A Journey In Ireland, 1921, Revisited: In Cork

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.

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Ewart traveled by train from Dublin to Cork city on April 23. “That Cork was full of spies and that a stray Englishman bent upon an apparently aimless mission was bound to be taken for one, soon became evident,” he wrote. 

He mentioned that morning’s citywide holdup of 32 postmen by groups of four or five men who robbed more than 7,300 letters “in the name of the IRA,” the Skibbereen Eagle reported a week later. There was no violence, the paper said, but it was “extraordinary that the coup was accomplished without attracting the attention of police and military patrols.”[1]“7,386 Letters Taken”, Skibbereen Eagle, April 30, 1921.

And yet, to Ewart, “Cork city seemed quiet after Dublin.” He noticed the burned out buildings on St. Patrick Street, remembered the devastation he had seen in Europe during the war, and realized such sights were “inconspicuous because they had grown normal and customary in seven years, because ruins were characteristic of Ireland in 1921.”[2]Journey, pp. 27-28.

Nevertheless, “the site of the burnings demanded a first-hand explanation.” He found Cork three residents willing to discuss the city’s Dec. 11-12, 1920, conflagration. The unnamed witnesses accused the military’s K Division of the arson, scoffed at the name of Chief Secretary of Ireland Sir Hamar Greenwood, and said a few other “rude things,” Ewart reported.

Cork city after the December 1920 fires set by the authorities. Ewart visited four months later. “Ruins were characteristic of Ireland in 1921,” he wrote.

Like the three witnesses, Ewart realized that Greenwood’s Dec. 14, 1920, House of Commons explanation of the Cork fires was a lie. The author discredited the Chief Secretary’s assertion the fire spread unchecked from Grant & Co. on Patrick Street to the Carnegie Library and City Hall by observing the wide span of unburnt territory during a 5-minute walk between the two points.[3]“Introduction”, Journey, UCD Press edition, 2009, p. xv.; and Journey, pp.45-47.

Republican interviews

Ewart interviewed Deputy Lord Mayor of Cork Barry M. Egan and Alderman Liam de Róiste (William Roach) of the Irish Industrial Development Association. The two men “appear to have been the main Sinn Féin contacts for visiting journalists in this period,” including a late 1920 interview with Russell Browning of United Press.[4]Egan, Barry M., Patrick Maume in Dictionary of Irish Biography, and “Irish Claim Great Britain Throttle Commerce”, (de Roiste), The Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press, Dec. 10, 1920, and other U.S. … Continue reading

Ewart’s Cork interviews occurred two days after Irish republican leader Eamon de Valera and Edward George Villars Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby, met privately in Dublin to discuss a possible peace settlement. Lord Derby’s visit to Catholic Church hierarchy was reported at the time, though whether he met with any Dáil Éireann representative was less clear. Ewart mentioned these “unofficial negotiations” to Egan, who replied:

This is a question for the Irish people. It is a question for ‘we ourselves’ (Sinn Féin) English politicians had much better keep out of it. I believe Lord Derby is an honest man and a gentleman; no doubt he means well. But anything this is done had got to be done ‘over the counter.’ We want no secret negotiations. President de Valera has made that clear.[5]Journey, p. 36.

The Irish leader and Lord Derby “had tea and discussed the situation for two or three hours,” according to de Valera biographer David McCullagh. “While the discussion did not produce much movement, de Valera regarded it as the first important contact with the British and as an indication that they ‘desired to make peace if satisfactory terms could be arranged.’ ”[6]McCullagh, David, De Valera, Rise 1882-1932, Gill Books, New York, 2017, pp.201-202.

Barry M. Egan

Egan later wrote a letter to the Westminster Gazette to “protest in a mild and unembittered way” Ewart’s description of him in the paper. “Your report … amused and puzzled me,” the Cork mayor wrote, as also reported in the Freeman’s Journal. “I do not think I am a thin-lipped doctrinaire, nor like a symbolist of the French Revolution. I do not think I am personally embittered. What loss I have suffered personally has seemed a small thing compared to my predecessors, Thomas MacCurtain and Terence McSwiney.”[7]Ewart’s original story: “Talks With Sinn Fein”, Westminster Gazette, June 10, 1921, and Journey, p. 35. Egan’s reply: “To Mr. Wilfrid Ewart: A Correction”, Westminster Gazette, … Continue reading 

De Róiste echoed what George Russell had told Ewart: “We feel no hostility to the English people or to the Army; only to the Irregular Forces of the Crown and other instruments of your Government.”[8]Journey, p.42. See “Dublin Arrival” in this series. A 1903 co-founder of the Industrial Development Association,[9]De Róiste, Liam, by Paul Rouse, DIB. de Róiste conceded that while Irish agriculture was “stimulated by the war … industrially, we’ve probably gone back, if anything.”  

Ford shutdown

Ewart, like Ruth Russell and Harry Guest and other journalists, noted the Ford tractor plant in Cork. When Russell visited in spring 1919, shortly before the plant opened, she observed: “On the edge of the sidewalks in Cork there is a human curbing of idle men. Just now most of them are sons of farmers or farm hands, for the farmer of the south is turning his acres back to grazing and extra hands are not needed.”[10]“New Irish Factory Has American Ideas”, Omaha (NE) World Herald, July 6, 1919. Not included in What’s the matter with Ireland?

In late March 1921, a few weeks before Ewart’s visit, the two-year-old plant closed suddenly, “without any explanation from management,” the Freeman’s Journal reported. The paper suggested this was “a mere temporary suspension, rendered necessary by the exceptional economic circumstances of the moment.”[11]“Closing of Ford Works”, Freeman’s Journal, March 29, 1921.

Ewart described the impact:

There were to be seen at all hours, it is true, an extraordinary number of young and middle- aged, able-bodied men standing about the streets; and that seemed typical of Cork, as of most other Irish towns. It was due, in part, to the slackness of the port and of business generally, but mainly to the closing down of Ford’s Works which had been established to supply agricultural tractors for the whole of Ireland and had hitherto employed between 700 and 800 men.[12]Journey, p. 28-29. 

He later described “a long queue of respectable-looking people … waiting to receive their dole (£1 to £2 a week) from the fund subscribed by the United States of America and the City of Cork for sufferers in the ‘war.’ They looked the sort of people who, in peaceable times would have enjoyed an income of £1 to £2 a day.”[13]Journey, p. 35.

The Ford tractor plant in Cork city, 1919.

The length of the 1921 Ford shutdown is unclear, but the plant reopened by late summer, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. The Cork District Committee distributed £170,398 of “personal relief” from the American Committee for Relief in Ireland through its city and county branches from 1921 through August 1922.[14]Reports: American Committee for Relief in Ireland and Irish White Cross, New York, 1922, p. 87. 

 “Best commentary”

Ewart wrote “the best commentary on daily life in Cork” was a local newspaper placard at a street corner, which read:

THE WEEK’S WARFARE

MURDER BY INSANE PROFESSOR

CAUGHT AT DRILL

FIVE CIVILIANS KILLED

GARDENING AND POULTRY NOTES

TALKS ON HEALTH

ALL THE USUAL FEATURES

The Skibbereen Eagle published this observation and Ewart’s other descriptions of Cork on its front page a month after his visit.[15]“A Visitor’s View of Cork”, May 21, 1921. The piece was attributed to The Times, London, without the author’s byline. It did not include his interviews with Egan or de Róiste.

NEXT: Twice detained

References

References
1 “7,386 Letters Taken”, Skibbereen Eagle, April 30, 1921.
2 Journey, pp. 27-28.
3 “Introduction”, Journey, UCD Press edition, 2009, p. xv.; and Journey, pp.45-47.
4 Egan, Barry M., Patrick Maume in Dictionary of Irish Biography, and “Irish Claim Great Britain Throttle Commerce”, (de Roiste), The Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press, Dec. 10, 1920, and other U.S. newspapers.
5 Journey, p. 36.
6 McCullagh, David, De Valera, Rise 1882-1932, Gill Books, New York, 2017, pp.201-202.
7 Ewart’s original story: “Talks With Sinn Fein”, Westminster Gazette, June 10, 1921, and Journey, p. 35. Egan’s reply: “To Mr. Wilfrid Ewart: A Correction”, Westminster Gazette, June 20, 1921, and “Amused and Puzzled”, Freeman’s Journal, June 24, 1921.
8 Journey, p.42. See “Dublin Arrival” in this series.
9 De Róiste, Liam, by Paul Rouse, DIB.
10 “New Irish Factory Has American Ideas”, Omaha (NE) World Herald, July 6, 1919. Not included in What’s the matter with Ireland?
11 “Closing of Ford Works”, Freeman’s Journal, March 29, 1921.
12 Journey, p. 28-29.
13 Journey, p. 35.
14 Reports: American Committee for Relief in Ireland and Irish White Cross, New York, 1922, p. 87.
15 “A Visitor’s View of Cork”, May 21, 1921.

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