A Journey In Ireland, 1921, Revisited: Ulster attitude

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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In their “Introduction” to the 2009 UCD Press edition of Journey, Paul Bew and Patrick Maume devote considerable attention to Ewart’s time in what today is Northern Ireland. They note the author’s reference to his September 1913 visit to an Ulster Volunteer Force rally in Newry. It is unclear, they comment, whether Ewart, then 21, “was there for political sympathy, personal connection with the participants, or journalistic curiosity, though he speaks of ‘marching with the Covenanters’ which implies a certain degree of participation.”[1]“Introduction”, Journey, UCD Press edition, 2009, pp.xii-xiii. A year earlier, unionists signed the Ulster Covenant to protest Ireland leaving the United Kingdom under home rule, as proposed at the time.

Ewart’s material from his 1921 visit to Belfast, Bew/Maume continue, “is perhaps the most fascinating in the book,” and they provide considerable analysis of the events he covers.[2]Ibid, p. xvii. The author arrives in the northeast portion of Ireland as Ulster Unionist chief James Craig meets with Sinn Féin leader Eamon de Valera, and three weeks before the first general election of the new Northern Ireland parliament.

“All Befast was talking of the Craig-de Valera meeting, girding itself with an illusive expectancy, girding sometimes at its own leader [Craig], tending to lose sight of the major question in the momentary issue,” Ewart writes.[3]Journey, p. 156.

This meeting and the outcome of the election are well documented. More striking 100 years later is the unchanged and unmistakable political and cultural attitude of the region Ewart describes in Journey. It is personified by Sir Dawson Bates, then secretary of the Irish Unionist Alliance, “a downright hardheaded zealot, with a clear-cut horizon and no sentiment to spare,” Ewart says. “He speaks and looks and thinks and is–Belfast.”

At the Orange hall rally Ewart attends in East Belfast, Bates bellows:

We don’t want a United Ireland, we want a United Kingdom. … Some people hope that Ulster is going to make a mess of things. Failure means handing our bodies and souls over to Sinn Féin and the Roman Catholic Church. We’ve had enough of Dublin in the past. If we can crush Sinn Féin at the forthcoming elections, there’s a bright future for Ulster.[4]Journey, p.152-153.

A month later, Bates became Northern Ireland’s first minister for home affairs, a post he held for nearly 22 years. “His conspicuous distrust of the nationalist minority frustrated initial attempts to secure its cooperation, helped to minimize its power in local government, and encouraged an overtly discriminatory administrative style,” the Dictionary of Irish Biography says.[5]See Bates, Sir (Richard) Dawson, by Richard Hawkins, Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Northern Ireland Cabinet, 1921. Sir Dawson Bates at left, James Craig third from left. Others, l. to r, are Marquess of Londonderry, Hugh McDowell Pollock, E. M. Archdale, and J. M. Andrews. Ewart interviewed Pollock, who was finance minister.

Ewart also interviews finance minister-designated Hugh McDowell Pollock,  whom he characterizes as uncompromising and inflexible, a man who “can hardly be described as concessionable.” Pollock proclaims, “English people are stupid” because they fail to see that Ulster is “the only bulwark between them and the complete dissolution of the British Empire.” The people of southern Ireland, he says, are “full of sentimental ideas about nationalism.”[6]Journey, pp. 235-237. Also cited by Maurice Walsh, Bitter Freedom: Ireland in the Revolutionary World. W. W. Norton & Co., New York,  2015, pp. 306-307.

Bew/Maume detail how Ewart selectively reports “his vision of Ulster Unionist intransigence” by excluding moderate portions of the Craig speech he attends. They suggest Ewart was “more at home with the wistful and fearful Southern Unionists” who were willing to accept some form of Dominion status than the “more confident and intransigent” Ulstermen.[7]“Introduction”, p. xviii, and p. xiv.

The attitude expressed by Bates and Pollock prevailed in the region from the 1912 Ulster Covenant through the sectarian Troubles of the late 20th century, when it was personified by Ian Paisley. True, Paisley moderated his views after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, even developed an unlikely partnership with Irish republican Martin McGuinness. Echoes of Bates and Pollock reverberate in current outcries over Brexit’s impact on the region and increased talk of a united Ireland. More hard-line rhetoric is likely to be heard in the months ahead as the Democratic Unionist Party’s replaces resigned leader Arlene Foster.  

The next post in this series will catalog more of Ewart’s interview quotes from Belfast and other parts of Ireland on the two key subjects: the island’s 1921 partition, and the Easter Rising that preceded it in 1916.

Curious errors

In his chapters about Northern Ireland, Ewart’s book contains two historical errors: 

Cecil Doughty image of the 1882 Phoenix Park murders.

He suggests the first deaths of the Irish War of Independence, the Jan. 21, 1919, ambush of RIC officers James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary, shared an anniversary date with the murders of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.[8]Journey, p. 143.

This is incorrect. The Dublin killings occurred nearly 40 years early, on May 6, 1882, during Ireland’s Land War period. 

A few pages later, Ewart quotes an unnamed “high official” in Belfast who criticizes de Valera, citing the quote: “If the Unionists do not come in on our side they will have to go under.” Ewart, in parentheses, attributes the comment to a July 5, 1919, speech at Killaloe, County Clare.

This place and date are correct, but the year was 1917, as de Valera campaigned in a special by-election for the seat opened by the death of Irish Parliamentary Party incumbent Willie Redmond. The Sinn Féin candidate won in a landslide five days later. Two years later, De Valera was in the early weeks of his 18-month tour of America to raise money and political support of the Irish republic.

As with most fact errors–and I have made my share–it is not so remarkable that mistakes were made in the first place, but that they survived the copy editing of other readers before publication.

NEXT: Rising & Partition

References

References
1 “Introduction”, Journey, UCD Press edition, 2009, pp.xii-xiii.
2 Ibid, p. xvii.
3 Journey, p. 156.
4 Journey, p.152-153.
5 See Bates, Sir (Richard) Dawson, by Richard Hawkins, Dictionary of Irish Biography.
6 Journey, pp. 235-237. Also cited by Maurice Walsh, Bitter Freedom: Ireland in the Revolutionary World. W. W. Norton & Co., New York,  2015, pp. 306-307.
7 “Introduction”, p. xviii, and p. xiv.
8 Journey, p. 143.

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