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The Grave of a Woman
ON A BLUSTERY AUTUMN SUNDAY afternoon in the year 2000, I went for a stroll with family and friends on the towpath of the Grand Canal outside Dublin. We were taking a weekend break from archival work in the records of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The '98 was at the crux of that revolutionary epoch. The idea was to combine a pleasant excursion with a preliminary reconnoitering. On the towpath, I stopped at a rose bush growing wild. A single red rose was still in bloom, its petals glistening in the afternoon sunlight with droplets from a recent shower. Besides being part of a revolutionary epoch, the '98 took place during the age of Romanticism, and this rose, at this place, at that time, seemed to me an encouraging sign.
I was searching for the remains of Catherine Despard. After her husband, Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, was hanged and beheaded in London on 21 February 1803, as a traitor to the Crown, his widow, Catherine, the intrepid African American revolutionary, after doing what she could to ensure his decent burial, disappeared, it seems, from the archival record into historical silence.
Was I to think of her as a slave woman or as an African American woman — lost now and far from her ethnic culture — who had been emancipated from the Atlantic slave plantation, whose terrors were the basis of European riches? Or were there other ways to think about her — as a prison reformer; as a helpmeet and comrade; as a figure of London's West End, bustling under the recently (1789) planted plane trees of Berkeley Square, where Charles James Fox, the great reform politician, was her neighbor? She had led an effort to limit the enclosing instincts of the elite, the lords of empire. Are we, therefore, to thank her for making sure that Jeremy Bentham's panopticon remained only a dystopian idea of the totalitarian imaginary? Was I to think of her as an acquaintance of Lord Horatio Nelson, already the nation's hero? She who could so disturb the chief magistrate of the new London police force that he was reduced to whinging pathetically to the home secretary, wishing that she'd simply go away?
One on one, a woman to a man, a descendant of slaves to a lord of the realm, Catherine Despard expressed truth to power. Experienced on two or three continents, she was a revolutionary of the time. Her story is that of the working class at a time when women, like African American slaves, generated the wealth of Europe and, so it was intended, also reproduced that impossible commodity, future workers. In the context of Irish history, she should be compared to Anne Devlin, the faithful comrade of Robert Emmet, himself hanged and decapitated in September 1803, six months after Despard. Devlin, who led a clandestine, revolutionary life, lived long until 1851 but was unremembered. Women were couriers of revolutionary ideals. In faraway Saint Domingue, soon to be the independent republic of Haiti, Rochambeau, Napoleon's commander against the former slaves, ordered Cap-Francais (Haiti) in February 1803 "to force all women back in their houses, especially négresses." Catherine could not be "forced back."
A tantalizing allusion to Catherine in the Recollections of Valentine Lawless, the second Lord Cloncurry, notes that she had left London after her husband Edward's dreadful death, to be looked after at Lyons — a reference not to the second city of France but to one of those magnificent mansions, like Jefferson's Monticello or the English country estates of the Whig ruling class, this one built and inhabited by Cloncurry on the border between counties Dublin and Kildare. "We became a sort of centre of refuge for the hosts of poor people driven from their homes by the atrocious deeds of an army," he wrote. A half century later he wrote, "She lived in my family at Lyons for some years." Here he was able to offer her "an asylum from destitution." Lyons is adjacent to the Grand Canal in county Kildare. The Grand Canal was completed in 1803, the same year that Catherine fled to Lyons. If this is where her life ended, perhaps we could find her remains?
The following themes did not vanish with Edward's death or Catherine's disappearance. The abolition of slavery, the independence of Ireland, the amelioration of the prison, and the emancipation of women had been the causes of her day, and they were nearly extinguished by instruments of counterrevolution — the hangman's rope and executioner's blade. Would I find evidence of her remains in the actual dust caked on the coffins in the sarcophagus of Valentine Lawless, Lord Cloncurry? (And even if I did find her remains, what then?)
Lyons is a mansion with a private lake, whose construction began in 1785. On the death of his father in 1799, Cloncurry came into its possession. "I created a fine place, and employed an army of men" to improve his property. Its shallow bows on either side of the central building consist of granite, rusticated ashlars. The grand, pedimented entranceway is topped by a granite sculpture of bull and ram and a coat-of-arms with badge and coronet. Doric colonnades on either side of the main building join the two wings, in themselves ample as any palace. He hired skilled craftsmen like Gaspare Gabrielli to do the frescoes and the roundels. Pope Pius VII gave him a marble stoup for the entrance. That was 1801, the year the Act of Union abolishing the Irish Parliament came into force and when this pope concluded the concordat with Napoleon. Usually a stoup holding holy water was just inside the door of a church. Pope, Napoleon, Cloncurry: all hostile to the English Crown.
Born in 1773, Valentine Lawless was younger than Despard but Portarlington, county Laois, was the place of his birth, so he would have at least known the name Despard. Friendship, however, was based not on their proximity as countrymen; they were both United Irishmen, that is, revolutionary comrades. Lawless joined the United Irishmen in 1793. Like Robert Emmet, who came after him, he dressed in green and remained close to the leadership. He was arrested, along with Despard, as part of the 1798 roundup of radicals in London and committed to the Tower of London for six weeks. He was arrested again in April 1799 and remained in the Tower until 1801. In September 1802, a rumor reached the Privy Council that Cloncurry had advanced £700 to Despard.
Upon his release, Cloncurry went to live in Rome. This was the time when Britain and France fought for control of Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, pillaging whenever possible. Lord Elgin began the systematic plunder of the marble sculptures of the Parthenon and Erechtheum on the Greek acropolis. Cloncurry also "collected" ancient sculptures and furniture: twelve-foot columns of Egyptian granite, a statue of Venus excavated from Ostia (Rome's port), three red granite pillars from the Golden House of Nero, another pillar from the baths of Titus, sculptures from the Temple Fortuna Virilis, three boatloads of plunder that he shipped back to be freighted up the Grand Canal to Lyons, and one boatload that sank in a storm in Wicklow Bay. The revolutionary bourgeoisie venerated Greece and Rome and surrounded themselves in the classical style of stately architecture in Whitehall; Monticello; Washington, DC; Dublin; or Lyons.
As Catherine gazed at this booty from Africa and Rome, what were her thoughts? She may have shared the Irish revolutionary's regret that in 1798 Napoleon decided to invade Egypt rather than Ireland. Years later (c. 1850). the American former slave Wells Brown experienced an epiphany in Paris while beholding the obelisk from the Nile: the greatness of the builders of Egypt suggested the priority of African to European civilization. This was common knowledge in Catherine's time, because it was the theme of the most popular radical book of the time, Constantine Volney's Ruins, which provided evidence of the African origin of civilization. Thus it refuted the emerging doctrine of white supremacy with its corollary, the innate inferiority of Africans.
In the National Gallery of Ireland, there is a marble sculpture. A female figure, "Lady Liberty," rests her left arm around the shoulder of a marble bust of Cloncurry. The marble of the statue expresses the contradictory nature of Cloncurry, his house, and his cause: the bourgeois revolution proclaims universal liberty in terms only white rich people could afford.
Before they built railways, steamships, automobiles, or jets, the bourgeoisie built canals. The two great canals that spread out to the west from Dublin — the Royal Canal north of the river Liffey, built between 1790 and 1817, and the Grand Canal south of the river, built between 1756 and 1803 — provided a clandestine milieu for the conduit of revolutionary ideas as well as commerce. The Grand Canal went eighty-two miles to the river Shannon. These were the waterways that drained the wealth of central Ireland, its wheat and potatoes, for instance, into the "'world system" of commerce. They helped put an end to local subsistence production. While subsequent historians are inclined to see in them the infrastructure of progress, not all contemporaries could afford such a view. On the one hand, great wealth arose from the grain trade; on the other hand, famine awaited the grain producers.
The construction of canals was gang work — digging with shovels and hauling by barrow. Thousands were employed in dirty, dangerous conditions. The unskilled laborers were known as "navvies," shortened from navigators. Rebels and fugitives lifted a spade among them. Richard Griffith joined the board of the Grand Canal in 1784, bringing a West Indian fortune accumulated from the gang labor of slaves. In summer 1798, the military used the canal to transport troops out of Dublin and prisoners to the city. The canal masons combined for higher wages in the winter Despard was hanged. A report referred to the "unchecked spirit of combination among the artificers and workmen of every denomination." In 1803, advertisements appeared in Irish newspapers offering workers six shillings a day to cut canals in England, double the rate for workers in Ireland.
Lyons is named for the hill behind it, with a rath on top, Cnoch Liamhna in Irish, or for Liamhain, the name of the territory, including the house, its demesne, and most of the parish of Newcastle, county Dublin. The hill was a medieval inauguration and assembly site. Celtic kings had resided there. Here Brian Boru obtained a victory. The story of the place's name is recorded in twenty-eight verses of the twelfth-century Book of Leinster, written in the Irish language. The canal navvies spoke Irish. The heroic tales of Gaelic history that arose in pastoral periods of what James Connolly called "Celtic communism" were preserved by the scholars and bards among them who were Irish speakers. In Connolly's day, the countryside still seethed with grief, defeat, and loss, and not for the first time either. "Many were the tales of bravery and indomitable daring of repulse and defeat did he hear in his boyhood from his father's workmen as they ploughed and harrowed up the ancient demense around the old ruins of the lordly O'Byrne." The stories belonged to the land; they were of it and in it. Was Catherine aware that Liamuin disobeyed a king? Were the servants, craftsmen, navvies, and tillers of the soil aware of her and her story? The lore of location contributed to the revolutionary conspiracy developed in Ireland in spring and summer 1803.
The story told in the Book of Leinster is about the disobedience of a king's four daughters. One, Liamuin, was a warrior and is buried on the hill of the Lyons demesne — "the woman with marital array is killed, so that her name clave to the hill." The hill takes its name from the burial of this legendary woman who disobeyed her father, the king. "Liamuin is slain, perfect of temper, thick-haired, skillful in defense; she met death through her peculiar prowess, wherefore Liamuin is full famous." Unlike Catherine, Liamuin was buried with her husband, "the white-haired soldier-pair, alike are the lovers twain." Catherine Despard also challenged royal authority, George III. The verses commence as follows: "The notable place of Leinster — wealth of valour do the historians declare them the notable places, and next the raths, many are the causes when they are named."
We are dealing with what has been called "the hidden Ireland." Yet we can easily name Catherine's causes — abolition, independence, emancipation, amelioration. Altogether they might be summarized, as this book shall argue, as the commons. There is romantic beauty in this idea, which is why the rose on the towpath at Lyons so struck me when I went looking for Catherine's grave.CHAPTER 2
Quest for the Commons
IN 1807, ROBERT EMMET'S COLLEGE FRIEND the Romantic poet Thomas Moore also expressed the longing and the loneliness after the failure of Emmet's revolutionary project with the metaphor of the rose:
'Tis the last rose of summer Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rose-bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.
The feeling is strong and the grief palpable. Emmet is a flower. The aesthetic expression of history can be a problem. The symbol, the rose, does not lead us on to the principles he died for. The poetic effect is powered by silence or isolation. Contemplating the poem, the deaths of Despard and Emmet in 1803, and the appearance of the rose on the towpath in 2000, I could only blush myself, sigh, and return to my quest, no longer conflated with the rose in the towpath.
Though he was not a United Irishman, Moore became the Romantic, national poet who translated the Irish songs of the Belfast Harp Festival of 1793 into the English language, in the process turning what was indigenous and wild in spirit into urbane literary elegance. He wrote directly of Emmet,
Oh! breathe not his name, let it sleep in the shade, Where cold and unhonour'd his relics are laid: Sad, silent, and dark, be the tears that we shed, As the night-dew that falls on the grass o'er his head.
Silence persists. In words that were memorized by the young Abraham Lincoln, were sympathetic to the plight of the Irish, and were commemorated by W. B. Yeats and in the hearts of Irish people, Robert Emmet spoke at the conclusion of his trial over the hectoring interruptions of the judge,
I am now going to my cold and silent grave, my lamp of life is nearly extinguished, my race is finished, the grave opens to receive me and I sink into its bosom. I have but one request at my departure from the World. It is the charity of its Silence, let no man write my Epitaph, for as no man who knows my motives dare vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them, let them and me repose in obscurity and peace and my tomb remain uninscribed, till other times and other men can do justice to my Character; when my Country takes her place amongst the nations of the Earth, then, and then only may my Epitaph be written.
There are two kinds of silence. There is the actual silence that befell Catherine, the hundreds who perished with Emmet in Dublin, and the seven who perished with Despard in London. It is the silence, the uninscribed tomb, the unknown relics that Catherine shares with Robert Emmet. Then there is a second kind of silence — the cunning silence of Emmet that eloquently sings across the abyss of time.
Cloncurry settled into Lyons. He became an improving landlord, a magistrate, and a director of the Grand Canal, serving three times as chairman of its board. He was a paternalist landlord extending hospitality. He was never idle with the draining, building, planting, and cultivating of the demesne.
Newcastle was a troubled parish. The strips of medieval farming were consolidated and the fields enclosed under an Enclosure Act of 1818, thus commencing "the reign of the bullock." To this day, several fields are still labeled "common" on the ordnance survey map. Writing his recollections in 1848, the most devastating year of disease and starvation in Ireland's history, Cloncurry could not look back to the revolutionary principles of 1798 with triumph.
Canal locks were flash points, where tensions could easily ignite over, for example, cattle grazing on the towpath or a tree cut for a Maypole. Lockkeepers were armed. Double lock number 13 on the canal at Lyons was such a flash point. The canal was the target of nocturnal attack by country people, who feared the export of their foodstuffs into Dublin. High prices, shortages, and eventually famine were associated with the canal. Malicious breachings of the canal occurred in 1812. In 1814, flour boats were plundered by a "fellow stiling himself Captain Fearnought or Firebrand." The ordnance survey map of 1838 shows a cornmill had been built there (evidence of it remains), and a police station is noted on the map.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Red Round Globe Hot Burning"
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Foreword Introduction PART ONE • THE QUEST SECTION A • THE QUEST 1 • The Grave of a Woman 2 • Quest for the Commons SECTION B • THANATOCRACY 3 • Despard at the Gallows 4 • Gallows Humor and the Gibbets of Civilization 5 • Apples from the Green Tree of Liberty SECTION C • UNDERGROUND 6 • The Anthropocene and the Stages of History 7 • E. P. Thompson and the Irish Commons PART TWO • ATLANTIC MOUNTAINS SECTION D • IRELAND 8 • Habendum and the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy 9 • Hotchpot, or Celtic Communism 10 • “That’s True Anyhow” 11 • A Boy amid the Whiteboys 12 • The Same Cont. SECTION E • AMERICA 13 • America! Utopia! Equality! Crap. 14 • Cooperation and Survival in Jamaica 15 • Nicaragua and the Miskito Commons 16 • Honduras and the Mayan Commons SECTION F • HAITI 17 • Haiti and Thelwall 18 • Ireland and Volney 19 • A Spot in Time 20 • Their Son SECTION G • ENGLAND 21 • “A System of Man-Eaters” 22 • The Goose and the Commons, c. 1802 23 • “The Den of Thieves” 24 • Commons or True Commons PART THREE • LOVE AND STRUGGLE SECTION H • THE "BUSINESS" 25 • “The Business” 26 • The Kiss of Love and Equalization 27 • Criminalization in the Labor Process 28 • Irish Labor, English Coal SECTION I • PRISON 29 • In Debt in Prison 30 • In Prison without a Spoon: The Commons of the Meal 31 • Rackets in King’s Bench Prison: The Commons of Play 32 • Catherine Despard Confronts the Penitentiary SECTION J • TWO STORIES 33 • “The Whole Business of Man” 34 • The Red Cap of Liberty 35 • The Red-Crested Bird and Black Duck 36 • What Is the Human Race? Works Cited Index