Town Major Sirr

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (Winter 2003), Letters, Letters, Volume 11

Sir,—Pat Marshall’s interesting piece on Major Sirr in your last issue (HI 11.3, Autumn 2003) neglected one aspect of Sirr’s later career: his interest in the Irish language. (Viewers of Pat Murphy’s film Anne Devlin will recall that Sirr is the only major character who speaks Irish on-screen, when talking to an informer.) It extended to strong support for missionary societies that hoped to convert Irish Catholics to Protestantism through Irish-language preaching. One of his sons, Revd Darcy Sirr, was the official biographer of Power Le Poer Trench, last Church of Ireland archbishop of Tuam, whose role in launching the ‘Protestant crusade in Ireland’ is outlined by Desmond Bowen. (A grandson of the Major, William Sirr, was still writing to London literary weeklies from a Surrey address at the beginning of the twentieth century protesting at unfavourable literary portrayals of his grandfather.)
An interesting portrait of the aged Sirr and his antiquarian pursuits can be found in the 1838 volume Letters from Ireland by the evangelical writer Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, whose attitudes were shaped by several years’ residence in Kilkenny at the height of the Rockite movement in the early 1820s. Tonna had landed in the south-east and was stopping off in Dublin on her way to Belfast (where she visited her friend Revd Henry Cooke) and Derry. She had previously made a pilgrimage to Vinegar Hill, which she regarded as a site of Protestant martyrdom, and met an elderly widow whose husband had been piked before her eyes in 1798. This influences Tonna’s idealised view of

Sirr’s exploits:

Another pleasant evening we passed at the Castle—not, I assure you, with Lords Mulgrave or Morpeth [Whig lord lieutenant and chief secretary], but with that loyal old Protestant soldier, Major Sirr, whose fine museum of antiquities, and every description of rarities, far exceeded my expectation, highly as it was raised. Among the most interesting natural curiosities were some exquisite specimens of the rocks in Achill, transparent amethysts they seemed, of some feet in circumference. It was sweet to think that the island, which had long been spiritually afflicted, tossed with tempests and not comforted, was now having her stones laid with fair colours, and her foundations with sapphires. (Isai. liv. 11) [Tonna refers to Edward Nangle’s Achill Mission.] Many relics I saw of the earliest days of Ireland’s history, both martial and regal, some exquisitely wrought, others remarkable only for the weight of the precious metal that composed them. Nothing, however, led me back so completely to those olden days as the frame of an Irish war-harp, such as the minstrels bore to the battlefield. This was of oak, almost black with age, rude, but perfect in form, and about two or three feet high. I should have liked to have borrowed it for a day, to muse over the recollections that it could not fail to excite. It was to me very touching to see the owner of these treasures, in the enjoyment of a healthy and vigorous ripeness of years, moving tranquilly among his stores, pointing out and explaining, with all the bland courtesy of a better era of manners, what was worthy of remark; and to remember through what fearful struggles he had passed, manfully braving the forefront of danger, in defence of that very castle, and of the Protestant faith and name, forty years ago. I found the Major keenly alive to the importance of the Irish language, as a means of achieving what the sword can never effect among this people; and I left the vice-regal edifice, more than ever convinced that Ireland has never yet been conquered, never will be, till the sword of the Spirit be deeply buried in her bosom.

One wonders what Anne Devlin would have thought of this tête-à-tête.
—Yours etc.,
PATRICK MAUME,
Queen’s University,
Belfast.

PS: In reference to Seamus Shortall’s query in your last issue—the bearded figure in Ernest Kavanagh’s 1914 cartoon, shown with John Redmond as members of a press-gang shanghaiing Irish Volunteers into the British army, is not Pierce O’Mahony but William O’Brien, leader of the smaller of the two Irish Parliamentary Party factions which existed in 1914.

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