The Latin professor, the Easter Rising and the working class

Russell was betrayed by Dr. James McDonnell, the man who had helped him gain the post of librarian. Drennan, their mutual friend, and author as we have seen of Letters of an Irish Helot, was outraged and may have been the author of the ‘Epitaph for the Living’, which accused McDonnell of being the turncoat ‘Brutus of Belfast’."’1 But Russell’s influence lived on. The Belfast Library he had administered was involved in the establishment of Belfast’s own university, Queen’s, in 1849, advising on its library provision.102

Like Russell, Robert Mitchell Henry (1873-1950), [Figure 10.3| Professor of Latin at Queen’s, editor of Livy XXVII (on which see also Thomas Southerne, above), risked his life in the cause of Irish republicanism. In 1916, as a prominent

R.M. Henry (1873—1950) by unknown artist, reproduced courtesy of the McClay Library, Belfast

FIGURE 10.3 R.M. Henry (1873—1950) by unknown artist, reproduced courtesy of the McClay Library, Belfast.

Ulster public figure, he had much to lose. He was, nevertheless, involved in the struggle on the ground. On several dates between January and late March 1916, Henry wrote in his pocket diary that he was attending rifle practice.103 These notices cease at the precise moment of the Easter Uprising in April 1916. The rifle practices he was attending were those of the local branch of the Irish Volunteers.

This organisation had come into being in Dublin on 25th November 1913, in response to the establishment in January 1913 of the Ulster Volunteers, the militia opposed to the introduction of Home Rule. While its membership overlapped with the constituencies that supported Sinn Fein—the Irish Citizens’ Army and the Irish Republican Brotherhood—the Irish Volunteers (IV) was a separate initiative.104 By the outbreak of World War I, there were at least 100,000 Irish Volunteers, which made the British authorities nervous. In July 1914, at Howth, the IV unloaded a shipment of 1,500 rifles, with 45,000 rounds of ammunition, purchased from Germany.

There were many Irish Volunteers in the northern counties and Belfast, although the atmosphere there was threatening to advocates of Irish independence. Henry’s involvement is corroborated by his partisan eye-witness account of the training in which both the UV and IV members engaged in his most famous book, which was not on Latin literature, The Evolution of Sinn Fein.'05 In this, Henry occasionally inserts Latin phrases: in discussing how fast the early Anglo-Norman planters adopted Irish identity, he cites the old Latin saying, ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’, Ipsis hibernis Hiberniores, sometimes attributed to Swift.106 A tactic of the officers of the Royal Navy is likened to what Cicero calls Catiline’s policy of putting out the fire by demolishing the house, ruina exstinguere incendiunt {Pro Murena 51).107

In a rare reference to a Greek author, Henry invokes Thucydides on ‘ancient simplicity’ (3.38.1) when describing the naive integrity that markedjohn Redmond and his proposed terms for the 1914 Home Rule Bill: ‘with that simplicity of character, which, as the Greek historian says, “makes up a great part of good breeding”, he promised without conditions’.108 But the only words in ancient Greek in the book are kept for what is, in the arc of Henry’s tragic narrative, the climax. The IV became infiltrated by violent advocates of immediate armed rebellion. Henry says they were affected simply by physical contact with weapons:

The Volunteers were in the opinion of Sinn Fein a useful auxiliary in the task of developing the one quality from which alone ultimate success was to be expected, the self-reliance and moral resolution of the Irish people. But avTdq yap ¿(psXKsrai av6pa ai6r]po<;—the mere “sheen of arms” has an attraction superior to all arguments and all policies ... the superior attractions of the Volunteers proved too strong for many young and ardent Sinn Feiners and induced them to put the means first and the end second.109

It was the availability of rifles, suggests Henry, that turned heads, when what was needed was cool deliberation.

The Greek means ‘the iron itself draws a man on’. It is a quotation, minus the connective ‘for’, of a phrase from the Odyssey, avid«; yap ¿(Sat. 9.37). In the Odyssey it occurs twice (16.294, 19.13), in the mouth of Odysseus when he instructs Telemachus to hide the arms from the suitors. This saying is to be Telemachus’ response if they should protest at his removal of access to the weapons. The context may have seemed as appropriate to Henry as the content: Odysseus’ instruction is part of his detailed plan, entailing patience, caution and timeliness, which he says must be implemented before his loyal slaves and impetuous son may begin ridding the household of its unwanted occupants.

Henry deserves a biography which does justice to his copious documents in the McClay Library. At Easter 1916, he was in danger of being arrested himself. His longstanding commitment to the cause of an independent Ireland had won him few friends professionally. An expert in Latin, Greek and also Hebrew, he understood that a shared ancient language and a rich literature were indispensable to any culture’s unity. His political views were mirrored in his regret that most of his compatriots had been deprived of their ancestral tongue. A searing passage in his history of Sinn Fein records, in his biting Tacitean tone, the impact of the 1800 Acts of Union and the imposition in 1831 of the ‘National’ Education System:1"’ Henry mournfully observes that the task of‘educating’ the nation out of its traditional language and culture was virtually complete by the end of the 19th century.

He supported Sinn Fein’s cultural policies. In 1908, his diary includes references to attendance at meetings of the Gaelic Society. He was ‘one of the staunchest allies’ of William MacArthur,111 another Belfast Protestant (Presbyterian) Gaelic enthusiast who, as a student at Queen’s, campaigned for the introduction of Gaelic classes from 1903 and founded the College Gaelic Society in 1906. Henry spoke at its public meeting in the Great Hall in 1908, which resulted in the establishment of a new lectureship in Celtic in 1909.112 Nor did his devotion to the cause of the working class ever vary: on 29th March of the same year, his diary records that he attended a lecture entitled ‘Socialism’ at the Literary Society.

The Latin Professor made an extraordinary contribution to the historiography of Sinn Fein and the background to the Easter Uprising in which he was prepared to risk his life. The Evolution of Sinn Fein is a short, intense and exquisitely written tragic history of Ireland culminating in the execution of Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and their 11 fellow leading rebels. Henry writes, his controlled anger palpable,

At the same time arrests took place all over the country. Three thousand prisoners who had taken no part in the Rising were collected, many of them as innocent of any complicity in the affair as the Prime Minister. To have been at any time a member of the Irish Volunteers was sufficient cause for arrest and deportation. They were taken through the streets in lorries and in furniture vans at the dead of night and shipped for unknown destinations.113

Whether any British official investigated Henry’s links with the rebellion is not known; there is no direct trace in his papers. He decided to continue the fight through influencing public opinion by writing rather than fighting.114

After partition, to which he objected, Henry continued to exercise his political muscles in the twin causes of Classics and of the pan-Irish, especially the working class. His diaries for 1919 and 1920 record his attendances on numerous Trade Boards in Dublin and Belfast—those concerning the Tobacco, Confectionery, Box, Embroidery, Spinning, Shirtmaking and Коре Boards, as well as the Belfast Water Board and Co-operative Council. He supported Trade Unions and activities such as the Belfast Newsboys’ Club. He was co-signatory of a letter in June 1925 asking potential donors to support the club,

which it is proposed to conduct on civic and un-denominational lines ... The value of the human material in the streets of Belfast is at once apparent, and if this little effort helps to make good citizens of some of them it will not have been made in vain.115

He was key to the foundation of the Belfast Workers’ Educational Association in 1910. The minutes of the University Extension Committee amongst his papers show that there were 28 attendees for Course of Lectures on Civics by Professor John Laird, including ‘The Ideal of Freedom’, ‘The Hope in Democracy’ in 1920 and 56 for his own lectures on ‘Roman Social Life Under the Early Empire’. He brought in lectures on Greek civilisation in 1922-1923: drafts ofhis talks on ancient women, labourers and slaves are all in the archive, including ‘Working Class Life in the Early Roman Empire’. He contributed a long utopian socialist essay entitled ‘The Ideal City’ to The Voice of Labour, the ‘Official Organ of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union’,116 arguing for the importance of culture, education and recreation. As a result ofhis efforts, the senate of Queen’s University created the post of lecturer and director of extramural studies in 1928.117

Henry was widowed without children soon after his first marriage and did not remarry again until an advanced age. He was, however, attached to his younger brothers, helping out the impecunious Paul Henry, a painter famous today. His landscapes of Achill Island and Connemara are associated with the Irish Free State’s rural vision.118 Paul remembered attending marches in 1898 on the Falls Road, marking the centenary of the 1798 uprising. No doubt his older brother had taken him.119

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