7. An Interview about Michael Dwyer
Diversion 7. Back to historical topics today, but in a slightly different format. On 6 March 2004, I spoke about my book In search of Michael Dwyer in the Irish Centre in Hammersmith, London. In advance of my lecture, I answered questions about Dwyer and the book for radio with interviewer Robert Allen. Today’s diversion is a transcript of that interview. Enjoy!
R. A. What is the relevance of Michael Dwyer to modern Irish society?
C. L. A difficult question to start with… I will leave it till the end, when the answer may be judged in the light of the other answers that I have given.
R. A. All right. Second question so! How much does the myth about Michael Dwyer matter to his legendary status ?
C. L. The myth and the reality of Dwyer are often not quite the same. However, what is important here is people’s perceptions of Dwyer. The myth ensured that Dwyer was perceived as a Nationalist/Republican hero. Dwyer attained some qualities that were almost superhuman. However, the myth was no accident. Many ordinary people identified with Dwyer, the son of a small tenant farmer, much more readily than they could identify with rich, powerful and influential leaders such as Tone, Fitzgerald or Emmet. They were viewed as being on a pedestal, separated by social class, rank, status, wealth and sometimes, it has to be said, religion from the ordinary populace. Dwyer, on the other hand, was one of their own This fact was not lost on the post-famine revisionists, people like Fr. Kavanagh, who wrote the popular history of 1798. Kavanagh’s writing should be viewed as part of the wider post-famine Catholic Devotional Revolution, a movement which forged closer links between Irish Catholicism and Irish Nationalism. Thus the myth of Dwyer was carefully cultivated, the noble Catholic peasant who tried to change an unjust system and who remained undefeated, only laying down arms on his own terms, and who was then shamefully treated by the representatives of that system. References to his later life in Australia were totally wiped out… indeed. Campion’s book has Dwyer dying in 1805 instead of 1825, and Campion’s book was the authority on Dwyer for over half a century! The myth of Dwyer was further accentuated by the many Romantic poems and ballads written about him. In a peculiarly oral tradition, an important part of the Irish psyche, Dwyer’s legend lived and grew. Also, very importantly, the inclusion of ‘The Ballad of Michael Dwyer’ by T.D. Sullivan in the primary school curriculum once the Irish Free State was founded meant that many generations of impressionable youngsters were exposed to the Romantic tale of Dwyer and his daring deeds. Thus, the legend continued to grow and the perception of Dwyer as a superhuman hero, escaping from the cottage in Derrynamuck to continue the noble fight, was ingrained into the minds of generations of Irish children nationwide. Dwyer’s status as a major icon was ensured and it was the perception rather than the reality that was now important.
R.A. I also ask this because Dwyer’s deeds have taken on a character of their own, comparable to those of the mythical legends like Medb, Cuchulain, etc. Does this tell us that we need the mythical figure as well as the living legend?
C. L. I am not sure, but can offer some opinions. The first important point is that we have to differentiate Dwyer from purely fictional figures. He did exist and many of his deeds are recorded. In fact, his escapades are so numerous and so daring that in many cases the reality matches, if not surpasses, the myth. Truth was stranger than fiction! However, there is more than this to the growth of the myth. As already mentioned, Dwyer’s lowly origins meant that he was perceived to be ‘one of our own’ by many ordinary people. He was master of the mountains and controlled his area of operations almost totally. Thus the idea of the Romantic outlaw, wronged and fighting to right that wrong, becomes part of the myth. The parallels with the English Robin Hood saga are obvious. Even some of the stories are similar… Dwyer hides overhead in the rafters while soldiers search below for him; Dwyer disguises himself to evade capture; Dwyer shows his skill as a marksman; Dwyer proves himself a noble enemy by allowing certain prisoners to walk; surely the stuff of legend. However, I liken Dwyer not so much to Robin Hood as to two other famous freedom fighters, both of whom operated in the Alps. These are Switzerland’s William Tell and Austria’s Andreas Hofer. The legendary Tell has become a major tourist attraction and is commemorated in many Swiss towns and villages. Hofer’s huge statue overlooks the ski-jump in Innsbruck and his image is found all over the Tyrol. Yet the legendary Dwyer was not commemorated in stone in his native place until 2003. In other countries, these national icons, who were also local heroes operating in mountainous areas, are widely celebrated and commemorated with pride. They have a mythical status of their own. Yet, in Ireland, there is a shying away from such commemorations and in the absence of official events, the unofficial versions – that is, the myth rather than the reality – takes over. This is why it is the job of the historian to delve and to inform. If Dwyer and similar figures are left in an information and commemoration vacuum, the myth will be the only version of his life that is related. Similarly, the myth will only be celebrated and commemorated by an Irish Republican minority element and this is wrong. Dwyer was a man of the people, and his memory belongs to all of the people. However, if his life is not studied and if the official channels do not recognise him (and others like him), then there is certainly a need for the mythical figure to be held up as an icon.
R. A. Michael Dwyer clearly means a lot to the people of West Wicklow and to republicans of various hues but do you believe he has a place in the national psyche in the same manner as others who were involved in the struggle for freedom?
C. L. Referring back to my answer to question two above… the inclusion of ‘The Ballad of Michael Dwyer’ by T.D. Sullivan in the primary school curriculum meant that Dwyer’s daring was ingrained into the minds of generations of Irish children nationwide. I think it is true to say that Dwyer had a place in the hearts and minds of many people of the older generation. However, when the ballad was removed from the school texts and when the teaching of history (rightly) became less biased, particularly after the outbreak of the Northern Troubles post-1969, Dwyer, with many other Republican figures, moved from their centre-stage position. Now that historians are starting to revise the revisionism of the past thirty years or so, I think that figures such as Dwyer are starting to emerge from the shadows again. The bicentenary of 1798-1803 has rekindled interest in the period generally and a large corpus of new work has been published recently. Lives of major leaders such as Fitzgerald and Emmet have been published, and some general histories of the rebellion have also been produced. However, it is very interesting to see books such as Women of 98 – women’s history has long been neglected, and Fellowship of Freedom – the study of history through artefacts dating from the time or made in commemoration of the event is also a neglected area of Irish historiography. The great difference in the bicentenary corpus of work however, is the plethora of books taking a local area as the focus of their studies There is strong feeling of locality and an increasing awareness of local history nowadays, and using this sense of place to investigate what happened in our area at a particular time – e.g. 1798-1803 is a very important part of the process of finding out where we came from and why we are the people we are today. My own study on Dwyer fits into this category, but there is also a local history of national events and the story must place Dwyer firmly within the bigger National picture, in which he was for a time a leading character.
R. A. Are people neutral about Michael Dwyer and the rest of the 1797-1803 leaders because it is so long ago, while tempers still tend to fray over the 1916-22 leaders?
C. L. There is a lot of truth in the inference included in the question, but I think there is also more to it than the mere passage of more time. I think that we must look at outcomes here. There is no doubt that everyone loves, praises and has sympathy for the heroic failure. Thus, the efforts of the Great O’Neill some years before the Flight of the Earls, the efforts of the United Irishmen in 1798-1803, the efforts of the Young Irelanders in 1848 and the efforts of the Fenians in 1867 are all held in high esteem by Irish Nationalists and Republicans. They are all variously viewed as Romantic, heroic, futile, courageous, hopeless, patriotic and pathetic (that is, inducing pathos). They were all ‘fine efforts’ and everything from ‘the informer’ to ‘the weather’ has been put forward as a reason for their failure. However, in the cold hard light of day, that’s what they all were, failures – and they changed nothing. The period 1916-22 was different. It had a definite outcome and one that involved major changes. Viewed alone, the 1916 Rising could be viewed as another failure, but, and even the wording of your question confirms this, it was (or it became) part of a wider, longer revolutionary movement. The treaty and all that went with it divided the country at the time, so it is no surprise that it should still be so and that some tempers still tend to fray. In my own paternal family, for example, my grandfather Pat and his brother Ned were pro-treaty, while their other brothers, John and Arthur were anti-treaty. So, the outcome of the 1916-22 period had a direct effect on my family, in a way that the outcome of 1798-1803 could not have had. Now, if we multiply the experience of my family by the many other affected families, we begin to get a picture of how the divisions of the treaty etc. diffused into every local area, every parish, every townland and nearly every household in the country. Had the period 1916-22 produced another failure with no change as its outcome, it would probably be viewed in the same way as the other list of failed attempts! We could hardly argue over Collins and Dev if both had been executed in Kilmainham; then they would have ‘died for Ireland’ and joined the martyrs and the ranks of myth!
R. A. Why do you think Michael Dwyer achieved his legendary status; was he clever or lucky or both?
C. L. He was good! Yes he was lucky, yes he was clever, and the whole idea of his being a man of the people added to his legend, but first and foremost, he was good. By ‘good’ I mean he was good in the military sense A few quotes from the book might be relevant.
Admittedly, Dwyer had shown conspicuous bravery during engagements with the crown forces such as those at Arklow, Hacketstown and Ballyellis. He had been given his own command and had stayed in the field even after the demise of Holt’s contingent. Holt had laid down his arms in November 1798, but Dwyer continued his resistance until he gave himself up, on terms of his own choosing, in December 1803. In total, Dwyer continued his fight against the authorities for over five and a half years. The longevity of his campaign was staggering and his feat becomes all the more amazing when one considers the huge weight of odds stacked against him…
And again: At the outset, it is important to clarify that Dwyer was not a mere criminal or bandit. From late 1798 onwards banditry and minor raids could continue as long as there were small numbers of unreconciled or outlawed rebels but this in itself could not he considered as insurrectionary warfare. However, Michael Dwyer had been a captain of the United Irish force. His family background was also entwined within the United Irish organisation. Many of his kinfolk had been deeply involved in the movement; for example John Dwyer of Seskin had been a baronial delegate.
Finally: Michael Dwyer’s leadership qualities were noticed during the Wexford campaign and he had his own command from the time of the second battle of Hacketstown onwards. Hence Dwyer had a mandate for his actions from within the organisation to winch he belonged.
Dwyer’s operations were of necessity small-scale; small bands that hit both hard and fast before moving on rapidly. Such a campaign suited Dwyer, who was on home territory and whose fieldcraft and survival skills were of the highest order.
The whole idea of being on home territory is vital here. The situation was very simple; whoever came looking for Dwyer in the mountains stood a good chance of being killed. Dwyer was ruthless; he once shot three deserters of the Meath militia who had come to join him because he was unsure and suspected their motivation. He killed a twelve-year-old boy because he had informed on some of his comrades. Dwyer ruled his upland bastion with an iron hand. Yes, he had kin in the area; yes, he had many sympathisers; yes, he was well supported in his own place, but also, woe betide anyone who crossed him! Perhaps such actions seem repellent today – but we must judge them by the standards of the time rather than by today’s standards. And the time was tough; it was ‘kill or be killed’ and such actions were part of the reason why Dwyer survived so long and achieved the legendary status that he did.
R. A. I see. Now… back to where we started…What is the relevance of Michael Dwyer to modern Irish society?
C. L. When I lecture on Dwyer, I try to finish by addressing this whole area. Here are some of the points that I make:
• Without Dwyer, and people like him, we would not enjoy the democracy and the freedoms we have in Ireland today.
• Dwyer operated at a time when Irish Nationalism was on its knees. The bloody events of 1798 and its aftermath were a horrendous blow to the National cause. Just when all seemed lost, a beacon of hope appeared in Wicklow. Dwyer and his band gave back a sense of pride and self-respect to all whose hopes had been dashed so devastatingly.
• It is important to commemorate and remember Dwyer and his followers as it helps us to understand how we got to where we are now. However, understanding their motives and their sacrifice does not mean that we have to use these men as behavioral role models.
• Dwyer was a man of action; we remember what he actually did, not what he wanted to do or might have done. Here he differs significantly from Tone and Fitzgerald. Dwyer carried on the struggle on the ground – he was at the cutting edge of the rebellion (literally at times!)
• Dwyer was much more than a bandit; he always had a United Irish agenda. The United Irishmen were part of a wider Trans-Atlantic phenomenon; a democratic upsurge against Colonialism and Monarchy. Dwyer was a Republican; that is, he believed that leaders should be elected and the idea of people being subjects of a monarchy was anathema to him. Today in Ireland, the basis of our democracy is built on the model espoused by Dwyer and the United Irishmen.
• Dwyer fought for his beliefs, for as long as possible, but his practical nature meant that he made terms and laid down his arms. He chose life over death; surely this fact in no way belittles his heroism? As a realist, his best option was America; but it turned out that his only option was Australia.
• In Australia, Dwyer and others left a legacy of many generations of families who have upheld Dwyer’s own principles and who have helped to shape the modern nation of Australia. The close links that exist between Australia and Ireland today can be traced back through the history of Dwyer and many others like him, who re-built their lives from scratch in Australia.
• Back in Ireland, Dwyer’s campaign inspired later generations of freedom fighters. Michael Collins and Dan Breen both held Dwyer’s guerrilla campaign in high esteem and modelled some of their military actions on his. Indeed, it was guerrilla warfare that made the War of Independence of 1919-21 different in its outcome, and that eventually led to the establishment of the new state. Dwyer was one of the first to see the value of such warfare, thus blazing a trail for the people who established the Irish Free State, and, eventually, the Republic.
R. A. Thank you.