Le Petit Journal, an illustrated French news magazine, gave plenty of coverage to Irish affairs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but this is one of my favourites of their Irish features, showing a riot on College Green.
The flag that is being hoisted by the crowd is the flag of the Transvaal, and the scene depicted here is outside Trinity College Dublin on the day Joseph Chamberlain M.P was given an Honorary Doctorate from the university. The protesters had gathered in support of the Boers, who many in nationalist Ireland felt a strong affinity with at the time of the Second Boer War. Seamus Robinson, a participant in the 1916 Rising and later in the Soloheadbeg Ambush that began the War of Independence, remembered: “Heavens! What thrills we got out of that great struggle. Bonfires in the streets on the news of a Boer victory, complete disbelief in Boer reverses!”
The Second Boer War formally broke out on 11 October 1899, following an ultimatum issued two days earlier to the British government by Paul Kruger, President of the South African Republic. President Kruger gave the British 48-hours to withdraw from the borders of both Boer Republics, stating that failure to comply with the ultimatum would result in a declaration of war.
In Ireland, passionate demonstrations followed on from these events. There had been sizable protests in the days before the ultimatum was issued, as people denounced what was seen as British aggression in the region. On 1 October 1899, a crowd numbering more than 20,000 had gathered at Beresford Place, where the Transvaal flag flew proudly and Irish nationalists made speeches condemning Britain. A letter was read from the Mayor of Kilkenny, who proposed that two maxim guns be sent to the Boers by the people of Ireland with which they could defend themselves. One could be called ‘Parnell’, and the other ‘Wolfe Tone’. Among those who had gathered at Beresford Place were numerous elected Members of Parliament such as T. D. Sullivan, author of the ballad God Save Ireland, and other public personalities such as W. B. Yeats.
The movement that emerged in Ireland in opposition to British actions in South Africa was broad. It spanned all nationalist organisations, from the emerging radical socialist left to veteran Fenians, and from emerging women’s organisations to cultural and literary societies. Among the bodies central to promoting protest of the conflict was the fledgling Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), the small political party of Edinburgh born radical James Connolly. When Chamberlain came to town, it was the ISRP who instigated a picket at the front gates. One British newspaper reported that the ISRP “is composed of a number of the most extreme and least reputable representatives of the nationalists of Dublin.” In his own newspaper Connolly noted that in the run up to the Chamberlain demonstration there had been a raid on the offices of the party, and that “one red flag, one green flag, two Boer flags, and the historic black flag which led the anti-Jubilee procession of 1897 were captured by the police.”
The fictional Leopold Bloom would recall the scenes outside Trinity that day in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “That horsepoliceman the day Joe Chamberlain was given his degree in Trinity, he got a run for his money. My word he did!”
Yet in spite of these protests, it should not be forgotten that huge numbers of Irishmen fought in the Second Boer War in the uniforms of British soldiers. Sean O’Casey recalled his brother Tom going off to do just that, and the effect it had on him. Writing of his youth, and of a time when he was still identified as Johnny Casey and not yet Sean O’Casey, he recalled:
Johnny’s whole world was divided against itself. England was at war with the Boer Republics. His brother Tom […] had been called up; had been dressed in khaki, helmet and all; had marched, with a contingent of his regiment, the Dublin Fusiliers, through the city, Johnny by his side, carrying his rifle… Thousands of Irishmen were out there on the veldt, risking all for England; for her honour, and, Johnny thought bitterly, for the gold and diamond mines of Johannesburg.
For more on Ireland and the Boer War, see ‘Sixteen Lives:John MacBride’ by Donal Fallon of CHTM. It is available in all good bookshops now.