Saturday, 31 January 2015


Shaw – Interviews and Recollections. Gibbs, A.M. (Ed) . The Macmillan Press, London, 1998. pp 560.

Written on December 27th 2010

I borrowed this book from the RDS in December 2010. I had published my autobiography earlier in September 2010 and found myself at a loose end and without any plans for further writing except for my usual book reviews. I had been thinking recently of my ideas about the long-term future of the relationship between Ireland and Britain and my strengthening view that 1916 had been a disaster, not only for the relationship between the two islands but also because of the consequence of the rebellion on the later history of our country. I thought such a prominent Anglo-Irish person as George Bernard Shaw might be a good introduction to a study of the relationship with our sister island. A few of my previous reviews, such as those on Birrel, Dangerfield and Sturgis, are relevant to this aspect of our history.

Gibbs’s book is entirely based on short quotes about GBS in
 the form of letters, recollections and writings by many of his contemporaries, most of whom were well known figures in the literary, dramatic, musical and social world in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Apart from the hundreds of comments about Shaw in these reminiscences, diaries and remnants, Shaw was quite generous in responding to enquiries from newspaper correspondences and foreigners who were anxious to interview him. However, rather than face to face interviews, Shaw preferred to receive questions in writing to which he invariably responded in the same manner.  Extracts of these interviews are also included.

The book is one of about twenty books published by
Macmillan in this series about English and Irish authors and poets. Shaw’s history is based on the recollections of contemporaries, friends and critics. Like the other books in the series, this volume represents a form of biography which is certainly rounded and informative but is hardly the most difficult or most scholarly approach to biography. It does however provide for scanning and dipping and for easy reading, and provides a thorough insight into Shaw’s remarkable career and his huge contribution to the social and political life of his adopted country.  While the views of the many correspondents vary widely, one is left with a condensation of facts which are highly favourable to Shaw, the man, and to his contribution to the English literary and artistic world. For those of us who are interested in Anglo-Irish history and in the mutual welfare of the two countries, Shaw stands out as a most prominent figure, an Irishman who has made a major contribution to the social, literary, political and artistic life of his adopted country and who has brought great credit and important gifts of art and education to Dublin and his native land.

Chapter 1 includes the recollections of his more intimate family and friends about his early years. He emerges as a relatively normal child and youth within a rather dysfunctional Protestant family. His unusual and early interest in music and art presaged his later genius as a writer and dramatist. One observer described his impression of the boy’s ‘hauteur’ as being unusual in such a young person, an aspect of his early maturity which is certainly conveyed to the reader.

In later chapters there are frequent references to his striking appearance – his tall thin figure, his red or sandy coloured hair, his red and untidy beard while a younger man, his small hands and his facial pallor. According to Beatrice Webb, his fellow Fabian, he was fastidious and unconventional in his dress. One observer described his dress in his earlier years as arrogantly Bohemian! Philip Gibbs talked of him as ‘Man of genius, charm of personality and high distinction’. A brilliant talker and delightful companion, he was easy and kind with people, good humoured and courteous, even when he was disagreeing with their views. He remained cool even when provoked. His support for socialism and his involvement in the Fabian and other socialist organisations are well known and he appeared to be happy to announce to the British people that he was an atheist and a vegetarian as well as a socialist. 

He was a distinguished essayist and a prolific playwright with an emphasis on social and political themes; a great orator, attractive always for his good humour and eloquence, and, perhaps most of all, radical and controversial in his integrity and his honesty, in his concern for the underdog and, I guess, his inability to feel comfortable in the company of the conservative and the reactionary. He might be perceived as a cynic but quite clearly he was motivated by idealism. Much of his political and social activities were devoted to the support of the worker and his family. Despite his frequently expressed views and opinions which challenged the establishment, he never exceeded the bounds of reason. He had many of the sentiments of the pacifist.

He had a huge capacity to write and to contribute to a wide variety of social and political subjects. Age seemed not to influence his capacity to work nor did it impair his creativity. Some of his greatest plays and political essays were written in his sixties, seventies and eighties, including St. Joan and Back to Methuselah. Late political works included The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Everybody’s Political What’s What. Another was his portrait of British democracy in chaos On the Rocks. I was to some extent reminded of my own modest approach to my retirement years and to writing. It was then, after I retired at the age of 66, that I wrote eight of my books on a wide variety of subjects. Previously I had written two tracts on heart disease prevention for patients. Shaw used to conceive the subject of his play or essay and their creation in his mind before he put pen to paper; and when he wrote he did so quickly. This too was my own experience. He wrote in a very characteristic tidy, legible and uniformly small script. My appalling writing was in strong contrast to his.

Shaw was particularly courageous about his opposition to
 Britain’s entering the Great War. He spoke about the hidden political motives of some of the leading liberal politicians which led to Britain’s joining.  He believed it was hypocritical to attribute Britain’s participation in the War to the German invasion of Belgium. However he was reticent about his opposition because he did not wish to discourage conscription which was not introduced until 1915. 

Chapter 7 deals with his views of the genesis of the Great War and his visits to the Front.  In my review of Dangerfield’s book The Strange Case of Liberal England   I referred to the circumstances in Britain in the early years of the 20th century which might have made it more ‘convenient’ for the politicians to enter the war. I referred to the difficulties created by the Suffragette movement, the increasing labour troubles and general strikes and, most importantly, the apparently insoluble problems created by the Home Rule movement and its opposition by the Northern unionists and the Tory rump. These pressures were immediately resolved by entering the war, at least for the embattled Liberal Government, I could find no evidence of these pressing political factors among Shaw’s analysis of the genesis of the Great War but his reference to hidden political motives may have been the factors which I was referring to.

Casement during his trial.
As might be expected, he took a close interest in Casement’s trial (Chap 7) and was strongly of the opinion that Casement should have pleaded as a prisoner of war and thus avoided being hanged. However, Casement’s legal advisers (Gavan Duffy and Sergeant Sullivan) were opposed to Shaw’s opinion and failed to prevent Casement’s death by hanging.  Shaw provided the substance of Casement’s final and remarkable speech at the end of his trial. There is little in the book to suggest Shaw’s interest in Irish affairs and his famous letter protesting against the execution of the 1916 leaders is not mentioned by any contributor. He does write to criticise Dev at the time of the economic war in the mid-1930s and he also believed that Ireland should allow the British navy to occupy the Irish ports during the World War. In neither case did he receive a positive response from Dev and the Irish government. On the question of the ports he thought his view was reasonable because, after all, was the navy not there to protect the Irish too.

About his association with women, Chapter 5 includes the following quote

who sought and thrived on women’s affections but drew back from committing his own. He was attentive, gentle and courteous with women; He seemed intrigued by them and enjoyed their company---- 

This chapter, entitled  Philanderer and Married Man  refers to his close attention to women and the great  attraction he evoked among them but it is likely that he lacked the normal passion for love and heterosexual sex which is the lot of most men. He married late and his relationship with his wife, a wealthy Irish landowner, endured and was apparently very happy although it was thought by one observer to have been sexless.

Shaw died in his ninety fifth year. He was a life-long
 vegetarion and was proud of the fact that he took no vigorous exercise. He was however a committed walker during his daily life. He suffered little illness during his active years and his death was precipitated by a fall in his garden at Ayot St. Lawrence when he suffered a fractured leg followed by surgery. Subsequently his health deteriorated and he died willingly and peacefully seven weeks later. The tributes to him and his political and literary contributions were quite remarkable and quite unanimous despite his outspoken and radical views about things which were dear to the British such as the justification of the Great War, the hardships of labour and the underprivileged, and the greed of the wealthy and the landed classes.

After the fall ---- newspapers carried daily bulletins about his health; and his death seven and a half weeks later and there was front-page news around the world. Theatre audiences stood in silence, and the lights of Broadway were dimmed in farewell.’

I feel a sense of pride that a fellow Irishman could be revered by the English and the international world. His career and his political opinions were symbolic of the better aspects of the affiliation between the Irish and the British, an affiliation with a common and powerful language and much bilateral integration of race over the centuries. Nor need the language, the myths and ancient history of Ireland clash at a social, practical or political level with those of the English mainland.  During these current recessionary times we are conscious of the strains which exist within the European Union. Whatever may happen in Europe, and hopefully we shall weather this and other storms, our more recent and better association with Britain is special and must be retained and encouraged.

Thursday, 22 January 2015


Hitler by Iain Kershaw, the Penguin Press, London, 2000.

This review was written on February 12th 2004

This magnum opus is published in two volumes with a total text of about 1,500 pages. The first volume entitled ‘Hubris’ deals with Hitler’s origins and life up to 1936, three years after he had become Chancellor of Germany and had brought the Weimar Republic to an end. The second entitled ‘Nemesis’ deals with the rest of his career from 1936 to 1945. I borrowed the book from Dermot Hourihane in January 2004 and read it over a period of about six weeks. While it gave an excellent insight into Hitler and the history of Germany from the first war up to the Nemesis of 1945, I thought the book unduly long and heavy going, although reasonably well written. I think Kershaw could have conveyed the message as comprehensively in 1,200 words or thereabouts. Some of the chapters where he muses at length about different aspects of Hitler’s policies, his private life and domestic circumstances, and about specific political and social circumstances are too long and repetitive.

Despite these shortcomings I found the story of Hitler and Germany to be absorbing, appalling and traumatic in the sense that such a society as the Germans, probably the most intellectual, cultured and scientifically progressive society in the western world in the early years of the twentieth century, could have degenerated into such barbarity as they did under Hitler’s leadership and that of some of his most immediate and sadistic lieutenants.

Reading about Hitler’s youth it would be difficult to foresee that he had the leadership and charismatic attributes which were to make him an absolute dictator as he became to an adulating German population. However, his early immaturity and naiveté was associated with an unusual degree of self-confidence and with strong prejudices, factors which played a crucial part in his political career.

Hitler was born close to the border separating Austria and Germany. From the beginning he was obsessed by certain political views and racial prejudices which drove him subsequently to destroy the weak and chaotic Weimer Republic. He was acutely conscious of the humiliation of the German nation after the first war and the abject response of the post-war German leaders to the draconian conditions imposed on their country by the Versailles Treaty. He was impelled to seek revenge for the humiliation which his country suffered at the hands of the Allies and particularly the French. He was also obsessed about the growth and dangers of Bolshevism. A further obsession concerned the evil influence of the Jews, their responsibility for the First World War, their infiltration into the life of the German people and their close connection with Bolshevism. He was dedicated to preserving the purity of the German race, personified by the great achievements of Frederick the Great and Bismarck, and to find space for Germans in the East where they might replace such inferior peoples as the Poles, Russians and the Slavs of Southern Europe.

The Weimar Republic had a chequered career during the 15 years following the Great War. The post-war Germans were poorly adapted to democracy and the country was bedevilled by numerous political parties and movements extending from royalist and the most right wing groups to the left wing Communists and Trotskyites. Many of these parties were involved in a degree of lawlessness and political violence which was incompatible with a stable democratic state. 

President Von Hindenburg and his Chancellor, Hitler 1933
Hitler’s success owed most to his supreme confidence and his remarkable skills as an organiser and demagogic speaker. Also, even during the worst periods of Nazi barbarism, he was able to distance himself, at least to some extent in the eyes of the German public, from the murderous actions of his lieutenants. It was they who were mainly held responsible by the decent elements which still existed in Germany for the ruthless behaviour and atrocities while Hitler, having laid the seeds of German barbarity, was the last to suffer the ignominy of the public and then only towards the end of his days. Hitler and the Nazis supported the racial purity policy of euthanasia aimed at eliminating the dependent old, disabled and mentally afflicted people but, after up to 100,000 such people deemed to be in these categories had been disposed of and after increasing public outcry, he was pragmatic enough in 1939 to cancel the programme. And, despite his repeated intention to rid Germany of the Jews, he knew well how to assuage conservative national and international opinion at such times as the Olympic Games in 1936 by remaining relatively silent on the issue. The real elimination of the German and neighbouring Jews did not commence until the wartime when international opinion no longer concerned Hitler and his Party.

Hartheim Castle, euthanasia killing centre.
Even during the war, when the Germans reached the abyss of inhumanity, he was aware of the Holocaust and the genocide in Germany and the occupied countries, but he never referred to these activities on the part of his Party’s adherents nor did he suffer the opprobrium levelled at the perpetrators, at least until after the War. And in his anxiety to placate the Western Europeans, both occupied and not, he was careful to discourage the worst German barbarities in the West, apart from rounding up those Jews who did not receive the protection of the local population. The Nazi atrocities were inspired by Hitler and always received his support, openly or tacitly. The Jews were responsible for the first and second wars; they were behind the Bolshevik movement; they were the source of all evil in the world and when they were arrested and imprisoned, it was done for their own protection.

1930s German Autobahn
Whatever about the depths of depravity the Germans reached before and during the World War, a remarkable feature of the Hitler regime was the dramatic economic and infra-structural recovery and the return of self-confidence among the German people during the six peacetime pre-war years from 1933 to 1939. It is a reminder of the material and infrastructural progress which can be achieved under such an autocracy, free from the delays, irritations and frustrations of minority views and minority opinion. A similar situation existed in Italy, a country which was literally brought into the modern era under the dictatorship of Mussolini. Mussolini had by the 1930s earned the admiration of the world. Certainly this admiration existed among the Irish who were struggling to recover from the economic, political, social and cultural ravages of the Civil War, a recovery which was not made easier by our political system of democracy. The tragedy for Italy was Mussolini’s increasing bellicosity, his decision to invade Abyssinia and to join Hitler and the Axis, and thus to enter the war on the side of Germany.

The history of the twentieth century European dictators is an absorbing one. The dictators of Germany and Italy came to an abrupt end through hubris and self-destruction while those of Portugal and Spain were followed by the bloodless evolution of democracy. Perhaps Franco and Salazar were fortunate that they had not the same opportunities of dominating their neighbours and of empire building, and were able to spend their energies in national advancement rather than in military aggrandisement.  Where would Germany and Italy be to-day if their regimes had been benign ones without acquisitive foreign aspirations?

Particularly chilling was the gradual dominance of the German army by Hitler and the Nazis, the downright cowardice of the army leaders in resisting Hitler and the SS, the erosion of the rule of law among the military and their almost abject acceptance of Hitler’s military decisions during the Russian campaign. Astonishingly, despite individual and covert expressions of disloyalty, they maintained their loyalty to Hitler even though many of them knew that the Russian campaign was doomed to failure.

Hitler had some elements of humanity and tolerance, at least in his domestic life, but the expression of such attributes outside the domestic scene lay dormant as his fiercely dedicated and inhuman supporters, Himmler, Goebbels, Heidrich, Wagner, and numberless other Nazi leaders were determined to push his political philosophies to the extreme limit. The sheer barbarity of those who controlled Poland, Russia and the Baltic States is a reminder of the depths to which human depravity can descend when a population or society is deluded by fear and by psychopathic and bizarre leadership. And this barbarity was not confined to the Germans alone as was evident among many Ukrainians who were not slow to join in the worst aspects of the Holocaust after they were invaded and treated lightly by their victors during the Russia invasion.

The twentieth century later was to prove that such barbarities did not end with Hitler and the Germans. It is a cogent reminder of the current American scene where a country with a remarkable history of tolerance, equality and freedom may be dominated by Bush and the American military/industrial complex and by the power and expansion of the American economic empire. And we already have the precedent of inhuman American behaviour in Vietnam and Central and South America to confirm that even the American people are not immune to causing further holocausts. Will Bush and his arrogant right wing lieutenants be classified by posterity with Hitler and the Nazis as purveyors of hubris and Nemesis? Will the Goddess of divine retribution condemn us all in the process?

Hitler Youth gathering for Summer Camp
Hitler’s absolute power and the total loyalty he received from his party’s single-minded allegiance lead to a serious breakdown in the central structure of government, the adverse effects of which increased during the war and was to account for many of the failures in administration and in planning which were evident then. Every strand of authority depended on him, including eventually all decisions about military strategy on the eastern front. It was a recipe for disaster, particularly because of his megalomania.

Celebrating Hitler's birthday
Hitler neither drank nor smoked, and was a strict vegetarian. He disliked smoking and discouraged it among his friends and domestic staff. He believed that smoking caused cancer without defining its site. He had his own medical advisers in whom he had a blind trust. Always concerned about his health and believing that he would die prematurely, he became increasingly a hypochondriac and towards the end of the Russian campaign he was stated to be on 28 tablets every day.

Versailles, the French and the failure of democracy in the Weimar Republic were some of the root causes of Hitler’s rise. The harsh treatment of Germany after the Great War provided the basis of the Nazi tragedy. This contrasted with the generous Allied policies after the World War, and particularly with American policies of aid to Germany and Europe. These were policies which lead to a different Germany and a different Europe, and ultimately to the miracle of a united Europe where the ugly head of extreme nationalism is consigned to history.

It is an unfortunate fact that the policy of organised euthanasia during the 1930s was supported by many doctors and others who were not necessarily members of the Nazi party, nor were all those Germans who took part during the war in genocide and the holocaust committed members of the Party. And many who were guilty of the most heinous crimes against humanity escaped punishment by various means after the war. It is also apparent that most of those who were charged with crimes against humanity showed little remorse. They perceived Hitler to have delivered Germany from national humiliation to greatness and pride, and they were deeply imbued with Hitler’s vision of the Germans as the master race.

To many of the Nazi leaders, such as Bormann, National Socialism and Christianity were incompatible. In fact, the Nazis were opposed to any institution or movement they could not control. There is little doubt that, had the Germans won the war, the churches would not have survived in their dominions.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Travels with my girls.

My visit to Dingle with the girls. 
Written on December 19th 2014

I had been invited by my three sons to visit Edinburgh and the monastery in Nunraw in early September and I was quite excited when my three daughters, not to be out done a few weeks later, invited me as their guest to spend a weekend in Dingle in County Kerry where I retained such vivid memories of my early childhood and adolescence during my summer holidays from 1929 to 1937.

A photo I took of Baile Mór in 1937
Tina, Barbara and Lisa were my hosts.  Tina flew from her home in Strasbourg, hired a comfortable car and was our safe driver for the weekend.  We stayed in Mrs Benner’s hotel in Dingle, a hostelry I can recommend to the most fastidious.  We were greeted warmly by the staff and had an excellent dinner on arrival, imbibed by the champagne emailed to the hotel by one of my absent boys.

We spent the next day on the grand tour starting at Dingle, next to Ballyferriter and following to the coast at Slea Head, the Blaskets and on to Ventry and back from there to Dingle. We saw the Gallarus Oratory on the road to Ballyferriter.  It is a remarkable and very beautiful stone structure which was built in the 8th century, chapel like, and which is remarkable still in its perfection. It is striking in its isolation on the plain among the hills in this part of the Dingle peninsula and distantly over-shadowed by the peak of Mount Brandon, the second highest mountain in Ireland. 

We passed through Ballyferriter without stopping there although it is known as the centre of Irish speaking in this part of Ireland.  It was a beautiful day with little wind, no cloud and yet we were struck by the view of the mighty ocean crashing against the cliffs and the rocks as we moved around the headland towards Sea Head and the  Blaskets.  When we arrived at Slea Head the well designed visitors centre was closed but we had a fine view of the Baskets on this clear bright day.  We also had a fine view of the distant Skelligs in the south west. We climbed down to the old quay at the bottom of the cliff where the curraghs used to land from the islands.  I remember well on a few stormy occasions in my early days making the apparently perilous journey to and from the Blaskets but the curraghs, handled by highly skilled and competent men, were in safe hands no matter how turbulent the sea and  despite the constant pitching  movements of these light canvas craft. 

I take my first photo on a smartphone
Like my boys three months earlier, the girls enjoyed each other’s company very much and had much to talk about though. Tina, good driver as she is, did remain reasonably quiet during the longer and more concentrated parts of our journey.  I became largely involved in their discussions and I was able to talk with Barbara and Lisa who were in the back seat by turning my only functioning ear sideways so that I could hear their conversation as well as I could hear the driver’s.  We spoke about anything and every thing and they showed little interest in domestic affairs. The two days with the three girls provided a greatly different and more stimulating ambience to one’s contact with them in the domestic scene where family affairs tend to dominate. I did not feel in any way an outsider during these quite intensive conversations as I joined in solving the affairs of the world.  I had the advantage over them as I had some Irish and I could show off a little from time to time with the odd stranger. Indeed we heard little Irish among those we encountered despite being in the heart of the Munster gaelteacht. 

I found it a little strange at the beginning of our trip that I could not identify the girls' names accurately in discussion as I normally could.  They are alike in size, posture and in accent but they’re being constantly together during our time caused me a little confusion and lead to my addressing them wrongly at times.  I eventually found the solution to this dilemma, the colour of their hair differed.  Lisa’s is almost black, Barbara is blond and Tina’s practically white with only a tinge of blond. 

A postcard  I sent to my mother in 1933 showing the road
We continued from Slea Head along the cliff coast to Ventry.  I recall this cliff road as being very narrow and being quite unsuitable for modern traffic.  The perilous and narrow road which stretched from Slea Head to Ventry many years ago has been widened and made safe. It is a credit to the engineers who have now provided us with this remarkable safe passage.

In Ventry we piled into the local and well known pub, Pádaí O’Sé’s.  It was full of people of all ages and I expect that this is the normal ambiance of the house there.  We soon joined into the spirit of things with our pints and with the warm chat of our neighbours.  That evening, after dining well in the hotel, we visited an equally crowded pub, with a good mix of locals as well visitors.  The noise was deafening and was accentuated by various musical instruments and enthusiastic players. Eventually I was driven by the noise and excitement to return to the peace of the hotel and to rational conversation. There is no doubt that the pub is the centre of all social intercourse in Kerry.

Dingle as a town has no great architectural merits but is obviously very prosperous if one is to judge by the numerous attractions for visitors and particularly for Americans.  Many of the people of the Dingle peninsula emigrated to the US during the past century or more and particularly to the Boston area, and seemed to return to the same spot in Kerry where they are undoubtedly very good contributors to the wealth and welfare of Dingle.  The town has many shops attracting visitors and has other advantages such as much improved facilities particularly in the harbour area.  It has the real treasure and greatly admired stained-glass windows by Harry Clarke in its convent close to the Catholic Church and is famed for Fungi the lone dolphin which for many years now guards the entrance to the harbour and which enjoys cavorting among the visitors who are brought there by the local boatmen.

On the following morning we went shopping and paid another visit to the harbour. We then returned about three miles along the Ventry road to visit Baile Mór and the Clery house on the coast where I stayed for about three or four summers during the 1930s. Rita Clery had been our teacher, carer and Irish speakers in the early 1930s and later as a close family friend after she qualified as a nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Here we met another Clery relation and his wife and I was able to convey some of the history of the area to them!

In my time the Clerys were farmers but they largely depended on the sale of lobsters to a French company whose boat called every week or two for the lobster catch. I used go out twice daily lobster fishing with the two older boys in the family. I spent my time too with some of the local lads exploring the many coves and rocks for jetsam and other treasure along the adjacent coast. I used to sleep in the loft above the cattle shed in the yard and I was not apparently too disturbed by the grunts and flatulent sounds of the cattle below. I still remember the towel piled high with flowery potatoes at dinner and the added fish, crabs and even lobsters which had been damaged and unfit for sale to the French.

Open air Irish dancing at the crossroads was popular during my childhood in Dingle in the 1930s.  Music was provided by a fiddler and an accordion or melodeon.  A dedicated night of dancing at such a function, usually on a wooden or concrete platform at the crossroads, required energy expenditure which would be required to do a fast half marathon.  Set dancing was the rule and age was no bar – all three generations took part!  “The Walls of Limerick” and the eight hand reel were popular and were indulged in with great gusto in terms of both energy and high spirited shouting that might raise the roof if such existed.  The spontaneous enthusiasm of the Kerry dances and the wholesome freshness of the open air, often under brilliant starlit skies which are no longer seen since darkness left the earth.  They were hugely enjoyable perhaps because little alcohol was part of the scene.  At a time when transport was very limited and the houses were widely scattered in the hills and countryside, the dancing, like the Sunday Mass, provided one of the few means of social cohesion for young and old.  Now the houses are scattered everywhere, many bungalows and modern houses thickly planted along the roads and elsewhere. During our visit I was unable to identify the site of the concrete dancing area.

Later during the second afternoon of our visit we drove directly to the village of Littleton near Cashel in the Co. Tipperary where my father and mother are buried in the same site as his parents.  It was pitch dark by the time we got there but much to my surprise and wonder I found that Tina and Lisa were taking numerous photographs of the parents' grave and of the churchyard in general without using a flash.  To a person of my limited knowledge of the modern world, it seemed astonishing that photographs could be taken in the dark and I was more than surprised to see the very good results which were presented to me a few days later.   

My two days with my three girls were such happy ones and they, like their brothers and older siblings, will retain a warm glow of affection in my mind during my remaining days. I can also be grateful to being part of an extended family with a good tradition of amity and of care for each other.  When I was asked by one of my daughters about the good fortune we enjoyed as a family I attributed it to my previous generation, including my parents, who went through all the turmoil of the 1916 -24 period and who survived and I suspect improved in outlook rather than suffered in any way. That generation, disastrously divided by the Civil War, was careful to ensure that their differences were never conveyed to their offspring so that we were never touched by their conflict.

When I went three months ago to Edinburgh the only money I carried was a two euro piece which I  keep in a small box on my desk  I have added the second euro coin to my box which I brought home from Dingle.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Seán MacDiarmada, the man, and a personal connection.

Seán MacDiarmada, the Mind of the Revolution. 
Gerard MacAtasney. Drumlin Publications, Manorhamilton, 2004.

Written on November 17th 2004
This review is a copy of a letter I sent to the author after I had read the book.

I was delighted to get the copy of your biography of Seán MacDiarmada which I have read in its entirety. It arrived just as I was laid low with influenza so it kept my fevered mind occupied. You are to be congratulated on producing the first biography of a historical figure who has been neglected by historians for too long. Your account of the lead up to 1916 from 1907 was very revealing and gives an excellent insight to the forces which lead up to the rebellion. What emerges from your biography was the fact that Seán MacDiarmada, although implacable in his early commitment to violence and revolution, was otherwise such a normal and popular figure and had come from such a humble background.

There is no doubt that MacDiarmada, with his hard work, his flair for organisation, his popularity with others, and his devotion to the cause, was the prime influence leading to the rebellion. It could not have taken place without him, a fact relatively few people are aware of. Even Tom Clarke, with his lifetime of sufferings at the hands of the British, and the encouragement and support of Clan na nGaedheal, could not have provided the necessary impetus without him. Others, such as Pearse and Connolly, also played a role in initiating the Rising but I doubt if they would have succeeded without the years of preparation by McDiarmada and his extraordinary discretion and success in hiding his plans from all except the chosen few in the IRB. Even his closest friends had no idea of his carefully laid plans up to the weekend of the Rising. Ulick O’Connor reminds me that when Pearse visited John Devoy in the United States in 1915, he so impressed Devoy that the latter concluded that Pearse had all the qualities of inspiration, dedication and patriotic culture which made him a natural figure to lead the rebellion. Pearse’s seminal role in the Rising could not have evolved without the years of preparation by McDiarmada and without his influence and  that of Tom Clarke.

I found the text well written and readable. Otherwise I could not have read it as quickly as I did. There were many interesting insights, including the roles of McCullough, Pat McCarton and Hobson who were early separatists in Belfast and the North. It was revealing how these three men, living in the unionist stronghold of Ulster, had such an early influence on the evolution of IRB policies, although they do not appear to have had the same radical outlook with the passage of time, perhaps because of the more hostile situation for the nationalists in Ulster. I know that McCullough did mobilise his group at the time of the Rising but he was in an impossible situation, isolated as he was in the North. I have always felt that his heart was not in the action once it had failed to involve the provinces. It is doubtful if even McDiarmada would have succeeded in organising the Rebellion without the early influence and encouragement of the three Northern patriots, and without McDiarmada’s early work in organising the Dungannon Clubs.

I was interested in the politicising of the Gaelic League and I did not know that it was the IRB leadership which was so influential in bringing about this unfortunate development. I have little doubt that the Gaelic League, if it had remained outside the political arena, would have contributed more to our language, culture and the national movement than it subsequently did. The move certainly alienated the more moderate section of the middle class Protestants. However, I suppose that it was unlikely that it could remain detached from the more extreme forms of politics, taking the fervent political activities of the early twentieth century. It would certainly have remained a more ecumenical Irish language movement if it had continued the neutral political policies of Douglas Hyde.

A letter from Seán to Mother, a month before the rising.
I was glad you had access to MacDiarmada’s letters to my mother as his association confirmed his very normal social and human side. It is hard not to see a parallel between letters to my mother and those from Michael Collins to Kitty Kiernan – the same frenetic activity and missed appointments, the impression that they were written while he was actually on the move, and the same discretion in relation to his political work. There was one important difference between McDiarmada and Collins. Collins was a dominating figure, both in the military and political areas. He was hugely admired by his intimates, including my father who was his chief of staff during the War of Independence, but he acquired enemies during his short and meteoric career because of his propensity to suffer fools and the incompetent badly, and perhaps too because of jealousy among his lesser political colleagues. Seán Mcdiarmada was greatly loved by all, lacked Collins’ brusqueness and was not the subject of resentment by his colleagues, largely because of his discretion and the secret nature of his work. Padraig O’Keeffe, secretary of Sinn Fein during the War of Independence, spoke of the anti-Treaty vote in the Dáil in January 1922. According to him it was partly an anti-Collins vote. O’Keeffe knew all the military and political leaders of the national movement during the War of Independence, the Truce and the Civil War. He was a good and impartial judge of his colleagues. His detailed account of the period is contained in several of the tapes he recorded with my father in the 1960s.

Whatever one might think of the merits of the 1916 rebellion, and there are plenty of revisionists about, it is remarkable that a society which, apart from Griffith and his small coterie of followers, had reached a low ebb in terms of nationalism and separatism had changed dramatically and almost entirely to extreme nationalism and even separatism within six short years. Would our status as an independent nation within the Commonwealth have been achieved as early or at all if 1916 had not taken place? We would certainly have been spared the Civil War, the greatest calamity to hit us since the Union. No doubt historians (and Kevin Myers!) will continue to speculate about such matters but it is clear that MacDiarmada was one of the principle architects of our recent turbulent history.

Since reading your biography, I read a short monograph about Griffith by George Lyons, published in 1923. I was reminded about the many strands of nationalism in Ireland at the time, extending from the most ardent unionists to the radical leaders of the Rebellion. It was surely a miracle that we did find a solution which went some way towards reconciling those with so many political differences and perhaps in the early twenty first century the country will have reached the final goals of unity and independence.  

Your book is an important addition to my library.

My Mother Min in 1921
PS recorded on 10/1/2014: Seán Mac Diarmada was close to my mother, then Mary Josephine ‘Min’ Ryan, who was an active member of Cumann na mBan. There exists 24 of his letters to her, the last of these written on the Friday before the weekend of the Rising. I have also read his final letter before his execution which he asked to be sent to his family in which he stated that he and Min would likely have married if he had survived  the rebellion.

Editor's note: In July 1916 Min was asked to contribute to the book “The Irish Rebellion of 1916 and it’s Martyrs". She wrote about the last time that she saw Seán McDermott in his cell in Kilmainham Jail. She and her sister Phyllis spent three hours with him before he was executed at four in the morning. She describes in a matter of fact but moving account his composure, his concern for those he was leaving behind, and his calm acceptance of his approaching death.  After his execution she wrote

At four o’clock that Friday morning when the shooting party had done their work, a gentle rain began to fall. I remember feeling that at last there was some harmony in Nature. These were assuredly the tears of my dark Rosaleen over one of her most beloved sons.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Maud Gonne

Maude Gonne – Lucky Eyes and a High Heart. Nancy Cardozo. New Amsterdam, New York, 1990 (1978). Pp 468.

This review was written on August 23rd 2004.

My brother Seán picked up this book from his daughter when he paid her a visit on Long Island in June 2004. He had a high opinion of the biography. Maude Gonne was the daughter of a British army officer, Tommy Gonne, who was a loyal and committed servant of Queen Victoria’s. He was stationed in Ireland during Fenian times and later during the time of Parnell and the Land League. Her mother, née Cooke, whose family was ravished by tuberculosis, died from the disease when Maude was four years old and shortly after her sister Eileen was born. The Cookes had ancestors who were landowners in Mayo but by mid-nineteenth century they were a well established and wealthy family in London who had prospered in the wine trade.

The Gonnes were reasonably well off, probably because of the connection with the Cooke family. Maude Gonne had an unusually liberal and unconventional upbringing for these Victorian times, spending much of her time away from her father in Ireland, England and Europe. She was precocious, self confident and unwilling to accept the prevailing conventional restrictions on women. When with her father she was encouraged by him in her liberal ways and as she matured into adolescence and early adulthood as a tall and strikingly beautiful woman, she accompanied him everywhere as a companion and close confidante.

During her younger years in Ireland she enjoyed the privileges and the active social life of the Anglo-Irish establishment but, like some other arrivals from England, she became conscious of the British repression in Ireland and she felt an increasing concern about the distressful state of the indigenous Irish Catholic population. She stated in an interview many years later, and long after she had joined the separatist movement, that it was the evictions that had transformed her into an Irish rebel and that this had happened as early as her nineteenth year after she had spent a year or two of an independent existence roaming the four corners of Ireland as a privileged member of the governing classes. She eventually influenced her father to withdraw the British troops from police duties in Ireland and thus to stop the army’s role in the evictions. He eventually resigned his commission, was increasingly influenced by her and by Irish nationalism, and was about to stand for parliament as a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party under Parnell when he died tragically and unexpectedly from typhoid fever.

For Maude, her father’s premature death was a devastating blow but in no way did it change her lifestyle nor did it affect her commitment to the Irish cause. She was left with a generous inheritance and during her life time she spent much of her time travelling between Ireland, England and France. She maintained a flat in Paris as well as a residence in Dublin. From the early 1880s she devoted much of her life to alleviating the sufferings of the evicted tenants during the land wars and she was largely responsible for the ultimate release of the 27 Fenian prisoners from the horrors of the British jails. From her early days she was to complain about the British maladministration of Ireland. While she became quite extreme in her political views, like many of the women and the widows of those who were active during the 1916-1922 period, she always claimed that her only mission during her long and devoted life was the alleviation of the Irish peasantry and the Irish political prisoners, including those in prison during the civil war. She was equally concerned about the fate of the Boers during the war in South Africa and did much to encourage support for the insurgents there.

She was eventually to distance herself from all secret revolutionary organisations such as the IRB because of their abysmal history of failure, attributed to the activities of British spies, as was apparent during the Fenian times. With her inseparable friend and would be lover, William Butler Yeats, she resigned from the IRB and determined from that time that all her nationalistic activities would be carried on above board.

For long periods she was unable to leave France for England or Ireland for fear of arrest by the British authorities. For many years she was a great source of embarrassment to the British in Westminster, in Dublin, and in Europe and America. In France she had a French lover who fathered her first two children, the first of whom died in infancy. Seán McBride was her third child by her one and only husband, John McBride, who was executed after the 1916 rebellion. The marriage was short-lived as most of her friends and intimates anticipated. It turned out to be a disaster. In his poem, Easter 1916, Yeats refers to McBride:

This other man I had dreamed,
        A drunken vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song.
        He too had resigned his part in the casual comedy;
He, too, had been changed in his turn, ---.

Incredibly, Maude Gonne managed to conceal her relationship with her French lover and the birth of her first two children from her many friends and associates in Dublin and London. She passed off her daughter Iseult as an adopted child! Apart from her many travels in Ireland to visit the evicted tenants and her visits to prisons in Ireland and England, she was a prolific writer and public speaker in her various campaigns in the home islands as well as France, the United States and Europe. Her energy was prodigious despite chronic ill health and recurring fatigue the result of her many crises and crusades.

Pope Leo X111, who was a particularly powerful figure in Rome at the end of the nineteenth century, at first supported a peaceful solution to the land problems in Ireland. However, while she was in Rome, Maude Gonne met an English emissary who was sent to the Vatican by the British. No doubt it was he who successfully influenced the Pope to condemn the land reform leaders and to support the British in their policies of repression and deportation. So much for the power politics of our holy mother church! One of the impressions that emerges from the Maude Gonne biography was how ruthless the British were in hiding the Irish situation from the international scene. It was in publicising the shortcomings of the British administration of Ireland that Maude Gonne and her supporters played such a crucial role. Of course her story confirms that power corrupts, for even after the land settlement we had the cattle dealers and other native Irish who, because they had the necessary money, not infrequently treated the tenants as badly as did the hated landlord.

This biography makes it clear that there were many strands of the nationalist movement in Ireland which made it inevitable that fundamental differences of opinion and different concepts of self government and of separatism would lead to serious divisions, not only between North and South but also within the boundaries of the two parts of Ireland. These differences within the country were at least as important in delaying a solution to Ireland’s problems as were the aspirations and imperialist motives of Westminster and the Tory tradition. That many nationalists became more extreme in their sense of separatism as the twentieth century progressed was also apparent and was largely caused by the 1916 Rising, the Northern Unionists, Lloyd George’s attempt to impose conscription on Ireland, and the bitterness on both British and Irish sides engendered during the last six months of the War of Independence. Patrick Pearse as late as 1912, speaking at a public meeting to an enthusiastic gathering of home rulers, stated that he would be satisfied as long as home rule with a modicum of self-government was granted at an early date. He added prophetically that if home rule was defeated the result would inevitably lead to blood letting and violence. Perhaps violence was inevitable because of the intervention of Sir Edward Carson, the Ulster Unionists and the treasonable members of the Tory party who encouraged the Ulster dissidents.
This is a fine biography of a very remarkable woman and gives a good insight into the progress of Irish nationalism and the emergence of a new generation of educated and capable indigenous people. However, it would have been a greater tribute to Maude Gonne and her contribution to the Irish people if the author had finished the story at 1922 with the passage of the Treaty by Dáil Éireann. Unfortunately, the author allowed herself to be influenced by a biased and bitter account of the first Irish administration which does little credit to the reputation of the subject of her biography. Maude Gonne may well have shared the anti-treaty view of so many of the female activists at the time but she herself would hardly have approved of the criticisms of the author who described the acts of the Irish government as tantamount to the behaviour of the worst of British times. If the Irish government broke the rules of war, it was in response to the atrocities and mindless vandalism of the irregulars.

Maud Gonne in the grounds of Roebuck House.
PS: Maude Gonne lived for many years after the Treaty in Roebuck House in the Palms in Clonskeagh, a pleasant cul-de-sac where Louise and I moved in 1995. I pass Roebuck House every day and wonder at the size of the building. It now houses at least eight fairly commodious apartments and may have up to ten cars parked there every day. I expect that Seán McBride must have lived there too during his earlier years before his marriage. See my earlier review of his biography by Catriona Lawlor and Terry de Valera.-R.