Ethna Carbery and the disappearance of many Northern cultural figures from the literary history of Ireland

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

Anna Johnston (thanks to Roddy Hegarty for the photo)

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 style appealed to a contemporary audience, in particular an unashamed sentimentality, but 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 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 most of her life 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.

Cavehill

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.

R Johnston 29.3.37 I Press

Robert Johnstone, Irish Independent 29th March 1937

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, saw Mary Ann McCracken herself. He had later got to personally know those involved in the 1848 Young Ireland revolutionary movement before he 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 an intimate 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-worked 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.

Robert Johnston had himself memorialised with the one thing he believed history would associate him. Beneath his name on his tombstone, in St Mary’s in Greencastle, it simply includes 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]

The Manchester Martyrs centenary and echoes of the 1969 split in the IRA

Up to the Easter Rising, one of the key annual events in the republican calendar was the commemoration of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, the IRB members who were publicly hanged in front of a crowd of 8-10,000 outside Salford Gaol on 23rd November 1867. They were hung for the death of a police sergeant during an attempt to free two IRB prisoners from a police van. Neither Allen, Larkin or O’Brien fired the shots that killed the policemen and two others that had also been sentenced to death had their sentences commuted due, in one case, due to American citizenship (a lesson not lost on a future generation), and in another, due to the clearly perjured evidence against him (bizarrely, the others were all convicted on the same evidence but not reprieved).

Smashing of the Van

‘The Smashing of the Van’ – the attempt to free two IRB leaders that led to Sergeant Brett being shot and the execution of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ in 1867.

The execution was only the second public hanging in Manchester and The Pall Mall Gazette in London noted (on 25th November) the well behaved nature of the crowd (as opposed to the rioting that frequently accompanied hangings in London) and put it down to the fact that “…a taste for execution is perhaps, rather acquired than natural.” The hangman, William Calcraft, was notoriously inept and only Allen is believed to have been killed by the initial drop. Calcraft himself pulled on Larkin’s legs to break his neck but a priest in attendance, Fr Gadd, stopped him from doing the same to O’Brien. Instead the priest held O’Brien’s hands for three quarters of an hour until he finally died. The three were buried in the New Bailey prison in Manchester, although public funerals were held across Ireland and in some cities in Britain. Allen, Larkin and O’Brien are publicly commemorated in the song ‘God Save Ireland’, first published by Tim Dan Sullivan in December 1867. Another song, ‘The Smashing of the Van’ commemorates the events that led to their execution. Their remains were moved from the New Bailey prison to Strangeways in 1868 and then cremated and reinterred in Blackley cemetery in 1991.

Even after 1916, a huge commemorative ceili continued to be held annually in the Mansion House in Dublin for several decades. There are a lot of parallels with 1916, in terms of how the event became a focal point within the broader political methodology of Irish republicanism. For long periods, Irish republicanism had focused on building towards an event that might become the spark that would lead to the establishment of the Irish republic, rather than what would later become known as a ‘long war’ strategy (or low intensity conflict). In 1916, the ‘blood sacrifice’ concept understood by Pearse and Connolly was rooted in a realisation that failure to secure a republic by force of arms, in April 1916, would likely see their deaths either in battle or by execution. However, both knew Irish republicans could then catalyse the reaction to executions (rather than the whole Rising) into an ideological parable to try and give impetus to the Irish public to go out and establish that republic (as had happened with the Manchester Martyrs). Arguably, the structure of republican strategy, post-1981 hunger strike can be read within a similar framework. In the late 19th century, the Manchester Martyrs had provided a similar focus rather than the broader ‘Fenian movement’.  In many ways, the historical narrative around Irish republican ideology is often best understood within the context of such events involving a small number of individuals, rather than by looking at time periods defined in other ways (eg the ‘War of Independence’ was often reduced to a summary that focused on the likes of the execution of Kevin Barry).

The centenary of the Manchester Martyrs saw various events organised. Known, by 1967, as the Manchester Martyrs and Easter Week Commemoration Committee, the main organisers announced a few weeks in advance that a ‘Manchester Martyrs Commemoration Week’ was to be held in Manchester from November 20th to 26th. This was to include a folk night in St Bernadette’s Hall, Princess Road, a play presented by the St. Brendan’s Irish Players in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre. City Road, Old Trafford, a High Mass in St. Patrick’s Church, Livesey Street on the actual anniversary (celebrated by the Bishop of Salford),  a dinner dance in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre, City Road with the Assarce Ceili Band and then a parade on the 26th from Bexlev Square past the place of execution to St. Patrick’s Church for 11.30 am Mass. The parade was then to reassemble at Ben Brierley, Moston at 3 p.m. and continue to Saint Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston, where an oration was to be given by Jimmy Steele, Belfast, and a decade of the Rosary in Irish. All Irish organisations in Manchester were requested to keep that week free of engagements to support the committee’s functions.

In Manchester itself the centenary was preceded by a dispute over the erection of a memorial plaque at the site of the execution. The memorial was proposed and sponsored by the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association rather than the official Manchester Martyrs Memorial committee. It was given planning permission but opposed by the Manchester police and the issue was not resolved prior to the centenary itself. The Connolly Association had offered to include the policeman’s name on the plaque (arguing that he too was equally a victim of British imperialism). But the left wing politics of the Connolly Association also brought it into conflict with the conservation Catholicism of the official Memorial committee.

At the end of the main commemoration on the 26th November, the Memorial committee chairman, Austin Fitzmaurice, was prompted by one of his committee to add some final comments. The first was that the commemoration was nothing to do with any other commemoration committee (clearly meaning the Connolly Association), the second was that ‘those present’ did not want Ireland freed with the help of Soviet Union and the last was “We are Catholics first and Irishmen afterwards.” (Irish Democrat, January 1968).

The Connolly Association plaque was put on display during the commemorations, though. The main gathering on the Sunday was attended by 3,000 people including 77 year old, Elizabeth Maher, a cousin of Michael Larkin, who had travelled from Dublin. Also in attendance were Tomas MacGiolla, President of Sinn Féin and Jimmy Steele, Chair of the Republican Clubs in the north, members of Fianna Éireann (whose Dublin branch organised Ms Maher’s travel and provided a colour party), Cumann na mBan, the Brian Boru Pipe Band and the Pre-Truce IRA Association.

At the main gathering in the cemetery in Moston, Jimmy Steele gave what the Connolly Association’s newspaper, The Irish Democrat, described as a ‘spirited oration’ in its December issue. In it he criticised the ‘New Departure’ of John Devoy and Michael Davitt, stating that “…it was always an error to become involved in political parties.” (Irish Democrat, December 1967). Devoy, who had later supported the Treaty and Cumann na nGaedhal, had pushed the IRB leader, Michael Davitt, into supporting Parnell and the constitutional nationalists sitting at Westminster in 1878. This was perceived as having weakened the IRB and directed energies towards four decades of an ineffectual ‘Home Rule’ campaign in Westminster (the culmination of its failures being the IRB’s response with the 1916 Rising).

The month previously, Dan Breen, the former IRA leader who had been a Fianna Fáil TD, led a commemoration and wreath laying at the John Devoy memorial in Kildare, alongside leading Fine Gael politicians. Notably, neither party appears to have been represented at the official Manchester commemoration. There is an interesting echo here of last year’s 1916 centenary and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s embarrassingly strained emphasis on constitutionalists like John Redmond.

Steele might have intended his comments to be a commentary on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael détente at Devoy’s memorial, or at least be read as such. But within the IRA and Sinn Féin, Cathal Goulding had been pushing for an end to abstentionism at Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster. This had been repeatedly defeated when put to a vote. While his strategy was being questioned, Goulding had increasingly been centralising control of both the IRA and Sinn Féin in himself and in its public voice, like The United Irishman newspaper. The Belfast IRA newspaper Tírghrá, edited by Steele, was starved of resources and effectively closed down by Goulding in 1965. In September 1968, Goulding was to dilute the ability of the IRA to oppose his attempts to end abstentionism by dramatically expanding the Army Council so that he could then install a majority of his supporters and force through changes (and, apparently, stall any Army Convention that might reverse the changes). This precipitated the crisis within the IRA that surfaced in the early summer of 1969, led by Steele. In that light, Steele’s comments in Manchester should be seen as commentary on Goulding’s aspirations to transform the IRA. The Manchester Martyr’s commemoration in 1967 should perhaps be regarded as an opening salvo in the dispute that was to split the IRA two years later.

For more on the Manchester Martyrs, see Joe O’Neill’s The Manchester Martyrs.