Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Downton Abbey and the Fight for Irish Freedom

by Tim Vicary

In the marvelous TV series Downton Abbey, one theme that will surely develop further is the relationship between the youngest daughter of the house, Lady Sybil, and Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur. Despite the strong disapproval of her parents the young couple fall in love and elope to Dublin to get married. This marriage is a very shocking and traumatic event for Lady Sybil’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Grantham, and it is clear that her married life with her husband is going to be far from easy.

There are three major problems which the young couple will have to face: class, religion, and nationality. Class is the biggest: as the youngest daughter of wealthy English aristocrats, Lady Sybil has committed a colossal social blunder. There is no way that she and her new husband can possibly be accepted in the social world in which she has grown up; she may occasionally meet her sister and parents but otherwise she has surely cut herself off forever. Her father has settled a little money on her, but she will still have to accustom herself to managing on that and her new husband’s wages – much, much less than she has previously taken for granted.

Let’s hope their love is strong; it will need to be. When my wife, then aged 19, agreed to marry me, a graduate with no obvious prospects, her grandmother had similar misgivings.  ‘When money comes in the door, love flies out the window,’ she wrote, in a forceful letter that could easily have come from the Dowager Countess of Grantham!

Since I was 21 and unemployed at the time, the old lady had a point! But at least my wife and I were both English, of a similar religion. Sybil’s new husband is a Catholic Irishman , at a time when religion and ethnicity are of crucial significance. In 1919 they elope to Dublin, straight into a cauldron of terrorism, murder, and police repression, a two-year campaign of violence which will result, after many deaths, in the creation of the Irish Free State.

So what, exactly, is going on? Her husband will understand it, but to Sybil all this may come as a nasty shock.  Few English people know much Irish history, and she is surely no different. Well, here is a little of what she will need to learn.

When the First World War began thousands of Irishmen, both Protestant and Catholic, joined the British Army, just like many men from Downton. There was no conscription; they were all volunteers. Like the men she has nursed at Downton, many of these Irish soldiers suffered horrific, life-changing injuries while fighting for what they still considered to be their country.

But not all Irishmen saw it like this. Some Irishmen, taking the view that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’, decided that their real enemy was not Germany at all, but England.  So they tried (unsuccessfully) to get guns from Germany, and rose up in armed rebellion. On Easter Monday 1916, on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin, Padraig Pearse read out a declaration of Irish independence. Ireland, he said, was no longer part of the United Kingdom; it was now a sovereign independent state.  Behind him, several hundred armed Republicans raised the flag of an Irish Republic. 

They had no chance of success. The British government was recovering from the disaster at Gallipoli and planning for the battle of the Somme; it had no sympathy for Irish rebels who had tried to get guns from the enemy. A week later, after a battle in which 450 people were killed, mostly by soldiers of the Royal  Irish Regiment, the rebels surrendered. Pearse and 13 other leaders were convicted of treason and executed. Their followers were imprisoned in North Wales for 6 months, and then released.

Pearse’s death made him a martyr. As the poet W.B. Yeats wrote, ‘a terrible beauty is born.’ In the general election of 1918, Sinn Fein, the party of Pearse’s supporters, won 73 out of 105 seats in Ireland. One of these was won by the first ever woman MP, Constance Markeiwicz.  But instead of going to Westminster, the Sinn Fein MPs declared themselves the new Parliament of Ireland, Dail Eireann. A state of war existed, they said, between England and Ireland. 

Thus when Lady Sybil arrives in Dublin with her new husband, she will find herself in the middle of a civil war. Ireland in 1919 was blessed – if that is the right word - with two governments, each of which had politicians, soldiers, and tax collectors. The new Irish Republic had its own army, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) led by Michael Collins. His men began to kill policemen, particularly intelligence officers.  They were very good at it.  Not surprisingly, the British government disliked this. As far as they were concerned, men like Michael Collins were terrorists. They wanted to capture him, dead or alive. But it was not easy. No one knew where Collins lived, or even what he looked like. 

From what we know of Sybil’s husband, Tom Branson, it seems likely that he will be more in sympathy with the IRA than the British Army. Sybil’s father, the Earl of Grantham, and her sister’s new husband, Matthew Crawley, will surely have no sympathy for this. Matthew was fighting in the trenches while men like Michael Collins were skulking at home, conspiring to get arms from the Germans. So what will happen if Tom Branson joins the IRA, and kills some British policemen or soldiers? Lady Sybil will have a hard time explaining that to her family!

She will need new friends in Dublin, and given her social background, she may well come across another strong-minded young woman of her own age, Lady Catherine Maeve O’Connell-Gort. Lady Catherine, like Lady Sybil, is a fictional character, the heroine of my novel The Blood Upon the Rose. Like Sybil, Catherine is torn between two worlds; both of her brothers have been killed in the war, and her father is a British Army Colonel in charge of Military Intelligence. It is his job to kill or capture Michael Collins. But his daughter Catherine – just like Lady Sybil – is in love with a young Irishman who is fighting for Irish freedom. Not surprisingly, her father, just like the Earl of Grantham, is appalled.

I think the two young women should meet! Catherine has grown up in Ireland, so she understands the background much better than Sybil; but the pair would certainly have a great deal to talk about!
I wonder if it will happen?
You can read more about Catherine O’Connell-Gort in The Blood Upon the Rose, available in kindle on amazon US and amazon UK. In case you’re wondering, it was first published by Simon & Shuster UK in 1992, long before Downton Abbey hit the screens.
All pictures in the public domain. Portraits by Sir John Lavery.


  1. Loved reading this post! Thank you. I am a fan of Downton Abbey and I too wonder what will become of the marriage for Lady Sybil.
    I am a Protestant and I married a Catholic almost 30 years ago. Even though he was not a practicing Catholic, there were certainly differences in our background/childhood.
    I love it that your type-font is a good size. I can read it so well.

  2. I am surprised how many Irish fought with the Americans in our Revolutionary War since at that time, Catholics were about as welcome in the colonies as the red coats were.

    As a Catholic of Irish, Scottish and English (half Italian as well) heritage, I am fascinated by the whole thing.

    On a side note, I was once told that my last name was "Protestant" and bad even though I am Catholic.

  3. I've got to start watching DA!!!! Great post!

  4. Things sure were convoluted during that time period and it makes more sense why people didn't cross certain lines even for their heart.

    Nice post!


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