Saturday, February 1, 2014

A LONG WAY TO TIPPERARY . . . OR TO SLANE

This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 25, Number 2 (February 2014), 13.

For the past few weeks, I have been thumbing back and forth through a massive hot-off-the-press coffee table book, The Great War: a Photographic Narrative.  A project of Great Britain’s Imperial War Museums, the book offers a starkly candid photographic record of the horrific reality of life in the various “theatres” that constituted World War I: the trenches and the battlefields of the Western Front, of course, but also the beaches and the slopes of Gallipoli, the Zeppelin-bombed streets of England, the deserts of the Middle East, and the high seas.  For the most part, this gathering of images is not for the faint of heart.

Obviously, the publication of this book anticipates the centenary of The Great War—1914-1918.  It thus holds intrinsic interest for anyone invested in Irish matters: more than 200,000 Irishmen enlisted in the British forces and more than 30,000 died in combat.  No doubt the next four years will see this under-written chapter of Irish history given its long overdue attention—and appropriate commemoration—by scholars, by the Irish government, and by the general public.

I must admit that I have a personal investment in all of this: my Irish-born paternal grandfather enlisted in the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment in September of 1914 and served in France and Belgium from July of 1915 until the end of the war in November of 1918.  After he was demobbed in 1919, he relocated to New York City where he married his Irish sweetheart, who had emigrated before the War.  An Irishman to the core, for the rest of his life he remained proud of his British military service and of the decorations he earned—a Victory Medal and a British War Medal, each recognizing general service during the Great War, and a 1914/1915 Star recognizing specifically his service in France in 1915.

As a private in the 12th (Service) Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, my grandfather was involved in many of the major engagements on the Western Front: both Battles of the Somme (1916 and 1918), the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in 1917, and the Final Advance in Picardy in 1918.  Each of these is represented in The Great War: a Photographic Narrative.

But of all the photos in the book, one in particular caught my eye immediately—and continues to hold my focus—as an indelible “emblem” not just of my grandfather’s experience but more broadly of “the Irish experience” on the Western Front.  The photo, taken in Flanders, appears on page 373 of the book.  Snapped by Lieutenant John Warwick Brooke, an official British Army photographer, it is captioned matter-of-factly: “Stretcher-bearers of the Field Ambulance Corps carry a wounded man through deep mud, near Boesinghe, Ypres Salient, Belgium, 1 August 1917.”  The day that photo was taken, my grandfather’s battalion was in the immediate vicinity, on march from a training camp about 10 miles away in Proven to bivouacs in Elverdinghe, about a mile short of Boesinghe, en route to what would be known as the Battle of Langemarck in mid-August.

I visited Boesinghe (now spelled Boezinge) and environs last year and was immediately struck by the distinctive character of the landscape there: just as the photo records, it is unrelentingly flat, stretching out as far as the eye can see, punctuated only occasionally by small clusters of farm buildings.  Standing in the midst of that vast expanse almost a century after my grandfather, I tried to imagine how he “experienced” it.  Born in Borrisokane, Co. Tipperary, he grew up in Clara, Co. Offaly: thus, like the large majority of Irishmen of rural, village, or small-town stock who served in the British Army, he would have been accustomed to a much more textured and contoured landscape—white-washed thatch-roofed cottages in rolling fields enclosed by tumble-down stone walls, twisty roads and lanes overarched by rich leafage, meandering rivers and brooks, perhaps furzy mountains rising in the distance.  The description of Flanders proffered by historian John Keegan in his book The First World War underscores the contrast: “There is one of the dreariest landscapes in Western Europe, a sodden plain of wide, unfenced fields, pasture and plough intermixed, overlying a water table that floods on excavation more than a few spadefuls deep.  There are patches of woodland scattered between the villages and isolated farmsteads and a few points of high ground that loom in the distance behind the ancient walled city of Ypres.  The pervading impression, however, is of long unimpeded fields of view, too mournful to be called vistas, interrupted only by the occasional church steeple and leading in all directions to distant, hazy horizons which promise nothing but the region’s copious and frequent rainfall.”  Obviously, the emptiness my grandfather saw all around him in Flanders would have felt truly foreign and utterly disorienting.

It would have felt utterly hostile as well.  As Mark Holborn observes in his Editorial Note to The Great War: a Photographic Narrative, the heavy bombardment of the countryside by both German and Allied artillery, a distinguishing feature of the War itself, altered the already spare landscape: “Landmarks were eradicated and trees vanished.”  In the summer of 1917, nature too conspired to make the area even more inhospitable, as weeks of rain combined with the high water table to create the absolute quagmire captured in the photograph—some of the stretcher-bearers are up to their knees in mud.  According to some accounts, thousands of soldiers actually drowned in the mud of Flanders, which in places was ten feet deep.  For my grandfather and his fellow displaced Irishmen serving on the Western Front, trudging toward battle through those unspeakably miserable fields of Flanders would have given very literal meaning to that popular marching song of the day, “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary . . .”

But there is no need to take just my word on that.  While my grandfather left behind no written account of his time on the Western Front and while the stories he told my father and his siblings have become blurry over time, the sensation of alienation—and of homesickness—that I imagined for him as I stood there in Boezinge last year has been registered by others, including celebrated poet Francis Ledwidge.  Born in 1887, Ledwidge grew up and was educated in Janesville, an area on the outskirts of Slane, Co. Meath.  (His boyhood cottage is now a museum honoring his memory.)  In 1914, he enlisted in the 5th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and saw action as a Lance Corporal first at the Dardanelles in 1915 and then in Serbia (where he injured his back).  In December of 1916, he returned to active duty, this time in the border area of France and Belgium with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Inniskillings.

A prolific poet since his mid-teens, the 29-year-old soldier continued to send verses home to his literary patron, Lord Dunsany, who oversaw their publication in book form both during Ledwidge’s lifetime and after his death.  Written on February 3rd, 1917, shortly after he arrived at the Western Front, “In France” typifies how Ledwidge’s poems emphasize the bucolic and the romantic, keeping at literary arm’s length the horrific realities of battlefields and trench warfare:

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind,
And there I wander as I will.

Clearly, the memory of those hills around Slane afforded Ledwidge consolation in the midst of the alien landscape and the lethal environment of the Western Front.  In fact, in “Spring,” a poem dated March 8th, 1917, he allows a flight of imagination to transport him back to Meath—to a rural landscape noisy with larks and magpies and wood-doves and kingfishers and bursting with primroses and daffodils and water-lilies and daises—until the final two lines bring him back to the here and the now of the War: “And peace wraps all those hills of mine / Safe in dearest memory.”

But the poem of Ledwidge’s that speaks most poignantly to me as I picture my grandfather passing through Boesinghe in early August of 1917 is titled simply “Home.”  Like “Spring,” it catalogues pastoral life in Ireland, but in this case the memories of home are awakened by the singing of a bird in war-ravaged Belgium:

This is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.

Written in July of 1917, “Home” was one of Francis Ledwidge’s last poems.  The poet was killed at Carrefour Rose, a crossroads in Boesinghe, in a German shrapnel attack on July 31st, 1917, the day before Lieutenant Brooke took that memorable photograph of the stretcher-bearers in that same forbidding countryside.  A memorial to Ledwidge stands at the very spot where he was killed.  He is buried a quarter mile away in Artillery Wood Cemetery.  I visited both of those sites last year and paid my respects to the poet.  I remembered my grandfather too.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

READING JOYCE READING À PARIS . . .

This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 24, Number 6 (June 2013), 6-7.
[It was written during my time as a Visiting Scholar at the American University of Paris.]

I am sitting on the terrace of a café in Paris—in Place de la Contrascarpe, to be exact.  In 1921, when James Joyce was putting the finishing touches on Ulysses, he lived just around the corner, in a flat loaned to him by French author Valery Larbaud on a courtyard at number 71, rue Cardinal Lemoine.  What better place to thumb through the French novel that purportedly gave Joyce the idea for what is known as “the interior monologue,” the predominant narrative strategy of Ulysses?  According to his preeminent biographer, Richard Ellmann, Joyce picked up Les lauriers sont coupés by Édouard Dujardin at a railway kiosk in Paris in 1903—and the rest is literary history: “in later life, no matter how diligently the critics worked to demonstrate that he had borrowed the interior monologue from Freud, Joyce always made it a point of honor that he had it from Dujardin.”

Originally published in 1888, Dujardin’s novel has been translated into English by Stuart Gilbert as We’ll to the Woods No More—and I am thinking of how helpful a basic familiarity with this book would be for readers engaging with Ulysses.  In his preface to a reissue of the novel in French in 1924, Valery Larbaud quotes Joyce explaining his admiration for how “the reader finds himself established, from the first lines, in the thought of the principal personage, and the uninterrupted unrolling (‘déroulement ininterrompu’) of that thought, replacing the usual form of narrative, conveys to us what this personage is doing or what is happening to him.”  Especially for first-time readers of Ulysses, that “damned monster-novel” as Joyce himself once referred to it, the narrative strategy that he labeled “soliloquy” can be disorienting.  Remembering my own first time reading the novel—around 35 years ago—I realize now how acquaintance with the relative simplicity of Dujardin’s narrative would have prepared me for the relative density of Joyce’s movement between the inner and the outer lives of his three major characters, Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom.

Even a few sentences early in Dujardin’s novel can provide the reader of Ulysses with keys to unlock the more advanced technique of Joyce’s narrative.  A good example is a scene on the second page of We’ll to the Woods No More, where Dujardin has his protagonist Daniel Prince arrive at the workplace of a friend with whom he hopes to spend the evening.  This is a very simple premise, but what Dujardin attempts to convey—and this is what Joyce emulates a dozen or so years later when he begins to write Ulysses—is the way that his character’s mind, like the mind of real person, does not operate in the strictly linear fashion that conventional “realistic” fiction tends to present.

Indeed, he shows us how even an act as ordinary as ascending a stairs involves much more than the act itself.  Taking us with his protagonist step by step (literally and figuratively), Dujardin records both the range and the depth of Daniel Prince’s wondering and worrying about whether his friend will still be at the office: “The stairs; the first steps.  Supposing he has left early; he sometimes does; but I have got to tell him the story of my day.  The first landing: wide, bright staircase; windows.  He’s a fine fellow, friend of mine; I have told him all about my love-affair.  Another pleasant evening coming on.  Anyway he can’t make fun of me after this.  I’m going to have a splendid time.  Now why is the stair carpet turned up at the corner here?  A grey patch on the line of upward red, on the red strip looping up from step to step.  Second storey; the door on the left.  Office.  I only hope he hasn’t gone; no chance of running him to earth if he has.”

The concrete and the abstract.  The factual and the conditional.  The observational and the conjectural.  The banal and the meaningful.  The past, the present, the future.  Even this brief passage illuminates how Joyce’s deployment of the interior monologue will operate in Ulysses.  Of course, as Dujardin himself admitted in Le Monologue Intérieur, a little book he wrote in 1931 in gratitude for Joyce’s acknowledging him as an influence, Joyce found a way to convey a similar texture to the consciousness of his characters without the awkward self-consciousness that Dujardin’s Daniel Prince sometimes expresses.  Does anyone really think “the first steps” when beginning to ascend stairs?  Joyce might have finessed this by letting his readers know the ascent had begun by having Leopold Bloom stumble or by having Stephen Dedalus wax philosophical on how the steps proceed nacheinander (one after another) as he does in the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses.

Still, the basic concept behind Joyce’s narrative strategy is evident in Dujardin’s novel, though other differences ultimately challenge the reader of Ulysses.  Some of those differences relate to the very nature of Joyce’s characters who embody the three principal centers of consciousness in the novel.  Late in the novel, Joyce himself makes a clinical distinction between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom: “What two temperaments did they individually represent?  The scientific. The artistic.”  Bloom is the “scientific” one, as his inner engagement with the outer world is fueled by empirical observation and curiosity.  In fact, within a page or so of being introduced to Bloom, the reader of Ulysses can recognize in his attentiveness to his cat the distinctive way that Bloom’s mind works: “Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees. . . .  He watched the bristles shining wirily in the weak light as she tipped three times and licked lightly. Wonder is it true if you clip them they can’t mouse after.  Why?  They shine in the dark.”  Bloom is utterly wrong about most of his assumptions regarding felines—but that is exactly what Joyce intends to convey by inscribing his character’s thought process: most of us are wrong in most of our casual musings, and we proceed through life accordingly.

As the “artistic” one, Stephen Dedalus presents a more densely packed challenge to the reader of Ulysses, as his mind is filled with both the raw material and the mechanisms of his literary ambitions.  “Dubliners,” Joyce has Stephen think in the “Aeolus” episode, an overt allusion to Joyce’s own landmark collection of short stories—the sort of writing that his quasi-autobiographical character might aspire to write: “On now.  Dare it.  Let there be life.”  That example is easy.  Not so easy, at first, is the opening of the “Proteus” episode: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.  Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.  Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.  Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies.  Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured.  How?  By knocking his sconce against them, sure.  Go easy.  Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno.”  But if the reader can recognize that the final phrase, in Italian, is Dante’s description of Aristotle—“master of those who know”—and then re-reads the passage, it can be paraphrased simply enough as Stephen’s musing on the challenges a literary artist faces when attempting to inscribe the complexity of human experience as described by Aristotle (and others).

And after that, Molly Bloom’s musings in the “Penelope” episode—eight “sentences” that weave and unweave themselves over the final thirty-five pages of the novel—might seem like a walk on the Hill of Howth.  That is where the episode ends, with Molly remembering Leopold’s proposal of marriage sixteen years earlier: “and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”  In this episode Joyce deploys “stream of consciousness” as his narrative method—essentially interior monologue without any filtering intrusion on the part of the author.  It is simply one more variation on the technique that Joyce recognized the promise of in Dujardin’s Les lauriers sont coupés.

After the publication of Ulysses in 1922, Joyce and Dujardin exchanged compliments and tributes, each praising the other over their literary achievements involving “le monologue intérieur.”  Privately, though, Joyce acknowledged, in a letter to his patron Harriet Weaver, that he was giving Dujardin “cake for bread.”  Reading Dujardin in Joyce’s old quartier, I feet that both writers go down well with a café allongé.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

WHEN IN PARIS . . . WITH OSCAR WILDE

This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 24, Number 5 (May 2013), 19.  
[It was written during my time as a Visiting Scholar at the American University of Paris.]

I am sitting in a café/bar called Le Comptoir des Saints-Pères in the area of the so-called Left Bank of Paris known as Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  I am keeping an eye out for the spirit of James Joyce who, according to Ernest Hemingway, ate regularly at this address in the 1920s when it was a bit more fashionable and when it was known as Michaud’s.  Hemingway sets the scene in his memoiresque narrative A Moveable Feast: “It was where Joyce ate with his family then, he and his wife against the wall, Joyce peering at the menu through his thick glasses holding the menu up in one hand; Nora by him, a hearty but delicate eater; Giorgio thin, foppish, sleek-headed from the back; Lucia with heavy curly hair, a girl not quite yet grown; all of them talking Italian.”

Les Deux Magots
The Paris of Joyce and Hemingway has been thoroughly documented by scholars and tour guides, and devoted readers of those literary giants can follow them virtually step by step through the streets of their adopted city.  In fact, in the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, named after Sylvia Beach’s bookshop that published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, I recently picked up a copy of The Paris of Joyce & Beckett by Brian O’Shea and Sean Donlon and also a copy of Walks in Hemingway’s Paris by Noel Riley Fitch.  I have visited many of the locations identified and mapped in those books, including rue Cardinal Lemoine, the remarkably unremarkable street where Joyce lived in 1921 while completing Ulysses and where Hemingway also took an apartment shortly after he first arrived in Paris in December of 1921.  Not long after the publication of Ulysses, the paths of those two masters crossed and their lives overlapped, and in A Moveable Feast Hemingway describes a chance encounter with Joyce on Boulevard Saint-Germain: “He asked me to have a drink with him and we went to the Deux-Magots and ordered dry sherry although you will always read that he drank only Swiss white wine.”  Les Deux Magots is still a going concern.  I had a café allongé there a couple of days ago.

Given all the attention paid to Joyce and Hemingway by devotees and fanatics, I am a bit surprised that there is no equivalent book-length “Guide to Oscar Wilde’s Paris.”  Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde visited Paris frequently during his lifetime and died here in 1900.  Unlike Joyce and Hemingway, he is buried here.  (So is Samuel Beckett.)

Back in 2005, I attended a performance at Dublin’s renowned Abbey Theatre of a critically-acclaimed production of Wilde’s dramatic masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest.  The production, which featured an all-male cast, included a prologue that is not part of the original play script.  It involved an actor (the brilliant Alan Stanford) playing the part of Oscar Wilde himself, abject and adrift in Paris, being asked to devise an entertainment for his friends there.  So this framing device was plausible enough—and it also had a bit of magic to it, as suddenly, with just a slight adjustment of costume and coiffure, the character of Wilde morphed into the character of Lady Bracknell.  And so the play proper began.

But that prologue continued to lend flavor to the production, as it cast Wilde as an artist whose sheer and unabashed wit in his writing, and also in conversation, ultimately can be seen as a mask for his true self—a lonely and conflicted figure, even a lost soul.  And that is the version of Wilde that I have been thinking about as I have been walking the streets of Paris, tracking the last dark days of his life in the City of Light.

The best account of that life is Richard Ellmann’s biography, published in 1987.  So, having re-read the last couple of chapters of that book, I found myself standing on rue des Beaux-Arts, a narrow street, now lined with high-end art galleries, that runs between the École nationale supériere des Beaux Arts on rue Bonaparte to rue de Seine, which leads to the left bank of the river that glides through the center of Paris like the Liffey through Dublin.  Wilde died in l’Hôtel Alsace on that street.  Aptly enough, given that Wilde reportedly declared during his final weeks that “I am dying beyond my means,” the Alsace is now a four-star luxury accommodation known simply as L’Hôtel.  Wilde’s connection to the place is acknowledged by a medallion next to the front door and, higher up on the front wall, by a stone plaque mentioning that he died on the premises.  (There is also a plaque recognizing that renowned Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges lived in the hotel for an extended period in the 1970s and ’80s).

Wilde’s death, from cerebral meningitis according to Ellmann, was slow and painful.  Bedridden for most of his final two months, he managed a stroll one evening that gave him occasion to utter to an acquaintance these famous not-quite-last words: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death.  One or the other of us has to go.”  That same evening he imbibed absinthe, his longtime drink of choice, which exacerbated his condition.  He would die a month later, on November 30th, but not without further drama in the form of a deathbed conversion to Catholicism.  Much earlier in his life, Wilde had declared: “Catholicism is the only religion to die in.”  Summoned to his bedside twenty-four hours before he expired, Rev. Cuthbert Dunne, an Irish-born member of the Passionist order of priests based at St. Joseph’s, the only English-language church in Paris, baptized Wilde “conditionally” and administered the sacrament of Extreme Unction.

On December 3rd, Fr. Cuthbert officiated at Wilde’s funeral mass in nearby Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  The interior of that church, dimly lit and austere yet also a serene place to sit and reflect, seems to fit with the end of a life summarized thus by Richard Ellmann: “During the first period he was a scapegrace, during the second a scapegoat.”  (Probably Wilde would appreciate that today a small garden next to the church holds a sculpture by Pablo Picasso honoring the memory of Guillaume Apollinaire, a short-lived poet who dominated the Parisian literary scene just a decade or so after Wilde’s death.  Philosopher René Descartes, famous for his declaration of Cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am”—is interred inside the church.)  Wilde’s funeral was attended by a small group of friends who exited the side door of the church to follow the hearse to his first burial place, the Cimetière de Bagneux in Montrouge, Hauts-de-Seine, in south suburban Paris.


But in 1909 his remains were re-interred in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the largest burial ground within the city limits of Paris.  He keeps distinguished company there: legendary lovers Abelard and Heloïse, beloved chanteuse Édith Piaf and jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, novelist Marcel Proust and the aforementioned poet Guillaume Apollinaire, American authors Richard Wright and Gertrude Stein, Polish composer Frédéric Chopin and Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani . . . and of course Jim Morrison, iconic singer of the American rock band The Doors.  Morrison’s gravesite may be the only rival to Wilde’s as a place of essential pilgrimage for the hundreds of thousands of visitors that Père-Lachaise draws annually.  No doubt, the lines from Wilde’s poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” cut as an epitaph into the back of his tombstone, prophesy the nature of some of those who pause at his final resting place:

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.


Carved from a twenty-ton block of stone by celebrated sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, the tombstone—a nude “flying demon-angel,” as Epstein described it—was initially deemed indecent by French authorities and covered with a tarpaulin.  Over the past century it has been vandalized, and in recent years it has been defaced by admirers of Wilde leaving lipsticked kiss marks on its surface.  In 2011, officials at the cemetery constructed a glass case around the gravesite: now the glass is smeared with kisses.  In death, just as in life, peace has not come easily for Oscar Wilde.

Monday, April 1, 2013

WHEN IN PARIS . . . WITH BRENDAN BEHAN

This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 24, Number 4 (April 2013), 5.  
[It was written during my time as a Visiting Scholar at the American University of Paris.]

Today I walked along rue St. André des Arts in Paris, searching for an Arab tavern.  I was following the footsteps of legendary Dublin-born man-of-letters Brendan Behan, or at least following their imprint in a poem he wrote—in Irish—in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1949.  Like many Irish writers before and after him—most famously Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett—Behan was drawn irresistibly to La Ville-Lumière (The City of Light): it was the absolute antithesis of “dear dirty Dublin.”  Beginning in 1948 and continuing almost until his death in 1964, he had several extended sojourns in Paris and numerous visits—all of which generated tales of adventures and misadventures as colorful as those that fueled his public persona as a hard-drinking “character” not only back home in Dublin but also in New York, London, and virtually every other city where he set foot during his meteoric rise to fame as playwright and memoirist during the latter half of the 1950s.

Behan’s earliest Parisian days and nights are reconstructed and recounted by Ulick O’Connor in his biography of the artist, titled simply Brendan, first published in 1970.  Just released from a month in Mountjoy prison for being drunk and disorderly and assaulting a police officer, Behan felt the need for a fresh start outside Dublin but was barred from entering England because of his extensive record of incarceration for militant republican activities—two years of juvenile detention in England, fours years in prison in Ireland, and then another four months in an English jail in 1947.  He thus took his chances even in passing through England while coincidentally retracing the very route to Paris that Joyce gave his character Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses: “Newhaven-Dieppe, steerage passenger.”

Ever gregarious, once he crossed the English Channel, Behan quickly insinuated himself into various corners of Parisian life.  Over time his acquaintances included fellow Dubliner Samuel Beckett, iconic French existentialist Albert Camus (who shared Behan’s passion for soccer), and American expatriate novelist James Baldwin.  According to O’Connor, Behan lived mostly hand to mouth, though occasionally he sold a piece of writing—like the short story “After the Wake,” published in the avant-garde literary magazine Points—and occasionally he resorted to his family trade of housepainting.  He also claimed to have operated as a “ponce” for prostitutes, soliciting business from deep-pocketed American tourists visiting the landmark Harry’s New York Bar (which, I can attest, is still a going concern today at the same address, 5 rue Daunou).  Generally penniless, however, and an unabashed chancer, Behan relied heavily on American ex-G.I.s living comfortably on their education grants to provide him with food, drink, and a floor to sleep on at night.

In fact, Behan’s poem that drew me to rue St. André des Arts reads as a sort of emblem both of his makeshift life in Paris and of his emerging literary ambition.  First appearing in the Irish-language journal Comhar in August of 1949, “Buíochas le Joyce” was partly a byproduct of Behan’s time spent in prison during the mid-1940s for attempting to murder a police detective after the annual Easter 1916 commemoration at Glasnevin Cemetery in 1942.  Sentenced to fourteen years of penal servitude, Behan was released after only four years thanks to a general amnesty for political prisoners in 1946.  But during his time first at Mountjoy Prison, then at Arbour Hill, and finally at the internment camp at The Curragh in County Kildare, he became a serious student of the Irish language.  In his biography of Behan, O’Connor quotes his Irish-language tutor and fellow Mountjoy internee, County Kerry schoolteacher Sean O’Briain, who recalls that “Brendan truly loved the language and the literature”: “He had a great gradh (love) for the Cuirt (The Midnight Court), and also for An tOileannach (The Island Man) and the stories of Sean-Phadraig O Conaire.  He went far deeper into the subject than his gaiety would suggest, and he loved to talk and learn about life in the Blaskets, Dun Chaoin and Ballyferriter.”  At The Curragh, Behan studied under the mentorship of novelist and short story writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain.

O’Connor notes that Behan was influenced by various styles of Irish-language poetry; however, the body of work that he left behind—only a dozen poems all told—is too small a sample to prove either influence by or confluence with the specific 17th- and 18th-century poets whom O’Connor cites.  Indeed, the inclusion of a couple of his poems in the important anthology Nuabhéarsaíocht (1950) aligns his writing much more closely with what scholar Louis de Paor describes as “the emergence of a Modernist poetics” among non-native speakers that marked “the accelerated development of the modern lyric mode in Irish away from the vigorous tradition of folk or community poetry that continues to be the dominant form of poetry in Gaeltacht areas.”  While its irreverent tone may be consistent with the poetic practices glanced at by O’Connor, both the formal and the stylistic attributes of “Buíochas le Joyce” suggest a more complex literary lineage.

For starters, Behan’s poem is a sonnet—a form inextricably associated with the British poetic tradition by way of Wyatt and Surrey, Spenser and Shakespeare, Milton and Donne, Wordsworth and Keats.  Was Behan’s appropriation of this form thus one more act of diehard Irish nationalism on his part?  If that was his intention, then the effect is just mildly subversive, as its fourteen lines are arranged in the Petrarchan variant of the form—an octave and a sestet separated by a double line break—rather than the Shakespearean.  Or was Behan drawn to the sonnet through acquaintance with some of the French masters of the form—Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarmé?  One way or the other, he shows little interest in the “craft” of the sonnet—he seems either oblivious to or indifferent to the conventions of consistent line-length and predictable end-rhyme.

Yet, as Ulick O’Connor puts on display in “Gratitude to James Joyce,” his translation of “Buíochas le Joyce,” the rhetorical structure of the poem’s subject matter falls naturally into the Petrarchan formal structure.  The first four lines establish the basic circumstances of Behan’s direct address to the spirit of Joyce (who had died in 1941):

Here in the rue St. André des Arts,
Plastered in an Arab Tavern,
I explain you to an eager Frenchman,
Ex-G.I.’s, and a drunken Russian.

The next four lines make clear the relationship between the speaker’s state of intoxication and the company he is keeping.  Presumably, at least the Frenchman and the Americans are students (the latter sponsored in Paris by the G.I. Bill), and in their eagerness to learn about Joyce from his fellow Dubliner, they are willing to ply the self-styled expert ex-pat Irishman with lashings of French alcohol, including the anise-based liqueur that replaced the wormwood-infused absinthe spirits (outlawed in 1915) that Oscar Wilde had favored and the trademark apple brandy of the Basse-Normandie region of France:

Of all you wrote I explain each part,
Drinking Pernod in France because of your art.
As a writer we’re proud of you—
And thanks for the Calvados we gain through you.

Then, in typical Petrarchan fashion, the double line break announces the sonnet’s volta (or “turn”), a pronounced shift in its emphasis—in this case to Behan’s rationalization of his exploitation of Joyce’s name and reputation for the sake of a free booze-up.  Would Joyce begrudge his fellow Irish transplant the chance to quench his thirst through such a ploy?  Essentially, Behan imagines reversing roles with his venerated literary precursor, and in the process transforms his scheme into a conspiratorial wink between two Dublinmen notoriously fond of their drink.  In short, he invites the departed Joyce to put himself literally in his shoes, tanked up on brandy and making his way from Les Halles, the vast and teeming marketplace known as “the belly of Paris,” across the Seine to the bohemian Left Bank:

If I were you
And you were me,
Coming from Les Halles
Roaring, with a load of cognac,
Belly full, on the tipple,
A verse or two in my honour you’d scribble.

So, is “Buíochas le Joyce” just, as Behan scholar Colbert Kearney suggests, “a casual jeu d’esprit”?  And is Behan just suffering from delusions of grandeur in imagining Joyce composing verses of gratitude to him?  About a decade later, Behan would describe himself in a letter as a typical Irish writer: “you know that we have no proper view of our own work—we think we’re James Joyces one minute and plain gobshites the next.”  Around the same time, asked in an interview why he first wrote his play The Hostage in Irish (An Giall), he explained: “Irish is more direct than English, more bitter.  It’s a fine muscular thing, the most expressive language in Europe.”  Obviously, the poem is an apprentice piece—Behan’s poetic “career” was short-lived, and his most enduring works are his compelling plays The Quare Fellow and The Hostage and his memoir-esque narrative Borstal Boy.  Still, “Buíochas le Joyce” effectively evokes a specific time in a specific place where Behan might still feel at home more than sixty years later: the Arab tavern may be long gone, but walking today along rue St. André des Arts, I could not help but notice the Guinness sign over Corcoran’s Irish Pub.

Friday, March 1, 2013

ENSHRINING PATRICK KAVANAGH


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 24, Number 3 (March 2013), 25.

Recently, but not for the first time, I paid a visit to a roadside shrine (as it were) that remembers one of the iconic figures of so-called Bohemian Dublin of the 1940s and ’50s.  Actually, the “shrine”—commemorating poet Patrick Kavanagh—has two separate but related parts.  The earlier part is a bench dedicated by his friends on St. Patrick’s Day of 1968, the year after his death, fulfilling a wish Kavanagh had made a decade earlier in a poem titled “Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin.”  Sitting on a bench erected to the memory of Mrs. Dermot O’Brien (the wife of a well-known Dublin painter of landscapes and portraits), Kavanagh wrote a sonnet requesting the same for himself: “O commemorate me where there is water, / Canal water preferably, so stilly / Greeny at the heart of summer.”  He got his wish, and forty-five years after its dedication, that “canal-bank seat for the passer-by” remains “Where by a lock niagarously roars / The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence / Of mid-July.”  Located on the south bank of the Grand Canal along Mespil Road, that bench, which has the poem inscribed on one of its granite trestles, is about a ten-minute walk from St. Stephen’s Green in the heart of Dublin. 

And so is another bench, the second part of the Kavanagh shrine—but this one, on the north bank along Wilton Road, has incorporated onto it a life-size bronze sculpture, created by John Coll and unveiled in June of 1991, of the poet seated in a reflective pose as if he were composing the poem that prompted the first bench.  Or perhaps Coll imagined Kavanagh drafting “Canal Bank Walk,” another sonnet inspired by that slow-moving man-made waterway—a remarkable feat of engineering that took most of the last half of the eighteenth century to complete—that ultimately linked the River Liffey in Dublin with the River Shannon in Co. Offaly.  Written in 1958 in the aftermath of his recovery from lung cancer, and also from legal difficulties, “Canal Bank Walk” represented a sort of manifesto of renewal for Kavanagh, who by 1939 had transplanted himself more or less permanently from rural County Monaghan to Ireland’s mostly unwelcoming literary hub: “Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal / Pouring redemption for me, that I do / The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal, / Grow with nature again as before I grew.”

If those two benches comprise a shrine to Kavanagh, an essential place of pilgrimage for his devoted readers, then surely some of the pubs that he frequented during his quarter-century or so in Dublin might be thought of as chapels.  I have paid visits to some of those too—again, recently and not for the first time.  Aptly enough, one of them, McDaid’s on Harry Street (just off Grafton Street, the city’s central shopping thoroughfare), was in a previous life a literal chapel of the Moravian Church, a Protestant denomination from eastern Europe that made inroads in Ireland in the eighteenth century.  Still a going concern today, in the 1940s and ’50s McDaid’s was what James Joyce might have called the omphalos—the very center of Ireland’s literary world dominated by Kavanagh, his urban archrival and nemesis Brendan Behan, and the multi-monikered Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/Myles na Gopaleen. 

Before McDaid’s, the omphalos would have been another public house sacred to the memory of Kavanagh and company, The Palace Bar on Fleet Street.  The watering hole of choice for most of the leading literary and artistic figures in Dublin during Kavanagh’s early years in the city, The Palace was presided over by R. M. “Bertie” Smyllie, the larger-than-life (both physically and in personality) editor of The Irish Times and in that capacity a frequent benefactor providing journalistic piecework to hungry (or thirsty) poets and other literary types.  In 1940, New Zealand cartoonist Alan Reeve published in The Irish Times a now-famous sketch of the back room of The Palace.  Titled “Dublin Culture,” the drawing caricatures upwards of forty regular denizens of the bar, including Francis McManus, Maurice Walsh, Austin Clarke, Padraic Fallon, F. R. Higgins, Flann O’Brien, Brinsley MacNamara, Harry Kernoff, and Seán O’Sullivan.  Kavanagh too is in the picture, but as a newcomer to the Dublin literary scene he looks a bit uncomfortable and appears ready to leave the others to their heavy imbibing and their barbed-wit gossiping.

Located just off Westmoreland Street at the edge of the once decrepit but now hip Temple Bar area of Dublin, The Palace seems to have changed hardly an iota in more than seventy years: like McDaid’s, it remains an inviting and hospitable oasis in “the heart of the Hibernian metropolis” (Joyce’s phrase) and an essential port of call for devotees of Kavanagh.

But the enduringness of pubs like McDaid’s and The Palace only accentuates the loss of another “house of worship”—perhaps the cathedral to those mere chapels—associated with Kavanagh: that is, Parsons Bookshop, which used to be located in a building known as the Bridge House, on Baggot Street Bridge that spans the Grand Canal just a minute’s stroll from the two Kavanagh benches.  During my student days in Dublin in the late 1970s, I visited Parsons a number of times, usually in search of books missing from the shelves of the bigger bookshops in the city center.  I recall specifically picking up the Millington editions of Benedict Kiely’s The Cards of the Gambler and Mervyn Wall’s Leaves for the Burning and the Helicon edition of Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey

As it turns out, Kiely and Wall were both regular visitors to Parsons Bookshop—but apparently no one was as regular as Patrick Kavanagh.  In his engaging and illuminating book Parsons Bookshop: At the Heart of Bohemian Dublin, 1949-1989 (The Liffey Press, 2006), Brendan Lynch tells the story of the shop in entertaining and enlightening detail, much of it gleaned from interviews with the shop’s founder and owner, Miss May O’Flaherty, and her longtime assistant, Mary King.  Early in the book, Miss O’Flaherty recalls that author Mary Lavin once exclaimed: “Parsons, where one met as many interesting writers on the floor of the shop as on the shelves!”  In Lynch’s narrative, no one was more “interesting” than Patrick Kavanagh.

Recounting the shop’s evolution from a local hardware store to the magnetic center of a literary community, Miss O’Flaherty remembers that “it was Patrick Kavanagh who provided the greatest encouragement when I was starting off.”  When the shop opened in 1949, Kavanagh lived nearby on Pembroke Road and, as Miss O’Flaherty explains, quickly became a fixture: “Soon he was part of the furniture and if he ever missed a morning, customers would ask ‘Where’s Patrick today?’”  Legendary for his cantankerousness, Kavanagh had a particularly toxic relationship with playwright and memoirist Brendan Behan, another regular visitor to the shop.  Yet, according to Miss O’Flaherty, their personal animosity never intruded on the sacred space of the shop: “Though Patrick sometimes got in people’s way while sitting in the door, particularly in the good weather, I think we kept him on the straight and narrow.  Even though Brendan Behan called a few times while he was here, Patrick never said anything untoward.  I think the only time I saw him cross was when he observed a book he didn’t like in the window.  ‘I’ll never darken this door again,’ he growled.  But he was back looking for his stool the following morning as usual.”

Asked by Brendan Lynch about Kavanagh’s death in 1967, Mary King remembered his funeral entourage winding its way through Ballsbridge en route toward Monaghan: “they brought Patrick on a final lap of his favourite stomping ground, past Parsons to Pembroke, Raglan, and Waterloo Roads.  The morning was miserable and dark, grief seemed to overhang the canal, but it was heartwarming that so many people turned out along the street to see him off to Inniskeen.”

In 2004, the centenary of Kavanagh’s birth, the Monaghan Association of Dublin mounted a plaque on the wall of the Bridge House recognizing the poet’s lengthy and deep connection with Parsons Bookshop.  The shop outlasted Kavanagh by twenty-two years.  But recently, pausing beneath that plaque, I realized that, as in most matters, Kavanagh himself had the last word in the form of a ballad he wrote in 1953: “If ever you go to Dublin town / In a hundred years or so / Inquire for me in Baggot Street / And what I was like to know.”

Friday, February 1, 2013

JOYCE’S DUBLIN: GONE WITH THE WIND?


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 24, Number 2 (February 2013), 19.

Punctuated with headlines to mark its being set in conjoined newspaper offices, the seventh episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, “Aeolus,” itself punctuates the novel, announcing by way of its sudden typographical shift—and indeed by its first headline—that both the characters and the reader are now located IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS. 

Specifically, most of the activity in the episode takes place in the vicinity of Sackville Street (renamed O’Connell Street in 1924), the main thoroughfare of Dublin both in 1904, when Ulysses is set, and now.  Anticipating the buffeting flurry of busyness that Joyce’s characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus will experience inside the figuratively blustery newspaper offices nearby, the episode begins amidst hubbub in the literal center of that street, the hub of the Dublin United Tramway Company: “Before Nelson’s pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started for Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rathgar and Terenure, Palmerston Park and upper Rathmines, Sandymount Green, Rathmines, Ringsend and Sandymount Tower, Harold’s Cross.”

Famously, while writing Ulysses, Joyce declared to a friend, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”  Joyce’s intention continues to resonate for readers of the novel in our time, and Joyceans—both professionals (mostly academics like yours truly) and amateurs (devotees of the written word)—continue to walk literally in the literary footprints of Joyce’s memorable cast of characters.  But as I can personally attest, more and more of those footprints have disappeared—have gone as if blown away by Aeolus, the god of wind whom Joyce evokes in Ulysses—as the city has morphed inevitably and continually during the century-plus since Joyce began inscribing it on the page.  More and more that reconstruction has to be undertaken in the mind’s eye of the reader-turned-daytripper.

To that end, I have been browsing around recently in a book about Dublin’s trams, those clanging conveyors of the citizenry of the “metropolis” during Joyce’s time.  Published in 2000, Michael Corcoran’s Through Streets Broad and Narrow: A History of Dublin Trams, actually engages closely with Joyce’s Dublin, as the tramway system was approaching a high point in its evolution at the time of the single day immortalized by Joyce in Ulysses—June 16, 1904: as Corcoran explains, a major extension had been completed the previous autumn, and October of 1904 would see the introduction of the DUTC’s first top-covered trams.  While citing “four apparent errors, one of them perhaps intentional,” Corcoran nonetheless gives Joyce high marks for his depiction of the system at various points in Ulysses, and many of the basic facts in Corcoran’s narrative illuminate just how imaginatively Joyce took the geography that lay literally beneath his feet and reworked it in his fiction.

Writing specifically about the opening of the “Aeolus” episode, Corcoran notes: “The four tracks coming past the Abbey Street junction became six between there and the Pillar, the four inner ones going through a series of crossovers to form four terminal stubs right in front of the Pillar’s entrance door.  From these stubs began the journeys to all but one of the southside destinations listed by Joyce.”  How fitting that an episode defined by verbal bluster and physical bustle and shunting about inside the newspaper offices should begin in the center of Sackville Street; as Corcoran notes further: “It has been calculated that a tram could make upwards of 60 different movements between O’Connell Bridge and Rutland (Parnell) Square.”

Gradually superseded by buses, taxis and private automobiles, the tramway system in Dublin had run its course by 1949; so only the earliest of “Joyceans”—professional or amateur—would have had firsthand experience of the DUTC as Joyce knew it.  In a sense, then, the trams, which actually appear in numerous episodes of Ulysses, embody the theme of “Gone with the wind” (a phrase spoken by a character in “Aeolus”) that latter-day daytrippers have to come to terms with in trying to reconstruct Joyce’s Dublin.

I was thinking that specifically last summer as I paused before a Joycean landmark that has withstood time’s tax and toll: the statue of “Ireland’s national poet,” Thomas Moore (1779-1852), that stands on a traffic island next to Trinity College in the center of Dublin.  Renowned for his “Irish Melodies”—mostly sentimental ballads set to traditional Irish airs—Moore figures frequently in Joyce’s writing, beginning with several references and allusions in Dubliners and continuing through Finnegans Wake.  But in “Lestrygonians,” the episode of Ulysses immediately following “Aeolus,” the reference is especially complex and thus especially revealing of just how Joyce engaged in his imagination with what he once referred to as “the catalogue of Dublin’s street furniture.”

Writing with Leopold Bloom as the episode’s center of narrative consciousness, Joyce packs a lot into just the first two sentences registering Bloom’s passing glance at Moore’s statue: “He crossed under Tommy Moore’s roguish finger.  They did right to put him up over a urinal: meeting of the waters.”  Even a casual viewer of the statue today will notice that Moore is represented in a “poetical” pose, with a book in his left hand and the index finger of his right hand conspicuously raised as if to emphasize a particular point.  But most casual readers of Ulysses will not recognize that the word “roguish” alludes to an elaborate hoax perpetrated in the London periodical Fraser’s Magazine in 1835 by a literary Irish priest, Father Francis Mahony (1804-66).  Having created a fictional counterpart named Father Prout and also Oliver Yorke, the editor of The Reliques of Father Prout, a collection of his purported literary and cultural musings, Mahony had Father Prout set out to prove, in an essay titled “The Rogueries of Tom Moore,” that a number of Moore’s poetic verses are plagiarisms of verses first written in French, Latin or Greek—and as proof he presented the originals . . . which Mahony himself had written.  Evidently, in Joyce’s mind Mahony’s own “roguery” would still be familiar in 1904 to even an ordinary Dubliner like Bloom.

Likewise, Joyce allows Bloom plausible familiarity with one of Moore’s most popular ballads, “The Meeting of the Waters,” which evokes the “sweet vale of Avoca” in County Wicklow where the rivers Avon and Avoca converge.  While this reference may still resonate today for readers with an ear for Irish music, fewer and fewer Joyceans will know firsthand that, at least until the late 1970s, the traffic island which is home to Moore’s statue was also home to a public men’s lavatory.  Yet that essential bit of knowledge illuminates not only Bloom’s (and Joyce’s) irreverent humor at Moore’s expense but also the next sentence in the episode: “Ought to be places for women.”  As Bloom’s throwaway musing reflects, Dublin Corporation, in a manifestation of lingering Victorian prudery, in effect denied the fact of female bodily functions by affording no public accommodations for those functions.

All of which, remarkably, eventually loops back to the Dublin United Tramway Company at the turn of the twentieth century.  For just as Bloom’s glance at Moore’s statue transports the Joycean reader all the way back to Father Mahony’s “Rogueries” in 1835, so does Bloom’s sensitivity to women’s needs carry the reader forward to 1961 and the publication of The Hard Life by Flann O’Brien, one of the preeminent Irish novelists in the generation immediately following Joyce.  Set essentially in “Joyce’s Dublin” (the narrative action takes place between 1890 and 1910), this darkly comic novel has as a subplot a scheme by one Mr. Collopy to outfit tramcars to provide the discreet accommodations for women that Bloom sees lacking.  Mr. Collopy explains his plan to his friend, a German Jesuit named Father Kurt Fahrt: “Let us say that a lady and a gentleman are walking down the street and have a mind to go for a stroll in the Phoenix Park.  Fair enough.  But first one thing has to be attended to.  They wait at a tram stop.  Lo and behold, along comes the Black Tram.  The lady steps on board and away she goes on her own.  And the whole beauty of the plan is this: she can get an ordinary tram back to rejoin her waiting friend.”

Obviously, Mr. Collopy’s scheme is ludicrous.  But O’Brien’s linking it with Dublin’s trams underscores the centrality of the tramway system to Dublin life a century and more ago, and in the process underscores how a book like Corcoran’s Through Streets Broad and Narrow can be so helpful for the latter-day reader committed to “reconstructing” the heart of the Joycean metropolis.  Aptly enough, my browsing through that book conveyed me not only deep into DEAR DIRTY DUBLIN (another headline from “Aeolus”) but also backward and forward in Ireland’s rich literary history.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A CLASSIC MODERN NOVEL FROM FERDIA MAC ANNA

This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 23, Number 8 (August 2012), 13.

Understandably, a casual reader of Ferdia Mac Anna’s recently reissued first novel, The Last of the High Kings, might think of it in Joycean terms.  Originally published in 1991, this novel of youthful development seems, on the surface, to share some essential thematic territory with the spirit of non serviam articulated famously by James Joyce’s quasi-autobiographical character Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church.”

Yet, even aside from the fact that he is not cast in the role of “the artist”—that is, in the mold of the self-consciously sensitive individual committed, in his struggle against the values of a repressive society, to deploying the Joycean strategy of “silence, exile and cunning”—Mac Anna’s protagonist Frankie Griffin emerges as much more, or at least much other, than a late-twentieth century variation on Joyce’s Stephen.  Set in the north-of-Dublin community of Howth in the summer of 1977, Mac Anna’s novel is ultimately very much a product of its own place and time and is infused with a comic spirit that distances it both tonally and stylistically from Joyce’s signature ironic treatment of his Dublin-centered creation.

Not unusually for a first novel (and in that regard not unlike Joyce’s Portrait), The Last of the High Kings is also infused with many details drawn from the author’s own life.  As Mac Anna registers his childhood and his adolescence in The Last of the Bald Heads, his memoir published in 2004, these details include not only Howth as setting but also essential elements that propel the narrative of the novel: a domineering and eccentric mother, a frequently absent father, a male youth longing for individual identity in a community and culture (social, scholastic, political) demanding blind conformity to established codes of conduct.  As Mac Anna acknowledges in recounting the family’s move from Killiney to Howth, even the novel’s title derives from a refrain that he endured throughout his growing-up years: “On the first day, the local kids came around to check us out.  ‘Where are you from?’ one asked.  ‘We come from the High Kings of Ireland,’ I replied, repeating what Mother had told me to say.  The kids were not impressed.  A girl said that she was going to ask around about us.  She reckoned we were from Cabra.”

In fact, one of the central tensions of the novel involves Frankie’s mother’s designating him for greatness from a very young age: “At home, Ma told him he was a special boy, descended from the ancient Celtic warriors and High Kings.  She said there was powerful blood in his veins because he was the firstborn son.  Someday he’d be a great man, she promised; he’d be a professor of history, then President of Ireland.  That kind of talk made him feel great.  Every time Ma leaned over him, he felt warm and secure and lightheaded.  It was like being bathed in his own personal spotlight.”  But by the time Frankie reaches his teenage years, such puerile gratification has been replaced by his interest in girls, drink, and rock ’n’ roll: “At home Ma gave out to him about everything.  She said his hair was a disgrace.  She didn’t like his clothes or his habits or his friends.”  Clearly, Frankie has trouble living up to his mother’s expectations for a descendent of “the High Kings of Tara” whose “bloodline is one of the most revered in Europe.”

Ultimately, the tension between Frankie and his mother centers on her “politics”: a diehard nationalist and a local activist in the Fianna Fáil party, she actively despises any and all Irish Protestants, whom she labels sweepingly as “Brits.”  Indeed, the climactic confrontation of the novel involves Frankie being accosted by his mother for his burgeoning romantic (and sexual) relationship with a local Protestant beauty, Jayne Wayne, whose mother happens to be from Belfast and whose father happens to be from Essex in England.  “No Brit bitch is going to come between an Irish Celtic warrior mother and her eldest son,” she launches her verbal assault on Frankie: “Who would have thought that my own flesh and blood would have turned out to be a dirty Brit-lover.  You’re as bad as the dirty Black and Tans.  What about the 1916 Rising when Jayne’s father’s countrymen shot dead thousands of innocent Irish revolutionaries?  What about Father Murphy’s glorious Rising of 1798?  What about Wolfe Tone and poor old Robert Emmet?  Look what they did to Parnell.”  She then proceeds to assault Frankie physically, pelting him with whatever she finds close at hand, starting with a bronze bust of Cuchulainn from the mantelpiece.  Frankie retreats out the front door and down the drive: “When he looked back, he saw Ma in the light from the open doorway, darting in and out of the house, hurling objects out into the darkness after him.  A book clunked onto the tarmac.  Then a picture frame smashed on the path.  His brand new Stranglers album went gliding over his head into Figgis’s garden.  Within moments, every album he owned seemed to be flying through the air.  He recognized the sleeve of ‘The Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East’ just before it thudded into the telegraph pole above his head and went spiraling off into the blackness.”

Tellingly, of course, the mother’s passionate nationalism reflects the spirit of the place and the time that Mac Anna chooses for his novel’s setting.  Born in 1955, Mac Anna sees both himself and his younger protagonist as products, or victims, of the nearly six-decade domination of the Irish political and economic landscapes—and thus of the social and cultural landscapes as well—by Éamon de Valera, nationalist rebel, later Prime Minister, and later still President of Ireland.  Founded by de Valera in 1926, Frankie’s mother’s beloved Fianna Fáil party set the tone of social conservatism and lingering republican nationalism that defined the heart of the twentieth century in Ireland.  Frankie’s resistance to his mother’s political bent thus represents, even in this novel characterized by hilariously comical scenes and dialogue, a serious indictment by Mac Anna of the spiritually dreary times that he himself grew up in and that continued to characterize both Dublin and the countryside up until the economic boom of the 1990s known as “the Celtic Tiger.”

The Last of the High Kings was adapted by Gabriel Byrne and David Keating as a film, directed by Keating, with the same title in 1996.  While featuring cameo appearances by Byrne, Stephen Rea, and Colm Meaney, the film version—blandly re-titled Summer Fling when released in North America—has mostly a North American cast playing Irish roles, including Jared Leto as Frankie and Catherine O’Hara as his mother.  It falls short of being a cinematic must-see.

But reissued by New Island Books as part of their “Modern Irish Classics” series, The Last of the High Kings definitely belongs in the “classic” category.  Its update of the Irish coming-of-age novel etched so indelibly by Joyce in A Portrait rings as utterly true as Joyce’s to the period of Irish life that it responds to and reflects and refracts.  Setting the novel in his native Howth, a fishing village located on a promontory nosing into the Irish Sea nine miles north of Dublin’s city center, Mac Anna absolves himself of writing in the long literary shadow cast by “Joyce’s Dublin,” a favorite playground of casual readers and Joyce scholars alike.  He also absolves himself of having to engage with the more complex social and cultural landscape of “the heart of the Hibernian metropolis,” allowing him to focus on Frankie’s particular domestic situation as the window opening onto the larger world of modern Ireland. 

At the end of A Portrait, Joyce has his protagonist reject his literal father to embrace his mythic father, the Greek inventor Dædalus: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”  True to the prevailing comic temper of his novel, Ferdia Mac Anna ends The Last of the High Kings with Frankie Griffin reconciled, at least for now, with his mother, and he even joins her and his siblings in greeting their prodigal father returning from one of his long absences: “‘Wave, everybody, wave,’ Ma said, her face shining.  ‘Show your father what a great family he has.’  Everyone waved.”



Tuesday, March 1, 2011

DEEP IN THE HEART OF DERRY

This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 22, Number 3 (March 2011), 30.

“The schoolmen were schoolboys first.” So James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus muse in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode of Ulysses. These words would have made an apt epigraph for The Boys of St. Columb’s (The Liffey Press, 2010), Maurice Fitzpatrick’s book of commentary and interviews published as a companion piece to the film of the same name that he co-wrote and co-produced: both book and film focus on one of the most momentous events in the history of modern Northern Ireland. Generally overshadowed by the outbreak of sectarian violence in the late 1960s that defined the last three decades of the twentieth century in the North, this event is the passage, in 1947, of the Education Act which made secondary education free for any student who passed the auxiliary test known as Eleven Plus. Essentially, in the film and the book, Fitzpatrick sets out to prove a thesis: that the implementation of this act gave rise in a single generation to a professional class of Catholics who would provide visionary leadership in reshaping the social and political culture of Northern Ireland in the last half of the century. His testing ground for this thesis is very specific: St. Columb’s College, a diocesan-run Catholic boys school in the heart of the city of Derry.

For some readers of the book and viewers of the film (available on DVD), the first attraction may be the new insight that Fitzpatrick’s focus offers into two of the best-known and most distinguished alumni of St. Columb’s—Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney and scholar, critic and novelist Seamus Deane. Indeed, these two writers—and the relationship between those two “schoolmen” who were once schoolboys together—figure prominently in Fitzpatrick’s project. Yet they are still just part of a larger ensemble comprising a cross-section of graduates from diverse backgrounds and with diverse interests and talents who went on to become household names in one field or another: musicians Paul Brady and Phil Coulter; politician and Nobel Peace Prize recipient John Hume; well-traveled ambassador James Sharkey; political activist Eamonn McCann, one of the founders of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s; and Edward Daly, Bishop of Derry from 1974 to 1993 (the heart of the so-called “Troubles”) who as Fr. Daly had become known worldwide through the image of him waving a blood-stained white handkerchief while ministering to a mortally wounded victim of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972.

While some of these men knew each other during their years at St. Columb’s (mostly during the late 1940s and the 1950s) and while most have in later life crossed orbital paths with each other, what they really have as their first common denominator is the experience of attending St. Columb’s. That in itself proves fascinating for the viewer of the film and the reader of the book, as each of the eight men featured has a unique recollection of and a unique set of reflections on that experience. For instance, the experience of attending the school was vastly different—in some cases for better, in some cases for worse—for boarders and for day students. It was also vastly different depending on personal domestic circumstances and individual sensibility. For some of Fitzpatrick’s subjects, their time at the college was transformative in a mostly affirming way. Phil Coulter, for example, asserts: “I would have no doubt that whatever combination of talent, tenacity, temperament and work ethic I have, I would owe that to St. Columb’s.” Likewise, James Sharkey remembers his final two years as “really a preparation for something extraordinary”: “No matter how much you were a rebel and rejected education, you were always aware that there were teachers of a certain sophistication with whom you empathised. . . . I owe those people a special debt of gratitude.”

For others, however, the St. Columb’s experience was utterly traumatic. A day student from the lower-class Bogside area of Derry, Eamonn McCann remembers being treated as “an interloper” and remembers also that “The regime at St. Columb’s was quite brutal and was run by fear”: “It was run by a lot of brutality—not just slaps but the use of fists. I was knocked unconscious in an Irish class once for something very, very trivial.” Paul Brady is even more emphatic as he summons up his earliest memories of the school as experienced by a sensitive bespectacled boy from the town of Strabane, Co. Tyrone: “Shock, horror, awe, shock. I had no experience that was going to prepare me for going into a boarding school. Being in a monocultural, monosex kind of atmosphere was quite a shock to me, and it took me a long time to get accustomed to it. I didn’t have any experience of other parts of Northern Ireland, say east of the Sperrin Mountains which is a whole different vibe altogether, with strange accents, which now I know to be only south Derry accents and Antrim accents. But at the time they might have been from Timbuktu to me.” Of the eight alumni of St. Columb’s interviewed by Maurice Fitzpatrick, Brady seems to have suffered the most from the concomitant cultures of violence and of conformity imposed equally by the priests and the lay teachers at the school and either resigned to or absorbed as the norm by the vast majority of the students. His interview is particularly poignant.

Not surprisingly, not one of Fitzpatrick’s subjects is unequivocally nostalgic about his experience at St. Columb’s. But of all the interviewees, Seamus Deane is most detailed—and uncompromisingly so—in his analysis of the ministry of fear (as it were) that defined life at the college. Perceiving the institution of the Catholic Church as “a system of authority that was changing itself into a system of power, and doing that mistakenly under the aegis of the Socialist Government’s Education Act,” Deane parses with riveting rigor the complex implications of the dynamic that played out at St. Columb’s: “They couldn’t handle the effect of that legislation. The Roman Catholic Church couldn’t remain what it had been: once they had to teach the working classes, their class prejudice revealed itself. Every one of them was anxious nevertheless to exert authority, reproducing the structures of domination that the state had used; mass education exposed a church that had won respect from being oppressed. The myth of the priest could not survive his becoming a teacher in a strenuous situation. So it was sort of a melancholy place in that respect, made the more so by the excellence of some of the very good teachers.”

Yet the prevailing theme of The Boys of St. Columb’s remains that articulated by Seamus Heaney in response to Maurice Fitzpatrick’s question about the enduring “impact” of the 1947 Education Act. Appreciating how “people with merit, with intelligence, were given the scholarship, so that talent brought forward a whole new set of people,” Heaney elaborates: “That arrival into the adult population, eventually, of educated people from the working class, from farming backgrounds, brought a new kind of critical intelligence, a new kind of appetite for excellence into play. They had a sense of adventure, a sense of themselves as a generation with some sense of possibility and advantage and renewal. They were aware of the people who hadn’t got the advantages in their family and among their neighbours. They were political in that they had a strong sense of being responsible.”

And in that regard the resonance—and thus the importance—of The Boys of St. Columb’s as a documentary record extends far beyond even the engaging “tales told out of school,” about school, by an octet of men as candid as they are articulate. One way in which their personal stories resonates is as evidence of the value of education in the particular context of Northern Ireland: as Fitzpatrick asserts in his Introduction to the book, behind the stock images of the Northern predicament and the sectarian conflict—first the media shots of posturing politicians and then the literal shots and explosions heard ’round the world—there was “history to be understood.” Perhaps just as important is the broader message that the film sends out about education as the great liberator because it is first the great equalizer. The Boys of St. Columb’s is thus a sort of parable for how education—not arms or armies—can be the vehicle for change not just in one particular context but globally.