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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Protest Gene

-- by Tom Phillips

"Occupy Wall Street" signs 
Readers may have noticed that this blog has no fixed subject.  Its theme is not a particular issue, but rather an attitude of protest against the abuse of power. It has railed against greedy bankers and their conservative cronies, the Israel lobby, Iranian censors, American patrons of the arts, establishments of religion, etc. 

Protesting is nothing new for me. It’s a family tradition, which I learned at my mother’s knee.

Josephine Caroline Hoornbeek Phillips was a chronic campaigner against the arrogance of the wealthy and powerful.  What she was campaigning for was sometimes less clear.  Her goal was personal -- to have an individual voice, to resist the pressure to belong to dominant groups, or endorse popular opinions.  

Josephine’s first rebellion was against the Roman Catholic Church, which she complained did not respect her "personal integrity."  Her mother, aghast at this, told her a teenage girl had no right to "personal integrity." In school, Josephine got in trouble for mocking a tedious unit on the geography of New York State. She made a relief map with a huge phallic tower to represent Mt. Marcy, the modest hill that happens to be the tallest in the state.     

She was a stay-at-home mother while my brother and I were growing up, but she spent hours a day in meetings and on the phone, as the Democratic committeewoman in a Republican town, plotting the downfall of the GOP machine that had ruled Nassau County for decades.  Her triumph came in 1962, when our friend and neighbor Eugene Nickerson was elected County Supervisor, heading the first Democratic administration since 1912. Nickerson, later a federal judge, always referred to Josephine as “boss.” 

My own rebel career started in sixth grade, when I organized an uprising against a group of schoolyard bullies. Following my mother’s advice, I told half a dozen classmates that we could take back the playground if we would all jump one of these bullies. They all signed onto the plot, or at least I thought they’d signed on, but when I went out and picked a fight with the biggest bully, they all disappeared, leaving him to tattoo my skull at his leisure.         

Josephine’s protests in later life were mainly against her own country, the United States of America.  Even though it had provided her with a comfortable life and complete freedom of expression, she saw it as arrogant in its dealings with the world, and sterile in its culture.  At age 60, after my father died and my brother and I were grown, she became an expatriate -- moving to the west coast of Ireland, commissioning a cottage by the sea and beginning a new life. Miltown Malbay was the dateline for a kind of pre-internet blog, a series of letters to a lengthy mailing list back in America. In these she raved about the beauties of a solitary life among simple people in an unspoiled, spectacular setting, just across a meadow from the "mutinous waves" of the North Atlantic.    

Searching for why she felt so at home in Ireland, she began to look into the life and times of an almost-famous ancestor, her great-great-great grandfather James Joseph McDonnell.   He was among the leaders of the ill-fated United Irish rebellion of 1798.

McDonnell's birthplace in Co. Mayo 
McDonnell was born in 1763 at Carnacon, County Mayo, the son of a Catholic landowner who campaigned against the British Penal Laws that denied political rights to Catholics.  Barred from higher education in Ireland, the younger McDonnell was sent to school in Vienna and London, where he fell in with other Irish expatriates in the revolutionary 1780s and 90s. A niece later described him as “a fine dashing game fellow, highly accomplished.. and spoke almost every language.”  

One of his fellow law students in London was the budding Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone.  McDonnell joined him in plotting a revolt in   Ireland along the lines of the American Revolution --a popular armed uprising, backed by a French invasion from the sea. Tone’s autobiography includes a diary entry for November 12, 1792: “Dinner with J. Plunkett of Roscommon and J. Jos. McDonnell of Mayo.  Conversation right good.  The country Catholics I think will stand fire. All seem stout… Huzza! Drink like a fish till past 12.  God bless everybody. Embrace the countrymen and go to bed as drunk as a lord.”  (vol. 1, p.156)  

Tone went on to Paris to plead for French military support, while McDonnell returned to County Mayo. There he raised a force of about a thousand men, armed with iron pikes from a local foundry, and in August 1798 they joined up with a small French landing force at the port of Killala. The French general Humbert, impressed with McDonnell’s abilities, including his fluent French, appointed him a General of the Irish forces. From there they marched south, intending to surprise the British and loyalist forces at the town of Castlebar. 

What happened there became known as the Castlebar Races. Surprised indeed, the British commander ordered a cannonade, at the first shot of which most of McDonnell’s Irish volunteers ran away. But McDonnell stood fire, as Wolfe Tone predicted, fought on with the French -- and soon the Irish militiamen who were supposed to defend Castlebar ran for the hills and didn’t stop for thirty miles, leaving the French in control of the town.   

In Castlebar, Humbert and McDonnell tried to build up the Irish force, but complained that their recruits were lacking in both quality and quantity. Meanwhile James Plunkett, the one-time drinking companion of McDonnell and Tone, had surrendered the neighboring county of Roscommon to the British without a shot. Eventually, the small French-Irish force marched east to try to join up with rebels in the Irish midlands. Their campaign ended when they were surrounded and routed at the village of Ballinamuck by ten thousand British under General Cornwallis -- the same Cornwallis who had surrendered to American revolutionaries at Yorktown.     

One Irish history ends McDonnell’s story at Ballinamuck, saying he was captured and executed.  Other Irish rebel leaders were in fact hanged on the spot, but McDonnell escaped. The family history says he hid in a bog hole until dark, then set out on foot for home, a hundred miles away. He was charged with high treason, with a bounty of one hundred pounds on his head.   

His niece described his flight: “.. Having a fair knowledge of the line of Country, he worked his way across the plains of Boyle and escaped his Enemies until he reached the new church of Frenchpark.  There is a good long stretch of Road between the church and the town, and consequently a good view, which enabled him to observe mounted cavalry moving toward him in a slinging trot, so he instantly took off his coat, and commenced speaking Irish to a number of men who were making hay cocks quite close to the church, and asked permission to go on the ladder, which was willingly granted, and thus he joined in forking up the hay amusing his fellow labourers with some amusing stories, and laughing at the horsemen as they passed, which turned out to be the Frenchpark Yeomanry and most likely in pursuit of himself.” 

Three weeks later, McDonnell left Ireland on a smuggling vessel, never to return. He sailed to France, where he married a Scots woman named Henrietta Mackie, who bore him a daughter named Josephine in 1805. A few years later they emigrated to America and settled in Jersey City.  His letters from there tell a story of poor health and financial woes, at least until daughter Josephine married a prosperous Scotsman named Robert Hutton in 1824.  Hutton's connections were likely responsible for McDonnell's appointment to a county judgeship in 1843, at the age of 80.     

Today, at Carnacon Cross, in Ballyglass, County Mayo, there is a little roadside monument inscribed:
To the memory of General McDonnell
 Leader of the Pikemen at Castlebar and Ballinamuck in 1798
Born in Carnacon.  Died in exile USA 1849

In 1998, at age 87, my mother went back to Carnacon as an honored guest at the bicentennial of the 1798 uprising. By then she had become a Quaker and was devoted to non-violent protest. In her speech, she compared her fighting ancestor to Gandhi!  I laughed when I heard that, but on reflection it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.  Both were lawyers, fighting against imperial power by any means necessary – McDonnell with iron pikes, Gandhi with civil disobedience. 

Reflecting on my mother's lifelong protests, I was struck by the parallels between McDonnell’s failed Irish revolt and my own failed uprising against the schoolyard bullies.  There does seem to be a personality type involved: one with an instinct to stand up against authorities, no matter how powerful, and a stubborn (often unfounded) belief that others can be convinced to follow.

If there is a trait or a gene for protesting, I hope it will pop out among the descendants of James Joseph McDonnell; that like him, these sons and daughters will have what it takes to "stand fire."  

Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips