Larry kept his mouth shut

Terry Eagleton

  • Gallows Speeches from 18th-Century Ireland by James Kelly
    Four Courts, 288 pp, £19.65, August 2001, ISBN 1 85182 611 4

The story is told of an Irishman who appeared on Mastermind and took as his special subject modern Irish history. Who was the first female President of Ireland? he is asked. ‘Pass,’ he replies instantly. Which neighbouring island once had sovereignty over the whole country? ‘Pass,’ he responds unhesitatingly. Which crop failed in the Great Famine? ‘Pass,’ flashes back the contestant. The embarrassment in the studio is growing palpable when an Irish voice shouts out from the audience: ‘That’s right, Mick – tell the bastards nothing!’

From the secret societies of 18th-century rural agitators to the interrogation centres of modern Derry and Belfast, the Irish have been well-practised at telling the bastards nothing. The custom is reflected in one of Seamus Heaney’s most quoted lines: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing.’ The one place where you might as well cough, however, is the gallows, as is clear from this volume of last speeches edited by the indefatigable Irish historian James Kelly. The speech from the gallows, along with the sermon, the sectarian pamphlet, the tall tale, the statement from the dock, the denunciation from the church altar and the address from the hustings, are among the most venerable of Irish literary genres. They are performative rather than representational pieces of discourse, as befits a society where, from Swift and Sterne to Bram Stoker and James Joyce, literary realism never really took root, and where the frontier between art and politics was never exact.

An Irish scholar boasted in 1684 that his far-flung sector of County Galway, Iar Connacht, was so law-abiding that none of its inhabitants had been brought to the bar or executed for thirty years. He did not mention that the law in the region was so ill-defined it was hard to know how to break it. Irish bandits in the 17th century were known by the Gaelic-derived name of Tories, a word still associated with daylight robbery, which was then derisively applied to those in Britain who resisted the new Williamite political order. Picturesquely holed up in mountain, bog and forest, some Irish Tories were rumoured to be popular champions or Robin Hood figures, genteel Catholic Jacobites who had squandered or forfeited their estates and now robbed the rich to give to the poor. Most of them, however, made do more modestly with simply robbing the rich. Like many an Irish dissident, they had no ardent objection to particular laws, just to the law itself. What never fully managed to sell itself in Ireland was legality as such, redolent as it was of imperial rule. Recent moral outrage over the introduction of wheel-clamping in Dublin would suggest that old anti-colonial habits die hard.

Tories may not all have been the Zapata figures they have been cracked up to be, but Irish rebellion was not without its aura of romance. Agrarian secret societies such as the Whiteboys, Rightboys, Defenders, Dingers, Black Hens, Blackfeet, Rockites, Shanavests and Caravats were Hobsbawmian ‘social bandits’, midnight legislators seeking by organised violence to regulate lands, wages, rents and tithes in the countryside. But they also formed a whole countercultural underground, with their carnivalesque iconography of cross-dressing, exotic oaths, bizarre pseudonyms, mythologised leaders and esoteric initiation ceremonies. In the early 19th century there were Caravat and Shanavest pubs, wren-boys, mummers’ teams, songs and dance tunes. Nicholas Hanley, chief of the Caravats, was a flamboyant dandy who strutted about with a blunderbuss and brace of pistols, returned to his plundered victims any items he thought it beneath his dignity to pocket, and ostentatiously threw his elegant cravat to the mob from the gallows. Another bandit chief, Captain Wheeler, was a devout adherent of matrimony, having wangled himself three simultaneous wives and murdered an entire family to gain a fourth.

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