“Customs vary wi’ the times, At Hallowe’en..” So wrote John Mayne in his poemHallowe’en which was published in 1780. This work was a major influence on Robert Burns’ more famous poem of the same name which appeared in 1785. Mayne’s wise observation that Halloween customs vary (like all cultures and languages) with the times, has not been widely accepted. Instead Halloween has become a sort of battleground over identity, politics and nationality, with dubious claims thrown into the mix that its origin harks back to the pre-Christian age.
It is perhaps not a surprise that the nation which dominates the present Halloween narrative is Ireland, it being the only one of the four nations to have a massive, influential cultural revolution in the shape of the Gaelic Revival, which merged nationalism, mythology and eventually (after much bloodshed) polity. These customs date back many centuries, spanning the British Isles and transcending the homogeneous “nation”. They pre-date standardised education systems and thus buckle the now coalesced narrative. When they become political, history tends to be the first victim.
All of this means that our understanding of Halloween is blurred. It’s time to focus the lens.
There are so many unsubstantiated claims and assumptions relating to this festival, it’s difficult to know where to begin. My main research focus has been on the Jack O’Lantern. Let’s start with that…
As I walked past the Dockers Monument today, I was reminded of an overlooked aspect of Limerick’s history. Among that blizzard of centenaries that began to fall last year, the 1913 Lockout, and to a lesser extent the bitter strikes in Sligo/Galway, justifiably received vast swathes of media attention and analysis. Yet the first notable industrial dispute in Ireland in 1913 occurred in Limerick City.
The dispute, which led to several weeks of strike action, was between the dock labourers and their employer, the Limerick Steamship Company. The conflict arose because the dock labourers, who were all members of a union (Limerick Dock Labourers’ Society), objected to working alongside “non-society” men employed by Mullock & Sons, coal merchants. The dockers were concerned that the outsourcing of non-unionised labour by individual employers at the docks, undermined their position and put pressure on their already low wages and job security.
After talks broke down, the labourers took action. Six hundred tons of coal had arrived in the city on the SS Sinainn. The dockers announced that they would only discharge the cargo, if they were also allowed to bag it into Mullock & Sons yard. When this request was denied they began their strike on Friday the 24th January. (Trivia: This ship was detained at Hamburg in 1914 and used as a transport ship by the German Army until it was sunk by mines in 1916)
Imported Strikebreakers from Liverpool
The Limerick Steamship Co. responded by importing labourers from England to complete the work. These men, who numbered around sixty, were all from Liverpool, and they arrived in Limerick with the strike just a few days old. This action was coordinated by the Shipping Federation, which was an association of shipping industry employers, established to curb trade unionism and mitigate the effects of strike action. Limerick Steamship Co. also contacted the constabulary and warned them that there may be unrest because of such a provocative move.
In July 1913 the Irish Republican Brotherhood published an anti-enlistment leaflet entitled “War – England, Germany and Ireland”
Among those who distributed the leaflet was IRB member Art O’Donnell, from Tullycrine, Co. Clare. O’Donnell followed in his father’s footsteps when he joined the brotherhood in 1908 and was sworn in by his first cousin Con Colbert (later executed in 1916). Art handed out the anti-enlistment leaflets after Mass on a Sunday. It read..
War is imminent between England and Germany.
England’s cowardly and degenerate population won’t make soldiers.
Not so the Germans.
They are trained and ready.
What will England do?
She will recruit Irishmen to fight Germany for her.
She will then, when finished with them, fling them back to the workhouses of Ireland reeking with foul filthy diseases.
A London daily newspaper, The Morning Post, mistakenly reported that the Dublin Vigilance Committee was behind the leaflet. This inaccurate reporting culminated at the same newspaper in 1920 when it published a series of articles based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Witness Statement of Art O’Donnell, Commandant of the West Clare Brigade (Bureau of Military History, 1955)
The events of the 31st March 1913 in Limerick City (taken from my live tweet session in 2013)
“The time is midnight. William Street, so busy during the day is now quiet, those who live on the street are all inside their homes. Nothing stirs on the street except Mr. Joseph Griffin who is locking up his shop (No. 54) for the night.
He suddenly hears the “repeated crash of glass” and loud cries of “Fire!” coming from further down the street, he runs to help. He sprints further along the street and sees that George Clancy’s premises, a drapery, is on fire (No. 48).
The fire started on the ground level (which is the location of fire escape) and to the rear of the building (location of the stairwell). This mean that the five people inside the building are cut off and their only means of escape is via the front windows (the 3rd and 4th floors)
Mr. Griffin sees George Clancy (the owner) at the 3rd floor window and his assistant, Michael Higgins at the 4th floor window. The fire is spreading rapidly. Luckily someone had left a ladder outside Tyler’s Boot Stores (which was in the process of being repainted) on the same street.
Griffin was then joined by James Ledden (who was staying in the building beside Clancy’s) and James Dickson (Mungret St.) They used the ladder to rescue George Clancy, but soon realised that the ladder was too short to reach the 4th floor where Higgins was.
taken from the Introduction to Poems of the Irish revolutionary brotherhood (Padraic Colum, 1916)
“The years that brought maturity to the [poets] who were foremost to sign, and foremost to take arms to assert, Ireland’s Declaration of Independence, may come to be looked back on as signal days in Irish history. They were days of preparation. The youth of Nationalist Ireland had turned to a task – the task of learning – of learning first the Irish language, of learning then about Irish public affairs, and at the end of learning arms and about the handling of men.
The generation that became conscious twenty years ago turned with hope, faith and reverence to Gaelic Ireland. From the remnant of the Gaelic speaking people they would learn what civilization their country was capable of attaining to. Those who regarded themselves as the historic Irish nation were then rediscovering their origins and their achievements : they were Celts; they were of the race of Brennus and Vercingetorix, of Cuchullain and Maeve, of Columbanus and Scotus Eiriugena; they were of the breed of the warriors who had shaken all empires although they had founded none; of the race of the missionary saints, and of the lovers of learning who had made themselves the patrons and protectors of European culture. The Ireland they willed would not be an autonomous West Britain, but a resurgent Gaelic nationality. And their race-dream was as fantastic perhaps as the race-dream of any other reviving people.
Those who mastered the Irish language began to learn it in classes spontaneously organised in the cities and the villages, and they made themselves fluent by living with fishermen and small farmers in far islands and remote villages. Classwork made a comradeship between young men and women. Their first control was over classes and their first intervention in public affairs was from the lecture platform.
Padraic Pearse was the first of the young men to be seriously spoken of in the Gaelic League. He had learned Irish in one of the few schools where it was then taught, and he took up Irish studies in University College, then part of the old Royal, and now part of the new National, University. He graduated from University College and was called to the bar. Meanwhile he had mastered the language and had learnt about Gaelic life by living for long spaces of time in a cottage he owned in one of the poorest districts of West Connacht.
George A. Bermingham (the pseudonym of clergyman and novelist Rev. James Owen Hannay) published a study of twelve different Irish ‘types’ in 1913. The illustrations of each Irish type were taken from oil paintings by Jack B. Yeats. These descriptive paintings are a contemporary and unique glimpse of pre-war Ireland. Hilary Pyle (a Jack. B. Yeats’ biographer) wrote that
The illustrations are fine achievements, paintings of typical characters making up the Ireland of the day, parish priest, businessman, farmer and so on, the results of carefully trained observation combined with a natural and intuitive creativity, and they demonstrate individuality, good draughtsmanship, a sense of design and gift for dramatic narrative.
The courts of petty sessions were local courts that dealt with minor cases, both criminal and civil. They are an invaluable resource for local historians as they offer a glimpse of the social landscape in Limerick at this time, as well as giving a voice/platform to the ordinary person who is otherwise omitted from the “public record” of the contemporary printed media. Here is a list of the more interesting cases I have stumbled upon in the Limerick Leader and the Limerick Chronicle newspapers (1912-1914) as well as some from other counties that caught my eye. The tone of the reporting is interesting and in many cases there is laughter in the court room at some of the evidence given. Did individuals attend the petty sessions as a form of entertainment? The contrast between the sentencing is telling. Petty crime often resulted in a prison sentence whereas something like the negligent management of a factory (which could lead to death) resulted in a token fine.
Croom Petty Sessions: Ann Meehan, convicted on a charge of assault, was stated to have 600 convictions recorded against her. She is 77 years of age, and was alleged to have been drinking whiskey since she was 17. The police said the Cork jail authorities refused to keep her on a former occasion; and the Chairman of the Court said she would not be kept in a Home. She would not remain in a Workhouse and she could not be sent to a Lunatic Asylum. It was decided, in the Chairman’s words, “To try the jail again.” (03/1912)
City Petty Sessions: Bridget Morrissey imprisoned for a month for stealing two pairs of boots. James McCarthy fined 5s for assaulting his wife. (03/1912)
Bruree Petty Sessions: Three boys from the village of Bruree were brought before the court on suspicion of being “dangerous, quarrelsome and scandalous..they are night-walkers who sleep in the day and go abroad at night; likely to disturb the peace, are idle, vagabond and persons of evil fame.” They were accused of assaulting a young girl by putting a rope around her and of throwing a man’s donkey-cart into the river. When the Judge asked why was there none of the injured parties in court, the prosecutor replied “they may be called informers then, you know the country as well as I do.” The case was dismissed and the boys got off with a curfew warning.
Special Court in Glin: Mary Neville, with a child in her arms, was charged with being drunk and incapable, and was sent to Tralee Prison for one month’s hard labour. Her three children were conveyed to the Listowel Workhouse. (03/1912)