Published in Éire, July/August 1923
It was on the National Societies Committee that I first got to know Padraig Pearse as something more than a vague acquaintance, but his great work comes later in my story. At this time he seemed like a man who was feeling his way, looking for a policy – not for a principle, for he was always quite sure of what he wanted, and was ready for anything he might have to sacrifice and suffer. He usually came to the meetings with Thomas MacDonagh, and they were full of schemes and hopes. Another man who fixed one’s attention was Eamonn Ceannt, who also brought forward many suggestions.
Our idea was to use this visit of England’s king for propaganda, and never at any time did we contemplate more than demonstrations to waken and to rally the people and to prevent all this display of imperialism to be taken as a matter of course. But there were two parties of us on the committee.
The majority, led by Mr Griffith, seemed to be in great dread of a riot, and of the people getting out of hand and getting hurt by the police. The others considered that the best way to make the Royal visit unpopular with the people was if we could get the police to attack us, and we were willing to take the risk.
In the end, all demonstrations likely to provoke a row were decided against, and the committee, in co-operation with the IRB, arranged a huge excursion to Bodenstown for the day that the British Royalties were advertised to make their triumphal entry into Dublin. By this means they would carry out of town all the turbulent young men who might possibly make a disturbance.
This day had been decreed a holiday to make sure of a good crowd of sightseers in the streets. It was fixed for on or about June 23, which is the day held sacred to the memory of Wolfe Tone. Some years previously a few of us had revived the custom of making an annual pilgrimage to his grave on the Sunday nearest to the date. So the holiday came just at the right moment.
But this arrangement did not suit all. Some of us wanted something more vigorous. We realised that crowds would turn out just to gape at the show, and would give the appearance of being there as welcomers to the English Royalties, and we looked on this policy of abstention as being quite futile, as those who could be counted on to abstain were so few that they would not be missed.
The Inghinidhe na hÉireann, a women’s society, of which Madame Gonne MacBride was founder and president, was always in favour of the most extreme action possible, and they, with most of the older Fianna boys, got together to see what they could do. We decided to distribute handbills all along the route of the procession at the moment that the procession was passing.
Mr Hobson had approved of this being done when it was first suggested, and had gone up to Belfast leaving us under the impression that he would be with us. But on his return he kept out of the way and joined the Bodenstown crowd. He was one of those who preferred the limelight and laurels to be won by a fierce speech at a rebel’s graveside to the possibility of getting a hammering from the police or being arrested.
The most adventurous among us were distributed around Trinity College, the Unionist stronghold, inside the railings of which platforms and seats had been erected; I was on the corner of Nassau Street with a young man. Most of the crowd held Union Jacks and were very loyal. We had a black flag, and as soon as the procession was audible to our listening ears we produced it and began to hand out our bills to the crowd. We timed it well, for just as the first carriage came along the row started. It was a very tame one. An irate old “gentleman” started whacking me on the back with the stick on which his flag was mounted, but my back is pretty stiff and the stick broke almost at once.
However, it created a disturbance, and the same sort of little disturbances occurred all down the line of the route; so we congratulated ourselves, for anyone with a spark of national consciousness reading our bills was startled into seeing the real significance of this Royal visit and felt ashamed of being where they were. The Unionists were quite tolerant and quite amused at our audacity. Everything had been so quiet, for so many years, that they had come to believe that they had succeeded in pacifying Ireland. They never dreamed that there was anything more in it than a little spark from the ashes of a dead idea.
For many days previously we had been preparing other little things to be done. The O’Rahilly was one of the most active spirits among us. He had come back from America a short time previously and taken his old place on the executive of Sinn Féin at once. He was a most welcome reinforcement to the moribund society, for Sinn Féin was nearly dead.
I always attribute this to the attitude of Mr Griffith’s paper towards the Parliamentary Party, more especially to Mr Redmond. It was very personal and quite unnecessarily abusive of everything said and done by the members of the Party, and to me was always much more the sort of paper that you would expect to find disagreeing with Mr Redmond on policy and not on principle, edited by a man who believed in Parliamentarian action, more than by a man who disbelieved in it and who wanted to turn the people’s thoughts away from Westminster.
As time went on the more constructive side of Sinn Féin had been more and more dropped for this negative policy of criticism, and the organisation had shrunk until there were little more than a couple of clubs in Dublin and a few individuals scattered through the country. These were mostly people who had an almost blind faith in Mr Griffith.
Most of the people at that time were “Parliamentarians”; they supported the Irish members whom they elected to represent them in the British House of Commons in their efforts to wrest Home Rule for Ireland from that body, but they declared “that no man could set a limit to the march of a nation”. There was also a small but live body of “extremists” or separatists, as they were also called, who made the separation from England and the establishment of an Irish Republic their aim.
Mr Griffith satisfied neither. He was too concerned in condemning Mr Redmond and in following the Party inch by inch with petty criticisms of their attainments, their policy and of individual men among them for the extremists who were always trying to goad him into a more “forward”, i.e. a more revolutionary, policy. They had already forced him to make a change in the constitution of Sinn Féin so as not to limit the aims of the organisation to the establishment of “Grattan’s Parliament” but further than that they could not make him go.
The Parliamentarians on their side looked upon him as a factionalist who was a Home Ruler like themselves, and who attacked their beloved leaders week by week for doing what they had been elected to do. They could see nothing to be gained in the policy of abstention from the British Parliament. Most of the economic side of the programme of Sinn Féin would have been quite acceptable to them, but they would not touch it because the issue became so personal – Mr Griffith against Mr Redmond.
Looking back I know that they were both right in not accepting Mr Griffith and his policy, but that their reason was much deeper: both parties felt in their subconscious hearts that if it were adopted war with England would be inevitable.
I believe that abstention and the pushing of the whole Sinn Féin programme could lead nowhere else, and that the extremists instinctively mistrusted a man whose policy must lead to war, and who yet blindly went on urging it, without preparing the people either mentally or physically. They were quite as ready to fight as the Fenians before them had fought, but they did not want to be rushed into it unknowing and unpreparing.
The Parliamentarian leaders, on their side, always considered the idea of the renewal of the old war with England on military lines with horror, and as a disaster to be avoided by all means in their power. I never heard anyone voice this, and I doubt if anyone thought it out, but the vague instinct of self-preservation is very strong in all of us, and I have no doubt that this led many to distrust the old Sinn Féin policy.
This then was the position when The O’Rahilly came back from America. He was a great friend of Mr Griffith, although he believed in all the policies that Mr Griffith shrank from as being dangerous, undignified or impossible. This made him a great asset on the Executive, for his courage, sincerity and good manners did much to smooth away the constant bickering between Mr Griffith and Mr Hobson, who was at that time a strong advocate of extremist measures both on the Executive and in public, and could never speak without advocating the “principles of Tone and Emmet”, and he was always criticising Mr Griffith, and hinting at all the things that might be done if he were in his place.
At the same time, The O’Rahilly was very much opposed to secret societies. He agreed with me that they were very bad for a nation’s morals, for they were a cloak for cowards who dared not openly express their opinions, and that during times of peace and inactivity, the trickiest scoundrels always must get control of them, and use them for their own personal advancement.
They always have the greatest attraction for the finest young men who joined up full of enthusiasm. The complicated machinery and the mystery attached to them enabled those at the top to hold these back, and keep them quiet. Thus brave and honest patriots were left in the ranks, and the society developed into an efficient political tool for the advancement of those favoured by the men at the top.
I remember one day when we had been discussing the IRB, he said: “There is only one secret society that I would advocate, and it should have only one rule, everyone in it must get a gun and learn how to shoot.”
Thus The O’Rahilly was in neither camp, and spoke and voted from conviction only, advocating what he believed to be best for the country firmly but courteously. He had a whimsical way of putting things, too, that served to avert a hot and angry argument.
I remember one time when we were all getting rather heated over a suggestion to go out and hold meetings at the street corners all round Dublin, speaking from chairs or egg boxes. Mr Griffith opposed the idea, on the grounds that it was lowering the dignity of Sinn Féin, and that we might create trouble, and that we would only be laughed at. He turned to The O’Rahilly who was in favour of the scheme, and said, “Really, O’Rahilly, we must stand on our dignity.” With a kindly and persuasive smile, The O’Rahilly replied, “Well, if we go on standing on our dignity much longer, we soon won’t have anything else left to stand on.” Everybody laughed, and the point was carried.
It was he who gave us the motto and war cry that inspired us in our exertions to counteract the effects of the Royal visit. He took the well-known line, “Thou art not conquered yet, dear land” and wove it into a poem for the occasion. It was haunting and beautiful, and just put into words what we all felt. He next suggested that we should apply to the Paving Committee of the Dublin Corporation for permission to erect poles at the foot of Grafton Street and float the scroll across from side to side of the street.
This suggestion was approved by the National Societies Committee and left to The O’Rahilly to carry out. I was one of those who volunteered to help. The Paving Committee gave the required permission, and their workmen lifted the pavement and made the holes. We were busily engaged on the scroll: there was an immense amount of work in it. The O’Rahilly was one of the neatest and best-dressed men in Ireland, yet there he was down on his knees on a dusty floor, pencilling out the gigantic letters on the calico for us to fill in with printing ink. When he had finished he started cutting stencils out of the lines and printing from them on strips of white calico, to be cut into badges for distribution.
The scroll was finished at last, and dry. It was carried secretly across to a small whitewashed cottage standing in a yard among a lot of tall houses near Westland Row. The poles were being prepared there, and the ropes and pulleys got ready.
At 11.30 p.m. a lorry arrived, and we loaded up our burden and started off in a drizzling rain. There were very few people about; two or three policemen looked at the strange little convoy and then followed us, but they did not interfere. After some trouble the man got the poles firmly planted and the scroll into position. It made a splendid show.
Of course, the enemy pulled it down, but not till quite late next morning, and it had done its work. Half Dublin had seen it; it had been photographed, and the papers had howled.
During the few days previous to the expected Royal visit the Unionists and the Parliamentarian Nationalists were busy decorating and hanging out Union Jacks, and at night we were equally busy pulling them down. It was quite easy, as they were for the most part hung out of windows, and all you had to do was sling a rope across the staff and then pull, and down they came. We then cut them free and rolled them up. We captured two huge ones from the front of Leinster lawn that were mounted on staffs.
The best thing that the National Societies Committee organised was a series of meetings to be held on the night during the Royal visit.
We started at Foster Place, a brake held us. A great crowd gathered, filled with enthusiasm. I do not remember who was presiding, but two speeches I remember well. Time was limited, as there were several speeches, and we were going on to Smithfield for another meeting, so the speakers were limited to a quarter of an hour.
But Mr Milroy got wound up and was deaf to the remonstrances of the chairman, grown desperate at being ignored, asked me to try and induce him to stop, as I was next to him on the brake, so I gently suggested that we should soon be getting on, but it had no effect, he rambled on his own way to the end.
At last came Sean MacDiarmada. Sean was quite young and very quiet; he was an untiring worker, but very rarely made speeches. I remember well the scene. It was already dark; a perfect evening, and the torches around the brake cast orange and red lights, deepening the shadows and intensifying the look of excitement on the faces of those gathered to listen. The old House of Parliament loomed gigantic and mysterious through the wreaths of smoke.
Sean stood up in the brake. His white face, high above the glare of the torches, glimmered like a pale star against the deep greeny blue sky. Tired and wan, with his great deepset eyes, it was almost ghostly. At all times you loved to look at his face, it was so spiritual as well as being beautiful.
Standing above me in the brake I felt that here was a young saint, some reincarnation of one who had suffered much, and who had known torture and death. So frail he was, his slight form seemed almost transparent, floating in a dim opalescent mist.
The crowd stopped fidgeting, caught by the spell. When he spoke his voice floated out to us tremulous with emotion. Passionately he called on the people of Dublin, in the midst of all the flaunting of flags and the tramp of marching processions to remember the mighty dead who had died for Ireland. He called to our mind Robert Emmet, who had passed that very street many a time, and who had died for Ireland not a mile away in Thomas Street. One by one he named our martyrs and heroes, and each name dropped on the expectant crowd like molten flame, penetrating deep into each heart, and touching long forgotten emotions till no eye was dry.
We saw Emmet before us, worn and weary, in the Green Street Court-house, we stood by his side in front of St Catherine’s Church, we dipped our handkerchiefs in his blood and Robert Emmet and Sean were of one blood, one spiritual birth, one in aspiration, one in death, for I believe that in such moments of exultation that one glimpses the dark unknown and reaches out through the shadows with one’s soul.
Such was Sean, and his white face with its unearthly inner light, and his dark eyes fixed on Heaven was before me in the grey dawn in Kilmainham Jail when I waited and listened to the English soldiers firing their volleys in the yard below, and Sean’s white, spiritual face goes with me still, and with those who heard him and understood. Thank God that Sean, like his beloved friend, Tom Clarke, is spared today’s shame and misery.
The applause died away. It had lasted just long enough for me to pull out a huge paper parcel that I had hidden under the seat of the brake, behind Mr Milroy’s legs. Folded in brown paper was one of the Union Jacks that we had captured from Leinster lawn. I had cut it in two as it was too large to handle. I pushed out into the middle of the crowd, who had made a little circle round me, and struck a match. Breathlessly we waited for the blaze, but bunting won’t burn and although we tried again and again the flag seemed like a thing bewitched, and the matches burnt out sadly one by one.
Meantime the police had marked me down, and came hurtling through the crowd at me. I hastily tied the flag around my waist as they came up. Then the fun began.
The police wanted to get their precious flag, the people thought that they wanted to get me. The police seized one end of the flag and began to pull; some of the crowd caught me and pulled as hard as they could, thinking that the police wanted to arrest me. The flag began to slip and slip through my fingers, and at last went with a bang. The police fell back on their side, and the crowd rolled back with me. A mighty cheer went up from the crowd, thinking that they had rescued me, and, for a moment, there was a wild scrimmage, and Jack McArdle was arrested. This sobered the crowd, and everything grew suddenly quiet again.
I climbed back into the brake, and we moved on in an orderly fashion. I leaned over the side and spoke to a boy who happened to be alongside of us. I asked him could he get me some paraffin. He said that he could, so I thrust my hand into my pocket and gave him all the spare cash I had. In a few minutes the boy returned with a big bottle of paraffin. First he handed me the gold sovereign that had somehow got mixed up with the change.
I fished out the other half of the flag and soaked it carefully in the paraffin, then I slipped out of the brake and in amongst the crowd. They made a little space around me, and as we marched along I struck a match and set fire to it. It made a fine show, and nobody was left in any doubt as to what we were doing. The police could not get at me, marching in the centre of a wild and excited crowd, and the flag burnt itself out amidst wild shouts of applause. But bunting will not burn, even when soaked with paraffin and the flag was only charred here and there, so we carried it on to Smithfield, where we held the next meeting, and cut it into tiny bits and distributed it among the crowds.
Here occurred a funny event, which becomes funnier as one looks back on it from one’s knowledge of the men who participated in it.  Mr Nugent, of the Hibernians, had agreed to speak with us at this meeting and no sooner did he appear than the old Sinn Féin crowd began to melt away. They were not Home Rulers, and did not want to be mixed up with them; they did not agree with a party who took an oath of allegiance to a foreign king. I felt very uncomfortable, for it was so discourteous to treat Mr Nugent thus after agreeing to work together with him and his organisation. It was so obvious that he must have noticed it, but he behaved like a gentleman, made a fine speech and all passed off well.
While the meeting was in progress Miss Molony and some of the others slipped away to look for stones, and came back loaded up. She told me afterwards that she had a long tramp before she could find any. The meeting finished and the old Sinn Féiners climbed back into the lorry. It was decided to form an orderly procession and go down to the Mansion House and hold a demonstration there, and police prevented us turning down Nassau Street. I wanted to take the reins and drive through them, but Mr Milroy and his group were too cautious, and would not hear of it; and through all the time of the Royal visit it was the same; while openly declaring on the committee that the only way to focus the public mind on the real meaning of the display of imperialism was by creating some sort of a mild row, by a hostile demonstration, this group sternly blocked any concrete suggestions that might have led to the smallest row.
It is a common superstition that no woman can throw a stone; Miss Molony is a living proof the the contrary, and she and a couple of boys kept up a lively fusillade at the illuminations hung out over the shops on either side of us as we drove along; false lights set on high to lead unthinking people astray!
Arriving at Stephen’s Green, we were again blocked by the police. Mr Milroy and his friends had nerves very badly by now, and not only did they want to avoid trouble for themselves, but they wanted to keep those associated with them out of it. I heard Mr Milroy and others obstructing Miss Molony, who was trying to get out of the brake at the back, which was moving on again, so I did not wait to be driven away, but stepped on the seat and jumped out over the edge into and onto the crowd. A diversion was thus created and Miss Molony succeeded in disentangling herself from Mr Milroy.
We dashed at the police cordon and got through somehow. A wild crowd were behind us shouting, and I believed that if they got a lead they would sweep the police aside on down to the Mansion House and that we would then hold a meeting and tell the Lord Mayor what we thought of him. But, to my amazement, only a couple of young men and some boys got through after us, the crowd standing paralysed and inert at the sight of a handful of police with batons in their hands.
This made a great impression on me, and taught me the futility of counting on an undisciplined crowd to do even a thing which each one of them in their hearts desire to be done. A dozen or two of disciplined men can always hold back thousands without even striking a blow.
Miss Molony had in the meantime disappeared. Soon we got the news that she had been arrested for stone throwing, so a crowd of us went round to College Street to bail her out. The police wanted to be nasty and would not accept bail, on account of my being a woman, but after a little delay we found another householder of the necessary sex and he got her out.
It was about 2 o’clock in the morning, and we were hungry and weary when we left College Street. But one thought was troubling us, where to get a meal. All restaurants were closed, and there was nothing to eat in the flat, which we had only taken possession of a few days before.
Dublin was asleep. The old grey houses stood calm and cool in the tinted twilight. Flaring torches, charging police and hysterical crowds seemed like a dream of purgatory. Peace floated in the air. We passed on to the Quays, and looked down the shimmering river to where the Custom House raised its stately dome.
During the summer weather, the day never quite dies in Ireland. The hidden sun slips across the pole to his place of resurrection in the east, and the cool mists catch his rays and dapple the world with pale rainbow tints. It is Ireland’s hour of beauty, when all the sordidness and sadness slips from her, and she lies around us simplified and beautified in the coloured dusk.
Lazy seagulls lay like pearls on the golden waters, luminous with ripples in delicate blues and mauves. We paused to give a loving look to all this beauty that is Ireland, and passed on. A yellow light beckoned us in Beresford Place. We crossed over to it and found ourselves at the door of the little coffee hut, kept open all night for the weary and the hungry. So, we thought, but alas for our hopes!
IV: Going to Jail
But Miss Molony was not fated to serve her whole time. She was released quite unexpectedly. We heard afterwards that an officious friend had paid her fine without consulting either her or her comrades. The triumphal progress, decked with all the enticements that theatrical art could provide, had run its course, but stagnation had not set in in Ireland.
Walter Carpenter, the socialist, had been arrested previously for something he had said in a speech, and on his release a meeting was called for Beresford Place, to give him a welcome. The Socialist Party of Ireland were there in force; their lorry was drawn up near the Customs House, with a row of chairs and a table on it.
Among those who greeted us was Frank Sheehy Skeffington, who was always on the side of those fighting for freedom. A fearless pacifist, who, while shrinking in horror from war and any form of bloodshed, was always ready to face danger with a smiling face. He was therefore rather an anomaly in Ireland, and many people did not understand him, for words and reason have always seemed so powerless against British lies and trickery, backed up by British guns. His whole life was spent in working in the service of freedom and peace. A champion of the rights of women, of the workers and of the nation, his championship was based on reason before all; logical and clear-sighted he knew exactly where he stood and what he stood for. He was utterly incapable of any compromise, though he could be kindly tolerant of those who compromised.
Once he had established a friendship or adopted a cause he never wavered in his loyalty, and he judged people kindly, appreciating what was best in them. Consequently he had friends in many camps who loved him, respected him and relied on him. It was this, probably, that made him the freelance that he was, and not a man to work as one of a team, for his extraordinary honest mind could never for long have agreed with every action of any but his equals in compromisingly honest thought.
So he worked for freedom in his own way, seeking no honours, loved by many and respected by all, and his murder for the crime of trying to promote peace by appealing to the reason of a crowd of looters, is one of the things that Ireland can never forgive the British Government.
We sat in the lorry and faced the quiet, orderly crowd. The dark forms of the police hovered ominously around. Miss Molony was speaking, when the police took exception to something that she said, and charged the platform. I stood up from where I was sitting at the table, scribbling notes, and a policeman, standing in front of the lorry made a grab at my ankles. I shuffled back, another seized me from behind; I supposed that he had climbed up on the lorry from the other side. He picked me up and literally threw me into the arms of a policeman standing on the ground in front who luckily caught me, so I was not hurt.
I never was so taken by surprise in my life, the whole attack was so sudden and unexpected. I only remember the flashing of white batons, the stampeding crowd, a couple of girlfriends who stood firm and spoke to me as I was dragged by two enormous policemen across Beresford Place towards Store Street station, and one great little Fianna boy, who followed me the whole way, kicking wildly at the huge legs of my captors and shouting “Ah, you devils, ah, you brutes”.
Miss Molony and I met again in the police station and we found that we two were the only people arrested. I can’t make out to this day why they picked out me, for I had not spoken, I had been quite passive and quiet. I was more bewildered still to find that the charge against me was for throwing pebbles and dust at the police!
It was very hot in the station and very dull. The crowds remained outside all day, and cheered us and shouted to us. They were a great encouragement to us. Friends looked to it that we were not starved, and Miss Nancy Wyse Power actually succeeded in getting in to see us with tea and all sorts of good things. Sean MacDiarmada sent us a beautiful bunch of grapes and a couple of roses.
I don’t know why they kept us there all day, it seemed so silly, but there we sat, while the crowd cheered themselves hoarse, and the news went round. It was great propaganda, so we did not mind. In the evening we were let out on bail.
I did not want to employ counsel, but was persuaded to do so by Mr Griffith, who wanted to make it a test case on the question of freedom of speech. I am sorry now that we followed his advice, as it would have been much better propaganda to have defended oneself. Lawyers are always far too anxious to win a case, and are not of the same political opinions as oneself, and are far too much inclined to respect police and magistrates and absurd laws.
Mr O’Connor did the best he could to get us off, and succeeded, for the magistrate, while declaring me to be guilty of throwing stones and sand at the police, let me off. Miss Molony also got off. The reason that the magistrate gave why he thought me guilty was that it told against me that I had not called anyone who had been on the platform with me as a witness. The reason I did not do this was that none of the people on the platform could see me where I was sitting, and so I did not think it was any use for people on the platform could see me where I was sitting, and so I did not think it was any use for people to be called who would only say when cross-examined that they were not in a position to see whether I was throwing stones or not. Most people said they had been watching Miss Molony. I wondered afterwards why the men of the law, whose wits should be sharpened by experience, had not the sense to think of this, and get one of the platform party.
You never heard of such perjury, as fell from the lips of the police. I listened and wondered; it was amazing, so glib, so well thought out. I wonder do they never feel ashamed, and I wonder, too, if the magistrates are in the plot to help the police get a conviction against anyone they may wish to convict, or if they are merely fools.
In this case I believe that police and magistrate had decided to give us a sentence, but at the last moment a higher and wiser authority intervened and ordered our release, realising the folly of giving us the publicity that must be ours if we were locked up in Mountjoy, and that publicity for us meant publicity for the ideals we represented, and that they could not help us build up a rebel movement in a better way than by sending us to jail for a month.