Spoils of War – An Irishman’s Diary about Swift, the Duke of Marlborough, and a 100-year-old war tragedy in Connemara

A certain Joycean masterpiece aside, today's literary anniversaries also include the death of one John Churchill, aka the Duke of Marlborough, after whom Dublin's Marlborough Street is named.

Not that there was anything literary about him. He was a career soldier, and a very good one, once – he was much admired by Wellington. But he made the strategic error for a military hero of living too long.

And when he finally expired, in his seventies, on June 16th, 1722, the event provoked a magnificently spiteful tribute from Jonathan Swift, On the Death of a Late Famous General.

Swift starts by affecting shock at the sad news: “His Grace! impossible! what dead!/Of old age too, and in his bed!/And could that might warrior fall?/And so inglorious after all.”

But the Dean of St Patrick’s then quickly pulls himself together and, setting aside the Irish tradition of not speaking ill of the dead (in fairness to Swift, he was an equal-opportunities offender, who had also spoken ill of the living Churchill), he proceeds to review the deceased’s career, harshly:

“Well, since he’s gone, no matter how,/The last loud trump must wake him now:/And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger,/He’d wish to sleep a little longer.”

Apart from his indecent age for a soldier (“Threescore, I think, is pretty high;/’Twas time in conscience he should die”), Churchill’s main crime in Swift’s eyes was having enriched himself on the public purse, sometimes by prolonging wars unnecessarily. He was estimated to have accumulated £540,000 – a vast sum then – which left his widow very rich.

So she was at least well compensated for what Swift implies was the misery of life with her husband. The poem suggests there were no “widow’s sighs” or “orphan’s tears” at the funeral: “But what of that, his friends may say,/He had those honours in his day./True to his profit and his pride,/He made them weep before he died.”

The duke does not appear in Ulysses, I think. But Swift does, naturally, albeit in circumstances of which, as a clergyman, he might disapprove. As a drunken Stephen Dedalus (a thinly disguised Joyce himself) gets into a fight with an English soldier after a misunderstanding over a prostitute, he (Dedalus) remarks: "Doctor Swift says one man in armour will beat ten men in their shirts."

Thus the scrap in Monto broadens into a reflection on the helplessness of civilians in the face of military violence.

And there is an echo of this in another commemorative event – non-literary – this weekend, 230 km west of Dublin, in Nora Barnacle’s Connemara.

It marks a tragedy that took place there 100 years ago yesterday (June 15th), when a fisherman at Trá Shalach, near Spiddal, noticed a strange metal object floating in the sea. It looked like a barrel, or a pot, but it had several spindles protruding from it. Learning which detail, the modern reader will mentally dive for cover. Alas, explosive mines were quite beyond the experience of most Connemara fishermen, circa 1917. So having first hauled the mine onto the beach, 10 men then stood around it defencelessly while one of them attempted to open the strange object. Nine were blown to pieces. The explosion was loud enough to be heard in Galway City, and a boot belonging to one of the dead was later found a mile from where he had stood. But identifiable remains were otherwise scarce. Human debris collected from the scene was placed in a single coffin and buried in an unmarked grave in the paupers’ section of Bohermore cemetery.

Compounding the tragedy, the dead were in most cases sole bread-winners of poor families, who did not qualify for state compensation. They would have done had Britain been responsible, as seems likely, since Galway Bay had been mined against German U-boats. But at the inquest, a coastguard officer testified that the mine in question was not of any British type known to him and that, on the contrary, it looked German. That became the official position. Apart from a modest voluntary collection, the families went unrecompensed.

The victims were belatedly memorialised in 1970 by a cross and plaque at the explosion site. But the centenary is being marked by a series of events this weekend, including a dramatisation, a concert, and publication of a book. There will also be the unveiling of a memorial stone in Bohermore cemetery on Sunday. The commemorations are being organised by a Gaeltacht community development group, Cumann Forbartha Chois Fharraige. Details are at coisfharraige.ie