ONE OF MY favourite cards in my book on the postcards of Cork is a Milton Series postcard of a monument to militant Irish nationalists on the main street in Charleville in north Cork.* It excellently represents Irish nationalism for me: a cold stone monument to the dead in a dirty street in some drive-thru town surrounded by a herd of terrified shitty-ass sheep one stop away from a butcher’s crush, the monument itself a Celtic cross the centre-point of which is the flaming sacred heart of the suffering Christ.
In May 1921, during the War of Independence, Charleville’s Donal O’Brien, an Irish Republican Army volunteer, was executed by the British authorities (in Cork prison, a reprisal killing); the monument commemorates Donal O’Brien (and others) and the militarized sacrifices made in the cause of the Irish nation-state. The memorial was unveiled in October 1930 by Eamon de Valera, a Nationalist leader of the Easter Rising of 1916 and of the more successful War of Independence (1919-21), then the leader of Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party, the political group that were soon to take up the reins of government in the 26-county state and go on to become ‘the natural party of government’ for the rest of the century (‘Fianna Fáil’ means ‘soldiers of destiny’, ‘Fáil’ is pronounced “fall”).
An account of Mr de Valera’s remarks on this occasion — as reported in the Cork Examiner — is provided below. What is striking to me about what Mr de Valera is reported as saying (and there is no reason to suppose that the reporting is in any way defective) is not so much the unappealing nature of his jihadist thesis — a country and a people may be judged worthy to the extent to which they produce young people ‘who are ready to make such sacrifices as Donal O’Brien made’ (not, mark you, by whether the people are happy or have enough to eat and so on, but the extent it produces young fellas willing to self-sacrifice for the cause) — not so much the ugly import of this presentation but the fact that this kind of ideology was mainstream in Ireland when my father was a child — shop-keepers and postmasters and school teachers subscribed to it, overtly and covertly. Someone speaking like this today, of course, would be seen as a total wing-nut (for the most part anyway, depending on where you are) but I remember this guff even when I was a child in primary school — we had a schoolmaster who was full it, and, on the schoolroom walls, along with the crucifix and a map of Ireland was the Proclamation of the Irish Republic surrounded by pictures of all the executed leaders of 1916; and that is all there was on those cold schoolroom walls — the gruesome crucified Christ and nation-state icons).
And bear in mind Mr de Valera himself always managed to escape without having to self-sacrifice — it was the O’Brien boys, and others like them, who had to do the self-sacrificing when it came to it. (De Valera, by the by, was brought up in nearby Bruree — he was born in New York City to an unmarried serving-girl, who sent the infant home to Ireland to be reared by her parents, which is why de Valera escaped the firing squad in 1916 (his claim to United States citizenship saved him at a time when Britain was attempting to tease America into the Great War of 1914-18); in his teens, de Valera attended the Christian Brothers School in Charleville.)
This stone monument erected to the memory of Donal O’Brien would, he said, remind them all of those men with whom he had taken his stand, and with whom he had joined in making the great sacrifice of giving his young life that Ireland might be free . . .
. . . What was their duty, asked Mr De Valera, when they thought of sacrifices like the sacrifice of Donal O’Brien? What had he died for? He died that Ireland might be free—that Ireland might belong to the Irish people, that it might be their very own, without the influences of foreign power. If they were faithful to this man, if they were worthy of his sacrifice, they would, every one of them, say to-day that the Ireland of the future would be the Ireland for which he died. The men who had raised this monument to Donal O’Brien had done so in loyalty to him and in order that his memory might not be forgotten. They had done even greater service than perpetuate his memory, they had done something for Ireland, because this monument would there stand as a reminder to every one of them that if they were to have an Ireland worth while they should, every one of them, be prepared to make such sacrifices as may be necessary. “This country,” he said, “whatever may be the future before it, may be certain of this, that unless we are able to have young men amongst us—unless we are going to have young people who are ready to make such sacrifices as Donal O’Brien made—this country can never realise its ambition to be a great country. No country ever can unless its people are prepared to make sacrifices when called upon. And this stone here in our midst will be something to inspire our young, make them think that there is glory, and great glory, in giving one’s life for one’s friends and one’s country.”
As long as this country had families like the O’Briens, he concluded, where the brothers are prepared to stand together and where the mothers and parents would be prepared to give up their sons in order that Ireland might be free, Ireland’s future was in safe-keeping. This monument had been given into their keeping, and he knew that the people of the neighbourhood would see to it that it was preserved as it should be, and that everyone that passed it by would not only say a prayer for Donal O’Brien, and for those who had given up their lives, but for the achievement of that object for which they had died, and that those purposes would be finally secured. (Applause.)
*Love from Cork: Postcards of the City & County, (The Collins Press, 2013), pp. 172-3