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.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Ireland and neutrality.

This review was written in 2005

In Times of War. Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality, 1939-1945. By Robert Fisk. André Deutsch, London, 1983. pp XVI + 565.

I borrowed this book from the RDS library. It is a rather unnecessarily long account of Ireland’s international role before and during the second World War but it is a mine of detail about De Valera’s stance on the issue of neutrality. Dev was of course supported in his policy by the vast majority of the people of the Republic and by all Irish politicians with the exception of James Dillon. De Valera emerges as an incorruptible leader who was implacable in his defence of neutrality and in his stubborn resistance to the British attempts for Ireland to join in the war and for Ireland to yield on the Treaty Ports which had been returned to Ireland in 1938. Behind Ireland’s public stance on neutrality was of course the great majority of the Irish people’s sympathy for the Allies and the increasingly strong but secret cooperation which Ireland gave to the British in terms of information and assistance in releasing members of the British army, navy and air force who had found themselves for one reason or another on Free State soil.

There is a huge amount of detail in the book about actual or alleged spying, on both the German and British sides. On this issue and from the personal points of view, Richard Mulcahy is widely reported because of the considerable number of papers he left in the UCD archives in relation to the Defence Council which was set up during the war in Ireland. He and Dr. Tom O’Higgins represented Fine Gail on the Defence Council.

Churchill and De Valera meet in 1953. 
The British in general and Churchill in particular had little appreciation of the motives which determined Ireland’s neutrality, and Churchill could be both arrogant and undiplomatic in dealing with De Valera whom he learned to hate because of Dev’s stubborn stance. There is no doubt that the loss of the ports was a serious problem for the British, particularly during the early years of the war when shipping  losses proved to be very threatening and at times reached as much as 400,000 tons in one month. In later years, as the submarine menace came under better control, the loss of the ports was less significant. However, the pressure on De Valera and the Irish Government to yield on the ports continued up to the end of the war.

Apart from details about Ireland’s stance, Fisk deals in considerable detail with the North of Ireland and with its own problems during the period. There is a detailed account of the disastrous bombing of Belfast which caused considerable distress in relation to refugees and the low morale of the Belfast citizens.  There is little doubt that Ireland’s neutrality and the North’s readiness to join in the war lead to widening the division of the two parts of Ireland. It was certainly responsible for consolidating partition in the minds of the Northern loyalists and the British. However, at no time had the British confirmed its stated commitment to support the North until 1948 when Jack Costello abolished the External Relations Act. By creating the Republic outside the Commonwealth he was to precipitate the British guarantees to the North of Ireland. The Northern Loyalists would receive the full support of Britain unless the majority of people in the Province wished to return to a united Ireland. The British were angry at Ireland’s unexpected defection from the Commonwealth and the British guarantees added fuel to the fire of the anti-partition campaign which De Valera had started after he had lost the 1948 election. Costello became equally vocal about partition and the North’s intransigence, thus further alienating the North and consolidating rather than solving the northern problem. He was angry following the British assurances but he only had himself to blame having left the Commonwealth without seeking the views of the leader of his party, Richard Mulcahy, and clearly ignoring the traditional support of the Commonwealth by his party members.

Mulcahy (3rd from right)  elected President of Fine Gael. Costello on his left.
It is not relevant to Robert Fisk’s detailed account of Ireland’s neutrality but it can be only a source of disappointment that Richard Mulcahy who, as the newly elected President of Fine Gael in 1944, declared his full support for Commonwealth membership, accepted Costello’s decision without demurring. I was with him at breakfast at Lissenfield when the Sunday Independent arrived with the news. The declaration of the Republic and the departure from the Commonwealth came as a complete surprise to him but the only comment he apparently ever made on the issue outside my presence was, when travelling by car to Cobh with Paddy Lynch to meet Jack Costello on his return from Canada, he said to Paddy ‘Jack must have had a drink too many when he made the declaration’.

My Father and  Mother 1953
I can only explain my father’s unexpected acquiescence to three possible factors - his loyalty to his close friend Costello, his very Victorian commitment to the authority of the head of government and, perhaps above all, his reluctance to disturb the harmony of the rather fragile Interparty government with the consequent danger of De Valera returning to power. Nevertheless, I believe my father was too committed to loyalty not to express his criticism about an act which was in his view inconsistent to the fundamental policy stated by him when elected head of his Party in 1944. And loyalty was a constant feature of his life even when he was challenged by authority whose action he might disapprove of.