Sir Roger Casement was a notable humanitarian and a British consul by profession but, ironically, an anti -Imperialist by nature. He over-stepped his diplomatic role to fiercely condemn Belgium for its brutalisation of the people of Congo*. His report, published in 1904, was however, well received by the British establishment, perhaps because it feared that little Belgium was getting too big for its boots, and too wealthy from its African ventures. Casement received a knighthood.
In August of the same year as the Casement Report was published, and not withstanding the enormous publicity it generated, Casement was enjoying a brief holiday in the relative peace and quiet of the west of Ireland. He was developing an interest in the Irish language. He was not happy to see that it was being denigrated as the language of ‘the old and poor Ireland’. He saw in many locations that “The general mass of Irish speaking parents have kicked the language out of doors”.
He went to the Galway Town Hall theatre to see the play, An Dochtúir, written by a medical student (with only one more year to do ), Seamus O’Beirn**. The play had previously been produced by the Oireachtas during the first week in August at the Rotunda in Dublin, and was now back in Galway in triumph. It had been a huge success. And was all the more fun locally as the players were from the small island of Tawin, on the east side of Galway Bay. It was largely a forgotten corner of Galway, but at the time the inhabitants were involved in a bitter dispute over the teaching of their children through Irish. In fact their local national school had been closed for some years as the parents had withdrawn their children from the school. The building had fallen into disrepair. The authorities warned that if the people of Tawin wanted their school to reopen, the school must be repaired by the local people, and they had no right to insist that the teaching must be through the medium of Irish.
The matter was at a standstill, with both sides refusing to budge.
The play An Dochtúir cleverly captured the folly of appointing a country doctor, who had absolutely no Irish, to Irish speaking Dispensary Districts. The hopeless bewilderment of the poor be-fogged doctor as one patient after another came in and tried to relay their illness brought the house down. The serious side of the event was also not lost on the audience.
In the second half there is the snobbery of the O’Clunain family who were encouraging their convent educated daughter to marry the doctor. Mrs O’Clunain instructs their servant how to address the doctor, in grand English tones. But when the daughter in introduced to the doctor she comes across as too Irish to please her mother. At the end, the daughter is encouraged to sing a French song for the company, but instead she belts out the Spailpín Fánach.
Roger Casement was intrigued. The next day he drove out to Tawin, and stayed with the young playwright Seamus O’Beirn**, and heard the whole saga of the closure of the Tawin national school.
Seamus O’Beirn*** was a great admirer of the Irish language, an intelligent and imaginative man. In the course of a busy life he was one of the principle founders of An Taibhdhearc Theatre. Yet he really made his difference as a doctor. He spent his medical career fighting the scourge of tuberculosis in the Cois Fhearraige and South Connemara areas. In 1906 he started his anti-Tuberculosis and hygiene campaign, giving talks on how TB spread. His campaign was a success. The Tuberculosis Act was passed in 1908, allowing for special Tuberculosis officers to be appointed. His brother Bartley was the first one in Co Galway.
Growing up he was a very popular young man on the island. As a student at the Jes, he founded, wrote and produced a school magazine. During the holidays he was constantly up to tricks. Some of his pranks were quite elaborate. It is part of the folklore of Tawin, even today, that on one occasion he got his friends to show lights at the western end of the village ( Bár an Aird, or Kilcolgan Point ) late at night. He then persuaded some gullible characters that German submarines were coming up the bay, and in no time had the whole village wildly excited. Old women knelt down to say the Rosary.
On another occasion he dressed up one of his pals as an old Bádóir who had arrived from Aran with poitín to sell. In was in fact only water. Most homes usually kept a small quantity of poitín, ostensibly for flavouring a cake or to cure a cold. Most people were too polite to taste the Bádóir’s ‘poitín’, and all was going well until one woman tasted it, gave a shout, and lashed out at the Bádóir.
The boys ran away.
Jeered and laughed at
Back in Sligo Casement wrote to his friend Douglas Hyde, known as An Craoibhín, telling him about the struggle on Tawin, and asking him to publish a letter in An Claidheamh Soluis, the official newspaper of the Irish language movement. Casement pledged £20 to start a fund to reopen the school, and urged readers to support the Tawin protest.
Here are two extracts from his letter of October 4 1904: ‘My visit to Galway convinces me (beyond a shadow of a doubt, I am sorry to say ) that the only hope of the language is in such groups as this of Tawin. The general mass of Irish speaking parents have kicked the language out of doors. In Kilronan I heard the fathers and mothers speaking a vile attempt at English to their children - and they with a rich, splendid speech of their own. But there it is! Nowhere did I find the language cared for and, with the exception of Tawin, every Irish -speaking home I entered tabooed the tongue of the parents to their children. It is shameful, and almost inexplicable to a man who has travelled as I have among peoples who each and all respect and love their own language. My own countrymen alone are contemptible! For it lies with the people themselves, and if they wished or cared for their country really they could keep her language here in the west, where it is still known and spoken.’
Casement adds: ‘Only in Tawin, in all that coast strip, do the parents insist on their children having the language, and they are often being jeered and laughed at by the bigger neighbours around. The loss of their schoolmistress was due to this attitude of theirs and their determination to have the language taught; so that if Tawin goes under in this fight for its own tongue, for my part I see clearly that the days of Irish speaking in that bit of Galway are numbered.’
More next week...
*Roger David Casement (1864-1916 ) was born into a Protestant army family of poor means, at Sandycove, near Dublin. His mother had him secretly baptised a Catholic when he was a child. Talent, and intelligence alone brought him rapid promotion in the British diplomatic service. His report on the Belgium exploitation of the natives in the lucrative rubber industry in the Congo led to a major scandal. The Belgian King Leopold was forced to relinquishe his personal sources of wealth there. The writer Joseph Conrad was impressed by Casement when they met in the Congo. Conrad remarked that ‘he could tell you things! Things I have tried to forget, things I never did know...’
Casement similarly championed the cause of the Putomayo Indians in Brazil who were also being exploited in the rubber industry.
He was arrested in the early hours of April 21 1916, three days before the Easter Rising, when his plan to bring weapons ashore at Banna Strand, Tralee Bay, failed. He was tried as a traitor to Britain and executed.
** I am leaning heavily on an interesting article Fíoradh na Fiíse Gaelaí by Nollaig Mac Congáil in the current issue of the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society (Volume 62 ).
*** Seamus O’Beirn was born James Fahy O’Beirn on July 18 1881 in Tawin. There were four boys in the O’Beirn family, Dan, Michael, James and Bartly; and two girls Margaret and Delia. The inhabitants of the island, joined to the mainland by a narrow bridge, are descendants of a group of farmers-fishermen who settled there 150 years previously from Finvara, Co Clare. They are still a close-knit community.