The Gardener of Glenstal

Published in Features, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2006), Volume 14

The Gardener of Glenstal 1TG: Tell us a bit about your background.

BM: I was typically London Irish. My father, John, came from a farming family with land at Tarelton and Inchigeelagh, Co. Cork. He graduated as a doctor at University College Cork in 1928 and came to England to practise. My mother, Kathleen O’Brien, was born in London but her father, James, came from Ringmoylan, Pallaskenry, Co. Limerick. He worked in the London Post Office at the same time as Michael Collins but in a different division. I was born in 1935 and life changed dramatically when the Second World War broke out. My father served as a doctor with the RAF; my mother took the rest of the family to a little village in Northamptonshire for some of the time. My brother and I attended the two-teacher Church of England primary school and in 1945, much to my mother’s surprise, my brother Jimmy and I were awarded the Archdeacon of Northampton’s Prize, presented on behalf of the Church of England Truth Society. I still have the book. My father died suddenly in 1952 at the age of 48. I inherited from him a respect for things English and a sympathy for things Irish—a sympathy that was not identified with any particular political party. That has been helpful in the writing of Irish political history.

TG: How did your interest in history develop?

BM: The first significant interest in history was inspired by the teaching of Oliver J. G. Welch, my history teacher at Douai School, near Reading, Berkshire. After school I joined the Benedictine community at Douai Abbey in 1954. The Rule of St Benedict (c. 480–547) is conducive to study. Time in the day was allocated to manual work, to study and to prayer. Libraries and archives formed part of the life, and an interest in history was, you might say, caught as well as taught. Bede (c. 672–735), the ‘father of British history’, was a Benedictine. I studied his Book Three, in Latin, at Oxford.

TG:  What of your time at Oxford?

BM: After a course of studies that included church history, philosophy, theology and scripture, I spent three years (1958–61) at St Benet’s Hall studying history. I recall marvellous presentations by R. W. Southern on medieval history, and by A. J. P. Taylor on modern. Taylor always put on a tour de force performance. He was the only arts lecturer to start at 9am. He claimed that if he started any later, no room in the university would hold all those who wished to attend! As it was, a room of some 200–300 people awaited him, with many more seated on the floor. He began his lecture, according to custom, at 9.05am and ended at 9.55am. Taylor spoke fluently for those 50 minutes, without notes of any kind, and always ended precisely on time. He was preparing his book on The origins of the Second World War (1961) at the time.

TG: What path did your career take after qualifying at Oxford?

BM: Having got my degree, I began teaching history in 1961. Oliver Welch was still teaching at Douai School and I assisted him. I also qualified as a Football Association coach in 1962 and was busy in class and on the games field. However, God does not write in straight lines, and in 1975 I moved to Ireland to become headmaster of St Gerard’s Junior School, Bray, in a lay capacity. St Gerard’s was founded in 1918 by John James, an Englishman, who had taught at Mount St Benedict’s School in Gorey, Co. Wexford. Prior to the 1916 Rising, Fr Sweetman, headmaster of the Mount, had put on a play at the Abbey Theatre to raise funds for soldiers who had been wounded in the trenches. After the Rising, Fr Sweetman embraced the ideals of the Irish Republic and welcomed into the school the sons of Tom Clarke, John MacBride and Countess Markievicz. There they joined the sons of John Dillon, who had participated in the earlier play.
Then, in 1984, wishing to understand more about the ‘Troubles’ that were dominating Irish life at that time, I enrolled to take a doctorate at University College Dublin and arranged to teach part-time at Glenstal Abbey School. Glenstal continued the Benedictine tradition that I had associated with at Douai Abbey and set it in an Irish and European setting. There is also a very good library and an important archive of the estate. The Abbey, known previously as Glenstal Castle, had been the home of the Barrington family of Limerick from the early nineteenth century. Records existed for that period and even as far back as the seventeenth century for earlier estates on the site. When I began restoring an old terraced garden some twenty years ago I absorbed, almost subconsciously, a continuum of living history. The one-acre garden, in which I work and have planted a Bible Garden, illustrates that history. The garden itself dates from c. 1680 and was directly connected to the terms of the Cromwellian land settlement. There is also a seal from King Charles II of England granting permission to the owner of the house to have a deer park outside the walls of the garden. Prior to that the land was occupied by an old castle, dating back to the fourteenth century, that belonged to the Mulryan family. Going back even further, there would be connections dating back to the Norman land settlement of c. 1200, which, in turn, would be related to King John’s Castle in Limerick and the Cistercian Abbey at Abington. In short, the estate and its archive introduced me to the evolving forces that have shaped Irish identity—land, language, religion, culture and sovereignty.
The most important personal help has been provided by Mark Tierney. Some 40 years ago he published a model work on local history, Murroe and Boher (1965), and he is still writing history. Apart from his lives of Archbishop Croke and of Abbot Columba Marmion, Mark published school history textbooks for many years. In the course of his research he collected many valuable papers and these were made available to me.

The Gardener of Glenstal 2TG: Your doctoral thesis was on the Catholic Bulletin and its editor, J. J. O’Kelly. How did you come to choose that topic?

BM: I was aware that the Catholic Bulletin, a monthly journal running from 1911 to 1939, had been used, in extract form, by several historians to draw broad conclusions about the character of Irish life for that period, for example F. S. L. Lyons’s Culture and anarchy in Ireland, 1890–1939 (1979) and Patrick O’Farrell’s Ireland’s English question (1971). I wanted to test their conclusions and to get a broad introduction to the evolving character of Irish nationalism at that time. Moreover, the library at Glenstal has a complete set of the Bulletin.

TG: And what of the editor, J. J. O’Kelly?

BM: He died in 1957 but I am very grateful that I met his family. His son, Mortimer, provided me not only with many important letters on political matters but also with the original minute books for the Gaelic League, the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, and the Republican Second Dáil. These finds altered the focus of my work. Professor Donal McCartney, my supervisor, immediately saw the relevance of this new material and was more than happy that the scope of my thesis be broadened. The main value of the Catholic Bulletin was in evading press censorship laws and making the Easter Rising acceptable.

TG: Have your findings been published?

BM: Yes, but not in chronological order! My first book, Patrick Pearse and the lost Republican ideal (1991), contained some material from the thesis but was mainly concerned with the 1916 Rising, and especially with its aftermath. The Minute Book of the Second Dáil figured prominently, especially in relation to de Valera’s policy in the 1920s, but was only mentioned in the thesis. The thesis itself was published last year by Athol Books under the title The Catholic Bulletin and Republican Ireland with special reference to J. J. O’Kelly. When the Pearse book came out I was accused of being a revisionist because I introduced sources that showed that Pearse could be very intemperate towards his opponents in the Gaelic League, sources that indicated that there was no £10,000 reward on the head of Michael Collins, and sources that raised questions about the way in which de Valera left Sinn Féin and the Second Dáil to found Fianna Fáil and the Irish Press.

TG: But surely you would be regarded as anti-revisionist?

BM: I’m not happy with labels but, yes, in a broad sense I would be regarded as ‘anti-revisionist’ because I have made several written contributions sympathetic to the Irish nationalist tradition associated with the Easter Rising and Dáil Éireann’s proclamations of 1919. I would claim, however, to be true to the sources that I find.

The Gardener of Glenstal 3TG: What are your thoughts on the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising this year?

BM: Leaving aside, for the moment, a historical approach, my sympathies are with the emotional response of Irish people at that time—the gut reaction, you might call it. They were described, even analysed, by George Bernard Shaw on 10 May 1916, as the executions of the rebels neared completion. He wrote that, until there is a national parliament in Ireland, ‘an Irishman resorting to arms to achieve the independence of his country is doing only what Englishmen will do if it be their misfortune to be invaded and conquered by the Germans in the present war . . . It is absolutely impossible to slaughter a man in this position without making him a martyr and a hero . . . and nothing in heaven or on earth can prevent it’. One may quibble, as commentators do today, about the futility of the Rising—Home Rule would have come anyway, they argue—but men were killed in cold blood while fighting for the abstract ideal of Irish freedom. It unmasked the reality of British rule in Ireland. This was recognised by people of the time and, to my mind, it is proper that we should continue to commemorate them in the same spirit as described by Shaw.

TG: What of the Catholic Bulletin and a more historical approach?

BM: The Catholic Bulletin offers historical insights into the Rising from both a positive and negative level. Its positive contribution was to publish from July 1916 until 1919 obituary tributes of those who had died in the Rising, often illustrated with photographs. For example, the December 1916 issue had over twenty photographs of the mothers, widows and children of those who had died and provided details of their lives. Although the censor forbade any political comments to be made, and constantly intervened to prohibit material being published, it was clearly spelt out that those who had participated in the Rising were good and so were their ideals. In this fashion the Catholic Bulletin not only conveyed a propaganda message in favour of the rebels but also preserved a valuable historical record of the Rising. The editor, J. J. O’Kelly, was acutely conscious of his historical task. The negative lesson to be learnt from the Catholic Bulletin relates to the contents that were suppressed by the censor. For example, the entire editorial for the May–June 1916 issue, the first after the Rising, was made up of blank pages. The contents that were cut, which I tracked down from other sources, were reflections ‘on the degree to which the Rebellion was due to the example of “Ulster” ’. It was the mention of the Curragh mutiny and the gun-running at Larne that was found to be offensive. These actions, the Bulletin argued, had driven Patrick Pearse and Eoin MacNeill, ‘men of proven constitutional instincts’, from the constitutional path. The censor’s reluctance to allow these comments to see the light should, I feel, encourage historians to give them a central role in their historical narrative of the Rising.
The most significant contribution of the Catholic Bulletin derived from its Roman connection. Mgr Michael O’Riordain and Fr John Hagan of the Irish College were regular contributors to the journal. For example, they regularly contrasted Pope Benedict XV’s calls for peace with John Redmond’s commitment to the war. They also gave prominence to Bishop O’Dwyer’s statements against the character of British military rule in Ireland. They were also in direct contact with the pope. For example, in January 1916 an Italian translation of Bishop O’Dwyer’s criticism of the Bryce Report on German atrocities was given personally to the pope. Both men were also aware of Count Plunkett’s private audience with the pope during his visit to Rome (8–21 April 1916), in which the papal blessing was conferred on the Irish Volunteers. Fortunately Jerome aan de Wiell, building on the seminal work of Professor Dermot Keogh at University College Cork, is now placing this new information in the public domain. An article in the Irish Sword, Winter 2004, provides the details of Count Plunkett’s mission, and his book The Catholic Church in Ireland 1914–1918 contains other fascinating information, including details of Mgr O’Riordain’s Red Book on the Insurrection in Ireland. The close connection of O’Riordain and Hagan with the Catholic Bulletin—Hagan wrote the monthly ‘Notes from Rome’—gives the journal a historical value that is largely unrecognised today.

TG: What do you make of present research on the Rising?

BM: Fortunately much new archival material in both England and Ireland has been made available and several books have made excellent use of it. Among them are Brian Barton’s From behind a closed door: secret court martial records of the 1916 Easter Rising (2002), Michael Foy’s and Brian Barton’s The Easter Rising (1999) and Charles Townshend’s Easter 1916 (2005). Townshend’s book uses material from the recently released witness statements from the Bureau of Military History and they add enormously to our understanding of the Rising and the War of Independence.

TG: What are you working on now?

BM: For some years I have been working on British and Irish propaganda during the revolutionary years, roughly 1916–1921, and, incidentally, examining its impact on the writing of history. A pamphlet, The origin and organisation of British propaganda in Ireland, 1920, is due to be launched in the Cork Public Library on 29 April 2006.

Tommy Graham is editor of History Ireland and lectures in history and politics for the Dublin programme of Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.


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