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Across the Troubles in Northern Ireland: the Great Famine

This is the second in a series of five articles about Northern Ireland on the eve of Brexit, which threatens to put a “hard border” between the six counties of the North and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union. This is part II.

Howth: Entering Dublin harbor, on the night boat.

By Train Across Ireland

The train ride from Belfast to Dublin, at least in summer 1990, was a journey across a troubled frontier. There were armed guards on the train, and I was one of the few who remained on board from the beginning to the end.

Most of the other passengers got off the train before it crossed into the Republic, and later on, new passengers, all of whom lived in the south, got on the train for the trip into Dublin.

I arrived in Dublin on a Saturday evening, but because it was high summer at 8:00 p.m. it still felt as if it were late afternoon. I left Connolly station and walked in the direction of Trinity College, which was one of the few landmarks (other than the Central Post Office from the Easter Rising) that I recognized. On the way, I figured I would find a hotel for the night and then head out on the town for dinner.

As I crossed the morose River Liffey, which cuts through downtown Dublin, and headed toward the college, I stopped at a few hotels along the way, all of which said they were “full up.” I didn’t panic, as the day still felt young, and I even stopped at the Hotel Fitzwilliam for a drink, although it, too, had no rooms. (It was there I heard about the national horse show, in town for the weekend.) Then closer to 10 p.m. than 8 p.m., I started have one of those panics I associate with being in a strange city without a room for the night.

Not only was I as aimless as Joyce’s Stephen Bloom on his wanderings across Dublin, but when night came to the city, I found many of the back streets to be forlorn, if not sinister. This was years before Ireland reinvented itself as an off-shore booking center for European investment funds, which transformed the central business district into an enclave of glass-fronted towers and tax-exempt share schemes.

This was still Joyce’s Dublin (“When I die Dublin will be written in my heart…”), although in this case what I thought would do me in wasn’t an overdose of Ulyssesbut some of the marauding gangs that came out after dark.

The more I trudged around with my grip looking for a hotel room, the more I bumped into packs of young people, some of whom had six-packs of beers clipped to their belts, as if they were side-shooters, as perhaps they were. Nearly everyone I passed seemed either drunk or headed in that direction. It struck me as a city under occupation by some vast fraternity party.

Only around midnight did I find hotel with a vacancy, but the room reeked of cigarette smoke, as if it were a flophouse. At least I was no longer in the melancholy herd that was adrift on a tide of beer across Dublin. But I had missed dinner, and the idle notion that I had of Dublin—that of high table at Trinity College, with the likes of Conor Cruise O’Brien presiding—had turned into a variation of a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

The Great Potato Famine

No wonder that the next day, after a quick inspection of the Book of Kells in the stunning college library, I departed on the train for the West Country, yet another Irish refugee in search of a newer world.

I liked my train ride across Ireland to Limerick, a modest city on the west coast, but the ride did not inspire the delight in me that I have heard from many friends, when they return from Irish driving tours. In those conversations, I hear about soaring coastal cliffs and the crashing beauty of the ocean as it washes ashore in places like Sligo and Dingle.

Instead, from my train window and over Irish Rail coffee, I saw the landscape of a country that (in 1990) both England and the European Union had forgotten.

The farms were labyrinths of hedgerows, as if last re-designed during the Enclosure Acts (1845 to 1882), and, as a prisoner of the book I was reading, The Great Hunger, I could not help but recall how the intolerance of English rule (which ended in 1921) turned the landscape into a loyalty oath, which was good for the crown but bad for potato crops. Cecil Woodham-Smith writes:

The entanglement of the Irish famine with the repeal of the Corn Laws was a major misfortune for Ireland. Short of civil war, no issue in English history has provoked such passion as Corn Law repeal. As a consequence of Peel’s decision, the country was split in two, and the controversy was conducted with frightful acrimony and party bitterness. The potato failure was eclipsed by the burning domestic issue of Corn Law repeal. The Irish famine slipped into the background.

Tariffs on corn and other grains were a boon to English landowners between 1815 and 1846, but they made it impossible for Ireland, in particular, to import food during the early years of the famine. Peel’s decision to abolish the tariffs opened the era of free trade in Britain, but it came too late for many in Ireland.

It is estimated that a million Irish died during the famine, either of starvation or diseases related to the blight. Another two million emigrated, many to the United States, including the Grays, even though the famine was worse in the south than it was in County Antrim.

If you ever take a train trip or a drive across Ireland, The Great Hunger should be your guide.

By the time the train pulled into Colbert station in Limerick—in memory it had the feeling of a failed savings and loan bank—I was done with Ireland and ready to head home.

Not even the stacks of cable-knit sweaters on sale in the duty-free shops at Shannon Airport (its calling card for stopover flights) could convince me that Ireland would ever rise above its obsession for melancholy. I knew that there was more to Ireland than I had seen either on Shankill Road or in my walk across Dublin (“a nightmare from which I am trying to awake…”), but I did not feel that I needed to go in search for it.

Dublin Does Deals

In the following years, mostly for business, I would return occasionally to Dublin. Then it was to sit in glass-encased conference rooms and speak about returns on equity. In the early 2000s, Dublin became an international market, a place where European funds, banks, and insurance companies set up booking offices to raise money for their balance sheets.

In turn, the city of Dublin shed some of its stale air and turned into more of an iBank entrepôt—the kind in which brokers in their late 20s speed around in BMWs.

I cannot say that I liked the glitzy Dublin much more than the older one, that of stale pork pies and the acid smell of coal fires. I did, between meetings, try to collect histories about Irish politics and history (The Damnable Question: A Study in Anglo-Irish Relations by George Dangerfield was one of them), and often on my business trips I would end the visit on the steps of the Central Post Office, where in 1916 the Easter rising failed to produce independence, something that only came five years later, after a nasty civil conflict.

In 2016, still feeling that I was missing the essence of Ireland (all those bracing walks to pubs on highlands that overlook mystical estuaries), I decided to work on a book about some writers of the First World War, and to include in my account two men (Robert Erskine Childers and T. E. Lawrence), whose turbulent lives brushed up against Irish history and independence.

By including them in my book, I hoped I might have more occasion to visit Ireland, and perhaps come away with a cheerier impression. (No, it never occurred to me to take my wife one of those driving holidays along the coastline and to drink Guinness at roadside pubs.)

The Night Ferry To Dublin

When I went in search of Erskine Childers, who was famous as the author of The Riddle of the Sands, I decided, instead of flying to Dublin, to take the night train and ferry across the Irish Sea.

Before the era of discount airlines, it was the way most travelers went from London to Dublin, much as they went to Brussels and other cities on the continent. The crossings always involved a sleepy walk from a train carriage onto an overnight ferry in the dead of night and a storm-tossed passage on rough seas.

I liked the idea of a night ferry to Dublin, more than, as it turned out, I liked this particular journey. From London Euston I had no trouble catching a train to Holyhead, in Wales. It left around dinner time, and I ate a moveable feast at my seat, as dusk quickly turned to darkness. Sometime before midnight the train arrived at the ferry pier, where in no time I had collected my boarding pass for the ferry.

The problem with the trip was that the ferry company only boarded “foot” passengers around 2 a.m., which meant sitting in a molded plastic chair in a waiting room for two hours. The punishment felt cruel and unusual.

After I boarded the ferry, there were few places to sleep during the short night (less than four hours). In the end, despite having a first class ticket, I curled up on the floor in a lounge, which was notable for its frigid air.

By 5:30 a.m. the sun was up and the boat was approaching Dublin port along the coast of the Howth peninsula. To see in more detail, I ascended some stairs to a top deck, which a cold rain had washed during the night, leaving puddles everywhere.

On the back side of the Howth peninsula was the small port, where during the rising, Erskine Childers had run guns for the cause of Irish independence. Childers was an excellent yachtsman—read The Riddle of the Sands just for its descriptions of sailing—and together with his American-born wife he sailed to Germany to collect rifles for the revolution and deliver them to Howth, where they were handed over to republicans.

Ironically, Childers was largely English, although with some Anglo-Irish ancestry. His embrace of Irish independence was out of character for someone who had spent much of his adult life living and working in England, often for the government, in which he knew many of the leading politicians including, Winston Churchill.

The Riddle of Erskine Childers

Childers attended Trinity College, Cambridge, fought in the Boer War, served the Liberal Party as a parliamentary staffer, and was on active service in the First World War. Few had as distinguished a war record for England in the Great War as Childers. But politically, during those volatile years, his sympathies merged with those of the Irish republicans, which led to the gun running and later involvement in the civil war.

The Riddle of the Sands, published in 1903 and one of the first-ever spy novels, correctly forecast that Britain was at risk for a war with the Kaiser, and that a German invasion fleet could hide itself in the estuaries of Friesland, the islands off the Dutch North Sea coast. Childers writes:

It was Davies’s conviction, as I have said, that the whole region would be an ideal hunting-ground for small free-lance marauders, and I began to know he was right; for look at the three sea-roads through the sands to Hamburg, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, and the heart of commercial Germany. They are like highways piercing a mountainous district by defiles, where a handful of desperate men can arrest an army.

Childers lived the life of an English adventurer, and it is remarkable that he saw front-line service in the Boer War, the North Sea campaigns, Gallipoli, and finally in the Irish Civil war. But it could well have been his lust for action that led to his demise, which came when he was shot by a firing squad at a Dublin barracks.

His death sentence came on a trumped-up charge of illegal gun possession; he was stopped while carrying a small handgun that had been a gift from Michael Collins, the revolutionary leader. But one pistol was hardly a threat to English sovereignty.

Winston Churchill, among others, could have commuted the death sentence of the decorated English military hero and former senior ranking civil servant. But he chose to let the execution proceed, saying of Childers: “No man has done more harm or shown more genuine malice or endeavored to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, actuated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth.”

At his execution, Childers said stoically: “Take a step or two forward, lads, it will be easier that way.” Later president of Ireland Éamon de Valera said of him: “He died the Prince he was. Of all the men I ever met, I would say he was the noblest.”

Appropriately, the National Museum in Dublin has preserved and renovated one of Childers’ yachts—Asgard—which was used to run those guns into Howth harbor in summer 1916.

On a trip to Dublin, I toured around the boat, which has its own museum building. It’s not possible to step on deck or go below to see where he and his wife Molly stowed the German rifles, but a walkway surrounds the yacht, which sparkles down to its teak and brightwork.

Many visitors to the museum assume that Asgard is also the boat that is described in The Riddle of the Sands, which sailed under the name Dulcibella. (That’s another boat which Childers owned and called Vixen.)In the novel it eludes German naval agents in Friesland and comes back to London to report: “Germany’s a thundering great nation . . . I wonder if we shall ever fight her.”

The riddle of Erskine Childers is that he was correct about the German threat, the Boer War (he thought it unjust), the First World War, and Irish independence (it was time), but still ended up at the wrong end of a firing squad (one that had to inch forward to get the job done correctly).

Lawrence of Ireland

Another Englishman conflicted about his Irish roots was Thomas Edward Lawrence (of Arabia). Ned Lawrence, as T. E. was called, grew up in Oxford, and for his entire life he was associated with British policies in the Middle East, where, in his guerrilla operations, he had promised independence to a number of Arab tribes.

Only later did he realize that he had been deceiving them, on behalf to the British and French empires, and that these peoples were, yet again, to find themselves under colonial domination.

In response, Lawrence did not run guns into Ireland or fight there for independence, but he did, in the 1920s and 30s, as if to atone for his sins, enlist as a private, under an assumed name, in the British army and air corps. And he shunned the limelight that he was due, as Colonel Lawrence (of Arabia), in favor spending much of his time in a rural Dorset cottage that had only minimal plumbing and little heat.

It was on another trip, while I was visiting the Lawrence cottage in Dorset called Clouds Hill, that I discovered Lawrence’s tortured connections to Ireland, which came though his father, Thomas, an Anglo-Irish baronet who had his lands outside Dublin.

It made me want to see the house in which Lawrence’s father had lived. But as it was well off the rail and bus lines, when I was planning a trip to Ireland in summer 2018, I did wonder how I might get there.

As I was pondering the schedules of Irish Rail (the nearest stop to South Hill was Mullingar, from which my only option would have been to hitchhike or to conjure up Uber), I learned through an email that a close friend from high school, Kevin Glynn (who lives in Los Angeles), was not just traveling in Europe, but that he had rented a car and was footloose in Ireland, where both his parents had many roots. (His mother was born in Ireland; his father in England, but to Irish parents.)

Would he be interested, I wrote back, to drive me on my appointed rounds between Dublin and Belfast? We could catch up on our lives and along the way see much of Northern Ireland. He agreed, and I put aside my train and bus schedules for a road map of Ireland.

In his rental car Kevin and I had no trouble finding Chapman’s house called South Hill. It was about an hour west of the Dublin Airport, where we met up. But instead of rolling up the pebble drive of an Anglo-Irish estate we pulled into the parking lot of what is now St. Mary’s Hospital.

The old mansion was still visible—I could recognize the original entrance—but the rest of the stone building was covered with industrial-strength stucco, and the paved parking places out front were delineated with white lines. If there was a plaque indicating that this was once the family home of Sir Thomas Chapman, the 7th and last Baronet, I missed it. But the story of Lawrence’s Irish connection is this:

The real name of Lawrence’s father was Thomas Chapman. His full title was Sir Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, 7th Baronet, and his pedigree came with enough (underpaid) tenants to work these (somewhat modest) baronial lands, which were in Delvin, County Westmeath, which is west of Dublin in rolling farmland.

As Thomas Chapman, Lawrence’s father had four daughters by his wife, Edith Hamilton, who by all accounts turned into a religious zealot and morose companion the longer they were together.

In the late 1870s, after their fourth daughter was born and Thomas was drinking heavily—to the nagging complaints of his wife who was tired of such sinning—he had an affair with his children’s governess, Sarah Lawrence, who became pregnant.

Thomas packed Sarah off to rooms in Dublin, to have the baby and where he could visit her on the side. When the stern Edith got wind of the affair, rather than repent, Thomas decided to run off with Sarah, who in all was to bear him five sons. T.E. was born in Wales, not far from where my ferry had sailed from Holyhead.

By all accounts the Lawrence family of Thomas and Sarah was a happy one, but, as Thomas had never divorced Edith, the so-called “Lawrences” were never married—a fact that Ned picked up during his adolescence or while at Oxford (when he was living in his bungalow in the backyard).

As much as Ned loved and admired his father, he also absorbed what he sensed was the shame of his family’s illegitimacy. That might account for his search for atonement, his almost monkish devotion to self-inflicted pain and isolation. Some biographers—John E. Mack’s A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence is one of them—highlight this aspect of his tortured psychology.

Personally I find the point exaggerated, given Lawrence’s otherwise engaging childhood, much of it spend hunting archaeological fragments around Oxford. I would look elsewhere to understand the motivations of his ascetic life, including his decision, at the top of his fame after Word War I, to re-enlist in the armed forces as a private under an assumed name.

The combination of his intellectual curiosity and capacity for isolation, however, stood him in good stead when he walked across Syria to visit Crusader castles (his undergraduate thesis at Oxford) or when he rode his bicycle some 2,000 kilometers around France. Without those determined qualities, I am sure he never would have been able to withstand the rigors of the irregular war in the desert.

As well, it should be noted that Lawrence had vast capacities for friendship at all levels of society. He earned the affections not just of mess mates and Bedouin villagers, but those of Winston Churchill, Thomas Hardy, and Gertrude Bell, among many others.

At South Hill Kevin and I poked around the edges of the house and its parking lot, and I took a picture of the “new” wing of St. Mary’s Hospital, which reminded me of office blocks in the departed Deutsche Demokratische Republik (the capital of crumbling cement). Kevin struck up a conversation with some workmen out front, but they didn’t know anything about the Lawrence connection.

Then we got back in the car, and headed toward Aughrim, where a battle in 1691 sealed the fate of Ireland, for the next three hundred years, as an English dependency.

That evening, poking around the internet, I came across a mention of Lawrence and his Irish connections. In an article about Lawrence, the Irish Times writes:

Lawrence later became somewhat fascinated with Ireland. His surviving letters contain references expressing a desire to visit his father’s homeland. In one letter Lawrence even remarked that he would like to buy a few acres in Westmeath. His letters are also full of references to the writings of Sean O’Casey, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, he would later seek out Shaw and his wife, Charlotte, who would become close confidants. In 1925, Lawrence changed his name for the second time and was known thereafter as TE Shaw.

T.E. Lawrence never made it to, or presumably came to terms with, the shadows cast by his baronial or illegitimate past at South Hill. And it may only be coincidence, but during the Troubles and after, the disenfranchised peoples of the Middle East, notably the Palestinians, were among the closest allies of Irish republicanism, a sentiment that Lawrence would have grasped immediately.

As we drove west, Kevin mentioned once seeing the Hezbollah flag flying in Derry and reminded me of the IRA’s connections, long ago, to Gaddafi’s Libya.

More articles by:

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including, most recently, Reading the Rails.

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