Friday 24 June 2016

A Classicist Hero of European Ireland

Prof Bob Mitchell Henry
In my entire research life, the biggest ever thrill took place in Queen’s University Belfast a month ago. Preparing for an excellent Dublin conference this week marking the centenary of the Easter Uprising in 1916, I dived into the archived papers of my inspirational new hero, Professor Robert (“Bob”) Mitchell Henry (1873-1950). He has never received due recognition as a role model for academics, so here is my belated appreciation.

With Prof Isabelle Torrance (convenor) & Dr Hazel Dodge
A fine classical scholar, Bob was the pillar of Queen’s for nearly three decades and led its extra-mural activities. He co-founded the local branch of the Workers’ Educational Association and the Classical Association of Ireland. He lectured to the Ulster working class on ancient women and slaves. He was the first President of the Society for Irish Historical Studies. He learned and taught Gaelic. He wrote in socialist newspapers. He energetically supported Trade Unions, the poor, and the Belfast Newsboys Club.

Queen's University Belfast
But Bob was also a republican and a tireless supporter of Irish Catholics and of Irish unity. This is all the more surprising since he was a devout Protestant of Scottish descent. Alongside books on Latin literature, he wrote the canonical Evolution of Sinn Fein (1920), a meticulously researched and sympathetic account of the background to the 1916 rebellion and the principles which motivated the rebels.

'Shooting range'--entry in Henry's diary March 1916
Several passages in this exquisitely written tragic history made me suspect that he had himself joined the Irish Volunteers. They were riflemen prepared to fight the pro-British Ulster Volunteers and if necessary die in defence of Irish independence and unity. So I consulted his pocket diaries. Rifle practice is indeed a regular feature, but only of the months January to March 1916.

Many of the Irish Volunteers were rounded up, imprisoned and deported after the uprising. Thirteen of the rebel leaders were summarily executed after hasty court-martials. Bob was undoubtedly in personal danger at the time.
The Executed 1916 Leaders

After the executions he prudently decided to promote pan-Irish independence through writing rather than revolution. I wonder what he would have made of today’s referendum result, in which the people of the north of Ireland emphatically voted in favour of remaining in Europe alongside the other Irish people sharing their lovely island.

If Sinn Fein get their way, a century on from the Easter uprising the people of Northern Ireland may finally decide that being dragged out of the EU is too high a price to pay for being subjects of the English crown. Ireland has had intimate cultural links with Europe since early medieval times. I wish I could have this conversation with Bob. It would provide some solace today.

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