Sunday, 8 September 2013

Crass materialism and penny-pinching
100 years after ‘September 1913’

No 5 Woburn Walk ... the Bloomsbury home of WB Yeats at the time he wrote ‘September 1913’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As part of the centenary commemorations of the Dublin Lock-Out in 1913, I have been asked to deliver a paper on the Church of Ireland priest and former Vice-Provost and Senior Dean of Trinity College Dublin, the Revd Robert Malcolm Gwynn (1877-1962), who is buried in Whitechurch churchyard.

If you were to rely only on Wikipedia, you might think Gwynn is worth remembering solely as an Irish international cricketer. But during this year’s commemorations it is also worth remembering that Gwynn was always sympathetic to the cause of Labour and was the only academic of any note at TCD who was actively engaged in the Labour movement in Dublin.

He was a friend of James Connolly, active in a peace committee that had strong links with the Irish Citizen Army – indeed, it is said that the Irish Citizen Army took its name at a meeting in Gwynn’s rooms in Trinity.

Other members of the Church of Ireland who took an active part in the Irish Citizen Army included Dr Kathleen Lynn, the daughter of a Co Mayo rector of Cong, and Countess Markievicz, who was born Constance Gore-Booth.

At the height of the lockout, the poet William Butler Yeats published September 1913. Although it was dated 7 September 2013, the poem was first published in The Irish Times on this day 100 years ago, 8 September 1913.

William Martin Murphy, who was a conservative Catholic and claimed to be a constitutional nationalist, led the employers throughout the lockout, and also opposed funding for the Hugh Lane Gallery after Sir Hugh Lane had offered his art collection to the City of Dublin, claiming it was too costly.

In this poem, Yeats criticises Murphy for his crass materialism and his lack of humanity, but also undermines any of his claims to being a voice for middle-class constitutional nationalism. At the same time, Yeats is acknowledging the naivety of some Irish Republican figures like Robert Emmet following public violence as a result of attempts at revolution.

Although Murphy is not named personally in the poem, many of the other figures are remembered to this day, including Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone – all three, like Yeats, born in the Church of Ireland. But who is the O’Leary, who is dead and in the grave alongside romantic Ireland?

Although John O’Leary (1830-1907) was a separatist, believing in Irish independence, he was not a republican but a constitutional monarchist. He believed in physical force, but was opposed to individual acts of violence such as those promoted by O’Donovan Rossa. He was strongly opposed to the land agitation promoted by Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell.

For most of his life, O’Leary opposed any form of parliamentary action, and he was particularly hostile to the former Fenian MP John O'Connor Power. However, he supported Parnell during the early days of the split in Irish Parliamentary Party in 1890-1891. He was a secularist, believing that the Church should stay out of politics, and writing in the Dublin University Review in 1886, he pointed out that in an independent Ireland Protestants would need guarantees of liberties.

He inherited family property in Tipperary town that provided him with a comfortable income for most of his life. He did not have to earn money and was able to assist fellow separatists financially. However, he was remembered in Tipperary as a “hard landlord” and he became a victim of agitation in 1889-1891, when his income from rental payments dried up.

O’Leary’s warnings in the the Dublin University Review in 1886 were put to the test in 1925, when legislation was being put forward to abolish divorce. In a speech in the Senate defending Protestant rights and traditions, Yeats declared:
I think it is tragic that within three years of this country gaining its independence we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive. I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority. We against whom you have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence. Yet I do not altogether regret what has happened. I shall be able to find out, if not I, my children will be able to find out whether we have lost our stamina or not. You have defined our position and have given us a popular following. If we have not lost our stamina then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.

The contributions Yeats made to the debates in the Senate show the value of this institution, and arguments for its abolition today solely on the grounds of cost appear to echo William Martin Murphy’s penny-pinching and mean-minded arguments against the Hugh Lane Gallery at the height of the 1913 Lockout.

September 1913, by WB Yeats

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the ha’pence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone? For men were born to pray and save?,
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone –
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone –
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide?
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died?
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone –
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You’d cry – “Some woman’s yellow hair
Has maddened every mother’s son” –
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone:
They’re with O’Leary in the grave.

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