WILFRID SCAWEN BLUNT IN GALWAY GAOL
by Tom Kenny
Blunt was an aristocratic English writer, a person of remarkable ability who, as “the best looking man in England was credited with having refreshed the blood of several ancient families”. He was always against colonialism and sympathetic to small nations, so it was no surprise that he became an ardent supporter of Home Rule for Ireland. In 1887, he was in Ireland to study the grievances of the people when he heard that evictions had recommenced on the 56,000-acre estate of Lord Clanricarde in Woodford.
John Dillon and William O’Brien, both MPs had already attended a protest meeting in Woodford on October 17th, 1886, with 4,000 other people. They drew up a ‘Plan of Campaign’ to seek ‘a reasonable and fair reduction in rents due’. Clanricarde’s agent was ‘determined to resort to every measure that might be necessary to enforce his claims and would expend whatever funds were necessary for the purpose’. A year later, O’Brien decided to organise another meeting on the estate and invited Blunt to attend. The meeting was proscribed but they held it anyway, at midnight on bitterly cold night. O’Brien publically burned a copy of the Lord Lieutenant’s proclamation with Blunt standing by his side.
Blunt decided to hold another protest meeting on October 23rd and advertised it under his name. It was again proscribed and this time, to ensure compliance, a force of 150 police, together with a company of Scots Guards were drafted into the village, as you can see from our contemporary drawing which appeared in the Illustrated London News of the time. As soon as Blunt opened the meeting, all of those on the platform with him were hustled off and he was arrested. He was remanded to Loughrea. The following day he was brought back to Woodford to appear before the petty sessions and was sentenced to 2 calendar months imprisonment. He was allowed out on bail but had to appear before the court in Portumna on January 3rd. The case lasted 5 days at the end of which he had the full sentence imposed on him. He was driven to Woodlawn station to board the train to Galway. There were cheering groups at all the stations along the route including Galway, but there was a contingent of 40 policemen waiting to make sure he got to the gaol in one piece.
His day there started at 6.30am when a warder made his rounds tapping on each door with his key. Half an hour later, the gas was lit and a hank of oakum was deposited in the cell. This was a length of old tarred rope which had to be picked and unravelled into the individual strands of which it had been originally plaited. These strands could later be used for caulking ship’s seams. At 9am, milk and bread was brought in as breakfast. At 11am, prisoners were allowed out for 5 minutes exercise and at 12.30pm, the principal meal was eaten. At 6pm, the gas was extinguished and the prisoner was left in solitary darkness until the following morning.
Each prisoner was given a short round jacket, which, during the winter was insufficient. His overcoat had been taken from him, but, after an appeal, he was given like his own but made out of prison material. Our photograph was taken by some of his friends (contrary to regulations) and shows this overcoat and his prison garb.
His arrest and prison sentence attracted huge amount of attention, nationally and internationally. Public meetings were held in town, crowds often gathered outside the gaol cheering and applauding but they were subjected to harrying tactics by the police. The Labourers Band had tried on several occasions to play outside the gaol, but had always been moved on. In one attempt to outwit the police, they hired some boats from Commercial Boat Club and came down the canal under Beggar’s Bridge playing ‘stirring National airs’ amid scenes of indescribable enthusiasm. A number of police then took forcible possession of some nearby boats, and, to the great enjoyment of the onlookers, tried with drawn swords to board the musician’s craft, but they never succeeded.
Blunt did not complete his sentence at Galway. He was hurried away one morning at 5am and taken by train to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. On the evening of his removal, a number of those who had prominently displayed their support for him were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, riotous and disorderly conduct. On February 15th, sentences of varying lengths, with hard labour, were imposed on all 15 of them.
Life in Kilmainham was far more difficult ‘with its Dublin thieves and pickpockets, and its stony-faced warders, held no consolation for me within its walls, and the solitude, silent and unbroken, of my cell, encompassed me once more like a nightmare, and redoubled importunity’. He was finally released on the morning of March 6th, 1889.
He wrote some poems while in Galway Gaol. The first two verses of one are as follows Without the gate, without the gate / the patient fishers antedate / the dawn and watch with eager eyes / the flashing sudden salmon rise / without the gate.
Within the gate, within the gate / a prisoner wakes to poor estate /the barren light of morning falls / upon the narrow whitened walls /within the gate, within the gate.
Most of the above is taken from an article in The Galway Archeological and Historical Society Journal, Volume 46, 1994. It was written by Fr. James Mitchell and entitled “The Imprisonment of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt: Cause and Consequence”.