A Journey In Ireland, 1921, Revisited: Twice detained

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 literally walks into being detained by combatants on each side of the Irish war twice in a six-day stretch. He is lucky to escape imprisonment, a beating, or death.

Though he used rail for segments of his journey, Ewart intended to make his journey in Ireland a walking tour, an “incredibly risky” idea, Bew/Maume say. The historians continue:

The British habit of sending soldiers in mufti, sometimes presenting themselves as deserters, to scout the countryside, and the IRA tendency to regard tramps and outsiders as potential spies placed Ewart at serious risk of being killed. An ex-officer [such as Ewart] might be thought to be in less danger from Crown forces … but the well-documented practice of shooting passers-by at random and the fact that many soldiers and police regarded journalists as natural enemies meant Ewart might have been killed before he could explain himself …”[1]”Introduction”, Journey, UCD Press edition, 2009, p. xv.

Walsh notes “the war of reprisals” between the IRA and British forces “had become notorious” by the time Ewart visited Ireland. His “pilgrim-like” rambles in the Irish countryside contained “lyrical descriptions of landscapes and nature,” but “within these passages of pastoral ecstasy are physical reminders of the troubles.”[2]News, pp.162-163.

Royal Irish Constabulary and British military vehicles outside Limerick in 1920.

Ewart describes the trenching of rural roads “just wide enough and just deep enough to wreck any vehicle that should attempt to compass it” and shell-hole deep triangulation “leaving a narrow pathway for the foot-passenger, but ensuring certain perdition to bicycle or car.” Trees and other debris are strewn across roads. Near Tullamore, he has to wade a stream because the bridge is “so thoroughly demolished … as to leave a chasm too wide to jump.”[3]Journey, pp. 187-188, and p. 195.

Mallow barracks

Ewart walks 20 miles from Cork city to Mallow, where “eyes follow one fearfully rather than angrily.” An unidentified resident describes the IRA’s Sept. 28, 1920, attack on the local military barracks.[4]Journey, pp. 61-71. That morning, some 50 armed republicans waited until most of the 17th Lancers stationed there left to exercise their horses. The attackers killed one guard and raided 25 rifles, two machine guns, 4,000 rounds of ammunition, 20 swords and lances, and boots and other equipment. Mallow was “perhaps the best example of a successful attack on a military barracks,” Major John Charles Street concluded in The Administration of Ireland, 1920, published about the time Ewart was in Ireland.[5]Journey, p. 62, and Street, Major John Charles, writing under the pseudonym “I.O.”, for Information Officer, The Administration of Ireland, 1920, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1921, pp. … Continue reading

Curious, Ewart “sought out the barracks … with a view to reconstructing September’s daring coup.” As he approaches, the tip of a sentry’s bayonet suddenly levels at his face. A plain-clothes constable approaches from behind and orders Ewart to the police station, where he is searched and questioned.

His pass and photograph “signed, sealed, and delivered by Dublin Castle” do not impress the officers.

“These things can be faked,” one says.

Worse, the Sinn Féin “pass” and typewritten document he obtained from republicans in Cork raise greater suspicion.

“These are seditious documents,” says a District Inspector.

“I saw visions of days, a week even, spent in Victoria Barracks, Cork,” Ewart writes. Four months earlier, Auxiliary forces implicated in the city’s burning stationed at this military base. Two days after Ewart’s troubles in Mallow, four republican Volunteers would be executed at the barracks.

Finally, an officer from the South Staffordshire Regiment enters the room with what Ewart describes as an embarrassed look. It appears that someone confirmed he was a veteran of the Great War, though this is not stated.

Ewart is transferred by military tender to GHQ Buttevant, County Cork, about eight miles north, a drive “full of interest.” The author sits in front between the driver and a young officer who tightly grabs his revolver each time the vehicle rounds a corner. There are signs of earlier ambushes on the road. “Rifles were raised” each time the convoy approaches civilians in the fading dusk.

Ewart describes the Buttevant barracks as orderly and bleak, but soon is “hospitably entertained at dinner.” A colonel commandant describes the conditions of service in Ireland:

People in England don’t seem to realize what things are like over here–or else they don’t care. Most of the newspapers damn us or take side with the other people. You’ve seen for yourself the conditions we are under. We can’t go outside the barracks without the risk of being shot in the back.

Another officer tells Ewart about Private Fielding of the East Lancashire Regiment, killed that day near the barracks. “A mere boy” of 19, according to newspaper reports, Fielding was shot on the road to Churchtown, five miles northwest, having gone for a walk about 10 a.m., “not in the company of any of his comrades.”[6]”Soldier Shot Dead”, Evening Echo, April 27, 1921.

Tullamore troubles

Six days later, Ewart set out on a 22-mile hike from Birr to Tullamore. A group of young men in Kilcormac village “eyed me suspiciously,” he writes. “Signs of Republican activity became more apparent,” such as felled trees over trenched roads.[7]Journey, pp. 125-129.

Contemporary Irish road. Shutterstock.

He encounters “a dark-haired handsome girl accompanied by a child” who mistakes him for an itinerant fiddler. An “unkempt peasant woman” brings him a glass of milk and refuses payment, but he notices a young man inside her cabin. Someone watches Ewart from the hillside. A middle-aged peasant man joins him briefly, then departs with “a rather sinister grin.”

Soon, five young men ride up on bicycles from behind.

“Stop! Hands up,” they shout.

They seize Ewart by the arms and roughly remove his rucksack, which they search. He writes:

The half-hour that followed was much less than pleasant. … My eyes wandered repeatedly to the bog and my thoughts to the number of people who had lately been found in bogs with brief notes attached to them. On a parallel road just a week ago a police inspector had been kidnapped and not been heard of since.

At last, the leader declares “the man’s all right,” and they return Ewart’s papers and other possessions, even “lifted my rucksack onto my shoulders.” He continues the final two miles to his destination:

But, walking into Tullamore rather conspicuously dusty and a traveler, battery after battery of coldly hostile glances were directed at me by men who scowled as I passed, scowled after me, scowled up at the window of the inn where I sat at dinner. Everybody wanted to see an English stranger a potential spy.

The next morning, Ewart takes the train to Clara.

O’Brien’s prescience

William O’Brien

A day before the Mallow barrack episode, Irish nationalist politician and newspaper editor William O’Brien warned Ewart of the dangers he would soon encounter. Sophia Raffalovich O’Brien later wrote that her husband declared Ewart’s walking tour “a very dangerous plan” and was unimpressed by the papers he obtained from Dublin Castle and Sinn Féin leaders.

” ‘That will seem all the more suspicious’ my husband told him ‘and you will be arrested and goodness knows what may happen to you at the hands of both parties,’ ” Sophia recalled.

Ewart later wrote to William O’Brien to confirm his prescience. “After having been arrested by English troops and by Volunteers, he had thought it wiser to give up his walking tour and had used less dangerous means of locomotion,” Sophia remembered of the visitor’s letter.[8]”Introduction”, pp. xvi-xvii, citing SRO’s Recollections of a Long Life.

NEXT: Murdered mayors

References

References
1 ”Introduction”, Journey, UCD Press edition, 2009, p. xv.
2 News, pp.162-163.
3 Journey, pp. 187-188, and p. 195.
4 Journey, pp. 61-71.
5 Journey, p. 62, and Street, Major John Charles, writing under the pseudonym “I.O.”, for Information Officer, The Administration of Ireland, 1920, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1921, pp. 205-206.
6 ”Soldier Shot Dead”, Evening Echo, April 27, 1921.
7 Journey, pp. 125-129.
8 ”Introduction”, pp. xvi-xvii, citing SRO’s Recollections of a Long Life.

1 thought on “A Journey In Ireland, 1921, Revisited: Twice detained

  1. Pingback: A Journey In Ireland, 1921, Revisited: In Cork | Mark Holan's Irish-American Blog

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