Chapter 3. – EOIN MACNEILL ULSTERMAN –
EOIN MACNEILL ULSTERMAN
” THERE needs be no doubt about it whatever. I did everything in my power to prevent the Easter Week rising.”
This was Professor Eoin MacNeill’s answer to the question Collins had suggested I put to him. And the Speaker of Dail Eireann gave it with a degree of patent sincerity that made doubt indeed impossible. It was as if he were glad of the opportunity to go on record in a matter which he knows has been discussed in every home in Ireland for eight years. Incidentally, Lieut. Col. Sir Matthew Nathan, Under-Secretary for Ireland at the time of the rising, and Sir Mackenzie Dalzell Chalmers, K.C.B., one of the three members of the Hoarding Commission which enquired into the causes of the rebellion, have at last their answer. (During the enquiry Sir Mackenzie Chalmers asked Sir Matthew Nathan in the witness-box if MacNeill’s order countermanding the rising was a ” blind.” ” I should very much like to know,” replied the witness).
” Why I did what I did,” Professor MacNeill continued, ” has never been told. I have remained silent because those of my colleagues entitled to an explanation have chosen to ask for none. It has been my preference to believe they wished in this fashion to show their unquestioning faith in me. But now the opportunity has come to make all the facts known, I am glad to take advantage of it.
” As President and Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers I was dedicated, heart and soul, to the one great aim of that body the achieving of real independence by the Irish nation. As one of the founders of the Gaelic League I had done all in my power to awaken the people to a consciousness of nationality, the necessary preliminary to a successful issue of our prime ambition by force of arms. When in 1914 the Sinn Fein section broke away from the general body of the Volunteers I became leader of the seceding body. For the next two years I made recruiting speeches in all parts of Ireland and saw our forces growing by leaps and bounds. At the same time I took over the editorship of the Irish Volunteer, the official organ of the army.
” It must be borne in mind that conditions in Ireland in the spring of 1916 made conferences exceedingly difficult for those of us on the Black List at Dublin Castle. In my case it was exceptionally difficult, living as I was out in the country and away from my colleagues. Much was going forward that I knew nothing of determined upon at secret meetings at which I was not present. Not until after it was all over did I come to learn the momentous decision reached by the seven men who signed and published the declaration of the Irish Republic.
” HAD I KNOWN THEIR GRIM PURPOSE I MIGHT HAVE ACTED DIFFERENTLY. I MIGHT HAVE SUBSCRIBED TO IT. AND YET I AM NOT SURE. NOT EVEN THEY COULD HAVE DREAMED THAT ENGLISH STUPIDITY WOULD TRANSFORM THEIR FORLORN HOPE FROM IGNOMINIOUS FAILURE INTO BRILLIANT SUCCESS !
” But not to anticipate myself the Irish Volunteers had been formed and trained with a definite object known to all of us, the eventual driving out of Ireland of the English armed forces. I shared that aim with the rest. I believed it could be done. The Carson volunteers in Ulster gave us a perfect reason for being. But that anyone should be so gullible, so utterly ignorant of the facts, as to imagine for a moment that we should ever commit the senseless folly of playing England’s game by armed attack against our fellow countrymen in Ulster surprised even the most sanguine among us. The ridiculous assumption was of inestimable value to us.
“England saw us drilling, knew of our continuous recruiting, had definite information as to our constantly increasing numbers and let us do it without real interference. England wanted us to commit the blunder ! Thus should we ourselves have settled the Irish question, from England’s viewpoint, for generations to come. We should have been soundly trounced in the field by Carson’s army backed up by whatever British support might be necessary and at the same time have ruined all hopes of a united Ireland. Because England believed we were planning to do the one thing that would vindicate her Ulster policy, our army was allowed to grow.
” In the spring of 1916 we had the men and we had the discipline in plenty for our purpose. It is true that some of us were hoping that Sir Roger Casement would succeed in inducing German officers to come to Ireland to give us the benefit of their experience, but all that was actually counted upon was shipments of sufficient arms and ammunition.
” This obviously was a vital need. Without equipment we could do nothing. But when at last word came that the shipments were on their way, Easter Sunday was fixed as the date for the beginning of hostilities always conditional on the safe arrival of the arms and ammunition. At least this was my understanding. And that was where I was in error ! I did not know that a little coterie among our leaders was inspired with an idea of the intrinsic value of martyrdom for martyrdom’s sake ! But I will come to that presently.
” The world knows of Casement’s arrest. It happened on Good Friday. It is not so generally known that the same day a German ship carrying 20,000 rifles and 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition was scuttled and sunk by her commander in Tralee Bay to escape capture by the British. Word of both disasters reached me on the Saturday afternoon. I wasted no time in trying to prevent what seemed certain must be a ludicrous fiasco.
” By word of mouth, in hastily written despatches, and in a formal order which I inserted in the Sunday Independent, I forbade any movement of the Volunteers to take place. I sent a letter to De Valera among others. He was then a commandant in charge of troops at Boland’s Mill. It read :
” Comm’t Eamon de Vaileara,
” As Comm’t MacDonagh is not accessible, I have to give you this order direct. Comm’t MacDonagh left me last night with the understanding that he would return or send me a message. He has done neither.
” As Chief of Staff, I have ordered and hereby order that no movement whatsoever of Irish Volunteers is to be made today. You will carry out this order in your own command and make it known to other commands.
” I had just despatched this letter when word came that my order published in the Sunday Independent was being questioned in various quarters as spurious. I promptly authenticated it, and added that ‘ every influence should be used immediately and throughout the day to secure faithful executing of this order, as any failure to obey it may result in a very grave catastrophe.’
” And all this I did without the slightest knowledge of the real plans of my colleagues. Easter Monday came as a more terrible shock to me than perhaps to any other Irishman in Ireland. Seven of our finest and our bravest leaders had put their names to the declaration of the Irish Republic, had seized the Post Office, had fired the first shots of the rebellion ! Of course, without those German arms and ammunition they must have failed in any event had I not issued the countermanding orders but in the resultant confusion, with our forces in all parts of the country, notably in Cork, remaining passive, it seemed that this mad act of desperation by a mere handful of men poorly equipped and with no support to depend upon would constitute the most lamentable, futile gesture in the annals of Ireland’s struggling centuries. Undoubtedly this would have been the case had it not been for England’s stupidity !
” The truth, as I afterwards learned it, was that Clarke and Pearse and MacDonagh and the others had deliberately planned to go down to certain defeat and death. If ever seven men were animated by pure martyrdom it was these patriots. They were willing to give their lives to move their countrymen to work together in the cause they would thus ennoble. And yet how easily instead they might have found themselves a laughing stock !
” If England had only used the Dublin police force instead of high explosive shells and all the paraphernalia of war, arrested the leaders on a charge of disturbing the peace or, perhaps trespass and regarded the feint in its true
light, the prank of irresponsible idealists not to be taken seriously, she could have led a world to join in ironic laughter ! In that fashion the cause of Irish freedom could have been set back a generation. Every Irishman must thank God that England made the mistake of treating it seriously, thereby giving it a dignity with which nothing else could have invested it.
” The seven martyrs went to martyrs’ deaths. Their fondest dreams were exceeded. Ireland’s freedom was at last in sight !
” If it is urged that the event proves that their prevision was good and mine bad I have no excuse to offer. Had I known their plan I am afraid I should still have disapproved it on the grounds that not a Government on earth could be so stupid as to make the ridiculous mistake of treating them seriously.
” This explanation, I trust, will establish for once and all my motive in issuing those orders.”
(It may be interesting to interrupt Professor MacNeill’s narrative at this point with the statement that Collins wholeheartedly supported the former in his ascribing the ultimate success of the rising to England’s mistaken policy of severity in handling it. Also Collins was convinced of the sincerity of Professor MacNeill’s motive in countermanding the orders for the rising.
” I referred to the reason England permitted us to build up the Irish Volunteers,” Professor MacNeill continued. ” She hoped we would use that body to make war upon Ulster. Now six years have come and gone and the truth about Ulster seems still to be as little understood as it was then. It is time the truth was told. I feel peculiarly well fitted to tell it, for I am a native of County Antrim, and was educated at St. Malachy’s College in Belfast.
” I speak as an Ulsterman, if you please, but that makes me no less an Irishman. There are those who do not agree with me. In more than one section of Ireland they still talk about ‘ the Outlanders of Ulster.’ There are folk who look upon the Black North as a diseased limb which should be cut off from the Irish social body. But the actual method proposed is as illogical as the wearing of a spiked bracelet in the case of a diseased hand. A mere artificial barrier the most the proposed Boundary Commission could accomplish would be no remedy if the limb were actually diseased. But, heart and soul, I am opposed to this theory of a diseased limb.
” Let an Ulster Outlander speak for that part of Ireland from which he comes. Here in Dublin there appears to be no question that I am an Irishman. Am I then an Outlander when I am among my kith and kin in the North-East ? Or if my own claim to be Irish is graciously conceded, must I believe that my father and mother, my brothers and sisters down in the North, are not of my nationality ?
” It is significant to note that the Boundary Commission was proposed by the English Government ! Its significance will appear before I have finished. Incidentally, the Ulster Government in one of its rare moments of proving its real devotion” (?) to England has flatly announced it will pay no attention to the Commission’s findings. Once again history repeats itself. It was not so long ago in 1886 that Lord Randolph Churchill, father of the man to whom Lloyd George entrusted Irish affairs for the most part, made a special expedition to Ulster to assure the stalwarts of high State sympathy in England. It was then he produced the memorable phrase, ‘ Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right ‘ IN RESISTING THE CONTEMPLATED LAW LAID DOWN BY THE ENGLISH GOVERNMENT !
” But let me assure Sir James Craig that Southern Ireland has no intention of cutting the country in two. We don’t intend to do it, even if England believes it to be the one sure way of preventing a united Ireland ! This is the spirit of the people of Southern Ireland. What of the people of Ulster ?
” Why, the glens of Antrim from Glanarm to Ballycastle, and the whole mountainous district at their back, are more Nationalist than county Dublin ! The Ulster Unionist, even, is not the demon incarnate of anti-Nationalism that some raw Southerners imagine. It is a pity I am not at liberty to name business men and farmers whose confidences I have shared in trips through Ulster. Their reason for insisting I spare them publicity is self-evident. The rule of the revolver under Sir James Craig’s Government has succeeded infamously well in keeping true opinion squelched. But these men have told me and I know them to be honest men that they pray for a united Ireland. But prayer alone is not enough. The time has come for the truth to be told. It needs only to be known and the problem, WHICH IS NOT AND NEVER HAS BEEN A REAL PROBLEM, will solve itself !
” The truth is simple. England has done her utmost to keep flaming the hatred conceived by bigotry and falsehood at the time of the Plantation of three centuries ago. To Irishmen in the South, England’s emissaries have preached the lie that Ulster Unionists are aliens. How many centuries, one may ask, does it take to make an Irishman of an alien ? What special force is at work in Ulster to prevent the immigrant there from ever absorbing the characteristics of Irish nationalism ?
” In Ulster England has spared no pains to foster the feeling that the Ulster Unionist is a full-blooded Teuton and his Catholic neighbour a full-blooded Celt. She has taught both to adopt the notion that Celt and Teuton are as oil and water. But if we take the Celt to mean the race inhabiting Britain and Ireland before the Saxon and Norse invasions, and Teuton to mean the subsequent immigrants, it is absolutely certain that the descendants of the Ulster Planters are vastly more Celt than Teuton, more Celt than the Catholic Nationalists of a great part of Leinster for the thoroughbred Englishmen is a purer Celt than almost any of the Irish people themselves.
” It is not a fact of race, but an illusion of race, that makes Ulster Unionists pro-British and anti-Irish. But it is an illusion that England has craftily created and carefully fostered.
” It is a common delusion in the South of Ireland that the Planters were all English. The fact is they were mainly Scotch. The Old-Irish Ulsterman is hardly less grave, sedate, unresponsive, taciturn, laconic, keen at a bargain, tenacious of his own, critical towards others, than the typical Ulster Presbyterian. Nor is either variety a whit more un-Irish in qualities of this kind than the Catholic Nationalist, the ‘ absorbed ‘ semi-Norseman of Fine Gall. Is it not ridiculous to exact uniformity of type from all parts of a nation ?
” There are not two Irish nations. A foreign faction it is the happy phrase of an Ulster Presbyterian, John Mitchell is a familiar feature in many a national history. We have in the Irish nation today a foreign faction. But after the Williamite settlement we were in reality two nations, and a century later only one. The fusion would have been more rapid but for the fact that during all that period, and for a generation longer, the descendants of each element adhered rigidly to their respective languages. With equal chances we should have seen all over Ireland the condition of things reported to Queen Elizabeth ‘ The English in Dublin do now all speak Irish, for the most part with great delight.’
” The Nationalist trend in Protestant Ulster reached its extreme point of intensity in the period of the United Irishmen. This organisation did much to bring about the ultimate division between the nation and the faction. The English Government became greatly alarmed at the rapid growth of a national bond of union between the Old-Irish Catholics and the Protestants of British descent. Catholics and Protestants alike enrolled themselves in great numbers in the United Irishmen. England accordingly took steps to work up religious animosities in Ulster, and with great success among the adherents of the ascendant religion, the Episcopalians. At the same time, England practised on the Catholics, and with no less success. It must be admitted that the lower order of Catholics in the North have at all times been prone to mere party antagonism, to meeting the silly cry of ‘ To hell with the Pope ‘ with the no less degrading cry of ‘ To hell with the King/
” England was not satisfied with pitting mob against mob in Ulster. She flew at higher game on the Catholic side. It was when the Catholic world was on the verge of panic after the French Revolution. The virtuous government of Pitt through its pillar of Church and State, Castlereagh had little difficulty in bringing that thorough ecclesiastic, Archbishop Troy, to believe in an alliance with the Holy British Empire in preference to the slightest sympathy with the aims of a Protestant-led and French-tainted Nationalist movement. . AND WE ARE NOT THROUGH EVEN YET WITH THE FRENCH PANIC IN CATHOLIC IRELAND !
” This policy of England’s has been continued with short interruptions ever since. In 1886 the English Government withdrew the whole authority of the Empire and all the forces of law and order for a period of many weeks from a riotous quarter of Belfast establishing then the precedent which Sir James Craig adopted in 1920 on a vastly larger scale ! And down through the years, England has promised concession after concession to Catholic prelates, and never fulfilled one of them so long as the promise alone served her purpose.
” But slowly some of us were learning how far an English Government would go in playing upon Irish Catholics. We were beginning, for instance, to see through the man-against- man device of so administering education as to keep the idea of hopeless religious division ever before us. We began to see that the cause of our division was not any ingrained ‘common hatred for centuries’ but was operated from above and without for the deliberate purpose of preventing good feeling between the two sections of the nation. England’s policy has been immensely helped by the delusion held by most Irishmen that the anti-Irish position of the majority of Ulster Protestants is the natural and spontaneous expression of their racial and religious spirit. It is the general, unquestioning opinion. People never care to admit, even to themselves, that their prejudices are the product of deliberate manipulation by others.
” The fostering of religious feuds in Ireland by England is so much a part of the solid and irrefutable facts of history that it is surprising to find it not universally recognised. The Catholics, as a rule, have been too ready to walk into the snare, the Catholic mob habitually ready to play into the hands of these skilful manipulators. I wish I could say only the mob was responsible for the creation of the Ulster difficulty . Unfortunately, representative Catholics and Nationalists have been largely contributory to the intensity of anti-Nationalism in parts of Ulster. They have furnished precisely the evidences required to prove that Ireland is a hopelessly divided country.
” But is there no other policy towards the Ulster Unionists except to revile and disown them ? Suppose we Nationalists begin by putting our house in order, by calling off our dog ? Suppose we declare every man who uses anti-Protestant cries to be the worst enemy of his country’s cause ? Suppose that in view of our own share in aggravating their fanaticism in the past we resolve to abstain from all acts and words of an exasperating kind in the future ? What if we perform these preliminary ablutions ?
” It must interest friends of Ireland the world over to know that every one of these questions has been asked AND ANSWERED THE RIGHT WAY BY THE NEW GOVERNMENT OF SOUTHERN IRELAND.
” Under normal conditions there are ten commercial travellers from Belfast houses going through Ireland for one going through Great Britain. On Ireland and not on Great Britain does Belfast depend for the use of her vast credit resources. The Ulster Bank, the Northern Bank, the Belfast Bank know where their business is done. And Ulster is a land of business men ! Once the truth is known by Irishmen once England’s snares are recognised and so avoided once Belfast and Dublin together see the light that our whole problem is in fact an economic problem when this, the real issue, is knit, I am confident that the kindly Southerners will be glad to have by their shoulders the cold and harsh- tongued men of the North.”
Much more than this Professor MacNeill told me before I finally took my leave of him and started back to Dublin aboard the jaunting-car. Some of it will appear in a later chapter. Some of it cannot be told at this time. But, perhaps, in what I have set down here, he has proved himself to be what I unreservedly consider him not only a pro- found thinker and a scholar, but that rarest type of Irishman a man of moderation.