The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Dreary Eden

Irish Voices: 50 Years of Irish Life 1916-1966,
by Peter Somerville-Large
(London: Chatto & Windus, 1999, £25 cloth)
£15 paper-- (c) 2000,
paperback ed. subtitled instead 'An Informal History'

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 16 September 2006

This ambitious book may look like it contains another glib hack-writer introducing after a fulsome preface a few hundred pretty photos on the Emerald Isle, the volume to be given as a gift destined to be dusted on your host's coffee-table. But, the text dominates nearly all 280 pages, the photos admittedly are handsome but for once far too few, and the result surveys the Anglo-Irish decline against the rise of Catholic Ireland. Its wars for independence introduce economic decline, religious triumph, cultural stagnation, and ultimately the slow demise of those 'out in 1916' as the verities of mid-20c Ireland collapse into the consumer-driven, Anglo- American media and market domination that accelerates past the final date of the book's title.

In fact, the 1916-1966 bracket shortens the span of the actual study. Somerville-Large relates sparingly but adroitly his own memories-- born in Dublin 1928 to a gentrified family of Protestant and English background-- into a tale of how his peers and forebears lived, before and after independence for most of the island. He reaches a depth of textural detail that I found refreshing. Even for readers familiar with subjects as often-recounted as the Easter Rising, this author manages to offer tellingly and well-chosen details that make this complicated subject fresh and startling at times.

For instance, one in three of those Irish who fought in the Great War died: 50,000. Twenty-eight children died in the Rising. 125 of the nearly 1800 insurgents on that Easter Monday came from a single Christian Brothers school in O'Connell St, another eighty-four from other CBS's. Only five had been educated in Jesuit schools-- most of their graduates could be found fighting on the French front.

Later decades reveal more divisions. At times, the gentry could talk the local IRA men out of burning down the Big House, by pulling rank and gaining the respect that still might emerge unconsciously from the sons of former tenants. For every Protestant child put up for adoption in the mid-century, ten families applied for its care. For every ten Catholic children in the same predicament, only one application was submitted. Those in state-run schools for those who did not find homes or parents could wake to hot cocoa-- made from shells-- in which the worms floated on top as scum, for the boiling water had killed them. Archbishop McQuaid-- an often stereotyped and caricatured figure not easy to love-- sent funds to many poor, including poet Patrick Kavanagh, who admitted he could not have remained in Ireland otherwise in such parlous decades as the constrained 40s and 50s. McQuaid also allowed, in 1947, those of his flock living in still-rationed Dublin to be exempted from the Lenten fast giving up meat; too many were malnourished. Lacking soap and fuel to heat hot water, those in that city's many tenements called the consequent scabies a 'Republican Itch'.

A trip by rail during WW2 from Dublin took 23 hours to reach Killarney, a couple of hundred miles away; a cartoon in the humour magazine Dublin Opinion shows a woman being tied to the tracks by a villain. She protests: 'don't leave me here, I'll starve!' Tea sold on the black market during WW2 at rates equal today to £40 per ounce. Bob Geldof's grandmother ran two Belgian dining places in the capital. A 1960 visitor observed that since 1916 the island's vistas had changed little; such bucolic bliss due that 'the spell of the land', observed an Englishwoman, which 'owes much to the enormous, the subtle and the speculative magic of the unsuccessful'. Somerville-Large wonders if the decline in religious observance has been replaced by 'the spiritual nourishment we gain from looking at paintings'. Growing up at Warrenpoint in the North, Denis O'Donohue, 'like a bird-watcher' at a hundred yards, asserted he could distinguish sectarian allegiances. The Protestants strutted as if they owned the place. Catholics shuffled 'as if they were there on sufferance'.

Anti-TB crusading doctor Robert Collis in 1936 noted how Dubliners spoke of their hometown affectionately as 'an old lady'. Visitors admire her distinctive garb, as if of handsome streets and Georgian houses, so 'they smile complacently and feel proud. Lift the hem of her outer silken garment, however, and you will find suppurating ulcers covered by stinking rags, for Dublin has the foulest slums of any town in Europe'. Recruiting literature from the Irish Army in the early 1940s, absent any mention of patriotism, appealed more directly to its impoverished potential volunteers: 'There are Physical Training Instructors to build up your muscle and bone, to say nothing of three good hot meals a day, a bed in warm comfortable quarters and enough pay to keep you in cigarettes'. Comrades in the Free State's forces included the sons of those who had fought against each other two decades earlier: a deValera, Cosgrave, Ryan, and Fitzgerald.

The early Aer Lingus stewardesses were recruited under requirements both for a knowledge of nursing and for how to make a fourth hand for bridge. The London tabloid News of the World although officially banned was read by 14 out of 55 working-class families in a suburban area of 1950 Cork. Nazi intelligence reported how the Irishman 'supports a community founded upon equality for all, but associates with this an extraordinary personal need for independence which easily leads to indiscipline and pugnacity'.

An old woman and thirty-three girls died in a locked dormitory in a convent school fire in 1943 Cavan town while the Poor Clares all escaped; 'local opinion' surmised that the sisters had kept the girls confined. Testimony later revealed that the sisters did not want their otherwise fleeing charges to be seen in their nightdresses. Civil servant Brian O'Nolan, a.k.a. Flann O'Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen, is supposed to have drafted not only a bitter limerick about this tragedy but also the Tribunal of Inquiry's report that had little choice given 'the climate of the day' but to exonerate the nuns.

Full of such anecdotes, both inspiring and sobering, this compendium by Somerville-Large extracts from many biographies, memoirs, and histories these vignettes. A few shortcomings from his approach do diminish its impact, however. No notes link his sources to the pages from which citations and paraphrases originated. One cannot track down further with any ease, therefore, the references and contexts in these valuable primary texts. The book does run out of stamina after around the early 1950s; the considerable rigours of life lived in the stress of pre- and post-independence Ireland, under the Emergency, and through extended post-war privation seem to have exhausted Somerville-Large's effort.

Still, for the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, this depiction of how the Protestants retreated from privilege as the Catholics advanced in power remains gripping, densely detailed, and flows engagingly. Each chapter takes a theme, explores it through recollections, and then segues into the next that examines Ireland from yet another perspective. The narrative, despite its titular dates, staggers in fits and starts past 1966 to end what Seán O'Faolain christened a 'dreary Eden' with the death of blind DeValera at 93 in 1975, his requiem mass said by his grandson in Irish and Latin, with not a word of English.








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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

18 September 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Kick the Pope
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When Saying Sorry Isn't Enough
David Adams

"The third camp is about real lives": Interview with Hamid Taqvaee
Maryam Namazie

John Kennedy

Sympathy for the Victims
Mick Hall

For The Victims of Britain's Holocaust in Ireland
Brian Halpin

Dreary Eden
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Legalize the Irish
Frank [Name Supplied]

Careful What You Wish For
Dr John Coulter

The Peace Process — A Children's Fantasy
Tom Luby

John Kennedy

Upcoming Events

10 September 2006

It's Good to Talk
Dr John Coulter

Bye-Bye Daily Lies
Geraldine Adams

Peelers Give You Trouble
Martin Galvin

If You Cannot Organise a Meeting, How Can You Expect to Organise a Revolution?
Liam O Comain

RSF not involved in proposed 'Front'
Republican Sinn Fein Press Release

Renaissance Republicanism
Mick Hall

Goulding, the Provisionals and the Current Political Process
Roy Johnston

Puppet Show
John Kennedy

Fr. Mc Manus on His Visit to Garnerville PSNI Training Center
Fr Sean Mc Manus

Irlande du Nord: Interview With Anthony McIntyre
André Poulin

Sectarian Interfaces: Glenn Patterson's That Which Was
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 9
Michael Gillespie

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 10
Michael Gillespie

A Curious Snub
Fred A. Wilcox

Con Artist
John Kennedy

Against Civilisation
Seamus Mac An tSaoir

Blanket Coverage for All
Carrie Twomey

5 Years
Brian Mór



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