Archive of the Month
‘The True Story of a Revolution’ – the Unpublished Memoir of Emily Ussher
By Pat McCarthy
The Spring 1922 issue of Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review contained a short review by WD of a new novel The Trail of the Black and Tans by ‘The Hurler on the Ditch‘ [aka Emily Ussher].
The reviewer, William Dawson, urged that the book:
should be widely read, not alone for the class for which it was written (now happily a negligible quantity so far as Ireland is concerned) but also by those ‘loyalist’ Irish, Catholic and Protestant, who are still unable to appreciate the depth of infamy finally reached by the policy of the British government and faithfully carried out by Macready, Tudor, Greenwood, and their agents
The reviewer obviously thought that Emily Ussher’s novel accurately depicted life in rural Ireland during the War of Independence. The novel did not achieve the wide circulation hoped for by the reviewer – partly because many copies were seized by the Royal Irish Constabulary shortly after it was published in October 1921 – but also because it had missed its time slot. Intended for the English market, with the aim of bringing home to the public there the atrocities being committed in their name by the Black and Tans, that war was over by the time it was published, as Joanna Wydenbach argues in her e–review Emily Ussher and the Trail of the Black and Tans, Revue LISA/LISA e–journal, Vol. III, No. 1, 2005, pp 22–38.
Another work by the same Emily Ussher, as yet unpublished ‘The True Story of a Revolution’ is of far greater historical interest, describing the life and travails of an ascendancy family during Ireland’s revolutionary decade. This source remains in typescript format at the RCB Library, where it is accessioned as Ms 70. It comprises some 175 pages covering her observations on life in Ireland between 1914 and 1924 inclusive, followed by a further 80–page appendix. In this commemorative year, it is being made available as a digital resource for the worldwide audience.
Emily Horsley Ussher, née Jebb, was born in Ellesmere, Shropshire in 1872, the eldest of six children, all of whom became high achievers. Emily was educated at home and in Dresden before marrying Beverley Grant Ussher, an Inspector of Schools under the Board of Education. The couple had one child, Percival Arland Ussher, born in 1899. On Beverly’s retirement in 1914, the family moved to the Ussher family home, Cappagh House, near Dungarvan, County Waterford.
On the opening page of her journal, Emily describes the feverish atmosphere among Southern Unionists even in West Waterford in 1914:
When we (Beverley, Percy and I) settled down at Cappagh for good, the atmosphere was electric. Whispers told of arms being smuggled into Ireland, North and South; it was even reported that our N. T. (National School teacher), awoken by the sound of motor cars in the small hours of the morning, had seen the rifles on their way inland, and it was commonly believed that General Richardson, of the Grange Volunteers, who lodged in Lismore and who rented our woodcock shooting, was busy with more than sport. He was said to be organizing a southern army, in anticipation of Home Rule – then imminent – with Colonel Kirkwood (our agent) first in command, and Colonel Umfreville (our tenant in old Cappagh House) his second…. The General and the two Colonels were continually holding receptions in old Cappagh House of the Unionist gentry (and they were all Unionist), to which we were never invited. We were known to be liberals, and that was enough
Note: All quotations in this article are from Emily’s memoir, RCB Library MS 70, unless otherwise stated.
The fact that Beverley attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteer branch in Dungarvan on 22 April 1914 and was heard to declare: ‘There is at least one Protestant in this room’ to loud applause, would not have endeared the Usshers to other members of the local gentry.
The outbreak of World War 1 transformed the political, social and economic life of all, particularly the gentry. Emily threw herself wholeheartedly into various works such as the preparation of medical dressings for the army, support of Belgian refugees, and recruiting in Ireland. She worked hard to publicise the exploits of Irish troops, speaking at meetings both in England and Ireland. Happenings in Ireland did not go unnoticed. Local reaction to the 1916 Rising, including a requiem mass for the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising which she described in detail on pages 21–28 of her memoir, including her recording with a frown the waspish comment of a neighbour, Lady Muir: ‘Now they [the executed] will never know who won the war.’
Ussher was very conscious how ‘popular feeling is massing behind Sinn Fein’, attending John Redmond’s last public meeting in his Waterford City constituency when she described his gaunt appearance:
Redmond, pale, eyes fixed afar on some dread horizon, contemplating doom, tragedy incarnate
Other events such as the failure of the Irish Convention in 1918, and the reaction of her unionist neighbours are similarly recorded.
The War of Independence presented a new set of challenges to the Usshers. In April 1920, the RIC barracks at nearby Cappagh was evacuated and Sergeant Johnson and the constables relocated to Cappoquin. Sergeant Johnson’s wife and children continued to live in the barracks as they had done for many years. A few nights later Mrs Johnson and her children were peremptorily ordered out of the barracks by masked IRA men who set fire to the building. No time was given to the family to save any possessions or even to get dressed properly, and revealing her care and compassion, Emily Ussher immediately took the family into Cappagh House. A few days later she received an anonymous letter ordering her to ‘get rid of Mrs Johnson in three days or worse would befall.’ The Usshers did not ask Mrs Johnson to leave and made some local people aware of their predicament. Shortly afterwards she was awakened at 2am by repeated ringing of the front doorbell. In her words:
I jumped up and of course in my haste could find nothing that I had left ready. I pictured the feelings of the poor woman in the basement [Mrs Johnson], expected to hear her idiot child scream, knew her boy to be on edge with nerves, feared the little servant would get hysterical, to say nothing of the poor old cousin who had been crying all day, wondered what Beverley would say and do if he got to the door first, and ended by flying downstairs in my nightdress (holding it together because the buttons had come off) and the bell pealing a third time
When she opened the door, she was confronted by three young men, armed, who declared:
We have to apologise for disturbing you at this hour, but we have received a special dispatch from our Minister for Defence to say we must protect you. It is no part of our programme to wage war on women and children
So, the Usshers, protected by the local IRA, became immune from the opportunistic violence that flourished in many areas following the withdrawal of the RIC. The fact that the Sinn Féin minister for Defence, Cathal Brugha, was the local TD was a fortunate coincidence which the guards’ opening salvo had revealed.
At this time, Emily was actually working on her novel The Trail of the Black and Tans. The book was written with a purpose, to bring home to English readers the atrocities being committed in their name by forces of the crown. The manuscript was rejected by many publishers and had to be rewritten until ‘all bad language had been obliterated as being “unfit for nuns”.’ The book finally appeared in October 1921, after the Truce had come into effect, and as Emily explained: ‘thus my purpose for writing the book was completely frustrated’.
Civil War and social strife marked the years 1922 and 1923 for the Usshers. Early in 1922 Cappagh House was taken over by the Anti–Treaty IRA who remained in occupation until the arrival of Free State troops in August. For the Usshers the worst phase of the Civil War was the burning of the big houses in February 1923, and according to Emily Cappagh House was lucky to escape:
A roving band of Republicans out of Tipp. (who burnt Sir John’s house the following night) had set out to burn Cappagh and Whitechurch House but hearing that the Free State had quarters in Whitechurch, they turned back. However, this may be, Sir John Keane’s house was burnt the following night; also, on the other side of the mountains, Major Poer O’Shee’s; the Hunts; the Miss Fairholmes; and we may add, the Langleys. Five country houses and our store – all burnt within a week, if I remember, and all within a few miles as the crow flies
Emily later commented how:
every empty house has left the country less able to pay its way and stands desolate in its own little puddle of unemployment
While the Civil War raged, there was a parallel and equally bitter economic struggle in Waterford between the farmers and estate owners, and their labourers. The Ussher’s estate at Cappagh was pivotal in this struggle. Farm labourers had traditionally been poorly paid and unorganised. The World War had changed the balance between supply and demand for agricultural labour. By 1920, the farm labourers were well organised by the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and had won real improvements in their wages. The agricultural slump that began in 1921 forced the farmers to reverse these improvements and the Cappagh Estate along with the nearby estate of Sir John Keane had been targeted for blockade by the striking workmen. As Emily Ussher describes:
In the first place a train load of roughs had been imported from the city of Waterford (armed with sticks), to enforce a lightning strike against the proposed reduction of wages (from 35/– to 30/– in our case which had come into force on May 20th, 1922, (and none of our labourers had protested)
The strikers, both local and ‘imported’ tried to impose a blockade on Cappagh House and to starve the Usshers into submission. This blockade continued for several weeks, and the hardships suffered by the family are described in some detail. In his book, The Face and Mind of Ireland later published in London in 1945, Emily’s son Percy recalled life in Cappagh House during the strike:
We, the besieged, lived – not happily – for two months on tinned sardines, and other foodstuffs which could be imported by devices known to smugglers; for the pickets were chivalrous and did not press their investigations too far, especially in the case of ladies. Sometimes friends on motor–bicycles would ‘run’ the blockade with parcels. In the evening, our bewildered proletariat, more than half full of drink, would gather in dark swarms on the roads, fatuously waving red flags…
The determination of the Usshers (like that of other landed families) to hold out is captured in Emily’s statement: ‘It is only wages they want today, it will be the land tomorrow’. The family defied the pickets and eventually won out, although the siege of their home was undoubtedly the most difficult time for them. A further, longer and bitterer strike followed in 1923, which though centred on the east of the county also impacted on the Usshers.
The years 1922–1923 were thus extremely turbulent and very stressful for Emily, Beverley and Percy but they survived and never waned in their commitment to the local community. Indeed, the trauma of the bitter strikes and their impact on the Usshers, their labourers and the local community as a whole is reflected in the space allocated in the entire memoir – almost 60 pages, or a third of the entire text. Emily ended her memoir with the poignant words:
And thus, in misery and madness, we watched the heroic age of Ireland fade away
An 80–page appendix to the memoir contains much of interest and includes a biography of Emily by her sister Dorothy Roden Buxton, letters from Emily to the local newspaper the Dungarvan Observer on topics as diverse as the 1916 Rising, the Irish Language and Ireland’s contribution to the British war effort during the Great War. There are also more details of life during the War of Independence in Cappagh. The subtitle on the title page of the typescript is ‘Life at Cappagh from the Spring of 1914, to the Spring of 1925, when all ended for us in a happy wedding’. The ‘happy wedding’ is that of Percy to Miss Emily Whitehead of Nenagh when the groom’s proud mother notes that:
The pickets of 1922 gave them presents and the quarter master of the ‘Occupation’, drove them to church to be married
The Usshers were members of two communities – the wealthy landowning class, clustered along the fertile river valleys of the Blackwater and the Bride, and of their local community centred on Cappagh.
There were times during the turbulent years of the Irish Revolution when they were treated with suspicion by both communities. Their sympathy and support for Home Rule and for the broader concerns of their nationalist friends and neighbours rendered them suspect to other landowners in west Waterford. Their status as landowners made them suspect to nationalists and to militant strikers. That makes the memoir of Emily Ussher all the more valuable, providing the historian with a unique insight into the trials and tribulations of a forgotten minority and also providing rich evidence of the varied and colourful tapestry of Protestant identity during the revolutionary period. As such it deserves a wide audience, and the RCB Library is sincerely thanked for making it available online, especially as the centenary of the siege of Cappagh House by the striking labourers in May 1922 approaches.
After the revolution Emily and Beverley continued to live at Cappagh House and immersed themselves in the local community. Emily died in May 1935. Her death was noted in the local newspapers such as the Waterford News who headlined their obituary: ‘Sudden death of Distinguished Waterford Lady’, and the Dungarvan Observer began its lengthy obituary: ‘The late Mrs. Ussher had done noble work since she came to Cappagh some thirty years ago.’ A copy of this obituary is included in the appendix.
Emily and Beverley’s only child Percival Arland was born in 1899. He was raised at Cappagh and educated at Abbotsholme School, Derbyshire, Trinity College Dublin, and Cambridge. He spent most of his life at Cappagh where he divided his time between farming and writing. He became a fluent speaker and translator of Irish. Among his works was the first translation into English of Brian Merriman’s epic poem, Cúirt an Mhean Oíche – The Midnight Court (1926). In 1944, he sold Cappagh House to Colonel Kendal Chavasse and moved to Dublin where he died on 24 December 1980.
To view the digitized RCB Library MS 70, being the memoir of Emily Ussher, click here
Pat McCarthy is a local historian and author of a number of books on Waterford during the revolutionary years, most notably The Irish Revolution 1912–23 – Waterford (Four Courts Press, 2015) which capture the value of this primary source.