Monday, 29 July 2013

No ordinary Empress

Catherine the Great – Portrait of a Woman 1729-1796. by Robert K. Massie. Random House, NY, 1911. Read on Kindle.

This review was written on August 10th 2012

Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, was the eldest surviving daughter of
Peter the Great
Peter I (Peter the Great), Emperor of Russia. Whilst emperor, Peter undertook extensive reforms in overcoming the opposition of the aristocracy, in creating a navy on the Baltic and reorganising the army. He secularised the schools and administered greater control over the Orthodox Church. He introduced new administrative and territorial divisions of the country.  Amongst many other reforms he modernised the Russian alphabet, introduced the Julian calendar and established the first Russian newspaper. Although, clearly a forward thinker, he could be cruel and harsh in dealing with his 
subjects. He died in 1725 without nominating an heir.

Elizabeth, Empress of Russia
Peter’s daughter Elizabeth’s claim to the throne was disputed (her parents were unmarried when she was born) so it took almost twenty years for her to become the supreme ruler of Russia. She was elected Empress in 1743, after deposing the infant Emperor Ivan the Fourth and his mother Anna Leopoldov who was acting as Regent. Elizabeth never married nor had any children so in order to secure the throne she invited Ekaterina Alekseyevn from the German State of Holstein (who had close family ties), and her cousin Peter to Petrograd where they married as young as 14 or 15 as Grand Duke and Duchess of Russia.
Peter III

Elizabeth died in 1762 and was immediately replaced by Peter, who became Peter 111 but he was unstable and immature, and totally unsuited to any form of leadership. His tenure was brief. In 1763 it was brought to an abrupt end by his wife’s collaborators. He died under unexplained circumstances while under their supervision. Ekaterina adopted the title Catherine 11 when she became Empress and remained Empress until her death in 1796.

Catherine the Great
Catherine was noted for her liberal outlook, her interest in self-education and her warm and informal personality. She added fluent Russian and French to her native German. From the early years of her reign she kept in close touch with Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm and other European authors connected with the 18th century Enlightenment.

During Catherine’s early years as Empress she showed a liberal approach to her subjects by abolishing torture and by reducing the number of executions to a very low level. In her second year she founded a College School of Medicine. She soon established hospitals in every province and medical facilities in every county including an institution for unwanted babies. She was the first to accept vaccination for smallpox from a doctor she invited from Scotland and encouraged its widespread use among her subjects.

Her very liberal approach was exemplified in the publication of the Nakaz which she wrote embodying her liberal approach
 towards government and towards the people.  But after the unexpected and serious rebellion by Pugachev, the Cossacks and southern Russians ten years after her elevation, which threatened the stability of government, she adopted a less liberal approach, stating that this would be necessary until the population became more educated. At no time was she able to overcome the resistance of the nobility and big landowners in an effort to improve the lot of the 10 million serfs in the country.

The Empress was averse to war in Europe although she managed to carve up Poland, sharing it with Austria and with Fredric of Prussia. Poland was to wait 120 more years to the first great war of 1914-1918 before she became a separate nation again. She also had two successful wars against the Turks. Grigory Potemkin was the leading administrator Catherine had during her later years as Empress. He was her most trusted representative and the real power in the southern part of the country. He was responsible for the success of the two Turkish wars and for the extension of the Russian state in the south at the cost of the Turks, and the opening up of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Potemkin was ambitious, powerful, very efficient and fervent in his loyalty to the Empress. Apart from ruling southern Russia for many years on her behalf, he also played a major role in reforming the army, expanding and modernising the country’s naval resources and in taking control of Russia’s foreign affairs.

One of the remarkable things about the Empress was her personal history. She had a number of lovers, twelve in all. Her marriage to Peter, her cousin and Grand Duke, was unsuccessful. They did sleep in the same bed during Empress Elizabeth’s reign but the marriage was never consummated, almost certainly because of his inability or lack of inclination. She had three children by three other men. She was quite open in her sexual life and was always unhappy when she did not have a sexual partner. The older she was the younger the lovers appeared to be. She was clearly devoted to sex and to frequent sexual activity. Her lovers tended to have a limited duration and when a relationship came to an end it was generally amicable and the lover was invariably treated with every consideration of honours and wealth. However, her lovers were not infrequently jealous of her and often resented when she became tired of them.

Primogeniture had been suspended in Russia sometime before Catherine the Great but after much uncertainty she nominated her first illegitimate son Paul as the next Emperor.  This was in accordance with primogeniture and this existed as part of the Romanoff family right up to 1917 when the revolution occurred.  Paul was accepted by the Russians as the son of Catherine’s husband Peter III but he was in fact the son of one of her early lovers. 

This book on Catherine the Great extends to about 740 pages. The same history could have been undertaken and much of her achievements could have been described in a shorter biography if a lot of her own personal details and the many details of her lovers had been reduced in extent or had been excluded. Many of her relationships with lovers, foreign ambassadors, family and friends she describes in very great detail.  She does not speak about her actual sexual life with her lovers but it was clearly obvious to her household and extensive staff and acquaintances that her lovers were intimate friends of hers, frequently attended her in her bedroom and no effort was made to conceal the relationship between them. 

Catherine the Great
The foundation of the superb collection of art in St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum was laid by Catherine within a year of her reaching the throne.  Afterwards the Prince Dmitri Golitsyn became the Russian ambassador in Paris and he was responsible for purchasing many other artefacts on her behalf, including Diderot’s library in 1765. The latter, who was an outstanding and well informed expert on paintings, continued to add to Catherine’s collection. He bought several important collections including that of Augustus the 2nd King of Poland.  She paid 180,000.00 roubles to acquire his collection which added four more Rembrandts, a Caravaggio and five works by Rubens. After Diderot, Grimm became her agent in Paris and continued to supply her with more pictures. Amongst other collections she bought the celebrated English collection of Lord Walpole, sold by his grandson to pay for his gambling debts! Her purchases were not because of her love of art, she admitted on one occasion. She simply stated “I am a glutton’’. She became the greatest collector of art in the history of Europe and by the time of her death she had collected four thousand paintings provided by the most famous European painters. Many of these are still held in the museums and galleries of St. Petersburg.
The bronze Horseman (Peter the Great), St. Petersburg
This book gives a detailed account of Catherine’s reign and establishes her as one of the great leaders of Russia and one who greatly advanced its history. It would be impossible to have a complete insight into the last five hundred years of Europe without a detailed knowledge of the Russian Emperors and in particular Peter the Great and Catherine. They were the two outstanding leaders who brought Russia into the European orbit and who played such a successful part in the long-term power and influence of Russia within the European community. 

The book includes a wealth of material about the social and personal side of the Empress and her household and her continuing dependence on sex right up to her old age. The fragility of marriage at that time amongst the Russian community was clearly evident as was the liberal approach to sexuality.

In her time Russia had become an important part of greater Europe. My reading of the end of the Romanovs in 1917 and the subsequent brutal and paranoid figure of Stalin leaves a jolt in my mind about the latter-day role of Russia in Europe as did the very much shorter Nazi period from 1933 to 1945

Sunday, 21 July 2013

In touch with fantasy

Benedict XVI – Commander of the Faith. 
Rupert Short. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2005. pp 150. photos.

This review was written on 23rd June, 2010.

I found this book on the shelves of the RDS library in late March 2010 and I decided to read it because of the current controversy involving the Pope in relation to sexual abuse among the clergy. I found the book most interesting mainly because of the insights I received about the relationship between the Vatican and the wider Catholic communities of the world. I was struck by the conservatism of the Vatican and its opposition to the increasing liberalism of the faithful and the extraordinary situation where the great majority of Catholics, while professing the faith, ignore the precepts of the Pope on so many matters of morals and behaviour. The Church leaders in Rome must surely be in denial about a laity which is so lax in terms of faith and morals.

Joseph Ratzinger started his religious life in Germany and was a member of a devout German family. He and his brother Georg became priests. There is little in the book about Georg but Joseph made rapid progress in the church, particularly on the academic side. He was quite liberal in his early years but eventually, after much preferment, he was appointed to the Vatican as Prefect by Paul 11 and thus joined the powerful inner circle of the Vatican’s cabinet. He served Paul and his conservative policies faithfully and was soon to become the most influential member of the Vatican’s councils. According to the author, apart from a few rare occasions, Paul 11 and he worked hand and glove together.

The impact of the book was the conflict between a conservative Vatican and the laity and many of the priests and bishops who shared liberal views which have been emerging during the last generation or two. In not one instant does the Vatican, voiced by the Pope Paul 11, Ratzinger, later Benedict XV1, and the other Vatican leaders, accept the urge of the faithful to allow marriage of priests, women priest, artificial contraception, divorce and remarriage after divorce, homosexuality, or some of the laity’s interpretation of the liturgy. It also appears that many approaches to Christian ecumenism are blocked by the Vatican.

The conservatism of the Vatican is already undoing much of Vatican 11. The Vatican’s insistence that its interpretation of the liturgy and of scripture is the only acceptable interpretation seems based on little substance, at least to those of us who adhere to the principles of a true Christian life.  It is hard for a lay person to understand why Christian worship is based on the cleansing of the Temple and why it is important that the priest should face or have his back to the congregation. Why is the liturgy based on revelation?  It seems to me that, bearing in mind the uncertain origin of scripture and the ease of different interpretations, the matters which cause conflict between the Vatican and the faithful may be based on mumbo jumbo rather good sense.

When the Vatican is faced with a challenge its response is slow and often forms an uncompromising counter attack when it arrives.  The controversy can be less evident by the long delay in responding to the challenge, and the Vatican is as dismissive about the views of the clergy and theologians as much as those of the laity. The strike against dissents became more evident from about 1990. There is clearly an increasing conflict between the Vatican and the wider church which might portend the increasing likelihood of serious conflict within the Church, where there is now a persistent muzzling of some of the church leaders within the community. It might indeed be of benefit to Christian unity and ecumenism if there were a major conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, a second Reformation. It seems that the priests and bishops are powerless in the face of rigid Vatican control  because of the dire effect their open criticism can have on their careers and their livelihoods. It is not surprising therefore that our secular priests in Ireland, at least some of whom favour the abolition of celibacy, cannot express their views openly. 

Saturday, 13 July 2013


A message from the Editor.

Editing a blog is new to me. I used to be in editing when I  first started in the film industry and I have come to realise that there are big similarities: Editors spend a lot of time alone. They mutter to themselves a lot and get distracted easily, especially when they read something they are unfamiliar with, leading to hours spent on the Internet boning up and travelling on many tangents, most irrelevant to the task they embarked on in the first place. This is what I do as I am so ignorant of most of what my father writes. However, there are a few things I do know a little bit about and one of them (or should I say two?) is twins. A couple of these creatures arrived into my life in March 2010; a little boy and a little girl. In the madness of it all, I decided to write a blog about the experience. I was obviously nuts, sleep deprived; everything deprived. I managed to keep the blog going for about three months. You may ask yourself what this has to do with my father's  book reviews. Not a lot. It's more about the circle of life and strange connections rather than books. But, read on and you will see. Following this diversion is a short article written by Risteárd about why he writes his book reviews in the first place.

The Editor. 

From the blog Bursting for a Kiss - July 13th 2010

Happy Days

On July 13th...

1568 – The Dean of St Paul's Cathedral perfected a way to bottle beer.
1837 – Queen Victoria moved into Buck Pal.
1930 – The first world cup football championships began.
1975 – According to my diary, whilst in London, I went to Mass and then to the zoo where I saw moose, elephants, donkeys and performing dolphins and then had salad for tea and watched a film called 'West Side Story’.
1976 - Elvis’s bodyguards were fired so they wrote a book about him saying lots of nasty things.
1985 - I lounged on a couch, ate nachos and watched Live aid on a crappy telly.

2009 - The Little Boy and the Little Girl were conceived.
1913 - Eddie, their grandfather, was born.
1922 -Risteárd, their other grandfather was born.

Now you know everything.

Happy Birthday Dad.

Thought for the Day.

At the time of my retirement in 1988 I became more interested in writing. During my professional years I did frequent reviews for the medical newspapers. Then and later I did occasional reviews for the Irish Times and the Sunday Independent.  It was more than ten years after my retirement that I thought of reviewing books as an academic exercise. I have now collected about 130 reviews.

My reviews tend to be eclectic in subject matter - history, biography, politics, medicine, language, ecology, you name it - and unlike conventional reviews aimed at informing readers of a book’s contents, my reviews tend to reflect my own interests, prejudices and sense of curiosity.

 I have not read fiction for many years. My real purpose is self-education and a better retention of knowledge gleaned from reading, added to occupation during the more empty hours of ageing.

Time spent in reviewing a book varies in length. It may be dealt with in an hour or two or even as one writes the review, or it may be postponed as long as some days later when more reflection is required. Going for a walk in a quiet suburban area can be recommended. It is good for your health and it provides an opportunity for reflection about the review under consideration. A jumble of thought at the beginning may become better ordered by the time you get home.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Gone and seemingly forgotten.

The Chief Secretary - Augustine  Birrell in Ireland
Leon O’Broin. Chatto and Windus, 1969. pp 231.

This review was written in March 2003

This is one of six books by Leon O’Broin in my father’s library. O’Broin joined the Free State army at the time of the Civil War and subsequently joined the Irish civil service. He finished his career as head of the Post Office. He wrote in Irish and English and had an established reputation as an historian and writer which any academic historian would be proud of. Despite his own strongly nationalistic sentiments, O’Broin clearly had a soft spot for Birrell, who was Chief Secretary for Ireland in the Asquith Liberal Cabinet from 1907 to 1916. During these emerging years of Irish nationalism the Irish Secretaryship was a poison chalice. Birrell  soon learnt to have  a genuine affection for Ireland and his constant concern to bring home rule to the country lead to his staying in the post for nine years, three times as long as any other occupant of the post who preceded him. He was a man of great humanity and without any great personal ambition. He was of a literary turn of mind, witty and gregarious, and was described by Moran, the editor of the Leader at the time, as ‘My jocular and eloquent Mr. Birrell’. Sadly his long service to his Party and to Anglo-Irish relations ended his political career in humiliation as he bore the brunt of the blame for the 1916 insurrection.

Augustine Birrell was born in Liverpool in 1850 of a family from the borders of Lancashire and Northumberland. His first contact with Ireland was at the time of his appointment as Chief Secretary. He soon came to understand the Irish mind and Ireland’s urge to achieve self-determination. He was intolerant of the Tories’ intransigence about Irish aspirations, and he obviously preferred the Irish nationalists and Catholics to the implacable and puritanical Northerners whom he described as thin-lipped, bitter-black, teeth-neglected and a people wholly lacking romance. He also loved the Irish countryside, particularly the West where he traveled frequently with friends, and he was never happier than during his stays in Achill. He enjoyed the Abbey, managed to get W.B.Yeats on the Civil List, which assured the poet a welcome income, and he was largely responsible for the difficult and lengthy negotiations which lead to the successful passage of the Irish University Bill in 1908 which established the National University of Ireland. His role in steering this bill through parliament was rewarded in 1929, long after he had retired, by the award of an Hon.D.Lit.from the University. He introduced the last land reform act in 1909 which copper-fastened the implementation of the earlier Wyndham Act of 1905.

From PUNCH May 3rd 1916

Wanted - A St. Patrick.


Birrell was of course opposed to Sinn Fein and the separatists. He believed in continuing the close contact between the two islands after home rule. He, and the members of the British cabinet and the British people, greatly misjudged the surge of separatism which followed 1916, an event which lead to his own downfall. He had a close relationship with Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party. He was an intimate colleague of Asquith’s whom he greatly admired. He disliked Lloyd George whom he did not trust as a cabinet colleague and who, he states, blamed the Irish entirely for the gathering crisis. During his tenure of office in Ireland he was scathing about jobbery which was then rife under the British administration, and he was equally scathing about the Honours List.

O’Broin, on page 109, referring to the split in the Volunteers in 1914 when the Great War commenced, states

A month earlier a committee of the American Clann na Gael told the German ambassador in the United States that it was their intention to organise an armed revolt in Ireland and ask for military assistance. This decision was communicated to the Supreme Council of the IRB who agreed that the rebellion should take place before the war ended.

I had been unaware that the Americans were implicated in sowing the seed of the 1916 rebellion.

It was also interesting to read on another page that when partition was first proposed it was strongly resisted by the members of the legal profession and by many of the industrial and business leaders in the North of Ireland. Like Sturgis, whose diary was edited by Michael Hopkinson and who was in Dublin Castle from 1920 to 1922, Birrell was critical of the incompetent Dublin Castle administration with its many squabbles and poor insights into the minds of the people, and he was dismissive of the part played by Lord Aberdeen, the Lord Lieutenant, (and by his busybody wife!).

Reading these pages one wonders how any settlement of the Irish question was achieved when such disagreement existed between the two countries, and when so many different opinions and passions were evident within each country. The account of Birrell’s life underlines the fact that the disintegration of the British Empire can be attributed as much to the conflict which existed within the British system in Westminster, to Tory conservatism and to the incompetence of the British administration more than to external factors.

Following the 1916 debacle, Birrell lived until 1933. He became a lonely and reclusive figure, widowed twice before his retirement from his post in Ireland, and apparently forgotten or largely ignored by his political colleagues. His services to Anglo-Irish relations were also forgotten in both islands, except by two Irish writers, Piaras Béaslí and P.S.O’Hegarty, who believed that Birrell’s low profile and non-coercive approach to the Irish, if he had survived 1916, might have succeeded in reaching an earlier and more amicable settlement if it were not for Lloyd George’s disastrous attempt to impose conscription on Ireland in the Spring of 1918 and the trumped German Plot about the same time. During his nine years as Chief Secretary Birrell was actuated by a non-coercive policy because of his fear of creating martyrs, a policy which, perhaps unfortunately, was subordinated by the martyrs of 1916 and after his departure from the scene.

Monday, 1 July 2013

All in the Blood

This review was written on 13th October 2006.

A memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 rising and the War of Independence

Geraldine Plunkett Dillon (Ed: Honor O’Brolchain). Publishers A&A Farmar, Dublin, 2006. pp XVI + 341.

Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, the fourth of seven children born to George  Count Plunkett and his wife, Mary Josephine née Cranny, was an obsessional collector of family papers stretching back to 1850. She kept detailed notes and diaries of her own life up to her death at the age of 94 in 1986. The current memoirs finish at the end of the War of Independence in 1921. They have been edited by her grand daughter, Honor O'Brolcháin, who must have spent long hours researching papers which she describes as enough to fill three lorry loads. Geraldine’s account of her earlier days forms the core of the book. Geraldine was married to Prof Tom Dillon who was Professor of Chemistry at Galway University and who, like Geraldine's family, was active in the separatist movement in the early years of the last century.

 Geraldine's father, Count Plunkett
The Plunkett family’s wealth was established towards the end of the nineteenth century when the Count’s father, Pat Plunkett, and the countess’s father, Pat Canny, entered the construction business. It was they who built more than one hundred of the fine Victorian and Edwarding houses in South Dublin – Palmerston Road, Belgrave Road, and many of the roads in Donnybrook and Ballsbridge – and thus helped to create probably the finest Victorian inner suburb in these islands. These properties finished in the tight hands of the Countess, a grip she retained until the time of her death at the age of 86. Little of this wealth was shared with her seven children during her long lifetime.

The Plunkett children. Geraldine, back row, 2nd from left. 
The Crannys and the Plunketts were among the first Catholic entrepreneurs to emerge from the rigors of Protestant domination. The Plunkett family was dysfunctional and many of their problems which Geraldine records so frankly were created by the unkindness to her children shown by the Countess. She was cantankerous, mean, capricious, and dominating, and had a strong influence over the Count who apparently did little to control her aberrant behaviour.

Geraldine’s brother Joseph was one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. He was married to Grace Gifford just before his execution. Like all the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, Joe left behind an extended family which was steeped in the rhetoric of the Republic and thus passionately anti-Treaty. Two of his brothers remained active IRA members up to the Second World War.

The editor includes first hand reminiscences of the 1916-1921 period. Geraldine was obviously well known to all the nationalist leaders and their families. She attended the meeting of the First Dáil in the Mansion House in January 1919 which she described as quiet and orderly without any evidence of triumphalism.

Geraldine moved to Galway in 1919 when her husband, Tom Dillon, was appointed to the University. She lived there to the full until his retirement about 30 years later. She describes the terror there where the RIC and the Black and Tans were responsible for killings, burnings, the constant raiding of houses and the hassling of the local population. However, there is little information about any organised or formal military activity by the IRA.

Her descriptions do not lack humour. Her husband, like the Plunketts, was a nationalist in the IRA and had spent time in Gloucester Jail. On one occasion in Galway he escaped from the house when the Tans came to fetch him. He left with his trousers over his pyjamas but he lost his trousers while escaping. He eventually found refuge with a community of priests. He was cared for there but his presence was reported the following morning to the local bishop. The bishop was disturbed by the event, saying that it was regrettable for a religious institution to harbour him and that it was not to happen again!

Paidraig O’Maille’s house in Connemara was a refuge for members of the IRA who were on the run. Apparently 14 RIC travelling on bikes became suspicious about the house and its occupants. However, the RIC men were soon attacked by the occupants and a battle ensued which lasted ‘from five am to four pm’. The police were soon reinforced by seven lorries of troops and an armoured car with a Rolls engine and machine guns. The district inspector was now in charge. The house was taken but the men had escaped. An armoured train was later sent as far as Clifton and aeroplanes joined in the search! ‘Thousands of soldiers and police were out’. Some of her descriptions are almost surreal and in reality, Galway was far from being one of the most active counties during the revolution.

The first Dáil, January 21st 1919
Geraldine showed extraordinary energy in all her family and social affairs. She was an unquenchable recorder of her everyday life; she was strong in her views, passionate, outspoken, and probably argumentative, but she was caring, generous and had the good fortune to have a sense of humour to protect her from the frugality of her times, the stresses within a dysfunctional family, a somewhat unstable marriage and a dominating, intrusive and long-living mother. The memoirs may be a little rambling at times but thanks to excellent editing, they do provide us with a good insight into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ political and social circumstances of Dublin and Ireland at one of the great transition times of the country’s history. The editor, Honor O’Brolchain, deserves our thanks. She had a Herculean task in dealing with such massive sources of material. Above all, Geraldine Plunkett Dillon deserves our thanks for the remarkable archives she has left to posterity.