Gareth Jones

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The Enigma of Ireland (ii). 
The Western Mail - November 7th, 1933


Forces That Are Splitting the Country

By Gareth Jones

Imagine the bitterness that would exist in any South Wales town in which a spot could be pointed out where the enemy had shot a fellow-citizen; in which the finest buildings had been shattered by the “invaders” shell; and in which each man you met could tell you tales of murder, ambushes and street fighting between Welsh-man and foreigner. Imagine that and you will have a glimpse of public sentiment In Ireland. 

This background of the Irish problem as the Nationalist Irishman sees it was brought vividly to my mind when.  I explored Dublin with an energetic Irishman with a rollicking laugh.  He had fought in the 1916 Rising, had been sought by the British, captured and imprisoned,, and finally reached a high position in the Free State Government - namely, Professor Michael Hayes, Speaker in the Cosgrave Parliament. 

As we drove down the main street, O’Connell-street, he pointed out the Post Office. 

“That building,” he told me, “brings back memories of the shot and shell in 1916, when, on Easter Monday, we rose against the British and occupied the building.  For almost a week this street - one of the finest in Europe - was a shambles.  You could hear the thud of the British bombarding us from the river a few hundred yards away.  We stuck out until the Saturday, a grim feat of determination.  Just think of it, a small band of man defying an empire for the sake of freedom.” 


O’Connell-street was practically destroyed and new buildings now line it; but however new the buildings their aspect cannot wipe out the memory of Easter Week, 1916, and I learned why later when I stood with Professor Hayes looking at an ugly grey building. 

“That is Mountjoy Prison,” he said.  “That is where the battle for freedom was won, for behind those walls the young leaders of the Easter Week Rising were executed.”  From Mountjoy Prison we went to a structure which looked dominating and cruel and to which I took an instant dislike, “Dublin Castle,” said the Professor, as we entered a cold courtyard.  “There,” he pointed to a bare wall in an ugly patch of ground, “Is where a number of -Irishmen were shot down.  I myself spent some time behind prison-bars here,” and be smiled. 


From place to place we went where once there had been ruthless war between the Sinn Feiners and the British.  “Look down that side street,” my guide bade me, “That Is where Dick Mulcahy, who was Chief of Staff, hid in my rooms for many months in 1919, when he was on the run and when the British had a hue and cry after him.  We had a narrow escape one night, when a British officer and a policeman came to raid us, but Dick just got out in time over the roof!” 

No wonder there was a tone of cold bitterness in General Mulcahy’s voice when, a few days later, I talked to him about Wales, and he recalled weary months of imprisonment in Frongoch camp, near Bala, after the 1916 Rising. 

Further on there were streets and canal banks where occurred the conflicts with the Black and Tans - events which make young Irish people clench their fists.  To the British these are vague happenings in a distant age, but to the Irish they are ever present, for in Irish politics-memory of the past is the most important factor. 

This was impressed upon me deeply during that journey which had begun with the General Post Office battleground of 1916 and had culminated with scenes of Black and Tan skirmishes. 

The Irish pass these spots every day; they still mourn friends executed in the times of trouble; they can see the bullet marks on the Bank of Ireland columns; every stone speaks of the struggle against the British.  To the British 1916 is many years ago and the Irish War of 1920 is stuff for memoirs, not for emotions; but to the Irish they both happened yesterday, and for them Cromwell lived only the day before.  As a result, hatred of Britain still is the greatest rallying-cry to whip up Irish feelings. 


Conflict against the British is, however, by no means the only kind of conflict in Ireland, and in order to throw light upon another important factor in the Irish enigma I shall describe a second personality and a second scene. 

Before a blazing fire in a cosy drawing-room sat a beautiful woman, with delicate features, dark hair, large’ deep eyes, whose blue velvet dress fell in flowing folds to the ground. 

In a calm, hushed voice, never raised, however sharp might be the attack or enthusiastic the praise she uttered, without extravagant gestures, she talked to me for hours of Ireland’s past and of Ireland’s personalities. 

She was the widow of Kevin O’Higgins, stern Minister of ‘justice, ruthless but just, who was a statesman and even had the makings of a dictator, but who was so hated by his opponents that in 1927, not long after he had declared, “The South of Ireland is quite safe now, even for him!” he was shot down on his way to Mass. 

In the house of his widow I learned much about Ireland.  I listened enraptured to a brilliance of conversation which is rarely enjoyed outside that country, and which is the combination of an age-long culture with the charm of a gifted race. 


I found out how scorpion-like the Irish tongue can be and how with a few quiet rapier-like slashes it can relentlessly damage a man’s dignity and character.  Above all, however, I learned the depth of the Internal strife in Ireland and the lawlessness to which it leads. 

I was in the house of a man who had devoted himself to stamping out the rule of the gun in Ireland, though in the end the gun had triumphed over him - an Irish gun.  The shot which killed him brought an echo of the days when in 1922 Free Staters scoured the country for rebelling Republicans and when ambushes by Irishmen took toll of Irish lives. 

Although the “Cease Fire” of 1923 ended the internecine bloodshed, memories of Civil War are green.  Republicans still recall their fellow-fighters being blown to pieces by Free State bombs and Free Staters cannot forget the ambushes which destroyed some of their finest soldiers, such as Michael Collins.  Desire for revenge, living on from the Civil War, explained why at a private dance at which Gen. Mulcahy was present I saw in the ball a bodyguard watching with a revolver, and in the grounds of the house three guards armed with a machine-gun. 

However orderly and even prosperous may appear the streets of present-day Ireland, the Civil War still goes on in the hearts of a minority of irreconcilables, and is one cause of the acidity of political discussion, of the unbalanced views, of the word “traitor” bandied about in every other sentence, and of the part played by personal animosity, which are such striking features of Irish politics. 


It is a long way from the thoughts aroused by a conversation with Kevin O’Higgins to a period over a thousand years ago, but I am going to make a journey back through the centuries and give a third picture of my visit, because without it one. cannot know Ireland. 

It is that neither of a professorial politician nor of a widow of an Irish personality, but of a certain room in the National Museum, Dublin, which contains a treasure of Ireland’s past. 

I looked at the miracles of craftsmanship of which Ireland was capable in the eighth to the eleventh centuries, the perfection of design and the delicacy of execution of the Tara Brooch, the intricate decoration and dignified symmetry of the Cross of Cong. the gold, silver and bronze worked so exquisitely in the Ardagh chalice, and I came to the conclusion that here was a rich culture, possessed by a skilful people with a keen eye for colour and design and, a sense of artistic dignity. 

I examined the minute spirals of the gold filigree work and the crystals in the Shrine .of St. Patrick’s Bell, and I remembered that Ireland was a country not only of artistic but also of spiritual pre-eminence and had sent missionaries to convert many parts of Europe. 


An ancient culture which in politics is now dominated by two forces - hatred of the British and internal dissension.  Such is Ireland.  There are, however, two characteristics which I should like to add, and those are hospitality and humour; hospitality which is so warm that it melts at once even the freezing national antagonism, and humour which is so sparkling that it even lightens the fraternal strife.  

Irish hospitality knows no national boundary, and to individuals it is gay, unselfish, and sincere.  Irish friends are of unlimited kindness to visitors, whether they be Welsh or English.  Their humour is spontaneous and so irrepressible that even the President is not spared its shafts. 

Among the first things I read In an Irish newspaper was the item: “An applicant for the principalship of Derry Technical School gave as his reference the Pope, King George, Dollfuss, and Gordon Richards!” 

A strange combination of national characteristics – humour, hospitality and hatred - and hatred may lead Ireland into dark days, for it is again splitting the country into opposing forces.  What these forces are I shall tell later. 

To-morrow:            THE BLUE SHIRTS













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