Sunday, 30 August 2015

Seán McBride

Seán McBride – That Day’s Struggle. A Memoir 1924-1951. Recorded and edited by Caitriona Lawlor. Currach Press, Dublin, 2005.

(Caitriona Lawlor, was Seán McBride's secretary from 1977 to 1988)

The following review was written on December 31st 2005 and was published in the Irish Times

Seán McBride was the only son of John and Maud Gonne McBride. He lived in Paris for the first fourteen years of his life. His mother was barred from entry to Ireland by the British because of her separatist views. His father was executed in 1916 following the rebellion.

It is not surprising that McBride was committed to the republican ideal with this family background. He opposed the Treaty on grounds of partition and the oath. Like many opponents of the settlement, he had little insight into the ineluctability of partition. He arrived in Ireland in 1918 and, despite his youth of 15 years, he acted as a messenger for the Sinn Féin and military leaders during the War of Independence.  He spent the entire civil war period in jail. He remained in the IRA after the civil war but his activities were confined to defending dissident republicans who were charged under the Offences against the State Act.  He was appointed chief of staff of the IRA for 18 months in 1936 but claimed that he was only appointed in a caretaker capacity and was opposed to violence against the state forces.

In 1961 MacBride became the first director of Amnesty International
He was instrumental in forming the Clann na Poblachta party in 1946. He was Minister for External Affairs in the first Inter-party Government in 1948. This Government was defeated in 1951 following the Browne controversy and because of mounting economic difficulties. He refused a cabinet position in the second inter-party government and lost his Dáil seat in 1961. Thanks to his French background and ministerial contacts with British, European and American leaders, he became involved in international affairs at a high political and social level.

His family background determined his early and uncompromising political views, but shifts in political attitudes made him an enigmatic figure. His memoirs read as the spoken rather than written word and terminate at the time of his retirement from the cabinet in 1951. His views on several controversial issues are largely based on self justification and he tends to be dismissive, patronising and even embarrassingly personal about his opponents. He takes more credit than is consistent with the facts for such events as the formation of the inter-party government, the passing of the External Relations Act, Ireland’s departure from the Commonwealth, and the new and enlightened economic policies of his government. His views on these and other issues cannot be accepted without appropriate research and documentary evidence. He provides none.

His interests extended beyond his remit as minister for external affairs to such areas as forestry, waterways and the railway system. He tended to lecture civil servants and to interfere in other government departments, thus not always endearing himself to colleagues. In his capacity as an energetic minister for external affairs and during his subsequent career abroad, he undoubtedly helped to counteract the insular attitude of the post World War Irish. Later, after retiring from national politics, his career was distinguished by many important contributions to European unity and to the human rights movement. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, an irony not lost on some of his opponents.

McBride’s emerges as a man of energy with a wide interest in social, economic and political affairs. However, he also emerges from his own writings as a man of unusual vanity, less than charitable to his opponents, happy in the company of world figures, consistent in seeing himself in a favourable light and without providing the necessary evidence to allow historians take an impartial view of his contributions to recent Irish history. 

Thursday, 20 August 2015

This hungry editor is sated once more

Typical writing attire.
Thoughts on reviewing books

This was written in 2012

At the time of my retirement in 1988 I became more interested in general writing.  During my professional years I did frequent reviews for the medical newspapers.  Then and later I did occasional reviews for the Irish Times and the Sunday Independent.  It was later, at the end of the millennium, when I was more than ten years retired, that I thought of reviewing all books I read as an academic exercise.  I have now collected about 140 reviews. None were on fiction. I had first read fiction in my early adult years when I discovered the vast store of sixpenny paperback Penguins, fiction and non-fiction. They were the basis of my real education.

The thrill of being a scholar...
Since my return to Ireland after four years in London as a postgraduate student and after my settling down in Dublin in 1950 after my appointment to St. Vincent’s Hospital, I became so absorbed in medical reading and subsequent medical epidemiology that I stopped all general reading and fiction and devoted my time to medical subjects only. Despite my widespread general reading after I retired from my hospital work in 1988 I never returned to the reading of fiction.

Most media reviews we encounter are straightforward and are published to inform the reader about the book’s content.  My reviews tend to be less specific in their purpose, often but not always impinging on my own special interests or prejudices.  My choice of reading tends to be eclectic with books chosen by chance or by being lent or by hearsay.  My interests are in all aspects of life but not in any specialised subject although there is an emphasis on recent Irish history because of my family’s close involvement in the revolutionary days of the early 20th century. My father had been the head of the Irish revolutionary army from March 1918 to May 1923 and the political head of the army from January 1922 to March 1924.

Trying to practise what I was preaching
During my professional lifetime as a practising cardiologist in my two hospitals – I was also a physician to the Coombe Lying in Hospital – I became involved in research into the coronary epidemic which emerged worldwide in the later 1950. It emerged in most advanced countries like a thief in the night. It was to involve me later in much travel and international contact during the international programme aimed at controlling the epidemic which stabilised by the 1980s and began to subside by the end of the century, thanks largely to identifying cigarette smoking. Heavy cigarette smoking had become widespread during and after the World War of 1939-1945.

Much had been achieved by the time I had retired from my epidemiology days. This research has been a major part of my work and that of my close colleagues at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. Despite some references in our work to other heart subjects, coronary heart disease during my active days accounts for the bulk of our research. It was a worldwide programme in searching the causes of the morbidity and mortality of the epidemic and has been rewarded by the huge fall in coronary disease in our countries and the great increase in longevity which we are now enjoying in the world.  

Coláiste Mhuire Parnell Square. Abandoned in 2004
As an aside I have to say that I had a rather poor secondary education.  The revival of the Irish language was part of the policies of the new Irish government. My father was a devoted lover and speaker of Irish. He was a minister in the 1927-1932 cabinet and he was largely responsible, with a ministerial colleague, Ernest Blythe, in establishing an Irish speaking secondary school in Parnell Square in 1928 under the direction of the Christian brothers, an important teaching order which provided secondary education to the Irish after the Catholic Emancipation. I learned to speak the Irish language but in retrospect I can say that other subjects, including English, history, Latin and mathematics were on the curriculum, but the teaching and the speaking of Irish received priority and this emphasis can be judged by the results of my leaving certificate and by my success in leading my class in pass Latin with a mark of 41%, a level which just allowed me to join the medical faculty at University College Dublin at the age of 17.

However, I was fortunate that, about this time, I was introduced to the popular sixpenny Penguin paperbacks which over subsequent years were to provide me with a wealth of fiction and a huge source of non-fiction. I became devoted to these treasures of entertainment and of information and I have little doubt that my many hours of Penguin reading has been the most important source of education during my earlier years. Some of my children were also influenced by the paperbacks and, between my own library and that of my daughter’s, Barbara, we hold about 600 of these paperbacks in our libraries. They are still a valuable source of entertainment and information   provided by the writers of the early 1900s and their predecessors.

Should you keep notes or quotes whilst you are preparing a review?  Should you dictate or write a review as you read the book?  Should you permit fast reading or skipping of the text?  On reflection the best approach is to jot down reminders while reading which may contribute to the final review. It is best completed when the book has finally been read and perhaps after some more time to think about it. 

I have seldom had recourse to fast reading or skipping.  It tends to disturb the easy rhythm of the reading habit. But where you have a book of more than 400 pages where at least half is devoted to details of military and other specialised areas, as in my review of Khartoum, you might be forgiven for skipping through some pages. Skipping does leave a general impression of the skipped contents and can add to the final text.

In the final analysis, the satisfaction I have had in doing reviews is based on life in general, in expressing my own views and prejudices, and the benefit it may have in adding to my knowledge and retaining the gist of the book’s content. Without the review one’s memory of a book’s content can fade with the passage of time.   Time spent in writing and completing a review cannot be measured in terms of hours or days. The review may be completed shortly after finishing the book or may be delayed because of further thought and because of possible additions and deletions.  

Going out for a walk can be recommended; apart from its health contribution. Walking provides a good opportunity for reflection about your current book review.  No matter how you feel beforehand, you will always feel better after a walk and a walk alone under agreeable circumstances can provide a fine opportunity to think about your current review. It also may give the wandering mind ideas for another review. It is not uncommon that a rambling and a casual thought can, after reflection, lead to a blog which may be welcomed by a hungry editor.

Friday, 14 August 2015

A man for all seasons

The Turnstone - a Doctor's Story. Geoffrey Dean, MD, FRCP, FRCPI, FFCMI. Liverpool University Press, 2002, 

This review was written on November 22nd 2002 and added to in 2008.

Geoffrey Dean was born in England in 1916 but spent the first half of his professional career in South Africa where he practised as a consultant physician in Port Elizabeth. He moved to Ireland in 1968 when he was appointed head of the newly established Medico-Social Research Board. His appointment was earned because of his outstanding interest in and research contributions to epidemiology while living in South Africa. His autobiography combines the story of his personal life with an account of his internationally recognised work in medical epidemiology. The book will be remembered most for his contributions to the epidemiology of porphyria, multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, histoplasmosis and lung cancer. Chapters on these subjects make fascinating reading and confirm his gift of combining slow painstaking collection of data from many sources and countries with serendipity, a feature not uncommon among those who have contributed to outstanding scientific progress in medicine and medical progress.

Dean spent 18 years as Director of the MSRB which was established by Erskine Childers, Minister for Health, in 1968. This modestly funded government agency, of which I and a few colleagues interested in public health and health promotion were members, did, under the leadership of Dean, an immense amount of work in dealing with topical social and public health problems which then prevailed in Ireland. His account of his years here will bring back many memories of the circumstances which prevailed here and the excellent record of the Board and its director during the Board’s relatively short life. Like his colleagues on the Board, he failed to understand the decision of a later Minister for Health, Barry Desmond, who discontinued to support the Board and who merged the MSRB with the newly constituted Health Research Board. As he and the Board expected, subsuming the MSRB into an organisation largely controlled by consultants and academics had the expected effect of diminishing the volume of social and public health research and intervention which was and is still urgently necessary in this country.

One chapter records his two years in Bomber Command in the UK after he qualified and the grim casualty problems he had to deal with. Another was his narrow escape from imprisonment by the authorities in South Africa because of his protest about the treatment of prisoners during the Apartheid period. He was one of the very few South African doctors to protest. He describes the support he received in his defence from colleagues abroad and particularly from the members of the Royal College of Physicians in London.

Dr. Dean's account is an important contribution to the medico-social history of Ireland and to the history of medical epidemiology world-wide. He follows in the tradition of the great British epidemiologists in the past who were also practising doctors.

I am adding the following text of my obituary of Geoffrey which was published in the Irish Times in 2008 shortly after his death at the age of 92 years.

Geoffrey Dean, an Appreciation.

Doctor Geoffrey Dean was the first director of the Medico-Social Research Board from 1968 to 1986. He had a remarkable medical career  first as a practising physician and neurologist, and later as a world renowned medical epidemiologist. He was born in the British Midlands in 1916 and qualified at Liverpool University in 1943 after schooling at Ampleforth. In 1947, after two years serving in Bomber Command and becoming a member of the Royal College of Physicians, he emigrated to South Africa where he established a successful consultant practice in Port Elizabeth. In Africa he became interested in porphyria and published a book on the subject based on his remarkable researches into the disease which he traced back to the family which introduced the malady at the time of the Dutch settlement in 1685.

Dean and the Queen
His researches into porphyria led him to his wider epidemiological researches into multiple sclerosis, Friedrich’s ataxia and other neurological diseases, as well as lung cancer and histoplasmosis. His autobiography was published by the Liverpool Press in 1996 and provides details of his role as an internationally acclaimed medical epidemiologist. A major interest was his research into the epidemiology and genetic background of multiple sclerosis. He was closely associated with both the Irish and British Multiple Sclerosis Societies.

Dean’s first visit to Ireland was in the early 1960s when he was asked to investigate the causes of lung cancer in Belfast and in the surrounding countryside.  However he left South Africa in 1968 to become director of the newly established Medico-Social Research Board in Ireland. During his 18 year career as director he conducted inquiries into some of the most pressing social and health problems in this country. They included the growing drug culture, the alleged Sellafield role in causing Down Syndrome (which his investigations refuted), the alcohol culture and its role in cancer and other diseases, agricultural workers’ health problems, the psychiatric services, mental retardation and suicide, and many other medico-social problems. An immense amount was achieved by him and the Board on a shoe-string budget. Both he and the members of the Board greatly regretted that the successful MSRB was subsumed into the newly created Health Research Board shortly after Dean’s retirement.

While in Ireland he was honoured by Queen Elizabeth, University College, Dublin, and the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland.  He had an Irish grandmother on the distaff side.  Her genes must have had some influence in deciding his move from South Africa, where he had a successful consultant practice, to Ireland, a move which was to facilitate his burgeoning epidemiological research and which was to evoke in him a love and pride in his adopted country. 

During the tenure of his appointment in Ireland and up to his death, he continued his international researches. He contributed an immense number of articles to peer reviewed journals, and his last paper on the genetics of multiple sclerosis was published in the American journal Neurology in 2008. A later paper on porphyria and epilepsy is in press.

The long awaited memorial to those of Bomber Command
In chapter 13 of his autobiography he quotes Claude Bernard, the French physiologist ‘’The study of things caused must precede the study of the causes of things’’. He was highly educated and was an excellent and stimulating companion, but his modesty and his constant preoccupation with his researches and publications left little time for socialisation, at least in the public sphere. He was fortunate in the support his received at all times from his wife, Maria, who, by her loyalty and affection, patiently tolerated the many hours he spent in his study and in travel. To her and his extended family in South Africa and Ireland we proffer our sympathy. To them, and to his colleagues and those who knew Geoffrey well, he will be remembered with affection, and with a sense of pride and admiration because of his contributions to the wellbeing of humanity. Like Thomas Moore, whom he admired as his patron saint, Geoffrey was ‘’a man for all seasons’’.

Friday, 7 August 2015

The Irish War of Independence

The Irish War of Independence. Michael Hopkinson, Gill & Macmillan, 2002, Dublin. pp XV+274.

Written on March 3rd 2004 and edited on March 23rd 2015.

I read The Irish War of Independence by Michael Hopkinson in June 2003. I had previously complained that no definitive history of the War of Independence had been written. This work by Hopkinson partly fills the gap. 

It is important to refer to the definite date of the War. It is too often stated that the War of Independence started in January 1919 on the day when the first Dáil met and when the two policemen (RIC) were killed in Thurles by the two local volunteers. Their deaths were condemned by Brugha and Mulcahy. The following is a quote from Maryann Valiulis’s biography of my father;

This episode has on the one hand been outrageously propagandised as a leading episode in waking up the country and particularly waking up General Headquarters staff;  it has many regrettable and unwarranted features; it took place on the day that the Dail was been assembled for the first time and a Dail government established.   -- bloodshed should have been unnecessary in the light of the type of episode it was;  it completely disturbed the general public situation in the area; and it pushed rather turbulent spirits such as Breen and Treacy into the Dublin area from time to time, where their services were not required and their presence was often awkward.

1917 Terence MacSwiney wedding. Dad on right as best man.
It is quite clear that the War did not take place until Mulcahy as chief of staff and Cathal Brugha as Minister for Defence, in association with Terence MacSwiney in Cork, arranged for the  destruction of the RIC barracks countrywide, a policy which commenced in January 1920. The date of the War lasted for almost exactly 18 months from this time.

Chapters 6 (British Security Forces) and 7 (British Policy at the Cross-roads: April-August 1920) deal with the war from the British perspective. Hopkinson refers to the poor organisation and incompetence of Dublin Castle and the poor co-operation and understanding between the Dublin administration and Westminster. He also underlines the disastrous relations between Dublin Castle and the British army and the RIC. He notes the frequent failures of the British Cabinet to act on the advice of their Dublin colleagues, and the unresolved conflict which existed between the British army in Ireland and the RIC.  At no time during the War did the British succeed in uniting their military forces into one properly lead and unified group, a move which was frequently urged by the head of the army, Macready, and others but never taken seriously by Westminster, partly because the British were unwilling to admit internationally that they had a war on their hands which required little more than police intervention. Mulcahy, in his memoirs, was of the same mind as Macready that a unified force properly equipped and lead would have brought the guerrilla activities of the IRA to an end in a matter of a week or two. He expressed this opinion during his speech to the Dáil during the Treaty debate.

Chapters 19 and 20 deal with the Truce and the peace process.
British troops on Dublin streets 1920
Both are relatively short chapters but are of particular importance.  There were attempts to reach a settlement between the Irish and British during the eight months before the truce in July 1921 but all these efforts came to nothing.  These failures arose partly because of difficulties in making contact with responsible representatives of Sinn Fein. Despite his being back in Ireland for more than six months before the actual truce after his return from America, De Valera made no attempt to seek a truce with the British nor was it easy for Dublin Castle to make contact with him despite the widespread anxiety on both sides for a settlement.  This was the view of Sturgis in his account of the time. 

MacSwiney died after 74 days hunger strike.
Above all, however, Hopkinson puts most of the blame for the senseless continuation of the war on the shoulders of Lloyd George because of his increasingly hawkish approach and his intractable attitude to Sinn Fein and the IRA. In justice to Lloyd George, his optimism in quelling the Sinn Fein rebellion was at least partly due to much misinformation about the situation in Ireland and to hawkish pressures from conservative colleagues such as Wilson and Churchill. And the Irish Secretary in the Westminster Cabinet, Hamar Greenwood, lacked the ability, the insights or the political noose to bring the two sides together to create a more favourable ambiance for a meeting. Should de Valera after his return to Ireland at Xmas 1920, and perhaps with advice from Childers, not have made a move on the political front or would such a move weaken his position on the national side?

When he was a young Liberal member of parliament, Lloyd George was opposed to the Boer War and strongly favoured Irish Home Rule. His tenure of the premiership of the Coalition from 1916 to 1922, with its majority of Tories, appears to have changed these sympathies and to have lead to a characteristically Tory antipathy to the Irish and Irish nationalism. His refusal to deal with ‘the murder gang’ and to demand decommissioning of arms at the time of the Clune offer to organise a truce in November 1920 and Griffith’s willingness to negotiate was a disaster. A settlement at that time would have avoided the worst aspects of the war which occurred during its last six months, the increasing casualties which prevailed at this late date, the bitterness which prevailed between the black and tans, the auxiliaries and the volunteers which provoked our tragic civil war.

The general headquarters staff of the IRA is mentioned extensively in the chapters dealing with the struggle outside Dublin but the reader is left with little insight into the role of GHQ during the War. GHQ surely merits a separate chapter to explain its functions and its increasing influence during the war, its policies in relation to effective military strategies, appointments, executions, ethical considerations and other aspects of central control. While much of the earlier thrust and initiative of the fighters in the field originated in local areas, GHQ gradually extended it influence in the areas of organisation, training, supplies and ethical standards as the war progressed. Collins and Mulcahy are frequently mentioned in the text as representing GHQ in Dublin but a chapter describing the evolution of GHQ since its formation in March 1918, its aim and eventual success to establish the centrality and control of the war on the national scale and its eventual success in establishing the GHQ personnel with their various duties, would be a useful addition to the history of the War.
The four courts ablaze in June 1922
It is important to underline the significance of a well organised central GHQ, aimed at enhancing a military organisation with an ethical and efficient basis. When the Civil War erupted in June 1922 it was to the advantage of the smaller but better organised and     coordinated volunteers at GHQ in Dublin to overcome the larger but widely disorganised volunteers in the provinces. In effect one could say that the outcome of the Civil war was clearly evident when Dublin was cleared of Irregulars after nine days of clearing the Irregulars from the city. Would it have been different if the Irregulars in Dublin took to the streets instead of remaining cooped up in the Four Courts and in various buildings about the centre of the city? And what would have happened if a better organised Irregular force had planned to attack and used some of the British ordnance still lying about the city? 

By the time of the Truce in July 1921 there were 13 men on the Staff, all with defined duties and responsibilities. Such a chapter would provide more information about the successes, failures and limitations of the volunteers in Dublin and the provisions, and about their relationship with the Sinn Fein party and cabinet.

Despite GHQ’s problems of communication and shortcomings, and the difficult circumstances under which it was placed, divisionalisation planned in early 1921 was symptomatic of increasing influence of and effective control by GHQ during the later stages of the War. Apart from the organisational merits of divisionalisation, separate peripheral divisions were thought desirable because of the increasing threat to GHQ and the security of its membership as 1921 advanced. A definitive history of the War, including details of the GHQ organisation and staff, remains to be written.

Dad, inspects the troops.
The subject of this essay has been of considerable interest to me personally because of my father’s role as head of the army before, during and after the War of Independence. His reputation following his acknowledged guerrilla success in Ashbourne in 1916 lead to his preferment as head of the volunteers after his return from Frongoch. He was appointed the head of the army when it was formed in March 1918. He remained its head until the Treaty was accepted in January 1922. He resigned then and was appointed Minister for Defence. He was reappointed chief of staff on the 29th of June 1922 with the attack on the Four Courts and the start of the Civil War except for the six weeks from 13h of July 1922 when Collins was appointed commander in chief before his death in  August 1922. For Collins it was part of protocol to lead the army as head of Government.  Mulcahy continued as army head until he resigned at the end of the Civil War in May 1923 and continued as Minister of Defence during the Civil War until March 1924 when he resigned at the time of the Army Mutiny.

Same again but forty years later.
In terms of the military side of Sinn Féin no two people could have been closer in terms of policy, purpose and success than Collins and Mulcahy nor could two people be more different in character and personality. Collins’s character is well known for his open, almost brusque, approach, his energetic behaviour, his qualities of self confidence and leadership while Mulcahy was more measured and calm and far from seeking publicity of any sort. He was an excellent organiser, as was Collins, and he chose his colleagues in GHQ well while acknowledging that they received every credit for their endeavours. And he maintained silence about those whom he found wanting and thus avoided enemies. This is surely evident in his maintaining a strict professional relationship with Cathal Brugha, his political  boss, despite Mulcahy’s  insistence that he kept Brugha, as Minister of   Defence duly informed regularly about all GHQ affairs before, during and after the War of Independence as head of the army at the time.  His weekly visit to keep Brugha informed was clearly part of his duties. I have referred to Brugha’s lack of respect to my father’s status as head of the army during and after the Truce in my biography of my father.

Mulcahy was ‘’a backroom boy’’ in the best civil service sense. It was evident in his dedication to his evidence to work and his commitment to detail and in his enthusiasm and appreciation of activates such as Collins, McKee, Liam Lynch, Seán McEóin, Eóin O’Duffy and others. He was quick to give credit which was deserved by others. On this issue I have never found any reference to my father by Collins, good or bad, but he was not designed to ponder the personal nature of other people as part of his outward looking personality. 

Nowadays Collins is an iconic figure in Ireland both because of his political and military roles. At his iconic best he usually appears in military uniform. Mulcahy is little known publicly and even within the army his vital role is not apparent among the soldiers and within the trappings of barracks. (In a recent publication of past chiefs of staff his first name is mis-spelt, 2015) He was a devoted and admiring colleague of Collins and was responsible for his tributes, both during Collins’s lifetime and particularly after his death. His tribute to Collins at his graveside stands as one of the finest orations of recent times. 

About a third of the book is devoted to the guerrilla war in Dublin and the provinces. These chapters I found to be a little tedious, partly because of the selective and repetitive nature of the activities, and partly because, from the historical perspective, to be comprehensive it needed a book of its own. Although he clearly outlines the main methodology of the war in the provinces and the crucial importance of leadership in effecting and coordination  military activity, I have some sympathy with the author who must have found it difficult to present this material in a readable and comprehensive way.