‘De Valera is 34, dark, deified.’ An English woman meets Ireland’s rebels, 1917

Una Birch Pope-Hennessy’s account of a visit to Dublin is a who’s-who of the revolution

Eamon de Valera speaks  at O’Connell’s monument in Ennis, Co Clare. “ He is very well thought of by his followers and considered extremely dangerous by the authorities . . . He is deified.” Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Eamon de Valera speaks at O’Connell’s monument in Ennis, Co Clare. “ He is very well thought of by his followers and considered extremely dangerous by the authorities . . . He is deified.” Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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It is still possible to come across original sources for Ireland’s revolutionary period. The text here is a hitherto-neglected account of a visit to Dublin in August 1917, one hundred years ago, by the English writer Una Birch Pope-Hennessy. In a letter to her husband, she describes in remarkable detail meeting the leading lights in political and literary circles. Their pen-portraits represent a who’s-who of the revolutionary generation: it is Roy Foster’s recent Vivid Faces book brought to life.

Pope-Hennessy, who was born in 1876 and died in 1949, wrote popular histories, often biographies of women. During the the first World War she worked with the Red Cross and was made a dame afterwards for her work with prisoners of war. She was also active politically, especially in relation to Ireland.

She knew Lady Gregory and WB Yeats, having been a childhood visitor to Coole Park, the estate of the Gregory family. She was married to Maj Gen Ladislaus Richard Pope-Hennessy, from a prominent Cork Catholic family. He was a military strategist: in 1917 he was with the British forces driving the Turks out of Mesopotamia, which was formed by most of modern-day Iraq and Kuwait.

Both were liberal radicals and, interestingly being offspring of colonial governors, proponents for a dominion settlement in Ireland. (Una’s father was Arthur Birch, a governor in Ceylon and Penang, and Richard’s father was the eighth governor of Hong Kong.)

In this context, Una’s visit to Dublin in the wake of the 1916 rising and at the time of the Irish Convention, an assembly which sat from July 1917 to March 1918 to address issues around self-government in Ireland, was no accident.

Her hostess was the Irish historian Alice Stopford Green (1847-1929) with whom she had attended Roger Casement’s trial the previous year. Green, who later supported the Treaty that delivered dominion status, had obviously pre-arranged a number of these meetings, otherwise Pope-Hennessy’s presence would not have been tolerated. All of this is indicative of the central role Stopford Green and her house on Stephen’s Green played after her move back from London following Casement’s execution.

A portrait of Alice Stopford Green
A portrait of Alice Stopford Green

Una Birch Pope-Hennessy arrived a sympathiser of the Irish cause and left an admirer of its newly emergent leaders. History and mythology were already in the making. Amid British mismanagement, the dead leaders of the 1916 rebellion had become Catholic martyrs. The Irish Convention then taking place was somewhat irrelevant: much to her annoyance the Irish Parliamentary Party (“the Party”) was being sidelined. Her hostess was predicting – long before the Conscription crisis of 1918 – that Sinn Féin, then planning a convention of its own, would sweep the boards in a general election. Among the intelligentsia, Yeats’s as-yet unpublished Easter 1916 was being recited and James Stephens appeared like a character from his own novel.

With men still fighting and dying on the Western front – the same bad late summer weather that she mentions was producing the mud of Passchendaele – the Irish she met appeared to inhabit a different world. The visitor, though, became quite caught up in the revolutionary idealism, and momentarily met Éamon de Valera on her last day. She likened him to the new leader of the Russian provisional government, Alexander Kerensky. De Valera was fresh from the Kilkenny byelection success of the imprisoned WT Cosgrave.

Here are the standout passages from her letter.

August 22nd, 1917

Despite “a very rough crossing”, Una Birch Pope-Hennessy had no sooner met Alice Stopford Green than she was whisked out to dinner with the marquis and marchioness MacSwiney (Valentine Emmanuel Patrick MacSwiney and his wife) in Fitzwilliam Square. He, with his title from the pope, “had been arrested by mistake during the rebellion. He is very proud of having spent a night in custody.”

August 23rd, 1917

“A bad wet morning. Mrs Green very full of everything connected with the Sinn Féin movement with which she is an ardent sympathiser.

Griffiths said that the British Government ‘expected us to be grateful to them for being let out of prison after eight months. It shows the stupidity'

“First we go out to see various persons and then to Gill the great catholic bookseller and publisher near the burned-out skeleton of the [General] Post Office. There was a room in this place in which people used to meet and talk before the insurrection. Afterwards it was raided and one of the prisoners, O’Kelly, was taken up and deported. We had a long talk with O’Kelly and one got an idea of what it meant to be deported to England.

“Well, this talk took some time and we went back to lunch. Mr Arthur Griffiths [sic] editor of Nationality (taken up in the Easter rising, nearly shot, eight months gaol in England) looked upon as a Napoleonic type, short, stocky, strong, optimistic and not Irish in appearance; a passionate Sinn Féiner and wielding great influence. He said Ireland was reading as she had never read before. Everyone was constitution-making, pamphlets on political subjects intensely in demand, impossible to cope with supply of literature or lecturers. Six hundred branches of SF founded since June 1. A contagion spreading through the country . . .

“He was not ‘out’ himself in the Rising. I suppose he had other things to do as he certainly cannot be deficient in physical courage. He was taken up with a lot of others and placed with 68 men in a room at Richmond Barracks . . . He said the attitude of the soldiers made a bad impression. They seemed both brutal and jocular. In justification of the former attitude one must remember that road from Kingston to Dublin was strewn with English corpses.

“Griffiths said that the British Government ‘expected us to be grateful to them for being let out of prison after eight months. It shows the stupidity. You cannot expect men to be grateful for being sent to gaol or to change their political opinions while they are in gaol. If the Government did not want a tremendous stimulus in the Sinn Féin movement they most certainly ought to have kept us there till the end of the war.’

“So stupid does SF think the action of the British Government that some among them are convinced that it has been done in order to stir up another rebellion which would give an excuse for ruthless separation . . .

“One or two less interesting persons I must pass over and go to Plunkett House in Merrion Square, editorial office of [George William Russell] AE and the Irish Homestead. We caught him at a lucky moment, just back from the Convention where he had a great speech on the economic state of Ireland . . . He seems a marvellous being, packed up to the brim with the inexhaustible energy, great knowledge and able to refute and confound Ulster economists and statisticians. I should think no more genial a person lived . . .

“In the room was Susan Mitchell, a nice-looking white-haired woman of middle height. A bitter hater of England and with a great undisguised contempt for the people of my country. You may see in her books how ironical or satirical, I should say, is her mind. She is sub-editor of the Homestead.

“In the evening James Stephens [author of The Crock of Gold], the poet came in for three hours. A miracle of a small man looking like Little Tich. Full of energy, poetic imagination; an immense talker, as wonderful in his own way as AE in his. . . You would love to hear him chant his own poems and ‘Yeets’ poems. Another man full of supernatural, un-English energy. What is it?”

August 24th, 1917

“First a tour of the ruins. I stared at the pock marked College of Surgeons, Liberty Hall, at the streets and at the roofs held in destroyed Sackville Street. The strategical plans of the rebels were very bad. To dig in on St Stephen’s Green was madness. This I understood was entirely Countess Markiewitiz’s [sic] idea.

A few men die in a prison yard in Ireland and fires of legend and poetry spring at once from their graves

“Late in the afternoon we went to see Sean T Kelly [sic], president of the Gaelic League at the office in Parnell Square on the North side. A compact, agreeable, business-like young man about 40. Mrs Green introduced me and then they started off, without any restraint at my presence, on the plans of SF volunteers for their October Convention. Quite likely the Government will proclaim the Convention. The idea of holding it is to convert SF militarism, now an underground body, into an open body with elected leaders and representatives.

“Well after this I walked about by myself in the poorer parts of the city and bought Irish republican buttons with Casement, Connolly and other heads on them, and postcards, just for souvenirs for the children. They are only for sale in the worst slums, and in the worst slums these men are deified.

“In the afternoon I went over to the College of Science [now Government Buildings] to see Professor Henry [Augustine Henry, a famous botanist] . . . He is a methodical Catholic with unusual spiritual insight, and he said in talking of SF and Easter week that the priests had “captured” it, and that in some churches daily Masses were said for the souls of the men of Easter week, that the churches were packed on the anniversary and during the month that followed it.

Arthur Griffith, journalist and founder of Sinn Féin, “a Napoleonic type, short, stocky, strong, optimistic and not Irish in appearance; a passionate Sinn Féiner and wielding great influence.” Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Arthur Griffith, journalist and founder of Sinn Féin, “a Napoleonic type, short, stocky, strong, optimistic and not Irish in appearance; a passionate Sinn Féiner and wielding great influence.” Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Legends have already grown up on the deaths of these men . . . it doesn’t matter whether they are true or not. It is believed that intercession of these men is more efficacious than that of the saints. Young men who went to Mass once a year out of respect for tradition or habit, now go daily. The priests have woven it all into the advantage of the church. All the young priests are SF. A few men die in a prison yard in Ireland and fires of legend and poetry spring at once from their graves. Thousands of men are killed in heroic action in France and not a legend or a litany (Yeats has written a wonderful sort of dirge which goes round by mouth only) blooms on their graves.

“Stephen McKenna came in late and talked enthusiastically about Gaelic and its study as one of the things that is preventing the lads from becoming the ‘carrion’ that mankind tends to become if the soul is not occupied and the mind kept busy. All over Dublin, and indeed Ireland, small boys wearing a tiny ring in the coat, pledge themselves never to speak an English word to each other.

“My sympathies certainly go out to a fight to free themselves from English administration. These men would settle down and work Dominion Government for themselves if they were given a chance . . . The cry has always been for a republic, but it seems to me now that what is wanted is a policy and that they are asking a great deal more than they want as a means of intimidating the British government and keeping the Convention on definitely forward lines.

“Germany is looked upon as a friend of Ireland because the opportunity of the war made the rebellion possible. They had to rebel to draw attention to themselves. England had to concern herself with the problem of Ireland after suppressing the rebellion in order to get the good will of America. The rebellion is considered to have been well worthwhile and one of the things I heard was that it had put an end forever to the Ulster notion that the South couldn’t organise and wouldn’t fight.”

25th August, 1917

“Another lot of people today, of the professional world, culminating in tea at Trinity with two young SF professors and a doctor. I cannot express to you the vitality and enthusiasm of these young men and their hopes for the ideal Ireland which is to come out of it all. They talked a great deal about the English view that they were incapable of running a country . . . They are unanimous in regarding England as their natural ally and America, and said a new and friendly relationship would grow up at once.

“I told them how unfavourably impressed I was by the want of gratitude shown to the Party who, after all, had served their interests well over 40 years, and they said, ‘Oh, they’re not in touch with young Ireland. They are hierarchical. They agreed – crime of all crimes – to partition our country. That is the real occasion of their fall. The party is nothing, less than nothing to us now. We used to believe in it, but one rebellion has done us more good than the whole Party.’

I feel I have lived through an eternity in five days and come back with all preconceived ideas of Sinn Féin gone

“In the evening we went to the weekly reception of the marchioness MacSweeney [sic]. Dancing was taking place in one room and talking in another. The marquis asked me to dance and I declined, saying that I had not danced since the war began and should not dance till it ended. This created a great sensation. I was able to make a little impression and to say that for me at any rate the war was not being fought on another planet and other things of the kind.”

August 26th, 1917

Pope-Hennessy went for lunch in Howth with a TCD historian, Prof Walter Alison Phillips, and then came back into town.

“I have seen practically all the leaders except de Valera who was expected at AE’s and who did come in for a moment at the end of the evening straight from his election. He is very well thought of by his followers and considered extremely dangerous by the authorities . . . He is deified. He is 34, dark, intellectual. He has dissociated SF from all labour associations such as Connolly wove into it. He believes in doing one thing at a time and is not anxious to identify SF with a sectional or international interest. The first thing to be done is to get rid of Castle Government.”

August 28th, 1917

“England again. I feel I have lived through an eternity in five days and come back with all preconceived ideas of Sinn Féin gone . . . The soldiers earned a bad name in Dublin. They were welcomed by the poor people with chocolate and cigarettes and cakes. Poor Dublin was dead against SF. They behaved with extreme stupidity, offensive rudeness and brutality and they showed fear.”

Hiram Morgan teaches history at University College Cork. This document is part of the copyright estate of John Pope-Hennessy. These excerpts have been transcribed from the original held by the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles getty.edu/research/tools. A full transcript is available at http://celt.ucc.ie/UBPH_August1917.pdf

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