Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Some books from my shelves
During the Covid 19 lockdown I had the opportunity of re-acquainting myself with some of the books I acquired over the years. Many of those books, long unnoticed, had interesting provenances indicated by inscribed names. One of the most interesting books was O’Donovan Rossa’s ‘Recollections 1838-1898’ in which O’Donovan Rossa signed his name in New York on 6th January 1905. That same book was later signed by Michael Collins. It sits on my bookshelves, not far from Katherine O’Shea’s ‘Biography of Charles Stewart Parnell’ which she signed and presented to her daughter Norah. A sorrowful period in more recent Irish history is captured in Carlton Younger’s book ‘Ireland’s Civil War’ which bears the signature of Richard Mulcahy who was Commander in Chief of the Free State army during the 1922-23 conflict. Not too far away on an adjoining bookshelf is another book with a note signed by John O’Connell of the Mental Hospital Mullingar dated 11th September 1945 and addressed to Dan Breen Esq. T.D. which reads ‘I feel sure you will enjoy reading the enclosed. William was the noblest Roman of them all.’ The book was written by Michael McDonagh and published 17 years previously on the life of William O’Brien, the Irish Nationalist. O’Brien who died in 1928 was an unusual combination of politician, journalist and land agitator who on the invitation of Charles Stewart Parnell edited the United Ireland newspaper in the 1890s. He was the author of the No Rent Manifesto and was imprisoned with Parnell in October 1881. Following the Kitty O’Shea divorce controversy O’Brien supported the Anti-Parnellites and later went on to establish the United Irish League. Dan Breen was a republican soldier and politician, famous for his exploits with the third Tipperary Brigade of the I.R.A. during the War of Independence. His book ‘My fight for Irish Freedom’ published in 1924 is a colourful account of his activities during that period. The book which Dan Breen received from John O’Connell was annotated by him, or at least that part of it which he read, with notes in the margins which he signed ‘Dan Breen’ occasionally inserting the date, ‘28th August 1946’. At page 60 McDonagh wrote of Parnell’s offer to Gladstone to retire from politics following the Phoenix Park murders on 6th May 1882. Breen wrote on the side of the page ‘How did Kitty O’Shea fit into Parnell’s release. Did Parnell give way to human weakness. Which is the crime? Dan Breen.’ On the same page McDonagh described O’Brien’s abhorrence of the killing of Cavendish and Burke in the Phoenix Park to which Breen added this note: ‘Yes, the publicans who were in the pay of the enemy would have got men to lynch the Fenians. Why not give Joe Brady credit, I did the same in 1919.’ Breen’s reference to 1919 was to his involvement in the Solohead ambush which resulted in the killing of two RIC constables on 19th January of that year. On the next page of McDonagh’s book Breen wrote: ‘I was taught to kill the enemy by any and every means, I got a medal for trying the same act in 1919.’ Later on in dealing the Invincible conspiracy McDonagh described the Phoenix Park murders as ‘an inexplicable deed’ and questioned as to who could be the perpetrators. ‘Surely not Irishmen’, he suggested, to which Breen added at the side of the page the word ‘yes’. McDonagh referred to the Invincibles as the type of men ‘who must invariably emerge from the lowest deeps of revolutionary movements’, to which Breen added the note ‘it was Mick Collins, Sean Treacy etc.’ and again signed his name as he had done with all previous notes. Dan Breen may have put the book aside at this stage as no further Breen notes were found. He apparently finished his perusal of McDonagh’s book with the following note written on a small white envelope which he gummed to the top of a page: ‘Why did Parnell want to get out of jail? I suggest it was to see Kitty O’Shea. Well why should Ireland sit back became of any man’s desires. He wanted Kitty O’Shea, brave men wanted Ireland free and rid of the castle gang – so the Park execution. Dan Breen 28-8-’46.’ An unusual item amongst my history books is a novel by Maxwell Gray ‘The Last Sentence’. A 1912 printing in the Heinemann’s Seven Penny novel series, it was once owned by the Irish patriot Roger Casement who signed his name on the flyleaf. I also have a two volume biography of Lord Randolph Churchill, authored by Winston Churchill which bears the signature of Erskine Childers and the note ‘read with M.A.C. April 1906’. The M.A.C. referred to was Mary Alder Childers, or Molly as she was known, who was Erskine Childer’s wife. History books are the voices of the past and especially so where they are personalised by the hand of the author or by a famous figure from the past.