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Friday, February 17, 2017

Sisters in Arms – sibling rivalry in Ireland’s revolutionary years


One of the great clichés of Ireland’s Civil War is that it divided “brother against brother”. Less often heard is that it divided brother against sister. But this was equally true, albeit that in some of the more dramatic examples, the split was caused by the revolutionary period in general.
We touched upon one here the other day (February 11th), via the woman born in 1860s London as Albinia Brodrick.  
In a spectacular mid-life reinvention, she changed her name to Gobnait Ní Bhruadair, becoming a militant Irish nationalist and ending her days as a Kerry Gaeilgeoir.

I suppose it’s very embarrassing to have a relation that gets into jail and fights in revolutions that you are not in sympathy with

But in the process, she also became a severe embarrassment to her brother John, the Anglo-Irish (with emphasis on Anglo) Earl of Midleton who led Ireland’s southern unionists in the campaigns against home rule and later partition.
Here he is, in a 1916 letter to the Spectator, apologising for his sister’s support of the Easter Rising: “She separated herself from my family 13 years ago and I have not seen her since; she has always been very unbalanced in her views.”

Sibling shame was a running theme of the period. It also featured in the relationship between Constance Markievicz and her brother Jocelyn Gore-Booth. In 1920, as the newly declared Republic’s minister for labour, she wrote to Gore-Booth about a dispute with workers on the ancestral estate, reminding him he came from a “family of tyrants and usurpers”.
Mind you, she could also appreciate that the mortification worked both ways. “I suppose it’s very embarrassing to have a relation that gets into jail and fights in revolutions that you are not in sympathy with,” she admitted late in life.

Then there was Charlotte Despaired (née French), also English-born but later a suffragist, Sinn Féiner, vegetarian, and anti-vivisectionist.  
Her brother John, by contrast, was an arch-conservative British general and, from 1918, lord lieutenant of Ireland. 
At the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin), she once tried to lecture him on the wrongs being inflicted upon Ireland and India. Alas, she was barred entry.

It’s no coincidence that these rebellious women were from privileged backgrounds. As the historian and former TD Martin Mansergh suggested in a speech last year (to which I’m indebted for most of the foregoing), it was part of their frustration that the world had been simultaneously opened to them by education and position, and closed because of their sex.
Introducing an exhibition on Ní Bhruadair in Sneem, Mansergh explained: “Albinia was a well-educated woman, intelligent, and linguistically gifted. The outlets, however, for upper class women in English society were limited.” She had been reduced, he said, to acting “as an assistant to three male members of her family, who held public positions.”  

Among her tasks then was to read the newspapers for her father, a visually impaired member of the House of Lords, while censoring all references to the hated Gladstone with the phrase “he whose name shall not be mentioned”.

It’s no coincidence that these rebellious women were from privileged backgrounds

Even in their liberated phases, however, sisters could still be sisterly, and brothers grateful, on occasion. In a case of Despard vs Desperado, the aforementioned Charlotte once berated IRA man Dan Breen for an assassination attempt on Gen French. By his own account, Breen was unrepentant: telling her the only thing he regretted was having failed.
On the other hand, Ní Bhruadair’s urgings to fellow republicans not to burn her brother’s house in Cork may have saved it the fate that befell many bastions of the old ascendancy, including that of another of her relatives, the Earl of Bandon.

As mentioned on Saturday, part of Ní Bhruadair’s personal reinvention was to train herself as a nurse and midwife, in which role she worked for a time in Dublin’s Rotunda. So were she still around today, she would surely want to support an event scheduled for the Gaiety Theatre next month, in aid of another of the capital’s famous maternity hospitals.
First produced by the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland last year, And Spring Will Come is a dramatised reflection on the Easter Rising and Great War, considering the motivations of protagonists via the poetry and prose of the period.
Writers featured range from Padraig Pearse to TS Eliot, Mary Bauden to Maud Gonne.  

But even more to the point, the show is partly the work of Chris Fitzpatrick, a consultant obstetrician and former master of the Coombe, who is deeply involved in the decade of centenary commemorations.  
So the night – March 26th – will raise money for Friends of the Coombe. More details at gaietytheatre.ie


Frank McNally