I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

A Nation and Not a Rabble



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From the Introduction

In January 1911, George Gavan Duffy, a barrister and Sinn Fein TD who had served as an envoy for the Irish republican movement in Paris during the War of Independence, was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs in the southern Irish provisional government, formed after the Anglo-Irish Treaty had been ratified to bring an end to that war. The Treaty offered, not the Irish Republic Sinn Fein had sought, but an Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth, with continued subordination to the British Crown represented by an oath of allegiance to that crown. In April of that year, Gavan Duffy articulated a fear that the looming civil war had the potential to do lasting damage to Ireland’s reputation abroad and the fledging Free State’s dignity. He concluded there was urgency that those on both sides of the Treaty debate should ensure Ireland was seen ‘as a nation and not a rabble’.

That particular word – ‘rabble’ – and other versions of it, frequently surfaced in assessments of the breakdown of the established order and the mayhem often apparent in the period of the Irish revolution from 1913 to 1923 that ultimately led to the creation of the state of Northern Ireland in 1920 and the Irish Free State in 1922, subsequently the Irish Republic. A horrified unionist, writing to her friend at the end of 1918, remarked: ‘This is a very unpleasant country to live in now. We are going through so many changes. The democracy in Ireland are a very bad lot, they are so low and uneducated, only a rabble led by the priests.’ Likewise, the diaries of Elsie Henry, who worked with the Red Cross charity in Dublin and had friends and brothers fighting in the First World War, include a letter written by a contemporary in April 1918 about growing tension over possible conscription of Irish men into the British army. It included the observation ‘the peasants and labourers of Ireland are inflammable material, who are now led by skilful leaders, backed up by the late insurrection, by song, ballads and what passes for history and by a literature; and they are out or will be out soon – if conscription is imposed’.

The playwright and Abbey Theatre director Lady Augusta Gregory, when corresponding from her home in Galway with poet W. B. Yeats in the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Rising, commented: ‘It is terrible to think of the executions and killings that are sure to come … yet it must be so – we had been at the mercy of a rabble for a long time, both here and in Dublin, with no apparent policy’ And yet, as the executions of the Rising’s leaders were carried out, she changed her tone. Her mind was now ‘filled with sorrow at the Dublin tragedy’; the execution of John Mac-Bride, a long-standing republican activist and Boer War veteran, who was not involved in the planning of the Rising but who joined the fighting at its commencement, was ‘the best event that could come to him, giving him dignity’. The leaders, she concluded, were ‘enthusiastic … and I keep wondering whether we could not have brought them into the intellectual movement’.

This concern with and admiration for dignity was partly what propelled Lady Gregory and other cultural nationalists to do what they did for Ireland, but it also left them feeling uncertain and ambiguous in their responses to the Irish revolution. Gregory had different views of what was happening at different stages. So did many. The idea of the ‘rabble’ and the fear of it also reflected class divisions and the threat of class conflict, so obviously manifest in the Dublin Lockout of 1913, when employers refused to recognise the right of unskilled labourers to be members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU): ‘This is why the ITGWU was seen as such a threat. It organised outside of the craft unions, and brought together as a powerful industrial force the workers who were dismissed as rabble.’ With a home rule Ireland on the horizon, the 1913 Lockout was also a power struggle in relation to who would control a self-governing Ireland.

The militancy of the marginalised was feared, and the adoption of their cause by some of Ireland’s elite was abhorred by others of the same ilk. Elsie Mahaffy, daughter of the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, for example, wrote about the involvement of Constance Markievicz in Irish republicanism in 1916, to the effect that she was ‘the one woman amongst them of high birth and therefore the most depraved… she took to politics and left our class’.6 But Markievicz, a member of an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family, despite her reputation for radicalism, hardly exhibited much solidarity with those less well off who were with her in Aylesbury prison after the 1916 Rising, and later complained to her sister that she had been imprisoned with ‘the dregs of the population’. (Yeats was later to complain that Markievicz, who died at the age of fifty-nine, had sacrificed her beauty and burned herself out campaigning on behalf of those who were ‘ignorant’ – another rebuke of the ‘rabble’.)