Joseph Campbell: Forgotten Poet and Irish Rebel

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

The inspiration for this piece came from a new lecture series I have been planning for the Linen Hall Library. Having come up with the idea for the series at the beginning of the year I embarked on a fairly random process of rummaging through the Linen Hall’s archives for ideas. The first archive box that caught my eye was that of the Ulster Literary Theatre, the group which W.B. Yeats described as ‘the only dramatic society, apart from our own, which is doing serious artistic work’. The box contained many interesting items, most of which had belonged to Rutherford Mayne – a pseudonym for Samuel Waddell, Irish playwright and founder member of the Ulster Literary Theatre along with Joseph Campbell in 1904. A presentation about the Rutherford Mayne archive and the Ulster Literary Theatre was seeming like a good option. Then, just as I was about the close up the box, happy that there was enough material for a talk, I stumbled upon an old piece of paper which had been folded up in the style of an envelope and featuring some erratic handwriting on it. My curiosity encouraged me to open it, and upon doing so I was confronted with a lock of dark brown hair. Immediately my thoughts turned to Henry Joy McCracken – there had been rumours in the Library that once upon a time we may have held a lock of McCracken’s hair, though nothing had ever turned up and it seemed very unlikely – yet here was I with a lock of unidentified hair inside a scrap of paper. Naturally, I wondered for a moment if I had cracked the case. The scrap of paper was my only hope of finding clues to ascertain the identity of the previous owner of the hair. On closer inspection, the handwriting appeared to read ‘also Joseph’s hair – the dark hair is aunt Sarah’s’. The paper was letter-headed, containing the details: ‘Wm. H. Campbell – Contractor – Loretto Cottage, Castlereagh Road, Belfast’. Instantly I knew I was dealing with the poet Joseph Campbell – and only because I happen to lead some historical walking tours in East Belfast, I knew about Loretto Cottage and I knew of Joseph Campbell – he actually features on one of my tours. For that reason, I’m convinced that Joseph’s hair found me on this occasion, and not the other way around.

I must confess at the outset that my interest in Joseph Campbell is on a purely political level and not literary. The aim of this piece is to highlight the life and times of a remarkable man, born not far from where I was born in East Belfast yet finds himself among the founding members of the Irish Volunteers, playing a role in the Easter Rising, working on crucial Sinn Fein by-election campaigns and ultimately being imprisoned during the Irish Civil War. He features on my 1916 walking tour in East Belfast and a vast majority of people who I encounter haven’t heard of him – so, this is his story…

Joseph Campbell was born on 15 July 1879 in Belfast. The family, who were Catholic, lived at ‘Loretto Cottage’, a sandstone villa on the Castlereagh Road in east Belfast, where the QE1 Snooker Club is now situated and he is commemorated there by a blue plaque courtesy of the Ulster History Circle. Loretto was subsequently occupied by the Emerson family, who were milkmen, before the cottage was eventually demolished in 1974.

Joseph began his school life, aged 7, at St. Matthew’s National School in what we would now call the Short Strand district of east Belfast. Another plaque at the site of the school commemorates him. Summer holiday’s for Joseph meant visits to Flurrybridge, a Gaelic speaking area of Armagh where his grandfather resided. It was during these visits to Flurrybridge that he developed an interest in Irish history and of the Irish language to complement a love for books and reading which he had discovered at St. Mathew’s.

The first public event Joseph can remember was the Phoenix Park assassinations of 6 May 1882 when Frederick Cavendish, the Chief secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Burke, the Permanent Undersecretary were stabbed to death with surgical knives by an underground Fenian organisation calling themselves The Invincibles. He also remembers election day 1886 when Thomas Sexton was elected as the Home Rule MP for West Belfast, helped by Joseph’s father William. Joseph’s father was a fervent Parnellite and supporter of Home Rule. He sometimes took young Joseph to the political gatherings at St. Mary’s Hall. The election of Sexton was a personal triumph for the family and Joseph remembers how the election affected the children: ‘I was going to school at the time – St. Matthews… Miss Colcough was preparing us for the ceremonies of Holy Week, teaching us the Latin of the hymn, Vexilla Regis, which we learned by the rote. At rehearsal, when we got to the line ‘tam, sancta membra tangere’ we would shout in unison: ‘Tom Sexton, member O’Parliament’. A good example of the exuberant irreverence of schoolboys in a province fighting for its religious and political freedom.

Joseph left school at 16 to work in his father’s construction business. Around this time, however, he suffered from mental ill health and required a period of rest for over 3 years. It turned out to be a defining moment because during this time he immersed himself in books, folklore and a love for the history of Belfast with his new friend Francis Joseph Bigger. These years witnessed the stirrings of an Irish Gaelic cultural revival in Ireland and Campbell had his own connection to it. In 1898 Ethna Carbery (who was Joseph’s cousin) and Alice Milligan, founded the Shan Van Vocht periodical. Its purpose was to rally the scattered and disheartened few who had not lost faith after Charles Stewart Parnell’s death. Ethna Carbery’s husband provides us with an insight into the impact of the Shan Van Vocht: ‘For three and a half years these two girls edited the magazine and managed it… They inspired patriotic writers to life again… Today only the few remember that it was these two girls, with their wonderful little magazine, patriotic, poetic, firing, stimulating, who revived Ireland’s spirit when it seemed dead and turned the tide of Ireland’s fortune when to many it seemed flown for ever.

When the Gaelic League spread to Belfast in 1895 its first branch was set up in East Belfast at 32 Upper Beersbridge Road, the home of P.T. McGinley. Joseph Campbell joined the Gaelic League around this time where he began Irish language lessons and became an authority on Irish literature. His early poetry and articles during this period were published in the Northern Whig and the United Irishman newspapers and they portray his love of all things Irish. The United Irishman paper was edited by Arthur Griffith, and he and Campbell soon developed a good rapport. Campbell would often travel to Dublin and was met by Griffith at Amiens Street Station (we know it today as Connolly Street Station). Griffith once gave him an historical tour of Dublin and Campbell recalled: ‘I can see him now in his black hat, thick pince-nez and coloured tie, looped with a gold ring; his feet were malformed, I recall, and he had to wear specially made boots’. Of Dublin Campbell said: ‘Fate has led me in my wanderings to many famous cities… I have seen nothing more lovely than the stone façade of Trinity, the classic black and white pillars of the Bank of Ireland, and the river mirrored cupola of the Custom House’.

In 1904 Campbell put lyrics to a series of Donegal airs collected by Herbert Hughes. “Our technique was simple” said Campbell, “Herbert would come to Loretto (Campbell’s home in East Belfast). Seated at the piano he would play over the airs, improvising an accompaniment as he proceeded – first in the natural tempo, and then more slowly, so that I could catch and absorb the peculiar quality in each”. From these sessions came some of Joseph Campbell’s most notable work such as ‘My Lagan Love’ and ‘The Gartan Mother’s Lullaby’. In a set of 30 they became the Songs of Uladh and were published in 1904, kindly funded by Francis Joseph Bigger. ‘My Lagan Love’ remains Campbell’s best known work. Of it, Robert Farren (the Irish poet and director of broadcasting for RTE) said: ‘the Gaelic voice sings through all his poetry – and ‘sings’ I mean, for he was a fine lyric poet and many people who hear his songs – or indeed who sing them professionally pay no honour to Joseph Campbell for the greatest song written by an Irish poet in this century. It is of course, ‘My Lagan Love’. This piece has been reproduced and covered many many times by names such as Van Morrison, The Chieftains, Charlotte Church, Lisa Hannigan, Sinead O’Connor, The Corrs, and I could go on…

The revivalist spirit in Ulster led to the creation of the Ulster Literary Theatre of which Joseph Campbell was a key member along with people like Bulmer Hobson and Sam Waddell (better known as Rutherford Mayne, he was also Campbell’s brother in law). The founders of the Ulster Literary Theatre set out to write and produce distinctively Ulster plays and commentary of the political and social conditions of Ulster. They produced a quarterly journal of which Joseph was an editor and his brother John, who went on to be an important artist in his own right, designed the covers. The Ulster Literary Theatre faded away in the 1920s and Rutherford Mayne recalled in 1942 some of the reasons why this was the case: ‘We never managed to raise enough money to start building a theatre of our own, and besides that, don’t forget that even to the end – ten or twelve years ago – we were always a bit of a cloud… It’s the sort of thing that’s always happening in Ulster. After all, when you’ve a flaming Nationalist like Bulmer Hobson, or Joe Campbell or Francis Joseph Bigger as a member of your society, it takes a lot of explaining away.’

In 1905 Joseph Campbell moved from Belfast to Dublin where he continued, with limited success, to work on his poetry and plays. He felt that his Ulster roots invited unfair criticism, and where praise was given it was generally of a begrudging nature. He was otherwise ignored. Thus, he returned to Belfast looking for work and was actually turned down for an assistant librarian position at the Linen Hall Library where I currently work… More importantly, though, he was looking for an audience for his writing, and in Belfast this was proving hard to come by, so in 1906 he went to London where he wrote prolifically and published more volumes of work. While in London he also met Nancy Maude who became his wife and he returned to Dublin in 1911 to be with her.

In Dublin, Campbell used the Bailey pub as a meeting place to liaise with people like Arthur Griffith who we have already mentioned, and also Tom Kettle. There was also Seamus Connolly’s cottage at Ballaly and George Houston’s house at Rathfarnham where Thomas MacDonagh lived – McDonagh was eventually executed for his part in the Easter Rising of 1916. Campbell also became a friend and admirer of Patrick Pearse and in 1912 he joined the staff at Pearse’s school St. Enda’s, later translating into English some of Pearse’s stories.

In October 1913, Campbell published another body of work called Irishry however, within a month of his achievement, he found himself acutely involved in militant Irish nationalism. On Friday 14th November 1913 in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin, a dozen Irish nationalists, who had been selected by Bulmer Hobson and ‘The’ O’Rahilly, gathered to meet with Eoin MacNeill. Here they discussed the formation of an Irish Volunteer movement in response to the emergence of the Ulster Volunteer Force. According to The O’Rahilly, these men were deliberately selected ‘because they were amongst the sincerest Nationalists of my acquaintance in Dublin’. One of them was Joseph Campbell, others included men like Patrick Pearse and Eamonn Kent, and the intention of the meeting was to form a provisional committee for the Irish Volunteers.

According to Bulmer Hobson, though, Joseph Campbell opted not to sit on the Irish Volunteers provisional committee as he was not terribly interested in the movement, but he did continue to support it where he could, being a regular face at Sunday route marches and drills. In December 1913 he acted as steward at a mass-meeting of nationalists at the Rotunda skating rink and, in 1914, with The O’Rahilly and others, Campbell addressed a meeting at Glencullen to organise a company of volunteers in that district. By the summer of 1915 Joseph Campbell was lending the lawn of his home, now at Glencullen House, to the Irish Citizen Army for the purposes of armed drill. The attention that this brought from the local Constabulary, however, led him to move his family out to Wicklow. Here, the Campbells rented Kilmolin House which was to be their home for the next 6 years.

When the Irish Rebellion broke out on Easter Monday 1916, it is no surprise to learn that Joseph Campbell was in the middle of it, given the company that he kept. Although not directly involved in the planning of the Rising, he was well acquainted with Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Joseph Plunkett – not to mention that the Irish Citizen Army had been training in his garden. His wife Nancy wrote in her diary on Tuesday 25 April 1916: ‘Heard of Rising in Dublin. No post or letters. Found trains running into Dublin so J, Gilly and I went in to see what we could see. Rather horrid experience. Saw poor man shot by soldiers in Stephens Green. J had to get him over the railings at the hospital. Gilly and I, after finding tea by luck in a private hotel and seeing a (nice) Volunteer shooting out of a window, got home by train about 6. J got home a little later.’

By Joseph Campbell’s own admission, he went back to Dublin over several days to do intelligence and scouting work for the rebels between Dublin and Enniskerry. Desmond Fitzgerald (future Fine Gael Minister in the Dail) stayed two nights hiding at Campbell’s home before he was eventually arrested – they had previously spent time together in London as part of the Tour Eiffel group of poets and writers. Campbell’s activities resulted in raids from the Dublin Military Police, RIC, and British Soldiers. He recalled, ‘I had documents and papers hidden in bee-hives and ditch walls away from the house, I was not arrested’. (Wouldn’t you just love to know what was in those documents eh…?)

Campbell wrote about the Easter Rising in three of his poems: ‘Raven’s Rock’, ‘Fires’ and ‘The Storm Thrush in the Shaking Tree’.

Notwithstanding his apparent lack of interest in the Irish Volunteer movement in 1913, Joseph Campbell’s story from 1916 onwards is undoubtedly a political one, though he certainly hadn’t neglected his poetry. He became an active member of Sinn Fein and worked on several of their election campaigns including Dr Patrick McCartan’s campaign in South Armagh, Eamon De Valera, Joe McGuinness and Arthur Griffith. Griffith was elected in east Cavan on 21 June 1918, and Kevin O’Shiel recalled (in his Bureau of Military History Witness Statement) how Campbell had worked on the campaign: ‘In particular’, said O’Shiel, ‘I had a very active and well-informed group of canvassers, headed by Joseph Campbell, the poet, who, during the long waiting period, made an exhaustive house to house canvass of the area.’ Campbell clearly did a good job though as Griffith was elected in a closely-run contest. The by-election was fought mainly on the issue of conscription, with Ireland's representation at the Versailles Peace Conference the next most important matter. Sinn Féiners told the East Cavan electors that a vote for Griffith "was a nail in the coffin of Conscription", and they were right.

Campbell then appears to have had some involvement with the IRA after the creation of the first Dail in 1919, and the violence that followed it. Virtually no details exist of his IRA activities except for a Bureau of Military History Witness statement by Joseph O’Conner, OC of the 3rd Dublin Battalion who, when the IRA was organising across the country, was tasked with setting up companies of men in the adjacent districts. He recalled: ‘When the Oath of Allegiance was being administered to the men in Shankill, I noticed among those taking the Oath, Joseph Campbell, the Poet. Some time afterwards I called a meeting of the unit leaders for his home at Kilmolin House. During the progress of the meeting our scouts informed us that the place was surrounded by enemy forces, and that we were completely cut off. Naturally, we thought that they were out after us. The forces consisted of military, naval and police forces. They passed the house by and we breathed a sigh of relief.’

Campbell was also a member of the Republican District Court for East Wicklow. Again from the Bureau of Military History, Patrick Logan of the Wicklow IRA takes up the story: ‘There was another memorable occasion in the District Court. Larry O'Brien was presiding, when the late Joseph Campbell, that great patriot poet (The Nine-penny Fiddle, etc.), arrived, and caused an uproar that might have been more than serious. Joe claimed that he had been instructed from H.Q. to preside at the Court. Some heated and, at times, nasty exchanges took place between Campbell and O'Brien, leading to O'Brien ordering the arrest of Campbell. I can, still see Campbell, standing in the middle of the room in his green uniform, knee breeches and the rest, with hand outstretched like the pose of Emmet in one of the beautiful paintings that we see of Emmet. Campbell declared, among other things, that he felt sure his old and gallant comrades in the I.R.A. would not leave a hand on him. Those of us who knew Joe would not do so, but some others, not long in the movement, advanced to carry out O'Brien's orders, when two shots were fired from a revolver, and pandemonium was let loose. In the midst of it all, Campbell raised his' hands and called for order. Order was immediately restored. We brought him out of the hall, and away.

When the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in December 1921 Joseph Campbell opposed it as an Ulsterman and as an Irish Republican. One of those who did support it was Robert Barton, Sinn Fein member for West Wicklow who defended it "as the lesser of two outrages forced upon me and between which I had to choose." Barton was nevertheless firmly committed to the Irish Republic and despite signing the Treaty he did work to oppose it. Nevertheless, Barton received a letter from Joseph Campbell to advise him that he had signed away Ireland's birthright. Campbell also wrote to Arthur Griffith to say, ‘This will split Ireland from top to bottom – and Lloyd George knows it’. Griffith never replied.

Consequently, the Irish Civil War broke out in 1922 and Campbell, seemingly not one to miss out on anything, offered his military services to Brigadier Andy McDonnell, commander of the IRA in Bray. Within a month, on 7 July 1922, he was arrested by a Free State soldier and brought as a prisoner to the Imperial Hotel, Bray. Two weeks later he was moved to Wellington Barracks, Dublin. The Wicklow People newspaper reported that Campbell acted as a leader of the prisoners and addressed the gathered crowd calling for cheers for the Republic as the arrested men were led away. While in prison Campbell, along with others, went on hunger strike for unconditional release. He and the others in his prison hut kept the strike up for a period of 10 days, though other prisoners kept it going for longer. However it was to no avail, Campbell spent 17 months in prison before eventually released from the Curragh in December 1923 during a general amnesty of Republican prisoners.

By all accounts his jail term had changed him, opting to leave politics behind and instead put all his efforts into his pursuit of literature. He recorded that the year after his release (1924) was the most difficult year of his life; his marriage fell apart and he was suffering from depression. Consequently, he decided to go and join his brother in the United States of America, leaving Ireland on 19 March 1925. In the US, Campbell lived in New York while lecturing at Fordham University, founding the university’s School of Irish Studies in 1928, before returning to Ireland in 1939 to settle at Glencree, County Wicklow before he eventually passed away on 6 June 1944 in Enniskerry. An obituary in the Catholic Standard newspaper read: ‘Ireland lost a good poet, alas not very well known by the younger generation, when Joseph Campbell died. He was found dead on June 9 in his cottage at Lackandaragh, near Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow. In this cottage, he had lived alone; and there he had died alone. Neighbours had noticed that no smoke rose from the chimney. The fire had indeed gone out’.

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