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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Protest Gene

-- by Tom Phillips

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 anything seen as an abuse or excessive concentration of power.   Thus I have railed against greedy bankers and their conservative cronies, the Israel lobby, Iranian censors, arrogant American patrons of the arts, establishments of religion, etc.   Protesting is nothing new for me.  I have been speaking out, writing, agitating, organizing, marching and occasionally fighting against the powers-that-be since I was 12.   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, the powerful and the entrenched.   What she was campaigning for was sometimes less clear.  But I think it was basically a way to make her individual voice heard – to resist the pressure to belong to dominant groups, or endorse popular opinions.   (As for my father, he was no protester, but as a journalist he stood by the principle that every story has two sides, and both need to be told.)

Josephine’s first rebellion was against the Roman Catholic Church, which she complained did not respect her “personal integrity,” a property to which her own mother said a teenage girl had no right.   In school, she 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 generations.   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 career started disastrously 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 guys.  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 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 and non-Anglican Protestants in Ireland.   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. The conspirators were in high spirits then.   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 campaign 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 little 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 they were outdone by the Irish loyalists who were supposed to defend Castlebar -– they 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 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.   Many of the Irish rebels were in fact hanged on the spot, but MacDonnell escaped.  The family history, more reliable in this case, says he hid in a bog hole until dark, then set out on foot for home, a hundred miles away.   McDonnell was now a fugitive charged with high treason, soon to have a bounty of one hundred pounds on his head.   His niece described his odyssey: 

“.. 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.” 

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.  The moved on to Spain, and at last to America in 1805 where they 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.   They had ten children, including my great-great-great grandmother.  

Today, at Carnacon Cross, in Ballyglass, County Mayo, you may find a little roadside monument inscribed as follows:
                 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 our fighting ancestor to Gandhi!  I laughed when I first heard that, but on reflection it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.   Both were lawyers, fighting against imperial power with the tools at hand – McDonnell with iron pikes, Gandhi with civil disobedience.   Non-violent resistance was unheard of in McDonnell’s time, but his goal was exactly the same as Gandhi’s. 

I wouldn’t presume to compare my own career as a dissident with General McDonnell, a truly brave and accomplished fellow who sacrificed his homeland, his fortune, and nearly his life fighting oppression, and who earned a small place in the history of a struggle that continues to this day.   Except for one little point.   Readers may have noted the resemblance between McDonnell’s failed Irish revolt and my own failed uprising against the schoolyard bullies.  Add to that the fact that the latter was personally planned by McDonnell’s great-great-great granddaughter – and there may be material for a theory.  Certainly my mother, who believed strongly in “good genes” that she passed on to her sons, would have no trouble with the idea of a gene for protesting. 

As far as I know, there’s no evidence for it, at least yet.  But there does seem to be a personality type involved:  one with an instinct to stand up alone against authorities, no matter how powerful, and a stubborn (often unfounded) belief that others can be convinced to follow.

The pitfalls of the protesting life include self-righteousness, and delusional optimism.  The risks include social exclusion, unemployment, exile and death.  But the rewards are outsized, on the rare occasions when you win a battle worth the fight.   

I hope there is a gene for protesting, and that it will pop out from time to time among my children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and the future descendants of James Joseph McDonnell.  I wouldn't wish it on every member of the family, and I'm just as proud of the ones who have more sense.  But I love to picture some blue-eyed rascal at the barricades in the 22nd or 25th century, holding up a banner of freedom and daring the King to bring it on.  And I wish her, or him, the luck of the Irish.

Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips 

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