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That 1915 would be an eventful year for Desmond and Mabel FitzGerald was perhaps suggested by a package they received in November 1914. The package was preceded by a telegram from L. Keegan, a Dublin gunsmith, who explained that he had “sent you per passenger train to Dingle station 3 Lee Enfield Rifles as instructed by The O’Rahilly.” Although such a delivery may not have been exceptional given Desmond’s role with the Irish Volunteers, it is still worth noting as a small component of the activity that resulted in the predicament faced by the FitzGeralds in January 1915, a predicament which features heavily in this month’s From the Archives documents.

Desmond and Mabel met in London, where both had been attending Gaelic League classes. Desmond, born in London to Irish parents, spent his early adulthood as a poet with the Imagist group, while Mabel, born in Belfast to a Presbyterian family, arrived in London to teach. Mabel’s passionate Irish nationalism had not won the favour of her Unionist parents, and neither had her relationship with Desmond; when she fell pregnant out of wedlock in May 1911, the couple eloped to Brittany, staying in Saint-Jean-du-Doigt, a favoured haunt of artists and writers. There they remained until early 1913 when, according to Desmond, “for no tangible reason whatever, I felt… that there was going to be a great movement in Ireland… that would require the active work of everybody that was willing to assist.” They chose to live in Kerry, and took up residence in a former coastguard station in Ventry. There, they came into contact with Ernest Blythe and The O’Rahilly, with whom Desmond helped to establish and organise a local branch of the Irish Volunteers. It was a typically unusual band of Irish republicans that occupied the Dingle peninsula during this period: Desmond, the Modernist poet from West Ham; Mabel, the nationalist daughter of a prominent Ulster Unionist businessman; Blythe (who the locals referred to as “Blight”), from a similar background to Mabel, earning his keep with the Ashe family as a farm labourer; and The O’Rahilly, appearing every now and again with the words “Tá plean agam.”

Although Volunteer meetings were well attended, any plans to mobilise the local population and instill them with nationalist fervour were met with mixed results. Desmond noted that, while the locals “were not lacking in patriotic feeling, the suggestion that I had chosen to go there to do something for Ireland probably added to their conviction that if I had no concealed object for going there I must indeed have some mental trouble.” Though attempting to win the hearts and minds of the locals, it was the eyes and ears of the local constabulary that the FitzGeralds soon felt upon them. For example, in the foreword to their father’s memoirs, Fergus and Garrett FitzGerald relate a story passed down to them involving the police and their mother’s poultry. After reading a pamphlet issued by the Department of Agriculture, Mabel came to believe that her “hens’ productivity would be enhanced if they were fed late in the day”. She accordingly “went out each winter night for that purpose with a lantern- which led the RIC in Ventry village to suspect Desmond of signalling to German submarines”. Whatever about the suspicions of foul play aroused by Mabel, Desmond’s activities with the Volunteers certainly did little to deflect the attention of the British authorities. In a speech made at Castleisland in November 1914 (recorded in The Kerryman), he declared his hatred for England, insisting that the “only way to touch England’s heart is at the point of a bayonet”. He also expressed his hope that those gathered “would see the day when they could sweep out of Ireland the last miserable peeler…” He made these comments in spite of the presence of sixty-eight policemen and a Government notetaker, telling the crowd that “they can do what they like to me for saying it”.

He duly received a notice from the Admiralty instructing him to leave Kerry. This notice was shortly followed by an official order, signed by the Chief Commanding Officer of the British Army in Ireland, Major General Lovick Bransby Friend and handed to him by the local District Inspector. These documents, the originals of which can be viewed below, bore the full weight of the Defence of the Realm Act, 1914, a collection of stringent measures brought in at the beginning of the War to deter and obstruct seditious activity. After consulting with Volunteer Headquarters as to the best course of action, FitzGerald relocated himself and his family to Bray. Despite the stress of the upheaval, Desmond did not seem overly perturbed, quickly becoming involved in the establishment of a new branch of the Volunteers and noting in his memoirs that he greatly admired the Wicklow scenery.

Desmond’s attitude was not shared by his wife, who expressed her discontent in a letter written to George Bernard Shaw, a friend and former employer1. She refuted Shaw’s prior accusation that she was simply “playing” at nationalism, and proclaimed her desire that “England be broken by land & by sea”, insisting that “to my national hatred of her is now added a personal one that is no doubt more ignoble but just as strong.” The letters exchanged between the pair in January are typical of their wider correspondence, both in the recurring theme of Irish nationalism and the consistent tone of stinging yet good-natured criticism. Throughout their correspondence, Mabel makes frequent unguarded attempts to win Shaw over to the republican cause, attempts which are rebuffed with the playwright’s sardonic yet compassionate wit. Mabel’s staunch republicanism jarred with Shaw, whose views on the matter were decidedly more complex. Although characteristically hard to pin down on any subject, he seemed to regard Irish nationalism with some sympathy but not a great amount of support. As Gearoid O’Flaherty observes, “Shaw believed that Irish Nationalism had to be ancillary to the more essential objectives of international socialism”. His position on Irish nationalism at the time is perhaps best articulated in the “Preface for Politicians” for John Bull’s Other Island: “English rule is such an intolerable abomination that no other subject can reach the people. Nationalism stands between Ireland and the light of the world… A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again.” As his letter shows, he was keenly critical of anti-English sentiments, the kind often promulgated by Mabel and Desmond, which he felt were particularly damaging in the wartime environment. Shaw was by no means a supporter of the War, but ultimately put his weight behind Britain- albeit without much enthusiasm- feeling that French republicanism and British democracy, such as they were, would be better victors than Prussian militarism.

Shaw’s determined ambiguity was in contrast to the ambiguous determination displayed by Irish republicans in their attitude towards the War. They generally welcomed the conflict, many hailing it as “Ireland’s opportunity” and lending support to Germany. Yet, as witnessed in Desmond’s memoirs, there didn’t seem to be any concrete notion as to what form German assistance would take and exactly how Ireland would benefit from it. FitzGerald recalls that “the presence of German forces was presumed”, but that “all other aspects and possibilities were blandly ignored”. In the face of these possibilities, the War presented real problems: the Defence of the Realm Act provided a ready-made legal basis with which the authorities could act severely against potential rebels- the order issued against Desmond FitzGerald is just one of many contained in UCD Archives, including those bearing the names of Blythe and The O’Rahilly. Thus, the observations found in Shaw’s letter complement the order issued to FitzGerald by illustrating that, if the War presented Ireland with an opportunity, it was an opportunity laden with difficulties.

Shaw’s reduction of Mabel’s nationalism to “mere devilment” is also pertinent in this analysis. For the FitzGeralds and many others, involvement in the nationalist movement had, up to this point, been along vaguely romantic lines, as evinced by their relocation to the Kerry Gaeltacht. Prior to his arrest, Desmond’s activities mostly consisted of excited conversations with Blythe and somewhat directionless drilling of the local Volunteers, bringing to mind the world described in the first stanza of WB Yeats’ Easter 1916, a world of “motley” and “meaningless words”. This aspect of Irish nationalism particularly aggravated Shaw, who wrote in a letter to the New York Times that, as “an Irishman, I have been familiar with Irish patriotic rhetoric all my life. Personally I have had no use for it, because I always wanted to get things done.” However, as the documents below show, the republican movement was starting to get very real; actions were being met by consequences, and the transformation described in Yeats’ poem was starting to materialise. Indeed, a few days after Shaw’s letter to Irish-Americans was reprinted in the Irish Times, Desmond and Mabel would be far from the romantic, Gaelic idyll of West Kerry, instead following Connolly and Pearse into the General Post Office on Sackville St.

Colm O’Flaherty
UCD School of History and Archives
January 2015

Further Reading

Desmond and Mabel FitzGerald papers (P80), UCD Archives.

Diarmaid Ferriter, C. J. Woods, “FitzGerald, Desmond”, in James McGuire and James Quinn (ed), Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge, 2009).

Desmond FitzGerald, Desmond’s Rising: Memoirs 1913 to Easter 1916 (Dublin, 2006).

Nicholas Grene, “Shaw, George Bernard”, in James McGuire and James Quinn (ed), Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge, 2009).

Mary Holland, from “Mary the Mother and Her Impact on Irish Politics” in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing Volumes 4-5: Irish Women’s writing and traditions, ed. Angela Bourke et al (Cork, 2002), pp. 1426-1429.

William Murphy, Political Imprisonment and the Irish, 1912-1921 (Oxford, 2014).

Gearoid O’Flaherty, “George Bernard Shaw and Ireland”, in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth Century Irish Drama, ed. Shaun Richards (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 122-135.

The Irish Times, 22nd April, 1916, p. 4.

The Freeman’s Journal, 30th November, 1914, p. 7.

The Kerryman, 14th November, 1914, p. 3.

A brief account of John McConnell and family, based on their time at College Green House, Belfast: http://freespace.virgin.net/hearth.nireland/Coll%20Gr%20McConnell.html

Shaw’s “Preface for Politicians” can be read here (the section quoted appears on page xxxvi): http://bit.ly/1BjXwvQ

For a discussion of Shaw and Irish nationalism during this period, listen to this podcast by Peter Gahan, given as part of a conference held by the UCD Humanities Institute and the International Shaw Society: http://www.ucd.ie/humanities/events/podcasts/2012/george-bernard-shaw-conference/

For an insight into Shaw’s views on the War at the time, see Common Sense about the War, written in November 1914. Available here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13635/13635-h/13635-h.htm

For further discussion of his attitude to the War:

An interview with Garrett FitzGerald, including a discussion of his parents and the Easter Rising:

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