Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Nationalist poetry

This is a work-in-progress blog serial about aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited

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“I have to-day been looking through a small and beautifully-printed volume of poems just issued here.”
–William Henry Hurlbert

In Dublin, Hurlbert picked up a copy of Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland. It was dedicated to Irish separatist John O’Leary and the Young Ireland Societies. Hurlbert noted “the spirit of all the poems it contains is the spirit of [the Young Ireland rebellion of 18]48, or of that earlier Ireland of Robert Emmett.

In 1888, O’Leary had only been back in Ireland a few years following a five-year imprisonment in England and 15-year exile in Paris and America that resulted from his conviction for treason. The new book’s dedication poem, “To John O’Leary,” included the stanzas:

Because you loved the nobler part / Of Erin; so we bring you here

Words such as once the nation’s heart / On patriot lips rejoiced to hear.

O’Leary

Scholar John Turpin attributed the poem, which is unsigned in the book, to William Butler Yeats. According to Susan O’Keeffe, director of the Yeats Society Sligo, it was written by T.W. Rolleston, who edited Poems and Ballads.

There is no dispute that O’Leary influenced Yeats. They met in 1885, when O’Leary was 55 and Yeats was 20. It was a year before the failure of the first Home Rule bill and the widening of the Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist divide in Ireland. As historian Owen McGee wrote in a History Ireland piece:

O’Leary maintained a lifelong conviction that a non-confessional Irish nationalist political élite could emerge, even when this possibility had seemingly evaporated after 1886. His tenacious hold on this belief, which Yeats found inspiring and essentially inherited, virtually defined ‘Romantic Ireland’ to the young poet, for whom O’Leary acted as a patron.

O’Leary died in 1907. Six years later, in his poem “September 1913” at the start of Ireland’s revolutionary period, Yeats penned the memorable stanza:

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yeats

Four poems in the 1888 collection are signed by Yeats: “The Stolen Child” , 1886, which Hurlbert described as “an exquisite ballad” ; “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman” , 1886; “The Madness of King Goll” ,1887; and “Love Song” , year unknown.

Hurlbert also commented on the poem, “Marching Song of the Gaelic Athletes,” attributed to An Craoibhín Aoibhinn (translated from Irish as, The Pleasant Little Branch), the pseudonym of Irish nationalist Douglas Hyde. It became the anthem of the Gaelic Athletic Association, or GAA, which was founded in 1884.

“These Athletes are numbered now, I am assured, not by thousands, but by myriads, and their organization covers all parts of Ireland,” Hurlbert wrote. “If the spirit of [18]48 and of [the Rebellion of 17]98 is really moving among them, I should say they are likely to be at least as troublesome in the end to the ‘uncrowned king’ as to the Crowned Queen of Ireland.”

Parnell

The uncrowned king was a reference to nationalist M.P. Charles Stewart Parnell. Hurlbert seemed to imply that the GAA and other Irish republicans would overwhelm Parnell’s second attempt at securing constitutional Home Rule. (More about Hurlbert’s views of Parnell in the next post.)

The 33 poems collected in the 80-page Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland were published by M. H. Gill and Son of Dublin. Hurlbert described the firm as “Nationalist publishers … who have the courage of their convictions, since their books bear the imprint of O’Connell, and not Sackville Street.”

Four years earlier, “in a rash of apparent nationalism,” Dublin Corporation opted to rename the street after Daniel O’Connell, the early 19th centurty “Liberator” of Catholic Ireland. Some unionist residents challenged the effort in court, preferring to remember the former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The street name wasn’t officially changed until after independence in the early 20th century.

Inside title page of the digitized copy of the book, linked at top.

NOTES: From pages 391-392 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Other sources are linked. UPDATE: This post was updated on 13 May 2018, to include information about the O’Leary poem from the Yeats Society Sligo.

NEXT: Uncrowned king

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan