Speech at the Westport 1916 Centenary Commemorations
Westport, Co. Mayo, 8th May 2016
A Chairde Gael,
Is mór an pléisiúir dom féin agus do Saidhbhín é teacht ar cuairt chuig an cheantar álainn seo d'iarthar na hÉireann, agus tá áthas ar leith orm an deis a ghlacadh le teacht chugaibh i mbliana agus muid ag comóradh céad bliain ó Éirí Amach na Cásca 1916. Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Cumann Staire Chathair na Mart as an ócáid seo a eagrú chun aitheantas a thabhairt do mhuintir Mhaigh Eo a throid ar son saoirse na hÉireann, agus libhse ar fad a d'fhear fíorchaoin fáilte romhainn chuig Cathair na Mart agus chuig Chontae Mhaigh Eo.
[It is always a great pleasure for Sabina and I to visit County Mayo, and particularly this beautiful Westport area. I have strong personal connections to this part of the country, as well as a longstanding interest in its history: one of my most distinguished fellow students and research collaborator on the subject of land agitation in 19th century Mayo is Dr John Gibbons, now a senior university lecturer in Manchester, and whose family I used to visit frequently.]
I am especially delighted to be able to visit Westport on this important Centenary year. May I thank the Westport Historical Society for giving me this opportunity to acknowledge the great contribution of the people of Mayo to the struggle for Ireland’s Freedom, and all of you here for your warm welcome to Westport and to Mayo.
May I extend a special salute to all those who have travelled from afar to share in these commemorations. The presence of relatives of the MacBride and Doris families, as well as descendants of the 31 Westport men who were imprisoned in Frongoch in the aftermath of the Rising, lends special warmth and significance to today’s commemorations, reminding us of the human chain of familial and communal memories, of hopes and stories passed down and cherished, that connect us so strongly to the founding events of our state.
In this centenary year when we recall the Easter Rising of 1916, the name of Westport – Cathair na Mart – is, of course, associated more particularly with that of John MacBride, a son of this town who played a prominent military role in the Rising.
In fact, while he was a pivotal figure in Irish nationalist politics at the turn of the last century, and while he had, for many years, been involved in the preparation for a rebellion, it was by quite fortuitous circumstances that MacBride came to assume a leadership role in the Rising when it actually happened.
“Well-dressed in a blue suit, carrying a cane and smoking a cigar,” John MacBride had arrived in Dublin early on Easter Monday to meet with his brother, Anthony, who was to be married on the following Wednesday. There he happened to cross paths with Thomas MacDonagh, who was leading his troops to their position at Jacob’s factory.
Concerned with the lack of military experience of MacDonagh’s Second Battalion, MacBride, who was, as you know, a Boer War veteran, reportedly declared that:
“He would like to give these amateurs a hand.”
He was immediately appointed second-in-command at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, where he fought throughout Easter Week.
In Irish popular memory, John MacBride holds a prominent place as one of the 16 leaders who were executed after the Easter Rising. But he is also remembered far beyond the shores of Ireland, for the part he played in the Second Boer War of 1899-1902.
Last February, I had the pleasure of attending a symposium entitled “After Empire” at University College Dublin, which brought together leaders of former British colonies to share the experience of their nation’s struggle for independence. During those discussions, the former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, described John MacBride as a principled figure, a man whose stance against British imperialism had been a source of inspiration for the African National Congress (ANC).
This provides an illustration of the circulation – through space and time – of ideas, aspirations, and indeed men, which energised the decolonisation movement throughout the 20th century. The war in South Africa was, in its own time, an important influence for many Irish nationalists, and we recall, for example, how another illustrious Mayo man, Michael Davitt, left his seat in parliament in 1899 to protest against the Boer War and how he travelled to South Africa to lend support to the Boer cause.
Because of the central role John MacBride played in the Irish Transvaal Brigade, which joined the Boers’ fight against the British Empire, it became known in Ireland as “MacBride’s Brigade”. We should never forget, however, that the several hundreds of Irish and Irish-American men who filed the ranks of MacBride’s Brigade were often fighting opposite such large Irish regiments as the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. It is estimated that over 25,000 Irishmen fought in South Africa as members of the British forces.
This participation of Irishmen on both sides of the conflict was registered in popular song from the period, in such lines as:
“McGarry took O’Leary, O’Brien got McNamee, That’s how the English fought the Dutch at the Battle of Dundee!”
These lines bring home to us the complex place that Ireland held in the British Empire a hundred years ago, the overlapping senses of identity that existed amongst Irish people at the time, the different aspirations, and even the divisions, that existed between them as to the question of Ireland’s future government. The ability to address and explore such complexity with authenticity, respect and serenity has been, I believe, one of the most positive features of the ongoing decade of commemorations.
Another valuable dimension of these commemorations has been the readiness manifested by our citizens to go beyond the celebration of the iconic leaders of 1916, so as to reach out to the memory of so many men and women who, although their names are not registered in our national school books, played their part in the events of a hundred years ago. Today’s celebration is an important example of such a willingness to save from oblivion the local experience of the rebellion which unfolded on the streets of Dublin during Easter 1916, by telling the story of those Westport people whose lives were profoundly affected by the Rising.
This afternoon we remember more particularly the men from the Westport area who were arrested and interned in the wake of the Easter Rising. Those men – local Irish Volunteers and members of the Westport Fianna Éireann – had been getting ready for a national uprising in the lead up to Easter 1916, as had so many other men and women across Ireland. As a result of Eoin MacNeill’s famous countermanding order, the Westport Volunteers did not take up their arms on Easter Monday; yet, when they heard news of the Rising in Dublin, they decided to have a route march on Sunday, 30th April, 1916.
As a consequence of that symbolic action, a total of 31 men were arrested over a period of 10 days, from the 2nd May to the 12th May. They were first sent to Castlebar Jail, then transferred to Dublin’s Richmond Barracks, and then deported by cattleship to Wandsworth detention centre in England, until, eventually, most of them were interned in Frongoch, a tiny village in North Wales.
I am aware that Vincent Keane will, on behalf of the Historical Society, speak in more depth about those men in a few moments, therefore I shall content myself with saying a few words about the conditions endured by the internees of Frongoch detention camp – a significant chapter in the history of Ireland’s revolution which is sometimes overlooked.
The Westport men were held without trial alongside about 1,800 other Irishmen in what had formerly been a distillery, turned into a makeshift detention centre during WWI, first for German prisoners, and then for those suspected of seditious activity against Britain.
The prisoners included men from all walks of life. As is revealed in the summary of the Castlebar prison records, which the Westport Historical Society has made available online, the Westport internees included carpenters, teachers, farmers, tailors, shop assistants (six of those being drapers’ assistants) as well as a butcher, a baker and a coach painter – in other words, the whole range of professions that formed Ireland’s social fabric at the turn of the last century. May I remark how those drawn from “the trades”, as they were called – who had been brought together by the legacy of the indenture system, and who were excluded from inheriting property – were to become the active core in the War of Independence.
There were also poets, artists, trade unionists and military strategists at Frongoch. Most able-bodied British men being away in the war, the camp was, in fact, largely run by the prisoners, who organised many classes there, so that Frongoch became known as Ollscoil na Réabhlóide – “the University of the Revolution.” The internees perfected their writing and reading skills; they learned crafts, languages – including Welsh –, as well as military organisation and strategy.
The biographies compiled by James Kelly remind us that many of the 31 Westport men proceeded, after their liberation, to engage in years of guerilla warfare in the fight for Irish Independence. Here as everywhere else in Ireland, the Civil War then caused bonds of companionship and kinship to be torn up in the most tragic manner, as those Mayo men went on to take different sides on the Treaty issue.
Today it is also important that we recall the hardship endured by the 31 Westport prisoners and their families. Frongoch’s stone buildings were cold, damp, and overrun with rats; indeed a bitter joke among the detainees was, reportedly, how close the place name was to the Irish word for rat, francach.
The executions of the 1916 leaders, combined with the reports of the wives, mothers, sisters and friends of the prisoners, however, soon turned the tide of public sympathy in Ireland, with the effect that controversy rapidly spread over the degrading conditions in the camp, leading to questions in the British Parliament – and causing the Manchester Guardian to comment that:
“The Irish have a notorious aptitude for making their grievances audible.”
A handful of the prisoners were tried, but most were simply gradually released over the second half of the year 1916. The last and longest serving Westport internees were freed just before Christmas 1916. Many of those men suffered from ill-health throughout their lives as a result of the harsh treatment they had experienced during their time in jail, and it is documented that at least one of the 31 Westport prisoners died from the consequences of this imprisonment.
Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom Comann Staire Chathair na Mart a mholadh arís as ócáid an lae inniu a eagrú. Cuirfidh an phlaic atá á nochtadh againn tráthnóna i gcuimhne dúinn gur throid agus gur íobair muintir Chathair na Mart ionas go bhféadfaimis maireachtáil in Éirinn atá saor agus neamhspleách.
[To conclude, may I, once again, commend the Westport Historical Society and all those involved in organising today’s commemorations. The plaque we are unveiling this afternoon will stand as an important and enduring reminder of the struggle and sacrifices made by the people of Westport so that we, today, could live in a free and independent Ireland.]
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
 BMH WS 532 (John MacDonagh); BMH WS 150 (Gregory Murphy), as quoted in Fearghal McGarry. 2010. The Rising. Ireland: Easter 1916. Oxford University Press, p.129.
 Michael Collins was one of those teaching military discipline at Frongoch.
 Tragically, Frongoch’s medical officer, Dr Peters, who was also a poet, is said to have drowned himself as a result of this controversy.