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 reg­u­lar events. My book Win­ston Churchill: Myth and Real­i­ty con­sid­ers 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 up 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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