Tag Archives: William O’Brien

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


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


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.

Ill-fated Irish Convention opened 100 years ago

Delegates to the Irish Convention outside Trinity College Dublin in July 1917.

A British government-backed convention to resolve “the Irish question” opened 25 July 1917, in Dublin. Delegates met through March 1918 as World War I continued to rage on the continent.

Sometimes called “Lloyd George’s Irish Convention,” after the British prime minister, it “was marked by his characteristic defects as a statesman,” County Cork’s William O’Brien wrote in his 1923 history, The Irish Revolution. “It was improvised, it was uncandid, and it was open to be changed into something quite different at a moment’s notice.”

And it failed.

I wanted to read U.S. newspaper coverage of the convention opening, especially in Pittsburgh. My maternal grandparents and other relations from Kerry arrived in the city shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offered this 26 July, 1917, editorial assessment:

There will be no disappointment if the Irish Convention which opened in Dublin yesterday to try to formulate a Home Rule plan fails of agreement, for there is no hope that anything like a conclusion acceptable to all can be reached. … If [politicians of opposing views] can meet once and part without having engaged in a fist fight and widening the breach between the factions … they can meet again. And the oftener they meet … the better chance there is that there eventually will be a meeting of the minds leading to concessions, compromise and a willingness to give a trial to some scheme of self-government that will put an end to the factional fight of centuries’ duration.

The convention’s effort to deliver Home Rule, which had been promised just before the war began in 1914, was derailed in spring 1918, as London linked the deal to enforced conscription in Ireland. (Many Irishmen voluntarily served in the British military.) The death blow came after the war, as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson abandoned the Irish at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 as the Irish War of Independence began.

The 4-minute video below contains soundbites from several speakers at a Trinity College Dublin centenary symposium about the convention. In addition to their various historical points, it’s worth listening to the diversity of Irish accents.

Exploring Irish history through texts and ephemera

An excellent exhibit at the University of Delaware Library’s Special Collections Gallery explores Irish history before and after Easter Week 1916 through literary texts, political broadsides, manuscripts, letters, periodicals, graphics and other ephemera.

Cover of rare first edition.

Cover of rare first edition.

A rare first edition of William Butler Yeats’ “Easter, 1916” is the iconic centerpiece of ” ‘A terrible beauty is born’: The Easter Rising at 100,” which closes 12 June. Images and commentary on the exhibit material will remain available online.

The exhibition was curated by Maureen Cech, UD’s senior assistant librarian and coordinator, Accessions and Processing, Manuscripts and Archives Department. I asked her a few questions via email after viewing the exhibit in mid May.

Which parts of the exhibit are held by University of Delaware Special Collections? Where did the other portions come from, especially the Yeats first edition? What other Irish-related material is available for researchers at UD?

MC: Most of the material is from Special Collections’ holdings. Our senior research fellow Mark Samuels Lasner, whose collection is on loan to UD, lent me a few wonderful pieces around the Yeatses, including a beautiful pencil sketch of Lily and Lolly by John B. Yeats and a poster advertising W.B. Yeats’s first produced play in London designed by Aubrey Beardsley; several items relating to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt; and an excellent volume of Beltaine.

I was also lucky enough to have faculty in the English department here at UD lend me some items: Prof. Bernard McKenna lent, among other things, two medals from the War of Independence; and Prof. Jim Burns lent several documents that had belonged to his grandfather from de Valera’s campaign in the United States in 1918-1919 for support and funds for the Republic. They add a really personal touch to the exhibit.

Irish holdings in Special Collections (including the first edition of W.B. Yeats’s “Easter, 1916”) have been built over the years, beginning with faculty input and support, especially from Irish scholar Robert Hogan, who was part of the UD faculty until his retirement in the early 1990s. Our strength would be toward the 20th century (representing both the Republic and Northern Ireland), especially in terms of manuscript material, but we do have some great items from the 19th century, including a diary kept during the Great Famine. We also continue to collect new Irish literature, in English and Irish.

What is your favorite item in the exhibit, and why, and/or something you learned about Irish history?

MC: I learned an enormous amount researching this exhibit and figuring out how to tell a very complicated, multi-layered story in a finite amount of space. Some were trying to define what it meant to be Irish, but there are no simple dichotomies of English or Irish, Catholic or Protestant. Throughout the exhibit I wanted to examine how the leaders of the 1916 Rising got to that point, the physical force tradition they drew on and felt was their only option, and the parliamentary efforts they felt had failed them, as well as contemporary reactions to the Rising. It’s a pivotal point in Irish history and one that created a lot of ambivalence and anxiety when it happened and of course still carries a lot of gravity. 2016 has been a time of reflection in Ireland.

I suppose if I had to pick a favorite item it would be two matchbook covers from Tuam from around the end of the 19th century. They were unexpected finds. One depicts Irish sports (hurling and Gaelic football) and the other reproduces portraits of prominent political figures like Charles Stewart Parnell and William O’Brien. Both are representative of the politicization of advertising that was happening in the 19th century and how buying local and supporting Irish industries (and not English ones) was a political act.

A hand-colored Christmas postcard from Kathleen Clarke, widow of Rising leader and signatory Tom Clarke.

A hand-colored Christmas postcard from Kathleen Clarke, widow of Rising leader and signatory Tom Clarke.

As a librarian, archivist, curator & specialist in literary collections, what are your thoughts about how ephemera (the political broadsides, manuscripts, letters, periodicals, and graphics in the exhibit) reflect patriotism and popular culture, as compared to bound books, official documents and other materials intended to be held long term? How well, or poorly, do you think today’s digital media will reflect our contemporary world 100 years from now?

MC: The press was incredibly important in spreading ideas in Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ephemera like newspapers and publications was cheaper, produced more quickly, distributed more broadly, and aimed at a wider audience than other kinds of publications. The industrial revolution came late to Ireland, after the Great Famine, so developing Irish industries was very important. Advertising became very politicized starting in the 19th century, encouraging people directly to “buy Irish” and/or incorporating nationalistic elements like shamrocks into advertisements.

That’s a very complex question because it addresses ideas of postmodern archives in which we consider ideas of collecting and who’s doing the collecting and the institutional biases that create (intentionally or unintentionally) gaps and silences in the archival record. The archival record is never 100 percent complete, at least as we know it now. But it might become more complete because more people are able to create records, and institutions are recognizing the value of multiple voices and multiple narratives.

It’s also a difficult question because born-digital materials represent a different kind of ephemerality–not only do we need to ask whether it is meant to last, as with traditional analog ephemera, but will it last? How will we continue to determine what is ephemeral? How will our traditional definitions of “enduring value” in archives change? Our collecting activities as archivists are becoming more active and robust in order to accommodate new forms of expression. We are developing collecting strategies and creating short-and long-term born-digital and electronic preservation plans. There are projects that are documenting the new ways in which we communicate and document our lives, like the Library of Congress archiving Twitter and some institutions documenting social movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, which have large born-digital components.

New media have democratized record-keeping and creation in really exciting ways, ones that will hopefully reduce the amount of gaps and silences in the archival record. So I think it will depend on how well we are able to document what is created at the rate at which it is created and remains “permanent.”