The first time I met Oliver Cromwell
The poor man was visibly distressed.
‘Buffun,’ says he, ‘things are gone to the devil
In England. So I popped over here for a rest.
Say what you will about Ireland, where on
Earth could a harassed statesman find peace like
This in green unperturbed oblivion? …’
Brendan Kennelly, from ‘Cromwell’
In 1951, John Arthur Burdett Trench – obsessive huntsman since the age of eight, polo player and, in his mid sixties, possessor of a memory of having ridden home the winner of the Grand National at Fairyhouse at a time when English officers could still relax in the grandstand – sold Clonfert Palace near Eyrecourt in Co. Galway to an English family not long arrived in Ireland. The house had belonged to the Trenches for generations and had once been the residence of Church of Ireland bishops. It stood on the flood plain of the Shannon, a short walk from Clonfert Cathedral, hidden away behind its famous avenue of yew trees, an inconspicuous island of Ascendancy civility on the frontier of the vast bog. Like many other ancient mansions, its comforts and refinements had not survived the privations of the twentieth century and it was badly in need of restoration. Every day for months the new lady of the house would drive across the bogland roads from her temporary accommodation in Tipperary to supervise the installation of bathrooms, electricity and central heating, an Aga in the kitchen. Word spread that Clonfert Palace was being returned to its former glory and that there was work to be had from the new owners. They turned the ballroom into a drawing room and brought a carpenter from Banagher to build bookshelves that covered an entire wall. They filled the once-dilapidated rooms with fine furniture, replaced the broken sash cords on the windows, draped curtains made to measure in Dublin and hung paintings of their ancestors on the wall. They recruited a gardener, a housekeeper and a cook. Occasionally the lady’s husband would arrive in a large, exotic Buick driven by a French chauffeur.
Soon, it became known that the family bringing Clonfert Palace back to life was Sir Oswald and Lady Diana Mosley and their two sons. On the fifteenth of February 1952, the Westmeath Independent carried a short item entitled ‘Distinguished Residents’, disclosing that the previous Friday the Mosley family had ‘moved into occupation’ of the palace. ‘Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley, who have a large staff, are charmed with Ireland, its people, the tempo of its life and its scenery,’ the paper related, dutifully informing readers in a final sentence that ‘Sir Oswald was the former leader of a political movement in England.’
Many years before he became the nearest thing to a British Mussolini in the 1930s, Oswald Mosley achieved political prominence as a parliamentary critic of Lloyd George’s campaign to use the Black and Tans to crush the IRA. Late in 1920, as a twenty-four-year-old Conservative MP, he was a believer in the League of Nations and condemned the Amritsar massacre in India as ‘Prussian frightfulness inspired by racism’. In his memoir, My Life, published in 1968, Mosley recalled that the war in Ireland had ‘evoked intense moral feeling’. With each atrocity committed by the Black and Tans he felt ‘that the name of Britain was being disgraced, every rule of good soldierly conduct disregarded, and every decent instinct of humanity outraged’. Mosley was one of a small handful of MPs who pursued Lloyd George and his blustering secretary for Ireland, Sir Hamar Greenwood, over the unacknowledged policy of reprisals.
Mosley’s speeches and questions, preserved in the columns of Hansard, are fluent, precise and lucid: reading them evokes the pleasure of observing a clever barrister at work in a trial. At the time he betrayed no sympathy for the IRA. In one of his early contributions he accepted that ‘in the present state of Ireland one certainly cannot deny the right to shoot a man who, when challenged, refuses to hold up his hands. Anything of that sort is perfectly legitimate.’ And after the Bloody Sunday massacres Mosley told the Commons that law-abiding people in Ireland were being intimidated by ‘a small gang of desperate men’, or, as he put it shortly afterwards, ‘the murder gang of Sinn Féin’. The root of Mosley’s case against the Black and Tans was that their behaviour undermined the superiority of British imperial rule. ‘No Empire, no Government, has been long sustained except by the power of moral force,’ he told the House of Commons after Bloody Sunday. ‘Our Empire stands alone, from the Imperial ruins of history, in its recognition of and obedience to this fundamental law. It is because I am a passionate believer in the destiny and in the yet unfulfilled mission of British Empire, that I am unwilling to sacrifice the inviolate tradition of the ages even to satisfy the transient purpose of this gambler’s expedient …’
Mosley’s own solution to the Irish question was a version of the agreement by which the United States granted Cuba independence after the Spanish– American war but reserved the right to invade if any disturbance threatened American interests. Under such an arrangement between Britain and an independent Ireland, Mosley wrote, any infringement could legitimately provoke ‘a bombardment of Dublin and all the principal cities of Ireland from sea and air’. Mosley was certain it would never come to that because a government supported by the Irish people would guarantee British interests, especially since, as he presciently noted, all the signs were that the first Irish government would be conservative and stable.
To read Mosley’s memoir is to come away with the impression that he single-handedly dragged the damning evidence of the atrocities committed by the Black and Tans into the spotlight and created a scandal in parliament. He was not the only MP, however, to ask uncomfortable questions amidst a fear that the campaign in Ireland threw a spotlight on the unacceptable face of imperial policing. And crusading British newspaper correspondents, aided by Sinn Féin propaganda, did as much to disseminate the detail of the Black and Tan atrocities as the Peace with Ireland Council, the extra-parliamentary pressure group that Mosley helped to run. But Mosley’s decision in November 1920 to break with the Conservative Party and Lloyd George’s coalition government over the reprisals in Ireland was the making of his parliamentary reputation. Thereafter, he followed a dizzying trajectory, joining the Labour Party and becoming a junior minister in the minority Labour government of 1929; resigning the following year when the cabinet rejected his radical plan for large-scale borrowing and public works to deal with the colossal unemployment caused by the Depression; founding a new party and, eventually, launching the British Union of Fascists in 1932. His denunciation of the Black and Tans survived this political odyssey to achieve a permanent place in the Mosley myth. In 1923 T.P. O’Connor, the veteran Home Rule MP for Liverpool, had written to Mosley’s first wife, Cynthia, praising him as ‘the man who really began the break up of the Black and Tan savagery’. A decade later this reputation was revived in an attempt to attract Irish emigrants in Britain to the fascist cause. Studies of the membership of the British Union of Fascists are imprecise as to how many recruits were of Irish origin, but circumstantial evidence suggests the number may have been substantial. Several fascist leaders in the north of England were Catholic; there were so many in Leeds that Mosley was known there as ‘The Pope’. T.P. O’Connor’s letter was quoted from platforms when Mosley made an explicit appeal for the Irish vote in local elections in London in 1937.
The irony, of course, was that Mosley’s most prominent Irish acolyte, William Joyce, had been an ostentatious sympathizer with the Black and Tans as a sixteen-year-old in Galway. Mosley ended up hating Joyce (largely because he sensed a potential rival), but by the end of the war Mosley and Lord Haw Haw – as Joyce was now universally known – were synonymous in the British public imagination with betrayal. Despite insisting that if the Germans invaded he would wear a uniform and fight for his country, Mosley had been interned in 1940 as a potential quisling. He was released three years later because of his poor health, although his glamorous marriage and connections (Mosley’s first wife, Cynthia, was the daughter of Lord Curzon, once viceroy of India, and his second, Diana, was one of the famous Mitford sisters related to Winston Churchill) also helped him receive more lenient treatment than many other members of the BUF, who languished in jail throughout the war and emerged broken men. In his memoir, Beyond the Pale, Nicholas Mosley (his son from his first marriage) recalls that the revulsion against his father was so strong that booths were erected on street corners in London to gather signatures to petition for his re-imprisonment.
At this low point, effectively the end of his political career, Mosley received a letter from Ireland which became just as important to him as T.P. O’Connor’s testimonial in 1923. It arrived at his London address shortly after he was released from Holloway prison and placed under house arrest. In two neat, tightly packed sheets of thick writing paper, J.D. O’Connell, the county solicitor for Kerry, reminded Mosley that they had met in London 1921 when O’Connell, then a prominent member of Sinn Féin, had been lobbying against the Black and Tans. The solicitor in Tralee assured Mosley that ‘your good name will be remembered here long after those who now try to belittle you will be clean forgotten’. He then took it upon himself, on behalf of the Irish people, to invite Sir Oswald and his wife to take advantage of a native hospitality for which he half apologized in advance: ‘We are neutral in the present turmoil. If you and Lady Mosley are at liberty to come here we should be very happy indeed to receive you in our own poor and humble ways.’ Sir Oswald’s predicament, O’Connell told him, was equivalent to the type of persecution the Irish themselves had suffered. ‘We in this country have been called nasty names and we have experience of internment camps, and so we understand your position.’
It was three years before Mosley acted on O’Connell’s suggestion. In 1946, through his solicitor, Mosley told officials in Dublin that he was interested in settling in Ireland. De Valera was consulted and Mosley’s solicitor was summoned to the Department of Justice to be told that ‘the time was perhaps not opportune for him to take up permanent residence and that he might delay his decision for some time until international tempers were quieter’. Five years later with the hostility he encountered in Britain showing no sign of abating, Mosley moved to Ireland.
Mosley had been trying to gather the remnants of his supporters into a new organization called the Union Movement. In a statement published in the Union newspaper in March 1951, Mosley said he had come to Ireland because it was a free country, whereas England had become ‘an Island Prison’. He told his followers that as a guest in Ireland he would take no part in Irish politics: ‘Long ago I fought in Parliament for the freedom of Ireland, and for the right of the Irish people to manage their own affairs. Therefore the last thing I should now try to do would be to interfere in them.’ This promise served as a public reassurance to the authorities in Dublin that he would not be an embarrassment, as well as a reminder that he had once been a famous friend of Irish nationalism. Union printed two letters criticizing Mosley for leaving, one of them likening his withdrawal across the Irish Sea to the action of a military leader deserting his troops: ‘I do feel that a general should remain in the field with his men rather than back at H.Q. miles away, if you get my point … I wonder what would have happened if Hitler had gone and lived in Italy after he came out of prison in the early days.’ Freedom was not the only advantage that Ireland offered. Mosley’s second wife, Diana Mitford, was well connected there. Her younger sister Deborah was married to the Duke of Devonshire and lived at Lismore Castle in Co. Waterford. Her older sister Pamela was married to the physicist Derek Jackson, who had known Mosley since the 1930s, and they lived at Tullamaine Castle in Co. Tipperary. This is where the Mosleys stayed while they searched Ireland for a suitable house.
It was a good time to be on the lookout for a lofty residence going cheap. Many Big Houses had been burned to the ground or abandoned during the revolution; others were boarded up or left in a state of neglect during the economic war of the 1930s. The vital social hinterland of these houses and their inhabitants had vanished; there were no dashing young officers to grace winter balls or amuse the ladies during tennis parties in the summer. Nor were the Big Houses any longer, in De Valera’s Ireland, beacons of authority in the social order: that position was now occupied by the cosy homesteads of the peasant farmers who had once been tenants.
The privations of the war, the levelling force of the mobilization it made necessary and the dream of a welfare state it engendered made Atlee’s Britain a markedly less congenial place for the landed elite and aristocratic gentry than the country Neville Chamberlain had reluctantly and belatedly placed in Hitler’s path. By the mid fifties a British country house was being demolished almost every week. Some members of the embattled aristocracy looked to Ireland as a place where the old world could be recreated. Dublin auctioneers acting for English clients in search of property placed advertisements in local newspapers. In 1946 Evelyn Waugh toured Ireland searching for a romantic pile. He made an offer to the owners of Gormanston Castle in Co. Meath but withdrew it when he heard that Billy Butlin was thinking of building a holiday camp nearby. Vita Sackville-West’s brother, Edward, moved to a country house in Tipperary in 1956 and found to his delight that Ireland was like Portugal, possessed of the same ‘backwaters quality & the equally warm, intensely religious peasantry’. Even Americans found that Ireland was somewhere one could play at being gentry. When ice and snow closed down their own hunts in the winter of 1952, a party of wealthy New Yorkers spent a month in Galway hunting with the Blazers and living at the Great Southern Hotel. That same year the film director John Huston rented a Georgian mansion in Co. Kildare and discovered that Ireland was ‘a wonderful place for a man to go when he’s tired of fighting traffic and taxes’. Three years later he purchased an eighteenth-century mansion near Galway Bay and hired a staff of eight to look after the grounds, his family and their guests. He was enchanted by the hunting life, the intimacy of social relations and the generous hospitality, reckoning that Ireland in the 1950s was what the Old South in the United States must have been like.
This influx of British aristocrats and arriviste Americans was much commented on at the time, and made a vivid contrast with the mass emigration that was depopulating virtually every town and village in the country. In a book of essays called The Vanishing Irish, which gathered contributions from contemporary commentators on the pressing questions of emigration and the low birth rate, Edmund J. Murray described the influx of wealthy estate-seekers as ‘a new plantation movement in Anglo-Irish history on a money-for-acre basis, rather than by royal grant’. Shane Leslie was sure who the speculators were: ‘Jews (and can you blame them?) have bought up many urban properties and leading stores and shops. The English and Scotch follow them.’ The truth was, however, that the Irish state held well-bred Englishmen with cash in greater esteem than industrious Jewish refugees. We know this because in a memorandum written during the war, the secretary of the Department of Justice worried that emergency measures designed to keep out ‘Jews and other undesirables’ might have to be revoked if they deterred wealthy English people from moving to Ireland.
Today, Clonfert Palace looks like a well-preserved ruin. Trees, nettles and thistles grow in the middle of it but the outer walls have been remarkably sturdy, belying the little yellow plastic signs warning that they might come tumbling down. What once had been lawns and gardens in front of the mansion is now a large field. When I first went there three summers ago with Christy Cunniffe, whose parents and grandfather had worked in the grounds, a flock of boisterous black-faced sheep came running toward us, nosing my notebook. ‘They’ll eat the notebook,’ I said. ‘They’d eat yourself,’ Christy said. Small white clouds skirred across the blue sky and I tried to imagine Oswald Mosley standing here on an August day fifty years before, surveying the generous acres that secluded him from a hostile world.
A few months after moving to Clonfert, Oswald Mosley opened an account at the Bank of Ireland in College Green in Dublin to trade in stocks and shares. He had holdings in major American corporations like Phelps Dodge and Twentieth Century Fox, Brazilian Light and Power and South African mines. He and Diana continued to refine Clonfert Palace to their taste. They brought over from London gilt-framed chairs, mahogany cupboards and cabinets, a gilt oval table, wool carpets, a bronze eighteenth-century bust and some Nankin treasures.
Daily life at Clonfert was self-contained. The two boys were educated at home by a tutor called Leigh Williams. Alexander was bookish but Max was wild. His love of hunting was indulged by his parents; sometimes he would ride off with a little food and water and not be seen for days. Max was also a prankster who laughed at admonishment. Once, he put six-inch nails on the lawn when Harry Cunniffe, the gardener, was trying out his new mower.
Sir Oswald would take his breakfast in bed. The Irish Times and Financial Times would be delivered from Eyrecourt. Lady Mosley would give her orders for the day to Mrs Swan, the cook. When Sir Oswald surfaced he might go for a long walk along the Shannon, passing the barges hauling cargoes of porter, coal or flour. On return he would set to work in his study. Nicholas Mosley has written about his father’s attachment to ‘the hierarchical … classless patterns of life … in the semi-feudal grandeur’ of the estate where he grew up in Staffordshire; in Clonfert Mosley seems to have replicated this idyll. Just as his grandfather had produced wholemeal bread, Sir Oswald supervised the growing of vegetables and ploughed the paddock to plant lucerne, a clover-like plant used for fodder.
Now and again he might turn up at a gymkhana or an agricultural show in the grounds of the workhouse in Portumna, but rarely did Sir Oswald attract public attention in Ireland. Just over a year after he arrived in Clonfert the German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, accused Mosley of sending money to help Werner Naumann, a former associate of Hitler who had been arrested by the British occupation authorities for trying to infiltrate neo-Nazis into positions of influence in West Germany. When Adenauer’s accusations appeared in the press, the issue was raised in the House of Commons and it was pointed out that Mosley was now a resident of Ireland. In Dublin, a question was put down in the Dáil for the Minister for Finance, Sean MacEntee, asking if Mosley had transferred money to Germany from Ireland. In a written reply, MacEntee said no exchange-control approval had been given for any transfer of funds by Mosley to Germany. But a briefing note prepared for MacEntee at the time discloses how after several pleas from Mosley’s accountants in Dublin, officials at the Department of Finance quietly relaxed rules forbidding Irish residents from opening foreign bank accounts and allowed Mosley to open an account in Paris so that he could lodge payments from a Swiss publisher (another neo-Nazi, although they didn’t appear to be aware of it). This money, they acknowledged, could have been transferred to Germany by Mosley without any need for permission. The officials revealed in their briefing note to the Minister that one of the reasons they bent the rules for Mosley was because ‘he is a man of considerable wealth and should be encouraged to retain his Irish domicile’.
Mosley accepted an invitation to speak at a meeting of Trinity College Philosophical Society in October 1954 on the subject of how to avoid a Third World War. Some college officials objected to the invitation on the grounds that to give Mosley a platform was carrying free speech too far, but the event went ahead without much incident. The British Labour MP Hector Hughes came all the way from London but refused to speak. Mosley was heard respectfully by an audience that included women for the first time in the Phil’s history. He argued that a small band of highly trained guerrillas could defeat the world’s greatest military powers if they had the support of a civilian population, an allusion to not-so-distant history that might have gone down better with a different Irish audience. ‘The future’, Sir Oswald prophesied, ‘belongs to the people who can produce a great idea.’ Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington was among a handful of people who afterwards wrote to the president of the Phil to protest against Mosley’s appearance. He explained to the Irish Times that he objected not to hearing a fascist per se but ‘to allowing a speech by Mosley to be made a feature of a college public occasion’.
A curious feature of the coverage of Mosley’s appearance at Trinity in the Irish Times and elsewhere was the omission of any mention that he lived in Ireland. This silence may have arisen from a sense or a wish that he was, as The Leader described him in a commentary on the Trinity controversy, ‘simply a survivor of an earlier era, without significance to the political life of this generation’. This certainly was the hope of the military intelligence officers who had kept an eye on him from the moment he arrived in the country. A month after the Mosleys had moved into Clonfert Palace, Colonel Dan Bryan wrote to the secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Sean Nunan, to reassure him that Mosley seemed to have kept his promise: there was no evidence of Mosley taking part in any political activities in Ireland. ‘My information’, wrote Bryan, ‘is that he seems more or less to have lost interest in the remnants of his Union movement in England.’ Mosley’s movements between Clonfert and Lismore or Clonfert and Paris – where in 1951 he and Diana had bought a house called Le Temple de la Gloire, which gradually became their favourite residence – were recorded in a series of terse memos from military intelligence to the Department of Justice. This information was then relayed to the British embassy; there was some concern among officials that it should be passed on verbally and not in writing. In September 1952 the British ambassador in Dublin, John Chadwick, informed the Department of Justice that he had information from London that Mosley was due to meet leaders of the Union movement at the Russell Hotel in Dublin at the end of the month. ‘It is thought in London that Mosley today is a spent force politically and that he has little security interest,’ Chadwick wrote. ‘Despite this, we should be most grateful for any information which you may receive about the projected meeting in Dublin, or as regards any other activities on the part of Mosley or his lieutenants.’ Mosley was accordingly watched on 27 September as he met the Union leaders in the hotel, but the intelligence officers were content, in their report to the Irish ambassador in London, to echo the British embassy’s assessment: ‘It is possible that little significance need be attached to Sir Oswald’s movements.’
There is little evidence that the Irish authorities were aware of Mosley’s travels to Europe for conferences to try to revive fascist parties – detailed in Stephen Dorril’s recent biography – or of his writings at the time. The meeting in the Russell Hotel had been called to launch a journal called The European, essentially a vehicle to propagate Mosley’s ideas among intellectuals. Here, Mosley advanced his argument that the Second World War was Churchill’s fault, that Germany should have been left alone to bring order to the backward peoples of Eastern Europe and that Hitler’s passionate desire to reach an understanding with the English people cost him victory and ultimately caused his suicide. Mosley’s new idea was a united Europe that would control Africa, dividing the whole continent between white and black populations. ‘The combined manpower of Europe would develop a living room containing our own supply of raw materials and our own markets, within which the European genius could speedily build the highest civilisation the world has yet seen.’
The catastrophic record of the Nazis is largely evaded in Mosley’s polemics and the Holocaust is never mentioned. ‘It has long been clear that both sides committed atrocities in the late war; so far only one side has been punished for them …’ Diana used the pages of the journal to defend Hitler. She was particularly disapproving of repentant memoirs by ex-Nazis. Reviewing Hitler: The Missing Years by Putzi Hanfstaengl, a press officer who served the Führer, she expressed outrage: ‘More than twelve years have passed since Hitler died, and it may seem astonishing that Dr Hanfstaengl should still feel obliged to write with such exaggerated spite about the man he was once proud to call his friend.’ Diana sought to propagate the idea the Hitler’s Germany had been pacific and tolerant. ‘For the German masses,’ she wrote in September 1954, ‘including millions who had voted communist under the Weimar Republic … the Germany of 1933–39 was a fine, prosperous, successful country, and the traveller saw a healthy, contented-looking population.’ Referring to an account by Alan Moorehead of how British soldiers had tortured SS guards captured at Belsen, Diana asserted that – with the exception of the Black and Tans (‘in part recruited from the sweepings of Johannesburg’) – British troops were decent and well disciplined: the soldiers who had taken revenge at Belsen were acting against their better nature because of the propaganda they had heard about the Nazis.
If she tried, Diana might have found willing listeners in Ireland for the view that the Nazis had a bad press. In Dublin during the war, John Betjeman spent much of his time trying to persuade people that the Nazis were anti-Christian, hanging pictures of bombed out London churches in his office in Upper Mount Street. ‘I find even among the most sincere Catholics a refusal to believe in stories of German persecution,’ he wrote in a despatch to London. At the time the Mosleys were living in Clonfert, the German writer Heinrich Böll moved into a cottage on Achill Island. In a pub he met ‘Padraic’ who confided his belief that Hitler was ‘not such a bad man really … only … he went a bit too far.’ When Böll replied that ‘we know exactly how far Hitler went, he went over the corpses of millions of Jews, children’, Padraic looked pained and accused him of being ‘taken in by British propaganda’.
One foggy night a few weeks before Christmas 1954, while Diana was visiting London, the Mosleys’ neighbours the Blake-Kellys were woken just before two o’clock by the whinnying of a pony in their stables. From their window they could see flames and smoke billowing from the Palace next door. Mrs Blake-Kelly sent her son to bang on the Mosleys’ front door and within minutes Sir Oswald, Alexander and their servants were standing on the lawn watching the flames consume their house. A French maid, Mademoiselle Cerrecoundo, rushed back into the house to fetch some clothes and was trapped at an upstairs window. Sir Oswald, Alexander and the chauffeur, Monsieur Thevenon, held a blanket under the window and she leaped to safety, hurting her back and her hand. Monsieur Thevenon drove to the Garda station in Eyrecourt and from there fire brigades were summoned from Ballinasloe and Birr. It took an hour and a half for the engines to arrive and by then more than half the house was lost to the blaze. The firemen cut through the roof with their axes to create a barrier to the advancing flames. Six rooms were saved and some furniture, antiques and a valuable carpet retrieved.
By morning, when the firemen had finished their work and stood gazing at the hole rent through the roof of the house, cold westerly winds were gathering strength. It was the beginning of the worst storm in the midlands for a hundred years. Rain, sleet and snow poured down on the smouldering ruins of Clonfert and the winds reached hurricane force, knocking trees across the roads and felling the electricity wires that had been strung only in the last few years. Within a few days thousands of acres of land by the Shannon were flooded. The army came to evacuate farmhouses which were under three or four feet of water and drive cattle to high ground. Stone outhouses were washed away, corn stooks submerged and the swollen bodies of cows and pigs that could not be saved were left bobbing in the water.
The morning after the fire, Oswald had gone to Dublin airport to meet Diana coming back from London. She recalled in her memoirs the jolt of seeing him standing there as she came through customs, his face grave and bristly with stubble. He told her the story of the fire. If they hadn’t had to persuade the French maid to jump for her life from the second-floor window, Diana realized, they could have saved the pictures in the dining room before the ceiling collapsed. She thought of her mahogany four-poster bed with a canopy of blue taffeta now burnt to cinders. The fire had apparently started in the chimney of the maids’ sitting room where an old beam had been dried out by the central heating. Because of the storm and the floods it was a few days before she could go back to Clonfert to see the ruin. Her hands trembled so much she could hardly hold a pen. The family spent Christmas in Lismore Castle, with Diana’s sister Deborah and the Duke of Devonshire. But they had promised the children of Clonfert a Christmas party in the Palace and so, a few days before New Year, they gathered the toys they had bought in Cork and drove in the rain from Lismore to St Brendan’s National School in Killoran, about a mile from the burnt-out wreck of their house. Lady Mosley called each child up individually to receive a present. She later wrote that on the drive back to Lismore she felt sad because it was as if they were turning their backs on a place where they had been treated with kindness and where their presence could have helped a poor and neglected neighbourhood.
Early in 1955 the Mosleys found a new home just outside Fermoy, Co. Cork. Ileclash was a Georgian house built on an elevation over the Blackwater with a walled garden and terraced lawns. It had been restored by a retired British army captain, Percy Benson, who sold it to the Mosleys after his wife died.
Sometime in February that year, Lance Corporal Jerry Lehane was waiting for his discharge from the army in Cork when he replied to an add in the Cork Examiner for a ‘butler/chauffeur willing to travel’. He was invited to Ileclash for an interview on a Sunday. He remembers how Diana towered over him and how her husband, when he came to join the conversation, was just as striking. They told him they would be in France for two and half months and they wouldn’t need someone until they came back at Easter. But as he was walking away, the maid Emily – whom Jerry would eventually marry – came running after him to call him back to the house: the Mosleys wanted him to start the next day.
At Ileclash Jerry would look after Sir Oswald: bring him a boiled egg in the morning, lay out his clothes for the day. Sometimes Sir Oswald might walk into Fermoy, over the bridge past the Caltex petrol pumps and down MacCurtain Street under the Coca-Cola sign and the shop awnings stretching over the pavement. Until the start of the troubles, Fermoy had been a thriving garrison town where Irish and British regiments returned from campaigns in India and Africa displaying pet monkeys and exotic birds and spending the wages they had saved up while defending the empire. After Liam Lynch led a party of IRA volunteers in an attack on soldiers from the Shropshire Light Infantry as they made their way to the Wesleyan Church one Sunday in September 1919, Fermoy was the scene of the first military reprisal of the War of Independence. When the local coroner’s jury refused to describe the death of the single private killed in the raid as murder, two hundred soldiers rampaged through the town, looting drapery stores and shoe shops. The following year drunken Auxiliaries drowned a man in the Blackwater.
The Mosleys’ first summer at Ileclash was blissful, with weeks of unbroken sunshine ‘browning Irish faces so that their eyes looked like aquamarines’, as Diana wrote in the diary she contributed to The European. As she climbed down the cliff to the Blackwater, the river looked ‘as blue as the bay of Naples in August’. Sir Oswald would spend hours on the riverbank, casting his line in the Blackwater while Diana sat reading a book nearby. According to the locals, he would talk to anybody who came sauntering along. Local boys were allowed to fish for eels or take timber from the land in front of Ileclash or play football matches in the fields around the house. One St Stephen’s Day, Tommy Rice, whose father often talked to Sir Oswald, went with the wren boys to Ileclash and was brought in and given five pounds.
In the late fifties, Sir Oswald spent increasing amounts of time mixing with aspirant neo-fascists in Europe and with the theorists of apartheid in South Africa. In Britain, meanwhile, a new issue was developing that offered him a route back into proper politics: West Indian immigration. In August 1958 race riots erupted in Notting Hill, an area where a growing number of West Indians – many of them recruited to work as nurses or on the London Underground – were settling alongside other immigrants, including a large Irish population. Mosley’s Union movement immediately saw the potential for capitalizing on popular resentment and came to the defence of the gangs of Teddy boys who had been prosecuted for ‘nigger-bashing’. In April 1959, Mosley announced that he would stand in the general election to be held the following September as a candidate in North Kensington, the constituency that encompassed Notting Hill. For the rest of the spring and throughout the summer Mosley busied himself making his face familiar again as a campaigner on the streets of London. In August he appeared in court alongside two brothers accused of assaulting and shooting a black medical student. It was probably the renewed publicity Mosley was attracting that summer that provoked Noel Browne to describe him in the Dáil as an ‘undesirable’ who might use his residence in the Republic of Ireland as a ‘funk hole’ to allow him to engage in racist activities elsewhere.
As election day approached he was speaking four times a week from the back of a truck with a message that immigrants should be given compulsory free passage back to the West Indies with a promise that Britain would buy all its sugar from Jamaica to guarantee local employment. What people remembered, however, was his remark that West Indians were able to work for low wages because they could live off a tin of Kit-E-Kat a day. His supporters circulated leaflets describing Sir Oswald as ‘the best friend the Irish have in British politics’, reminding potential Irish voters that he had ‘fought for them in the British Parliament and lived among them in Ireland’. As in the heyday of of Mosley’s fascist electioneering in the 1930s, T.P. O’Connor’s letter saluting his stand against the Black and Tans was reprinted. Through questioning and debate, the leaflets pointed out, Sir Oswald had begun the work of getting the Black and Tans out of Ireland; now, ‘the same power of question and debate can get the Blacks out of North Kensington’.
Mosley convinced himself that he would get a third of the vote and win. On the night of the count a large noisy crowd of his supporters gathered outside Kensington Town Hall. He was shocked to discover that he had received only 8 per cent of the vote and lost his deposit. After the debacle of North Kensington, the Mosleys spent more and more of their time in Paris and less and less in Fermoy. Ileclash was sold in 1963.
Oswald Mosley never lived in Ireland again but he continued to proclaim an affinity for it, summoning up the experience of opposing the war in 1920 as a form of superior wisdom. At the height of the Vietnam war he argued that ‘everything that happened in Vietnam and Algeria occurred [first] in Ireland’. When the troubles began in Northern Ireland he circulated a paper advocating the transfer of most Catholics to the Republic and the re-drawing of the border. And when he tried to distinguish himself from Enoch Powell in the 1970s he cited his attitude to Ireland as evidence that he was the more enlightened. ‘Powell lumps Irishmen from the Republic along with Indians, Pakistanis and Jamaicans as immigrants,’ a paper prepared by Mosley’s supporters explained. ‘Union movement on the other hand has always differentiated on the Irish [sic], whether from the Republic or the Six Counties, on the grounds that for centuries they have served in the British Army and the Navy, and have staffed our hospitals and made our roads for decades.’
In November 1977 – three years before he died – Mosley took part in a debate at the King’s Inns in Dublin with Jack Lynch, who was then Taoiseach. He spoke of the necessity of making Europe great again and of how ‘the wisdom of Irish statesmanship’ could make its contribution. There is a photograph of Lynch looking uncomfortable and impatient as he sat alongside the aged Mosley. Around this time, Mosley also appeared on the Late Late Show with Gay Byrne. It’s not possible to watch it anymore; it was one of the editions of the show erased by RTÉ because the film was more valuable than what was on it. I saw the programme at the time and remember Mosley, sitting in the front row of the audience, an old man defending himself vigorously against passionate denunciation. At that stage, to me, he was just the notorious British fascist and I had no idea of his connection with Ireland or of how much authority he derived from his early stand against the Black and Tans.
It was this episode, his first political success, that he would return to again and again, burnishing it in the retelling. In the House of Commons in 1920 Mosley referred to Sinn Féin as a ‘murder gang’. But when he came to write his memoirs nearly a half-century later he would recall that ‘the large majority of the Irish guerrillas … were idealists in the highest degree’. Ireland, however, meant more than votes or refuge for Mosley: it was the best evidence he could produce that a fascist could have a moral compass. Thus, his opposition to a war with Hitler in 1939 was recast in the same light as his opposition to the Black and Tans. And it was his speeches on Ireland in 1920 which enabled the elder Mosley to sidestep the question of the Nazi atrocities: ‘I have a long record of opposition to the vile crime of killing or ill-treating the defenceless in various spheres, and it is one of the subjects on which I feel most strongly.’
I would like to thank the following people for help in the research of this article: Christy Cunniffe, Joe McAvoy, Norma Joyce, Christy Walsh, Catriona Crowe at the National Archives, Dublin, and Phillipa Bassett at the Special Collections Library, Birmingham University.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 26 Spring 2007