Monday, October 10, 2022

By Conor McGuire

Queen Elizabeth’s 70-year reign was epic in its expanse. She presided over eras of monumental change and upheaval, and the face of Britain and Europe forever changed under her regal gaze.

There was no more significant example of this flux than the changed relationship between Britain and our Republic. Her state visit in 2011 marked a softening in centuries-old tensions, the Queen acknowledging that ‘things might have been done differently, or not at all’. It was a tacit apology for centuries of imperial occupation and subjugation. She even had a stab at Gaelic, much to the delight of our then-sitting president, Mary McAleese.

The tributes following her timely passing were glowing and heartfelt. Elizabeth was held in genuine affection across the Irish Sea, and there were few detractors as the condolences flooded the airwaves and news media.

It is easy to forget the hatred among Irish subjects that accompanied the passing of one of her many predecessors. Queen Victoria, Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother, passed to her heavenly reward in February 1901, still bearing the titles of Queen of the United Kingdom, Great Britain and Ireland, and Empress of India. Her coronation was in 1837, so she had the ignominious distinction, from an Irish perspective, of presiding over the disaster of the Great Famine. She enjoyed high regard among her British subjects and, prior to Elizabeth II, was the longest reigning monarch in history, at 67 years.

The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 prompted an acrimonious debate in the chamber of Mayo County Council.

So it is crucial to remember in 1901, we were her unwilling subjects, and the tension between Empire and aspirational Irish republic trickled down into the chamber of Mayo County Council.

It would be unthinkable today that a motion of condolence would be rejected, but such were the bitter resentments between opposing councillors that this indeed came to pass. In the absence of the Chairman, an early morning vote failed to secure the motion. The exchanges are polite but terse, the memories bitter and still beyond forgiveness.

Here is the report from the Western People on February 2, 1901.

The Queen’s death

As briefly summarised in last week’s edition, a meeting of the County Council was held on Friday, February 2. Ten o’clock was mentioned in the agenda paper as the hour of meeting, but it was not until close to noon that a quorum could be got together to proceed with business.

Mr James Daly was moved to the chair. After the minutes of the last meeting were signed, Major Saunders Knox-Gore rose and said: ‘Before proceeding with the regular business, I have a short resolution which I wish to propose to the Council as follows. That we, the Mayo County Council, desire to place on record our deep regret at the death of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria and offer to the members of the Royal Family our most sincere sympathy in their bereavement.’

Mr Thomas Tighe seconded the resolution.

Major Gore: Regarding the resolution, I should like to say a few words. We may all of us differ as to politics and the acts of different institutions under Her Majesty, but we must recollect that she was very far removed from these things, and our feelings towards her are on quite different lines. Her Majesty has devoted the whole of her long life to public service, and her whole life has been taken up in endeavoring to promote the welfare and prosperity of the country which she loved so well and which has won from her expressions of the highest esteem and respect.

Mr Walsh: I do not want to differ with my friend, but there is one thing I disagree with concerning the country’s condition. I am not opposing the vote of condolence, but there is one thing I object to. We have received very few benefits from the Government of the Queen here in Ireland. The only thing we ever received in this country was evictions and driving our people out of the country. When she first visited Ireland, we had a population of over eight million people, and now that has fallen to something like four and a half million. Where, then, is the fair play shown to Ireland, or what benefit did we ever get from Her Majesty’s Government? Depopulation is the only effect that I can see, so far as Ireland is concerned.

The Chairman (Mr Daly) said his view of the matter was that he would pass the event by the same as he would the death of any other mortal. He believed Ireland reserved very little sympathy from the Queen, and if they looked back to ’46 and ’47, they would see that the people of this country were allowed to die of famine on the roadsides under her government. He believed it would be the same today were it not that they were more intelligent, more energetic, or, if he might put it so, more clamorous. They had to stand up and fight for their rights. He believed that the Queen was a woman who took very good care of herself and the Royal Family but did very little to serve Ireland and should merely be treated as a ‘respected’ venerable patriarch. So far as he was personally concerned, he did not wish to oppose the vote of condolence.

Mr Knox-Gildea: It should be understood that this resolution refers to nothing except the death of an aged lady who was the mother of the Royal Family, and as an expression of sympathy with that family in their calamity. I do not see what reference it has outside that. I will say no more, but I appeal to the Co Council, and I hope I shall not appeal in vain, to pass this mild resolution of sympathy with the Royal Family unanimously.

Chairman: Is there an amendment to the resolution, gentlemen?

Mr Garvey: I do not think so.

Chairman: If not, it passes. Anyone who wishes to dissent can do so.

Messrs Walsh, Morrin and Murtagh expressed their dissent.

Mr Dillon said the Council had passed many resolutions since its formation that the gentlemen proposing the present one dissented from. He did not want to dissent from this, as it showed veneration for old age, but at the same time, he thought it was a resolution which should not have been brought before the Council.

Mr Devaney said it was better to let the resolution pass without any more discussion.

Chairman: It won’t send her one step nearer to heaven (a laugh).

Mr J Walsh: I propose that we don’t pass it at all. The Chairman is not here.

Chairman: Gentlemen, Mr Walsh, takes exception to it in the absence of the Chairman.

Dr Devaney: The Chairman should be here.

Mr Walsh: It should not be brought on at this meeting at all.

Dr Knox-Gildea: Really, Mr Chairman, there is a quorum present, and you have already ruled this question, and I, for one, object to it being re-opened.

Chairman: I asked for an amendment, and there was no reply.

Major Knox-Gore said Mr Walsh could have moved an amendment if he liked.

Chairman: I think it might be as well to let it pass.

Mr Walsh: Oh, very well. I think all the members of the Council should be here before the matter is decided.

Mr Walsh said he did not believe that the question of the resolution had been settled.

At this stage, Mr Conor O’Kelly came into the chamber and, having taken the chair, said he had been sent for to take the chair because of this resolution (which he here read). He believed that Mr Daly had not put the resolution at all to the meeting. Consequently, no action had been taken on it.

Conor O’Kelly was the chairman of Mayo County Council in 1901.

Mr Knox-Gildea: I beg your pardon, he did.

Chairman: I simply desire to say this — when we bring up a resolution at this board, we are taunted by what is known as the ‘better element’ on the Co Council. If we bring up too many resolutions, whatever failing we may have in that way, that failing is also exhibited on many occasions by other members of the Council. I do not think that we, as a Co Council, have any right whatsoever to pass a resolution of sympathy with the Royal Family or with the Queen.

Mr Walsh: What did we ever gain by them?

Chairman: We know all about her splendid personal qualities as a wife and as a mother. Still, as far as Her Majesty is concerned, her reign as Queen of Ireland has been one long black chapter of disaster for the Irish people. If we pass this resolution and it goes into the English papers, we know very well the construction the English people will put on it. We will be looked upon as acting like Sir Thomas Pile, who disgraced himself in the city of Dublin some months ago by prostrating himself at the feet of an English Queen. If we passed this resolution, the construction that would be put on it would be that we are loyal people, and that would be throwing dust in the eyes of the English people. I am glad Mr Daly did not put this resolution.

Mr Knox-Gildea (rising): Mr Chairman, allow me.

Chairman: Sit down, sir.

Mr Knox-Gildea resumed his seat.

The Chairman said he had a resolution before him and could consent to receive it or not as he wished. He again read the resolution and asked if there was any amendment.

Mr Walsh: I propose there is no vote of condolence passed.

Chairman: I have great pleasure in seconding Mr Walsh’s proposition.

Mr Walsh: I do not propose the amendment in any disrespect to Her Majesty or the Royal Family. If you look at the history of this country for the last 40 years, what has it gained by the rule of Victoria – you have nothing but a long chapter of evictions. In ‘49, when she came over to Ireland, what did she do for the people? Didn’t they die like rotten sheep on the sides of the mountains and along the roads? We are not called upon as a Nationalist body of the county Mayo to pass a vote of condolence; I certainly, as one sent here by the people, will object to it. Pass it by in silence as we would pass by the death of any other respectable person.

Mr Knox-Gildea attempted to speak, but the Chairman called him to order as he himself was about to address the meeting.

Mr Knox-Gildea: Twice I have tried to speak.

Chairman: And twice I ruled you out of order.

Mr Knox-Gildea: Yes, before I could open my mouth.

Chairman: If you read the rules, you will find that when the Chairman speaks, every other member must resume his seat.

Mr Walsh: I proposed an amendment, but no proposition was received.

Mr Knox-Gildea: I have stated the facts, and the Press will bear me out. The Chairman came in and re-opened the whole question. The gentlemen of this Council passed a resolution condoling with the Royal Family on the sad death of Her Majesty, a lady for whom we must all have respect. That resolution was proposed by Major Saunder Knox-Gore and was drawn up without any political bias whatsoever. The Queen was respected throughout the Universe. I have been at this Co Council, and I have heard votes of condolence passed to people in bereavement.

Chairman: Hear, hear.

Mr Knox-Gildea: And even though I did not know the parties, I would not for one moment have thought of opposing it. Here we have brought a vote of condolence forward with a family on the death of their mother, and I had hoped that it would be passed without any dissension. I rise now to protest against a re-opening of the question. The Chairman has re-opened the question and has done so, I must say, in a rather autocratic manner.

Chairman: I have given my ruling.

Mr Garvey: Sir, I exceedingly regret the course you have taken. Personally, I feel it is rather a hard thing for Councillors to be invited to come here at 10 o’clock in the morning, and while I say that, I sympathise deeply with the gentlemen who have to come long distances before they catch a train, as every allowance should be made for them, my sympathy does not extend to those who have a train at their very door. The object of my preliminary remark is because of the attitude the Chairman has taken up, which amounts to this, that if he happens to be absent when any business comes on. However, there may be a whole quorum present. If the Co Council consider a question and decide upon it, and if the Chairman turns up at a later hour, then he claims he is entitled to open up the entire subject again and treat the work done as if it had been informal or illegally done (hear, hear).

Mr Garvey (continuing): At the request of the Chairman himself, Dr James Daly was appointed to take the chair during his temporary absence. Then Mr O’Kelly arrived some considerable time after the hour set for the sitting of the Council. While Mr Daly sat in the chair, I hold that he acted as Chairman for all purposes. I challenge any gentleman on the Council to put his hand to his conscience and say that anything Mr Daly has done while in the chair was not as legal and as operative as if the elected Chairman of the Council and been there. The presence of the Chairman in the chair does not make the work legal or illegal. It is the presence of a quorum that makes it legal or illegal. Let us not be splitting hairs over this question. When Mr James Daly sat in the chair, a resolution was proposed by Major Knox-Gore and seconded by a most respected member of this Council, Mr Thomas Tighe. Mr Daly accepted the resolution, and he asked ‘Is there any amendment?’ There was no amendment proposed, and I say it in the presence of the six Councillors sitting opposite to me that not a word was even spoken.

If in other countries they say: The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones; let it not be so in Ireland. We have always been ready to express our sympathy for good people who have gone, although we may not have admired them in many respects or differed from them on some points. Surely there is one thing, in speaking of our departed Queen, that cannot be gainsaid – that the pure stream of her calm life flowed on its way even though forests sometimes overshadowed it, and no transient sunbeam flickered on its course.

Mr Daly said the Queen was a good woman for herself and her family, but they should remember the famine years when thousands perished and died without relief. When this matter was introduced while he was in the chair, he said that he thought out of respect due to old age that they might let the resolution pass.

Mr Knox-Gildea: I ask Mr Daly if he put the resolution down and refused to sign it. Certainly, I think Mr Walsh made no proposition openly to drop it.

Chairman: I would not be worthy of occupying this honourable position if I did not mete out justice to this Council, whether it suits those on my right or left. While in this chair, I have never acted harshly or unjustly toward any member. I have tried to hold the scales as evenly as I could. Indeed, I would not be worthy of the support of those gentlemen who put me in the chair if I would allow justice to be upset in deference to observing some little technicality on the part of Mr Garvey or Mr Knox-Gildea.

The Chairman again read the resolution and informed the Council that he would take a vote on Mr Walsh’s amendment.

There were nine for and five against. The Chairman declared the amendment carried, and the incident closed.

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By Western People
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