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 less than five months after the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, began the island’s political partition. In Dublin, the author observes “the ruined Post Office in Sackville [O’Connell] Street was the only standing reminder of what had gone before.” The iconic building at the center of the 1916 rebellion would not reopen until 1929.
On May 3, 1921, the official enactment day of partition, Ewart boarded a train “for the Northeast, being entertained throughout the journey by one of those merry old Irishmen who per se proclaim ‘Ireland a nation.’ ” The passenger also warns the author of the ” ‘narrow-minded Northern bigots … the men you are going to meet.’ “ Ewart observes campaigning for the new Northern Ireland Parliament in Belfast, but returns to England before the election.
In some of his other writing, “Ewart expresses concern that the British interpretation of the Irish conflict made so little impact on world opinion as to raise questions of whether there was any coherent justification for British actions,” Bew/Maume say. “It is clear Ewart supported a compromise settlement [in Ireland, and] … clearly feels more at home with the wistful and fearful Southern Unionists he interviews, who are leaning towards a Dominion settlement in hopes of saving something from the wreckage, than their more confident and intransigent Ulster brethren.”
Like other journalists who visited Ireland during the war, Ewart made an honest effort to report a range of Irish opinions–from combatants, political and social leaders, and regular citizens–on both sides of the independence question and both sides of the new border. Unsurprising for the time, he did not devote much attention to the views of women.
Below are direct quotations from some of the people Ewart interviewed, or his reporting of their remarks, about the 1916 rising and 1921 partition. Most are identified by name and key background details, including the relevant pages in Journey. Read 100 years later, some were more prescient than others.
Liam de Róiste
“The Easter Rebellion in spite of its failure drew all Irishmen together, and the executions that followed made an enduring impression. All the while we were told we were fighting for the principle of Self-Determination and the Rights of Small Nations. Then came the Peace Conference, ‘Wilsonism,’ and the League of Nations. These set people thinking and gave a constructive impetus to the movement. Since 1916, you must understand, the state of affairs has become steadily worse. The real change of feeling in this city began with the murder of Lord Mayor MacCurtain. The Government’s militant policy has had exactly the reverse effect of that intended.”—Sinn Féin official Liam de Róiste in Cork, p. 41.
“Cork used to be a good enough place to live in. We prospered under the Union–till 1916.”–An “old-fashioned” Southern Unionist in Cork, p. 48.
“I have said my say. My friends and myself warned them of what was coming years ago. We could have shown them the way out through a policy of conference and conciliation. They paid no heed to us. Now they’ve gone back to it again, but they’ve got to deal with men who act first and talk afterwards.”–Former home rule M.P., newspaper editor, and semi-retired Irish nationalist William O’Brien in Mallow, p. 57
“The Easter Rebellion was condemned as a useless waste of life by many Irishmen. It raised the cry of ‘England’s tyranny’ certainly; it gave the impetus to violence. But it was the executions afterwards that left a rankling bitterness. … The rising of 1916 gave a new soul to Ireland; she found her soul that day. ”—Stephen O’Mara, “a big Limerick bacon manufacturer” and the city’s first nationalist mayor, in 1885, pp. 87-88
They got on well with their neighbors, taking no interest in politics, but keeping outside them as much as possible. The first change occurred after the 1916 rebellion. A subtle hostility began to manifest itself among the neighbors; custom fell off; when the W.’s went into other shops, they were told English customers were not wanted. In 1917, when Mr. de Valera visited the district, definite signs of enmity became apparent. One day a procession passed their windows, shouting ‘Bloody Protestants!’ [and] ‘To hell with the King!’—Ewart’s reporting of “W.”, age 69, and his wife, who moved from England to Limerick in about 1908, pp. 106-107
“The Easter Rebellion, and the executions after it, brought the whole country to its feet. Coming to later days, the repeated executions–in Cork and Dublin–and the rule of the Crown Forces have made for greater and more bitter resentment every day. ”–An unnamed citizen at the Birr market, County Offaly, as Ewart leaves the South and enters “the less actively rebellious but more problematic Midlands,” p. 114.
The General Post Office in Dublin immediately after the 1916 Rising. It was still closed when Ewart visited in April 1921.
“Who wants the Government of Ireland Act? Why, of 102 Irish M.P.’s not one has voted for it!”–Irish nationalist writer and poet George Russell, p. 19.
His defense of the Government of Ireland Act–and he seemed to be its only defender was based on the belief that if the Irish people as a whole desired a Republic or a Dominion, they desired one thing more–a settlement. He regarded the Act, moreover, as a good one in itself, not indeed as an instrument capable of settling the Irish Question, but as a transition measure which by bringing the parties together and as a pledge–that pledge so often demanded of the Government by the irreconcilables–contained the germ and the promise of better things.–Ewart describing the views of “a Cork newspaperman,” p. 50
“No interest is taken in the Partition Act here because it divides the country, because that division would become accentuated instead of the reverse, and because it would express itself through the boycott of Belfast, as at present, and by means of retaliation between Protestant and Catholic.—Stephen O’Mara, “a big Limerick bacon manufacturer” and the city’s first nationalist mayor, in 1885, p. 85.
“Nobody has any use for the Government of Ireland Act hereabouts. It will fail.”—Unnamed citizen at the Birr market, p. 114
John P. Hayden
“[The Act is] no good in its present form. The Southern Irish see in it two things: (1) Partition; (2) Plunder. It divides the country on sectarian lines and imposes a huge tribute on us. Ireland, mind you, has to pay for all services, some of which she will not control herself … Is it fair that six counties should have the same representation as 26, as in the Council for All Ireland? Another extraordinary thing about the Act is that there should be a Senate in each Parliament nominated by the Crown in the case of the South and elected by the dominant party in the case of the North?”—John P . Hayden, Irish nationalist M.P. for South Roscommon and a leading resident Mullingar, pp. 136-137.
“The present Act of Parliament is the only form of Home Rule acceptable to us. We never asked for the Government of Ireland Act, but in my opinion it’s a good Act, and we mean loyally to work it, whatever happens. In doing that we’re only carrying out the law. … Through the Council of Ireland … North and South would be brought into constant contact, and the possibilities of ultimate union are on the whole great.”—Hugh Pollack, Northern Ireland finance minister-designate, pp. 156-157.
“There can be no question of a lasting settlement through the Partition Act. Under it, the British Government keeps everything that matters for the commercial and industrial prosperity of Ireland. The number of our members at Westminster is reduced. No common trade arrangements are possible while you have one form of Government in the North and another in the South. On the other hand, we have to pay eighteen millions a year to the English Exchequer, and England generously returns a small proportion of it! The root of the matter is that it is not to the interest of England to have us as a commercial rival.”–Professor Robert M. Henry of Queens University Belfast, p. 164.
King George V opens the Northern Ireland Parliament in Belfast in June 1921, a month after Ewart’s departure.
“Nobody wants the Partition Act, nobody in the South cares a brass button for it. Good or bad, it’s no use giving a man something he doesn’t want … And the finance of the thing is rotten. … The dual legislature is enough in itself to ruin this unfortunate country.”–An “old-fashioned” Southern Unionist in Cork, p. 48.
“Ulster remains as ever, the crux of the question. But I am convinced that if a Parliament sat in Dublin, Ulster would soon want to come into it. The Partition Act is useless if only because nobody in the country wants it except Antrim, Armagh, and Down. Far from making for a united Ireland, under it North and South would steadily drift apart.”—John Dooley, member of the Kings (now Offaly) County Council and representative at the 1917 Irish Convention, p. 116
“Nobody trusts the present Government. The Partition Act is a useless farce; nobody wants it. A terrible account lies at Sir Edward Carson’s door.”—Archdeacon Arthur Ryan of Birr, p. 120.
NEXT: Mysterious Mr. X.