That Was the Irish Point of View
May 1916 — Account of Easter Rising, London Society, London, England
As the Leinster steamed into Dublin Bay on that May morning of 1916 the world seemed transfigured with beauty and delight. There was nothing to remind one of that blind will of domination, violence and greed that ahs for centuries made of these blue waters a highway of destruction. White sea-gulls flashed against a blue sky and the mountains had about them the radiance and peace of the early morning hours. The sea shifted and glittered and dreamed. It was hardly possible to believe that any man could look upon the vessel’s shining track merely as the road to Empire and domination. Yet, as the siren suddenly shrieked out its harsh warning, the sight of a great mass of khaki-clad soldiers crowding round the gangway shook the glamour of the scene and brought queer memories of past generations.
Soldiers of all times, of the same nationality and on the same quest. Soldiers in the query bulky armour of the early Middle Ages, soldiers in the gay colours of the Elizabethans, soldiers in Cromwell’s drabs, soldiers in the stiff reds of the last century, and now soldiers in khaki. Soldiers with bows and arrows, soldiers with spears, soldiers with swords and muskets and all manner of old-fashioned weapons, soldiers with quaint and unwieldy cannon, and soldiers with rifles and revolvers and machine-guns. Soon there would be soldiers with tanks and aeroplanes. An endless procession of soldiers, with every kind of weapon, always on the same errand, always going, as they are going now. To conquer and hold down Ireland.
And Ireland the Unconquerable suffering them helplessly, watching them land in their thousands, with that same old self-conscious gesture of hers, half-passionate, half-cynical, partly tragic and wholly contemptuous. Like the human sou smiling through an agony of weakness at the secret of her enigmatic strength.
It was easy to pass unnoticed through the rather sheepish crowd on the pier, who were doing their best to look Prussian and efficient. The soldiers were not at all aggressive. It was hard to believe they were engaged in crushing a Rebellion and holding down an oppressed nation. By the most vivid stretch of the imagination, you could not credit them with any sinister designs.
Dull and lethargic they seemed for the most part, sometimes they were quite amiably frivolous. One wondered if Cromwell’s soldiers were like that.
“Stay where you are, for God’s sake!” I heard a laughing soldier say in mock-tragic accents to a group of civilians who were in too great a hurry to land. “If I let you go over there, I shall be court-martialled and shot at dawn!”
Ten minutes after that the world turned black, as I read the words that shrieked in huge letters from every hoarding in the town” “Execution of James Connolly.” “Janes Connolly shot this morning.”
In days past I had known James Connolly, most kindly and humane of men. A man who had that quality, rare indeed among politicians, that however absorbed he might be in fighting for a cause, he did not forget to answer the appeal of individual suffering.
Afterwards, the story went round that one of those told off to shoot him was a miner, one who had personal cause of gratitude to him. But he did not know who it was he was going to shoot. Anyway, he stood there with the rest, submissively waiting for the word of command. So would any other soldier, the very man who joked about executions would have done it. Without anger or hate or any conscious cruelty, but simply because he was told to. So insidious a thing is that vile creeping obedience that deprives man of his sense of right and wrong, his very soul and will and mind.
Realisation of the happenings of the past weeks rushed upon us in a flood as we drove through the smoking ruins of O’Connell Street. The driver seemed rather nervy, surly and suspicious, most unlike the usual talkative Dublin driver. He confined himself to a long grumble about being starved with his family during the Rebellion, not being allowed out of the house for three days. It has been impossible for him to get food for himself and his children.
Driving past Stephen’s Green, he began to tell us women rather fictitious details about dead bodies of men and women being carried away at night and buried secretly.
And my thoughts rushed back to that dreadful Sunday in London when I read in Lloyd’s Weekly News a circumstantial account of the finding of y sister’s dead body in Stephen’s Green, and of the terrible days that followed, when I had almost wished the discredited story had been true, so much worse does it seem to the human mind to be executed coldly and deliberately at a certain hour by the clock than to be killed in the hurry and excitement of battle. Perhaps this is because such a death is so wholly unnatural.
In every form of natural life, destruction comes silently and unexpectedly or, at the worse, wrapped in a haze of uncertain hours and vague moments. The foreknowledge of the exact minute of death is a form of mental torture entirely invented by human beings, in the fiendish ingenuity of vengeance sanctified by pious tradition. The world, as God made it, may be cruel in many things, but it is not cruel enough for that supreme and unnatural outrage.
This slow and excruciating and delicately applied brain torment has been brought to a terrible pitch of perfection by a generation that prides itself on the abolition of the rack, and the rougher methods of their ancestors, to blunted themselves to realise the more refined and exquisite possibilities of brain and nerve torture.
But the worst has not happened. My sister, condemned to death for her part in the Rebellion, has been reprieved.
And now I was on my way to visit her in prison.
After visiting the kind friend who had by some means procured the permit, the three of us started for Mountjoy.
The Dublin streets were terrible. They had a sort of muddled desperate look, rather like but infinitely more tragic than the look one used to see in London on an air-raid night, just after the warning was given. As if everybody, even the very houses, were crouching down, hiding from something.
Oddly enough, we chanced on the same car that had driven us from the station earlier in the day. But the car driver was transfigured when he heard the address to which we were going.
All his surliness and suspicion vanished in a moment, and as we got down at the gate of Mountjoy, he turned on us with a beaming smile. “It’s little I thought this morning when I drove you from the boat, it was to the prison I’d be taking you!”
From his manner you would have thought (as doubtless he did) that the dingy prison gate was the entrance to some very select Paradise, sacred to the greater Saints and the more exalted Archangels.
Prisons are all the same, built after the same dreary pattern. Very imposing and grand on the outside, they gradually get squalider and squalider the farther you get into them. We were let in through a little postern door in the main gate by a long-suffering porter who spends the livelong day opening and locking the gate. He does not guard the prisoners, but he is like a sentinel in a besieged city, opening the door for a moment to let in a cart of supplies and shutting it again hastily in the face of the enemy. For to all that live in that gloomy place, our free and kindly human life is the enemy to be shut out at all coasts – except the prisoners, and sometimes one thinks that the only people in a prison whose point o view has not become wholly perverted and insane are the prisoners. For they have no “duty” to prevent their being kind and loving to their neighbours.
The Mountjoy porter looked at our permits, and presently the big iron gate was unlocked and we crossed the yard into that inner building which is the prison itself. As I walked through the long corridor, my mind was obsessed by one horrible thought: “They have shot all her friends; James Connolly and Eamon Ceannt only that day: did she know? should I have to tell her?” Afterwards I knew that this was a quite unnecessary anxiety. She knew everything. The shots that killed Padraic Pearse and the others she had listened to morning after morning in her cell at Kilmainham.
Suddenly there was her face behind a sort of cage: it was cut into sections by the cross-bars. But one could half see, half guess how calm and smiling she was.
She talked very fast, and was full of all sorts of commissions she wanted carried out, asked a great many questions and seemed only really puzzled by one thing: “Why on earth did they shoot Skeffy?” she said. “After all, he wasn’t in it. He didn’t even believe in fighting. What did it mean?”
At the time I could not answer her: afterwards I found out Nobody who has not gone through the ordinary prison visit can realise how unsatisfactory it is, nor what a strain it is, to fling one’s intimate conversation across a passage with a wardress in it, to a head appearing at a window opposite. And then to know that these few minutes must last one for months, and that one has probably forgotten something important.
There was much to hear: her adventures in the Rebellion, a detail of her court-martial, her anxiety for the wife of a dead colleague who was ill, in hiding and without money. Many and very insufficient directions as to how to find her. About her own treatment the prisoner had not much to say. She was a “convict” and a “lifer” and that was all about it. An anyway, it was splendidly worth while.
For one glorious week, Ireland had been free . . . and then back she went to stories of that wonderful time, of the night-scouting and the trench in Stephen’s Green and the machine-gun o the Shelbourne and how they were forced to retreat into the College of Surgeons. And how they could have held out for days, and the shock and grief of the order to surrender on that Sunday morning when I had run up and down London trying to find out if she was really dead. And she told of the executed colleague who had marched with her down Thomas Street where Emmet had been hung a hundred years ago, for the same cause, by the same power. They had discussed together what seemed to them the only doubtful point in the immediate future: whether they would be shot or hung.
This rebel had a very strange story. He had been in the past for nay years a private in the British Army. In India long ago he had met another Irish soldier, who told him when next they met he would not be fighting for England.
In South Africa, years after, he came on him again, a prisoner condemned to death for fighting with the Boers against England.
This man made such an impression on the other Irish soldier, awakening in him such a sense of sham to be found on the side of Empire and the conquistadores and oppressors of Ireland, that he got away from the Army as quickly as possible and joined the growing rebel army in Ireland. Now he, too, had been shot.
At the end of twenty hurried minutes of rapid talk we said good-bye for the next four months, and the oddly becapped head disappeared from the window, vanishing into what unimaginable scenes of dullness, dinginess and squalor.
The next morning we set out early to try and find my sister’s friend and spent many weary hours walking through endless poverty-stricken streets, questioning naturally suspicious and incredulous people, and causing many a fit of nerves no doubt, to those who were afraid of being suspected of rebel tendencies, and who now obviously thought we were Government spies. In the course of our wanderings we passed one of the great fortress-like barracks that seem to over-awe Dublin. Round the gates a miserable crowd collected, of patient white-aced men and women, standing under the great gray wall in a sort of hopeless gray dejection. We were told they had been there for days. They were the relatives and friends of prisoners, waiting to try and get some news of them. And the story goes that four of the soldiers having been killed din the fighting, the young officers in the barracks had sworn to have forty rebel lives in exchange.
No one will ever know what went on in those barracks behind those towering walls.
An old woman came towards us in the road, crying and begging for news of her son who had been deported to England. She was sure they would try to force him into the Army. “He won’t don the khaki. He won’t don the khaki,” she reiterated drearily. Perhaps it was some vague tradition of what had happened after the last rebellion that made her so certain of what would happen to him. “A year ago,” she wailed, “his work was taken from him because he would not don the khaki, and he’ll not don the khaki if they shoot him for it.”
Poor soul, I hope her son came back safe and sound and without any khaki. At the time it seemed impossible to persuade her that there was the slightest hope that he would not be shot.
In the end we found a little chapel full of people, where a priest was saying Mass. After the service was over, we went to the vestry and appealed to him for help. Though not at Sinn Feiner, he was a very sympathetic man, and he had been outraged and horrified at the treatment of the Irish prisoners behind that terrible wall, starved, deprived of water and every necessity of life, left to lie for days crowded together, 500 lying on the floor in unspeakably unsanitary conditions, some of them wounded, one of these with only his boots for his pillow. So that many of the men were hardly conscious when they were court-martialled. The priest told us of the people writing there outside day after day, begging for news ad oft eh utter callousness of the authorities. His voice was choking with grief and indignation. He had been a doctor in his youth. It as the horrible inhumanity of the w hole thing that he minded. One poor girl was in prison for waving to my sister as she passed marching among the other prisoners on her way to the barracks. Yes, he could find the woman we wanted: he knew some of her relations. It would be quite easy.
At lunch at our hotel we listened with some interest to a conversation between a soldier and a local Unionist. They were shouting to one another from different tables. “I must say,” said the Unionist, “your people were pretty free with your bullets. A friend of mine, a strong Orangeman, had stayed in his house for three days as directed, and at the end of the third day he opened the front door to get a little air and the soldier in the street shot him dead.”
Truly, life is cheap in these days and death needs little formal apology or introduction. Fresh from that Flanders shambles the soldiers forget that many civilians have kept a pre-war standard of value, for their own lives at all events.
At the same time, talking to Mrs. Sheehy Skeffington that afternoon, one realised there was much more in the story of her husband’s murder than mere military carelessness and indifference. Both she and her husband were strong pacifists and they possessed no weapons, but the windows of the room in which she sat were still broken by the volley fired into it by the soldiers when there was no one in the house but herself and her little boy of seven. Since then the story of her husband’s murder has been often told, but at that time the horror of it was still fresh. She showed us the poor little parcel returned from the barracks, containing a watch, a tie, and a collar, worthless things that bore pathetic witness to the almost insane truth, — that those who did not scruple to steal human lives were yet most honourable and honest in their dealings with property – to make them a much more important matter.
Hearing Mrs. Skeffington talk, one realised that though her husband never had a weapon in his hand, militarism was wise in its generation, and in Sheehy Skiffington militarism militarism had stuck down its worst enemy — unarmed yet insurgent Idealism. It was not for nothing that the half-mad officer who carried out the murder was promoted a week afterwards.
The authorities knew their business well.
All his life Skeffington had never “ceased from mental fight” against all forms of tyranny, oppression and cruelty. He was a born rebel, a questioner of ancient traditions, a shaker of ancient tyranny. He refused to go out against tyranny with a gun, not because he acquiesced in authority, but because he did not acquiesce in any violence between human beings.
In a social state founded entirely on blind obedience to certain traditions and ideas, mental freedom means disaster, and the man who knows no obedience is the enemy.
If the unthinkable had happened and Skeffington had ben in the British Army, he would not have shot James Connolly or Padraic Pearse. Not only would he have died protesting against these terrible crimes, but he would have tried to rouse the conscience of every soldier he came near. Individual conscience in the Army means mutiny. It is the deadly and most fatal enemy of militarism.
Skeffington, on fire with hatred of violence and cruelty, attending forty recruiting meetings, speaking in the street against war, defending the cause of Labour, denouncing all oppression in the name of Liberty, Mercy and Kindness, was a greater danger to the authorities than many a more violent revolutionist. For revolutions and counter-revolutions are familiar in this weary world, but his voice was the voice of a new era, a terrible possibility, that nightmare of individual evolution and militant goodwill that shakes the dreams of militarism with a strange threat.
Truly, it was easy enough to understand “why they shot Skeffy,” though the only crime they could accuse him of was an effort to persuade a hooligan crowd not to loot the shops.
Militarism has a true instinct and a short way with its enemies. But perhaps the future is with Skeffington.
Dublin was thrilling with horror that afternoon at the revelation of the murders in King Street. A deputation had gone to the Prime Minister to place the facts before him, and to insist on an investigation into how many inoffensive citizens had been dragged down in the cellars and brained with the butt-ends of the rifles of perhaps drunken soldiers. People smiled. They might indeed pretend to insist, but everyone really knew that such investigations are never made.
Meanwhile Dublin was a city of mourning and death.
Roger Casement had been taken from Arbor Hill Barracks to the Tower. There was a feeling of strain and embarrassment everywhere. People broke down and wept for very little, even in the streets. Dazed and miserable, with the sound of the bombs still in their ears, they were beginning to collect in groups and tell one another stories of individual sufferings, injustices and atrocities.
It was not till later that they began to hold up their heads in pride, thinking of the strange heroisms of the dead, and rejoicing in the fact that once again in her long struggle for liberty Ireland had shown the world that she did not acquiesce in her ag-long slavery, any more than she had done in the days of Elizabeth, Oliver Cromwell, William Pitt, George III., or any of her old conquerors and tyrants. That was the Irish point of view. The English one was different.
On the way back to London about a week later, travelling up from Holyhead, was a woman in the carriage with us who talked about the Rebellion. “Dreadful people the Irish,” she was saying, “so cowardly too, and ungrateful, to stab us in the back like that, after all we’ve done for them!”
Between these points of view no reconciliation seems possible. Except perhaps in the future: that universal reconciliation of humanity in goodwill, which was the creed of that troublesome idealist, Francis Sheehy Skeffington.
Source: The Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz (Constance Gore-Booth), Also Poems and Articles Relating to Easter Week by Eva Gore-Booth, and a Biographical Sketch by Esther Roper, ed. Esther Roper, (London: Longmans, Green and Co.) pp. 42-53.