Winston Churchill: the Irish connections


A new exhibition on Winston Churchill reveals some surprising connections to Ireland: the Sligo man who taught him about oratory, an intriguing wartime telegram to de Valera, and more. LARA MARLOWEreports from New York

THROUGHOUT HIS LONG life as a journalist, soldier, politician, statesman, historian and author, Winston Churchill was intensely aware of the power of words.

“He started as a war correspondent,” says Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives at Churchill College Cambridge. “Writing launches him, sustains him financially and provides a vehicle for his political views. It gives him a platform, it gives him a name.”

In an October 1938 broadcast urging the US to confront Hitler, Churchill said that dictators “are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home – all the more powerful because forbidden – terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”

When he died in 1965 at the age of 91, Churchill left close to a million pieces of paper. They range from childhood letters to his mother to dispatches from frontlines in South Africa, Sudan, what is now Pakistan and the trenches of the first World War. There are messages to and from kings and presidents, telegrams, manuscripts and speeches. It took five archivists five years to catalogue 2,500 boxes of Churchill papers in Cambridge.

Packwood joined forces with Declan Kiely, the head of historical manuscripts at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, and Mark Leslie, the managing director of the Irish firm Martello Media, to curate and design the exhibition Churchill: The Power of Words, which opened yesterday in Manhattan.

The Cambridge dons who approved the project “didn’t understand why on earth an Irish company should design an exhibition on Winston Churchill”, says Leslie. “I didn’t tell them I was Churchill’s first cousin twice removed, but I mentioned than an Irish lawyer in New York, William Bourke Cockran, taught Churchill elocution. I knew because it was family legend.”

Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph, died young. His widow, née Jennie Jerome, was an American-born heiress. Bourke Cockran had been a teacher in Sligo until he emigrated to New York where he became a prominent lawyer and politician. The two struck up a romance in Paris after both were widowed. When young Winston stopped in New York on his way to cover the Cuban war of independence against Spain in 1895, he stayed at Bourke Cockran’s Fifth Avenue residence.

The US politician Adlai Stevenson wrote many decades later: “I asked the Prime Minster, ‘How do you account for your oratorical ability?’ and the Prime Minister said, ‘It was the New York lawyer Bourke Cockran who taught me to use my voice like a scale of the human emotions, how to hold thousands in thrall. I owe him everything’.”

As viceroy of Ireland, Churchill’s grandfather, the Duke of Marlborough, inhabited what is now Áras an Uachtaráin. Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph, served as the Duke’s secretary and from age two until age six, Churchill lived in Dublin. As a result of the family’s stay in Ireland, Lady Randolph Churchill’s American sisters both married Irishmen. “Churchill ended up with one Irish first cousin who was a Bolshevik (Claire Sheridan) and another who was an Irish nationalist (Shane Leslie),” says Leslie.

Leslie believes that Churchill was not anti-Irish, “merely anti-extreme Republicanism. He was pro-Home Rule. He supported the Irish Free State. He always acknowledged the influence of Bourke Cockran.” Packwood says Churchill would have absorbed his father Lord Randolph’s line that “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”.

As secretary of state for war and the colonies, Churchill was involved in the dispatch of the Black and Tans and Auxillaries to suppress revolt in Ireland.

“Churchill is an imperialist,” Packwood says. “His preference is that Ireland remain part of Britain; if not, at least part of the Empire and Commonwealth. Although he inherits his father’s line, in practice, he is more flexible.” During their negotiations, Churchill established a personal rapport with Michael Collins, over dinners at Hazel Lavery’s home in London.

Perhaps the most intriguing document in the exhibition is the secret telegram that Churchill, as Britain’s wartime prime minister, sent to Taoiseach Éamon de Valera after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. “Now is your chance,” it says. “Now or never. ‘A nation once again’. Am very ready to meet you at any time.”

For Leslie and Kiely, the telegram is “the smoking gun” that proves the long-held belief that Churchill offered de Valera the North if Ireland would renounce neutrality. For them, ‘A nation once again’ refers to the 1840s song that became a rallying cry for Irish nationalists.

Packwood reads the telegram differently: “Churchill could be harking back to when we were one kingdom. Perhaps he was deliberately ambiguous. This is exactly the sort of debate we hope these documents will spark.”

The documents hold humour, too. “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me,” Churchill used to say. On a visit to New York in 1931, he looked the wrong way down Fifth Avenue, stepped into traffic, was hit by a car and had to be hospitalised. In the midst of Prohibition, Churchill obtained a doctor’s prescription asserting that “the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times.”

In the exhibition’s “immersion pod,” visitors watch archive images of Churchill on large side screens. His words appear on the centre screen as one hears his voice speak them. “What about his words made him so powerful and so thrilling?” Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, asked at a reception marking the launch of the exhibition on Thursday night.

“His words were short,” Johnson said, quoting one of Churchill’s most famous speeches, just before the Battle of Britain: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Only one word in the quote – surrender – was of Romance or Latin origin, Johnson said, concluding that Churchill “spoke most effectively when he spoke in pure Anglo-Saxon.”

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