Ireland’s Bastille

Sunday, 20 May 1900 - Dublin, Ireland

Today I was on a particularly dangerous mission for the University of Dublin. Well, dangerous for me, anyway. The University was very keen on me getting inside the infamous Kilmainham Gaol (“jail” to you Yanks.) They wanted me to record what the palce was like while it was in operation.

Kilmainham Gaol as it looks now in 1900
I could easily get into this maximum security prison by robbing a bank, but the University decided that me impersonating a vicar would be enough. They falsified papers for me so I could not only get in, but be allowed to get back out. So I became a visiting vicar wanting to spend Sunday ministering to someone since I didn’t have a congregation available.

When I quoted Matthew 25:36 which says Christians should minister to prisoners, the guard looked bored. Apparently I was not the first. Indeed I was not the only person there wanted to preach to inmates. We were told to stay in the main hall and speak through the bars. They also frisked us for weapons to make sure none of us was there to aid in an escape. I think we were only tolerated because they hoped we might reform an inmate or two.

As I came into the huge oppressive-looking atrium of the East Wing lined with three stories of cells, it made me feel very small. The depression was palatable. I looked at the other ministers who had been here before, admiring their courage, for even though I knew I was going to get out today, I knew I would have nightmares about this place.

East Wing of Kilmainham Gaol
I went closer to the locked cells full of thieves and murderers. “Excuse me? Would anyone like to speak with a vicar?”

I might as well have said, would anyone like to cuss out the Englishman. The prison is run by the government which is based in London. So I silently let the half dozen who heard me vent.

When they settled down I said, “If you must know, I am in favor of Home Rule. Ireland is your country, you should be allowed to run it.”

Then I heard a voice. “Vicar! Over here!”

I stepped over, keeping the foot distance we were instructed by the guards to keep, least we be grabbed and injured. I knelt down to peer through the little door just large enough to pass a bowl of food. I expected to see looking back the face of a brute who had murdered his family, but instead found a pair of soulful blue eyes on a young face.

“Yes, my son?” I tried to sound priestly. “What may I do for you?”

“Can you get a message to my mother and sister? Let them know I’m okay?”

“They don’t let you write?”

“Yes, but an eyewitness might put them more at ease. They know I would say I was fine whether I was or not.”

“All right.” I pulled out a pad and paper. “Let me get the address.”

“I’m sorry about all those names I called you, Vicar. It’s just--well--it’s just that Home Rule is why I’m here.”

The young man told me his name was Sean Kane and proceeded to tell me how on the night Queen Victoria arrived in Dublin, Maude Gonne had organized a torchlight parade to protest British rule. It was meant to be a peaceful demonstration, but Dublin officials had no tolerance for anything but niceties toward Her Majesty. The police stormed the protestors beating them with batons to chase them off.

The Sean’s voice tightened. “One of those blighters took a swing at my sister. I stopped him by hitting him in the eye. I got six months for assaulting an officer. I was told I got off easy.”

Yes, as I said Kilmainham is a maximum security prison full of thieves and murderers. It is also where all political prisoners have been brought since it first opened in 1796. Indeed just about every Nationalist leader, both violent and peaceful, has been a “guest” in this prison. I hadn’t expected to find any political prisoners here in 1900. Apparently just no famous patriots are here right now.

Many political prisoners were released after they had been taught a lesson. Some were hanged. This is the prison all the rebels in the Easter Rising of 1916 were brought. Out in the courtyard is where the fifteen leaders will be executed by firing squad without a proper trial. (I mention this in my blog on the Easter Rising.)

In 1924 the Irish Free State will close down Kilmainham Gaol. Torn between tearing down this symbol of foreign oppression or preserving it as the site of so many martyrdoms, Ireland will let Kilmainham sit and rot for decades. Finally in 1971, after years of restoration, the former prison will be opened as a museum to the fight for freedom.

The Sean said he wasn’t sorry for protecting his sister. He also wasn’t sorry he protested. From the sound of his voice I had a feeling he would return to Kilmainham Gaol after the Easter Rising. I’m happy to say Sean’s name is not on the list of those that will be executed.

After talking an hour with Sean I left that dreadful place. I did visit his mother as I had promised. I noticed his sister looked in good health. She told me tearfully she had only been able to escape because of her brother’s sacrifice. I told her Sean Kane would be remembered. Indeed he will when I return to the 27th century with our interview. I wondered how many other forgotten heroes have stayed in Kilmainham Gaol?


The Treasonous Act of Loving Ireland

Friday, 18 May 1900 - Dublin, Ireland

Today I ran across the strangest memorial I have ever seen. High on a stone pedestal is a ten foot marble statue of a gentleman in a frock coat, arms folded in a noble stance. Nothing strange there. What is odd is the inscription. It’s in Gaelic but beneath it is an English translation which reads:

William Smith O’Brien
born 17th October 1803,
sentenced to death for high treason
on the 9th October 1848.
Died 16th June 1864.

“High treason?” I said aloud. “Why would they erect a ten foot memorial to a traitor?”

“O’Brien no traitor!“ snarled a voice. “His act of treason was loving Ireland.”

I turned to see an gentleman with a white beard. “Oh hullo, sir.” I smiled at him. “Do you know the story of this O’Brien chap?”

“Indeed I do! I helped erect this statue back in 1870. All paid for by folks like me given what they could. All patriotic Irishmen!” He glowered at me.

“Yes, my accent is English, isn’t it. What if I told you my parents immigrated from Dublin to London when I was a babe and I came back to find my Irish roots?” That’s a question, not a statement. I don’t like lying; I prefer misdirection.

The man’s expression softened. He now assumed I was Irish. “This is a good place for your education to start--with O’Brien. He descended from the great Irish king Brian Boru himself. Definitely inherited his ancestors courage and nobility, that’s for sure.”

“I would certainly love to hear his story. May I buy you a cup of tea?”

The man, who introduced himself as John Lyons, accepted my offer, and told me this amazing tale.

William Smith O’Brien was the son of a well-to-do Irish baronet. He was educated at the University of Cambridge. For twenty years he was a Member of Parliament and originally a conservative pro-unionist. But then the Irish famine came in 1845 and O’Brien like many others became disillusioned with being part of a kingdom where certain parts were left to starve. Parliament seemed apathetic, some seeing this as a way to solve what they perceived as Ireland’s over-population problem.

In 1848, the year of rebellion throughout Europe, Ireland really had something to rebel about with the famine only getting worse. O’Brien joined with Thomas Francis Meagher to incite a revolt. It led to one battle with police which ended the rebellion. O’Brien was captured and put on trail and found guilty of high treason. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Petitions for clemency signed by 70,000 Irish and 10,000 English stopped the execution. After all the battle was short and nearly bloodless. O’Brien had killed no one. Besides the sentence seemed a wee bit too medieval. Instead he was sent to the prison colony of Tasmania for life. Five years later O’Brien was released but banished from Ireland for life. After two years in Brussels, he was given and unconditional pardon and allowed to return to Ireland. He was barred from politics though.

William Smith O'Brien
Although the revolt was a failure, his fellow Irish men saw William Smith O’Brien as a hero, for he was willing to sacrifice everything for his fellow countrymen. He had come from the privileged class and could have lived a very cushy if he had just ignored the plight of the starving poor.

After O’Brien died people began collecting money to build a monument to him in. His statue isn’t hidden in a park, but stands in the middle of busy Sackville Street (later named O’Connell Street.) The plaque doesn’t say “hero” or “valiant leader” which probably made the authorities happy. It doesn’t need to. Every Irishman knows who this William Smith O’Brien is. Someday Dublin will be full of statues to all the leaders of Irish rebellions against England. However, this is the very first one. Erecting this statue to a rebel was an act of rebellion in itself.


St. Werburgh's Church

Sunday, 13 May 1900 - Dublin, Ireland

Today I attended the service at St. Werburgh’s Church here in Dublin. The current building was built in 1719, the church itself dates back to 1178. While it now belongs to the Church of Ireland (the Anglican church of Ireland) it could be argued St. Werburgh’s was an “Anglican Church” from the very start. Built just after the arrival of Anglo-Norman into Dublin, it was frequented by immigrants from Bristol.

St. Werburgh's Church entrance
Even the church’s name is Emglish. St. Werburgh or Werburga was the daughter of the 7th century King Wulfhere of Mercia. She became the abbess of Ely in Cambridgeshire, following in the footsteps of her mother, grandmother and great aunt. Werburgh was well loved in life and after her death a large cult formed around her. Several churches are named for her, but the one here in Dublin is believed to be the oldest.

Steeple per 1810
The church has had several modifications. In 1754 a fire damaged the interior and it was replaced in 1759. In 1777 a lofty steeple was added, then removed in 1810, the rest of the tower in 1836. The authorities said the fire had damaged the steeple making it unsafe. Some believe the tower overlooking Dublin Castle, made the Lord Lieutenant nervous. There had been those revolts in 1798 and 1803 after all. Or perhaps he feared the ghost of Lord Edward FitzGerald whose body lies in an ancient crypt beneath the church might use the advantage point?

Lord Edward FitzGerald was born in 1763, the fifth son of the Lord of Leinster. Wealthy, educated, highborn and handsome, Edward had a cushy life to look forward to. Pheasant hunting was not his style, though. He entered the British military reaching the rank of major, dabbled in politics as a Member of the Irish Parliament, and even explored the New World where he was adopted by the Hurons.

Then in 1792 FitzGerald ventured to Paris and lodged with a revolutionary named Thomas Paine. Having inspired the American Revolution, Paine was now working on the French. Paine didn’t hold it against FitzGerald that he had fought for the Brits against the Americans in their Revolution. FitzGerald was inspired by Paine. A year later he returned to the Irish Parliament, defending the Society of United Irishmen who wanted more independence from Great Britain. At that point they were hoping for constitutional reform. By 1896 both the United Irishmen and FitzGerald gave up and decided to follow the example of America and France.

Lord Edward FitzGerald
Lord Edward FitzGerald, descended from Norman conquerors on his father’s side and great-great-grandson to King Charles on his mother’s, put his lot in with the poor downtrodden of his country and became a leader of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. When the French allies failed to turn up and things went bad, FitzGerald turned down the chance to escape, staying with his men. He was shot while resisting arrest and subsequently died of his untreated wounds before he could be officially executed. The rebellion not only failed to make Ireland independent, but gave the opposite side the excuse to absorb Ireland into Great Britain as the United Kingdom.

Ironically Town-Major Henry Sirr, the man who arrested Lord Edward FitzGerald is buried in the church’s graveyard.

Besides St. Werburgh’s most famous burial,it’s most famous baptism is probably that of Jonathan Swift, who became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Swift though is better remembered for his satire, Gulliver’s Travels.

Even with her lofty steeple and tower lopped off, St. Werburgh’s still a grand old lady. Her heritage permeates from her ancient foundations. Her namesake would be duly impressed with her church.

interior of St. Werburgh's Church
Follow @SaintWerburghs Church on Twitter


Special Delivery

Friday, 11 May 1900 - Dublin, Ireland

Today I visited the General Post Office on Sackville Street here in downtown Dublin. Built between 1814 and 1818, it is the last great Georgian structure in Dublin. The grand columns are like a temple to the goddess of postal service. Indeed there are three statues on top of the roof: Mercury, the god of commerce, to the left; Fidelity, symbol of faithfulness, to the right; and in the middle, Hibernia, the personification of Ireland, holding a harp. I’m not sure what Fidelity has to do with mail, unless the GPO is promising to deliver packages to their rightful owners.

General Post Office on the left as it looks in 1900
It’s a very nice and grand post office as befits a large city, however it is an ordinary boring post office. People take the mail to clerks who take it to a backroom to be sorted and sent out for delivery. Ask an Irishman in a hundred years and he will tell you this stodgy institution is in fact the birthplace of the Irish Republic.

Right now there is a push for Home Rule, the reestablishment of the Irish Parliament. They are slowly winning over the majority who want to keep the Union as it is. When I say majority, I mean a majority of the wealthy and powerful who run the country. Nationalists pushing for a complete break from Great Britain and independence are a small minority.

1914, just as Ireland was on the brink of getting Home Rule, World War II broke out and dreams of an Irish Parliament were shelved. The real majority, the poor Irish Catholics, saw this as just another excuse, but decided to be patient.

1916 came and still no action. Several nationalists organizations got together to form a revolution. While the British army was busy overseas, now would be the perfect time to strike. On the 24th of April, the day following Easter Sunday, the rebels captured key buildings throughout Dublin. The buildings were taken without much fight from the civilian population. The centrally located General Post Office would serve as their headquarters. The flag of the Irish Republic was hoisted above the roof. The leader Patrick Pearse, came out on the steps and read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

flag hoisted over the General Post Office
When the rebels made it public that the Germans had given them their guns, England panicked. This was more than just a troublemakers, this was the Germans trying to attack Britain from two fronts! The British sent 16,000 soldiers to deal with the 1200 rebels. The Post Office and other buildings were bombarded and downtown Dublin went up in flames. 64 rebels were killed along with nearly 300 innocent bystanders.

British troops shelling the General Post Office in 1916
By Saturday it was all over. Rebels were told to surrender unconditionally. They were marched to Kilmainham Gaol while crowds jeered and threw garbage at them. Then the stupidest thing Britain could have ever done happened. Martial Law was proclaimed and General Sir John Maxwell was put in charge.

Maxwell was a military man who knew nothing of politics or public opinion and treated Dublin as an enemy camp. A total of 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested. Trials were held behind closed doors. The accused were not allowed defense, with Maxwell as the judge and jury. 187 trials were held in three weeks, as many as thirty in a day. By the 12th of May fifteen men had been executed by firing squad. The first was the school teacher, Patrick Pearce. The last was James Connolly, so badly wounded he had to tie him to a chair. A list of 90 men convicted to be shot was tacked on the door.

Burnt out Post Office after Easter Rising
If the rebels had been handed over to the police and then put on public trial, things would have been very different. As it was Dublin saw this as an assault against the liberties of all Irishmen. Didn’t citizens of the United Kingdom deserve their civil rights--or were the Irish not included? Suddenly those ruffians they had booed became martyrs in their eyes and the dream of an independent Irish Republic not that crazy after all.

By the time Prime Minister Herbert Asquith showed up and put a halt to any more executions, the damage had been done. Ireland no longer trusted Britain. In the next election in 1918, the Sinn Fein, the nationalist party, won 73 of the 105 seats that Ireland held in the United Kingdom House of Parliament. Instead of showing up for work in London, the Sinn Fein MPs formed the Dail Eireann, Parliament of Ireland, and declared Ireland a republic. That in turn led to the Irish War of Independence. This time the rebels had the backing of the majority of the people.

In 1925 the new independent Irish Free State will be left with the still burnt-out shell of their former post office. Should they tear it down and build their new parliament on this now sacred ground? Maybe a shrine would be more applicable? Instead they will decide the best idea will be to turn it back into a post office and try to recreate it as best they could. The only reminder will be a plaque on the wall in Gaelic and English; a statue of the mythic Celtic warrior, Cuchulainn (made five years before the Easter Rising;) and paintings of scenes from the uprising up on the walls.

As I stood in the very spot Cuchulainn would one day occupy, I glanced about at all the busy customers rushing to get their letters mailed. I wondered what they would think if I told them that one day this post office would have a special delivery for them--freedom.

"The Dying of Chuculainn" by Oliver Sheppard
Now in the General Post Office in Dublin
So, what does a mythic warrior have to do with rebels? In Irish legend Chuculainn held back an entire army. He knew how much he was feared so he tied himself to a menhir so his enemy wouldn't know when they had killed him. They only knew when a raven sat down on his dead form and began pecking out his eyes. His sacrifice however won time for his people to defeat their enemy.
By putting this statue in the Post Office, the Irish are comparing the martyrdom of the rebels with Cuchulainn's martyrdom. The leaders Patrick Pearce and James Connolly knew full well they would probably not win and would be executed as the ring leaders, but felt their sacrifice would spur the public into demanding freedom. It isn't a coincidence they set the date Easter Monday.
Footage and photos of the Easter Rising


My Visit to Golden Age Ireland

Tuesday, 1 May 1900 - Dublin, Ireland

St. Kevin's Church
It’s May Day, the modern equivalent of the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane, the beginning of summer according to the ancient calendar. Beltane was celebrated with a big bonfire back then. I decided to celebrate with my own Temporal Tuesday trip into the distant past--the Golden Age of Ireland.

Just south of Dublin in the Wicklow Mountains is Glendalough, literally Glen of Two Lakes. It was here that Kevin (Coemgen in Gaelic) started a hermitage in the sixth century. Kevin was a monk at Kilnamanagh, now the neighborhood of Tallaght in Dublin, but then decided to become a hermit.

Glendalough - Glen of the Two Lakes
Kevin is said to have been led to this valley by angels to a cave that was originally a Bronze Age tomb. Here he lived wearing animal skins, eating nettles, praying and having a good time. Then others heard of this holy man and came to him to be taught his wisdom. Unfortunately Irish etiquette dictated Kevin had to honor their request and soon he had a monastery full of monks. Rather difficult to be a hermit so many people underfoot.

Kevin tried sneaking off to be a alone again, but the monks dragged him back, begging him to lead them. He gave up and served as their abbot until his death of extreme old age. Legend says he lived to be 120.

Glendalough continued to grow in influence, becoming one of the major places of pilgrimage. It also had a school teaching aspiring monks and nobility alike. Glendalough was just one of many monasteries with schools throughout Dark Age Ireland. The Emerald Isle became famous throughout Europe for it’s learning. Charlemagne, when trying to establish a new Holy Roman Empire, made sure to invite Irish scholars to his court.

Glendalough however soon became overshadowed by a growing Dublin. In 1398 an English army partially destroyed Glendalough and it became a backwater. In a way that was a blessing, for it put the valley out of the notice of the far more destructive Cromwell and William of Orange.

Round Tower
A surprising amount of the ancient monastery survives. Not sure if any dates back to Kevin, but certainly back more than a thousand years. The 98 foot tower is still intact. All right, the roof was reconstructed in 1876, but they used the original stone. The door is 12 feet off the ground so monks could climb in using a ladder and pull the ladder after themselves to keep out of reach of Viking raiders. A Dark Age panic room.

There are several churches in various degrees of ruin here, but the best preserved and probably oldest is St. Kevin’s “Kitchen.” It’s really a chapel. It was so well built that last century it was “restored” by sweeping out and adding wooden pews for worship.

Further up the valley on the banks of the Upper Lake is St. Kevin’s Bed, the cave he originally lived in. It was worth the hike to see it. The scenery is so lovely the trek was most pleasant in itself. St. Laurence O'Toole (Lorcán Ua Tuathail), the abbot of Glendalough in the 12th century, used to sleep here, too. He was later made Archbishop of Dublin, then a largely Viking town, who approved his appointment, making him the first Irish Bishop of Dublin. It was probably not very respectful of me, but I couldn’t fight the urge to lie down in the spot I assumed the two saints had laid. It filled me with wonder, but mostly with pain from that stone in my back. Not at all comfortable. I do hope the poor chaps at least had some straw.
St. Kevin's Bed Cave
Kevin will not be made an official saint until 1903. Back in 618 when he died, canonizing wasn’t a common practice yet. He will not only be considered a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, but by the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Church as well. Of course he has always been considered a saint here in Ireland even while he was still alive.

I hung about the Glen of the Two Lakes until I was forced to catch the last train back to Dublin. I must say spending your entire life in this beautiful valley would hardly be a hardship. Kevin picked well.

Rick Steves visits Glendalough
(as well as Powerscourt Estate I saw last week)


Her Majesty Departs Dublin

Thursday, 26 April, 1900 - Dublin, Ireland

Today with much relief (and perhaps a little sadness) Dublin bid farewell to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The whole thing has been a bit like a stuffy but very wealthy aunt showing up on your doorstep and wanting to stay for a couple of weeks. You dare not turn her out and do your best to please her.

This time Her Majesty exited Dublin a bit more quietly than she entered. Instead of the parade through town, she took the train from Kingsbridge station just outside Phoenix Park down to Kingstown. When Her Majesty’s carriage arrived at the station from Viceregal Lodge, Princesses Beatrice and Helena were the first to exit. Her Majesty then got out leaning on her cane and her Indian servant, Abdul Karim. I had the feeling the large man fought the urge to just pick the tiny woman up like a child and set her down on the platform, but that would not have been dignified. He hovers over her like she was his own mother.

Kingsbridge Railway Station
Looking well, Queen Victoria wore a corsage made of green shamrocks, the symbol of Ireland. Despite being under five foot and frail with age, Her Majesty still can emit serenity and strength. She was greeted by several dignitaries, including the Mayor and his wife; Mr. Joshua Pim, Chairman of the Great Southern & Western Railway; and Mr. Frederic Pim, Chairman of the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway. (I’m assuming the two Pims are related.) Her Majesty bowed to them and said “I am very sorry to leave Ireland. I have had a very pleasant time.”

An hour later I watched the Royal Yacht disappear over the horizon followed by a flotilla of battleships as the Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India returned to England. The Lord Mayor seemed relieved that everything had gone well. The Queen had a lovely visit and no one had tried to assassinate her. And she left him a very nice present--a knighthood.

Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park where Her Majesty stayed
Her Majesty’s visit has stirred up strong emotions among the citizens of Dublin. On one end, patriotism for Unionists and on the other, resentment among Separatists. Queen Victoria has been blamed for poverty and prejudice. She made a point of acknowledging Catholics and the poor this visit, trying to make them feel they too belong.

The truth is the most powerful woman in the world has very little power. It’s the Prime Minister and the Parliament that really run the show. Victoria is nothing more than a figurehead raised in an ivory tower. However she has been closer to her people and their problems than any of her predecessors, thanks to Prince Albert. The Victorians wanted both a middle-class wife and mother as well as a larger-than-life demigoddess. Victoria did her best to pull them both off. I think we should give the little lady and little credit.

In 1904, King Edward VII will visit Dublin to unveil this memorial to his mum, created by Irish sculptor, John Hughes. After the Irish Independence, all statues of British kings will be gleefully blown-up, except for this one. Instead the old girl will be shipped off to Sydney, Australia where she will be given a good home.