Significant Commas in Irish History

comma-clipartAs well as teaching about Irish history, I teach English language and grammar, especially the written variety, which a lot of the time seems to mean teaching commas: where to put one, where not to put one, and why it makes a difference. To show that this is more than pure pedantry (not that there’s anything wrong with pedantry[1]), here are four cases from Ireland’s recent history where a comma, or the lack of one, has made a real difference.

Part 1: “, or elsewhere”

This is the most famous comma in Irish history, and it led to a man being hanged for treason.

The man in question was Sir Roger Casement. Born in Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) near Dublin, he grew up in County Antrim. After leaving school, he worked for the British colonial service in a number of roles in Africa and South America.

He became famous when he exposed the inhumane exploitation of the native people in the Belgian colony of the Congo. He later reported on similar abuses in Peru. Casement’s humanitarian campaigning earned him a knighthood in 1911.

However, this apparently respectable figure of the British establishment had been growing increasingly attracted to Irish nationalism, so much so that by 1913 he was involved from the beginning in recruiting the Irish Volunteer Force, an armed nationalist group. The Irish Volunteers were intended to be a counterweight to the Ulster Volunteer Force, created by Protestants in the north of Ireland to resist any attempt by the British government to give Ireland partial or full autonomy. Such a constitutional shake-up seemed extremely likely: the Liberal government, with the help of the MPs of the Irish Political Party, were moving legislation to set up a ‘Home Rule’ (i.e. devolved) parliament in Dublin. While such an institution may have helped conciliate Irish nationalists, it was entirely unacceptable to the Protestant minority, who feared for their religious liberties and who, having prospered with the British Empire, did not wish to lose access to its markets. The Irish Volunteer movement was originally conceived of as reactive, defending the legal Home Rule settlement against the ‘renegade’ UVF. Neither side was prepared to budge. Both were prepared to use force to further their cause. The situation had nearly reached boiling point by the summer of 1914, when the outbreak of the First World War distracted most of the parties involved.

Casement’s first reaction to the outbreak of war was that Ireland should stay out of it, but he soon moved round to the position (common among Irish nationalists) that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. Acting on this, he went to Germany in late 1914 to try to persuade the Germans to support the Irish separatists. While in Berlin, he also attempted to raise an ‘Irish brigade’ among the Irish POWs captured by the Germans. In this, he had little success. He returned to Ireland by German submarine in April 1916. This failure to secure help made any planned rebellion more difficult, and Casement intended to warn against any such endeavour, but he was arrested soon after landing and the Easter Rising (as it became known) went ahead anyway.

The events of that April 1916 are well enough known for us to pass over here.[2] Most of the main ringleaders were summarily executed. Casement was imprisoned in the Tower of London. His trial began on 26 June 1916. The charge was one of high treason, which carried the death penalty.

The Treason Act (under which Casement had been charged) is a short piece of legislation clarifying what counts as treason. It had been enacted in 1351 under Edward III, and was written (by hand!) in medieval French. Casement’s defence lawyer attempted to argue that no offence had been committed, because the Treason Act applied only to acts committed within the King’s realms. Translated, the relevant section runs as follows:

[…] if a Man do levy War against our Lord the King in his Realm or be adherent to the King’s Enemies in his Realm giving to them Aid and Comfort in the Realm or elsewhere […] it is to be understood that in the Cases above rehearsed that ought to be judged Treason […][3]

Even if Casement had attempted to levy war against the King or to join the King’s enemies, Casement done so in Germany , not “in his Realm”. Casement’s fate, therefore, depended on exactly which part of the text that single mention of “elsewhere” referred to — or did not refer to.

The deciphering, transcription and translation of a document of such an age is not an easy matter and risks leading to distortions of the original meaning. It was therefore decided in this case to consult the original document.

On close scrutiny, the court decided that a faint comma could be made out before the final “Realm”. Punctuated, the sentence therefore read “if a Man do levy War against our Lord the King in his Realm, or be adherent to the King’s Enemies in his Realm, giving to them Aid and Comfort in the Realm, or elsewhere […]”. In such a case, the “or elsewhere” refers to all of the offences mentioned. Casement’s defence was dismissed (though it was unlikely it would have been enough to have got him off anyway).

Found guilty, Casement was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916.[4] Hanged, sympathisers said accusingly, “on a comma”, though as Lynn Truss, author of punctuation polemic Eats, Shoots & Leaves points out, it would be more accurate to say he “triedto get off on a comma”.

Part 2: “Great Britain, Ireland”

The Easter Rising may have been a military disaster for Irish Republicans but it proved a propaganda victory. Public opinion swung round in favour of the Volunteers’ cause to such an extent that by 1918 most of the country except for the north-eastern counties supported the separatists’ cause. The home rule agreed before the war was no longer enough and most of the MPs elected to Irish constituencies in the 1918 general election stayed away from Westminster and instead set up their own parliament in Dublin.

In a vain attempt to deal with the situation, Ireland was partitioned into Southern and Northern Ireland, with a home rule parliament being set up in each. The British hoped this would satisfy (at least partially) Irish demands for independence while assuaging northern Unionists’ fears of finding themselves a discriminated-against minority.

But the division of the island was unacceptable to Irish republicans. The Volunteers (now calling themselves the Irish Republican Army) launched a guerrilla campaign. British authority broke down so completely that large parts of the country became ungovernable despite troops being sent in.

It took more fighting and deadlock before the two sides agreed to negotiate. The result was the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1922), which — though it perpetuated partition — created the Irish Free State: a ‘dominion’ state within the British Empire, like Canada or Australia. Which brings us to our next comma:

With some delay, the British government responded to the division of Ireland by passing the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act (1927). Ever since his pre-war coronation, George V had used the formula of ‘king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, of the Dominions, and of other realms beyond the seas’. Now the initial part of his title was changed to ‘king of Great Britain, Ireland, the Dominions, and …’ The replacement of the first ‘and’ by a comma pointed unambiguously to Ireland being accepted as a separate realm.[5]

Part III: “Great Britain and Northern Ireland”

Throughout the 1930s, the government of the Free State (led from 1932 by Éamon de Valera) made use of the new legislative rights granted to dominions under the Statute of Westminster (1931) to remove piece by piece Ireland’s links to the United Kingdom. These assertions of independence culminated in Ireland’s neutrality during the Second World War and in the declaration of an Irish Republic (to replace the Irish Free State) in 1949.

Such a move (which entailed automatic withdrawal from the Commonwealth) necessitated new legislation in the United Kingdom to take the new state of affairs into account. One part of this (the United Kingdom Royal Titles Act of 1953) removed the comma inserted in 1927. The newly crowned monarch became: “Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”.

The Comma butterfly

Not the sort of comma we’re talking about: the Comma butterfly, an occasional visitor to Ireland.
(Picture credit: By Quartl (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

This was also the first time a royal title mentioned Northern Ireland in its own right, and this reflected the fact that the two parts of Ireland had grown apart since Partition: an independent, unaligned, Catholic South was increasingly opposed to a majority pro-British and Protestant North. This polarised situation was complicated further by Northern Ireland’s lack of homogeneity: approximately one third of its population were Catholic Irish nationalists. Their dissatisfaction with their situation and the discrimination they had to endure triggered off The Troubles: a thirty-five year period of terrorism and sectarian violence.

Part 4: “no selfish strategic or economic interest”

Our final example of what might be called “tactical punctuation” came as part of efforts to create the environment for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland (and the tortuousness of this sentence is reflective of how long-drawn-out and tentative those moves were). The British government could not, of course, be seen to be giving in to terrorism; nor could the IRA admit its armed campaign had failed. All public statements from either side were subjected to intense analysis, a kind of reading between the lines to establish whether positions had shifted or whether compromises were being hinted at.

At the very start of what eventually became the Northern Ireland peace process, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, made a statement in which he said that Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland” (November 1990).[6] The wording had been very carefully chosen. Brooke was addressing the old Irish nationalist criticism of Britain as the Imperial master exploiting Ireland, and later Northern Ireland, for its own benefit. Here, Brooke was signalling that Britain was not interested in holding on to Northern Ireland if that went against the wishes of its inhabitants (a principle that had already been expressed in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985).

It was noted that Brooke had quite deliberately not said “no selfish, strategic or economic interest”. It was undeniable that Britain had strategic and economic interests in its closest neighbour. Brooke’s point was that these were not purely due to self-interest. A comma after “selfish” would have put quite a different meaning on his words. His statement would then have meant a more radical de-association of Britain from Northern Ireland. That would have been a step too far: it would have unsettled the Ulster Unionists (who had to be kept onside for any deal to work), while it probably wouldn’t have been believed by the IRA anyway.

The ensuing peace process, as it turned out, relied heavily on these little steps, perfectly placed each time, to bring it to its successful conclusion. Which, if you think about it, is pretty similar to the way punctuation marks bring us through a text to leave us safely at the other end. Full stop.

  1. Who was it called pedantry “the pursuit of exactitude”?  ↩
  2. If you want to brush up on the Easter Rising, you could always try the Irish History Compressed e-book.
  3.  ↩
  4. As an aside, the final person to be hanged for treason was another Irishman: William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, who broadcast on behalf of the Nazis in the Second World War.  ↩
  5. Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms, chapter 14. It was Davies’s book that brought this comma to my attention. I intend to review it here some time (the book, not the comma).
  6. Quoted by Deagán de Bréadún, who also comments on the lack of a comma. See The Far Side of Revenge, p. 6.  ↩
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