‘The True Story of a Revolution’ – the Unpublished Memoir of Emily Ussher

Emily Ussher (née Jebb), image courtesy of Henrietta, Lady Staples, via William Fraher, Waterford County Museum.

April’s Archive of the Month from the RCB Library will present another of its digitized sources as a further contribution to the Decade of Centenaries. This is the memoir of Emily Ussher, of Cappagh House, near Dungarvan in Co. Waterford, who described unfolding events from 1914 to 1924 inclusive, from the perspective of a landed Protestant family.  An accompanying introduction by local historian Pat McCarthy, author of a number of books on Waterford during the era, most recently Waterford City, the East Waterford Brigade IRA & the Struggle for Independence 1912-1921, captures the value of this primary source (accessioned as RCB Library Ms 70).

Emily Ussher, née Jebb, was born in Ellesmere, Shropshire in 1872, the eldest of six children, and educated at home and in Dresden before marrying Beverley Grant Ussher, an Inspector of Schools under the Board of Education. On Beverley’s retirement in 1914, the family moved to the Ussher family home, Cappagh House, when her journal begins.  The Usshers’ sympathy and support for Home Rule and the broader concerns of their nationalist friends and neighbours rendered them suspect to other landowners, while that very identity made them suspect to nationalists and militant strikers alike.  This nuance makes the memoir of Emily Ussher all the more valuable, providing the historian with a unique insight into the trials and tribulations of a forgotten minority and providing rich evidence of the varied and colourful tapestry of Protestant identity during the revolutionary period.

Emily’s memoir covers the taking over of Cappagh House by the Anti-Treaty IRA (in early 1922) who remained in occupation until the arrival of Free State troops in August – and how the family was blockaded by striking farm labourers for several weeks from April 1922 during a wages dispute. This siege of their home was undoubtedly the most difficult time for them with Emily referring to 1922 ‘as this terrible heart-breaking year’. 

Pat McCarthy explains the nuance of two completely different struggles and how they impacted one small area: “1922 was a particularly difficult year for the Usshers and for many of their landowning neighbours. First of all, a detachment of Anti-Treaty IRA was billeted in their house until the arrival of Free State troops to the neighbourhood in August. They were also at the centre of a bitter industrial dispute. In response to a dramatic fall in agricultural prices, the farmers and estate owners sought to reduce the wages of their labourers from 38/- a week to 30/- a week. In response the labourers went on strike and targeted high profile estates such as those of the Usshers, of Sir John Keane and the Villiers-Stuarts. These were blockaded by the striking labourers, backed up by trade union activists from the urban centres of Waterford City and Dungarvan. The strikers attempted to starve the Usshers into submission but ultimately failed. It was a very trying time and Emily Ussher describes the trials and tribulations of that year in vivid detail.”

The commitment of the Usshers to the local community never waned, however. Indeed, the trauma of the bitter strikes and their impact on the entire local community as a whole is reflected in almost 60 pages, or a third of the entire memoir, being allocated to it. When she died in May 1935, Emily was remembered as a ‘distinguished Lady’ whose ‘noble work’ had contributed much ‘since she came to Cappagh [in 1914]’.  

The full story is available to read at www.ireland.anglican.org/library/archive

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