‘This horrible civil war is poisoning everything’: The Letters of Mary Spring Rice (1880-1924)

Mary Spring Rice (1880–1924) was the second child and only daughter of Thomas Spring Rice, 2nd Baron Monteagle of Brandon, Co. Kerry, and his wife, Elizabeth Butcher. She grew up at Mount Trenchard, Foynes, Co. Limerick and was fluent Irish speaker: an active member of the Gaelic League, Mary also served on the board of Irish summer school, Coláiste Uí Chomhraí, in Carrigaholt, Co. Clare.

Alongside this work, Spring Rice was also active in nationalist and trade union causes. She joined the United Irishwomen and the Limerick branch of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. In May 1914, she served on the Anglo-Irish committee formed in London to help the Irish Volunteers, and through that organisation and her friendship with Erskine Childers and Roger Casement, became involved in the transportation of arms from Germany to Ireland. Her Asgard diary was published in F.X. Martin, Howth gun running (1964).

Throughout the War of Independence and the Civil War, Spring Rice continued her involvement in the nationalist movement. Although instinctively anti-Treaty, she took a pro-Treaty position believing that it would lead to independence and less bloodshed. Following a diagnosis of tuberculosis, Spring Rice moved to a sanatorium in Wales where she died in 1923. She is buried in Foynes.

In November 2008, Mary Spring Rice’s nephew, John Knox, deposited a collection of letters written to her cousin Dorothea Knox with UCD Archives. Written throughout 1921 and 1922, in these letters Spring Rice discusses her activism, Irish language issues and the Treaty. She addresses Dorothea as ‘A Dhóirín dílis’ and many of the letters are written in both Irish and English.

In the letters below, Spring Rice comments on pro- and anti- Treaty sides and her own struggle with her pro-Treaty stance.

19 January 1922: Spring-Rice writes that she dined with Erskine Childers and his wife Molly the previous Tuesday and mentions that she agrees with their current political position ‘except as regards opposing the Provisional Govt. and upsetting the Treaty now that it has been signed’.

4 February 1922: Writing from Mount Trenchard, Spring Rice notes that the arguments propounded by Erskine Childers and Robert (Bob) Barton would have convinced her to take an anti-Treaty position had it not been for the influence of her local clerics and her friend John Nolan, who are all afraid of national ‘chaos’ should the provisional government not make a start as soon as possible.

10 March 1922: Spring Rice comments that pro- and anti- Treaty sides in the Foynes Cumann na mBan have ‘crystallised’ and the Free-Staters have had to leave the organization. She decided to join the women’s organization set up by ‘Miss Mulcahy and Miss Gavan Duffy’ to support the Treaty. She realises that Knox ‘will be disgusted’ at her and has been miserable deliberating over what to do, but feels that ‘on the whole I believe it will get us independence with less bloodshed’. 

18–19 May 1922: Writing from the United Arts Club, Dublin, Spring Rice comments that she stayed longer in Dublin than she had planned to in the vain hope of seeing Erskine Childers. However, she met Rory O’Connor by chance, to whom she had extended her hospitality in 1919 when introduced by Lily O’Brennan, and mentions that ‘Dick’ Mulcahy was another such person. She finishes the letter the next day on the train home, writing that the De Valera–Collins meeting may offer a chance of peace.

28 September 1922: Writing from Mount Trenchard, Spring Rice declares that ‘this horrible civil war is poisoning everything’. She expresses a desire for Knox to visit her later in the year, acknowledging that there may be some conflict as she knows that Knox would feel bound to actively work for Cumann na mBan.  

7 October 1922: Spring Rice discusses statements from prisoners that she was given by Dr Kathleen Lynn, commenting that she ‘can’t believe Irishmen w[oul]d do that to each other’. She talked with Desmond Fitzgerald about it but he was unsympathetic, believing it to be ‘a put up job on the part of the Republicans’. Spring-Rice ‘begins to think the Black and Tans were no worse than anyone else after all’.

This post was written by Kate Manning, Principal Archivist, UCD Archives.

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