Wednesday 11 November 2015

A Dark Night in Ballykissane, by Laurie Graham

Ireland’s centenary year of commemoration of the Easter Rising is already underway. It began, officially, with a re-enactment of the event widely regarded as the rallying moment for republicanism: the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in August 1915.  This past August, at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, the Irish President and the Taoiseach led a ceremony of wreath-laying and recitation of Padraig Pearse’s famous graveside oration. 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… 
Padraig Pearse's graveside oration

‘Iconic’ has to be one of the most overused words of the 21st century but when it comes to Irish nationalism Rossa and Pearse are certainly considered worthy of it. 

I have no political axe to grind. British rule in Ireland was unquestionably harsh and terrible acts were committed on both sides in the fight for Ireland’s independence, but as a blow-in, resident only five years in Ireland, I can’t help but take a long, cool view of the heroes and bogeymen and legends of the Easter Rising. Perhaps I can say what an Irishman wouldn’t: that the rebellion of 1916 defeated itself with a catalogue of snafus and misunderstandings.

The first thing to explain is how O’Donovan Rossa came to be buried in Dublin at all given that he was supposed to be exiled from Ireland after serving a prison sentence for treason. Rossa’s ‘exile’ was winked at. Though he settled in New York in the 1880s and drummed up funds there for a Fenian dynamiting campaign in Britain, he returned to Ireland several times and on one visit received the Freedom of the City of Cork.  When he died, in a Staten Island hospital in 1915, the Irish republicans recognised a publicity opportunity.  ‘Send the body home’ they said. ‘We’ll give him a hero’s funeral.’  Indeed it was practically a state funeral and is seen by many as the Easter Rising’s moment of conception.

One of the schemers behind Rossa’s crowd-pulling obsequies was John Devoy, a man perhaps better known for collaborating with Germany during World War I  -  on the basis that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’  -   and running German guns into Ireland. Or trying to.  Devoy’s name is linked to the Fenian calamities of Good Friday, 1916.
John Devoy

A party of men set off from Dublin by train. Their destination was Kerry and their mission, ordered by Devoy, was to make contact with a Fenian cell in Killarney, drive to a wireless station on Valentia Island and steal radio equipment with which to send a fake signal to the British navy warning of a German attack off the Scottish coast and so lure any British vessels away from Tralee Bay where guns and explosives, essential for the planned Easter Rising, were to be brought ashore from a German ship.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.  What the Dubliners didn’t know was that Roger Casement had been arrested in Tralee that morning. The local police, knowing of Casement’s connections with Germany, suspected something big was afoot and were out in force, setting up road blocks and questioning drivers. The plan to break into the wireless station was aborted and in the confusion of changed plans the two cars carrying John Devoy’s Dublin men got separated. Without wirelesses they had no means of communicating and in the dark April night the driver of the second car took a wrong turn and drove off Ballykissane  pier into the River Laune. All bar one of the car’s occupants were drowned.   
Ballykissane Pier Memorial to the Drowned

And as if that senseless loss of lives were not enough the landing of the arms and ammunition failed anyway. The men charged with bringing it ashore went to the wrong rendezvous point, the German vessel waiting offshore was apprehended by the British navy, escorted to Cork and scuttled, and the Republican cause lost 20,000 rifles, 10 machine guns, and a million rounds of ammunition.

It was but the first of a series of bungled missions, confusions and poor planning that contributed to the swift defeat of the 1916 Rising.

1 comment:

Leslie Wilson said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking. Though I don't see that it's a problem, ethically, for the Republicans to enlist German support.Why shouldn't they? Or have I got you wrong, Laurie?