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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Analysis -

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

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