My pangs of regret over ending of honour for ‘The Pope’
The political tragedy of Irish nationalists who died in vain in the Great War lingers still, writes Charles Lysaght
THERE was no death more symbolic of the political tragedy surrounding those Irish nationalists who answered John Redmond’s call to fight in the Great War and of the noble aspirations that had motivated them than that of Redmond’s younger brother Willie at the battle of Messines on June 7, 1917.
Just three months earlier, attired in his military uniform, the same Major Willie Redmond had held the House of Commons spellbound, invoking the sacrifice of Irish soldiers at the front when calling for the suspended Home Rule Act of 1914 to be brought into operation immediately.
He assured Ulster unionists that they would be treated fairly and offered that they could provide the first prime minister of a Home Rule Ireland.
It fell on deaf ears. Prime Minister David Lloyd George was crushing in reply; the government would give Home Rule only to those parts of Ireland “which unmistakeably demand it” and not to those parts “as alien in blood, in religious faith, in traditions, in outlook from the rest of Ireland as the inhabitants of Fife and Aberdeen”.
Willie Redmond knew Ulster and believed in its essential Irishness. He had represented North Fermanagh in Westminster from 1885 to 1892 when he was elected for East Clare as a Parnellite.
At 56 years of age, he was too old for active service. But having urged many young men to join up, he felt honour-bound to share their burden. Mortally wounded, he was borne from the battlefield by soldiers of the Ulster Division. It was powerfully symbolic of his vain hope that the experience of fighting a common enemy would unite Irishmen of the unionist and nationalist traditions.
Sadly, history evolved in the opposite direction. Both traditions retreated from conciliation into separate ghettoes institutionalised in a partitioned island with divided communities in each part.
One aspect of this was the refusal, which persists to this day, of the rulers of the independent Irish State to recognise that those who fought in the Great War at the urging of the elected national leader John Redmond, were entitled to be regarded as having fought for Ireland.
So it was that Sean Lemass’s government declined to send a representative to join the veteran soldiers of Redmond’s regiment and Flemish leaders at the commemoration that took place at the grave of Willie Redmond in the grounds of a convent in Locre in Flanders on June 11, 1967.
Frank Aiken, the Minister for External Affairs, told the Irish ambassador in Belgium that he was “not in favour of representation from the embassy as it would create a precedent for attendance a similar functions for Irishmen killed all over the world”.
The sole representative of nationalist Ireland was the genealogist and broadcaster Eoin O’Mahony, known as ‘The Pope’ O’Mahony, who had travelled from Illinois, where he held a visiting professorship. He contributed distinctively to the occasion, singing the Soldiers Song and reciting the Our Father and Hail Mary in Gaelic at the graveside.
Eoin was republican enough to have broken with Fianna Fail, whom he once represented on the corporation of his native Cork, for their treatment of IRA prisoners, some of whom he defended in the courts. But he also believed that insufficient honour had been done to the memory of those nationalists who had eschewed physical force and fought for Irish selfgovernment constitutionally.
A colourful bachelor with an itinerant lifestyle who harnessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of people and their ancestry to fuel a remarkable diffusion and affluence of conversation, Eoin devoted much of his energy to the commemoration of those from different Irish traditions who did not deserve to be forgotten. He inspired immense affection among a wide and diverse circle.
When he died in 1970, aged 65, his friends, of whom I was one, were determined that he himself should not be forgotten. A bursary was established to which more than 500 persons subscribed. It funds research on the activities of the Irish abroad, especially the Wild Geese, one of Eoin’s enthusiasms.
The Royal Irish Academy undertook to administer it and the annual presentations of awards were occasions for recalling Eoin and honouring his memory. The academy has now decided to wind up the bursary by distributing the €21,000 still in the fund. There will be no further formal presentations at which Eoin O’Mahony’s memory will be honoured. I cannot help feeling a sharp pang of regret that Eoin — who devoted so much time and energy to commemorating others — will no longer receive the commemoration that his friends and admirers subscribed to ensure.
Wexford Historical Society is holding a seminar on Willie Redmond at Greenacres Art Gallery Wexford from 10am on Saturday, June 10, which will include a visit to the Willie Redmond exhibition in Wexford Library
HISTORIAN AND MORE: Eoin ‘The Pope’ O’Mahony. Top, Willie Redmond’s grave