Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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HISTORY

HEROES AND VILLAINS

image title

Above: Mary Spring-Rice with Molly Childers with the German
guns on board Asgard, 1914.

MARY SPRING RICE (1880-1924)

One morning in the autumn of 1920, Commandant Sean Finn and members of the West Limerick Brigade of the IRA were lying low at a farmhouse near Foynes, Co. Limerick, when they espied two figures delicately making their way across the fields in their direction. The duo had originated in Mount Trenchard, a splendid mansion on the southern banks of the Shannon Estuary.

The two ladies who then greeted the IRA men were the Hon. Mary Spring-Rice and her cousin, Miss Knox. They offered the men a room for the night at their mansion, as and if desired. They also proposed that if anybody wished to have any ‘messages’ delivered to Dublin, or indeed to any other part of the country, they would be perfectly happy to oblige. And furthermore, the Hon. Mary informed Commandant Finn that if he needed to make contact with his fellow officers across the Shannon in County Clare, then she had a fine boat anchored between Loughill and Foynes that was up for grabs.[i]

Such proposals were not, of course, typical of the aristocracy and landed gentry during the War of Independence. But the Spring-Rice’s were not typical people.

Although destined for an all too short life, Mary Spring Rice was particularly notable in the annals of Irish independence. In 1914, she not only proposed that private yachts be used to collect German guns for the Irish Volunteers, but personally sailed out on Asgard on that extraordinarily audacious gun-run. And during the War of Independence, she made her mark again by offering indispensable first aid lessons to nurses tending to wounded IRA members.

The Rice family had played a prominent role in Irish politics since at least the 17th century when Sir Stephen Rice, a prominent Jacobite and Mary’s direct ancestor, was appointed Chief Baron of the Exchequer by King James II. He managed to survive without having his estates seized and, in 1835, his great-great-grandson Thomas Spring Rice was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1839, Thomas was created Baron Monteagle of Brandon by Queen Victoria. A compassionate landowner, he strongly advocated State-funded migration during the Famine and slammed Britain’s laissez-faire policy. His passion for Ireland ensured that, following his death in 1866, he was commemorated by a monument that still towers over the People’s Park in Limerick to this day.[ii]

His eldest son Stephen – Mary’s grandfather - played a prominent role in collecting funds and organizing famine relief schemes. In January 1847, as secretary of the British Relief Association, he persuaded Queen Victoria to double her subscription to £2,000 and then cajoled Baron de Rothschild, the Jewish banker, to give £1,000. During his 40s, his health began to suffer and he died while on a Mediterranean cruise in 1865, aged 51.[iii]

As such, Mary’s father Thomas was only seventeen years old when he succeeded his grandfather as 2nd Baron Monteagle in 1866. Educated at Cambridge, a colleague described this ‘very tall and slight' soul as ‘a man of fine education, of stainless integrity and honour, brave but always gentle and conciliatory.’ These were characteristics shared by his only daughter Mary Ellen Spring-Rice who was born in 1880.

Her mother Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of the Most Rev. Samuel Butcher, DD, who, as Bishop of Meath, had stunned Victorian society by committing suicide in 1876.[iv]

Mount Trenchard, where Mary and her two brothers grew up, was a progressive, liberal household. Independence of thought was encouraged. So too was the Gaelic culture and, at home, Mary was taught how to speak fluent Irish.

During her teenage years, she befriended Douglas Hyde, a regular visitor to Mount Trenchard. She also became particularly close to her cousin, the landscape artist Nelly O’Brien, who attended the first Oireachtas of the Gaelic League in 1897. Nelly went on to found the Craobh na gCúig gCúigí’ (Branch of the Five Provinces), nicknamed the ‘branch of the five protestants’ because of its small, mainly Church of Ireland membership.

Meanwhile, Lord Monteagle was becoming ever more determined to develop 'conciliation' between the various classes in Ireland, promoting industrial regeneration and encouraging people to prove their patriotism by practical effort. He helped Horace Plunkett to found the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS).

Mary was 20 years old when her oldest brother Stephen contracted typhoid fever during a voyage home from Australia and died in London in 1900. Perhaps mourning his loss, she threw herself into helping her father and her aunt Alice to create a remarkable assemblage of cooperative ventures, such as a sawmill, a poultry society and a library, at Foynes and Mount Trenchard, designed to boost local pride.[v]

She also established a branch of the United Irishwomen which was founded in 1910 as a sister organisation to the IAOS which focused on countrywomen's industries and handicrafts. She also joined the Gaelic League and began to organise festivals along the banks of the Shannon. She also hired an Irish speaker from Kerry to teach classes in the local national school, becoming – in Trevor West’s words - ‘a kind of parish providence’. By 1911, she was on the executive of the Limerick branch of the Irish Countrywomen's Association.

Mary’s mother died in 1908 when she was 28. She appears to have moved to London at about this time, where she continued to be active in the Gaelic League. Always softly-spoken, the writer Mary Colum recalled her as ‘a dowdy, pleasant young woman, somewhat old-maidish and schoolmarmish, with the heels of her brown stockings showing an elaborate darn … Shy as a rabbit, she had the courage and fighting spirit of several Bengal tigers, and the competency of a few field marshals.’[vi]

In 1912, she assisted Nellie when the latter founded Coláiste Uí Chomhraí (Irish summer school) College at Carrigaholt in Co. Clare. At about this time, she was selling Limerick lace at an agricultural fair in Westminster Hall, London, when introduced to Erskine and Molly Childers. United by a common interest in yachting and Home Rule, Mary and the Childers formed part of the Anglo-Irish committee established in London in May 1914 to help arm the Irish Volunteers.

She had a good deal in common with the group’s chairman Alice Stopford-Green whose grandfather had also been a Bishop of Meath; Alice’s father was Rector of Kells and Archdeacon of Meath during Mary’s childhood.

Other members of the group included Childers, Sir Roger Casement and two of Mary Spring Rice's cousins, Conor O’Brien and Hugh Vere O'Brien.[vii] All subscribed towards the purchase of German arms for the Irish Volunteers.

One of the biggest problems facing the group was how to smuggle arms from Germany into Ireland without the Royal Navy intervening. It was Mary Spring Rice who came up with the epic suggestion that private yachts be used. She initially proposed that her own fishing smack, the Santa Cruz, be used. However, Childers inspected the vessel and deemed her to be in too poor condition for such a journey.

Instead, he would personally take charge of the transportation in his yacht, Asgard, with back up from Kelpie which would be skippered by Mary’s cousin, Conor O'Brien.[viii]

When Asgard embarked on its 23 day gun-running voyage in July 1914, 34-year-old Mary Spring-Rice was on board with the Childers and four other men. She kept a thorough diary of their journey, subsequently published, which shows her to have been a plucky, optimistic soul.[ix] One of her fellow crewmen described her as ‘a wonder … She has never been far to sea before, yet she was hardly ill at all and looks and is most useful … so splendid such a help, such a good sailor, so brave and unshrinking'.

Her greatest concern was that the mission would be called off but the pick up went as planned and, despite some close encounters with the Royal Navy and a bad storm, Asgard got back to Howth where they delivered 900 Mausers to a group of 800 eager Irish Volunteers. Once back in Dublin, Mary slipped into the United Club for a late luncheon and a nice cup of tea.

During the war, Mary's cousin Sir Cecil Arthur Spring Rice was Britain's controversial ambassador in Washington. He was a close friend of US President Theodore Roosevelt, serving as best man at his second wedding. On the eve of his departure from Washington in 1918, he penned a hymn, ‘I Vow To Thee, My Country’.

With the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1919, Mary once again threw herself behind the nationalist cause, nursing wounded Volunteers, setting up first-aid classes, lending her boat to local Republicans and carrying the occasional surreptitious messages to the IRA’s headquarters in Dublin. She also put Mount Trenchard at the disposal of Dr. Con Lucey, medical officer of the 1st Cork Brigade, so that they could give lectures to the ladies of the Cumann na mBan.

At another level, she added to the pressure on Lloyd-George’s government in London by bringing well-known British liberals to stay at Mount Trenchard. Assisted by Alice Stopford-Green, she would then introduce her guests to influential members of the Republican community such as Con Collins, Sinn Fein TD for West Limerick, who thus had an opportunity to give their perspective on the war.[x]

However, she was already plagued by tuberculosis and, in 1923, shortly after the outbreak of the Irish Civil War, she entered a sanatorium in Clwdyy, north Wales. She died there, aged just 44, on 1st December 1924. At her funeral in Foynes, her coffin was wrapped in the tricolour and she was given a guard of honour representing the local IRA, the Gaelic League, and trade unionists.[xi]

FOOTNOTES

[i] ‘Limerick's Fighting Story 1916-21: Told by the Men Who Made It’, Ruan O'Donnell, p. 305.

[ii] The Spring-Rice’s were a family with a conscious, as well as highly accomplished in the literary field. As Stephen Gwynn observed, they were 'by no means the traditional hard-riding, fox-hunting, convivial Country gentry, whose sons have constantly distinguished themselves in war and not seldom in administration. The Spring Rices were methodical People, diligent officials, with a high sense of public duty; and their tastes were for the more cultivated pleasures.' The 1st Lord Monteagle’s sister Mary was mother of the poet Aubrey de Vere whose study of Celtic legends in the late 19th century arguably set the ball in motion for the Gaelic Revival which would sweep Mary along.

In 1785, Sir Stephen’s great-grandson Stephen married Catherine, only daughter and heiress of Thomas Spring of Castlemain, Co. Kerry. The family then settled at Castle Trenchard on the south bank of the Shannon Estuary near Foynes, Co. Limerick, where they remained for the next seven generations.

His descendant Thomas Spring Rice (1790-1866) was an exceptional politician and a member of the Privy Council. His first wife – Mary’s great-grandmother - was a daughter of the 1st Earl of Limerick. He represented Limerick at Westminster for the Whig (or Liberal) party from 1820 to 1832 and the borough of Cambridge from 1822 to 1839. He served as Under Sec of State for the Home Dept in 182, Sec to the Treasury from 1830 to 1834, Sec of State for the Colonies in 1834 and Chancellor of the Exchequer from April 1835 to Sept 1839 when appointed Comptroller General of the Exchequer. During the Famine, he slammed Downing Street, claiming the government had 'degraded our people, and you, English, now shrink from your responsibilities'. He died on 7 Feb 1866 when succeeded by his 17-year-old grandson Thomas, Mary’s father.

[iii] Stephen Spring Rice (1814-1865) was Deputy Chairman of the Board of Customs and played a prominent role in collecting funds and organizing relief schemes during the Great Famine. In January 1847, as secretary of the British Relief Association, he persuaded Queen Victoria to double her subscription to Famine aid to £2,000 and then cajoled Baron Lionel de Rothschild, the Jewish banker, to give £1,000. He married a daughter of William Frere, Master of Downing College, Cambridge, with whom he had two sons and eight daughters. During his 40s, his health began to suffer and he died aged 51 in 1865 while making his way home from the Mediterranean on the steam vessel Tripoli.

[iv] Dr. Butcher slit his throat with a razor and killed himself in July 1876. His family burst into his bedroom where the Bishop urged them to pass him a pencil and paper upon which he wrote the word ‘Mad’ before dying.

[v] These also included a credit society, a wheat-growing cooperative, a wholesaling depot and a workmen's club.

[vi] So wrote Mary Colum, wife of the Celtic literary revivalist Pádraic Colum, in her book ‘Life and the Dream’ (1947, now out of print). Quoted in ‘Slings, Arrows And Devotion’, The Irish Times, Saturday April 10th 1999,

[vii] Conor’s mother the sculptor Mary Spring-Rice was Mary’s aunt. She had married Edward O’Brien, JP, DL, of Cahirmoyle, Co. Limerick in 1863 but died just five years later.

[viii] Conor O’Brien – whom she considered 'useless at a crisis' – sailed Kelpie with his sister Kitty, Diarmid Coffey and two sailors from Foynes. Kelpie’s cargo was transferred to the Chotah and reached Kicoole, Co. Wicklow, a week after Asgard’s arrival into Howth. Conor O'Brien was to become an Inspector of Fisheries for the 2nd Dail.

In the ensuing period, Mary’s cousin Hugh Vere O'Brien, one of the first gentlemen to join the Irish Volunteers, supervising the landing of 150 rifles smuggled to Foynes by the Limerick and Claremen of New York. With residences at Ballyalla (Ennis) and Monare (Foynes), he later helped drill the Volunteers of both counties. Lord Monteagle lent him the Memorial Hall in Foynes for that purpose.

[ix] Her Asgard diary was published in Martin, Howth gun running (1964)

[x] ‘Limerick's Fighting Story 1916-21: Told by the Men Who Made It’, Ruan O'Donnell, p. 306.

[xi] Her father outlived her and died aged 77 on Christmas Eve 1926. Mary’s younger brother Thomas (Tom), a bachelor, succeeded as 3rd Baron – he worked as a Counsellor for HM’s Diplomatic Service. And when he died in 1934, the title passed to his aged uncle Francis, a Royal Navy Cmdr, and then to Francis’s son Captain Charles Spring Rice. By his marriage to Emilie de Kosenko, daughter of the late Mrs Edward Brooks of 956, Fifth Avenue, New York, Charles was father to Gerald, Michael and Joan. When Charles died on 9th December 1946, Gerald succeeded as 6th Baron Monteagle. He was educated at Harrow and served as a Captain in the Irish Guards, retiring in 1955, mainly in Palestine. On 28th may 1949, he married Anne, only daughter of Col. Guy James Brownlow, DSO, DL, of Ballywhite, Portaferrry, Co. Down. They have a son Charles and three daughters, Elinor, Angela and Fiona, who live in England.

Mount Trenchard was occupied by the Military in 1944, sold to Lady Holland in 1947 and to the Sisters of Mercy in 1953 who opened a school.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Patrick Gallagher, My story, by Paddy-the-cope (1939)

F. X. Martin (ed.), The Howth gun-running and the Kilcoole gun-running (1964)

Andrew Boyle, The riddle of Erskine Childers (1977)

Ruan O'Donnell, ‘Limerick's Fighting Story 1916-21: Told by the Men Who Made It’ (Mercier Press, 2009).

David Fitzpatrick, Thomas Spring Rice & the Peopling of Australia, The Old Limerick Journal XXIII (1988- Australian edition), p. 39-49.

 

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