Monday, 31 March 2014

You Talkin’ to Me?

You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith. Profile Books Ltd, London, 2011. pp294.

This review was written on July 11th 2012

I borrowed this book from Tommy Bacon who seemed to enjoy it.  I read it on Kindle because my eyesight is such as to make it difficult to read the book’s relatively small print.

Plato and Aristotle
The magic word is Rhetoric. It is about communication. The blurb on the jacket says that rhetoric is essentially about word power and persuasion. ‘It cajoles, inspires and bamboozles’. I found much of it turgid and confusing, particularly in the early chapters, and yet it seems an important contribution to our knowledge of communication in terms of oratory and the modern concept of oratory by persuasion and propaganda by political leaders. There are many allusions to ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, authors and literary figures – Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Cicero and others – and to more recent scribes such as Shakespeare. It includes numerous references to the oratory and its genesis delivered by political leaders such as Churchill, Hitler, Lincoln, Reagan and Obama.

Ahern and...
The later chapters deal at great length with the important role played by speech writers on behalf of current politicians and world leaders, and it would seem that most of the great speeches by these leaders were largely or entirely written by such backroom agents, although approved of and sometimes amended by the speaker. It was with some regret that I felt I was in terms of age unable to comprehend the first chapters because of the complexity of their content and because of the numerous words which were largely unknown to me and were highly specialised in the study of literature and language construction. In the appendix to the book 83 of these words are explained. The great majority were unknown to me and only a few were familiar but even some of these I did not understand their real context. Using the Kindle made it difficult to access the meaning of these obscure words (anaphora, antonomasia, apostiopesis, isocolon, prosopographia, syntheton, etc, etc.) In my schoolboy days I would have described these as jaw-breakers!

I expect that reading this book in my early years would have provided a useful insight into the English language and its origins, particularly if one had knowledge of Greek and Latin. The author is obviously well versed in these ancient tongues, and is familiar with the lives and contributions of the famous authors of these times. The young and fertile mind would better cope with the complexity of the early chapters of this book. Nevertheless the later chapters are interesting in revealing the importance of aspects of the English language which are the current hallmarks of political oratory and the role professional speech writers have in the service of our political leaders. I expect if I had read this book 60 years ago and if I had gone into politics instead of medicine, I would have carefully studied the later chapters  and learned to speak with the power and eloquence (and the facial and head mannerisms) of the great politicians and statesmen of modern times. If I am to judge correctly it is unlikely that any of our political leaders in Ireland during the last 90 years were served by a cohort of outstanding speech writers.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Liberator

King of the Beggars - Sean O’Faolain. Thomas Nelson, London, 1938. pp 368.

This review was written on June 3rd 2006

This book was in the late William Doolin’s library and was given to me by his widow, Maureen, at the time of his death. I had my first consulting rooms in his house, 2 Fitzwilliam Square, from 1950 to 1954 (now owned by Sir Anthony O’Reilly). Doolin was a surgeon at St. Vincent’s Hospital but was better known for his interest in literature. He edited the two medical journals in Dublin at the time, and was most helpful to me when I began my career as a writer and my early and short-lived career as a medical historian. He is commemorated by the prestigious annual Doolin Lecture established by the Irish Medical Association. Before my first major address to the Royal Academy of Medicine in 1953, he sent for me and said Don’t forget when you are speaking, address somebody at the back of the audience and on the night in question, as I rose to stand at the podium, I saw Doolin seated at the very back of the theatre. I have never failed to follow his advice since.

O’Connell was born in Catherdaniel, Co. Kerry, in 1775, and died in Genoa in 1847.  His family was one of the scattered Irish Catholic landowners and mute minor aristocracy at the time when up to eight million Catholics were living in poverty and played no part in the government of their country. By the time of O’Connell’s arrival on the political scene they were still suffering from the residue of the penal laws. The Irish Catholic gentry, limited as it was, had little urge to rock the boat at Westminster and was largely happy to maintain the status quo, even if some of their members made feeble efforts to influence Westminster and to ease the lot of the Irish peasantry. The limited Catholic aristocracy proved to be generally opposed to O’Connells’ radicalism and, like all those with privilege, if not political power, they cared little for the welfare of their powerless religious compatriots. 

Daniel O’Connell was the exception.  Well educated at home and subsequently on the continent and in England, he qualified as a barrister in London and Dublin. He alone was largely responsible for the granting of Catholic emancipation and giving the dispossessed Irish population the confidence and the leadership to challenge the House of Commons and the corrupt Irish legal system and administration.  O’Connell’s struggle with the Irish and British political masters amplified the invariable law that power corrupts and that concern for the underprivileged is met with lip service except when sufficient pressure is brought to bear on the powerful through mass public opinion or through violence.  This has certainly been confirmed through more recent Irish history.

Outstanding among O’Connell’s attributes was his humanity, energy, courage, passion, vanity, deviousness and unpredictability. He was to devote his entire public life to bolstering the morale and the pride of the cowering Catholic majority and to fight the social, economic, educational and political restrictions under which they existed during the previous 150 years.  He was himself a political radical in his time and committed to espousing the rights of man and the freedom to practice religion, irrespective of the individual’s belief.  He believed that religion, irrespective of denomination, should be entirely separated from politics.

His political life was divided into different phases but mainly concerned the emancipation of the Catholics of the two islands and, at the same time, the repeal of the Union.  He was constantly in conflict with the Irish administration and the Irish legal system, and he had differences with conservative Catholic landowners. He had similar differences with the Catholic Bishops when they were tempted, after the Union, to accept Crown control appointments to the hierarchy in exchange for generous grants to Catholic institutions and the payment of the clergy by Westminster.  Rome encouraged the Irish Church to accept the offer of this financial assistance. This was strenuously rejected by O’Connell and eventually by the hierarchy itself. He was at all times consistent in his principles about the separation of religion from politics, a most worthy proposal bur sadly neglected  over history.

It would be interesting to speculate about the subsequent history of Ireland if the hierarchy had accepted Westminster’s offer after the Union.  The same offer was made to the Presbyterian ministry in Ireland and was apparently gladly accepted by an impoverished clergy.  This event must have had a profound effect on the republican and separatist attitude of the Presbyterians in the North at the time of the 1798 rebellion and the subsequent Union.

The Emancipation Act was designed to restore civil and political rights to Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland. In Ireland, apart from allowing the free practice of religion, precious few other benefits accrued. Other concessions, such as public and legal appointments, were only later and very reluctantly granted by the Irish administration.  Indeed, as late as 1916 there were no Catholics in the Dublin Castle administration.

O'Connell statue on O'Connell street, Dublin
During his final years, in the 1840s, with the advent of the Young Irelanders, there was a new thrust in O’Connell's movement for reform and for repeal with the great mass meetings which started in 1843.  Huge peaceful demonstrations took place all over Ireland, with as many as several hundred thousand people attending.  They were orderly and their success was greatly contributed to by the urging of Father Mathew and other church and lay leaders who forbade the use of alcohol on these occasions. These meetings proved to be a great embarrassment to Peel and the British government, and the crisis came with the administration’s decision to ban the last meeting of the year planned for Clontarf in October 1843.  The army attended en masse, as did the warships in Dublin bay.  O’Connell cancelled the proceedings, leading to one of the most, if not the most, intense political controversy in the history of Ireland.  There is little doubt that a peaceful demonstration of solidarity, even if it provoked military intervention on the British side and deaths among the people, would have profoundly affected public and international opinion (such as it was) and would have provided the martyrdom of O’Connell and his followers.
The capitulation may have been understood at the time by the majority of O’Connell’s supporters but not by the Young Irelanders who were then coming into prominence.  But the cancellation of the Clontarf meeting marked the beginning of the end of O’Connell’s influence and the return of the plain people to a loss of hope, to disastrous famine and to future and recurring violence.  After Clontarf, he left a vacuum behind him but by then he was old and testy and spent, and his revolutionary vigour had been sapped by his years in the House of Commons and his association with the establishment.  He left no successor and was antipathetic to the Young Irelanders, as was the Church.  The Hierarchy was suspicious of the Protestants who were prominent among these emerging patriots.  It was inevitable that the vast movement of the Catholics would lead to divisions amongst them and their leaders, a situation aggravated by the aged O’Connell hanging on and leaving no settled or influential political structures behind him.
If we never had any political violence in Irish life, if we never had Young Irelanders or the famine or the Fenians or 1916, would we not, in the light of the progress of liberalism from the time of Tom Paine and the American and French revolutions, have done better by following the non-violent methods of  O’Connell? If Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary party had survived without 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War and the consequences of these, surely, with the spread of liberalism in Europe and within the British Commonwealth, Ireland would today be self-governing and probably would not be partitioned?  This is pure speculation but these views remain muted in our society because of the compelling need to justify the events of the past.  It is easy to speculate and to moralise about our past history as we look at things in retrospect and outside the context of earlier times but there is little doubt that the intransigence of the English, and most particularly the Tory Party and the House of Lords, lies at the basis of the tragedies that Ireland suffered in the last century and the disastrous effect on our relations with our sister island and with our Northern brethren. 
Daniel O'Connell
I found two reviews in the book by Stephen Gwynn and Desmond McCarthy, and a long article in the Times Literary Supplement of 11 April 1929 entitled Catholic Emancipation (the cuttings all no doubt inserted by Bill Doolin). The latter is worth a review in itself, if only to confirm the patronising and bitter attitude of the English and the Anglican Church to Catholicism at O’Connell’s time and the antipathy to the Pope and to international Catholicism. One influential protagonist, in supporting emancipation, said As for the enormous wax candles and superstitious mummeries and painted jackets of the Catholic priest, I fear them not. And he added   There is no Court of Rome, and no Pope. There is a waxwork Pope and waxwork Court of Rome. But soon that patronising, critical and carping attitude of the Anglicans was to start changing through the influence of Newman, Cardinals Wiseman and Manning, and other Catholic leaders in England, and indirectly through the more distant political influence of O’Connell in Ireland and in the House of Commons, not to mention the subsequent coming together of Protestant and educated Catholics in the  cultural revival  in Ireland at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Happy St. Patrick's Day and Sláinte!

The Goodness of Guinness – The Brewery, its People and the City of Dublin. Tony Corcoran, Liberties Press, Dublin, 2005. pp 157. PB. Price E12.95.

This review was written on July 30th 2005

It would be impossible for somebody born in Dublin, living close to the Liberties, bred on Guinness in UCD Boat Club and still taking a pint after a game of golf, not to have an abiding nostalgia for that great institution, Arthur Guinness and Sons. Corcoran’s book deals with the history of the great brewery. Arthur Guinness established the brewery in James’s Gate in 1757 when there were already about 60 breweries in the area, all of which apparently brewed ‘indifferent beer’. Guinness was only interested in a quality product and hence its great success.

Perhaps the greatest source of the company’s pride was the early and comprehensive medical and social services which the firm provided for all their employees and their families, made famous by Sir John Lumsden who was a pioneer in occupational medicine in these islands and who recognised the importance of good social circumstances in the maintenance of health. Guinness led the world in terms of concern for their employees, and played a notable part in other social activities and in philanthropy.

The Coomble Lying in Hospital
As the first consultant physician appointed to the Coombe Lying in Hospital, where I served for 38 years, I was particularly conscious of the seminal role Guinness played in supporting the Coombe during the latter part of the 19th century. The hospital was then situated close to the brewery in the Coombe in the oldest part of Dublin and it served all the midwifery and obstetrical patients in the adjacent slums. The hospital could not have survived various crises without the company’s considerable financial support which allowed it to continue to serve an impoverished public. The company also famously provided a small bottle of stout daily for the expectant mothers and other in-patients, confirming no doubt the Company’s claim that Guinness is Good for You! This munificence continued until the Hospital moved to more modern and distant quarters in Rialto in the early 1960s.

The portico of the old Coombe still preserved.
The wards in the new hospital were all dedicated to various saints in the Roman Catholic Calendar, unlike the secular titles of the departments in the old Coombe.   At the time of change to Rialto I suggested to the board that at least one ward or department should commemorate the name of Arthur Guinness and Sons but my suggestion fell on deaf ears. Perhaps it is not too late still to pay a well-deserved tribute to the hospital’s great patron. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin was chairman of the hospital board when we had moved to Rialto and his shadow over the hospital’s board members may have been a factor in ignoring my suggestion. At least a few of the named saints have since been stripped from the Calendar by a recent Pope but there is still no reference to the crucial role  Guinness paid in the hospital’s survival  after it was established in 1831.

I am now 83 years of age and the pint is still my favoured drink after a game of golf and on other social occasions. A visit to a pub even at this late stage of my life sparks a reflex which ensures that I will order a pint on arrival, at least for myself. In the early years we drank bottles of stout as the drink was invariably called. It had a higher alcohol content than the pint of draught or pint of plain as it was described by the familiar. The draught was prepared by the individual publicans in these early days and the quality of the pint varied according to the care of the preparation by the pub but the pint of Guinness is now much more reliable in its quality and taste since its preparation by modern means at the Guinness brewery and its transport in sealed metal containers to the retail trade. Our favourite brew in my earlier days was a pint containing an equal mix of bottled stout with the draught. The mix was called a half and half.  In pubs and bars to-day the draught is preferred by the great majority of cultivated and fastidious drinker nor are the gentler sex immune to its attractions, unlike their reluctance to indulge in earlier years.

Student celebrations were invariably associated with Guinness. A striking thing was the amount of drink which could be consumed by the celebrants. I recall all night sessions in UCD Boat Club at Islandbridge and elsewhere after weekend regattas when vast quantities could be consumed by some of my heartiest colleagues. Regattas were preceded by six weeks strict training when alcohol, smoking and association with the opposite sex were forbidden, The celebrations were therefore an understandable response to such a strict regime.  I recall competitions aimed at testing consumption capacity including the shortest time a pint could be swallowed from the moment the full pint was lifted until the glass was returned empty on the table. Any spillage led to disqualification. Twelve seconds won handsomely on one occasion.  He was a young Trinity oarsman who must have had an oesophagus as big as a drainpipe!

The neophyte may not be enamoured by his or her first taste of Guinness but familiarity will quickly change from initial taste to a life’s devotion to the brew. I had my first pint of Guinness at the age of 19 when I first tasted alcohol. If you’re tired of Guinness, you’re tired of life, although the current weekly production of stout at St. James’s Gate of 18 million pints would suggest that there are few tired people in the population This book will bring back fond memories for those of us who were students serving the ‘District’ in the old Coombe, and it will add to the historical fabric of Dublin and the Liberties.

(PS: I have never had shares in Guinness)

Friday, 7 March 2014

Kathleen Lynn – Irishwoman, Patriot, Doctor

Kathleen Lynn – Irishwoman, Patriot, Doctor. By Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh. The Academic Press, Dublin, 2006. pp XI+180. 

This review was written on February 2nd 2007.

Kathleen Lynn was born near Killala in Co. Mayo in 1874. She was the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman. The family later moved to Longford and finally her father, now a Canon, was invited by the Guinness family to care for the Cong parish in Co. Galway. Kathleen was clearly conscious of the poverty and deprivation of the local people at the end of the 19th century and she lived through much of the land wars which were then endemic. Following her primary and secondary education, she went to the Catholic University (Cecilia Street) where she qualified as a doctor and began general practice in Dublin.

Lynn soon became actively involved in the suffragette movement which brought her in contact with James Connolly who, with Theobald Wolfe Tone, was to become her political idol. She became a dedicated socialist and joined Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. During the Rising she cared for the sick and the wounded at City Hall where the trade unionist Seán Connolly was commandant. From that time she became a fervent republican and separatist, with a loathing of the British and the British administration. Her intense commitment to separatism was to continue for the rest of her life and was to form the most radical feature of her career. She bitterly opposed the Treaty, had contempt for the Free State and its leaders, and broke with de Valera when Fianna Fail was formed and when Dev and his followers entered the Dail in 1927. With her patriotism was an obsession.

St Ultan's Infant Hospital
She sought a secular, socialist republic. She was energetic, assertive, extreme in her political views and vigorously anti-establishment. Against these, however, she devoted her life, her talents and her energy to the care of her patients and to the alleviation of poverty and disease among Dublin’s poor. She was instrumental in founding St. Ultan’s infant Hospital, driven as she was by the high infant mortality which prevailed in the city, largely caused by infective gastro-enteritis which was endemic among infants. She acquired an international reputation through her hospital initiative, her social activities and her interest in Dublin’s poor and their appalling social conditions.

She had been elected to the first Dáil in 1918 and to the Sinn Féin Executive in 1917 when she was also elected as a vice-president of Sinn Féin, but her political career ended after she was defeated in the first 1927 election, almost certainly because she persisted in refusing to recognise Dail Eireann. Soon too she retired from the local Council in Rathmines where she had been a leading member. Hence her failure to have an impact on national and local politics.

Lynn was a lifelong and intimate friend of Madeleine ffrench Mullen who shared all her political and socialist views. Lynn left a detailed diary which extended for most of her adult life and which is now deposited in the archives of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland. Among her many interests were teaching civics, cleanliness, healthy living and the virtues of fresh air for the young, and the importance of breast feeding. She supported the An Óige movement and left her cottage in Glenmalure to that organisation at the time of her death. She was close in her thoughts to nature and to-day would be a vocal environmentalist.

1936 - unbuilt design for St Ultan's hospital
Kathleen Lynn was a remarkable woman. Like Countess Markievicz, she was born into the Protestant Anglo-Irish tradition but became intractably opposed to the Crown and the British Empire. They and their co-religionist, Maude Gonne, undoubtedly encouraged the disastrous divisions of the Civil War. After 1916 she became alienated from her father and her family for a period of about seven years but, happily, before her father’s death they were reunited. Despite her political eccentricities, she was compassionate, deeply religious and philanthropic. On the last page of the biography the author states

Lynn lived for Ireland. However, her quiet strenuous work was quickly forgotten’.

Lynn's diary
I do not accept that Kathleen Lynn has been forgotten. She was a representative of a diminishing Protestant minority in Ireland and few of her co-religionists agreed with her political and socialist views. They were unlikely to think fondly of her. However, she is remembered by Lynn House, the headquarters of the Medical Council, by the hospital she founded (now the Charlemont Clinic), by the plaque which honours her in Glenmalure and now by this excellent and very well researched biography.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Boswell in London

Boswell’s London Journal – 1762-1763. James Boswell. First published from the original MSS by Frederick J. Pottle, William Heinemann, Ltd., London, 1950. pp 374.

This review was written on October 28th 2010

This book has been in my father’s library but has not been read by me before. It was unsigned by him in Irish unlike many of his books and I may have some doubts that it was ever read by him, at least during the first few years of its publication when my father was at his busiest during the two inter-party governments. It was read by me after I had completed my Maverick autobiography and had sent the latter to the publishers.

The diaries were kept during the two years of Boswell’s second visit to London. He left his home in Edinburgh when he was still in his late teens or early twenties. The diaries could be described as dull going and I did some skipping at times but finished the volume with a good insight into the social and economic life of the better educated and the more privileged classes of mid-18th century London.  

Boswell was remarkable in that he became an avid recorder of his daily life in the town and he had a remarkable ability of intruding into the daily lives of the wealthy, the nobility, the artists, the actors and the politicians, some of whom are still household names in our own time. Despite his youth and his relative  poverty (he had an annual allowance of £200 from his father who was the Laird of Auchinleck and a senior member of the Scottish Bar but Boswell, through his extravagant  ways, found it difficult to manage on what was a reasonable allowance for these times). He soon made many friends among the influential in London and was not slow to advance his own interests among the high and the mighty. He had the confidence and the compelling personality to attract others and was not slow in imposing himself to his own advantage.

His early and poor relations with his father accounted for his anxiety to leave Edinburgh and to travel to London. During an earlier visit to London he showed a surprising maturity for a person in the late teens, as was evident in his contacts and associations with the influential and particularly his early propensity to enjoy the easy virtues of the many street women who inhabited London at the time. His later two year stay was to remind one of his attractions to these ladies of easy virtue and of the unfortunate consequences in health matters which were derived from these encounters. He was nothing if not frank about his life, including his more intimate proclivities.

London circa 1762
From the time of his arrival in London he had determined to write a detailed and frank diary. He writes well but in the formal and dated style of the times and his text is replete with words which are less appropriate or even obsolete in our day. He was an inveterate socialite and was fortunate that he was addicted to tea rather than alcohol. Alcohol at the time was largely consumed as beer or as a low alcohol wine called negus. He must have been an attractive and articulate young man if one is to judge by his many and important friends and by their obvious ease and enjoyment in his company.

His late meeting with Samuel Johnson while in London led to an immediate and warm friendship between them. From the beginning of their acquaintance the much older Johnson evinced a great affection for the young man. He became a father figure to Boswell and seemed happiest in his company. As is so well known, Johnson became the subject of Boswell’s later biography,

Boswell went to London in 1760 ostensibly to join the army but for a variety of reasons he failed to gain a commission. His two years were devoted to socialising and diary writing. He had refused to join the legal profession despite his father’s strenuous attempts to influence him in the direction of law but eventually, thanks to reconciliation between himself and his father, he left London for Utrecht in Holland to study in the law faculty there. Thus he left his many friends in London for the next stage in his life.