Friday, 30 August 2013

Travels with Ulick

Travels with Ulick by Ulick O’Connor. Mercier Press, Cork, 1996. SB, pp 96.

This review was written on August 18, 2005.

I was out walking with Ulick on the 12 August and afterwards during our talk in his house he gave me a copy of this short account of his first lecture tour in America in 1967. I had finished the book before I went to bed that evening. I enjoyed reading it. It was light-hearted and amusing in parts and was absorbing because of his references to the various social and political disturbances which prevailed in the United States at the time - Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, widespread student disturbances and the residue of McCarthyism.

Like all good diary writers, Ulick is vain enough to stimulate one's interest in his own personality and the many people he met. He relates his account with the honesty and frankness which I have always found during my long friendship with him. His concise and effective writing, and particularly his use of short sentences make for easy reading and gives a description of the American scene in the 1960s which accords closely to my own experience when I first went there in 1962. I met a different class of American - academics, hospital consultants, public health specialists and epidemiologists. Most would have been European in their outlook and international in their interests. I would have had less contact with the American political scene and with the 'typical' American. Ulick's contacts were mostly with media, literary people, academics, students and university staff. They apparently made up the great bulk of his listeners. They may have included what we then called the blue rinse brigade. Their ignorance of Irish affairs was balanced by intense interest in Ulick's talks on Ireland and it's literature, politics and history of the early 20th century.

His frequent allusions to the Civil Rights 
Movement, the Vietnam War and other contemporary problems then existing in America are evocative of these turbulent times. He refers to the extraordinary link between religious fundamentalism and the pursuit of wealth, a feature of the United States which had its origin in the pragmatic attitude of the early settlers. Other references to the American scene bring back memories of these times. He describes the unacceptable level of violence in the country, including his own brushes with violent people, and the Americans’ denial of the massacres and near extermination of the indigenous people of the continent. The widespread personal violence and corporate corruption we associate with America must have its origins in the degree of personal freedom enshrined in its constitution and its history, and the absence of an effective system of law and order in the early days, particularly among those who pioneered the exodus to the plains and the West. The increase in personal violence and corporate corruption in Ireland and other European countries is evidence of the Americanisation of Europe and the world, of their materialism and waste of the planet’s natural resources, their limitless urge to enhance their standard of living which is a chimera in pursuit of happiness.
Loyola University circa 1950

Ulick refers to Loyola University where he had been a student for a year about 1952. It was
 sad to read his account of the University on his later visit there. He described the  destruction of many of the sporting and exercise facilities which existed during his student year. No doubt this was evidence of the American drift towards the sedentary life and the obesity syndrome, why they have become couch potatoes and television viewers of the sporting elite.

Can we anticipate the same fate for sport and exercise for the non-elitist students at University College at Belfield where there has been a continuous and increasing invasion of the sports fields by new buildings and, from my observations as a frequent walker on the campus, decreasing student activity on the sports fields in recent years? And will this trend continue into the future with an ambitious administration putting such emphasis on research and technology, and encouraging a closer association with industry and creation of wealth? I do not think Newman would approve.

I wonder if competing in the industrial and commercial world is more important for our third level students, our future leaders, than having a rounded general education, being concerned about civics and the care of the planet, being caring citizens, and learning the value of good physical and mental health.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Ascendancy to Oblivion

“Ascendancy to Oblivion – The Story of the Anglo-Irish” by Michael McConville. Phoenix Press, London.  2001 (1986) pp  288.

This review was written on December 8th 2004.

I read this book at the end of August 2004 having borrowed it from Geoffrey Dean. The contents are based on secondary sources. The author traces the people arriving in Ireland from the earliest recorded history and describes the many invasions since the Celts first arrived on our shores.  He finds it difficult to define exactly what we mean by the Anglo-Irish in view of the heterogeneous nature of the current Irish population, made up as it is of Celts, Vikings, Norman’s, Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Welsh and a scattering from other European countries.  He proposes that the latter-day definition of the title refers to those who came to Ireland at the time of the Cromwellian settlement and who dispossessed most of the great pre-Cromwellian landowners of Elizabethan, Norman and Gaelic stock. 

The Cromwellian landowners became the dominant group in the Protestant Irish
 Parliament up to the time of the Union. It was they who continued after the Union to hold their possessions up to the time the Land Acts were enacted.  The word Ascendancy refers to their occupation and control of much of the land of Ireland while the word Oblivion in the title refers to their loss of property and privilege starting with the Land Acts towards the end of the 19th Century, with further erosion in the early 20th Century leading to their deteriorating economic, political and social circumstances.

The text underlines the great tragedy of the Anglo-Irish landowners after the Union.  Their gradual separation from their tenants and from the people of Ireland as they deserted Dublin and the provinces for the wealth, power and influence of London and Westminster had a baleful effect on their power and influence in Ireland. And they deserted Ireland often in response to the bribes of the British authorities at the time of the Union. Later their influence was further depleted by the 1916 Rebellion, the rhetoric of the Republic and the disaster of the Civil War.

A relatively few landlords remained in Ireland, and administered their own properties personally and some showed concern for their tenants. While not realised at the time, the Union of Great Britain and Ireland established in 1801 spelled the beginning of the end of the Anglo-Irish as defined by Michael MeConville.

It is clear that the absentee landlords, removed from their responsibilities in Ireland and their contact with the native population and culture, had a baleful influence on English policy in Ireland. Many English politicians, even on the Tory side, such as Wellington, were more sympathetic to Irish reform than is generally realised but any concern the British might have felt for reform was discouraged by the Irish nobility living in London.  Pitt had promised early Catholic emancipation as part of the terms of the Union but legislation was delayed for another 28 years, partly at least because of the influence of the Irish nobility. Blame for the famine and the many other disasters which occurred during the 19th Century is generally levelled at the British but, with few exceptions, the Anglo-Irish nobility must bear a major part of the responsibility. They contributed to their own oblivion by supporting the Union, by leaving their tenants and by deserting to Westminster.

For a reader seeking knowledge of the political, cultural and social history over the two millennia, Ascendancy to Oblivion gives a useful account of the major influences which determined the fate of the landed gentry.  Tracing every immigration to Ireland over the two millennia gives a rounded account of the polygenetic Irish people. It provides an informative and amusing account of the governing classes in Ireland during the years they largely governed themselves and dominated the lives of the great majority of the Irish people, at least up to the time of the Union.

I have to say that this short review only touches one aspect of the history of our latter day ascendancy. We still have the remains of their people and families in Ireland, some of whom have usefully continued the occupation and welfare of their estates and who have played their part in the welfare and success of the New Ireland. In particular, some members of the landed classes paid a crucial part in the Celtic Revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.

“Galileo’s Daughter – a drama of science, faith and love” by Dava Sobel.  Fourth Estate, London 2000 (1999) pages 429

This review was written in December 2004 and amended in January 2005.

This paperback is described as “completely unputdownable” by a reviewer. If for no other reason but as the story of one of the world’s great geniuses, it is certainly essential reading for those seeking a knowledge of European history, the role of the Vatican  and the march of science. Sobel uses the correspondences between Maria Celeste Galilei, the older daughter of Galileo Galilei, to her father as the background to the lifetime and achievements of Galileo himself. Galileo never married but had three children, two girls and a boy, by Marena Gamba who subsequently married somebody else!  Galileo was born in 1564 and died January 1642.  His two daughters entered a convent near Florence where they were incarcerated largely because of their illegitimacy.  The boy Vincenzio was legitimised by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1619, having been born in 1606. 

The book gives a good background to life in Northern and Central Italy during the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. It underlines the huge influence of the Vatican in the political, social and spiritual life of the people.  Life was cheap then thanks to recurring epidemics of plague and to various other ill defining fevers which must have included malaria, TB, typhoid, smallpox and other less common infections. Galileo was not immune and suffered many illnesses and disabilities during his lifetime. Although he lived to the age of 78, many others included in the elaborate family tree published in the book failed to reach the age of 50.

Whilst the book is a detailed account of the relationship between Galileo and his older daughter, the substance of the book portrays what a remarkable person Galileo was at a time when the world was guided largely by superstition and tradition, and when there was little evidence of a scientific approach to natural phenomena. 

Galileo might well have been a 20th Century scientist with all the energy, the insights, the serendipity and the enquiring mind of one of our leading inventors.  He was first noted for his major advances to the telescope which allowed him to see into space to study the stars and he invented many other useful gadgets and made huge contributions to the knowledge of astronomy and of the physical phenomena of motion and of measurement.  He remained a fervent Catholic all his life but was probably one of the first to disagree with the Church’s dogma that scripture determined the form and the function of the natural world and that anything which was contrary to scripture was a form of heresy. 

The critical situation facing Galileo was the question of the centrality of the earth in the Universe.  Copernicus had published the view that the sun was the centre, at least of the planetary system, although he provided no definite proof of such a concept. Indeed, far back in Greek and Egyptian times the centrality of the earth was doubted by some observers.  Galileo went further than Copernicus by providing some astronomical evidence to confirm the centrality of the sun, but his views were to lead him into serious trouble with the Vatican and particularly with his old friend Pope Urban VIII who became his implacable foe on the issue.

Pope Urban VIII
Galileo’s challenge to scripture was totally unacceptable to His Holiness. who  had previously been Masseo Cardinal Barbini and had been a long-term admirer and supporter of Galileo. It was in 1622 that Barbini succeeded Gregory and adopted the title of Urban VIII, Before his elevation to the Papacy he had been very concerned about the Reformation and about counteracting the loss of the faithful in Germany and Switzerland.  Galileo reminded him that part of their reluctance to return to the Church was the Church’s conservative views about Copernicus and his own views in relation to the centrality of the earth.  This appeared to increase Barbini’s interest in Galileo’s proposition and it is difficult to understand why, after he had become Pope, he became so implacably opposed to Galileo and his advanced  views of the world’s real ralatiohship with the solar system.

Clearly when Urban VIII became so implacably opposed to Galileo he must have been influenced by some of Galileo’s enemies. Like all innovators and advanced thinkers, Galileo had many enemies, both within the clergy and among the less enlightened laity, including some resentful and jealous colleagues. While he met much opposition and bitterness in his own country, his work was greatly admired and accepted by scientists in Holland, Germany, Switzerland and the more advanced and less bible committed countries.
Maria Celeste Galilei
Despite Galileo’s strong conviction about the centrality of the sun he was obliged to renounce his views some years before his death. He was forbidden to write or teach on the subject.  He was virtually treated as a house prisoner during the rest of his days after he had been sentenced by the Vatican’s Inquisition.  He had much covert support, even from Churchmen and Church leaders in Italy and particularly from scientists abroad.  It was a classical case of the reluctance of most people to accept his revolutionary views, views which lead to denial, insecurity and hostility amongst many of those who became his critics and his enemies.  He was isolated from the public to an extraordinary degree during his lifetime in Italy but his life was made tolerable by the loyalty, support and sympathy of friends and colleagues. His greatest support was his daughter Maria Celeste who, from her enclosed convent and through her frequent correspondences, sustained him with her love, compassion and her advice up to the time of her own tragic death. 

It may seem a step from the sublime to the ridiculous when I recall my own experience of denial, indifference and hostility during my own professional career.  On the one hand I was almost alone on these Islands in the 1960s in advocating risk factor identification and modification as a rational basis for the treatment and rehabilitation of coronary patients, while the rest of my cardiological colleagues confined their treatment regimes to drugs, surgery and angioplasty. It is only in recent years that cardiologists have begun to pay attention to the fundamental need to seek out causes of arterial disease and to deal with such causes vigorously, not only in the healthy population but also in patients who suffer from coronary disease.  The same indifference and covert hostility was evident among my colleagues during the early years when I was advocating in public the importance of cigarette smoking control, healthy nutrition and the value of exercise in maintaining physical and psychological health.  We have seen over the past 50 years or more huge advances in diagnosis and treatment but at the same time we have seen an excessive emphasis on therapeutic and invasive intervention and a general neglect of causation and of a natural approach to prevention and to encouraging the healing powers of nature by natural means.
The Roman Church’s conflict with Galileo and his condemnation by the Inquisition can only be ascribed to ignorance, superstition and the abuse of power. Nowhere in the book does the author say that the Church accepted the truth of the centrality of the Sun.  It was only very recently that the Vatican officially accepted the concept put forward by Galileo

Friday, 9 August 2013

Hobson's Choice

Bulmer Hobson and the Nationalist Movement in Twentieth-Century Ireland, Marnie Hay. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2009. pp 275. SB

The following letter was written by me to Marnie Hay, author of the above book, on June 6th 2009.

Dear Marnie,

I have now finished your biography of Bulmer Hobson. I congratulate you on this excellent biography, obviously based on the most diligent and detailed research. You said at the launch that it took you ten years to finish the book. I am not at all surprised if I am to judge by the extent of the bibliography and the vast number of references.

You have succeeded well in conveying the personality of your subject. He comes across as an energetic and quite an obsessional character with a compulsion to follow his political and social instincts and at times a reluctance to compromise. He also seemed to have the capacity to accept the frequent slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by retiring, if only temporarily, into the background. We had all heard of him preceding 1916 but in my case at least he had later disappeared from the pages of Irish history.

An important aspect of your biography was the detailed information you provide about the many different forces and levels of nationalism which existed and evolved from the late 19th century up to 1916. I have to confess that up to now I had far too simplistic a view of these forces although I was aware of the conflict between some IRB members and Griffith, and the dominant role of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

I do not think 1916 could have happened if there had been a greater coherence between pre-Rising nationalists and if the small minority of separatists had not been influenced by Clarke and McDermott, and eventually by Pearse and a few others. How many volunteers would have joined in the 1916 Rising if they had known that it was the action it proved to be and not simply manoeuvres?

My father played a crucial part in the Ashbourne action and I doubt if the Fingal Brigade would have gone on the attack without his initiative and encouragement when, at the arrival of the heavily armed police force, Ashe thought of retiring. These facts are well documented and led either Diarmuid O’Hegarty or Denis McCullough to remark that ‘’Mulcahy was the only person who emerged from 1916 with a military reputation.’’ He was deeply religious and a man of peace. Would he have taken part in 1916 if he had known that he would be responsible for the deaths of nine innocent policemen? I often wonder why he refused to attend when the President, Seán T. O’Kelly, unveiled the monument celebrating the Ashbourne event in 1959. Was it the less acceptable aspects of 1916, as recorded by my father on tape during one of our conversations? It was hardly his poor opinion of O’Kelly and his concern of being patronised by him. By 1959 he had been fully reconciled to O’Kelly and, with my mother and family, he had often visited O’Kelly during the previous 14 years when the latter had been President of Ireland.

In my biography of my father, I had this to say:

If 1916 had not occurred, our conception of a nation separate from Britain would have been accentuated by the strong cultural movement which had much wider support than the forces of militancy which were unleashed by the Rising. The cultural revival which was gathering strength from the late 19th century to the Rising in 1916, added to the political consciousness following the 1798 centenary celebrations,  had wide community support, from Protestant and Catholic as well as some of the land-owners and others who had no thought of separatism or even limited home rule. Yeats, George Russell, Standish O’Grady, Douglas Hyde, Edward Martyn, Synge, George Moore, Lady Gregory, Pádraig Colum, G.B. Shaw as well as Griffith and Rooney and the stirrings of Sinn Féin, represented a powerful force for national  revival and national consciousness which would inevitably have led to a degree of self-government and separatism which would have satisfied our most ardent nationalists before 1916 and which would have avoided the disaster of our civil war and the long-standing and unnatural division of our country. 

I might have added the GAA, Conradh na Gaeilge and the National University among other progressive influences and the support of the British Irish Secretary, Birrell, for reasonable Irish aspirations.

Hobson was certainly insightful in opposing 1916 and in his persistent faith in civil disobedience and guerrilla warfare, as was proved later during the War of independence. Without 1916 we would not have had the damaging rhetoric of the Republic. And his reputation was ill-served by accusations of cowardice. His correspondence during the early years of the Free State and up to his retirement was consistent with his restless concern about the wellbeing of Ireland. He must have had a measure of patience and forbearance to have encountered so much indifference and opposition to his ideas.

Again, my congratulations on your seminal contribution to recent Irish history.

Yours sincerely,

Risteárd Mulcahy.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Another time, another place.

Fiche Blian ag Fás. 

Muiris O’Suilleabháin. An Sagart, An Daingean, 2002. an Ceathrú Eagrán.

This review was written on 20th April 2010

Doctors are familiar with the patient who comes into the surgery with some complaint or other and then adds in a gloomy resigned way “I’m afraid I’m getting old.”  In responding to this remark I used to say that it is surely better than the alternative.  My meaning could take a moment or two to register but the patient would frequently cast off some of the gloom and look a little brighter about things.

I am reminded of the not uncommon gloomy preoccupation with ageing when I read Maurice O’Sullivan’s Twenty Years a’ Growing, the English translation of his Fiche Blian Ag Fás, his description of life on the Blasket Islands off the coast of Kerry in the early part of the 20th century.  During one of his many conversations with a grandson who called his grandfather Daddo, the old man said 

"Did you ever hear how the life of a man is divided?

Twenty years a growing, twenty years in blossom,
Twenty years a stopping, twenty years declining.
Look now, I have sayings you have never heard!”

‘’And in which twenty are you now?” said O’Sullivan.  And grandfather replied “in the last twenty and it is to God I am thankful for his gifts.”

As I get older and occasionally think of my vanishing youth, I am comforted by Daddo’s prayer of thanks.  As I get older too I am learning that one can improve with age and that many of the physical and cerebral disabilities associated in the popular mind with late middle age are the products of disuse and neglect rather than the products of ageing.  Use your mind and use your body and if you do so prudently you have no need to fear these later years.

This book was conceived by Muiris O’Suilleabháin between 1929 and 1932 after some encouragement from some of his friends. He lived in Conamara at this time. He had joined the Civic Guards and lived his entire professional life in the Conamara Gaelteacht because, one assumes, of his knowledge of the Irish language. It was customary in the Guards that no officer was appointed to his own part of the country. O’Súilleabháin, born in the Great Blasket Island, was induced to write about his young life the Blaskets and Dingle.

An tOileánach by Tomás O’Criomhthain was published in 1929 and Peig had been published by Peig Sayers is 1936. They formed the trio of authors in Irish from the Blaskets which made that island so famous afterwards. I cannot remember if I had read any of these books before but I was fortunate to have the fourth edition of the Fiche Blain ag Fás in my library. During the last few years I have made a more serious effort to become an Irish speaker again after my fifty years of neglect of the language following my departure from school. I dealt with my attitude to the language and my father and my family’s background to the language on pages 216-218 in my autobiography published in 2010.

The Irish spoken in the Blaskets was almost a patois in the sense that it had words and expressions which differed widely from the Irish which we were brought up with in Dublin and indeed from the rich Munster Irish which we knew so well in Corcha Dheana during our summer holidays in Ballyferriter and Baile Mór during the late 1920s and the 1930s. The Blasket form of Iriish is well noted in the text of O’Súilleabháin’s book. It left me (and even in Tomas de Bhaildriethe’s Irish-English dictionary) at a loss as to some of its words and phrases, My reading in Irish was slow and tedious at first but my comprehension improved as I progressed although I was still left with having to guess  some phrases of his text.

The author was the last and fifth member of a family in the island whose mother died shortly after his birth. He was fostered to Dingle for his first ten or eleven years and only then returned to the island to his father and grandfather and his four siblings. He had no Irish until he returned to his family but he soon learned to become part of its tight community.

In his book he has left a warm, sentimental and sometimes sad memoir of the community, its tightly connected people and the ambience of its natural features of sky, sea, landscape, the grandeur of Dingle Bay, the Kerry coast, the distant Skelligs and mountains as far as the McGillicuddy Reeks.  It became increasingly apparent as one reads his account that, over the years from 1912 after O’Súilleabháin’s return to the island to his departure to the mainland in 1927, there was a slow but inexorable departure of the young people, mostly to America and to Springfield and Boston, to join their families there.

The young were largely influenced to migrate to America by the encouragement and financial support of their American siblings and also by the globalisation changes taking place in modern society. Fiche Blian ag Fás is tinged in all its pages with the sadness of a dying community which was unique in our country.

Getting ready to launch the Naomhóg
The author conveys a close and isolated community on the island, the simplicity of their lives, the close relationship between all generations and the vagaries of the weather. They were close to nature with their donkeys, sheep, goats and rabbits on land and the dominant part played in their lives by fishing and by the ocean wildlife, including the masses of seals (Rón) on the rocks and beaches, the whales (Míol) and the ever-present birdlife nesting on the cliffs and on every nook and cranny not too accessible to humanity. Fishing formed a dominant part in their livelihood and it was conducted in the Naomhóg, a canvas covered and latticed currach which was unique to the Kerry coast. Fish was plentiful, except during prolonged stormy weather, not infrequent in the West coast of Ireland. However, the fish was preserved in barrels full of salt in some households. The naomhóg was a safe boat, even in rough weather, in expert and experienced hands.  My own experience as a child when returning from the Blaskets late in the evening in very rough weather was terrifying as the boat mounted the huge waves only to be immediately followed by a precipitous fall into an abyss of wild confusion. All this was part of the daily lives of the fishermen who became powerful oarsmen and were only rarely assisted in quieter seas by a sail.

Music, singing and dancing were some of the pastimes of the younger people with the older parents and grandparents always in close attendance and full of talk and gossip... the fireside was the centre of the house and was the natural place of repose of the older people, all of whom appeared to be sucking at their pipes or dudeens. Tobacco appeared to be one of the few imports from the main land and was always greatly valued by the older Blasket community.

There is a touching piece about O’Súilleabháin and his first love, Mairéad. Of a sudden he falls in love with her but he was loath to show his feelings. However, after a few impersonal encounters, he heard her say casually to him the word cuid and this was to bring the two together for the rest of his stay in the Blaskets.  Cuid was the Irish for my dear and would be used among lovers. It was a passionate relationship within the strict mores of the Island at the time. Yet, once he left the island to join the Civic Guards in 1927 when he was about 24 years of age there is no mention of her nor does he in his autobiography mention anything about his personal affairs afterwards, including his marital and family status. He was the last of his siblings to leave the island for the mainland and for the future.