The Countess; Petticoats, Patriots, and Partition

I write a lot about Constance Markievicz, just like anyone else who writes Irish history should. However, she was not the only woman involved in the planning or the execution of the Easter Rising in 1916…and many others never get the credit they are due. That’s not to say that she doesn’t deserve a bit of her own though. After all, one of her more famous quotes is highlighted proudly on my business cards, and she does have her own few pages in my book. Today in honor of her birthday, I give you some of her story from Petticoats, Patriots, and Partition – the book that has stolen most of my time for the last six months or so. Happy birthday Countess.

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The Idealism of Roger Casement

Congo Casement. Comma Casement. Sir Casement. These names and more applied to Roger Casement, over the course of his life. He was born on this day in 1864, and by the time he was executed, he had gone from being a world-renowned humanitarian, a British Consul, and a favored knight to a social pariah, an arms dealer, and a dastardly rebel. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, there are many – and Roger Casement traveled more than a few.

Roger Casement was born outside of Dublin and had a strict, Protestant father. When he was three, his mother secretly had him baptized as a Catholic and by the age of thirteen, both of his parents were dead. He and his brother were sent to relatives in the North, County Antrim, and he considered that his home, even though he spent much of his life away from it.

Casement left Ireland at sixteen to find work. He took a job at a shipping company, and spent a great deal of time in Africa. He learned more than one language there and he began trying to improve the treatment and the communication between the native population and the foreign traders. He then went to work for the English Government, first by clerking in the Foreign Office and then as an appointed British consul. He was tasked with reporting about any human rights violations that he was witnessing first hand. He traveled all over Africa talking to residents and viewing destroyed villages before writing a blistering account of imperialism and its impact on the native population. It was controversial and rejected outright by the traders, his former boss included, but it provided other humanitarian groups with enough information to mount an international campaign against King Leopold of Belgium, the man who claimed to rule the area. The campaign was effective and eventually led to the king relinquishing his hold on the area. It was one instance where his idealism worked out.

When he returned to England, he continued his humanitarian efforts by founding the Anti-Slavery Society.After that, he was sent back to Africa to make sure that improvements had been made, and he was disheartened to discover that the horrific abuse continued. He continued to chronicle the plight of the natives and was eventually knighted for his work and his activism on their behalf.

During a break from Africa,  he visited Ireland and joined the Gaelic League. He idealistically tried to learn Irish, but despite a gift for languages, he never got a grasp on it. He met with leaders to petition them for their support in Africa, but Ireland had its own problems and the meetings weren’t fruitful. However, in the process he developed an infatuation with Sinn Fein and their commitment to a Free Ireland. As his fascination with the idea grew, he retired from his position in the English government and devoted himself full time to the cause of Irish Freedom. He co-founded the Irish Volunteers and used his formidable writing skills to help pen their manifesto. He then traveled to America to raise funds among the exiled Irish. He was naive and he imagined himself a sort of ambassador for Irish Nationalism. He did not realize that the Irish Republican Brotherhood had already quietly taken over the Volunteers and were excluding him from their plans. He was also too wrapped up in his travels to notice that his activities were no longer as covert as he thought. The IRB were watching him to make sure he stayed out of the way, and the English government was keeping tabs on his travels and his contacts as well.

Despite the prying eyes, he donned a disguise and traveled to Germany in order to secure funds and arms for Irish freedom fighters. He spun it as a mutually beneficial agreement between countries, trying to convince the Germans that if they supplied arms to Ireland, the Irish would divert England’s attention away from them and their war. The request was not as well-received as he hoped, but he secured a promise from German authorities that said, “The Imperial Government formally declares that under no circumstances would Germany invade Ireland with a view to its conquest or the overthrow of any native institutions in that country. Should the fortune of this Great War, that was not of Germany’s seeking, ever bring in its course German troops to the shores of Ireland, they would land there not as an army of invaders to pillage and destroy but as the forces of a Government that is inspired by goodwill towards a country and people for whom Germany desires only national prosperity and national freedom“.

He spent the rest of his time there trying to raise an Irish Brigade out of the prisoners of war that Germany held. He had been sure that many Irish soldiers would jump at the chance to fight for Ireland, but he was sadly mistaken. After months of pitching the idea, he finally admitted defeat and accepted the much smaller arms deal that the Germans offered. It didn’t include any support beyond the weapons and was nowhere close to the agreement he had been hoping for.  Meanwhile, he learned of the planned uprising and he hoped to get them to cancel it, because of the inadequate aid from Germany. Because he had been kept in the dark the entire time, he had no way of knowing that it would go ahead with or without the weapons…and with or without him.

Casement made it to Ireland in a submarine, but the arms that came by boat did not. They were intercepted by the English, who immediately arrested Roger for treason, sabotage, and espionage. He missed the Rising altogether and heard of it while languishing in the Tower of London. If he thought that his life of service would keep him from prison, he was wrong. He was stripped of his knighthood and left to his own devices – neither the English or the Irish would help him and no rescue attempts were made. His important friends were vocal but only until the English shared his “Black diaries” publicly. They allegedly chronicled his homosexual adventures throughout the world. They made him look more like a predatory sex tourist than an idealistic humanitarian and they destroyed any hopes for support or leniency. Homosexuality was nearly enough to get someone killed already in that day and age, and when they added a charge of treason to it, well – it was only a matter of time before death came calling. He was hanged on August 3rd, 1916 – making him the only man connected to the Rising who was executed in that fashion, and the only one who was killed on foreign soil. His remains were repatriated to Ireland fifty years after he was killed, but they were not allowed to be brought North, so he lies in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin….not too far from where his life began.

There are a lot of what ifs to his tale. What if the arms had landed? What if he had been involved in the planning of the Rising? What if he had been able to bring reinforcements that were culled from the P.O.W.s in Germany? What if the diaries were fiction? There are many who still believe that they were fabricated, or at least exaggerated by the English in order to allow his execution. What if homosexuality had not been such a grave charge at that time? If his powerful friends and activists had been supportive throughout the trial and imprisonment, maybe he would have lived.

Roger Casement would have been one of the most important men in Irish history, regardless of his sexual orientation, if any one of his idealistic plans had come to fruition. He still has a large place in it, despite the fact that they didn’t. His goals were always intertwined with helping people achieve a better life and teaching them to fight the over-reaching powers that be. He was an idealist and was always rooting for the underdog – even when he was one. His short life was full of naivete and the best intentions – and if anyone had truly trusted and followed him, Irish history may be very different today. Even with the stain of the diaries hanging over him, his story has persevered and as we all move toward a more open society, maybe some day he will be remembered on equal footing with the rest of the leaders of that time.

Some little treats about James Connolly

On June 5th, 147 years ago, James Connolly was born. Although he later became an Irish symbol of Republicanism, he was not born in Ireland – and in many ways, he did not fit in the Republican movement. He was born in Scotland and was a devout socialist who was profoundly engaged in the causes of Labor and Equality first and foremost. He was certainly an enemy of the state and an energetic agitator, but many of the tenets he adhered to and espoused, were not quite in line with his partners in the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Since today is his birthday, here are some little things that you may or may not know about Mr. James Connolly.

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James Connolly’s execution

On this day, 99 years ago, James Connolly was executed by the English for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916 and his death caused anger to explode all over Ireland. This is not to say that the death of Sean MacDiarmada who was executed on this day as well for the same reasons, was any lesser of a sore point to be mad or upset about, or that any executions before them were either.  In fact, the decision to kill the leaders after secret trials still haunts the British to this day. It is only the fact that James Connolly was driven to his death in Kalmainham Gaol by ambulance and shot after being tied to a chair that makes his execution any different from the other leaders.

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The Foreign Fighters of 1916

Now that some of the Women of 1916 have been highlighted, it’s time to move on to another group that has been largely  left out of the history books when it comes to The Easter Rising. Many brave rebels are celebrated throughout the world every year at this time…but what is ignored by most is that the fighters were not exclusively Irish. There were more than a hundred foreign soldiers who assisted in the Rising and while some were 2nd or 3rd generation Irish there were others who had no Irish blood whatsoever. They came from all over Europe and the rest of the world to join forces against the English and were some of the fiercest warriors in the conflict.

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On this day in 1916…

99 years ago today Patrick Pearse stood on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin to recite the following Proclamation. It was a masterpiece and the only declaration of  its time to include women equally. By then he probably had it memorized but as he read it, there were about 1,000 copies being passed out to the passersby and the curious. It was the first notion many had about the chaotic uprising that was about to take over Dublin for the next few days. It read:

Poblacht Na H Eireann

The Provisional Government

of the

Irish Republic

To the People of Ireland

Irishmen and Irishwomen, In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag, and strikes for her freedom.

Having organised and trained her manhood, through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organisations, the Irish Volunteers and  the Irish Citizen Army, having patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and, supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory.

We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever  be extinguished, except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the last three hundred years they have asserted it to arms.Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.

The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of a whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National, representative of the whole people of Ireland, and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.

We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God. Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms, and we pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, in humanity or rapine. In this supreme hour, the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.

Signed on behalf of the Provisional Government,

Thomas J. Clarke,

Sean Mac Diarmada, Thomas Mac Donagh,

P.H. Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt,

James Connolly, Joseph Plunkett

Within a week, the rising was over and all the signatories were awaiting their executions. Nine more men would join them in their deaths and countless men and women languished in prisons all over the region. But on this day in 1916, the reading of the Proclamation signaled a beginning – an idealistic and hopeful moment – before reality and half of Dublin rained down upon them in the days to come.

(Interesting little aside: Patrick Pearse was not the first to read the Proclamation aloud on the streets. It is said that Constance Markievicz beat him to the punch when she started excitedly reading it to her friends and waving it around a few minutes after it had finished printing.)

Easter Monday

Since it is Easter Monday and National Poetry month here in the US, today belongs to Padraig Pearse and his heartbreaking poem, The Mother.

The Mother 
I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge 
My two strong sons that I have seen go out 
To break their strength and die, they and a few,
In bloody protest for a glorious thing,
They  shall be spoken of among their people,
The generations shall remember them,
And call them blessed;
But I will speak their names to my own heart
In the long nights;
The little names that were familiar once
Round my dead hearth.
Lord, thou art hard on mothers:
We suffer in their coming and their going;
And tho I grudge them not, I weary, weary
Of the long sorrow-And yet I have my joy:
My sons were faithful, and they fought.


Tom Clarke

On this day in 1857 Thomas James Clarke was born to Irish parents at Hurst Castle in Hampshire, England. It’s more than a little ironic that one of the biggest strategists behind Ireland’s future revolution was born on English soil. In fact, his father was in the British Army and the family did not return to Ireland until Tom was seven years old. They settled in Dungannon, a Fenian stronghold that had suffered terribly during An Gorta Mor – Ireland’s Great Famine. The scars of that disaster were still all around him and from his earliest years, Tom hated the English establishment. He was determined to fight against it however he could.

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Grace Gifford Plunkett is born

Perhaps the biggest tragedy and the best known story in modern Irish history is that of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford’s doomed love affair and hasty prison wedding. The tragic romance sits right next to Romeo and Juliet in the great sagas of impossible love, and their story may be one of the largest reasons that popular opinion swung in favor of the rebels after the 1916 Easter Rising. The day the British executed Joseph Mary Plunkett, they guaranteed that the story of the rebellion would no longer be remembered without the emotional inclusion of Ireland’s favorite tragic widow – Grace Gifford Plunkett. But before there was a widow, there was a headstrong, artistic woman – one who was born on this day in 1888.
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Edward “Ned” Daly

Edward “Ned” Daly was born into a large and proud Fenian family on this day in 1891. Although he was named after his father, he never met the man. His dad passed away just before Ned was born, leaving his uncle, John Daly, and the rest of his family to raise the young boy. They instilled in him the same rebel nature and Irish Republicanism that his father had once fought for.  When he was a small child, all he wanted to do was to be a soldier, like his father before him. Since his family would never allow him to take a post in the English Army, Ned thought his dream would never be achieved. However, when the march toward yet one more rebellion began, suddenly there was another option. Under the influence of his sister (who happened to be Kathleen Clarke), and her husband Tom, Ned’s interest in fighting and soldiering was brought to fruition. It was his destiny to be a rebel but unfortunately, that destiny would also lead to an early grave.

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