Sunday 8 December 2019

God & guns... the aftermath of 1916

Patrick geoghegan on the evolving role of the Catholic Church in aftermath of the Rebellion

Lucky find: Caravaggio's 'The Taking of Christ', which is now on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland.
Lucky find: Caravaggio's 'The Taking of Christ', which is now on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland.

On May 2, 1916, Cardinal Michael Logue, based in Armagh, sent a telegram to the Vatican summing up his feelings in 11 words: "Insurrection happily terminated. Insurgents have surrendered unconditionally. Hope peace soon re-established." Over the next few weeks, a handful of Catholic bishops spoke out against the Rising. The Bishop of Ross called it a "senseless, meaningless debauchery of blood". The Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise dismissed it as a "mad and sinful adventure". The Bishop of Kerry called the leaders "evil-minded men". The Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin insisted it was "a mad insurrection" and believed the participants were almost certainly excommunicated. But they were not in the majority.

Paralysed by the Rising, most of the bishops waited to see what happened next. No joint pastoral was issued condemning it, even though they met to discuss the events. Of the 31 bishops and auxiliaries, 22 remained silent, including the archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh. This was significant, because the rebellion had been in his city, and a condemnation from him would have carried huge weight. Walsh had been growing disillusioned with the leadership of Redmond and the work of the Irish Parliamentary Party for some time. He refused to allow army recruitment posters on the railings of his churches, and he disapproved of collections for anything to do with the war.

The Rising was the catalyst that sped up the break of the Catholic Church from the Irish Parliamentary Party. As Dermot Keogh and others have written, it was a rupture that was coming for some time, but 1916 proved to be the event that shattered the relationship forever.

Central to this was the behaviour of the British authorities in the wake of the rebellion. They had won the war; they now set out to squander the peace. The feeling that the rebels were not given fair trials, the executions of the leaders, the over-bearing behaviour of the British soldiers on the streets, the mass deportations, and the renewed fear of conscription, all created a wave of hostility, and it swept away previous reservations about the rebellion. As the mood of the country changed, so too did the mood of the Catholic priests and bishops and they reflected the changed reality after the Rising.

From the outset, some Catholic priests took their own line. In Limerick, two priests were vocal in their support for the rebellion. General Maxwell contacted their bishop, Edward Thomas O'Dwyer, to demand that they were disciplined. A supporter of Home Rule, though an opponent of the war, the 74-year-old O'Dwyer seemed an unlikely champion of the rebellion. However, in private he was furious with the draconian British policies, and admired how the rebels had fought with "the greatest bravery" against heavy artillery, calling it the "most formidable rebellion since '98".

O'Dwyer's public response to Maxwell - a scorching rebuke - helped make him "the hero of the day". It was published in the newspapers at the end of May and widely circulated. In it, he attacked Maxwell's cruel actions, accusing him of having "outraged the conscience of the country" and of being responsible for "one of the worst and the blackest chapters in the history of the misgovernment of this country". He was disgusted that the first people had heard of the prisoners was that "they had been shot in cold blood".

This was the making of O'Dwyer, and he revelled in his new reputation as a champion of Irish nationalism. One priest visited him at this time and described him as never having looked better: he was all energy "agin the government". Over the next few months, still angry, he dismissed Maxwell as "that brute" and "a military dictator". Even more restrained figures, such as Logue, were scathing in their criticisms of the British handling of the rebellion. He called it "foolish and pernicious", and "the greatest act of folly" by any government to have executed the leaders rather than have "let the matter die out like a bad dream".

Monthly family magazine The Catholic Bulletin played an important role in changing popular opinion. Between July and December it ran profiles of the leaders and their families, in the manner of 'Lives of the Saints', and presented the rebellion very much as a Catholic rebellion. The July issue was sold out within a week, and one priest noted that "thousands are going around begging, borrowing and stealing the copies among their friends".

As stories of the mistreatment of the prisoners and the defiant heroism of those who were executed began to be released, public opinion shifted. Those who had been regarded as dangerous fanatics were now martyrs. More than that, they were elevated to the first ranks of Catholic martyrs who had died, not just for their country, but for their religion. The socialist and republican elements of the rebellion were downplayed or ignored. In effect, the Catholic Church, in the words of Clair Wills, "co-opted the rebels' secular martyrdom for itself".

Contributing to this was the stories that emerged of the religious feeling of the rebels. For example, it was reported that the prisoners in Richmond Barracks had said the Rosary every night. Many church figures were impressed with tales of the devotion of those facing death. Major John McBride held rosary beads in his hands as he went to his death. Refusing to be blindfolded, he told the British soldiers that he had looked down their gun barrels all his life. And he boasted that his prayers has been answered, claiming to have said three Hail Marys every day that he would not die until he had fought the British in Ireland.

Similarly, it was reported that Padraig Pearse's last concern was that James Connolly should die in peace with the Catholic Church and that "his prayer was efficacious and Connolly died well". Thomas MacDonagh had refused to say anything at his court-martial, treating the proceedings with icy contempt. But almost immediately after his death a pamphlet was published claiming to be his "speech from the dock" and it helped elevate him to the pantheon of Catholic martyrs. In it, he was said to have asserted that he and the other leaders were part of the "great unnumbered army of martyrs whose Captain is the Christ who died on Calvary".

The treatment of Roger Casement, an internationally respected humanitarian, further hardened opposition to the government. After a three-day trial he was sentenced to death on July 29. Many prominent bishops and priests, including Walsh and Logue, supported the campaign to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. It had no effect, and Casement was hanged on August 3. It reinforced the idea that the government was looking for revenge, not justice.

Afterwards, many condemned the Rising in terms of just war theory, but even here the bishops were divided. For some months afterwards, Bishop Patrick Foley and O'Dwyer debated the legalities of the Rising back and forth according to canon law. O'Dwyer remained sympathetic, and denounced British rule in Ireland as a "usurpation", adding, "it has no moral sanction: it is the worst thing that can be done to us".

The change of attitudes to the rebels was evident within a month of the executions. CS 'Todd' Andrews, then 14, remembered going to Rathfarnham with his father for the Month's Mind Mass for the Pearse brothers, and being unable to get inside the grounds because of the crowd. He was surprised to see so many "well-dressed and obviously well-to-do people present". It inspired him to try to go to the other masses, and he said they became "occasions for quite spontaneous demonstrations". It brought home to him that "in the sub-conscious of every nationalist, there was a sympathetic response to rebellion".

At the height of his popularity, Bishop O'Dwyer was made a Freeman of Limerick in September 1916. At a specially convened meeting of the corporation, he attacked Maxwell for "the effrontery to give me directions for the government of my diocese", and reminded him that the Irish church had "a proud tradition" of standing up "to English brutality".

Patrick Geoghegan is professor of history at Trinity College Dublin. He presents the award-winning Talking History on Newstalk radio

The Rising and a lost Caravaggio

One of the most intriguing stories of the 1916 Rising is its connection with the long-lost Caravaggio, discovered in Dublin a little over 20 years ago and now hanging in the ­National Gallery of Ireland.

The story begins during Easter week, when Captain Percival Lea-Wilson was in charge of the British troops stationed at the Rotunda. Lea-Wilson was a former constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary and had joined the British army in 1915. Stationed for a time in France, he was wounded in action and sent back to Ireland. Viewing the 1916 Rising as a "monstrous betrayal" of the empire, he took a hard-line in the aftermath. Following the surrender of the rebels, 250 of the prisoners were taken to the Rotunda, and Lea-Wilson became a hate figure because of his mistreatment of them. The prisoners were forced to sleep on the grass, virtually on top of each other, and one later described it as "a night of horror".

The treatment of Thomas Clarke and Seán MacDermott was, according to one rebel, "particularly severe". In some accounts, the elderly Clarke was stripped and humiliated, with a drunken Lea-Wilson shouting insults such as "nice general for your fucking army". A furious Michael ­Collins protested but to no effect. Lea-Wilson's behaviour was described by one prisoner as "brutal", and another, Liam Tobin, "registered a vow" that he would "deal with him at some point in the future".

By the time of the War of Independence, Lea-Wilson was a district inspector in the RIC, stationed in Gorey, Co Wexford. On the morning of June 15, 1920, he was reading his newspaper as he walked home. As he approached a parked car some men opened fire. Shot twice, he tried to make a run for it, but three more bullets hit him and he was killed. One of the shooters was Liam Tobin.

Upon hearing the news, Collins was jubilant, telling friend Joe Sweeney "we got the bugger". Collins asked Sweeney if he remembered "that first night outside the Rotunda" and the behaviour of Lea-Wilson. "I'll never forget it," said Sweeney. "Well," boasted Collins, "we got him today in Gorey". Another veteran of 1916 put it more simply: "He paid the penalty for his cruelty".

Afterwards, Lea-Wilson's widow Marie, a Catholic, found comfort from the support of the Jesuits in Dublin, and in particular a Fr Finlay. Studying medicine as a mature student, she graduated in 1928 and became a respected paediatrician in the years ahead. Around this time, she purchased a painting in Edinburgh that was attributed to a 17th-century Dutch artist called Gerard Von Honthorst. In the 1930s, she gave the painting to the Jesuits to thank them for all the support.

The painting hung on the walls of Jesuit House on Leeson Street for over 60 years. In the 1990s, it was spotted by a 17th-century-art expert who was brought in for advice on some renovation work. He proved that the painting was a long-lost Caravaggio masterpiece, 'The Taking of Christ', painted in 1602. Today, the painting is on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland. Its striking colours and powerful imagery transport us back to a different age. With its themes of bitterness and betrayal, it can also remind us of some of the hidden legacies of the 1916 Rising.

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