Last weekend the Irish Times published a map showing some of the locations where it believed we should be considering erecting monuments to honour the achievements of various outstanding Irish women. Since it only included very few in the north, I’m suggesting one, Anna Johnston, who should be near the top of any such list.
In 2002, when the designation of Belfast as European City of Culture for 2008 was being criticised due to a claimed lack of a cultural heritage in Belfast, Mary Burgess, writing in the Irish Times (4/3/2002), had pointed out how one legacy of what she calls ‘cultural partitionism’ had been the “…disappearance of many Northern cultural figures from the literary history of Ireland.” She went on to point out that most of the innovative and important names in the Irish Revival had actually hailed from the north, not least among them being Anna Johnston (who wrote under the name Ethna Carbery).
Johnston and Alice Milligan (from Gortmore, County Tyrone, also equally worthy of recognition on that list) had been active both as creative figures and in the production of The Northern Patriot and The Shan Van Vocht newspapers. The latter paper had inspired Constance Markieviecz to found L’Irlande Libre and Johnston was a founding Vice-President of Maud Gonne’s Inghinidhe na hÉireann, itself a fore runner of Cumann na mBan. Johnston and Milligan are part of what Brian Maye (again in The Irish Times) described as “…part of a remarkable generation of Irish women nationalists whose role has received attention only in recent years.”
Anna Johnston, as Ethna Carbery, was to provide many people with the soundtrack to the revolutionary period ushered in by the ‘revival’ and was widely read among the Irish in America and Britain (one early twentieth century American critic described her as one of the few great poets of the last hundred years). It is difficult now to appreciate how impactful it was to explore her themes drawing on Irish history, nationalism, mythology and folklore for an audience that had long been expected to consume and enthuse about an arts that gloried in British imperial values and themes.
Although Anna Johnston died of gastritis in 1902, aged just 37, her husband the writer Seumas MacManus, ensured that her The Four Winds of Erinn was posthumously published that year, as were The Passionate Hearts (1904, with cover design by George Russell) and In the Celtic Past (1904).
Johnston and MacManus had only married the previous year. He was to remain prominent in promoting her writing (as was Alice Milligan) which inevitably attracted reference to their tragically brief marriage layering further emotional depth into her work. The Four Winds of Erinn in particular was repeatedly reprinted well into the 1930s. In 1948, The Irish Press (2/4/19948) wrote of The Four Winds of Erinn that “There have been greater books of verse published in Ireland since then, but none that has achieved greater popularity.” At the fiftieth anniversary of her death, a public address was given by Sinead de Valera in which she stated that “Among women poets Ethna Carbery would always hold the foremost place and, even though her life was short, it was full of devotion and idealism” (Irish Press 2/4/1952).
Johnston developed themes and a style that appealed to a contemporary audience, in particular its unashamed sentimentality, but that probably just wouldn’t translate into today’s tastes. One of her poems that, many people do still know today, was used to provide the lyrics for the song Roddy McCorley. Yet Johnston was clearly a hugely significant figure within the literary and political revival of the late nineteenth century and contributed significantly to the sense of identity that underscored the nationalist and republican movements of the early twentieth century. Although she had moved to Donegal after she married, she had grown up and lived mostly in Belfast on the Antrim Road where she had been exposed to Irish history and politics all her life. So had her brother James who was a member of the fascinating London Irish Republican Brotherhood circles and, although he had not taken any physical role in the Easter Rising (he was then 54 years of age), was arrested and interned in Frongoch. According to the National Graves Association pamphlet Belfast and Nineteen Sixteen (from 1966) James wasn’t in good health and he died shortly afterwards. However, while he does appear to have suffered ill health while at Frongoch, years after his return he moved to Salthill House in Mountcharles, County Donegal (in the late 1920s) where he lived until his death on 10th May 1932 at the age of 70.
Anna Johnston seated at the back of the family home, Antrim Road, Belfast. Beside her is her sister Marguerite (thanks to Roddy Hegarty for the photo).
Their father, Robert Johnston, was a timber merchant and, as the Irish Press noted after his death in March 1937, the last surviving member of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood on which he had sat with Charles Kickham, John O’Leary, John Devoy, Denis Dowling Mulcahy, Charles O’Farrell and John Lavin. In many ways his own eclipse from Irish history mirrors that of his daughter.
Robert Johnston had been born in 1839 in County Antrim where he had grown up hearing stories from the last veteran United Irishmen who had fought at the Battle of Antrim. He even once, reputedly, caught sight of Mary Ann McCracken herself. He had later got to personally know those who took part in the 1848 Young Ireland revolutionary movement before he himself got involved in the 1867 Fenian rising. He later oversaw the re-organisation of the IRB in the 1880s and had hosted many of the leaders of the Easter Rising in his Antrim Road home in Belfast. He was also a close associate of James Stephens, John O’Mahony and Charles Parnell. The personal connections with 1798, 1848 and involvement in 1867 and those who were to lead the 1916 Easter Rising led Seamus MacManus to call Robert Johnston the “…connecting link that kept the spirit of freedom alive throughout more than a century.”
With his own advancing age, Johnston became progressively more housebound in Belfast but lived to reach the age of 99 just before he died in March 1937. While there was considerable press coverage of his death, the lack of any official recognition at the time of his death prompted one correspondent to write to the Irish Independent (12/4/1937):
“Robert Johnstone was a man who had dedicated his life to the cause of Irish ‘Nationality’ and had been given a place of honour at the funeral of John Devoy, his friend and co-worker and died as he lived an uncompromising Fenian. He was worthier by far of more than the mere handful of Irishmen who attended the funeral to pay their respects to one who had given his all for Ireland.
It is with a deep sense of shame that we record that of the innumerable circle from the highest to the lowest in the land, and particularly in the South which boasted his friendship in life, none could afford to come and pay his respect to Robert Johnstone in death.”
Given his own contribution to history, Robert Johnston choice of memorial was all the more significant. Beneath his own name on his tombstone, in St Mary’s in Greencastle in north Belfast, it simply records how he believed history would remember him: ‘Father of Ethna Carbery.’
[Thanks to Roddy Hegarty for the photos of the Johnstons and to Damien Mac Con Uladh for details of her correct date of birth]