A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe …Part 57
Birr is quite, quite wonderful. Of all the towns I’ve visited yet, it would be Birr I would choose as a home, were I to become unsettled. To some it marks the centre of Ireland and there is a stone here, complete with the hand print of Finn McCool, to mark the very spot. The Seffin Stone can be found close to the centre of the town, by the gates of St John’s Hall. The fin part of the name is in honour of the legendary giant.
This town is not just the geographical centre of Ireland , it is also a place to celebrate Ireland’s history. Of all the five countries that comprise the British Isles, history is most alive and current in the Republic.
In the centre of Emmet Square stands an elegant Doric column. It looks like it’s missing a statue, and it is. On top of the column, until the early years of the twentieth century, stood the Duke of Cumberland. Few people stand so hated by the peoples of Scotland and Ireland. He was the victor at The Battle of Culloden and responsible for the atrocities that were carried out in the aftermath of the battle. The English named the Sweet William flower after him and gave him a verse in the national anthem. The Scottish call him Stinking Billy. Under British rule he stood over the people of Birr, but was taken down before independence. The Square was re-named Emmet Square in the 1920s and the column dedicated to the memory of Robert Emmet in 2005. The bi-centenary of his death.
The name is familiar and I go in search of the story. Shelley wrote verses in his memory. It’s enough for me. I find the story but cannot locate just why he is so remembered in Birr. Maybe it is because his story resonates to the heart of the country.
People who approach Irish history from a purely sectarian viewpoint quickly run into something of an academic mire. All too many of the main players don’t fit the template and Robert Emmet was one of these. He fought for the oppressed Catholic majority yet was himself a protestant from a wealthy background. He entered Trinity College Dublin at the age of fifteen and was soon involved in activism. At the age of 20 he fled to Napoleonic France where he gained a promise from Napoleon of military support for a revolution in Ireland. The support never materialised and the 1798 uprising failed.
He was involved in the planning of further rebellions in 1799 and 1803. Problems in the supply of weapons led to withdrawal of rebels from Wicklow and Kildare and the failure to capture the lightly armed Dublin Castle turned, what had been planned as lighting the fuse of revolution, into something more akin to a large scale riot.
Emmet fled and went into hiding but was captured, tried and executed for treason. His capture was made easier because Emmet had fled to be near his beloved Sarah. The relationship and aftermath has inspired almost as much verse as his life as a patriot. Like many national heroes there has been a great deal of romanticising but the man deserves his place.
He might easily have disappeared into the hinterland of history had it not been for the remarkable speech he made from the dock on being convicted. There are various transcripts but none that can be totally relied upon. The official court recorder was British and the speech was one of the great recruiting sergeants for a united and free Ireland. The actual verbatim speech was therefore never published. The following is considered among the more reliable existing versions.
“Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other man can do justice to my character.”
The final two lines made him immortal and are inscribed at the foot of the memorial in the square in Birr that now bears his name.
“When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.”
I’d put it up with Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. “I have a Dream”; “Four score and seven years ago”. Certainly in terms of poetry! Certainly in the desire to free a population. Like Dr King and the Great Emancipator, he never lived to see his dream fulfilled, but he certainly played his part.
The old weathered stone of the column stands as a magnificent testimony to the man and as a faultless centrepiece and focal point for the town of Birr. I walk out towards it from the very door of my hotel. I pass it on my way to park my bicycle in the old stable yard, of the coaching inn, just across the way. The horses left decades ago and a shiny white Rolls Royce is parked with pride in the garages. My old blue bicycle looks very handsome at its side.
I feel at home in the town. The lady in the chemist finds some Milton tablets so I can have a go at sterilising my water bottles. Tim Moore, in his delightful book, French Revolutions, describes what a cyclist can undergo if he neglects to keep his water bottles free from bugs. She also sells me the best bubble bath I’ve been able to buy south of the border. My bedroom may be small, and the en-suite smaller still, but once you’re in the bath any problems become mere quibbles; dust; air; but mostly bubbles!
I take out the, by now battered and well thumbed, copy of Inishowen, place my Spode mug filled with piping hot tea on the shelf and slide into several soapy gallons of Ireland’s finest hot water. I’d gone through the phases today; from scribe to glutton, from invalid to unimpressed, from inspiring to inspired, from cold and drenched to warm and drenched, from Roscommon to Birr, from Connacht to Leinster, from down and out to up, up and away.
I’ve fallen in love with Birr, with Offaly, with Leinster, with Ireland. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last. It’s quite a country.