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Conservatism, loyalism and unionism: the ‘alternative press’ in early twentieth century Ireland, or, locating Mr Potter

FPE Potter

Frederick Peel Eldon Potter (1839-1906), founder and proprietor of the Skibbereen Eagle

Next week I’ll be presenting a paper at the ‘Southern Irish Loyalism in Context’ conference at NUI Maynooth. The conference is free to attend and further details can be found here:

The focus of my paper, and a number of other papers from what I can see on the programme, will be on so-called ‘alternative press’ i.e. the press who did not submit to the growing nationalist tide and who tried, in a style reminiscent of King Canute, to hold fast to their ideals.

Many of the newspapers who attempted this were long-standing pillars of their society, and most had had a near hegemonic presence in their communities.  These newspapers were the product for the most part of a sole man (there were few if any women engaged in the newspaper industry at this time) running the operation. Often they had diverse interests to complement the paper, such as printing, publishing or other service industries.

With an expanding readership as a result of growing literacy rates, and a larger potential market appearing towards the end of the nineteenth century, newspapers outside the major metropolitan areas of Dublin, Belfast and to an extent Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford found their hegemonies being challenged strongly.

This challenge to the hegemony coincided with the rise of popular nationalism, with the Irish Parliamentary Party under its charismatic leader Charles Stewart Parnell gaining a majority of Irish seats at Westminster in the general elections of 1885 and 1886. This success at the polls came on the back of strenuous land agitation from the years 1879-81, under the direction of Michael Davitt and the Land League. By hitching the Home Rule wagon to the engine of land agitation, Parnell and his party constructed an alternative Irish nation to rival the British State in Ireland and its perceived agents – loyalists, unionists and conservatives.

The new Irish nation – under God, or at least Parnell – was sundered by the divorce court scandal of 1890 and the consequent political crisis, where two competing vistas of Irish nationalism duked it out at Westminster, in Ireland and, significantly, in the pages of newspapers. Loyalists and conservatives made metaphorical hay in the ensuing decade or so, playing on all the prejudices brought to the fore in the mid-1880s.

Yet the ascendancy to which these men professed loyalty was being reshaped even by those who they politically supported at Westminster. Readers of Somerville and Ross will recognise the peans contained within their superficially light descriptions of rural loyalism and its amusing intersections with the local non-loyalist populations. Political unionism, and public affectations of such, was in steady decline throughout Ireland, and Cork was no different. The Local Government (Ireland) Act passed in 1898 swept away the Grand Juries which ran local affairs in counties, replacing them with county councils elected on a wide franchise. Rural and urban district councils usurped the boards of guardians which had been established on the back of the extension of the Poor Law to Ireland in the early 1830s. Together the scope for control by local elites – so-called ‘hard’ power – would heretofore pass to a majority of people outside the loyalist tent, many of them professed nationalists, whatever that meant.

And yet, local elites would find a new niche, a more subtle form of ‘soft’ power – economic, social and communal. Newspapers such as the Skibbereen Eagle (or to give it its full grandiose moniker, the County Cork Eagle and Munster Advertiser) reflected this shift in power. Over the first two decades of the twentieth century this hoary old bird would purport to keep as watchful an eye over the islands of loyalism in a sea of green as it had purported to keep over Czar Nicholas II of Russia. The Eagle represented a new kind of loyalism: still paternal in issues such as labour and the treatment of rural workers in its catchment area, but also determined to ensure that those which paid for much of the grandiloquence poured forth from public platforms would be protected and supported. It was one thing to talk big about home rule and councils being ‘mini parliaments’ for the Irish people; it was quite another to bring those who kept the financial wheels greased along for the ride.

In this respect, the death of the Eagle’s founder and driving force, Fred Potter in September 1906 marked something of a watershed. The papers’ new owners tried to keep to the same independent spirit that had suffused the old bird – red, white and blue with a varying tinge of green and the occasional splash of red (or a hue of it close to blue). Religion continued to play a central defining role in the news pages of the paper: Easter vestries sat juxtaposed with Lenten Pastorals. Yet, subtly, the pages of the Eagle began to offer a more green-tinted outlook: cultural nationalism in the shape of the Gaelic League and the GAA began to feature more and more, with reports of branch meetings, GAA matches and social outlets. Always, however, a skepticism with respect to prudent financial management suffused the commentary.

This fiscal conservatism was matched by a social conservatism. The evils of alcohol abuse were trumpeted on a frequent basis, and not a Lent season went by without abstinence being preached from at least one column. A Catholic viewpoint pervaded in many areas of social life: this was again true in the area of education, though technical instruction was trumpeted again and again as a means of raising the economic life of the country, from Berehaven to Bandon.

Polarising politics at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century brought challenges to all newspapers and news outlets in Ireland. In many areas but especially in rural ones, local newspapers depended on all hues of commercial outlet as well as state contracts for printing and publishing to keep the fiscal wolf from making acquaintance with the porch, to keep the wheels of the presses turning and the rods of the new linotype machines pounding smoothly onto the paper. With competition not far away the Eagle faced a clash between its independence of spirit and a need to keep the doors open.

By 1910 the Eagle had put one foot, if not one-and-a-half feet, into the nationalist camp. Yet this was far from certain, and certainly conditional. Soft power loyalism and unionism seeped through on a fairly regular basis: the roughhousing of William O’Brien and his colleagues at the so-called ‘Baton’ Convention; the subsequent founding of the All-for-Ireland League; the violent electoral contests in January and December 1910; the Lloyd George Budget; the death of King Edward VII and the accession of King George V; the introduction and progress of the Home Rule Bill around the Westminster circuit in 1912-14. All through this period court reports of all hues maintained a fixation on law and order characteristic with many papers in the ‘alternative press’ school. Presentations to departing RIC Officers featured on occasion too, highlighting the close connection between the bird and the forces of law and order. All through this period the Eagle continued its critical stance of public officials in all areas, and did not spare the lash when needed.

The surprising thing from my own perspective leafing through the (virtual) issues of the Eagle available online is how suffused its journalism is with deference to the Catholic Church, and Bishop Denis Kelly in particular. This was undoubtedly good business for Potter and his successors, as the antagonistic stance adopted by the Eagle‘s younger rival, the Southern Star, led to many advertisers and readers opting to boycott the paper for many years. Bishop Kelly was an important if controversial public figure in the West Cork region for many years, and his pronouncements on matters temporal and spiritual were printed on an almost weekly basis. Kelly was also a firm supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, so the Eagle had to tread a careful line in its support for William O’Brien and the All-for-Ireland League. This was made easier after 1914, when the latter waned severely in strength.

Also in 1914 the outbreak of the First World War brought all sections of the press, ‘alternative’ and otherwise, together in support of the war effort. The complexities of war support left the Eagle (and to a lesser extent its neighbour the Star) vulnerable to a critical backlash from a younger generation of nationalists radicalised after the abortive Easter Rising in 1916. Despite the support the papers gave to all sections of Irish nationalist life (the Eagle indeed printed reports from Sinn Fein branches in West Cork, as well as starting a Gaelic column and reporting on the fortunes of the Gaelic League) the war coloured the views of many of these radical nationalists to the local press. In the violent aftermath of the general election of December 1918 and the founding of Dail Eireann, both the Star and the Eagle fell prey to suppression: the former by the government authorities, the latter by the agents of the revolution led by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Having had parlous finances for many years (despite the oft-trumpeted claim of being the best supported newspaper in west Cork), and having to spend heavily on technological upgrades in the wake of Potter’s death, the Eagle could not cope with its presses being destroyed, and having made a valiant attempt at reopening its doors, finally succumbed in July 1922. Local solicitor and final editor, Patrick Sheehy, also came under personal attack for his activities in print and in court. The consortium which had ran the paper since Potter’s death – which included RW Doherty (solicitor and land agent, based in Bandon), Jasper Travers Wolfe (solicitor and later independent TD for West Cork), RW Greenfield (the manager of the paper), Hugh Flinn (a fish merchant with interests in Cork and Liverpool), PW O’Donovan (a Clonakilty solicitor) and John Walsh (businessman with interests in brewing and farming, and from 1910 AFIL MP for South Cork) – sold out their shares in the paper to Wolfe, who ran the company (without any further issues being published, but having printing contracts with many local government bodies). In 1929 Wolfe, probably weighed down by his legal and political work, agreed to sell the Eagle to the Star for £1300. The latter’s new logo reflected the new entity, a bird at rest with the banner: “The Southern Star: incorporating the Skibbereen Eagle”. This logo survives on the masthead of the paper down to this day.

Conservatism and loyalism, then, were hallmarks of the Eagle’s 50 year flight, yet as the landscapes shifted around it, these hallmarks changed from overt hard power to more subtle and implied soft power. Religious toleration marked the paper under its founder; this declined slightly after Potter’s death, yet was still visible. Yet the loyalism and conservatism preached by Potter was continued albeit with an overt Catholic tinge by his successors. The characteristic independent spirit survived to a degree, with its somewhat chauvinistic support for William O’Brien and his colleagues, one of whom – DD Sheehan – had had a caustic relationship with Potter during his brief tenure as editor of the Star. Yet after 1914 support for John Redmond took over, and in the violent and ever-changing political landscape the Eagle retreated to its loyal bastions which were cut from under it. Conservatives and purveyors of loyalist ideologies, shorn of their idiosyncratic champion, were stranded on rapidly shrinking islands in a growing tide.

Thus, the Eagle, which had served one imagined community – a world of hegemonic landed gentry, poor law boards, Grand Juries, Petty Sessions and Assizes – ended its days in the service of another – one which moved in a world of district councils, urban councils, county councils, Church meetings and pastorals, conflicting nationalist political organisations, sporting events, ‘Irish Ireland’ cultural and economic pressure groups and social outings. George Russell’s famous aphorism that “a nation exists primarily because of its own imagination of itself” was, in part at least, confirmed in the pages of the Eagle in the two decades before its demise. Mr Potter’s bird held the high-wire of conservatism and loyalism for a number of decades, before the rising nationalist tide engulfed it. Yet it did not die; it morphed into the pages of the Southern Star, incorporating the Skibbereen Eagle.







Futures past: 1867 in 1917 – a preliminary

In the past few weeks I commenced research on the commemorations of the 1867 Fenian Rising that took place during 1917. Initially I had hoped to present some of this research at the annual conference of the Irish History Students’ Association (IHSA) in Dublin next February, but work has got in the way. This has not deterred me in the slightest though.

Starting research on the topic of commemoration in the twilight of this momentous year is an interesting undertaking. There is certainly no shortage of material being published in physical print and online on the topic of commemoration. This is not a bad thing, as we who labour in the (admittedly fruitful) garden of Irish history always welcome fresh insights on topics that only a few short years ago were being derided as over-researched. I have lost count of the amount of times someone vaguely familiar with my work has said, “but sure how could you find anything new to say about THAT?”

Quite easily, in fact. If you know where to look.

Most days during my wanders around Cork city I pass the National Monument at the southern end of the Grand Parade, quite close to the Nano Nagle pedestrian footbridge. Completed in 1906 having been initially begun as part of the widespread centenary celebrations of the 1798 rebellion, the monument is physically imposing, similar in design (to my mind) to the Sir Walter Scott memorial in Edinburgh, which I had the good fortune to visit last year.

The idea of the monument was to draw a line of succession, connecting the events of 1798 with Robert Emmet’s solo run in 1803, William Smith O’Brien’s abortive attempt at emulating his continental brethren in 1848, and the conclusion of a period of botched attempts and missed opportunities by the Irish Republican Brotherhood and their American counterparts at marshalling committed veterans of the American Civil War in the service of their country (or the country of their fathers’, or their fathers’ fathers’, or their fathers’ fathers’ … well you get the picture) in the few years after Appomattox.

Last year at the IHSA conference in NUI Galway, I presented a paper examining the superficial connections between the Catholic nationalist writer Canon PA Sheehan of Doneraile and the Easter Rising. In some quarters, Sheehan can be seen as the harbinger of the Rising; his posthumous novel The Graves at Kilmorna, decrying the Ireland of his twilight years and seeing in the Fenian movement of his imagined youth a means of delivering Ireland back into a world where Catholicism was a central pillar of life, and where the rural idyll triumphed over the mechanistic and utilitarian vision of Ireland promulgated by the political leaders of the Irish nation, was published in early 1915. While there is certainly a line to be drawn between Sheehan and some of his contemporaries in decrying a decadent Ireland in the early twentieth century, other contextual walls remain stubborn to penetration. In effect, Sheehan’s milieu was too constrictive to allow for a direct comparison with men such as Sean MacDiarmada and Padraig Pearse.

And yet, and yet …

Could we view Sheehan’s output of novels as an attempt at commemorating Fenians in his own way? And how did commemorating the Fenians of 1867 in the decades after episodes such as Ballyknockane and Kilclooney Wood develop? How did the balance between political expediency and stoking social memory play out? And, more importantly, did the shadow of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ and their strong connections with Cork obscure all other attempts at commemoration in the city and countywide? These questions will form the central basis for my research over the coming months.

So stay tuned!

“On this day a century ago” …

First of all, I want to offer a small note of apologies. I had intended for this post to appear yesterday but illness and other pressing matters prevented that. However, as the cliche says, better late than never!

It being the 29 February (“a leap year/falling once in four”) I thought it would be interesting to trawl the pages of the Cork Examiner for that date to see what was making news.

As was the case with many front pages of newspapers of the time, the front page of the edition of Tuesday 29 February 1916 was decorated with advertisements and notices. Births, Marriages and Death notices were carried at the top left of the front page, just below the masthead. One of the marriage notices was for Michael C Ahern of Blarney, third son of Michael Ahern, member of the Cork Rural District Council, Justice of the Peace and a follower of William O’Brien’s All-for-Ireland League. Ahern junior was married on 22 February at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, St Finbarr’s West (now The Lough parish church) to Kitty Healy of Cloghroe, in a ceremony officiated at by no less than five priests: Fr O’Callaghan (chief celebrant and a cousin of the bride), Canon Neville (PP, Inniscarra), Fr Cronin, Inniscarra and Fr O’Toole, St Finbarr’s West. Many of the death notices carried contained the perfunctory line that the deceased had passed away “at an advanced age”, which was a commentary on the improving public health of the general population.




What is really striking to my eye on the front page are no less than ten small advertisements for money-lending and associated business. One of these businesses promised loans or “advances” to “Clergymen, Farmers, Professional Gentlemen, Trades People, and others”. Given that in 1910 there were 809 bank branches in Ireland, and that in the twenty years prior to World War One deposits in these banks doubled, there was a surplus of capital requiring places to be invested in. It is interesting furthermore to see farmers among the groups listed. By the end of 1915 an agricultural boom occasioned by the war had seen farm prices rise, which led to an increase in exports.

This was also demonstrated on the front page of the Examiner, where an advertisement for the Clyde Shipping Company detailed the times which ferries between Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Belfast, Dublin, and Glasgow operated. Passengers were also carried on the boats between Glasgow and Cork. Fares ranged from 11s for a single seat in steerage on an outbound sailing to 27s 6d for a cabin on a return sailing. Return tickets were valid for a period of two months. Competition was provided by the City of Cork Steam Packet Company, which offered sailings to Fishguard and Liverpool, which special sailings to Newport, Plymouth, Southampton and London. These latter four sailings could not, “owing to the war, be arranged for fixed days and hours”, and as a consequence potential travellers were advised to contact the company. Even such a simple notice, buried deep in the advertisement, brought home the reality of wartime travel restrictions on a population which, in general, had become immured to the thought of long-distance migration or emigration.

Page two of the paper contained more small advertisements, which were pithy in view of the price charged – 6d per 24 words, and multiple insertions offered at a bargain. Almost two columns were taken up with advertisements for farm labourers or farm assistants. This virtual “hiring fair” was necessary as a large cohort of labourers had joined the army, many at the behest of their champion, Mid-Cork MP DD Sheehan. Many of the farms seeking assistance were located in the middle or east of the county, again a testament to the decline of farm size as one travelled further west in the county. Smaller farm sizes did not require so much paid labour to carry out the necessary tasks. Therefore the cohort of labourers did not venture west much beyond a line stretching from Kanturk to Macroom and thence to Bandon. Two farms –in Cloyne and Hospital, Co Limerick – were advertised for sale by public auction. A small report at the foot of the page noted the “big sum of £755” obtained at the sale of a farm near Macroom the previous Friday.

Photographs dominated page three, with the visit of General Mahon to Salonica, a hurling Fitzgibbon Cup match between “Cork” and “Dublin” (won by the latter by 6 goals!), and three portraits of men in prominence on that day: Fr TW Ryan CC, Driver Bowen of Friar Street, and Private Thomas Looney of Glin, Co Limerick. Around these photographs was fitted a report of a Petty Session sitting in Cork where Thomas Kent “having on the 2nd of January last made statements likely to prejudice recruiting in Ireland” was found to be in breach of the Defence of the Realm Act. After much argument between the magistrates (led by RM Starkie and including Alderman Jeremiah Kelleher, Jeremiah Lane and former lord mayor Sir Edward (‘Fitzy’) Fitzgerald) and the solicitors present (Henry A Wynne for the prosecution and FJ Healy for the defence), the three summonses served on Kent were dismissed.

An important announcement was carried in page four, where the editorial was sited:

“It is expected that the Government proposals, which entail heavy curtailment of supplies of newspaper owners and others, will be shortly enforced.

This will necessarily lead to a reduction in the size of newspapers, and no waste of any kind on the printed editions can be permitted.

Agents and Vendors will, therefore, be good enough to exercise the most rigid economy in ordering present supplies.”

The editorial focused on the Battle of Verdun, which it described as “Germany’s last bid for victory … if it fails the great war … will rapidly and inevitably drift towards conclusion.” Another mini-editorial commented on the amalgamation of Mitchelstown and Fermoy Poor Law Boards, where patients in need of hospital attention “will in future be brought to Fermoy by motor ambulances, so as to inconvenience them as little as possible.” The paper thought this voluntary amalgamation was important, and an example “that ought to be followed in other unions in Ireland.” The ‘London Correspondence’ column on the page included a report on the advance by forces of the Russian Empire in Armenia, which confidently predicted that Trebizond in the Ottoman Empire was “actually in sight”; further advances in the region “towards Bagdad” were also making good progress.

The vast majority of page five was given over to war news from all theatres, much of it supplied by correspondents of the Press Association. Attention was paid to Verdun and the war at sea, but some space was devoted to the introduction of conscription in Britain, in particular the lobbying by the Liberal and Labour parties for concessions from the government regarding working men who would be particularly affected. An amusing case from Waterford was reported on at the foot of the page, where Patrick White of Patrick Street in the city was prosecuted in Dublin by RIC Head Constable O’Connor for selling bread which weighed less than advertised. The court overturned the original decision of the local Petty Sessions, who had dismissed the case.

On the back page of the paper a large article was reprinted from the London Daily Chronicle describing in detail battles going on in Verdun. Alongside this was a letter from Lord Derby to John Redmond where the latter replies to criticisms of the Irish Parliamentary Party leader regarding the failure to allow Irishmen to join Irish regiments in the British Army. Further to that letter was an addendum from Mr Tennant, Under-Secretary for War, responding to Redmond’s claim that Roman Catholic chaplains who had been killed were being discriminated against when it came to awarding Victoria Crosses. Nothing of consequence as regards sporting news was reported apart from a preview of a London boxing match and results of a hare coursing meeting at Castlerichard near Killeagh.

Overall, the pages of the Examiner for 29 February 1916 contained much interesting information, and as such was typical of the newspapers of its time. Although wartime restrictions on reporting and the activities of the Press Censor was to stymie much reporting outside the DORA, there is nevertheless much to work on over the longue duree. As such this one issue of one newspaper is but a small sample of the cornucopia of information contained in the columns of early twentieth century Irish newspapers.



The road from Kilmorna: Canon P.A. Sheehan, Fenianism, and prefiguring 1916


On Saturday last I presented a paper with the above title at the annual conference of the Irish History Students’ Association (IHSA) at NUI Galway. What follows is essentially a reflective piece on that paper, which in itself was a reflection on a book chapter which I wrote in 2013 concerning the influence of Fenians and Fenianism on the work of Canon Sheehan, and how his politics and memory found expression not just in his novels but in other writings, including his unpublished (at the time of his death in October 1913) poetry.

In 1953 the Phoenix Publishing company in Dublin published a full set of Canon Sheehan’s novels, from My New Curate to The Graves at Kilmorna. Over the next forty or so years a small number of biographical studies of Sheehan and his times appeared. Almost as one, all works read Kilmorna, with its scathing depictions of life in Edwardian Ireland corrupted by moral degeneracy and controlled by brutal political machines, as a harbinger of the Easter Rising. They pointed to the parallels with the monolithic Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and its affiliate grassroots organisations, the United Irish League (UIL) and – perhaps more insidiously – the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), which controlled virtually all political life in the majority of the island. This was contrasted with the idealism and almost total reverence which the participants of the Rising of 1867 were held.

In doing this, they were missing the substantial points which Sheehan was preaching about in the novel. Yet they were not alone. By the time Sheehan was diagnosed with pelvic cancer in 1910, his career as a writer had taken a number of turns following stern criticism of his early (clerical) novels. This led him to propound on social issues in novels such as Lisheen (1907) and The Blindness of Dr Gray (1909). Sheehan was not a “radical” in the Catholic Church; far from it. His prognoses were coloured by his Catholicity, and were also informed by his belief that social progression was limited and should be limited. It should not matter the economic status of the people so long as they were spiritually contented and worked to build a better life after death rather than in the temporal world.

And yet, Sheehan was concerned by 1910 that this vision was being corroded by the agents of modernity borne by those who had experience of the culture of England – most of these, invariably, being politicians. These men, of mainly middle-class backgrounds and self-sufficient, were prominent in their local areas and often influenced the life of the area. This brought them into conflict with the priest, which was occasionally mollified but simmered latently. In Kilmorna he made this plain:

“All dignity seemed to have passed out of life; class distinctions were being levelled; reserve and reticence, the hall marks of noble spirits were no more. It was a singular revolution; and its suddenness made it more singular.”

This was hardly an unfashionable idea among priests. For example, in a neighbouring parish, Castlelyons, Fr Peadar O Laoighaire was railing against the creeping infiltration of ‘music hall culture’ on the Gaelic culture of rural Ireland. Both Sheehan and O Laoighaire were hardly untypical of their coterie.

With this in mind, it is well to look at the reception which Kilmorna received on its publication. Two newspapers carried reviews of the book: the Irish Independent and, not surprisingly, the Cork Examiner. The former was little more than a summary of the book, and a pithy comment in conclusion that Sheehan was pleading for “fair play and good sense in Irish life, toleration and co-operation and honesty in public affairs and respect for the motives and actions of others.” Reviewing the novel for the Examiner, the public figure (and strident IPP supporter) John J Horgan was more detailed:

“There is much that is sad and almost pessimistic in his reflections, but they go deep down and rising above the darkest hour is the hope and the belief that Ireland will be worthy of her destiny. We commend this book to young Ireland; it will give them an insight into the Ireland of their fathers, and it will make them think intelligently about the future of their country. It is a fitting end to a noble and unselfish literary achievement … we are filled with sadness and regret that this should be the last picture of Irish life to fall from Canon Sheehan’s gifted pen.”

The novel also received reviews in England and America – the latter through the efforts of Fr Hermann J Heuser of Philadelphia, who had acted as Sheehan’s unofficial agent and publisher on that side of the Atlantic. An interesting observation came in the pages of the London Saturday Review:

“Certain it is that Ireland of the [eighteen] ‘sixties produced fine spirits, men who passionately died for what they believed their country’s good. Are they forgotten? Mr Sheehan’s [sic] book seems to recall those wonderful words of the prophet of old: Come from the four winds, O breath, and make these dry bones live!”

There is again an argument to be made that the reviewers, on the whole, were being obfuscated by the narrative of the novel and missed the finer, more important details. Yet, mirroring contemporary European thought, it seemed that what actually existed was less important than what people thought existed. This point cannot be emphasised enough.

Furthermore, evidence later surfaced that Kilmorna was only a half-finished novel. In his final book of essays, Irish Fireside Hours, William O’Brien included an essay entitled “The Chapel” (first published in 1918), where he re-imagined his early life in Mallow focused on the church where he attended for nigh on fifty years. This led him to reminisce about his friendship with Sheehan, and he concluded with a reflection on Kilmorna:

“[It] is a book of prophecy in the sacred things of Irish nationality all but as amazingly verified as that of an Isaias in a more ethereal domain. Also, that the ‘Graves at Kilmorna’ might have been a still more precious muniment of contemporary Irish history, if the more insistent haste and paralysing forces of Death had not forbidden the elaboration of the second part of the book with the same certain touch with which in the first part he made the idealism of the Fenian Men immortal.”

So, in spite of Sheehan’s insistence that his preaching was central to his novel-writing, there are here and there cracks in the edifice which allow shafts of real light to peek through.


When O’Brien founded the All-for-Ireland League in 1910, Sheehan supported his friend’s foray into “independent nationalist” politics, and penned two unsigned editorials for the AFIL newspaper, the Cork Free Press. These editorials – “A Forecast and a Review” and “The Lessons of the Hour” – contain much that was familiar to those who read the novels following on from his best-selling Glenanaar. Yet again there is much to unpack from those editorials, which were – in the modern parlance – ‘agenda-setting’ (perhaps in another post in the not-too-distant future!).

By time time of his death in 1913, Sheehan’s message had become lost in the ‘bluff, bluster and brinkmanship’ of the Third Home Rule Crisis and the militarisation of Irish society. Yet in this there were echoes of the post-American Civil War period in Ireland, where drilling and brandishing of guns was a common, if covert, activity.


Not long after the appearance of Kilmorna this new militarised Ireland was put on public display with the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, which coincidentally marked the first appearance of a new invigorated IRB. Padraig Pearse’s famous oration has been parsed to oblivion by historians and commentators, but there is an interesting passage immediately preceding the most oft-quoted one:

“Our foes are strong and wise and wary; but strong and wise and wary as they are, they cannot undo the seeds sown by the young men of a former generation. And the seeds sown by the young men of ’65 and ’67 are coming to their miraculous ripening today.”

Pearse argued that it was only by bloodshed and self-immolation that a better society could be created in Ireland. This was even if Home Rule had been achieved. A rebellion was necessary not just against political rule from England, but also as a cleansing or purging of the suffocating cultural hegemony of that island to the east of Ireland. It would also re-energise the Fenians by exposing them to the battlefront in the service of their country.

However, there is the ever-present danger of anachronism, of reading back into Pearse’s writings and speeches a justification for his actions on Easter Week 1916. This should also be said of Canon Sheehan’s despair for an imagined Ireland of his youth. Yet both men shared concerns about education, and both penned poetry which expressed their innermost thoughts more cogently perhaps than their formal essays or novels. Products of similar yet different social milieus, and different in almost all respects in terms of career, Pearse and PA Sheehan nevertheless were infused with a spirit of Jacobinism, of emotional patriotism, and of anger at the status quo ante. Both men were trapped, but found some form of escapology prior to their untimely deaths. In a perhaps serendipitous way, both triumphed from perceived failure.




‘Alltagsgeschichte’ and the rural labourer in Cork, 1900-1905


An image of a rural labourer from a painting in the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork City

Later this week I will be giving a paper at the Economic and Social History Society of Ireland annual conference in Limerick on the subject of the provision of housing for the rural labourer in county Cork in the early years of the twentieth century. Here, I want to set down some thoughts ahead of that paper.

The overall theme of the conference is “Exploring Everyday Lives”, and the papers will address a number of topics while focusing on source interrogation and how social realities are reflected in the topic covered by the presenter. Looking at, for example, minute books from local government bodies can unlock a whole plethora of information regarding not only housing provision, but also class (or ‘social status’, to use Gavin Foster’s term) differences in Ireland at the turn of the century.

Rural labourers – agricultural and otherwise – are still an underexplored social grouping in nineteenth and early twentieth century Ireland. Although the work of Fintan Lane and Padraig G Lane (no relation) have done much to illuminate the subject, there still remains ground to be covered. Exactly what constituted a rural labourer has been the subject of much debate, but it seems to be generally accepted that the term can be applied to any worker earning a wage in the countryside who did not have access to any landholding of his (or her) own. In coastal regions of Cork, fishermen and cottiers fell into this bracket, as the land they may have held and rented from either the local landlord or, increasingly, the Congested Districts Board was of insufficient quality to earn a full-time living from. Labourers in Cork, insofar as is known, did not migrate in large numbers like their brethren in Mayo and Donegal during the summer. However, there was a certain amount of internal migration – by 1900 the vast majority of labourers lived and worked in an area of the county east of a line stretching from Kanturk in the north-west to Macroom in the west to Bandon and Kinsale in the south.

With this migration came a need for housing. Generally, housing of the labourer was left to the graces of the farmer or landlord who employed the worker. Many labourers, indeed, supported the landlords during the Land Wars of the 1880s for precisely the reason that they were better employers than the putative ‘new gentry’ of peasant proprietors. Labourers who worked for large or medium-sized tenant farmers were caught in a catch-22 situation: all too often their housing was poor (“mud hovels” being a kind description!), and their employment precarious. In addition, if their putative employer was targeted as a “land grabber”, then they were caught between the twin clashing pillars of nationalism and labour. Land grabbers were the target of the local nationalist political organisation (from 1898 the United Irish League) and campaigns of social ostracisation were frequent.

From 1894 labourers had their own collective organisation – the Land and Labour Association, co-founded by Tipperary solicitor James J O’Shee and Cork journalist Daniel D Sheehan. With the passing of the 1898 Local Government (Ireland) Act, powers previously the preserve of Dublin Castle were devolved to newly-established county, urban and rural district councils. These included powers to raise money through levies (rates) paid by landlords and large tenant farmers. Nevertheless, the freedom of manoeuvre for these councils was severely restricted by the oversight body created under the Act, the Local Government Board.

These local councils were expected to oversee the implementation of myriad pieces of legislation from Westminster relating to public health, housing, and other various issues. In my paper I will examine five sets of minute books from these councils in five varying areas of County Cork: Cork (outside the city), Macroom, Bantry, Kanturk and Youghal. Tied in with these minute books will be newspaper reports of LGB hearings into the construction of labourers cottages in these areas. It was at these hearings that objections and representations regarding the construction of cottages in particular localities.

Together the evidence presented in these sources can be analysed through various lenses. Rent ledgers, diligently and fastidiously kept, presents evidence of the economic status of most of the labourers, which can be compared with wage rates in equivalent occupations in urban areas. Representations through councillors regarding maintenance and upkeep of the cottages is evidence of both the construction and living standards of the labourers, as is the frequent exhortations asking the council to fund the repairs, which the occupier will carry out! Complaints regarding the situation of a particular cottage can be seen as evidence of the fear of labourers of poor employment prospects in a particular area, as well as perhaps some hostility on the part of local farmers or labourers to the intrusion of outsiders into carefully cultivated networks of employment and patronage. Occasionally there are glimpses of the pressures of everyday life.

The history of everyday life (Alltagsgeschichte) started in West Germany in the 1980s and spread quickly to other European and American institutions. It has been slower to permeate the Irish historical consciousness, though. Too often historians of all ilks in Ireland were unprepared “to wallow in the habitual, the banal”, choosing instead the bright lights and the fireworks of much more turbulent and exciting periods of history (I include myself in that admonition!). Yet, by looking more closely at provision of housing for rural labourers, albeit in one county (or portions thereof), and by looking at the sources for the provision, and by examining the use of these sources in the existing historiography, we can illuminate the social history of  a region in a period of turbulent Irish history.

A major issue in examining everyday lives of rural workers at the turn of the twentieth century is clearly a lack of concrete documentary evidence. The Rural District Councils whose minute books form the backbone of the research I will present upon were, for the most part, comprised of bourgeois and petty bourgeois representatives, with directly-elected labour representatives few and far between. In 1901, for example, a member of the Inchigeela Land and Labour Association branch castigated the Macroom Rural District Council for their lethargy in constructing suitable cottages in their area, and mentioned the name of a councillor in Ballyvourney – some twenty kilometers away – who was the only “friend to labour” on the council.  Therefore what representations came from labourers to councillors came from representatives not necessarily directly connected to the class. Of course, there were exceptions to this.

Agitation from the labour organisations which claimed to represent all rural workers was covered by the press in an uneven manner. An exception to this (for a few years at least) was the Southern Star. Under the editorship of Sheehan (later elected MP for Mid-Cork) the paper gave prominence to rural council meetings and ILLA meetings in the paper’s circulation area of west and mid county Cork. The crusading tone of the paper’s editorials changed after Sheehan’s turbulent departure a few months before his election as an MP.

Perhaps one reason for the lack of concrete written sources for labourer activity were the literacy rates among the labouring classes as a whole. In the five rural districts I survey in my paper, over 25,000 people were classed as illiterate in the 1901 census. I highlight briefly the difference in educational standards as evidenced in the handwriting styles of two letters written to the Bantry RDC in 1901. As more literate people indulged in much more written communication, the opportunities for undertaking a detailed survey of alltagsgeschictung among rural working classes in county Cork at the turn of the twentieth century are remote.

The sources available to the historian at present, at any rate, shed more light on the mentalities towards the labouring classes in parts of county Cork, and how paternalism and patronisation drove relations between sections of Irish society in a period where an inclusive nationalism was being preached, but hardly practised.

Read more…

Researching the Irish Parliamentary Party in the Decade of Centenaries

On this coming Friday, September 4, NUIG will be hosting a workshop on the topic of researching the Irish Parliamentary Party in the Decade of Centenaries. This will be held in Room G010 of the Hardiman Reseach Building from 10.15 – 17.00 approx. All are welcome.

Speakers on the day are: Elaine Callanan (TCD), Dr Mary Harris (NUIG), Dr Conor McNamara (NUIG), Dr Ciaran Wallace (TCD), Dr Pat McCarthy, Martin O’Donoghue (NUIG), Tony King (NUIG), and myself.

I will be talking about my research into the All-for-Ireland League and how researching the AFIL can shed light on the dissonance within the wider Home Rule movement.

The ‘Southern Star’, the ‘Skibbereen Eagle’ and the coverage of the death and funeral of O’Donovan Rossa

This weekend saw the first state commemoration of the 2016 Centenary Commemorations – the commemoration of the centenary of the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, on 1 August 1915. The funeral – and perhaps more importantly the panegyric delivered at his graveside by Patrick Pearse, which is seen as kickstarting the new iteration of the IRB, and paving the way for Easter Rising – was the largest seen in Dublin since that of Parnell in 1891. Yet what of the coverage of the death and funeral of this persona, this connection with founders of the IRB, and in particular in his home region of West Cork? What does this tell us of how O’Donovan Rossa was viewed – albeit posthumously – amongst his people? And what does it tell us about the newspapers in his home region during a period dominated by the First World War, and the divisions within Irish nationalism?

O’Donovan Rossa would have been more than familiar, before he left Skibbereen for Dublin in the early 1860s, with the Eagle (and in fact published some of his writings in the paper). Over the next thirty years, the Eagle was perched close to the top of the tree in Cork County: in 1892 Dublin Castle estimated that the paper was selling close to 2,500 copies per week. This monopoly was challenged with the foundation of the Southern Star in 1889 and its formal launch as a weekly paper three years later. Fred Potter, the eccentric owner and editor of the Eagle, did not react well to the appearance of a rival. Over the next fifteen years the two papers conducted an infrequent war in the column inches, and also in the boardrooms of local government bodies for lucrative printing and publishing contracts.

FPE Potter

F.P.E. Potter, founder of the ‘Skibbereen Eagle’ (Source: ‘Southern Star Centenary Supplement’ (Skibbereen, 1989))

By 1915 the Star had established itself as the dominant weekly paper in West Cork; the Eagle continued to preach Potter’s curious mix of Catholicism, unionism (or more correctly anti-nationalism), and conservatism. However both papers displayed no small measure of parochialism, especially when it came to West Cork people that made names for themselves in national or international circles. Both papers would, for example, celebrate the return of emigrants or sons of emigrants to their native soil. Such was the case in the times when O’Donovan Rossa visited West Cork. In 1894, 1904 and again in 1906 his visits were the subject of much coverage: almost one-quarter of both papers were devoted to reports and leading articles on the subject of his visit, the planning thereof, and the reception accorded.

Death of O’Donovan Rossa

Being weekly papers, the immediacy of O’Donovan Rossa’s death on 28 June 1915 was not commented upon until the ensuing weeks’ issue. The Eagle on 3 July devoted a quarter of its editorial page to an obituary. This called Rossa “a very remarkable man of a time which is now historic.” He had been “got hold of by James Stephens when he proceeded to organise his vast and extraordinary conspiracy.” The obituary painted him as a man “not only given to Gaelic studies … but … a love for historic-genealogical research”. His period in the Irish People was skimmed over, but his famous conduct at his trial following the raid on the offices of the paper in 1863 was recounted at length. No mention whatever was made of his central role in keeping militant Fenianism afloat after 1867 (and more importantly following the New Departure), nor of the dynamite campaigns that terrorised the UK in the 1880s and 1890s. Instead, O’Donovan Rossa was portrayed as a writer and journalist, who had been a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (proposed by the great John O’Donovan) and had been elected as MP for Tipperary in 1869.

The Star devoted three-quarters of the front page of its 3 July issue to coverage of Rossa’s death. Included in the report were lengthy extracts from his book Rossa’s Recollections, and a number of lines of verse which he had composed while in prison, such as the ones reproduced below:

“My prison chamber now is iron lined,

An iron closet and an iron blind,

But bars, and bolts, and chains can never bind

To tyrants’ will the freedom-loving mind.

Beneath the tyrant’s heel we may be trod,

We may be scourged beneath the tyrant’s rod;

But tyranny can never ride roughshod

Over the immortal spirit-work of God.”

An interesting contrast was provided on the following page, where a lengthy report was published on a lecture by Fr Thomas to Bandon Catholic Young Men’s Society on the subject of “Gallant Belgium and her Death Struggle.” And whilst an editorial sang Rossa’s praises, they fell for the elaborate hoax perpetrated by the Daily Telegraph correspondent in New York in attributing pro-British quotes to Rossa on his deathbed, seasoned with some unpalatable comments regarding “Sinn Feiners and would-be pro-Germans at the present time.” Rossa’s death was, indeed, almost overshadowed in terms of editorial comment by the visit of Sergeant Michael O’Leary V.C. of Inchigeela to his home – he being “the bravest soldier in the British Army”. A case of contempt or of time passing? Or of a hero of a bygone age superseded by a hero of a new age – a new “local boy done well”?

The following weeks’ issue was filled with tributes to Rossa from various local government bodies in West Cork. Skibbereen Urban District Council adjourned its meeting following lengthy tributes from local notables such as James M Burke and Timothy Sheehy. On page two a lengthy appreciation from the pen of Geoffrey Wycherley was published, which concluded thus:

“His was a life of thrilling incident and devotion to the cause of Irish liberty, and he goes calmly down to his grave, far removed from the sound of guns in this terrible European conflict – guns which he often fondly hoped to see mounted on the hills of Ireland, to free the land of his love from foreign yoke. Irishmen will be pleased that Rossa is to be buried in Glasnevin, sided by side with other of his illustrious countrymen.”

Yet this was diluted somewhat with allusions to Rossa’s life and death at a recruiting meeting in Skibbereen – which was reported on page six. This again was down to the fake report in the Daily Telegraph, and also another clear example that people will propagate different meanings from the same speech.

Rossa’s close connections with Rosscarbery were further elucidated in a letter published on the front page of the Star issue of 17 July. The writer, under the nom de plume ‘Sax Romer’, traced the connections between Rossa and Rosscarbery and also some of the people associated with him during his early adulthood in West Cork. The writer concluded hopefully:

“So it may be inferred that in dying in America, Rossa died among his own … and if the old Irish graveyard will receive his bones in his beloved Ross, it might be taken that his happy spirit will ‘lean forth with joy from the gold bars of Heaven.’”

This was shattered by a leading article on page six:

SS 17 July 1915 ODR Funeral Plans

Which led to the following letter in the issue of 31 July from ‘Rossexsis’:

“Sir – I have been for a long time under the impression that this great and well-beloved patriot wished his remains to be interred with his ancestors in the Abbey Graveyard, Rosscarbery, where they would not be far from those of poor Felix and Charlie Andy – the former interred by Ross himself, the latter by the late Timothy O’Mahony of Ross – RIP … The graveyard at Ross is one of the most picturesquely situated cemeteries in the Kingdom, surrounded by soft sylvan scenery, overlooking Ross Bay, within sight and sound of the Sunny Southern Seas – a meet resting place for the illustrious dead. It seems such a pity then if it has been decided that he should rest elsewhere.”

The Eagle drew attention, during the month of July, to the existence of an O’Donovan Rossa Burial Committee which existed in Cork city and county for some years, but had since become “too immersed in upholding the Defence of the Realm Act to do aught that might be misconstrued.” Members of the AOH (Board of Erin), in spite of their origins, would, in the words of the papers’ city correspondent, hardly take part “in what will constitute such an embarrassment to the Government”. Judge Daniel Cohalan, who was a regular visitor to West Cork (he owned a holiday house in Glandore village) was prevailed upon to intervene and “secure for West Cork the body of the most indomitable West Cork man of the age.” The spectre that the funeral would be misinterpreted as an anti-recruiting march, given the approaching anniversary of the Bachelor’s Walk massacre, was also raised by the paper.

A week later the paper’s city correspondent reported that the Wolfe Tone Memorial Committee – which had been tasked with organising Rossa’s funeral in Dublin – were afraid “that the funeral will … be turned into a display by the BOE and the other Castle approved societies, as the ‘Daily Telegraph’ canard about Rossa’s pro-British appeal has annoyed the Dublin extremists greatly.” That week the paper also carried a public letter from Bulmer Hobson regarding the funeral:

CCE 17 July 1915 Hobson letter

In the build-up to the obsequies, the paper’s city correspondent contributed the following thoughts:

“Next Sunday Ireland takes to her bosom O’Donovan Rossa, and while some regret that Cork County is too loyal to claim her rebel son, yet ‘twere meeter in a way that he should rest in the world-renowned plot of ground where lie so many other faithful failures. John O’Leary, Stevens and O’Donovan Rossa will be united in death as they were in purpose and in faithfulness to the ideal of their own small Nationality, and Irish Ireland will foregather at the re-union, as they have not since McManus was laid to rest amidst the prayers of the faithful, if not of the few. So next Sunday will see Rossa buried like a chieftain of old, surrounded by his lamenting warriors, with arms reversed and muffled drums, but cherishing the proud faith of resurgence of soul and country in which he died.”

The following lines of verse, written by Philip O’Neill of Kinsale (whose father James was a prominent man in the town, and had been involved in the Land War in the Kinsale region) were also published:

CCE 31 July 1915 ODR poem

Funeral coverage


O’Donovan Rossa’s coffin lying-in-state in City Hall Dublin (Source:


The burial of O’Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin Cemetery, 1 August 1915 (Source:

The issue of the Star of 7 August 1915 had black borders around its columns on the front page – but as a mark of respect for the late Canon Jeremiah Murphy of Macroom, who had died in the previous week. O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral was covered on page 2, and the report included the famous words of Washington Irving, creator of Rip Van Winkle:

“The sorrow for the dead is the only sorrow from which we refuse to be divorced. Every other wound we seek to heal; every other affliction to forget, but this we consider it a duty to keep open – this affliction we cherish and brood over. ‘Else indeed it were difficult to interpret in the fullest sense the completely whole-hearted assimilation of mind of those thousands who regard the name and memory as a heritage to be treasured for all time.”

The report also noted that, apart from the Death March, “none of the bands played slow or more solemn music until the cemetery was reached”. The procession from City Hall to Glasnevin took more than four hours to complete, given the size of the crowds which accompanied the cortege.

With regard to Pearse’s panegyric, the Star’s report did not carry it verbatim, but carried a summary, noting that the crowd applauded after certain passages (e.g. after “not Gaelic merely but free as well”). However, it did dare to print the final paragraph fully, and again noted applause after the final words had been spoken. After the speech came an event which “was unique in the history of the internments in Glasnevin Cemetery”, the firing of volleys over the grave by a Volunteer party under the direction of Captain James O’Sullivan. “It was”, the reported concluded, “a touching tribute to the labours and the sufferings of a valiant soldier of Ireland.”

Funeral coverage was carried on the front page of the Eagle. Little of difference can be noted in comparing the reports in the Star and the Eagle, though the latter did make a point of noting the peaceful nature of proceedings. The latter did also carry a “conservative estimate” of the numbers which attended, which it put at “exceeding six thousand”. It is fitting to end this little tour through the pages of the two papers based in the town where O’Donovan Rossa first encountered Fenianism as an organised entity with the words of the Eagle’s Cork City correspondent, who was present at the funeral:

“Those who honoured him in life accompanied him to his grave. Over the waste of waters, through the dangerous zone of war, they brought him thousands of miles, and there, in the capital of the land he loved as few men loved, and for which he suffered as few men suffered, the day dream of his youth had been in part realised to welcome him. At the head of an Irish Army he paraded its streets defying in death the power he had defied when alive, and doing more harm to his foes by the singular nature of his funeral than by any of the struggle of 84 long years in life.”

Gallipoli 100: Cork and Gallipoli (Part 1)

DSCF1424(Map of the Gallipoli Peninsula published in the Cork Weekly News, 17 July 1915)

Last year I wrote on here about the reaction in Cork to the entry of Ireland into World War One in August 1914. Over the last few months I have been engaged in reading Cork newspapers for 1915, and how they covered in their own unique way events on the Gallipoli peninsula in what was then the Ottoman Empire – ‘the sick man of Europe’. I will post a few of the major thoughts that have struck me during this research in the next while.

Today, though, I want to expand on the earlier post with a few more thoughts on the reaction in Cork to the outbreak of WWI, and how these reactions would colour the coverage of the fighting in the eastern Mediterranean.

At the end of April 1915, amphibious landings began on the Gallipoli peninsula. By this time, the war on the Western Front had been ongoing for eight months. The entry of Britain and Ireland into the war in August 1914 was a watershed moment; for a number of months previously the spectre of impending civil war had hung over Ireland, as the ‘Home Rule Crisis’ which had begun in 1912 had reached a crescendo with guns being landed by Ulster Unionists at Larne and by Nationalists at Howth. The Home Rule Crisis had major resonance for a small but vocal minority based in Cork, and led by the city’s senior MP William O’Brien. O’Brien had preached a gospel of conciliation towards unionists, which was met by bemusement in bothnationalist and unionist camps.

O’Brien’s chief propaganda vehicle was the Cork Free Press, a daily evening newspaper (to begin with) acting in competition to the nationalist Cork Examiner and the unionist Cork Constitution. All three papers produced weekly editions as well, summarising the week’s news as well as containing social and personal features. The Free Press through its short lifespan (June 1910 to early 1916) ran an editorial line critical of both the government at Westminster and the chief Irish nationalist political organisation, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). Though the paper suffered from a lack of finance and contained many errors – typographical and otherwise – its existence in such a small and crowded market was significant. It provided a counterweight to the predictable lines carried by the Examiner (nationalist and steadfastly pro-IPP) and the Constitution (unionist, and pretty vehement at that).

DSCF1443(Masthead from a typical issue of the Cork Free Press (Courtesy of Special Collections, Boole Library, U.C.C.))

Having had (to put it mildly) differing viewpoints on the ‘Home Rule Crisis’ for the previous two years, all three papers immediately supported the declaration of war against Germany on 3 August 1914. This did not come as a huge surprise. During the imperial crises of the preceding five years (which were covered by the papers when there were lulls in the Home Rule debate) all papers were agreed that Ireland should and must support Britain; though the Free Press mocked members of the Irish Parliamentary Party for their overenthusiastic (and bombastic) comments. Within days of the declaration of war being passed, and shortly after IPP leader John Redmond’s speech in which he offered the services of the Irish Volunteers to take the place of British troops in guarding Ireland, pro-recruiting meetings were held in Cork.[1]

In spite of pressure from separatists who had supported him and his organisation (and indeed formed the majority of the staff of his paper) O’Brien felt compelled to support the war for a number of reasons: pressure from his wife’s family in France, the logic of his policy of conciliation towards unionists and his own viewpoint of the international “great power game”. The Free Press argued that the declaration of war had “killed and scotched the snake of Irish dissension and religious discord … Irish unity has been achieved”.[2] There was little basis in reality for this extreme optimism. Nevertheless, the Redmond offer of the Volunteers for service was welcomed by all papers; the Constitution declared they were “rendering a national service” and should be supported.[3]

The unity displayed by the immediate declaration of war was, of course, fragile and liable to change depending on the duration of the conflict in Europe. There was also a tension between classes in the city; as a rule, unionists tended to dominate upper middle class professions, as well as forming the vast majority of the upper class in Cork society. Upon the outbreak of war, these men (for they were invariably men) assumed the leadership of various committees formed. And while many nationalists joined the committees, these tended to be men of middle class station or prominent working class politicians. The ordinary working man (or woman) had little say in the conduct of the wartime measures coordinated by these people.

(Naval ships in Cork Harbour, undated (Source:

Probably the most visible aspect of the early months of the war period was the increase in naval traffic in the Harbour, as the Royal Navy gathered many of its fleet to prepare to guard the western approaches to Ireland and Britain from attack by German submarines. Many residents of Cork had family members that served in either the Royal Navy or worked in industries that served the navy. There was a close connection between the Navy and Cork. This connection between the military and Cork would be strengthened with the beginning of an open recruiting campaign shortly after the declaration of war. Again, the fault lines drawn pre-war surfaced: O’Brien, his supporters and unionist allies held one set of rallies and demonstrations throughout the autumn and early winter (in spite of the general air that the war would be over by Christmas 1914). On the other side, supporters of Redmond and the IPP held their own rallies. Often the military representation was the same: after all, the army and navy would be recruiting from the same population base, regardless of political leanings.


Of the army battalions stationed in the south Munster region, by far the most popular in terms of recruitment from the Cork city area were the Royal Munster Fusiliers, who opened recruiting offices in the city and Kinsale in the first few months of the war’s progress. While it is hard to pinpoint exact enlistment patterns, the ‘Munsters’ recruited in large numbers from a number of parishes in the inner city, north and south of the River Lee; they also had a large intake of recruits from the county.

DSCF1456(An example of a recruiting form published in the Cork Free Press)

The expectation that the war would be over in a few months was quickly dashed; by November it was clear that, on the Western Front at least, stalemate was the order of the day. Both German and Allied armies began constructing elaborate trench systems that would eventually stretch in an almost unbroken chain from Flanders in the north to the borders of neutral Switzerland in the south. Along this line the Western Front war was fought: a war of long periods of inactivity pockmarked by great set-piece surges from both sides that gained at most a half a mile at the cost of thousands of lives. Names along the front would enter the popular imagination as the years dragged on: Marne, Ypres, Verdun and Passchendaele.

As the war dragged on, and in particular as the German U-Boat campaign impacted on the importation of foodstuffs from America and Australia (the harvest in 1914 being a particularly poor one), panic began to seize the inhabitants of the city. Plans were hatched to evacuate the population of the city northwards towards Mallow and Limerick in the event of a German force landing somewhere along the Cork coast and proceeding to the city. Whether the Germans were being influenced by a coterie of advanced nationalists keen to strike at the British Empire in Ireland while attention was turned towards the Continent is hard to say at this juncture. Nevertheless it was soon clear that the plans were nothing more than drafts that had been drawn up in England a number of months beforehand and had been circulated among army personnel in the Ballincollig garrison as a matter of information. This did demonstrate, however, the jittery nature of all concerned with the welfare of Cork’s inhabitants.[4]

In this atmosphere, it was hardly surprising that most attention was focused on the “home front”, with the newspapers carrying mostly stories from Ireland and London. Little attention was paid to the war beyond the Western Front, therefrom dispatches were published on an almost daily basis. This was true for the events in the eastern Mediterranean which would escalate from February 1915 on.

[1] Patrick Maume: The Long Gestation: Irish Nationalist Life 1891-1918 (Dublin, 1999), pp. 148-9

[2] Cork Free Press, 8 August 1914

[3] Cork Constitution, 8 August 1914, quoted in D.J. Lucey: “Cork Public Opinion and the First World War” (Unpublished MA Thesis, U.C.C, 1972), pp. 41-2

[4] D.A. Hennessy: “Ireland and the First World War: A Cork Perspective” (Unpublished M.Phil. Thesis, UCC, 2004), pp. 52-3

Canon Sheehan’s Fenians: History, Memory and Depiction

Ahead of tomorrow night’s launch of a book of essays based on the Canon Sheehan conference held in UCC last year, I want to give a little preview of my remarks.

Treating Canon Sheehan’s relationship with the Fenians as a whole, there are three major facets that are detectable: history, memory and depiction. Sheehan’s first encounter with Fenianism and the Fenians was in the events of March and April 1867 in his home area of north county Cork. Thereafter, to paraphrase Pearse, “life sprang from death”. Fenians and Fenian characters populate most of Sheehan’s novels, and outside of his novels Sheehan dealt with themes connected with Fenians and Fenianism. Yet little has been written about this relationship; in essence much of his groundwork as a novelist is laid by characters he encountered in his youth.

PA Sheehan had just celebrated his fifteenth birthday when the countryside around him in northern county Cork was the scene of skirmishes between bands of rebels and military forces stationed in Mallow. These rebels were organised and led by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), assisted by members of their sister organisation in America, the Fenian Brotherhood. Many of these had had experience in the American Civil War (1861-5) and were leaders of men that one veteran disparagingly called “a mere rabble”. In early March a band of 5,000 men marched in bitterly cold, snowy weather from Cork to close to Mallow, where a party of these men attacked a local barracks and seized arms. However the intervention of a battalion of soldiers from Mallow broke up this potential uprising; the leaders went ‘on the run’ before being captured near Kilmallock, County Limerick.

In eastern county Cork another party of rebels under the command of a Fenian from Ballymacoda, Peter O’Neill Crowley, attacked some local installations before being confronted by a band of soldiers from Youghal. O’Neill Crowley went ‘on the run’ through Tipperary and Limerick before being cornered near Kildorrery and shot dead. O’Neill Crowley’s funeral was witnessed by Sheehan from the balcony of St Colman’s College in Fermoy as the cortege made its lengthy journey from Mitchelstown barracks to Ballymacoda church. It made a powerful impression. Later, one of the priest characters in Sheehan’s well-known novel Glenanaar was to say:

“We, a lot of raw, young students, were massed on the college terrace, and I remember how we watched with beating hearts that great, silent moving multitude of men. But when the yellow coffin containing the mangled body of poor Crowley came in sight, swaying to and fro on the bearers’ shoulders, we lost control of ourselves out and out. We saw the body, or thought we saw it, rent and torn and bleeding from English bullets, and some of us were crying, and some of us were cursing, and more wanted to scale the college walls in spite of priest and Bishop.”

Collective nostalgia for what the Fenians of 1867 were purported to represent would be a central theme for Sheehan and indeed his lifelong friend William O’Brien MP in their writings.

Memories of 1867 would serve to drive Sheehan (and O’Brien indeed) into sorrow for the Ireland that they lived in. This would have been quite common in their day. Yet it was not the only version of events. The history of Fenianism, both inside and outside Ireland, post-1867 is one of compromise and a search for balance between political ideology and economic well-being. Many later MPs of the Irish Parliamentary Party were proud to flaunt their Fenian roots: chief among them being Thomas Condon, MP for East Tipperary. Yet he was not the only one. One of O’Brien’s closest political supporters was James Gilhooly, MP for West Cork (1885-1916) and someone that had been suspected of being a ‘head centre’ in the IRB in the period immediately following 1867.

As time went on, the commemorations of the events of 1867 were increasingly populated by different generations of nationalists: the older men displaying a nostalgia for what went before; the younger generations more impatient, more restless, more energetic and willing to strive for an Ireland free, but also an Ireland that would have Gaelicism and Catholicism at its heart. This would not surely have been acceptable to the founders of the IRB, who wished that their Brotherhood would remain aloof from religious and cultural schisms.

The sidelining of the power of the priest in this ongoing struggle between republicans and Home Rulers would bring the memory of the Fenians to the fore in the later novels of Canon Sheehan. Sheehan’s Fenians from the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century on undergo a dramatic transformation. No longer are they seen as bumbling idiots who threaten the security of the Irish people, and more importantly the power of the priest in matters lay and spiritual (depicted most clearly in My New Curate). Rather, they are seen as advocates for redemption, for a return to an Ireland that was free of the vices of materialism and secularization. And crucially, where the priest held sway.

This reached a crescendo in his final published novel, The Graves at Kilmorna. However it is not complete; William O’Brien tells us that “the more insistent haste and paralyzing forces of Death” forbade any further revision to the manuscript completed in April 1912. If Sheehan had been allowed to, O’Brien argued, then

“the ‘Graves at Kilmorna’ might have been a still more precious muniment of contemporary Irish history”

As it was Kilmorna appeared shortly before the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in 1915; events subsequent to that gave the novel a new lease of life as a harbinger of the coming of the Easter Rising – an accolade that is ambivalent to say the least. Nevertheless, contemporary opinion held it that Sheehan’s final novel so coruscated the Ireland of Redmond, Dillon, Devlin and the Irish Party that rebellion was not only necessary, but inevitable. In tandem with Pearse’s Ghosts, Kilmorna was seen as the window into the souls of many sidelined by the inexorable march of Home Rule – in rural Ireland at least, for urban Ireland scarcely figures in this Sheehan portrait.

A final thought in this regard. Some forty years after the Easter Rising, a bulletin from Eason’s wholesalers to bookshops across Ireland listed “very popular titles [which] will almost certainly continue to be in demand”. In amongst the titles from Dorothy MacArdle, Dan Breen, Pearse, Mitchel, Wolfe Tone, and Kickham were four from Canon Sheehan: Lisheen, My New Curate, The Blindness of Dr Gray, and Kilmorna. In 1971 Con Houlihan remarked that

Kilmorna is, God knows, as ‘modern’ as the latest bulletin from the Shankill road or Ballymurphy”.

To conclude, then. Canon Sheehan’s relationship with the Fenians goes much deeper than these remarks can manage to touch upon. But it is a good starting point, in this ‘Decade of Commemorations’, to consider wider questions relating to the Fenian movement in Ireland and throughout the world. And given that in 2017 we will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1867 rising, it is important that we keep such questions to the forefront.

Book Launch: ‘Revisiting Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1852-1913: Author, Activist, Priest’


Following on from a successful conference in UCC last year, the above volume will be launched at two separate events next week:

Tuesday 25 November 2014, Springfort Hall, Twopothouse, Mallow at 7.30pm

Thursday 27 November 2014, Aula Maxima, UCC at 5.00pm

I am proud to say that I have a chapter in this volume, entitled ‘Canon Sheehan and the Fenians: history, memory and depiction’. I will give a flavour of this in a post in the next few days.