Saturday, October 13, 2018

Galvanised by debate

The life of the Irish writer and activist Rosamond Jacob, born 130 years ago today, ‘was galvanised at all times by political and feminist debate’, according to her biographer Leeann Lane. However, she was never a lead player, as it were, more of a stage extra. Indeed, she may well have vanished in the historical memory but for the fact that she kept a diary, faithfully, throughout her life, filling over 170 notebooks. She recorded not only her own politically-motivated activities but details of most of the main controversies and movements in Irish politics and culture during the first half of the 20th century. So much so, in fact, that the diaries - which remain unpublished - have been called ‘one of the most valuable and intriguing sources for historians of twentieth-century Ireland’.

Jacob was born on 13 October 1888 in Waterford, Ireland. Her parents had been part of the Quaker community but were more interested in nationalist and humanitarian ideas than religious ones. She had an older brother, Tom, and a first born sister, though she died aged 5. Rosamond attended various schools though, because she was a sickly child, she was also home taught at times. She grew up in a domestic atmosphere of constant social and political discussion and argument, to the point where, Lane says, ‘debate became Jacob’s default means of engaging with her peers, a trait that was to remain with her throughout her life and which was to cause her to be considered awkward and querulous even by many of those who knew her well’. She left school at 16, though continued to educate herself on Irish history and Irish language through membership of the Gaelic league.

Jacob was a follower of many of the key political and cultural campaigns of early twentieth-century Ireland including the turn of the century language revival, Sinn Fein, from 1905 and the organisations of the revolutionary period including Cumann na mBan. There seem to be few details about her life readily available online, though it is known that she re-engaged to some extent with the Quaker community in Waterford, and in 1912 was secretary to the Friends Literary Society Committee. Her and her family’s involvement in the nationalist and suffrage movements meant she was acquainted with many leading figures in both movements. In 1919, she moved to Dublin where she managed to get a first novel published - Callaghan (under a pseudonym); two or three other novels would follow much later in her life. She also embarked on a long-term affair with fellow republican Frank Ryan.

Jacob opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and was especially involved in left-wing and republican organisations in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1931 she travelled to Russia as a delegate of the Irish Friends of Soviet Russia; and she was involved in the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. In the 1930s, she played a leading role in the political campaign to secure Ryan’s freedom from Nationalist Spain, and subsequently worked to defend his reputation after news of his death in Nazi Germany became known. From 1950, she shared a house with her friend Lucy Kingston. She died in 1960. Some further information can be gleaned from Wikipedia or the Waterford County Museum website. Queen’s University, Belfast, has information on Jacob’s relationship with Ryan.

Jacob was a committed diarist, and kept a diary her whole life long from 1897 to 1960. The Rosamond Jacobs collection at the National Library of Ireland holds 170 of her ordinary notebooks (as well as a few others). The University of Limerick’s Inventing and Reinventing the Irish Woman website has a useful introduction to the diaries, written by Dr Clara Cullen of University College Dublin, as well as a few extracts (indeed, the extracts below are taken from this document).

The diaries also feature heavily in a substantial biography of Jacob - Rosamond Jacob: Third Person Singular 
(University College Dublin Press, 2010) - by Dr Leeann Lane, head of Irish Studies at Dublin City University. Some pages from the introduction can be read freely at Amazon. In the introduction, Lane describes Jacob as always a follower never a leader, and goes along with the idea that her diaries are important enough to be preserved but not important enough to be duplicated and publicly disseminated (i. e. published). Nevertheless, Lane explains there is great merit in studying her life, and thus in re-exploring the diaries. She says: 

‘The ease with which the diary has been divorced from its writer and allowed to stand apart as a text providing colour and context for work on the revolutionary period and the years of internecine strife and bitterness after 1922 has much to do with Jacob’s lack of the apparent exceptionality which merits biographical or critical study. Unlike most subjects of Irish biography Jacob was not a prominent figure in Irish history, rather she was a fringe activist. Her fictional writings, although interesting to an historian, have limited aesthetic value. Jacob was in many cases a crowd member rather than a leader in the campaigns in which she participated - the turn of the century language revival, the suffrage campaign, the campaigns of the revolutionary period. She adopted an anti-Treaty stance in the 1920s moving towards a fringe involvement in the activities of socialist republicanism in the early 1930s while continuing to vote Fianna Fail. Her commitment to feminist concerns was life long but at no point did she take or was capable of a leadership role. However, it was Jacob’s failure to carve out a strong place in history as an activist which makes her interesting as a subject for biography. Her ‘ordinariness’ offers an alternative lens on the biographical project. By failing to marry, by her inability to find meaningful paid work, by her countless refusals from publishers, by the limited sales of what work was published, Jacob offers a key into lives more ordinary within the urban middle classes of her time, and suggests a new perspective on female lives. Jacob’s life, galvanised at all times by political and feminist debate, offers a means of exploring how the central issues which shaped Irish politics and society in the first half of the twentieth century were experienced and digested by those outside the leadership cadre. The history of the independence struggle and its aftermath is as much the history of men and women such as Jacob as it is of de Valera and Frank Ryan.’

In a review of Lane’s book, The English Historical Review (Issue 525, 1 April 2012) says Jacob’s diaries ‘constitute one of the most valuable and intriguing sources for historians of twentieth-century Ireland as they offer insights into key political and cultural shifts and movements. They are also a wonderful read.’ In another review, however, The Irish Times, finds the diaries too full of self pity: ‘The woman in the book can seem tiresome, whereas she is fondly remembered by her many friends.’

29 June 1922
‘Plenty of firing, big guns and all. The republicans had the pub at the corner of Aungier St, and there was firing there on and off for the next two days. They used to fire at lorries, and the FS troops took Jacobs. And some other place near, and fired at them until they finally left the place on Sunday evening.

I was busy at the At Home at Mrs Despards.’

30 June 1922
‘I went to Suffolk St to ask if there was anything I could do. D. Macardle was there. She told me there was a Red Cross place over in Gloucester St, so I went there, where the republicans were in the hotels with the windows full of sandbags, and found a Trade Union place called Tara hall, full of girls making bandages. They showed me how, and I worked there till dinner time. Two wounded civilians were brought in to be attended to in the next room; one was a man who seemed to think he was pretty bad and required a lot of shirts. There was a lot of firing in the streets and a tremendous explosion once that broke the glass in one window. Some of the girls were the C. Na mB. type that loved the whole thing in a horrible way.

After dinner I knocked against Mme. McB. [Maud Gonne McBride] in the street and found she was trying to get some women together to go to both sides’ leaders and talk sense to them - so I brought her to the IIL committee at 122A and she raked us all (except Mrs Richardson) over to the Mansion House to see what the Lord Mayor was doing. He said the Four Courts surrender had altered things and there was no knowing more till the next day nor wouldn’t be much fighting till the next day, and we had better come back in the morning. So we went home and Madame started to search the hospitals for Sean. She was only just home from Paris (where she had gone on a mission for the provisional government) that morning.’

1 July 1922
‘We met at the Mansion Hs. in the morning [. . .]. The mayor and the archbishop were going to the republican leaders then, to represent their share in the general damage and cruelty and see what conditions they wd agree to a truce.

Then, the more or less F.S. women, [. . .] went to interview the government, and came back reporting as follows - They spoke of the sufferings of the people and need for peace and got the usual sort of answers from Griffith, Collins and Cosgrave. Cosgrave seemed anxious for the Dail to meet and said it cd be summoned for Tuesday but Griffith nudged him to make him shut up. Miss B. and Mme. McB. asked wd they let the R.s evacuate without giving up arms - Griffith said no, they must give up their arms. Mme McBride said that they certainly would not do, and that it wd be better to let them go with their arms than to shell the city. They were firm on this (tho Collins said he didn’t know why the R.s didn’t go home with their arms now, as there seemed nothing to stop them) and Griffith said the lives of all the ministers were in the greatest danger.
The deputation (W.W. and A.F. anyhow) seemed rather favourably impressed by the 3. The mayor and the archbishop went to the government later, and were told much the same, only they seemed more resolute against calling the Dail then. It didn’t seem much use sending a deputation to the R.s, but Miss Bennett said it wd be very unfair not to - shd at least show them there were some R. women who wanted peace, and not put all the burden of guilt on the government [. . .]. We were taken in a motor ambulance to the back of the Hammam hotel, and let into a kind of back, outhouse place full of men and petrol tins and bicycles and step ladders and boxes and general impedimenta. Doctors and nurses and soldier and messengers went in and out all the time. The men were mostly not in uniform, they all had big revolvers in leather cases and military belts. Some looked dead tired, and all of course were untidy and unshaved, but all seemed in good humour. Most were young, but not all. After waiting a while, Oscar Traynor, then commanding in Dublin, was fetched to us, and Hanna and Miss B. tackled him. He was in a sort of semi-military dark suit, with a revolver in a belt, and the Sacred Heart badge in his button-hole. He is quite young, tall and slim, with the same type of long refined thoughtful refined face as De Valera, though much better looking.

He represented their position as purely defensive, said they were not the aggressors. “we’re digging ourselves in here, and if they attack us we’ll defend ourselves”. He said they wd be willing to evacuate but not to surrender arms of course, and I think he said they had made the offer to the other side (whom he spoke of as “these people”). Asked wd they suspend hostilities if the Dail met early this week, he said that was for O’Connor and Mellowes to say, but probably they wd if the other side wd observe the truce. Informed of what Collins had said (that they were fools not to melt away with their arms now) he said they could put no faith in what anything Collins said. His attitude of utter disbelief in the faith of “these people” was depressing, being so exactly what the other side would say about them. Mrs J. and I took no share in the talk. I went for the interest of the thing and had nothing to say of my own; and he looked so tired and worn that I didn’t want to lengthen the conversation anyhow. His eyes looked dead sleepy, he could hardly keep them open. He was very nice in his manner - quiet and civil and friendly. He spoke as if they meant to do nothing aggressive, and not as if the affair was any sort of fun to him. We were all favourably struck with him, and impressed with his talk just as the other deputation were with Collins, Griffith and Cosgrave.’

12 July 1922
‘Went to peace meeting at the Round Room - great crowds of women, but none of them apparently keen on peace. [. . .] Miss O’Connor and I went out to try and quieten a couple of shouting F.S. women in the hall, who had, God knows how, got the idea that all the platform were republican. Mrs D. was very good, about the folly and uselessness of war . . . Some fool in the hall wanted to put the cause of peace under the protection of the queen of heaven, and made them all start singing a hymn to her, which Miss Bennett received awfully well, but the end was a confused scene of uproar all the same.’

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