Book Review: Monteith: The Making of a Rebel, by Catherine C. Smyth (2017)

Monteith_bookRoger Casement was a sick man. Amidst all the uncertainties facing the tiny band of Irish revolutionaries on board the cramped German U-boat, that much was all too clear. Fearful that his companion might collapse under the twin strains of ill health and worry, Robert Monteith suggested that he catch some sleep. Casement tried to but, after half an hour, he was back to fretting.

At the mouth of the Shannon, they had looked out from the conning tower, straining their eyes in the gloom for signs of the Aud, the ship due to deliver the much-needed weapons for the planned uprising. Despite an earlier sighting of the Aud – or what they thought it was – they found nothing. After cruising for an hour and a half, the captain announced they could wait no longer, and directed his submarine towards Tralee Bay.

Before disembarking on the Kerry coast, Monteith took out their firearms and asked his companion: “Do you understand the loading of these Mauser pistols?”

“No, I have never loaded one,” Casement replied. “I have never killed anything in my life.”

“Well, Sir Roger, you may have to start very soon,” Monteith said. “It is quite possible that we may either kill or be killed.”

Monteith tried to teach Casement the basics of handling their pistols, but the other man decided that such skills were not for him and handed the weapons back with a shake of his head.

At least Casement had retained some sense of the occasion. As Monteith bemoaned the incongruity of trying to liberate their country under such woebegotten circumstances, Casement hushed him.

“It will be a much greater adventure going ashore in this cockle shell,” he said, in reference to the small boat they were lowering themselves into.

Casement_and_Monteith_on_UBoat
Robert Monteith (second from the left) besides Roger Casement, on board the U-Boat for Ireland

For Monteith, it was but the latest adventure in what had already been an eventful life. Born in 1878 in Co. Wicklow, he had enrolled in the British Army and was posted to India, during which he was shot in the mouth, dislocated his hip when a horse threw him, and learned to speak a local dialect. Later he volunteered to serve in South Africa, where the ‘scorched earth’ policy he helped inflict during the Boer War gave him a different perspective on the cause he was serving:

In the smoke and red flames of the first Boar [sic] farmhouse I saw burned, there appeared to me the grisly head and naked ribs of the imperialist monster. I realised why the women and children knelt in the shower of sparks to curse us.

Still, in a way, Monteith thought the Indians and the Boers had it easy compared to the people of his own homeland:

I have been in the villages of Bengal and the Punjab in India, and in the kraals of the so-called savages of Africa, with whom it is a crime to beat a child; I have eaten with the Zulu, Basuto, Swazi and the Matabele, and can say without fear of contradiction that the conditions under which these ‘benighted heathens’ live are far above those of the Christian workers of Dublin.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that after all this, not to mention a bout of malaria, a photograph of a uniformed Monteith (below), as he neared his Army discharge after eight years of service, shows a thin, serious-looking man, still only twenty-five.rha-1903

Back in Ireland, where he owned a small Dublin-based printing press, Monteith’s feelings of discontent crystallised into open outrage upon seeing the beating to death of a man by police (and his own battering when he intervened) during the Dublin Lock-out of 1913, as well as the clubbing of his stepdaughter.

Monteith decided to enlist in the Irish Citizen Army but was persuaded by Tom Clarke, an acquaintance of his, to instead channel his military know-how into the nascent Irish Volunteers. Sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) by Clarke, Monteith was sufficiently trusted to be offered the chance to assist Casement in Germany, where he was attempting to form an ‘Irish Brigade’ from the inmates of POW camps there.

Casement_photo
Roger Casement

Monteith agreed and met Casement in Munich, October 1915. Casement made an instant impression on Monteith, who was to wax lyrically about his new colleague: “I have known no eyes more beautiful than Casement’s…Blazing when he spoke of man’s inhumanity to man; soft and wistful when pleading the cause so dear to his heart; mournful when telling the story of Ireland’s century old martyrdom.”

Casement’s story was almost as much Monteith’s as well, so entwined were their lives at this point. Not for nothing was Monteith’s memoir – quoted liberally by Smyth in her book – entitled Casement’s Last Adventure.

The reality of the situation, however, proved to be…challenging. Even then, Casement was visibly ill and nervous. As for the Irish POWs, they were not always a receptive audience. A not-untypical entry in Monteith’s diary read:

3 November 1915: Commenced recruiting campaign at 9 a.m. and continue till noon. Started at 2 p.m. and worked till 5 p.m. These hours were chosen so as not to interfere with meal hours of men. Men seem indifferent. A lot of them are absolutely impossible.

Much to Montheith’s bewilderment, the prisoners seemed too content with their situation for anything as bothersome as reenlistment. “All of them are loud in their statement that when the war is over they will be prepared to fight for Ireland. God help us!” Monteith wrote, and more in a similar vein.Irish_Brigade_members

At least a proposal by the IRB Military Council to have a boat loaded with armaments sent to Ireland gave Casement a new lease of life. As Monteith remembered: “He was so happy at the news I brought, that he immediately slipped out of bed, and started to work on plans or suggestions, to help the German General Staff and Admiralty, on the work in hand.”

As it turned out, neither the German Command nor the IRB had much further use or interest in him. When Casement, realising this harsh truth, insisted on going on board the same ship, Monteith tried vainly to talk him out of it. Their German point-men, in contrast, made no such effort. At least Casement and Monteith still had each other, the latter loyally refusing to allow the other to risk himself alone.

Monteith
Robert Monteith

Smyth’s book reads like a novel, fast-paced and by turns exciting and depressing. Poor Casement! Monteith at least managed to avoid capture in Kerry. He left Casement, too sickly to carry on, in an ancient ring-fort that would provide some shelter. By the time Monteith reached Tralee and alerted the local Irish Volunteers, Casement had already been found and arrested by a police patrol.

Hiding out in Tralee, Monteith could still hope that the Aud would finally arrive with its catchment, but even that was not to be. With orders, countermanding orders and general confusion marking the Rising-that-was-not-to-be in Kerry, Monteith wisely turned down the offer to command the Irish Volunteers gathering in Tralee.

Instead, he went on the run, managing to stay one step ahead of his police pursuers, and eventually made it to the safety of New York. He was by then suffering from nervous exhaustion, something which the readers will relate to by the time they come to the end of this gripping book.

While awaiting the hangman’s noose, an imprisoned Casement wrote to his sister to say: “The only person alive, if he is alive, who knows the whole of my coming and why I came, with what aim and hope, is Monteith. I hope he is still alive and you may see him and he will tell you everything.”

Monteith told a lot more people via his memoirs, and it is fitting that the same tragi-comic story should continue to be told here. What a tale! And what an adventure, as Casement observed, albeit not a very happy one.

Originally published on The Irish Story (12/09/2017)

Advertisements

Book Review: Eoin MacNeill: Memoir of a Revolutionary Scholar, by Eoin MacNeill (edited by Brian Hughes) (2016)

macneillmemoir-for-catalogue-70kbThis is a difficult work to get to grips with, given how wildly uneven it is in tone. “I do not propose to write anything like a record of the proceedings, but only to put on record certain facts and certain aspects of the facts within my personal knowledge,” is how the author put it, although Eoin MacNeill could surely have been more discerning on which facts to choose for posterity.

Take, for instance, MacNeill’s tale that was offered as part of a storytelling contest among his colleagues in the Irish Volunteers. While travelling by train from Dublin to Belfast, MacNeill related, he took out his pipe and tobacco pouch, only to be reprimanded by a young man seated nearby who told him that this was a non-smoking compartment. A short while later, one of the two men who had been sitting on either side of the objector leaned over to tell MacNeill to smoke away as they were in the process of bringing their companion to an institution (presumably a mental one).

This was the winning entry, and earned MacNeill the prize of a new pipe, appropriately enough. MacNeill inserts this tale in between describing the efforts to obtain guns for the Irish Volunteers – culminating in the Howth Gun-Running in July 1914 – and it is hard to know why MacNeill bothered with such a pointless interlude.

A better editor was desperately needed here, one who could tell MacNeill which anecdotes to keep and which ones should be dumped. Ita Mallon tried to be that editor.

g_em_macneill_ucdarchivesla2030ph325
Eoin MacNeill

MacNeill began work in 1932, dictating them initially to a journalist, Leila Carroll, over an 11-year period. The project tapered off until 1939, when MacNeill resumed work with the help of Mallon, who was also a journalist.

Mallon did her best to prod MacNeill into livening up the material, such as advising him to include some information on the Boundary Commission (of which MacNeill was part), and suggesting a chapter entitled ‘Famous Men I Have Met’. The latter would surely have been of considerable interest, coming from a man who could count the likes of Michael Collins, Patrick Pearse and Kevin O’Higgins among his acquaintances.

Not that MacNeill was amendable to such advice and, when he died in 1945, his family and friends agreed to remove the annotations Mallon had made to the text. The unvarnished original is what readers have here, which at least ensures the book’s authenticity, albeit with flaws that even historian Brian Hughes is honest about in his introduction:

Many of its themes and topics are underdeveloped, it is sometimes scattered in its chronology, there is no real sense of a chapter structure, and it is often repetitive, with MacNeill repeating several anecdotes on more than one occasion.

And yet, “in spite of its somewhat fragmentary nature,” Hughes argues, “the memoir that follows is a valuable historical document.”

be20e9d118739b9f0f2c14fd4843b896-ireland-easter-rising
Eoin MacNeill

There is some truth to that. MacNeill’s account of the increasingly frayed relationships between the Irish Volunteers and the politicians of the Irish Parliamentary Party are of considerable interest – providing as it does an insider’s account – as are his slow realisation of the extent to which the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) were blindsiding him in order to facilitate the Easter Rising.

‘Slow’ is the operative word here. He did not even know the IRB Military Council had existed until Tom Clarke’s widow dropped it into a conversation a year after the Rising. History has generally remembered MacNeill as a well-meaning soul but one who was easily misled by the machinations of the IRB.

It’s a write-off that MacNeill struggled to counter in his own memoir. In places, he seems to unintentional agree with the verdict that he was out of his depth. During his review of the Limerick Volunteers in his role as Chief of Staff, he was surprised to learn that the commanding officer had been appointed to some sort of secret command, with instructions to ‘hold the line of the Shannon’ should certain, unstated things come to pass. Despite his consternation, MacNeill did nothing except tell the officer to carry on as usual.

4thbatt
Irish Volunteers on parade

MacNeill was more decisive when James Connolly appeared likely to take unilateral action with his Irish Citizen Army in late 1915. Showing one of his few sparks of leadership, MacNeill warned Connolly against his plan to seize a number of large buildings in Dublin and wait for the masses to follow his lead. “You simply cannot see over the top of the houses,” MacNeill told him.

While he was able to talk Connolly down, MacNeill’s suspicion that plans were being hatched behind his back continued. Thomas MacDonagh assured him this was not the case until, on the Saturday before the Rising, MacDonagh admitted that he had to obey what he called the ‘council’ rather than his Chief of Staff.

normal_p-24-001
Joseph Plunkett

MacNeill was to blame Joseph Plunkett for much of these machinations, alleging that he “revelled in plotting and planning and nothing in the arrangements was too minute for him.” Plunkett would attempt to have MacNeill sign a certain proclamation, sometime on the Good Friday or Saturday. He declined until he had the chance to read it. Even if he had received a copy (he never did), he “would certainly have refused to sign a proclamation containing a delusive statement about an alliance with Germany and Austria,” a reference to the ‘gallant allies in Europe’ that Pearse was to enthuse over in his address outside the General Post Office.

When the Rising finally broke out, MacNeill – fearing British retribution – first tried asking for shelter in a “certain religious house,” only to be informed that he would not be welcome. The Augustinians at Orlagh, below Killakee Mountain, were more hospitable, and from there he had a view of the whole of Dublin, now a war zone.

image
The Augustinian retreat centre, Orlagh, where Eoin MacNeill took refuge

For reasons attributed to the strain of feeling like a refugee, MacNeill took his leave of the Augustinians and went to his brother’s house at Rathfarnham, closer to the fighting, from where he could again watch history unfold: “From the roof of this house also, a large part of the city was visible and almost every sound, rifle fire, as well as artillery could be plainly heard.”

Aaaaaaand…that’s as good as it gets. But it was nice while it lasted.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Manuscripts Commission