While rereading some of my notes recently, I came across a 1932 interview with Charlotte Despard, the Anglo-Irish-teetotal-theosophist-communist- pacifist-suffragette revolutionary, which I had transcribed in full. I thought it would be worthwhile sharing because it has some interesting details about the life of a unique figure from British and Irish History.
The interview was published in the 2nd July 1932 issue of An Phoblacht (“The Republic”), an Irish republican weekly newspaper. Introducing the piece, the Editor described Despard’s account as a “vivid summary of recent events” in which the “distinguished veteran revolutionary” had played a prominent role. The piece has one major contemporary echo – namely Despard’s critique of the Empire-white washing and Ireland-ignoring historical education of her youth. But it also suggests the importance of interpersonal relationships, such as Despard’s friendship with Eva Gore Booth and Esther Roper, in bringing her towards a political identification with Ireland.
HOW I CAME TO LIVE IN IRELAND
by Mrs. Charlotte Despard
I was born and had my school education in Great Britain, but I come of an Irish family. My father died when I was a child and it was only when I grew up that I knew of my kinship with Ireland.
In my day, at least so far as girls were concerned, there was no broad or consistent study of history. Great Britain, her ever-expanding empire and her great mission “the civilising of the world” was constantly brought before us. Of Irish history we were taught little or nothing, and it was only when I left school that I was able to learn anything about it. The historian Lecky, then a popular writer, was my first teacher. I may say that through him I made some extraordinary discoveries. His essay on Ireland in the 18th Century filled me not only with amazement but with a certain horror. I consulted persons older and more experienced than myself and asked was it true. They answered “Yes, it might be, but that was a long time ago. Now (they said) every effort is made by our Government to be just to Ireland, but it is of little use; the Irish are always discontented.” Naturally I was not satisfied and I continued my studies. I became acquainted also with Irish men and women who had been obliged to leave their own country, so great was the difficulty in making a decent living there. One of these exiles I married in 1870, and during our brief and happy married life we frequently visited Ireland. I came to love the country and admire and love her people, but my understanding of the Irish situation and of its relations with the British Empire Came Later. I had then met for the first time a fine and brave woman of whose heroic struggle in the Land League and against the British Empire I had already heard – Maud Gonne McBride. I had also through suffrage agitation and other social work, come into close contact with two other remarkable Irish women – Eva Gore-Booth and her friend Miss Roper.
The occurrence of Easter Week, for which I was already partly prepared, I remember vividly. Little news came over. It was a time of intense anxiety. On the Sunday that followed the Rising, my two friends found me. I heard from them that Countess Markievicz with others was lying in a Dublin prison and sentenced to death. My brother, Sir John French, was then commanding officer in the British army, and they thought it might help them if I went with them to the War Office to make inquiries. As a matter of fact we were met sympathetically, and through another department Eva Gore-Booth was given permission to cross to Ireland. I must mention here what I think is not generally known in Ireland. The night before the execution of James Connolly, who had been so well known and so much appreciated by British workers, great meetings of protest and indignation were held all over London and in other parts of England, and resolutions were sent from them to the Government praying for remission of his sentence.
So began my close association with the tangled history – not yet closed – of Ireland’s struggle for political and economic freedom. I was in communication with many friends who gave me the latest and most reliable news. I paid many visits to Ireland, when there, staying with my friend Madame Gonne McBride. I was at that time a Member of the English Labour party and we had more than one campaign of protest and indignation against the hideous Black-and-Tan regime. I spoke to large and enthusiastic audiences. The rank and file indeed were with me but the Trade Union Officials, bound as they are to Capitalism and Imperialism, would not sanction what many of us desired – namely, refusal by the workers to handle war munitions to Ireland.
During the brief period of a real Irish Administration there came to me the dream which I cherish still and which was at the back of my mind when I made my final decision – the creation here of a real Commonwealth, a Republic, which might be “a model to the mighty world.”
The determination to link up my fate with that of Ireland came suddenly. It was early in 1921; the news was bad. Two leading papers were making protests and publishing letters from Irish men and women about the state of things in their country. I was feeling it all deeply. One Sunday as I was kneeling at Mass in my Club-room at Nine Elms, where Mass was said on Sunday mornings, it seemed to me that I heard a voice – “You must go yourself.”
“Purely emotional,” some will say. “So it may be,” I might answer. In any case it was irresistible, and I may add I have never repented my decision.
There is little more to be said. I was received on my arrival in Dublin by my friend and dear colleague Madame Gonne McBride. With the assistance of many others, notably that fine woman pioneer Mrs. Sheehy Skeffington, we have carried through one part of our work successfully. The next awaits us – the creation of a Republic of which we dream that may make our Ireland “a model to the mighty world.”