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A Letter From Ireland – April 2015

“’Twas England bade our wild geese go, that small nations might be free;
Their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves or the fringe of the great North Sea.
Oh, had they died by Pearse’s side or fought with Cathal Brugha,
Their graves we’d keep where the Fenians sleep, ‘neath the shroud of the foggy dew.”

These words from the song “The Foggy Dew”, written in c. 1919 by Canon Charles O’Neill [1887-1963], a parish priest from the small village of Kilcoo, Co. Down, takes us back a century or more. Its tone and intent call on Irishmen and women to give their all for Ireland not England. I think of this work as an anthem for Easter 1916.
Each of O’Neill’s six verses, full of political and historical imagery, is an Irish nationalist lament centred on the thought ‘what if.’ What if some or all of the 200,000 Irishmen who’d joined the British army during the First War stayed home and fought for Irish independence? What if the 50,000 who gave their lives in Europe spilled their blood on Irish soil? Like Irish patriots [Fenians] before them, would their sacrifices have met a greater reward ‘neath the shrouds of the foggy dew’ than in the mud-choked killing fields of France? O’Neill seems to think so.
The first line of the verse quoted above mentions two historical events. The wild geese references Patrick Sarsfield’s Jacobite Irish army who fled to France under terms of the Treaty of Limerick, ending the Williamite War, 1690-91. This sour settlement resulted in the Protestant/British dominance of Ireland for more than two centuries.
O’Neill also restates the popularly given reason for British and Irishmen entering the First War in 1914…to protect the rights of European ‘small nations’ from oppression, particularly Catholic Belgium and an overwhelmed Serbia. Of course, there were other reasons for both joining the war in 1914, but that’s another story.
Next, the song turns its attention to the Dardanelles, to the sweeping shore of Suvla Bay and the horrific Battle of Gallipoli in August, 1915. This WWI British amphibious assault, intended to relieve pinned down Australian and New Zealand troops [ANZAC], proved a colossal failure. Over 15,000 Allied causalities were recorded in less than a week’s time. The chief British officer, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stopford, was promptly relieved of his command for literally sleeping on the job.
Continuing, I think O’Neill’s mention of graves along ‘the fringe of the great North Sea’ is likely a general reference to the many Irish graves found on foreign soil. The author laments that too many Irishmen have died fighting for causes other than their own.
Finally, he mourns those Irishmen, who’d fallen on foreign soil, hadn’t died fighting with Patrick Pearse and Cathal Brugha, two of the 1916 Easter Rebellion leaders. If they had, maybe the outcome of 1916 might have been victory instead of apparent defeat.
So, it is fitting on this the ninety-ninth anniversary of the Easter Rising, we pause to consider O’Neill’s words and think about the greatest watershed moment in Ireland’s recent history.
Sure, I realise I’ve devoted much copy in recent months to the 1916 Rebellion and its centenary remembrance, now just a year away. I know my words can only pay small tribute to the people and events of those weighty times. Thankfully, most of you have been tolerant of my cantankerousness, but mercifully, as of this writing, I’m feeling better about what’s on the table. Apparently, through some diplomatic pressures or self-realisation, members of British royal family will NOT be making an appearance in Dublin at the 1916 centenary observance.
Just recently, Ireland’s Sinn Féin political party has stepped into the breach and announced its comprehensive centenary programme. Held in Wynn’s Hotel on O’Connell Street in the City Centre, the site of the first Irish Volunteer [1913] and Cumann na mBán [1914] planning sessions, Sinn Féin launched its list of 1916 Commemorative events. The program kickoffs with the re-enactment of veteran Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral on 1 August this year.
As you remember, it was exactly one-hundred years ago that the Irish Republican Brotherhood honoured their revolutionary hero by staging his funeral procession through Dublin streets for burial in Glasnevin cemetery. On that day, Pádraig Pearse eulogised the man and challenged the British government with his famous words “…but the fools, the fools, the fools; they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
Arguably, 1 August 1915 was the day Ireland issued a public challenge to England, declaring its intent to seek independence. Nine months later, Ireland did just that.
Additionally, a special visitor exhibition entitled “Revolution 1916” will open on 27 February 2016 in the Ambassador Theatre. It will feature a day-by-day retracing of the Easter Rebellion events. Furthermore, dawn vigils will be held outside Kilmainham Gaol marking the fourteen executions of the Rebellion’s leadership during the early days of May 1916.
Other events will be held in Dublin, Belfast and Cork City to honour appropriate persons and happenings. Check the Web for updates and a complete listing of parades, honours and remembrances. Note, these goings-on are in addition to events planned by the Irish Government over Easter weekend 23-28 March 2016.
If you are hoping to attend, it’s not too early to begin making plans. Hotel space in Dublin City will likely be dear and limited. I’m sure several of the major tour companies will be offering travel packages soon, so don’t forget to check with them. Unless you plan to go outside the city, you won’t need a car. Between public transportation and your own two feet, most venues will be easily accessible but likely crowded. Hope to see you there.
Up ’16, no royals and Éire Abú, Cathal

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