizens’ Army, was born Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in Buckingham Gate, London, the daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth of Lissadell House, Co Sligo. She and her younger sister, Eva Gore-Booth, were childhood friends of Yeats, who frequently visited their home and described them in one poem as “two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle.”
Dr Kathleen Lynn, a founding member of the Irish Citizen’s Army too, took command of the rebel garrison in City Hall in Easter Week 1916. She remained a pious member of the Church of Ireland until her death in 1955.
Jim Larkin … “The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Alongside James Connolly, Jim Larkin Countess Markievicz and Kathleen Lynn, the founding members of the Irish Citizens’ Army in 1913, included Captain Jack White, a Presbyterian from Broughshane, Co Antrim, and the son of Sir George Stuart White.
Much of O’Connell Street, Dublin, was destroyed during the 1916 Rising (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Indeed, the first informal meeting to form the Irish Citizens’ Army was held in Trinity College Dublin in the rooms of the Revd Robert Malcolm Gwynn. He was a communicant at Saint Bartholomew’s until his death in 1962, and is buried in Whitechurch Churchyard in Co Dublin. One of his brothers, Brian Gwynn, was the father-in-law of the late Archbishop George Simms. Through their mother, the Gwynns were grandsons of William Smith O’Brien, the exiled 1848 revolutionary whose statue in O’Connell Street is close to the GPO and the statue of Jim Larkin.
In a letter of protest during the Dublin lockout, George Russell (AE) accused the employers of “refusing to consider any solution except that fixed by their pride” and he accused them of seeking “in cold anger to starve one-third of this city, to break the manhood of the men by the sight of the suffering of their wives and the hunger of their children.”
A year after the Dublin lockout, members of the Church of Ireland were among the most prominent organisers of the Howth gun-running. Erskine Childers, a cousin of the Bartons of Glendalough House, sailed into Howth on the Asgard and landed 2,500 guns.
The organisers included his wife Molly Childers, Sir Roger Casement, Alice Stopford Green and Mary Spring Rice – all Church of Ireland parishioners, as were many of those waiting for them on the pier, including Countess Markievicz, Douglas Hyde and Darrell Figgis.
Edward Conor Marshal O’Brien (1880-1952), skipper of the Kelpie, one of the yachts involved in the gunrunnings , was a member of the Church of Ireland from Limerick and his first cousin, Brian Gwynn, was the father of the late Mercy Simms, wife of Archbishop George Otto Simms.
The accounts of the Howth gunrunning seem to overshadow the equally dramatic Kilcoole gunrunning in Co Wicklow, which was organised by the skipper of the Chotah and the King’s Surgeon in Ireland, Sir Thomas Myles (1857-1937), who was baptised in Saint Michael’s Church of Ireland parish church in Limerick City.
Nor can we dismiss Myles as a marginal member of the Church of Ireland: his father-in-law, the Revd George Ayres (1825-1881), was a Church of England clergyman; and his youngest brother was the Very Revd Edward Albert Myles (1865-1951), Dean of Dromore. Sir Thomas Myles was knighted at King Edward VII’s coronation while he was President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
After the Kilcoole gunrunning , when World War I began, he became an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was later appointed one of the honorary surgeons to the King in Ireland.
Written in or written out?
The War Memorial Park in Islandbridge, Dublin, recalls the Irish dead of two world wars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The myths that have accumulated over the past century have written members of the Church of Ireland, their consciences and their role out of the shared history of this island.
In these coming years, we must remember that more Irish soldiers – Catholic and Protestant – died at the Gallipoli landings in 1915 or at the Somme in 1916 than died in the Easter Rising.
Five Irish Home Rule MPs fought in the British Army in World War I: Sir John Lymbrick Esmonde, Stephen Gwynn, Willie Redmond, William Redmond and DD Sheehan.
Nor should we forget that more than 400,000 people on this island, including five bishops of the Church of Ireland, signed the Ulster Covenant, and in doing so were led by Sir Edward Carson, who was born in Harcourt Street, Dublin.
A divided family
Many families in this part of the island – both Protestant and Roman Catholic – were totally divided when it came to loyalties at this time. Colonel Thomas James Comerford (1894-1959), who was raised in Co Wexford and Co Waterford, came from an interesting background. His grandfather, Colonel Thomas Esmonde (1831-1872), was decorated with the VC for his part in the Battle of Sebastopol in the Crimean War, his mother was three times tennis champion of Ireland, and his cousin, Sir John Lymbrick Esmonde, was one of those five Irish MPs who fought in the British Army in World War I. Thomas Comerford served in World War I, initially with the Royal Irish Regiment and later with the Royal Irish Rifles. He fought at Gallipoli in 1915, where he was wounded, and was at home in Dublin on sick leave in 1916 when the Easter Rising broke out.
The family story says he was taken out of Dublin immediately so he would not be compromised by the curious activities of his sister. He was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, and went on to spend 25 years in India, where he was married in Bombay in 1921 and where he was active in World War II, organising supplies for the Chindits.
His sister, the journalist and writer Mary (‘Máire’) Eva Comerford (1893-1982), was also raised in Co Wexford and in Co Waterford. She became involved in politics initially as a Redmondite Home Ruler activist in Wexford Town, but later became a life-long Republican activist, and took part in the 1916 Rising in Dublin. Little wonder that her brother had to be moved out of the city.
The Four Courts … burned in the clashes of the Civil War in 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Archbishop JAF Gregg of Dublin said in a sermon in December 1921, the month the Treaty was signed:
It concerns us all to offer the Irish Free State our loyalty. I believe there is a genuine desire on the part of those who have long differed from us politically to welcome our co-operation. We should be wrong politically and religiously to reject such advances.
Archbishop Gregg and Eamon de Valera together in the 1930s.
In 1922, after many Protestants were forced to leave their homes because of threats and some had been murdered in Co Cork, a delegation of southern members of the General Synod met Michael Collins and WT Cosgrave, and asked whether the government of the new Free State was “desirous of retaining” the Protestant community. The new government readily gave the assurances sought.
A few years later, when the Irish Free State was poised to outlaw divorce, the poet WB Yeats delivered a famous speech in the new Senate of the Irish Free State on 11 June:
I think it is tragic that within three years of this country gaining its independence we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive. I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority. We against whom you have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence. Yet I do not altogether regret what has happened. I shall be able to find out, if not I, my children will be able to find out whether we have lost our stamina or not. You have defined our position and have given us a popular following. If we have not lost our stamina then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.
The Mansion House in Dublin, where the First Dáil held most of its meetings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
‘No petty people’
Over these ten years, it is important that one single event should not dominate all the other centenaries and the memory of what has made the Ireland we know today. We should remember the Ulster Covenant, the lockouts, Gallipoli, the Somme, the men who rallied to Redmond’s call, and the poetry of Tom Kettle. Nor should we forget the diversity of contributions made by members of the Church of Ireland in those ten years.
For in the words of Yeats, we “are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”
The Luas in Abbey Street … have we moved on in shaping a modern Irish identity? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 9 January 2013 was the third of three in the programme in Continuing Ministerial Education.