Book review: Ireland: The Autobiography ed. by John Bowman

When is an autobiography not an autobiography? When, perhaps, it is written by 160 or so different people and is, rather, an anthology, writes Frank MacGabhann.

This anthology, edited by broadcaster and historian John Bowman, cannot be called a snapshot of Ireland. In fact, it is more than 160 snapshots that can be dipped into at any time.

The vignettes range from a few paragraphs to a few pages. As with snapshots, some people will like some vignettes more than others. So, too, with this reviewer.

The editor tells us that he began collecting vignettes like these early on, with the idea in the back of his mind of one day making use of them. They span the hundred years from 1916 to 2016. It takes as its starting point the Easter Rising. The sources are many and varied; books, articles, parliamentary debates, journals, private letters, diaries, and journals.

The entries come from people with a variety of outlooks, including nationalist and unionist backgrounds. Some are well-known while others not. Some entries are published for the first time. This book can be likened to a time capsule for a century.

The book opens with the words of Msgr Michael Curran, secretary to the Archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh, relating that on Easter Monday 1916, Count Plunkett called to see the archbishop to inform him of his trip the week before to see the pope and to inform him that a rising was planned for later that day.

While they were speaking, the telephone rang and a local jeweller informed the secretary that a rising had begun and asked if the archbishop could stop it.

There is the young and impressionable Leslie Price (later to marry Tom Barry) during Easter week bringing a priest to the GPO to hear confessions there. She was “horrified” to watch the priest ignoring and continuing to walk past a dying man who had “drink taken” and was lying in the street but making sure to stop and anoint a “respectable” dying man nearby.

Dr Kathleen Lynn and Dr Richard Hayes mixed Republican politics and public health by alerting Ireland in 1918 to the dangers of British soldiers returning home after the armistice with more than just a runny nose.

They demanded that all returning soldiers be blood-tested before “dumping and letting [them] loose among us”. Presumably, those Irishmen who had resisted the king’s shilling had the moral fibre necessary to resist Eve’s temptation and had no need to be tested.

Interesting is the perceptive British cabinet paper with the advice of William Wylie, who had prosecuted the 1916 leaders at their courts-martial.

He was a unionist whose views were changing about the nature of the rebellion in Ireland and, by 1920, was urging the British government to negotiate with Sinn Féin.

Likewise perceptive was Harry Franks, of Garretstown, Co Cork, who was keeping tabs on “the young and active Sinn Féiners” in Cork, reporting that they “do not patronise public houses... they are silent and know how to keep their mouths closed, but they think and plot the more”.

There is the Black and Tan with the good heart (actually an RIC Auxie), confessing in 1920 in a letter from Dunmanway to his mother back in England about their “orgy of looting, arson, and murder” in Cork, and Eamon Broy, as early as April 1919, relating how he smuggled Michael Collins into police headquarters on Great Brunswick St (now Pearse St) in Dublin so he could read for five hours by candlelight how the British intelligence system worked, and also an example of how a republican court operated.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty debates are represented by Collins and Mary MacSwiney, and the Civil War by Florence O’Donoghue who could not see his way to fighting other Irishmen and remained neutral.

Longford-born field marshall Henry Wilson wrote in a letter to another British officer that he wanted between 20 and 30 battalions of British soldiers to be sent to Ireland to finally “stamp out this vermin” and complaining bitterly about the “Frocks”, the British politicians who were not taking his advice.

Frocks referred to frock-coats, worn by British politicians on formal occasions. Wilson was shot dead by the IRA in London in 1922 after the truce, probably on Collins’ orders.

Male/female relations do not go unnoticed by Bowman. Archbishop TP Gilmartin of Tuam in 1926 was certainly not in favour of “sinful company-keeping under the stars or outlandish dancing or late hours”, but rather extolled the woman’s “great dowry of chastity” to bring to her husband on marriage.

In 1928 Jesuit priest Fr Charles Doyle, at a marriage retreat in Gardiner Street Church in Dublin, advised wives if they wanted to keep their husbands away from golf, girls, and Guinness, to learn to cook and dress tastefully and not wear “low and behold blouses”.

If Fr Peter Conefrey of Leitrim had had his way in 1934 we would not now be listening to jazz, the “so-called music of Satan and Saxonland and Johnny Bull and the niggers and cannibals”.

John Kavanagh recalled remarking, on the way home from a dance chaperoned by priests in the 1930s, that he had had “more fun at the Corpus Christi procession” earlier that year. His entry from The Bell magazine perhaps best captures the change in social life when the gaiety went out of his parish on the arrival of a new parish priest in 1931.

While not dealing with sex (at least not on the face of it) GAA president Micheál Ó Donnchadha of Waterford in 1955 defended the ban on members of British security forces playing Gaelic games on the grounds of “the fatal lure of the Saxon smile” and of combating “the native weaklings who, wittingly or unwittingly, play the game of the wily Saxon”.

Elizabeth Bowen and FSL Lyons, both with unionist backgrounds, held very different views of Ireland’s neutrality during the Second World War, Bowen believing it was Ireland’s “first free self-assertion” internationally and that it was the right course to take.

Anthony Cronin’s account of the Patrick Kavanagh libel trial in 1954 involving Brendan Behan is a treat to read again, as is Joe Lee’s essay on begrudgery. While Lee does not say that we Irish own the word, I have never heard it used in England or in America or by anyone other than the Irish.

Bowman, as may be expected, includes entries about the shameful “hidden Ireland”: The industrial schools, the farce of clerical celibacy; clerical sex abuse of children; the Catholic Church’s putting its reputation ahead of the protection of innocent children by covering up priests’ crimes; the Magdalene laundries.

The book is a treasure and will ripen with age. Because for me the entries for the last 20 or 30 years are too recent to strike a chord. When this book is reprinted in 2096 these recent entries may then strike that chord.

However, Morgan Kelly’s entry (“It will all end in tears”) resonates even now — especially now. Kelly, of course, accurately and presciently predicted the property bubble and bust.

Bowman might have included a short note about the economists, those hardcore unemployables, who condemned Kelly in 2006 and 2007 for “talking down the economy”, then had the gall to condemn him in 2008 for having been right and then had the further unmitigated gall in 2009 to say he should not be involved in the national recovery as, wait for it, just because he was correct in the past doesn’t mean he will be correct in the future. Now that is a syllogism for posterity.

If there are any readers who only buy one book per year, this is the one.

Ireland: The Autobiography

One Hundred Years in the Life of a Nation, told by its People

Book review: Ireland: The Autobiography ed. by John Bowman

Edited by John Bowman

Penguin Ireland, €17.99


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