SWANSONG

August 04, 2014  •  Leave a Comment
 
 
August 5th 1914 is not remembered in history books. Everyone remembers the day before because that was when Britain declared war on Germany. The 5th was merely the first full day of a war which most people thought would be over by Christmas. No one imagined that it would last until 1918 and cost millions of lives. But in Mitchelstown, the 5th of August was historic. For it was the occasion of the last recorded garden party at Mitchelstown Castle - an event that might have gone unnoticed had it not been for Elizabeth Bowen who described that day in her book, 'Bowen's Court'. 
 
Elizabeth was 15 years old in 1914, an only child, whose mother had died some years previously. On the day of the garden party, she travelled by pony and trap, driven by her father, from Bowen's Court to Rockmills. 
 
'At Rockmills my father - whose manner, I do remember, had been growing graver with every minute - stopped the pony and went into the post office. There was a minute to wait, with the pony stamping, before I again saw him framed in the low dark door. He cleared his throat and said: "England has declared war on Germany." Getting back into the trap he added: "I suppose it could not be helped." All I could say was: "Then can't we go to the garden party".'
 
They drove on to Mitchelstown, picking up one of the Oliver girls on the way. Elizabeth described how 'the bye-roads had dried in the wind and were glaring white; the War already gave them an unreal look'. Arriving at King Square, they ate lunch at her Aunt Sarah's house before walking up the short avenue to the castle, where they were greeted 'by the gusty sound of a band" (it was the Mitchelstown Brass Band, who were paid £5 for their services). The guests were welcomed in the castle gallery by Willie Webber, the elderly owner of the castle, and his companion, Minnie Fairholme. Once those formalities were over, everyone was encouraged back outside. It was, after all, a garden party. Elizabeth's words tell the story -
 
'Wind raced round the Castle terraces, naked under the Galtees; grit blew into the ices; the band clung with some trouble to its exposed place. The tremendous news certainly made that party, which might have been rather flat. Almost everyone said the wondered if they really ought to have come, but they had come - rightly: this was a time to gather. This was an assemblage of Anglo-Irish people from all over north-east County Cork, from the counties of Limerick, Waterford, Tipperary. For miles around, each isolated big house had disgorged its talker, this first day of war. 
 
'The tension of months, of years - outlying tension of Europe, inner tension of Ireland - broke in a spate of words. Braced against the gale from the mountains, licking dust from their lips, these were the unmartialled loyalists of the South. Not a family had not put out, like Bowen's Court, its generations of military brothers - tablets in Protestant Churches recorded deaths in remote battles; swords hung in halls. If the Anglo-Irish live on and for a myth, for that myth they constantly shed their blood.
 
'So, on this August 1914 day of grandeur and gravity, the Ascendancy rallied, renewed itself. The lack - it was marked - of one element at that party made us feel the immediate sternness of war: the officers from Kilworth, Fermoy and Buttevant had other things to do that afternoon. They were already under orders, we heard…
 
'It was an afternoon when the simplest person begins to anticipate memory - this Mitchelstown garden party, it was agreed, would remain in every one's memory as historic. It was, also, a more final scene than we knew. Ten years hence, it was all to seem like a dream - and the Castle itself would be a few bleached stumps in the plateau. Today, the terraces are obliterated, and grass grows where the saloons were. Many of those guests, those vehement talkers, would be scattered, houseless, sonless, or themselves dead.'
 
Mitchelstown Castle was occupied by anti-treaty supporters in the aftermath of the June 1922 General Election. In that election, which was contested by pro and anti-Treaty candidates, 80 (eighty) per cent of the popular vote went to pro-Treaty candidates. Of that vote, 20 per cent went to the Labour Party, which also supported the Treaty.
 
In the early weeks of August, the castle was looted. On 12th August 1922, it was burned on the orders of their local leader, Pa Luddy. Luddy boasted that fact for the rest of his life. 
 
On that same day, as the National Army advanced southwards, Liam Lynch ordered the evacuation of Fermoy, which was the last town held by anti-Treaty supporters. Before their retreat, he ordered the burning of the two military barracks in Fermoy, its military hospital, Kilworth Military Camp, Moorepark Military Camp, Mitchelstown Workhouse, Mitchelstown Police Barracks, Mitchelstown Military Barracks, Mallow Barracks, Ballyvonare Military Camp and Buttevant Military Barracks. Dozens of bridges were blown up, including the railway viaduct in Mallow. The anti-treatyites had planned to blow up the bridge in Mallow, but that was stopped by the rector and parish priest who went onto the bridge to lead the people in prayer. The clergymen told the IRA that if they blew up the bridge, they'd have to blow them with it.
 
In August, Eamon de Valera argued with Lynch over the continuation of the civil war. De Valera wanted to achieve their republican objectives by political means. Lynch would have none of it. De Valera argued that if the republicans couldn't hold a single town how could they expect to win a republic. Between August 1922 until April 1923, neighbours killed each other. Brothers fought brothers. Murder, reprisal and counter reprisal became the order of the day. Wrongs were done on both sides of a political divide that still shapes Irish politics. Civil wars are the worst of wars. The Irish Civil War left a bitter legacy.     
 
Lynch was killed on the Knockmealdown mountains on 10th April 1923. Ten days later, the civil war ended.
 
Meanwhile, in the 1914 to 1918 war, up to 40,000 Irishmen had given their lives for freedom. Most believed that it was for Ireland as much as for the freedom of small nations like 'Little Belgium'. Only recently have we in Ireland learned to acknowledge their sacrifice.

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