Introduction to ‘The Irish Brigade in South Africa’ by John MacBride

In the early hours of 5 May, 1916, Major John MacBride would be executed by a British firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol for his role in the Easter Rising. To commemorate the anniversary of MacBride’s sacrifice, we have decided to release our introduction to our upcoming first book release, The Irish Brigade in South Africa, a first-hand account of the Transvaal Irish Brigade written by MacBride himself. It is set for release in the coming weeks.

INTRODUCTION.

This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout …
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born
.’

Easter, 1916. W.B. Yeats.

It was purely by fate that a grey-haired Major John MacBride found himself cooped up inside the walls of a building on Easter Week, 1916. The last act of his life had been hitherto characterised by total misery; driven to depression and alcoholism, separated from his son, publicly humiliated by scandal and gossip from a destroyed marriage, marginalised and kept at arms’ length by those whom he had considered friends and comrades.

Yet standing before Thomas MacDonagh and the 2nd Dublin Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, who were garrisoned at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, MacBride, with the humility of a soldier, said simply: ‘Here I am if I’m any use to you.’

The selflessness and self-sacrifice demonstrated by such unquestioning loyalty that Easter Monday, to cast aside all personal grievances and convictions, to make peace with the past so that the future could be conquered. Here was a man, a man of Old Ireland, who had already sacrificed almost everything a man could give for his country in the battlefield, and yet,
without hesitation, was prepared once more to give what was left, for Ireland.

For six days, MacBride commanded his men to hold the line in what was an utterly doomed defence. When the Volunteers were compelled to surrender, MacBride, accepting that he was to die and that his men were to live, gave his final command:

Liberty is a priceless thing and any of you that sees a chance, take it. I’d do so myself, but my liberty days are over. Good luck boys. Many of you may live to fight some other day. Take my advice and never allow yourself to be cooped up inside the walls of a building again.’

Standing before the British firing squad at the dead of night in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol on 5
May 1916, having fought with unwavering resolve for what was a most glorious failure, the soldierly MacBride refused the blindfold, saying calmly to his murderers:

I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South African war to fear death and now please carry out your sentence.

MacBride died as he lived, with unshakeable honour, an honour that he often expressed for those
who did not deserve it. A story told by Patrick J. Little, the editor of New Ireland, recalls that MacBride, many years earlier, had challenged the poet Stephen MacKenna to a duel, having been told that MacKenna had insulted his wife, Maud Gonne. McKenna obliged, although was unaware of the particulars of MacBride’s grievance.

McKenna and MacBride would meet at the offices of the New York Sun for the duel, each brandishing revolvers.

At the eleventh hour, McKenna finally asked MacBride why MacBride wanted to duel him.

MacBride replied that he had been told that McKenna had said the following: ‘It was a shame that such an honest man as MacBride should marry such a person as Maud Gonne.’

‘Quite the contrary!’ retorted McKenna, ‘What I said was, it was a shame that such a turbulent rascal should marry such a splendid woman!’

‘Shake hands, old man!’ MacBride said and the two swiftly reconciled.

Maud Gonne would prove to be the Jezebel in MacBride’s life. The marriage between MacBride and Gonne was tumultuous from the very beginning. The couple were married in Paris in 1903, much to the disdain of W. B. Yeats, whose unsuccessful infatuation with Gonne was notorious and spanned several decades. The couple then had one son, Seán, who was born the following year. The year after that, the marriage had collapsed.

In the Paris divorce courts, MacBride’s reputation was torn to shreds; he was alleged to be a prolific alcoholic, a wife beater, and, worst of all, allegations of child abuse were levied against him.

The most serious allegations of domestic violence and sexual abuse are near unanimously considered to have been false, the allegations themselves were in large part circulated by Yeats in private letters, likely out of spurned lover’s jealousy. However when MacBride sued the Dublin Independent for libel for its coverage of the trial in December 1906, the court found the charges to have been ‘without malice’, particularly in relation to his alcoholism, and only awarded MacBride a measly £1 in damages. Irish nationalism began to regard MacBride as a liability, a war hero whose reputation had been disgraced even in spite of his partial exoneration, and thus kept him at arm’s length.

Several months afterwards, false reports of his suicide were circulating, which MacBride personally himself refuted in the columns of the Freeman’s Journal, yet it was undoubtedly evident that the scandal had deeply hurt MacBride on a personal level.

It was in the midst of this deeply painful period of his life that MacBride turned to writing his memoirs of the Irish Brigade in South Africa, published as a serial throughout 1906 and 1907 in the Freeman’s Journal, and which was also syndicated by both the Dublin Evening Telegraph and the Gaelic American.

On September 13, 1899, MacBride, then a 31 year-old Irish uitlander* in Johannesburg, issued a bold proclamation to the Irish immigrant population of the Transvaal Republic, exhorting them to take up arms against the British Empire not only in defence of their new land, but to strike a blow for the old land.

Irishmen, you are called upon to join in the defence and the assertion of a people’s liberty, and the sword is blessed in that sacred cause! The ashes of those who have died on the scaffold and in exile for Ireland repose in many lands, and to you, the inheritors of their name and heroic spirit, their martyr blood cries aloud for vengeance.

Several hundred men, mainly first-generation Irish uitlanders and Irish-Americans, heeded the call and formed the Irish Transvaal Brigade. MacBride initially deferred command to the West Point-educated Irish American Colonel John Blake, who had originally emigrated to South Africa with his family to partake in the Transvaal gold rush. Upon Blake being injured in combat at the Battle of Ladysmith on 30 October 1899, MacBride assumed effective command of the Brigade for the remainder of the campaign.

The Irish Brigade, which formed two commando units throughout the war numbering no more than 300 men, would be in active service from the start of the war in October 1899 to its eventual surrender in September 1900, following the occupation of the Boer Republics by British forces and the cessation of conventional set-piece warfare. The Brigade would take a peripheral role in many of the key engagements of the war, including the pivotal battles of Ladysmith, Colenso and Spion Kop.

The obvious desire of MacBride to rehabilitate his shattered reputation aside, there was a sense of duty to be fulfilled in writing a history of the Brigade. Here was a battalion the size of the Spartans at Thermopylae, a minority even amongst their own countrymen on the battlefield, driven to the riches of the Witwatersrand to make ends meet, many of whom were never to return to Ireland, yet all of whom were prepared to make what little sacrifice to the old land they could; to fight their enemy on the kopjes so that their countrymen back home may be strong enough one day to fight them in the streets.

‘Always it is the many who fight for the evil thing, and the few who fight for the good thing; and it is always the few that win. For God fights with the small battalions.’ – P. H. Pearse, Peace and the Gael (1915).

Perhaps there was a sense of duty also to the Boers, those to whom the Irish Brigade had sworn allegiance to. MacBride held the British charge that the Boers were ‘barbarous, swindling, lazy, ignorant fellows who hated cleanliness and progress’ with scorn, when the British even had the gall to accuse the Boers of disenfranchising and oppressing the Irish uitlanders, MacBride treated such charges with the total contempt that they deserved.

MacBride was a soldier first and a writer second. The style of his prose can be sometimes rambling, overly sentimental, or repetitious. Nevertheless, he was able enough as a writer to keep his account of the period sufficiently compelling to the reader. It is in equal measure humorous and sombre, it is a far more personalised and indeed, a more Irish, account than Colonel Blake’s respectable A West Pointer With the Boers. It deals much more with the camp life and camaraderie of the Brigade, and unlike Davitt’s The Boer Fight For Freedom, is written almost solely from the point of view of the Brigade. One particularly humorous excerpt can be found from an incident MacBride recalled of an illegal Brigade raid on what was believed to have been a large British farmhouse twelve miles away for food supplies:

‘In walked Hunt and Tully with an air that would do credit to the Guards in Whitehall, announced themselves as Captain Jack Robinson and Lieutenant Tom Smith, of the Light Horse in Ladysmith, and presented an English military order for forage. The patriotic Britisher welcomed them with open arms, and as the dawn was breaking by the time the wagons were loaded, he refused to allow them to leave till the following night on account of the frightful risk they’d run passing through the Boer lines. I sincerely hope that when the farmer sent in his account the War Office honoured the order of Captain Jack Robinson, of the Light Horse, for they were, I was told, a pleasant, hospitable people, and gave our boys the best they had in the house.

As was the fate of war, the Brigade suffered its fair share of killed and wounded. For such a tight-knit and small brigade, casualties were bound to take their toll, both operationally and psychologically. MacBride knew almost all of the fallen by name, and spoke often of memories he had of many of the dead.

MacBride recalls in particular the heroic death of Mick O’Hara, from Limerick, who was killed in a British ambush whilst the Brigade approached Nooitgedacht. The Brigade approached what they believed to be a Boer outpost, only to find upon closer inspection that the soldiers at the outpost were in fact British:

Suddenly noticing a tunic of khaki, he (O’Hara) sang out, ‘Who are you, anyhow?’ and promptly came back the response, ‘We are the English; hands up!’

‘Hands up, be damned!’ he yelled back; ‘run, corporal, run, and warn the boys.’

As he spoke the heroic lad had thrown himself between the corporal and the British, and he fell dead, riddled by English bullets. Who will despair of Ireland while she can produce such gallant fighting men?

And yet would Ireland despair of Mick O’Hara while the memories of such gallant fighting men remained consigned to the footnotes of history?

Such a question, no doubt, pondered in the mind of MacBride and compelled him to write his war memoir. Yet the MacBride of 1906 must also have thought to himself fearfully, ‘Would Ireland despair of John MacBride?’

Fate, for many years afterwards, seemed to have answered that question for him. Yet, on that fateful Easter morn, the MacBride of 1916, standing before the Volunteers of Dublin, found that fate had given way to destiny and redemption. He had been transformed utterly.


* Afrikaans: foreigner.

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One Comment

  1. My grandmother was related to Maud Gonne who was a frequent visitor to her house in Dublin. My grandfather was a Doctor based in the Pembroke area of Dublin and a member of SF from before WW1. She was adamant that “Sean MacBride was not his father’s son. “

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