‘As a people we should be proud and celebrate that Harry Boland, his siblings and others of that generation took such a powerful stand for Irish freedom.’
The full text of my graveside oration spoken at the Republican Plot in Glasnevin cemetery on 1 August 2022, marking the centenary of the death of the Harry Boland:
Thank you, Tadhg, and my thanks to you and your family for giving me the opportunity to speak today on the life and legacy of Harry Boland, a relative for whom you are all so justly proud. Harry was an extraordinary individual who devoted himself to the establishment of an independent Irish Republic and the overthrow of British rule in Ireland. In so many accounts of this period, and in Harry’s own words, we get a sense of this friendly, likeable and good-humoured individual, yet one who was also a tireless worker and charismatic organiser for the national cause.
On this day, one hundred years ago, roughly at ten past nine at night, the life of Harry came to an end within St. Vincent’s hospital here in Dublin. Five weeks into a conflict of former comrades that Harry had done much to prevent from happening.
It is remarkable in his final hours he held no bitterness as to his fate and did not seek a promise of revenge from his loved ones or comrades. His sister Kathleen comforted her dying brother. ‘You’ll get over this, Harry… ‘ she said, though she recognised he was near the end. ‘Ah! No Kit.’ Harry responded. ‘I don’t think so.’ Kathleen asked him who shot him during that fateful night in the Grand Hotel in Skerries. Harry replied, ‘The only thing I’ll say is that it was a friend of my own who was in Lewes Prison with me. I’ll never tell the name and don’t try to find out. I forgive him and want no reprisals. I want to be buried in the grave in Glasnevin with Cathal Brugha.’ And not far from Harry’s final resting place, is of course his fellow comrade and that great patriot, Cathal Brugha. Harry himself held enormous admiration for Brugha, remarking on the latter’s death on 7 July, ‘Cathal Brugha is dead! No man is here to replace him. He was easily the greatest man of his day.’
On Harry’s death, the reaction of key individuals on both sides of this increasingly bitter conflict is striking. We have heard today the words of Eamon de Valera to Harry’s devoted mother Kate. Also writing to the Boland family, the IRA Chief-of-Staff, General Liam Lynch remarked, ‘The loss of Harry will be regarded as a national calamity and by every republican who knew him as a personal loss… It is impossible to estimate his loss to the nation.’ Harry’s onetime comrade, Michael Collins, now Lynch’s opposite number as the Commander-in-Chief of the National Army, wrote to Kitty Kiernan just before Harry died that ‘Last night I passed St Vincent’s hospital and saw a crowd outside. My mind went to him lying dead and I thought of the times together, and whatever good there is in any wish of mine he certainly had it… I only thought of him with the friendship of the days of 1918 and 1919’. Another account reveals Collins wept bitterly at the news of Harry’s passing.
And thus, the life of this great Irish revolutionary ended. Even as we acknowledge the tragic circumstances of Harry’s death, it is important we remember his life was so much more than these sad final hours.
His family was integral to the person and devoted Irish revolutionary he became. On 27 April 1887, Harry was born the third of five children to James and Kate Boland, at 6 Dalymount Terrace on the Phibsborough Road. His mother Kate, originally Kate Woods, had within in her own family links going back to the 1798 rebellion. But it was Harry’s father, James, who was to be the most seminal influence on Harry’s devotion to the cause of Irish feedom, though he sadly passed when Harry was eight. James Boland had been a prominent Fenian and active in the Dublin GAA.
In 1904, Harry and his older brother Gerry joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Harry for a time of course would be President of the secret society during later revolutionary times. Harry also joined the radical Keating branch of the Gaelic League, that great organisation devoted to the Irish language. Yet, also so central to Harry’s sense of Irish nationalism was his devotion to the Gaelic Athletics Association and his love for our great national pastime of hurling – and as yesterday, we acknowledge his association with Faugh’s GAA Club. It was through Harry’s exploits with the Dublin hurling team he became widely known, making pivotal contributions in the drawn All-Ireland Final of Dublin v Tipperary in 1909. Harry too, became an important administrator for the Dublin GAA organisation here in the capital. In 1911, he was elected chairman of Dublin GAA, despite only being twenty-four, a sure sign of his standing within the organisation. At a meeting of the Dublin County Board chaired by Harry in April 1913. It was decided that the Dublin team would adopt as their county colours a light blue jersey with a white shield bearing the city’s arms.’ While his role in the revolutionary cause from 1916 onward gave Harry little opportunity to play much hurling, he never lost his love for the sport. During his time in the US in 1920, in the midst of various pressures, Harry remarked to one contemporary, ‘Oh! For a good game of hurling.’
In November 1913, Harry, along with his brothers Gerry and Ned, joined the Irish Volunteers on their founding, and took part in the necessary drilling and training. When the Easter Rising against British rule began on 24 April, 1916, Harry reported to Captain Thomas Weafer of the Dublin Brigade’s 2nd Battalion. Harry, along other notable figures such as Oscar Traynor and Seán Russell, demonstrated his bravery and prowess as an Volunteer during pivotal actions in Fairview and assisted the GPO garrison on O’Connell Street. He was part of the surrendering rebels in Moore Street, and subsequently deported to prison in England, having been sentenced to ten years penal servitude. It was during his imprisonment that Harry became associated with Eamon de Valera, who was soon to become the political leader of the resurgent revolutionary movement in Ireland.
On his early release in 1917, it was to be Harry, along with Michael Collins, who would be key to the organisation of the Sinn Féin party and the National Aid Association, the dependents organisation set up after the Rising. Harry had previously known Collins through London’s GAA circles, but it was to be in this period that the men began their close association and strong friendship. Harry, was elected to the executive of the revitalised Sinn Féin, and was a key organiser through both the subsequent by-elections and the pivotal general election of December 1918. It was in this election that Harry was elected the Sinn Féin TD for Roscommon South. In one election address in Roscommon town he said to the crowd, ‘I don’t ask you to vote for the men but for the Irish Republic… We were in the Gaelic League and in the GAA, in the Irish industrial movement and all the time we were planning our Irish Republic… we believe in new times, new men, new ideas. When we spoke of the Republic we were called rainbow chasers. Well, the people of Europe have caught the rainbow and Ireland will catch it too – at the peace conference.’
Elected to Dáil Éireann at the outset of the War of Independence, Harry, Collins and others were occupied with helping the newly elected Dáil President, Eamon de Valera, escape from Lincoln Jail in England. With the collapse of the Dáil efforts at the Paris conference, de Valera proposed seeking recognition for nd Irish Republic from the US government. Harry Boland was to be key to this mission, subsequently appointed the Dáil’s Special Envoy to the United States.
It was in the US that Harry forged his most public role, organising many aspects of de Valera’s American tour, the Dáil bond drive, and himself addressing enormous crowds in support of the Republican cause in the US during his months away from the conflict in Ireland. Harry was a key negotiator in giving a loan to the new Bolshevik government in Russia on behalf of the Dáil, looking after Russian crown jewels in one particularly curious episode. Though making brief returns to Ireland in 1920, it was not until August 1921 that Harry’s ‘mission’ to the US had concluded. While recognition of the Irish Republic had not been achieved, Harry’s efforts for de Valera had brought enormous publicity to the Irish cause of the world stage and brought attention to Britain’s actions during the War of Independence.
On the signing of the Truce in July 1921, de Valera and the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George began a correspondence that would led to the Treaty negotiations. Harry was not a part of the Treaty delegation, even in a secretarial capacity. Harry’s biographer, the historian Jim Maher, argues this was a crucial error and a big ‘what if’ of these important weeks in late 1921. As Maher explains, ‘It was a mistake that Harry was not used in the negotiation team – he understood Collins better than any other Dáil deputy and was loyal to Dev. He was particularly suited to be a courier between London and Dublin… He had always been able to bring Collins and de Valera together.’ Harry was instead again dispatched to the US by de Valera to continue to drum up support for the efforts of the Dáil during the period of negotiations, and to begin a new Dáil Bond drive. He was in the US when the Treaty was signed in London on 6 December 1921 in London.
For Harry, the Treaty was no ‘stepping stone’ to the Republic as articulated by Collins and those of the pro-Treaty side. It was a betrayal of the Republic established in 1916 and ratified by the elected TDs of Dáil Éireann in 1919. At the pivotal 7 January 1922 session of Dáil Éireann, the day of the public vote on the Treaty, Harry articulated his opposition to the Treaty settlement in what in my view is his finest public speech. In his opening sentence, he stated that the Treaty ‘denies a recognition of the Irish nation.’ Harry articulated his idea of Irish republicanism, drawing a direct line from his the experiences of his Fenian father James, to his own devotion to the cause of Irish freedom. As he explained, in his own words:
‘We were the heirs of a great tradition, and that tradition was that Ireland has never surrendered, that Ireland has never been beaten, and that Ireland can never be beaten. And because of that great spiritual thing we young men went out to follow our fathers… We picked it up in 1916 and we brought the Irish Republic out of the backwoods, away from the dark rooms of secret societies… and we asked them [the Irish people] to stand for an independent Republic. Many deputies in this House know that my father himself had to fly from this country and suffer… because he believed in a Republic. His son was privileged to stand on public platforms and to ask the Irish people to subscribe to the Republic – and they did. We stand, therefore, where our fathers stood before us.’
As we know well, the Dáil by a majority of several, voted to pass the Treaty. Harry, working alongside de Valera and Brugha, became one again a key organiser for the republican cause. Speaking before one crowd in Limerick in early 1922, Harry mentioned his opposition to the partition of the country, ‘In 1918 I believed in the Republic of Ireland and I believe in it now. If it was right and proper in 1918 that an English King should not be acknowledged in Ireland it was right and proper today. We were not going to exchange the flag of the Republic for an alleged Free State for three-fourths of our country.’
Yet, despite his fierce opposition to the Treaty and the efforts of the Provisional Government in these months, Harry was an important figure in trying to bring both sides together in peace and unity talks, and to stave off civil war. He was a key negotiator in creating what is referred to as the Collins-de Valera Pact, to present a unified panel of both pro- and anti-Treaty Sinn Féin candidates before the electorate in the July 1922 election, to then form a coalition government when elected thereafter. Often dismissed as anti-democratic move against the Irish electorate, it was nonetheless a genuine and important effort in staving off civil war. It was also perhaps Harry’s proudest achievement. Harry wrote thereafter to Joe McGarrity, ‘You will have read of the ‘Collins-De Valera Pact’ and all I can say is this – that I have worked very hard to secure unity and am quite happy with the present situation.’
Yet, even this considerable attempt at peace, and Harry’s part in it, was not enough to stave off the momentum towards conflict. With the electoral success of pro-Treaty candidates (Harry himself was re-elected as an anti-Treaty side for Roscommon South), and the subsequent collapse of the Pact, and other key developments, the Civil War began on 28 June 1922. With the attack on the Four Courts, Harry reported for duty at the HQ of Oscar Traynor, then head of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade, and rejoined the ranks of the republican forces against the National Army of the Irish Free State. Harry was subsequently appointed quartermaster of the IRA. It was during his time in the fighting in Blessington in July, he was briefly reunited with his brother Gerry, also fighting among the republican forces. Of note, Harry’s brother Ned and sister Kathleen also counted themselves active among the republican ranks at this time.
In a letter to one American friend at this time, Harry lamented the conflict:
‘This fight has been forced upon us – we must bear it. I am in it with heavy heart, but yet not without hope. The world will honour Ireland for her devotion to freedom… the world shall know that there is one land which preferred death to dishonour.’
By 30 July, Harry had arrived in Skerries, staying at the Grand Hotel in the town with his comrade, Joe Griffin – it has been suggested he was seeking passage to the United States from the seaside town. In the early hours of 31 July 1922, soldiers of the National Army entered the hotel room of Harry and Griffin. The events of what happened in those next few moments, and then over the following hours, remain controversial. In a struggle that ensued, Harry was shot in the abdomen and mortally wounded. It was hours before he received serious medical treatment in St. Vincent’s hospital.
On his passing, his funeral was a massively organised affair and well attended by his former comrades. At his burial, so memorably depicted in a painting by Jack Yeats, Countess Marckievicz, giving the oration in Irish, said, ‘there was no more loyal or faithful comrade then Harry Boland.’
But as we now celebrate his life as his comrades did then, we must acknowledge the devastating loss for his family. Here at his grave, is a simple heart-shaped memorial placed there by his heartbroken mother Kate, that just has Harry’s name and the date of his death on it – and I must commend the Glasnevin Trust for recently refurbishing the stone and permanently reinstating it on his grave. Kathleen Boland, Harry’s sister, whose descendants are here today, was a republican activist who following her brother’s death, travelled to the US and like Harry, appeared on platforms alongside others promoting the republican cause despite her great personal loss. Harry’s older brother, Gerry, who considered Harry his idol, was on Harry’s passing then a prisoner of the Free State and denied parole to give Harry one final goodbye. Gerry wrote to his mother, ‘I don’t bear up too well myself. Sometimes I think my heart will burst.’ Following the Civil War, Gerry joined de Valera in the new political dispensation of Fianna Fáil and served in several ministerial roles following the party’s first coming to power in this state in 1932. Gerry Boland is of course, also buried here in the same grave, with his wife and one-time Cumann na mBan activist, Annie, and I would also like to acknowledge to presence of their descendants.
As a people we should be proud and celebrate that Harry Boland, his siblings and others of that generation took such a powerful stand for Irish freedom. We note their devotion to the cause took place during a time in which Ireland and the wider world was impacted by social and economic upheaval, by way of military conflict instigated by superpowers and a devastating pandemic. This should serve as an inspiration to all of us to never stop aspiring to a fairer and more equal society in these difficult and uncertain times in the world today.
In closing I recall the words of that great document, the 1916 Proclamation, that we heard spoken in Irish today, specifically the lines: ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.’ These great republican ideals inspired Harry Boland, this extraordinary Irish patriot, in his tireless work in ensuring the establishment of an Irish Republic, whether as a soldier or a political representative. Today, exactly one hundred years from Harry Boland’s passing, we pay tribute to his memory, patriotism and sacrifice for our freedom, and that in doing so, let us hope that we too can continue to be inspired by Harry’s generation and the great ideal of the Irish Republic. Thank you.