Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 9: No 2) >> Simms's Irish: An Address at Hibernian Society Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, 14 January 1999 >> Page 7

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Page 7

Speech | 2001, 2002
Transcription resurgence would extend the Gaelic twilight. Simms had the broad historical
vision to understand that no true cause of freedom is ever lost, because that cause
will reassert itself at the right and proper time. Until then, the patriot deeds of
heroes, kept alive in song and story, keep the flame of freedom alive. Is it any
wonder that a furious Queen Elizabeth I, in trying to eradicate Irish culture, would
say that "We shall never conquer Ireland while the bards are there." She outlawed
poets and pipers and ordered her deputies to "hang the harpers wherever found."
She had learned that in the fullness of time, he who has the best ballads wins. As
poet, Simms knew this truth well, and as a Bard in the ancient Irish tradition, he
kept the faith, adding his own songs of freedom to the lore of the Southern
It is very significant that the last book he published was his edition of War
Poetry of the South, a volume in which he collected a Southern treasury of
patriotic songs of freedom and commemoration. A recent collection of traditional
Irish ballads written about the heroes of 1798, states: "The seminal year of 1798
defined what Ireland was and what it would become. And the Irish folk memory
remembers...These events left us a legacy of national poems and songs that bind
us to our past and country by their `condensed and gem-like history'...Those at
whom they were aimed deemed them more dangerous than the finest speeches of
the fieriest agitator... `The songs and the history are one' in Ireland." Simms, too,
understood this unmatchable power of poetry, in which songs outlast the sword
and are more lastingly potent. In Simms, one hears the echoes of the voices of
Emmet, Tone, and Curran---a strong voice for freedom of hearth and home, whose
spirit, in this way, is Celtic to the core.

Since giving this speech, I have learned that the Thomas Addis Emmet whom
Simms knew, was the grandson of the Revolutionary Thomas Addis Emmet and the
-.great-nephew of Robert Emmet. (Robert and Thomas Addis were brothers.)
Thomas was arrested and sent to Fort George in Scotland in March 1798. There he
was imprisoned a second time with Robert Simms. Thomas Emmet was released from
prison in 1802, likely again with Robert Simms. When Robert Emmet was hanged,
his head was severed, and the hangman held it up to the people, crying out: "This
is the head of a traitor!" Many men and women, before they went to their homes,
dipped handkerchiefs in the blood on the ground. Stephen Gwynn, in his daring
biography of Emmet published in London in 1909, wrote that Emmet's "spirit and
life...have been for a hundred years, defying the violence of power, and the authority
of dominion. Not yet can the epitaph be written: but til it be, Robert Emmet
animates forever the hope in which he died." Oscar Wilde, in his lectures in
Charleston and Savannah in 1882, compared the defeat of the South to the conquest of
his own Ireland, and saw in Jefferson Davis the ultimate figure of the indomitable
spirit. Wilde and Simms would no doubt have agreed.