Road to Independence: Howth, Sutton and Baldoyle Play Their Part, by Philip O’Connor, Howth Free Press, 312 pp, €15, ISBN 978-0955316333
Just when you thought you were 1916ed out, along comes yet another book on the subject.
However, Philip O’Connor’s work is different. While local in its focus, it skilfully weaves the history of part of North County Dublin during the revolutionary period into the national context, so that the reader learns as much of the bigger picture as of the locality.
He opens with the twentieth century ushering in a period of prosperity and political progress for a growing Catholic middle class in the developing suburban areas of Howth, Sutton and Baldoyle. Large and middling farmers in North County Dublin had benefited from land reform and John Redmond and his Irish Parliamentary Party ruled supreme. There had even been some modest advances for working people in the all-important fields of housing and rudimentary pension and social welfare provision.
The area had its own distinct character, with a large unionist and Protestant population, around a third of the overall. The author shows this was not a homogenous group and contained many strands, both religious and political. There was, however, a revolutionary tradition dating back to 1798, when Dublin Castle spies reported that every man in Howth was sworn into the United Irishmen. Nevertheless, that, and the subsequent Fenian tradition, co-existed with constitutional nationalism, which was no less committed to a notion of freedom, more moderate in measure, but articulated just as strongly. Thus, at its inaugural meeting in May 1899, the new Dublin County Council lost no time in declaring: “We repudiate the claim of any other legislature or government to legislate for or govern the people of this country.”
As well as maintaining political co-existence, the revolutionary and constitutional traditions found cultural expression through Gaelic games in the formation of clubs like Howth’s “Ben Edars”, Baldoyle and Sutton’s “Star of the Sea” and through the Howth branch of Conradh na Gaeilge, founded in 1900.
So, as the man said, where did it all go wrong? O’Connor explains that not everyone was part of this onward march. The poor wages and conditions of farm labourers in the area shocked even Big Jim Larkin. Now, with the new and militant Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), there was the means to effectively take on the employers, and local labour heroes like Michael Nolan were not slow to do so.
The book tells the story of the Baldoyle Labourers’ Revolt of 1913, which not only drew the battle lines of class war in North County Dublin, but introduced key actors and organisations, such as the local sections of the Irish Citizen Army at Baldoyle, Coolock, Kinsealy and Swords. Of these the Baldoyle section would play an important role not only in the Dublin Lockout of that year, but in the struggle for independence to follow.
When the “Home Rule Crisis” came along, the Orange Order in the South responded with the formation of the Dublin Volunteer Corps as a reserve for the Ulster Volunteer Force. This initiative and a contingent of the corps from the area were supported by notable southern unionists in Howth such as the Guinness and Jameson families.
Its inevitable corollary, the Irish Volunteers, mushroomed to twenty-two branches in North County Dublin, including one at Howth captained by Boer War veteran Stephen Hanway. Alongside them was formed a branch of Cumann na mBan in Howth. One of their leaders, Mary Maguire Colum, declared their independent stance, saying they were neither “auxiliaries nor handmaidens … [but] allies of the Volunteers”.
For an army in waiting, and, unlike the UVF largely without weapons, opportunity came knocking with the landing of arms at Howth. That operation, as much a propaganda as a military one, provided the platform for a show of force by the Volunteers, as did the funeral of civilians shot by the military in Bachelors Walk after the landing.
Then the “Great Deluge” of the 1914 European War broke over all this. Not unsurprisingly, local unionist families rallied to the flag of empire, as did those nationalists who were army reservists or had voluntarily enlisted. The Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond, called for support for the British war effort in return for the passing of the Home Rule Act. It split the Volunteers, with ninety per cent opting to follow Redmond and form a new organisation, the National Volunteers. However, using recent evidence from RIC files, O’Connor discloses how, contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy, in fact only about twenty per cent of National Volunteers actually enlisted, and even fewer in rural North County Dublin. The vast majority opted to stay at home.
As attitudes to the war shifted, the funeral in August 1915 of the old Fenian O’Donovan Rossa provided an opportunity to demonstrate “a new dynamic in Irish Life” as well as opposition to the conflict. That involved both the Irish and National Volunteer movements (including the more progressive Howth branch) and the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), along with a broad strand of political and civil society.
Beneath and behind all this were the preparations for the Rising. Critical to those plans was the strategic role of the Baldoyle section of the ICA, whose task was to destroy communications to the city at Howth Junction and sever the cross channel telephone cable to Britain. This objective was aided by the presence in the area of key Volunteers such as engineer Richard Mulcahy and wireless expert Fergus O’Kelly, though both distinguished themselves elsewhere in the fighting, in Ashbourne and Dublin respectively. In all, four Baldoyle ICA members and five Irish Volunteers from Howth and Sutton took part in the Rising, one of whom, Lt James Mac Cormack of the ICA, was killed in action. Most were captured and interned after the rebellion. When they and the other North County Dublin prisoners were released and returned home, it was to a jubilant reception and a changed country. Watching all this, the RIC in the county reported: “All talk of the young is of the Republic.”
But there was more than talk. The book gives accounts of reorganisation, not just in the cause of independence but on the industrial front. Returning prisoners reported back to their units, the ITGWU returned to organising rural workers and to their pre-Lockout membership. Most importantly, the local Citizen Army section survived.
Sinn Féin was reinvigorated both at local and national level, where its exponential growth reached a pinnacle of a thousand branches by the autumn of 1917. After the landslide elections of 1918 and 1920 its broadening appeal embraced not just committed Volunteers. In the Howth cumann were to be found actor Micheál Mac Liammóir, Jewish businessman and relation of Samuel Beckett William Sinclair, and Mary McCall, widow of the scholar and composer of national songs like “The Boys of Wexford” PJ McCall. Far from the stereotypical picture, here were Catholic, Protestant and, if not Dissenter, then those of the Jewish faith.
There was also an increasing rapprochement between the ITGWU, described by the RIC as “the socialist wing of the revolutionary movement”, and Sinn Féin, though this did not prevent the union putting up their own “Republican Labour” or ITGWU candidates in local elections in the area.
This rapidly evolving landscape also posed serious questions for the unionist population, not so much about survival, but as to how they could accommodate themselves to a new political dispensation. Again O’Connor takes a fresh approach, showing different and divergent responses. These ranged from hard-line support for a military solution, championed by Howth resident and Trinity College professor John Pentland Mahaffy on the one hand, to the sense of moral outrage at the depredations of the crown forces by his TCD colleague and fellow Howth resident Dr Culverwell. In the middle of it all, unionists, no less than nationalists, republicans and trade unionists tried to get on with life, dealing with day to day issues while trying to avoid the unavoidable – the constitutional question.
If the strength of his book lies in contextualising the local, nothing exemplifies it more than O’Connor’s understanding of those Sinn Féin landslides of 1918 and 1920 and the moral and political justification they gave for what he terms “a very democratic revolution”. He classifies them as “[t]he defining movement in the drive for Irish Independence”, underpinning the mass campaign of civil disobedience which withdrew consent to be governed and gave allegiance to the shadow Republic and its alternative structures of government and courts.
On the military front, Howth, Sutton and Baldoyle were relatively “quiet” during the War of Independence. This was because Michael Collins had ordered North County Dublin to stay away from major engagement since its inevitable resulting declaration as a “military area” by the authorities would interfere with the movement of IRA personnel to the north and west. Howth was virtually “off limits” for the very cogent reason that both Collins and Emmet Dalton sometimes holed up there.
However, this did not mean that the area escaped the attention of the crown forces and the book tells of the raids, arrests and shootings that took place in pursuit of a campaign of terror. As well as the reprisals in Balbriggan in September 1920, three months later an ITGWU organiser and local Dáil court president was murdered by crown forces in Skerries. One of many ex-servicemen in the area, Henry Guy was also murdered at Sutton Cross by the same unit that had been involved in the Bloody Sunday massacre in Croke Park.
With regard to ex-servicemen, O’Connor’s study reveals that there appears to have been less animosity towards them than the accepted narrative would have us believe. Similarly, more of them appeared to have assisted or actually joined the IRA in the area.
As to the cutting edge of the military campaign, the author argues that the actual “War” was really only fought in the seven months from November 1920 to the Truce in July 1921 when the IRA went on the offensive.
Notwithstanding the IRA HQ “go quiet” order, there was activity, such as the attack on Baldoyle RIC barracks, the destruction of the coastguard station at Howth and the detailing of individual volunteers to operations in the city and elsewhere.
When the Truce was declared in July 1921, O’Connor points out that the Republican forces reacted locally in much the same way as elsewhere, with attempted peaceful co-existence. Then, as across the country, it was the Treaty of December 1921 that sundered their previous unity, with the split locally favouring the Provisional Government. Personal relationships as well as allegiance to Collins and Mulcahy led to substantial numbers joining the National Army. The strong Howth Branch of Cumann na mBan was also affected by the split as was Baldoyle IRA, though less favourable to the cause of the pro-Treaty forces. Some remained neutral, initially at least. Meanwhile unionists, even hard-liners such as Andrew Jameson of Howth, were slowly, if reluctantly, coming to the realisation they would have to cut the best deal they could.
Despite efforts to avoid it, Civil War broke out in June 1922. O’Connor conveys in grim detail both its progress and its legacy, lasting bitterness and the exclusion of radical Republicans and trade unionists from even menial jobs by the Cumann na nGaedheal new order comprising pro-Treatyites, converted Redmondites and accommodated unionists.
Based on an array of contemporary sources held both here and in the UK, including papers and photographs from private collections, the book combines academic rigour with the cracking pace of an adventure story. Philip O’Connor tells his tale with independence, passion and commitment, allied to a mastery of detail over a broad canvass. It is that which that makes this book stand out from the crowd.
Michael Halpenny is a trade unionist and a former National Industrial Secretary of SIPTU. He is a frequent contributor of articles and reviews to “Liberty” and other trade union journals and has also participated in many commemorative projects on the 1913-16 period.