Novelist and journalist Wilfrid Ewart traveled through Ireland from mid-April to early May 1921. His dispatches for London newspapers were later collected and revised in the book, ‘A Journey in Ireland, 1921.’ Previous installments of this centenary series are collected at American Reporting of Irish Independence.
Ewart arrived in Ireland five years after the Easter Rising and three months before the truce that ended the fighting between Irish separatists and the British military. He opens the book by describing an April 18 bombing in Dublin, just hours after his arrival. Ewart heard the blast while eating dinner at a hotel near St. Stephen’s Green, probably the Shelbourne.
“No one took much interest in the matter,” he writes, which “conveyed two facts–that the incident really was a normal one in the city’s life and that the bomb, by reason of the hollowness of its explosion, was not heavily charged but was probably a casing detonated.” On this latter “fact,” Ewart draws from his experience on World War I battlefields.
The next day’s Irish Independent reported three people were injured when a bomb exploded about 7:45 p.m. as a “large, armour-plated, wire-netted military lorry” turned the corner from Duke Street to Grafton Street heading toward St. Stephen’s Green. “The lorry dashed on, and there was no firing from soldiers.””Evening Ambush in Dublin”, The Irish Independent, April 19, 1921.
Newsboys on Grafton Street shouted, “Another Dublin Ambush,” Ewart writes. Two nights earlier, insurrectionists hurled three bombs at Crown forces on Eden Quay as “armed civilians opened fire with revolvers from concealed positions” the Irish Examiner reported.”Dublin Bomb Attack,” Irish Examiner, April 18, 1921. Such attacks were common.
“The abiding impression of Dublin at this time was the recurring contrast between the ordinary workaday life of a modern city and the queer forces which lurked such a little way beneath” Ewart wrote. He described old men dozing at benches and nursery-maids reading novelettes as they minded children playing on the grass at Phoenix Park, while lorries tear along the streets at 25 mph, “their dark green or khaki loads bristling with rifles.” He observed the high-end French restaurant Jammett’s half empty at luncheon-time, “yet contrived to maintain the illusion of a segregated and civilized society. He noted an Abbey Theatre revival of St John Greer Ervine’s “Mixed Marriage,” a 1911 play about sectarian strife in Belfast, and speculated “about that other deadly warfare of the protesting North.”Journey, p. 6.
… there was civility and to spare in the shops, but … [elsewhere, he] encountered that furtive, half-cowed and half-hostile attitude of the people which subsequently dogged your footsteps through Ireland. … [People] wear a shamed look as their their houses do, as the gray, peeling walls and dirty striped mattresses hanging out of windows do, as those wretched creatures in shreds of cloth or shawls, down-at-heel slippers, and frowsy hair, those hordes of filthy children happy in their ignorance … [At the North Dublin refuse heaps] things like wasps crawl on mountains of rubbish … They are old men, women, girls, children–Dublin’s ghouls.Journey, p. 11.
During his five days in Dublin, Ewart interviewed representatives from each side of the war. At Dublin Castle, seat of British authority in Ireland, he spoke with government “mouthpiece” Basil Clarke, a former journalist, “through the service of whose intelligence all Irish news (and propaganda) passed.”
As efforts to settle the conflict warmed in April 1921, Clarke acknowledged to Ewart that “indirect” negotiations were underway “continuously” since June 1920, though “always” wrecked by the “extremist wing of Sinn Fein.”Journey, pp. 8-9. Bew/Maume note that Clarke “denies the existence of a substantial Sinn Fein/Bolshevik connection at the very moment the papers were full of it,” including claims fed to American journalist Carl Ackerman by Scotland Yard.“Introduction”, Journey, UCD Press edition, 2009, p. xx.
Ewart also called at the “red-brick Georgian house on Merrion Square” of Irish writer, poet, and painter George William Russell, known by the pseudonym Æ. Here, Ewart followed the footsteps of American reporter Ruth Russell [no relation to George], who in 1919 visited the artist at his home and Irish Homestead office.Ruth Russell, What’s the matter with Ireland?, pp. 101-109. This was not a coincidence. Teas with George Russell, historian Alice Stopford Green, and other “intellectual apologists” sympathetic to the nationalist cause were arranged for visiting reporters by Desmond FitzGerald and other Sinn Fein propagandists in what Dublin Castle derisively called the “republican scenic railway.”Ian Kenneally, The Paper Wall, Newspapers and Propaganda in Ireland 1919-1921, The Collins Press, 2008, p. 69, citing Richard Bennett, The Black and Tans, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1995, and Maurice … Continue reading
In his conversation with Ewart, Russell said:
All governments are rotten–though their individual members may be honest men–because they act not upon what is right but in obedience to forces more powerful than themselves. We Irish have no hatred of the English; our hatred is of the English government which treats Ireland, and so treated her through the centuries, as a slave race.Journey, p. 18.
Bew/Maume suggest that in some unrecorded part of the conversation Ewart must have disclosed more of his war experience than is revealed in print. They cite Russell’s comments comparing IRA violence to English soldiers shooting German prisoners: “Such things happen in war and always will. People in England seem to forget or not to realize that a state of war prevails in this country.”“Introduction”, pp. ix-x, and Journey, p. 20.
Facing a 10 p.m. curfew, “the sinister boundary of every Irishman’s horizon in April 1921”Journey, p. 5. Curfew time from “Cowardly, Cunning and Contemptible–The British Campaign in Dublin, 1919-1921,” by John Dorney, in The Irish Story, Feb. 16, 2017. Ewart spent his evenings seated in front of the hotel fire with a small group of regulars he called the “Curfew Parliament.” They included an Irish lawyer who “kept his own counsel”; an American consular official who “contributed little”; a middle-aged land agent; a young medical student; and an “elderly landowner, descendant of [Henry] Grattan … with his weather-beaten face, sunken eyes and picturesque untidiness.” This last man shook his fist and denounced the Crown government and its police and military forces.
“Remember, it’s a vendetta! It’s blood for blood and life for life,” he says. “I tell you, the Irish people will not forget this thing for generations–unto the third and fourth generation.”
Others seated around the fire tell Ewart not to pay too much attention to the speaker. But the author is reluctant to dismiss the “grim old Nationalist”:
The deep-set eyes, the dull light that smoldered in them, the rugged face and powerful jaw with their suggestion of fanaticism, expressed a resentment that rankled deep and a determination that would brook no wrong. On the whole, this grim old Nationalist stood for the kind of man who for better or worse has suffered, fought, and in some cases died for Ireland during later periods of her history.Journey, p.23-24
NEXT: In Cork
|↑1||”Evening Ambush in Dublin”, The Irish Independent, April 19, 1921.|
|↑2||”Dublin Bomb Attack,” Irish Examiner, April 18, 1921.|
|↑3||Journey, p. 6.|
|↑4||Journey, p. 11.|
|↑5||Journey, pp. 8-9.|
|↑6||“Introduction”, Journey, UCD Press edition, 2009, p. xx.|
|↑7||Ruth Russell, What’s the matter with Ireland?, pp. 101-109.|
|↑8||Ian Kenneally, The Paper Wall, Newspapers and Propaganda in Ireland 1919-1921, The Collins Press, 2008, p. 69, citing Richard Bennett, The Black and Tans, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1995, and Maurice Walsh, “Shredding the Paper Wall: Republican Propaganda and International Press Coverage” in The Irish Revolution, 1919-21: A Global History, History Ireland Publications, 2019. p. 46.|
|↑9||Journey, p. 18.|
|↑10||“Introduction”, pp. ix-x, and Journey, p. 20.|
|↑11||Journey, p. 5. Curfew time from “Cowardly, Cunning and Contemptible–The British Campaign in Dublin, 1919-1921,” by John Dorney, in The Irish Story, Feb. 16, 2017.|