Elsie Mahaffy’s handwritten book The Irish Rebellion of 1916 is one of the longest, most detailed and most valuable accounts of the Easter Rising. It is valuable because much of it was written in real time, day by day between 24 April and 30 May 1916; because it was written by a unionist and so gives a different point of view from most available Rising diaries; because the British army was quartered in Trinity, and Elsie, daughter of Provost John Pentland Mahaffy, lived in the Provost’s house, served dinner to the generals and participated in their prandial conversations; and because it was written by a woman and gives a richly detailed picture of domestic life among the ‘lesser landed gentry’, as J. P. M. described his family, in an academic setting and in the midst of a war.
Very little information exists about Elizabeth ‘Elsie’ Mahaffy. At the time of the 1911 Census she was 42 and listed as ‘head of family’. Her sister Rachel was five years younger, and two brothers, Arthur and Robert, were not listed as living in the household. Elsie’s 1926 obituary in the Irish Times mentions her ‘high intelligence and wide reading’, and her ‘interest in the promotion of cottage industries’. The business she ran (there are no dates for its existence) was called Miss Mahaffy’s Knitting Industry; under her direction, Irish women knitted jumpers and coats which were sold to wealthy buyers such as her friend Margot Asquith and titled Englishwomen.
But Elsie Mahaffy’s greatest achievement is the book known as TCD MS 2074. It consists of 189 folio pages bound in parchment with marbled endpapers; binding ribbons were removed. The book’s sections show that ‘high intelligence’ the obituary mentioned, because the differentiation of sources of information suggests a scholarly approach, an attempt at professional historical writing.
Mahaffy knows that scholars will be ready to critique her sources, so she wants to make it clear precisely how she got the kinds of information in her ‘book’. She herself calls it a ‘book’, although there is only one copy, and the text on the right-hand pages is handwritten. On all the left-side pages are pasted documents such as maps, photographs, newspaper cuttings, Mass cards and letters, making this book one of the best sources of Rising-related primary materials. With an eye to the future value of these materials, Mahaffy seems to have included every relevant piece of paper, rebel or unionist, that came her way.
The text is important primarily because, like no other 1916 account that I know of, it gives a description of the Rising from a point of view in intimate proximity to the British army. From it we learn the surprising fact that when Colonel Portal and his men arrived at Trinity on Tuesday 25 April, he asked the Provost for a map of Dublin because he ‘had never been in Dublin before and was entirely ignorant of its streets’ names’. The Colonel also asked the provost’s advice about ‘where he ought to place the “18-pounder” to blow down Liberty Hall’. In entries for the middle of May, we learn that General Maxwell sought the provost’s help in starting a letter campaign to defend the reputation of British soldiers in Dublin.
Elsie Mahaffy’s opinions are strong: she thinks Captain Bowen-Colthurst ‘one of the best young men I have met’, and Frank Sheehy Skeffington someone whose writings were ‘a source of danger to the Community’. But there are also attempts at the lyrical, such as her description of the birds when the ’18-pounder’ began shelling Liberty Hall. The sound
lasted one half an hour and was indeed terrible; even the solid ‘Provost’s House’ trembled and in the garden all the birds who had sung and warbled sweetly through all the previous noises, became mute, huddling together in terrified clusters.
Numerous episodes of interest to labour historians are presented in detail, such as the story of the Mahaffys’ chauffeur, Austin Whelan. He left on the second day of the Rising to ‘protect his mother’, he said, but when he returned in the middle of the following week, he was ‘so enthusiastic over the “patriots” that he had to be dismissed as we felt that these sentiments were out of place in the Provost’s House’.
In my book At Home in the Revolution: what women said and did in 1916 I discuss Mahaffy’s account as a domocentric narrative, one framed as a story about the transformation of a domestic site into a military one. But there is much else to be said about Elsie Mahaffy’s book, and I hope that soon someone will transcribe it entirely and publish it. The handwriting is easy to read, and the material contains details that can be found nowhere else about unionist social life just after the Rising, such as the tea-party at which the Mahaffy family, the Viceroy and Vicereine, Prime Minister Asquith and General Maxwell drank together in the saloon of the Provost’s house, celebrating their triumph over the rebels.
Marie Frazee-Baldassarre Professor of English
Montclair State University
Lucy McDiarmid’s book At Home in the Revolution: what women said and did in 1916 has just been published by the Royal Irish Academy