Lectures at Sea (2): Churchill and the Myths of Ireland

Lectures at Sea (2): Churchill and the Myths of Ireland

Myths Amid the Mists of Ireland

This is the Ire­land por­tion of my lec­ture on the 2019 Hills­dale Col­lege Round-Britain cruise. Hills­dale cruis­es with “lec­tures at sea” are an annu­al event. They usu­al­ly occur in the spring. For infor­ma­tion on the 2020 cruise to Jerusalem and Athens, click here.

My book con­sid­ers the tall tales, exag­ger­a­tions, lies, myths, rumors and dis­tor­tions about Churchill over the years. Nowa­days, the old adage that you don’t speak ill of the dead is obso­lete. It seems more impor­tant now to decon­struct his­to­ry and punc­ture heroes.

The tool is the Inter­net. With­out stray­ing from your key­board, you can anony­mous­ly spout what­ev­er non­sense occurs to you. The late Umber­to Eco, the Ital­ian writer and crit­ic, nice­ly described this phe­nom­e­non: “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, with­out harm­ing the community….It’s the inva­sion of the idiots.”

The right of reply

Churchill, who won a Nobel Prize, and did a few oth­er things, can­not reply. He lies at Bladon in Eng­lish earth, “which in his finest hour he held invi­o­late.” He’d love the con­tro­ver­sy he stirs today, on media he nev­er dreamed of. He once said the vision “of mid­dle-aged gen­tle­men who are my polit­i­cal oppo­nents being in a state of uproar and fury is real­ly quite exhil­a­rat­ing to me.”

N.B. Also cov­ered in this talk were the myths that Churchill led the war par­ty in 1914, that his neg­li­gence con­tributed to the sink­ing of the Titan­ic in 1912, and that he pur­pose­ly direct­ed the Lusi­ta­nia into the path of a Ger­man U-boat in 1915. These sub­jects may be found by click­ing the links above.

The 2019 Hills­dale Cruise put in at Belfast, Dublin and Water­ford.

Our cruise around Britain relat­ed to many inter­est­ing Churchill myths. On a map I’ve labeled every place around the British Isles with a Churchill con­nec­tion. If any sug­gest a ques­tion, please ask. For exam­ple, what does Churchill have to do with the Isle of Jura in the Hebrides (upper right)? No one has come up with it.

Dublin, Waterford and Redmond

Mon­day 10 June brought us to Dublin, where Win­ston Churchill had his first child­hood mem­o­ries. The next day was Water­ford. Most came there for the crys­tal, but we hoped to see where John Red­mond was sworn in. Red­mond rep­re­sent­ed Water­ford for the Irish Par­lia­men­tary Par­ty for near­ly thir­ty years, and his son after him. Water­ford was one of the few con­stituen­cies out­side Ulster not won by Sinn Féin in the 1918 elec­tion.

In the debate over Irish Home Rule Red­mond, like Churchill, favored mod­er­a­tion, con­cil­i­a­tion and Irish auton­o­my. Many years lat­er in the Com­mons, Churchill said:

I always bear in my mem­o­ry, with regard, John Redmond…of the old Irish Par­lia­men­tary Par­ty, which fought us for so many years in this House, plead­ing the cause of Ire­land, with great elo­quence and Par­lia­men­tary renown…making these speech­es of absolute sup­port and uni­ty with this coun­try until every­body said every­where, “The bright­est spot in the world is Ire­land.”

“The Minstrel Boy”Ireland




Here is a rather rude car­toon, in Punch, 1910, of the Lib­er­al lions, Asquith, Churchill and Lloyd George, each with John Red­mond “in the bag.” Churchill is “the Min­is­te­r­i­al Boy with his wild harp slung behind him.” In a more lit­er­ate age, every­one rec­og­nized the words. They are from “The Min­strel Boy,” Thomas Moore’s love­ly, haunt­ing song of the 1798 Irish rebel­lion…

The Min­strel fell but the foeman’s chain

Could not bring his proud soul under

The harp he loved ne’er spoke again

For his tore its chords asun­der….

Thy songs were made for the pure and free

They shall nev­er sound in slav’ry.

“Thy songs were made for the pure and free … They shall nev­er sound in slav’ry.” Sure­ly, ladies and gen­tle­men, those words would apply to Churchill him­self, thir­ty years lat­er. Punch didn’t know how pre­scient they were.

Churchill and Irish independence

No ene­my of Ire­land, Churchill was always seek­ing to pla­cate old antag­o­nisms among Catholics and Protes­tants. Along the way he made a mistake—more of which anon. Against that, he must be cred­it­ed with a lead­ing role in forg­ing Ireland’s inde­pen­dence.

Before the First World War, with Redmond’s sup­port, Churchill cam­paigned for the Lib­er­als’ Third Home Rule bill. Edward Car­son’s Ulster Union­ists, who dom­i­nat­ed the six coun­ties of what is now North­ern Ire­land, want­ed no part of that.

In ear­ly 1912, Churchill and Red­mond took their cam­paign to Belfast, which we also vis­it­ed. Here in 1886 Churchill’s father Lord Ran­dolph had denounced the First Home Rule bill, declar­ing: “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right!” To Churchill’s blithe uncon­cern, union­ist pro­tes­tors jos­tled his car, pelt­ing it with mis­siles. There was a heavy police and army pres­ence. Car­son said he couldn’t pre­dict what would hap­pen.

Churchill spoke to 7000 Ulster folk, promis­ing Home Rule with­in the Empire—no Irish seces­sion. He assured them of pro­tec­tion for minori­ties and fis­cal over­sight.

Think of the courage Churchill dis­played. He could have played to their sen­ti­ments, as his father had. Indif­fer­ent him­self to dan­ger, he was cut from a dif­fer­ent cloth. He always told peo­ple not what they want­ed to hear, but what he thought they should hear.

War and rebellion

The out­break of war tem­porar­i­ly eclipsed Home Rule, but the 1916 “East­er Ris­ing” was the most seri­ous revolt since the one in 1798, which inspired “The Min­strel Boy.”

Fol­low­ing the 1918 Armistice, Sinn Féin became the dom­i­nant Irish par­ty, boy­cotting Lon­don and set­ting up a Dublin par­lia­ment, the Dáil. Prime Min­is­ter Lloyd George dis­solved the Dáil and set about quelling the rebel­lion by force.

Leg­end has it that in Jan­u­ary 1919 Churchill, now War Sec­re­tary, cre­at­ed the “Black and Tans,” a tem­po­rary con­stab­u­lary, named for their uni­forms. Most were Eng­lish, some Irish. Their meth­ods of sup­pres­sion were so vio­lent that they pro­voked a last­ing antipa­thy to Churchill which still exists today. I’m going to end with a sto­ry about this.

In fact Churchill played no part in cre­at­ing the Black and Tans. But he defend­ed them despite atroc­i­ties that exceed­ed their remit. That was his mis­take, for many of their out­rages were inde­fen­si­ble.

The Irish Treaty

By June 1921 civ­il war was in the air, and an Anglo-Irish con­fer­ence was set for Octo­ber, with Churchill among the British del­e­gates. The Irish del­e­ga­tion was head­ed by Michael Collins, pres­i­dent of the Repub­li­can Broth­er­hood and Adju­tant Gen­er­al of the Irish Repub­li­can Army.

Dogged­ly, Churchill pur­sued the prize. He and Collins were much alike, William Man­ches­ter wrote, “fear­less, charis­mat­ic, fierce­ly patri­ot­ic, ready to sac­ri­fice every­thing for prin­ci­ple. Both had cheru­bic fea­tures but bull­dog expres­sions, and they shared a ready wit.”

Collins com­plained that the British had put a price on his head. Churchill showed him his framed copy of the ersatz Boer want­ed poster from 1899: “At any rate it was a good price—£5000,” he said.  “Look at me—£25 dead or alive. How would you like that?” Collins broke out laugh­ing. The ice was bro­ken.

Michael Collins signed the Irish Treaty, and with it, he pre­dict­ed, his death war­rant. He was too right—shot by an assas­sin in 1922. His last mes­sage to Churchill, was: “Tell Win­ston we could nev­er have done any­thing with­out him.”

Churchill’s defense of the Irish Treaty

Churchill said the deal was good for all. The twen­ty-six south­ern coun­ties would form a Free State with­in the Empire. The Dáil would con­trol domes­tic affairs. The six coun­ties of North­ern Ire­land would not be coerced to join, and remained, as they do to this day, part of the Unit­ed King­dom.

Collins and Grif­fiths head­ed a pro­vi­sion­al gov­ern­ment, but the diehards under Eamon de Valera reject­ed sub­or­di­na­tion of Ire­land to the Crown, which for Churchill and Lloyd George was key.

In pow­er dur­ing World War II, De Valera pro­claimed neu­tral­i­ty, but in fact there was con­sid­er­able coop­er­a­tion between the intel­li­gence agen­cies, and many Irish vol­un­teers fought with the Allies. Ire­land remained in the Com­mon­wealth, though it behaved like a repub­lic, and final­ly declared itself one in 1948. By then, of course, Churchill’s role was over.

In retrospect…

Read­ing Churchill’s book The After­math, the his­to­ri­an Paul Addi­son point­ed out some­thing I hadn’t noticed: “The admi­ra­tion Churchill express­es for the Irish of all kinds. He must have detest­ed de Valera for undo­ing the Irish Free State, in which he clear­ly took a pater­nal pride.”

Ire­land excit­ed Churchill’s pas­sion, but most­ly in a pos­i­tive way, for he always respect­ed Irish patri­o­tism and hero­ism. In World War II, Pad­dy Fin­u­cane, one of many Irish who vol­un­teered to fight for Britain, destroyed thir­ty-two Ger­man air­craft before being shot down and killed. “If ever I feel a bit­ter feel­ing ris­ing in me in my heart about the Irish,” he said in 1948, “the hands of heroes like Fin­u­cane seem to stretch out to soothe it away.” Churchill had proven him­self an ally, not an ene­my, in Ireland’s quest for peace and free­dom.

His­to­ry doesn’t repeat, but it some­times rhymes, some­one said (not Churchill). A mod­ern exten­sion to the Anglo-Irish rela­tion­ship is Brex­it and the so-called Irish Back­stop. I’ll hap­pi­ly chat lat­er about how the EU nego­tia­tors were very aware of the bad blood between Britain and Ire­land in fram­ing their Brex­it demands. Just ask.

But I don’t want to wear out my wel­come, so let me put back my map of our cruise with its Churchill venues, end with a sto­ry, and then answer any ques­tions.

Eddie’s Shannon experience

Back when transat­lantic flights stopped to refu­el in Shan­non, Ire­land, the Churchills were aboard a Pan Am Clip­per, head­ed west. Detec­tive-Sergeant Edmund Mur­ray, Sir Winston’s body­guard from 1950 to his death, was with them as usu­al. Eddie lat­er told me of that flight, and an amus­ing sto­ry about the lin­ger­ing Irish antipa­thy toward his boss.

While the plane stood refu­elling, Sgt. Mur­ray left to buy a case of Jameson’s for his Secret Ser­vice pals in Wash­ing­ton. “What name shall I put on it, sir?” asked the clerk at the Duty-Free. “Mur­ray,” Eddie told him.

Arriv­ing back to pick up the case, the clerk was cor­dial but curi­ous. “Will ye just tell me one thing? What’s a man by the name of Mur­ray doing guard­ing that old bas­tard Churchill?”

Back on board, Eddie relat­ed the sto­ry to the boss, know­ing he would enjoy it. Churchill roared with laugh­ter, but his wife remained silent.

About a minute passed. And then Clemen­tine Churchill spoke up, in the high pitched voice she adopt­ed at times of high emo­tion: “He was wrong, Win­ston, he was quite wrong,” she exclaimed. “You do know who your father was.”

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