Daily Archives: September 5, 2008

Divided loyalties: being Anglo-Irish

Malcolm has cut many corners over copyright in the two years of his blogging. This one goes further than that, but in a just cause.

It is a letter in today’s Irish Times:

Irishmen in British uniforms

Tom Cooper (September 1st) forcefully expresses his disdain for Irishmen in British uniforms, whom he sees as conniving in a long history of British oppression. But the warp and weft of personal family tradition is never quite so cut and dried. As we say in our Protestant family, Irish history is a twisted rope. It can bind us together, hang us, or guide us.

Not long after the second World War, my late father-in-law, Tom Stoney, was a senior pupil at Harrow School. Winston Churchill, who was a former pupil there, was paying a visit and a group of prefects were lined up to be presented to him. When Churchill reached Tom, his housemaster introduced him: “This is Thomas Stoney, from Co Mayo in Ireland.”.

Churchill harrumphed and disdainfully remarked: “The bloody Irish, what have they ever done for our wars?” Tom, only 17 years old, drew himself to his full height and retorted: “Thanks to your wars, sir, I have no male relatives; no father – he died in the last war, and no uncle, he died in the Great War.” Jaws dropped, and the housemaster bustled Churchill down the line of other blushing prefects.

A little while later, Tom was summoned to the housemaster’s study, expecting a beating or worse. He found Churchill, who shook him solemnly by the hand and asked forgiveness for his intemperate remarks.

Tom, a gentleman and a rebel of ascendancy stock, became a Church of Ireland clergyman, and never owned a British passport. He was an Irishman, and his old passport was green. In his years as a priest in the North he confronted loyalist thugs, removing their barricades with his own hands from across the streets of his parish, and loudly played songs of the IRA on his gramophone at the open window of his rectory study window whenever the Protestant marching bands passed by on July 12th.

He was a very fine shot who learned his marksmanship from a worker on the family estate, one Larry McGovern, a commander of the West Mayo brigade of the IRA. He also honoured the sacrifice of his father and uncle, both of whom he never knew.

In 1916, my own great- grandfather, also a Church of Ireland clergyman, was confounded when his son was refused a commission in an English regiment, the Durham Light Infantry, because he came from Wexford. He wrote to the War Office and we have a copy of the letter still. It begins: “At a time when Ireland is accused of not pulling its weight in the great struggle against German militarism, I find it incredible that my son, winner of the All Ireland schools’ engineering medal, is refused a commission in an English regiment because of his nationality.”

Within a year, Fred was killed at Ypres leading a platoon of the Royal Irish Rifles against a German machine-gun position. He was 20 years old.

One day I may have to explain to my sons about the divided loyalties they inherit as proud little (Anglo-) Irishmen. So I will invite them to respect the sacrifice of soldiers of the old IRA, like family friend Larry McGovern, who fought for Irish freedom, and remember their own forebears in the British forces who died to make that freedom worthwhile; for an Ireland in a Europe ruled by fascists, communists and militarists would have had no freedom worth the name.

I will also go on to say that I give thanks that they, and all others like them, are alive in an age and in a country where they need not take up arms for any cause, no matter the uniform, no matter the flag. As I have explained to British friends, had Ireland joined the Allied side in the second World War, the wounds of the 1920s Civil War would have opened again in Ireland with terrible consequences.

The policy of Irish neutrality established at that time, and the Christian path of peace which informs it, remain causes well worth living for, whether son of the Planter, or son of the Gael.

Yours, etc,


Ardagh, Newport, Co Mayo.

Totally admirable. Totally proper. Well-written.

Kudos and respec’

The Ven. Tom Stoney

Malcolm believes the Tom Stoney mentioned here, Mr Ellison’s father-in-law, to be the late Tom Stoney. He was a graduate of Oxford, and also a TCD-man.

He served as a Church of Ireland curate, first at Portrush, then at Carrickfergus. In both places he would have had ample opportunity to play Fenian songs at marching Orangemen. He then became the rector of Broughshane, County Antrim, later being appointed Archdeacon of Dal Riada.

Broughshane, “the garden village of Ulster” (take the A42 out of  Ballymena, just past the golf course) has won more awards for its floral decorations than any small town deserves. Stoney’s legacy lives on in that, too.

He served his parishioners, and those of other denominations, well through the years of the Troubles.

He died last year, living in retirement in Mayo, aged 73, a truly admirable man.


Mr Ellison and his family, living at Newport, will not have fallen far from the family roots, just down the Achill road.

Rosturk Castle sits on the Corraun peninsula in Clew Bay, looking east. There could be few finer places to live.

The present structure was “improved” by Robert Vesey Stoney in the Victorian period. For the period, it is quite restrained, even attractive a pile, but suffers from the heavy hand of Walter-Scottish romanticism, complete with crenellated towers and arrow-slit windows.

The Stoney connection was broken when the house was bought by a Dublin medic, Dr Healy, in the 1970s.

Larry McGovern

According to a brief memoir by WIllie Sammon, Larry McGovern was a surviving volunteer of the bloody Clooneen Cross ambush of 18th May 1921.

The whole Newport IRA battalion, all 41 men, with 22 rifles between them, turned out to way-lay the Black-and-Tans. One of the Specials’  Crossley tenders out-flanked the IRA men, and mowed them down with a machine-gun: five dead and seven wounded. There was one dead Black-and-Tan.

The Tans then initiated a major pursuit operation, which involved another IRA death.

In a later ambush at Crawkenny, on 2nd June, the Newport battalion engaged a Tan and RIC convoy in a fire-fight. The Tans suffered a dozen casulaties and surrendered. As a result, the Newport battalion of the IRA became well-equipped and well-supplied with ammunition.


Filed under Ireland, Irish politics, Irish Times