Donal Fallon: Sixteen Lives John MacBride, The O’Brien Press, Dublin, 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-84717-270-9, 297 pp
Reviewed by Georgina Fitzpatrick
This is one of a series (16 Lives) presenting short biographies of the sixteen men executed after the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and aimed at the popular market for next year’s centenary. Donal Fallon has been more fortunate than some of his fellow authors in this series in that he has a subject who was in the public eye for several decades before the Rising. According to Diarmaid Ferriter, who reviewed the 16 Lives volume about Willie Pearse, there was scant information about his life before the Rising and little source material, Irish Times, 9 May, 2015. Not only was John MacBride active in Irish republican politics from the age of 15 (he claimed later that this was when he took the Fenian oath of the Irish Republican Brotherhood) but also he had another colourful career in South Africa at the turn of the nineteenth century. MacBride was well documented in both public and private sources.
In setting out the life of John MacBride, Fallon has adopted a chronological approach from birth to death, charting what he sees as the making of a Fenian rebel set on an inexorable path to martyrdom for Irish freedom. We know what sort of biography we are going to get from the first of the chapter titles, ‘The Development of a Young Fenian’, placing MacBride’s childhood within the context of late nineteenth-century Irish nationalism. Fallon is not going to challenge any foundational myths about the Irish State in this book nor should the reader expect this. Fallon’s account of Irish history as context to MacBride’s life will be familiar to any product of the Irish secondary school system even if some of the details may be forgotten.
MacBride was born in Westport, Co Mayo in 1868, the year that his father died. However, his mother Honoria, left with five sons, prospered as a wholesale grocer, specialising as a tea, wine and spirit merchant. John was able to complete his initial Christian Brothers education with some years attending St Malachy’s in Belfast. It was not a deprived start in life, despite the material that Fallon includes in this chapter to show the poverty of the country in the post-Famine days of the Land League.
After a brief period as an apprentice to a draper in Castlerea, Co Roscommon and another brief return to St Malachy’s, MacBride moved to Dublin to take up employment at a wholesale druggist and grocer. It is in Dublin that his political education began in earnest, attending the meetings of the Young Ireland Society, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Celtic Literary Society, the Irish National Alliance and the Amnesty Association (for the release of political prisoners). Through these cultural, sporting and nationalist organisations, MacBride met many of those who were leading lights across a range of activities – from John O’Leary and Arthur Griffith to W B Yeats. In charting MacBride’s involvement with each of these organisations, Fallon perhaps follows up too many side-paths, tracking the changing genealogy of these organisations or the back-stories of notables active in the organisations to such an extent that the reader can lose sight of MacBride. However, such background may be necessary for readers in the diaspora, not so familiar with these organisations.
Despite his enthusiastic embrace of the political and cultural ferment of 1890s Dublin, MacBride migrated to the Transvaal. Fallon offers a few theories on why – that MacBride might have wanted to evade the growing attention of intelligence police officers or that he might just have had a young man’s wanderlust (p 40) – but it is what MacBride did in South Africa that gave him a public profile both there and in Ireland. While working at a gold mine outside Johannesburg, he became involved in the Boer struggle for independence from British rule.
Fallon devotes two chapters to MacBride’s time in South Africa. The first sets out the background to the British/Boer friction for some ten pages and then turns to MacBride as a new immigrant who threw himself into local Irish organisations and activities, such as the 1798 commemorative celebrations. When the War broke out in 1899, MacBride raised an Irish Brigade of 300 men to fight with the Boers against the British. Irish readers were able to follow his exploits in a new nationalist organ, the United Irishman, edited by Arthur Griffith. Fallon argues that this paper was ‘central in creating MacBride’s public persona in Ireland.’ (p 64) Part of the second South African chapter covers MacBride’s Boer war but it also deals with the mixed feelings many Irish had about the war in which so many of their relatives fought as soldiers in the British forces.
Much of the material in the two South African chapters is very rich but suffers from lapses in organisation. Chapter 2, for example, opened with a paragraph describing the commemorative arch at the Grafton Street entrance to St Stephen’s Green, a monument commemorating the Royal Dublin Fusiliers killed when fighting the Boers. Fallon lets readers know that some Dubliners refer to the arch as ‘Traitor’s Gate’ and he has a throwaway line about the intersection of Irish and South African history. However, this doesn’t really connect to the rest of the chapter on Anglo-Boer politics and MacBride’s role. It would have been a more effective opening for the following chapter entitled, ‘Ireland’s Boer War’ in which Fallon quotes a stanza of a ballad (not identified by Fallon but in fact ‘Twas an Irish Fight’) to highlight the irony of Irishman fighting Irishman in many of the engagements during the Anglo-Boer War.
On the mountain side the battle raged, there was no stop or stay;
Mackin captured Private Burke and Ensign Michael Shea,
Fitzgerald got Fitzpatrick, Brannigan found O’Rourke;
Finnegan took a man named Fay and a couple of lads from Cork
McGarry took O’Leary, O’Brien got McNamee.
That’s how the English fought the Dutch at the battle of Dundee.
MacBride’s Boer War might have been better placed in the previous chapter as the culmination of his participation in local politics, leaving Chapter 3 to focus on Ireland and the reception of accounts of MacBride’s exploits.
The next three chapters deal with MacBride’s move to Paris where he met Maud Gonne, their marriage and its rapid disintegration. Fallon attempts to defend his hero whom he believes was maligned by the Gonne-Yeats camp.In Yeats’s iconic poem, ‘Easter 1916’, he figures, unnamed, as a ‘drunken vainglorious lout’. Whether he is successful in recuperating McBride, I leave to experts in the minutiae of this famous disaster to judge. However, as Fallon discusses in Chapter 7, the bad press that MacBride received affected his position in political circles when he returned to Dublin in 1904. He was somewhat sidelined thereafter.
From then on, it is a gallop towards Easter Week with a background chapter inserted to explain the Home Rule background, the Ulster Volunteers, the National Volunteers, and the Irish Volunteers. As Fallon tells it, MacBride’s role in the Rising as second-in-command to Thomas MacDonagh at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, was almost accidental. He wasn’t a member of the Irish Volunteers and had supposedly come into Dublin to meet one of his brothers. In Chapter 9, ‘MacBride’s Easter Week’, Fallon presents many eyewitness accounts of various incidents inside Jacob’s to demonstrate different aspects of MacBride’s military leadership, much of this testimony found in the Bureau of Military History archives (now available online). The final chapter ends in Kilmainham Jail with the executions and some account of the later lives of MacBride’s brothers and son, Séan.
Useful additions in this volume include a timeline of four pages about nationalist organisations and events from the Famine to the Rising, a decent bibliography and a map of central Dublin showing the ‘rebel positions’ [sic] and the British cordon of troops. There are also two sections of glossy photographs. Many are well known but some feature family photos and MacBride in earlier years in various nationalist organisations.
Fallon had stated in his introduction that he wanted to show that MacBride was ‘an altogether more complex figure than the caricature of the man depicted in both the poetry and studies of the period has allowed him to be.’ (p 17) I do not think this was the right series for such a project. To write a nuanced biography, Fallon (or another author) would need a bigger canvas. However, as a brief life aimed at a general readership, this volume may offer more than expected with much contextual material about contemporaries or events, even if at times MacBride himself becomes obscured.
Author of Trinity College and Irish Society 1914-22 and St Andrew’s College 1894-1994, commissioned during the 20 years she spent in Ireland, Georgina has retained an interest in Irish history since her return to Australia.