Friday, 26 December 2014

If Maps could speak.

If  Maps could Speak. Richard Kirwan.  Londubh Books 2010. pp191. Introduction by Mark Patrick Hederman.

This review was written on August 28th 2012

I bought this book at its launching in 2010.  It provides the history of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland which was established in 1828 and whose early director and inspiration was Thomas Colby. It was the Duke of Wellington and his brother the Irish Lord Lieutenant, Lord Richard Wellesly, who were responsible for initiating the Ordnance Survey.  They set up a committee in 1824 and the Survey was established in 1828 after the committee had met and reported.  (It is worth mentioning here that the Duke and his brother were strongly in favour of Cathilic Emancipation for Britain and Ireland, a historic measure which was eventually passed in Westminster in 1829)

Colby was a remarkable person, energetic, highly ambitious, dominating and probably obsessional, who overcame the most extraordinary obstacles during his long responsibility for the success of this great Ordnance Survey.  The word ordnance owes its origin to the British army. It is a term for that part of the military which is responsible for procuring equipment and supplies. From the beginning of the Survey its personnel were military men. They were the sole members of the organisation; all non-military people were excluded at least until more recent times.  Colby was particularly concerned with planning a six inch map of Ireland which required much greater time and investment than the one inch map which was provided to complete the map of England.  Colby was not only interested in making maps but he was also instructed to collect information on other aspects of the country including geology, communications, manufacture and antiquities.

Drawings of buildings and antiquities were part of the job.
These interests were to be later extended by Larcom who joined in 1828, shortly after the survey was established.  Larcom was English but, like many English who came to Ireland, he came to love the country and its people. He became an excellent Irish speaker and was involved in the language, its literature and the country’s history and place names.  These interests, added to those of Colby made the Ordnance Survey not only the finest at its time but added a huge amount of information about the country and its people.  In the early years it was stated that many of the old antiquities and old ruins were being gradually destroyed in Ireland as a result of depredations by farmers and landowners.  Undoubtedly Colby and certainly Larcom were responsible for protecting many of the antiquities which had survived until their time.

An early map of Ireland by the Greek Ptomley
The author, Richard Kirwan, was born in Waterford and claims to have been an early enthusiast about the layout of the city and the country roads leading to an early attachment to maps and details of the County’s topographical features.  These enthusiasms lead to his early interest in map making and to joining the Ordnance Survey.  Because of the military tradition of the Survey, he was obliged to join the army but, because of his interest in map making, he was far from being enthusiastic about a military career. He insisted therefore that he would be transferred immediately to the Ordinance Survey for his entire career.  His enthusiasm lasted his lifetime as he advanced through the ranks and subsequently became the head of the Survey. 

Bound copies of the maps by county at the Royal Irish Academy
He describes the early years of the six inch map project which required staff to walk almost every inch of the country, often under difficult circumstances of weather, climate, terrain, bog and wilderness.  The six inch survey was completed in less than thirty years. The survey continued with a further one inch map and at a much later date (1888) a twenty five inch map was organised because of the importance of identifying boundaries between lands which were being distributed during the Land Acts and which required clear evidence of ownership. The use of satellites is mentioned in chapters 11 and 12..  On pages 73 to 80 there is information about the various map printing processes.

The extraordinary hardships of the early surveys were eventually to be mitigated by the use of aerial photography, organised at first by the army air corps and later by their own planes.  And today, with the availability of satellites, not only the outline but the contours of every square yard of Ireland are made freely available to those working in this area.

There was an early attempt to replace the Irish with English place names.  This would have been a major undertaking in itself.  In this respect it was mentioned in passing that the Catholic clergy in Ireland were opposed to the use of the Irish language.  However Larcom, the English immigrant who learned the language, was determined to prevent English place names becoming widespread. It was surely extraordinary  that it was an Englishman who was  so responsible for  retaining this important cultural aspect of Irish history and identity

say no more...
John O’Donovan was also to become insistent on retaining Irish place names.  O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry and others made a huge contribution in recording details of antiquities, old churches, castles, cromlechs, raths, forts, ancient ruins and local traditions as a wider part of such surveys. All those of us who have a pride in our country’s  history, culture and traditions owe a great  deal of gratitude to those who were responsible for our Ordnance Survey from Wellington and Wellesly down to the many other Irish and English who made such a contribution to our country’s history. We should be including information about this aspect of our history in our secondary schools.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Around Ireland with a Pan

Someone else's delicious looking parsnip and carrot soup.
Around Ireland with a Pan – Food, Tales and Recipes.  Éamonn O’Catháin. Liberties Press, Dublin, 2004. 

This review was written on July 30th 2004

I tried once to specialise in making carrot and parsnip soup which, I was told, was tolerably pleasing to the palate, but it was a time-consuming exercise which did not suit my workaholic temperament. I eventually desisted, thus bringing my cooking career to a sad close. It seems strange that I, despite my domestic failures, should be qualified to review a travel book which deals with some of the writer’s favourite culinary establishments and their usual or unusual recipes,

There are short separate sections in the book dealing with specific establishments in each of the 32 counties of Ireland.  The book is designed in particular for the seasoned traveller. Éamonn O’Catháin is well-known, first as a restaurateur and latterly as a lecturer and broadcaster. He is known for his wide knowledge of the arcane art of haute cuisine as well as the ordinary grub that most of us live on. He can be heard and seen any Wednesday evening at 8.0pm on TV 4 i nGaeilge agus i mBéarla, a programme called BIA’s Bóthar.

He is an inveterate traveller, both in Ireland and Europe. He is obviously a gourmet and bon viveur, and is clearly qualified to write a travel book informing us of some of the most interesting and celebrated restaurants, bistros and coffee shops in our country. The short text on each county includes useful and amusing comments which are helpful to the traveller who takes his or her comfort, food and drink seriously, and he talks with chefs and owners, so that you can advise the waiter at the end of your repast ‘My compliments to Michel, the chef ’or tell the owner what you think of the establishment. 

If in doubt...
Numerous recipes are scattered throughout the text which should be easy to follow, even for the most reluctant neophyte.   If you travel the outer suburbs of your town or city, or if you travel the four corners of Ireland, you should carry this handy and elegantly produced paperback in the glove compartment of your car or in your bum or saddle bag. But bring a map too as some of these restaurants may be sited in quite remote places away from the more crowded habitations of the less sophisticated and impecunious grubber. If you are a stay-at-home type and if you have access to the kitchen you will still find the recipes worth following. If you follow his recipe instructions regularly you might some day find yourself included in a later edition of his book.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Lorcan Walshe – The Tarot Cards


Lorcan Walshe – The Tarot Cards

Written on November 18th 2014

I first met Lorcan Walshe in 1975.  I had just deserted the conventional life of middle class Dublin and found myself with new associations and new people, including Lorcan and his rather bohemian group, most of whom were students or recent graduates of National College of Art and Design.

Just as I was sowing my wild oats for the second time, he was then sowing his for the first, and I am sure that he will agree that he was doing so with the same energy, enthusiasm and commitment which he was to show later in his painting career.  I feared that he might finish his days as a social anarchist, out to destroy the current world order and himself in the process and perhaps the rest of us too.  However, it was clear to me that he was a person of unusual talent, imagination and ability, and that he had some shreds of a social conscience which even in these early years he could articulate during his more rational moments.

Happily, his energies and talents were soon directed into more creative channels as he followed his true vocation.  I must have been one of the first to acquire his pictures.  I now have a small collection but even this relatively modest number testifies to his extraordinary versatility as an artist – his eclectic themes, his superb draughtsmanship, his wide variety of media, including pen, pencil, crayon, even biro as well as oil, watercolour, acrylic, tempera, pastel and charcoal.  I can truly say that my collection is a constant source of challenge and pleasure, and has enhanced the meaning of my daily life.

The Empress
Those who are familiar with his work appreciate Lorcan’s versatility and understand the political, social, moral, spiritual and aesthetic factors which are the bedrock of his art and his philosophy.  The powerful and traumatic Warrington exhibition, Paradise Lost, based on the theme of the massacre of the innocents and the Warrington tragedy, and his Damascus exhibition testify to his concern about the well-being and future of humanity and to the crucial part art plays in our culture and in our civilization.  I suspect his painting is motivated more by the message he wishes to convey rather than the visual results.  And Lorcan’s holistic interests extend beyond the visual arts to poetry and literature.
The critic, John M. Farrell, wrote of the Warrington exhibition Paradise Lost

If art be but a means of directing us on the journey of revelation then I am confident that it will be artists like Lorcan Walshe who (will) help us to find that inner Paradise Regained.

And we have the symbolism and the political and social messages in his Tarot Cards series with its autobiographical nuances.

The Tower
Richard Cavendish, in his treatise on the Tarot, first published in 1975, praises the ancient cards for their beauty but states that most modern decks are painfully ugly.  He might have been less assertive if he had seen Lorcan’s work.  Cavendish also states that as works of communication the cards’ significance is as mysterious as is their origin.  When I first saw the cards at the launch of Lorcan’s exhibition at Hendricks Gallery in 1985 I was struck by his brilliant portraiture and by his symbolism, and it took me only a moment to beat others to the desk with my cheque book in my hand.

There have been countless Tarot sets published since the fifteenth century and countless symbols invented which cover the entire spectrum of European culture, religion and history.  Most of the symbols have had a local, contemporary and topical as well as a historical connotation but whether the combination of symbols and the unity of cards have a more subtle message is a question I leave to wiser and more insightful analysts.  If I were to attempt a general interpretation of the cards as conceived by Lorcan I would concern myself with the state of the world past, present and future.  I would see in the Devil, the Tower, the Hanging Man, the Day of Judgement, Justice and the World the compelling need for a second coming to shake us out of our complacency about the effect our materialistic secular and wasteful western culture is having on Nature and our planet, and the threat it poses to the survival of future generations.

Western society is in serious denial about the consequences of our failure to live in harmony with nature.  The hubris of Man’s dominance over Nature can only end in Nemesis unless the artist’s of this world can give the lead to bring us back in balance with the wonderful God given surroundings of this planet Earth.  Perhaps Lorcan’s cards may show us the way.

The Major Arcana in the words of the artist

I work towards paintings which function primarily on two levels.  The discipline and technology of painting fascinate and challenge me: and I bring this to bear on a wide variety of materials: oil, acrylic, tempera, pastel and charcoal.  The more familiar that I become with these materials the more possibilities they present.

My other main area of concern is the human condition and the extraordinary beautiful and brutal way it manipulates itself and its environment.  In my paintings I seek a structure where this phenomenon can be explored.  To achieve this it is sometimes necessary to develop the images of a personal mythology or at other times I re-interpret an established mythology – as in the Tarot series.

Nobody knows where Tarot cards originate although there are suggestions that Egypt, China or India is the birthplace of these enigmatic images.  Certainly influences from all of these places had been used by the designers of the earliest cards.

The packs which finally emerged, more or less in their present from in the fourteenth century, were probably developed from those which were carried by gypsies during their periodic westerly migrations.

I became interested in the Tarot through the writings of Carl Jung, and surmised that the cards were intrinsically a map of the subconscious.

In the Major Arcana (the first 22 of the 78 Tarot cards), Jung thought that this was the archetypical journey through life: each card describing a particular aspect of the psyche.

To me, the Major Arcana became a symbolic structure which would enable me to portray the human condition in an autobiographical manner.

Over two years I studied and meditated on the Tarot cards and learnt to interpret them from an Italian lady who had studied them while staying with gypsies in India.  During 1986 I made the first five paintings of the series in Dublin and completed the remaining seventeen paintings during an intense period of work when I stayed at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in February and March of 1987.

I decided to paint the Major Arcana on a miniature scale in accordance with the tradition of transmitting powerful visual messages from a limited surface area.  I used imagery from the History of Art and from the Twentieth Century in combination with established symbolism of the Major Arcana.  I included portraits of acquaintances that embodied the particular archetype a card represented.  As numerous versions of the Tarot had been made over the centuries, it was the symbolism of the older Marseilles pack and the relatively recent Waite Rider version that had been primarily used.  Occasionally all traditional imagery has been abandoned and replaced with relevant modern symbolism, (i.e. The Tower – in the background is the Hiroshima Dome).

It is unnecessary for the viewer to have knowledge of the Major Arcana in order to respond to these paintings.  The Tarot is designed to stimulate an intuitive response and the ancient symbols which they contain are essentially subliminal devices which activate the imagination.

The completed work of twenty two pieces is grouped together as a unit.  Within this work are contained political, mystical, sexual, religious and aesthetic interpretations of a reality which presents itself to me

The Tarot cards are in private hands but readers of the blog may see them if they attend a reception at 3pm on Saturday the 17th of January 2015. For an invitation you need to send your email address and telephone number to Lisa, the editor of the blog at

Friday, 5 December 2014

Pilgrims of the Air.

Pilgrims of the Air. John Wilson Foster. Notting Hill Edition Ltd. 

This review was written on January 1st 2014

This book was a gift from Julie and Paddy Magee who live beside Strangford Lough in County Down and who are interested both in trees and in birds.  Louise and I have known them for a long time as members of the Irish Tree Society which is a 32-county organisation. The book is a short compact hardback which is devoted to the history of the Passenger Pigeon in North America.

When the Europeans arrived in North America in the early 17th century the Passenger Pigeon was present in enormous numbers, estimated in billions as is evident in the many accounts available to us from historians, ornithologists and other natural history writers who have left their account of the Europeans who emigrated to North America in the early years. The pigeons remained widespread until the mid-19th century but by the first few years of 1900 not a single bird could be found to remind us of their rich presence.

Clifton Hodge led a campaign in the early 1900s offering prizes to any who could find and identify a living Passenger Pigeon but he and others were unsuccessful in their enquiries. The only evidence provided was about 14 remains of the bird and a few of its eggs in a museum. Chapter 1 is devoted entirely to the intensive and unsuccessful search in the United States and Canada for evidence of the Passenger Pigeon in the 20th century. The bird loss was a reminder of humanity’s destructive effect on the fauna of our world. This essay is relevant to our awareness of the current and progressive drop in bird population in the world to-day.

The huge population of Passenger Pigeons seems to have continued to the mid-1800s. The birds inhabited the eastern side of the United States and Canada as far as the great Lakes, and then along the Mississippi and Missouri down to the Mexican border.  They travelled closely together in huge packs and they travelled long distances according to seasonal and weather conditions. They did not occupy the western and south western areas of North America.

Chapter 3 provides a description of the fauna and flora of the eastern United States during the 17th and 18th century stretching from Florida up north to the St Laurence River.  The wealth of trees and the wealth and variety of fauna are striking compared to what has remained in the last hundred years.  The abundance of flora and fauna and the abundance of food were evident in many accounts although there were problems at times amongst the early settlers of seasonal starvation because of heavy forests, adverse weather, arable land limitations and conflict with the local Indians.

Among some of the English settlers was a strict Protestant view of the super-abundance which they considered was unnatural throughout this wild area.  The seemingly interminable forest was the habitat of sinfulness and wickedness; it cried out for order, discipline and management through agriculture which required felling, clearing and cultivation.  Nature was also an enemy when she perversely withheld her bounty leading to famine and drought, as had happened in Newfoundland, Virginia, Carolina etc. in the early years.   The new world was to be a spiritual and material enterprise. Colonisation demanded conversion.  Native abundance, at first marvelled at, was to be harnessed and pruned.  Nature should be appropriated, exploited and marketed.  God had originally stocked the world plainly with creatures for the use of man.  Creatures had served man in Europe and now it was the turn of their fellows across the ocean.  Many species of animals, including the Passenger Pigeon, were to suffer the lethal consequences of this conviction.

There was a rapid increase in the population of America in the second half of the 19th century with the wide extension of highways and railways.  Communication and travel extended rapidly which made it easier for ornithologists and for trappers and bird hunters to find the birds in their natural habitat.   Local papers and the rapid increase of letters and telegrams quickened the pace by which the location of large pigeon roosts and nestings could be revealed and shared.  The trains reduced the time it took pigeoners and hunters to report for duty and set about the work of destruction.  The rapid increase in railway and telegraphic communication increased enormously the profits and the activities of the bird hunters who could collect several hundred birds in one catch and have them sent quickly to the nearest towns and cities where the birds were in great demand as a delicacy. The development of the frigidaire added to the ease of providing the birds to the market. 

The birds travelled invariably in huge packs and were easily captured by special netting and by more efficient guns which could drop dozens of the closely packed birds in one shot. The density of the packs and the closeness of their numbers made them particularly vulnerable to the attention of the trappers who were suitably equipped and who received a rich reward for their products.

The roasted birds were delicious and were in great demand.Cookery books were full of information about the preparation of the pigeon which could be roasted, potted and stewed. One recipe was pigeon stewed with salt, pork, eggs and red wine. Clearly, particularly when there was a shortage of food, the pigeons became a very important source of food for the Canadians and the Americans.  There were various recipes in the books for pigeon pie using puff pastry and the little cutlet cover with mushroom, boiled eggs and as many freshly killed pigeons as the dish will contain in each layer.  Pigeon livers were also popular.  The squab potpie also became popular.  The squab was the young, recently born pigeon.  Also to be preserved, the birds could be salted down and kept in port barrels for winter use.

Alexander Wilson was a Scot who emigrated to the United States and who proved to be the most famous naturalist and ornithologist to arrive there. He travelled the western and middle States, mostly on foot, and provided an enormous amount of information, particularly about the natural history and behaviour of the Passenger Pigeon. He was above all a wonderer as well as a walker and wrote the volumes “American Ornithology” as part of his contribution to the history of the country.  There is an extraordinary description by him of the hours-long passage of Passenger Pigeons flying south over a period of four hours with a lateral expansion of a few miles. He estimated that there must have been several billion birds in the flock that passed him. The text emphasises Wilson’s huge contribution to ornithology and also that of other observers. The huge mass of birds was dense enough to dim the daylight and they left a ghostly impression as the birds were deprived of any form of sound.

Chapter 8  provides great detail about the natural history of mid-America, swarming with wild pigs, pigeons, squirrels, woodpeckers and other fauna, and in one paragraph Wilson describes ‘’ --- stepped off the road at Lexington to visit a pigeon city apparently abandoned by the birds. He could see it was several miles broad and he was told it was forty miles long’’.

A Passenger Pigeon chick
An ornithologist called Schorger studied the whole question of the history of the Passenger Pigeons.  It was after they had disappeared that he examined newspapers going back more than two centuries. He collected an enormous amount of information about the swarms of pigeons noted all over the eastern United States.  He reported in the newspapers the huge size of the swarms and their numbers which were certainly in billions. Their wellbeing and numbers depended on the state of the trees and the variation in the production of acorns and of beechnuts and other tree fruits.

The deforestation which occurred in the United States was a major deterrent to the pigeons because of their tradition of existing only in large and intimate numbers. A huge industry had developed in the pigeon business when countless millions of pigeons were captured and were brought by train and boat to built-up areas.  Hundreds of people were permanently working as trappers.  From one railway station alone in the late 1800s, 150 barrels containing about 190,000 birds were shipped every day to built-up areas.  Stool pigeons were used widely as a decoy to attract the birds. Schorger read in one book a description of the pigeon business as a form of disciplined butchery.  Up to 100,000 hunters came from all over the Union to the great Wisconsin nesting of 1871.  A party of 27 mustered at Kilburn to witness the slaughter there. They estimated the shooting down of 2,500 birds in one early morning and the loss of hundreds of eggs. The slaughtered birds were shipped off by freight train to Chicago.

Coming to the end of the 19th century there was some concern expressed by a few lonely voices about the wellbeing of wildlife but it was only a whisper. Even among the ornithologists there was little concern about the pigeon, at least until they were remembered by a few well into the 20th century. There was little concern about the destruction of wildlife. Page 160 gives a list of birds which were threatened or destroyed in the 19th century.  It was the age of extermination according to one observer.  In the southern states in particular there was a huge mortality amongst all the native birds, many of which were known to us in Europe.

A modern day haul from a bird hunt in Argentina
At the end of the 19th century birds were valued, mostly for feathers and skins and of course for eating.  There was a huge destruction of Robins and what we would call domestic birds.  Feathers were used for all types of dresses, furniture and bedding, by decorators and others.  Frank Chapman identified 40 species of American birds mounted on hats as he walked the up-town shopping districts of New York. The collecting of eggs was popular as was the stuffing of birds by taxidermists. Ornithologist shot birds with the studied indifference of the scientist. Animal life had no time for sentiment. 

Passenger Pigeons in a museum
The pigeons had disappeared completely by the end of the century.  It was only towards the end of the 1890’s that people began to be aware of their disappearance  Apparently the decline had started in 1871 but the change was hardly noticed, at least in the literature.  The last credible sighting was noticed in 1902 in Missouri.  As far as is known, none were found after that date.  The decline was so precipitous that it occurred over less than two generations.

Have we to-day learned anything from the destruction of the Passenger Pigeon in America and the destruction of other birds and animals of that sub-continent? Have we adopted attitudes towards nature which are inconsistent with our own wellbeing? Does our insistence on a better standard of living conflict with the wellbeing of our natural surroundings on which we are dependent for our survival and that of our children?

The answer is yes. Like the population of the United States and the rest of the world we are gradually eroding that part of nature on which we and our children depend – our flora and fauna and, most seriously, our gross waste of the limited fossil fuel of the world and the over production of CO2 which sooner rather than later will make the planet uninhabitable for humanity and much living matter.

Just as they were busy destroying the vast number of birds and many other living things, the Americans and the rest of the world are following the Passenger Pigeons to our own destruction. We are unable to face up to the reality of our situation. At least a hundred years ago we did not have the knowledge we have to-day but now we know from measuring our atmospheric CO2 that our atmosphere will soon be incompatible with human and organic life unless we act and act immediately to reduce our fossil fuel consumption to keep a balance within nature. I believe there is only one solution. We must return to community living and to maintain a strict balance between our needs and the limited bounty of Nature.

Friday, 28 November 2014

A forgotten poet.

Heart in Pilgrimage – A Study of George Herbert.

Jane Falloon, Author House, Milton Keynes, 2007. pp 231. 

This review was written on June 6th 2007

George Herbert was born in 1593 and died in his fortieth year. He came from aristocratic stock and his kinsmen were the Earls of Powis, Lords Herbert of Cherbury in Wales. Through his family and his early position as Orator at Cambridge University he had easy access to the court of King James 1 and subsequently to that of Charles 1. He left a collection of 184 poems which were published after his death. Within the next 80 years 13 editions had been published. They marked him as one of the greatest English poets of the 17th century.  Such was the view of many literary critics.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 19th century described him as England’s greatest poet and John Ruskin declared him to be his favourite poet. In more recent years, T.S. Eliot and Séamus Heaney were both conscious of his high standing as a poet.

Easter Wings poem (constructed to shape two wings)
Jane Falloon regrets that he is now largely forgotten by the literati of to-day.  ‘The name rings muffled bells in some people’s minds’. In a text of about 60 pages she provides a biographical note about Herbert and subsequent pages are devoted to the publication of 24 of her subject’s favourite poems.  Each poem is examined and analysed in detail with interpretations which Jane shares with commentaries by previous critics. Your reviewer has few qualifications as a critic of poetry but it is not possible to disagree with the author who is passionate and strenuous in her view that Herbert is one of England’s greatest poets and that his reputation needs to be rehabilitated. In construction and style, his poetry has a distinct sense of modernity.

Despite his aristocratic background and his close access to court, Herbert’s deep spirituality, love of God and commitment to His services led him into a life of humility and service to his Church and to his brethren. He eschewed all the temptations of court and the secular life, not without a struggle of mind and the surprised reactions of some of his friends and kinsmen. He became a deacon of the Anglican Church after leaving Cambridge and only went on to ordination and to a modest parish near Salisbury three years before his death.  His life was one of personal poverty and of service to others. During Herbert’s short life, one is impressed by the buoyant optimism among Anglicans and the commitment to the Anglican Church at a relatively tranquil time in its history, after the turmoil of the Reformation and before the circumstances which bitterly divided Protestantism in the reign of Charles 1.

Young boys and their viols.
Herbert was a lover of music and sang to his own lute and viol. His love of Cathedral music ‘elevated his soul and was his Heaven on earth’. Despite his deep spirituality and love of God, his poetry is outstanding for its great variety of moods, his humour, humanity and wit. ‘We can revel in his witty use of words; his brilliant variety of metres; his felicity with rhymes’. In his approaches to God he is not without complaints about his own many afflictions and misfortunes but he invariably finishes by expressing his gratitude for God’s goodness. For poets and all those interested in poetry, Jane Falloon provides a fine portal to Herbert’s life and works.

Friday, 21 November 2014

A Woman of Aran: The Life and Times of Bridget Dirrane

A Woman of  Aran: The Life and Times of Bridget Dirrane. Blackwater Press, Dublin, 1997.

This review was written in 1998.

This short and delightful book celebrates the life of Bridget Dirrane who is 103 years and is still hale and hearty in the St. Francis Home in Galway. The well written and absorbing text by Rose O'Connor and Jack Mahon is derived from their conversations with Bridget. I have a special interest in her because she was a children’s nurse who looked after me and my older brother and sister when my father was Minister for Defence in the Free State government, and until he had retired as military head of the army in 1923.

The first 28 pages deal with her family life in Aran. Her memoirs evoke a great nostalgia for the people of the West in these early years before we had become an acquisitive society and before the beauty and simplicity of our Irish language and Irish culture was tainted by foreign influences.

Bridget first left Aran before she was twenty years. She had a most varied career, looking after the children of many families in Ireland and the United States until her return to her roots in Aran at the age of 72 years. Her professional life brought her into contact with many famous people, both in Ireland and among the Irish Diaspora in Boston and other parts of America. Her memories of some of these people are interesting and evocative of our recent history.

Yours truly in the arms of a Nurse Kelly, 1922 .
Her story is well worth reading, even if it is only to remind us of the wonderful talents of the Irish people who emerged from the hardships and limitations of past centuries to the freedom and prosperity of modern Ireland. It is a reminder too of the great pride and satisfaction enjoyed by those in the service of the more privileged and educated families in my early days, and of how they shared the friendship and the security of the home. We had such a member on the domestic staff from 1920 to the beginning of the World War. During  the 1930s my parents employed a girl after her schooling from the Gaelteacht for two or three years and then, as they reached full adulthood, they were encouraged and assisted to advance themselves by becoming nurses, teachers or following other avocations.  My father’s enthusiasm for the Irish language ensured that in these later years the girls were Irish speakers from Donegal, Connemara or the Dingle Peninsula. They were appointed to maintain the Irish language as part of the household and as tutors to supervise our schooling.  He loved them all because he indulged in his passion of speaking Irish from the Gaelteacht. 

Postscript: Myself and Louise  called to see Bridget in her nursing home around the time I wrote this review. She was physically quite feeble but her mind was nimble as ever. She died on New Year's Eve 2003 aged 109. At the time she was the second oldest person in Ireland.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Catholic Emancipation and it's influence

Emancipation and its influence on the Irish.

Written on September 20th 2014

The Roman Catholic Relief Act, 1829 (the Catholic Emancipation Act) was passed in the House of Commons with the support of the Liberals, the Whigs and a few Tories. It was opposed by other Tories, by the House of Lords and particularly by King George 4th.  It allowed Catholics in Britain and Ireland to join the House of Commons and to become members of local authorities and other political bodies. Daniel O’Connell in his later years had a major influence in pressing for Catholic emancipation and for the acceptance of Catholics as normal members of the population. Lord Wellesley who was the brother of the Duke of Wellington and who had been the Lord Lieutenant in Ireland from 1821 to 1828, had, like the Duke, worked tirelessly to have the emancipation bill passed.

Bishop John Milner
What is not known to us in Ireland is that there was a priest in England who was called Bishop John Milner, who in the early 1800s played a very large part in pushing Catholic emancipation.  He died shortly after it was successfully passed by parliament.  The Protestants in the North were powerfully opposed to the Act but when eventually it was passed, the opposition was divided there along class lines. The aristocracy were indifferent to the change but the lower classes and the workers were opposed which provoked much of the later sectarianism in the province manifested by the marches on the 12th of July and other evidence of opposition to the Catholic community. And these were the northerners who joined with the Catholics in the 1798 Rebellion and who were bought off by Pitt when he promised to provide a regular income for their impoverished clerics at the time of the Union. The Catholic clerics refused his offer.

Some restrictions were included in the Act. Catholic clergy could not use titles such as Archbishop or Bishop and Catholics were entitled to vote only if they satisfied certain standards in terms of property. The restriction on titles by the Church was ignored and these and other restrictions were eventually deleted from the Act between 1851 and 1871.

The Irish Ireland rebellion of 1847 and the Fenian rebellion of 1867 were the only protests in arms during the rest of the century.  They were poorly organised and easily dealt with by the authorities, not to mention the rebels own incompetence.  There were no executions and the rebels were either imprisoned or banished to Australia or other countries abroad, unlike the executions after 1916 which caused such a nationalist reaction and contributed to the War of Independence and to the Civil War.

Church of St. Nicholas of Myra (without) - 1829
Emancipation was followed in Dublin by an extraordinary degree of church building activity in the city and the outer suburbs.  Oddly enough, the same interest in church building was evident amongst Protestants in the city as well. Their churches were smaller and perhaps more acceptable from the architectural and devotional points of view.

I had a particular interest in writing this essay about the Catholic Emancipation Act. The subsequent spread of secondary education had a profound effect on Catholics and particularly on my paternal and maternal parents. The establishment of many Catholic secondary schools, particularly among the Ursuline, Loreto, Dominican and Mercy orders for women and the Christian Brothers for men over the next half century created a Catholic middle class which reached the same standard of education and the same social fabric as their Protestant brethren. This and the entry of Catholics into local and national politics and into management made it inevitable that the large Catholic majority would eventually dominate the affairs of the country. And it is clear that the great Celtic revival movement on the late 19th century, initiated largely by the Protestant minority, was gradually joined by Catholic scholars and writers as education became available to the masses

Church of St. Francis Xavier, Dublin.
As regards political influence, The Treaty between England and Ireland included a provision that the Protestant minority would not be victimised by an Irish Parliament. In fact, the first Irish governments were more than generous to them by including a large number of Protestants in its Senate. Otherwise, Protestants have shown little interest in the country’s politics and its proceedings since 1922, with a few notable exceptions. However, despite the amity between Catholics and Protestants in the South, it appears that the 10% of Protestants existing in the 26 Counties in the 1920s have diminished in recent times.

Patrick and Elizabeth Mulcahy with their three eldest children
Perhaps the most remarkable feature about my two families was the emphasis on education at the turn of the 19h and 20th centuries, particularly among the girls.   There were eight children in my father’s family, five girls and three boys.  Their father was postmaster in Thurles and later in Ennis in Co. Clare. Four of the five girls were sent up to Dublin to do university degrees and to take part in the secondary teaching profession.  Three of them became nuns within the Ursuline teaching order.  The fifth girl remained at home to look after the younger boys because of the death of their mother at an early stage. She subsequently joined the Sisters of Charity as a nun and hospital administrator.

The three boys were treated differently by their father. Despite the fact that my father, Richard, the eldest boy, got one of the first places in the Intermediate examination in Ireland, his father insisted that he must leave school and join the Post Office as a learner before he had entered his last two years in school.  He had won an exhibition of 20 pounds a year for the last two years of his education but his father was in need of the money because of debt incurred by his family. My father went as a post office learner to Bantry in West Cork where he was close to Ballingeary, this centre of the West Cork gaelteacht. He learned to speak excellent Irish and he spent much of his spare time with the local people and their various social and cultural activities.  Bantry was ten miles from Ballingeary but not infrequently he walked the distance between the two villages.

Paddy and Dad, standing. Kitty, Sam and Senan, seated.
After two years in Wexford, he arrived in Dublin in 1907 at the gage of 21. He spent the six years attending the recently opened third level schools in Bolton Street and Kevin Street in Dublin where he studied languages, science and mostly matters in relation to telegraphy.  He became a fairly senior member of the telegraphy staff in Dublin by 1916 when he became, rather accidentally, involved in the 1916 Rebellion and was subsequently imprisoned and sacked from his post office career. He returned to Dublin with the intention of doing medicine but soon got involved in the building up of the Irish Volunteers and became their first Chief of Staff in March 1918 because of his military exploits in Easter Week. He remained in that position until 1922, after the Treaty had been ratified and he was then appointed Minister for Defence. 

He retired from the Army in January 1922 but immediately re-joined as Chief of Staff at the end of June with the start of the Civil War.  He remained Chief of Staff until the end of the Civil War and then spent the rest of his life as a politician.

Despite my father’s early departure from school, he remained all his life passionate about learning; he became a fluent Irish speaker and read much French and French poetry. Among these and other aspects of learning, he was an inveterate reader all his life, particularly on the history of the country during the late 19th and early 20th century, an interest which is evident by the large library of books of the period which are still in my library.

His brother, Paddy, joined the British army when he was underage and after his return from three years as a sapper in the trenches to Ireland he joined the IRA during the War of Independence and subsequently remained in the National Army. He became chief of staff in the 1950s, more than 30 years after my father had been in that role. My other uncle, Sam, the youngest boy, was born just shortly before his mother’s death.  He became a priest, joined the Cistercian monastery and school in Roscrea and subsequently travelled to Mid-Lothian in Scotland in 1946 where he set up the first post-reformation Catholic monastery in Scotland; Perhaps unexpectedly he was successful in being welcomed by the strong Presbyterian population at the time and of becoming intimate with the head of the Church of Scotland in terms of ecumenical activity and of friendship.

My mother Min (top right) with parents, siblings and aunt.
There were twelve siblings in my mother’s family who were born in a farming community in Taghmon in County Wexford.  There were eight girls and four boys.  Surprisingly, six of the girls were sent to Dublin after their secondary education with the Loreto order in Gorey.  In Dublin they attended the old Royal University and subsequently University College Dublin.  One became a teacher in the Loreto order, another qualified as a scientist and the other four became secondary teachers until they got married.  They taught not only in Ireland but also in England and in Europe.  It was the custom for them to spend a year or two teaching in convents in Germany, Belgium, England, Scotland and France. Two of the eight girls remained in the household on the Wexford farm, one of whom, Nell, was active in local politics.

Mother, perhaps passing on some advice to a newly qualified doctor!
Mary Josephine ‘’Min’’ married my father. Agnes married Denis McCullough who was a prominent IRA man in the North and unsuccessfully attempted to reach the 1916 rebellion from the North.  Two of my Aunts, Mary Kate and Phyllis married Sean T. O’Kelly who was a leading politician during the troubled times and who joined de Valera as a close colleague after the split created by the Treaty settlement  His first wife died in 1934 and his second wife Phyllis, outlived him, having married about 1940.  A further sister joined Professor Michael O’Malley who was the leading surgeon in Galway and who played an important part in advancing the medical services of that city.

Two of the four boys, Jack and Michael, remained farmers in Tomcoole where they had an extensive holding of about 600 acres by the 1930s. Jim became a doctor qualifying in University College in Dublin. He attended the GPO as a medical student looking after the occupants during the 1916 Rebellion.  The fourth boy, Martin, became a priest, qualified in Wexford and was in a parish there when he died young from blood poisoning.

The Ryan family was seriously divided by the Treaty settlement, particularly Jim who was to remain a close associate of de Valera and both Kate and Phyllis who had been influenced by Seán T. O’Kelly who was active in Sinn Féin and who  too remained faithful to de Valera. Nell who had remained in Wexford was fervently anti-Treaty. She was imprisoned and went on hunger strike while my father was head of the army during the Civil War. He refused her release despite pressure from some of her siblings! The strike, which she shared with others, was to last 30 days until they were induced to abandon their suffering, and not thanks to my father! The split among the Ryan siblings was a disaster at the time but the worst aspect of the bitterness had diminished after a few years and subsequent generations of the family were not touched by their differences. 

My father’s family had no specific interest in politics and dad’s involvement in 1916 was not approved of initially by his family. His father’s reaction to 1916 was said to be ‘’He had much to thank the British for appointing him postmaster of Ennis’’.

The Ryan sisters were not particularly active during the rebellion as individuals apart from my mother who was a member of Cumman na mBan. She established a branch of the Cumann in London while teaching there. She was closely associated with Seán McDermott, who was one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation and who was executed subsequently. She, with her youngest sister, Phyllis, acted as messengers to the GPO during Easter Week.  McDermott would have married my mother if he had survived, instead of which she met Richard Mulcahy in 1917, after his return from prison. They were married in 1919. The Ryans, including my mother, tended to distance themselves from politics and political contact once they became married and acquired children.