Saturday, 16 August 2014

An Emperor called Clive? (otherwise known as Baron Clive of Plassey, County Clare).

Clive – The Life and Death of a British Emperor.

By Robert Harvey. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1998. pp X + 388 text + bibliography and index. Pictures and maps.

This review was written on June 3rd 2004.

This biography could hardly be described as a work of scholarship or of fresh information in the sense that the author appears to have depended on secondary sources and to have relied very much on previous biographies of Clive. Robert Clive had a very controversial career. He played a major role in converting the British interests in India from a few commercial outposts in Madras and Calcutta on the east coast and of Bombay in the west to full military, political and administrative control of the subcontinent. In the early days of his arrival in Bengal in 1756 the British had no imperial aspirations as far as India was concerned and the outposts under the control of the East India Company were simply there as a commercial arrangement with the Indians and their rulers. The French also had a few outposts at that time but again the French had no imperial ambitions. The country was governed by regional nabobs with the chief nabob in Delhi. The latter had little executive power or influence over his regional colleagues. Nevertheless, despite the limited presence of the British, the East India Company outposts in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay in the mid-1700s were well developed communities with prosperous and influential British employees and a military presence, and with the support of the British navy and merchant marine. There was a strong British influence in terms of architecture, culture, and social life, particularly in Calcutta in Bengal

Robert Clive was a young man when he went out to Fort David, close to Madras, as a clerk in the East India Company. He became involved on the military side because of a few local crises which occurred between the British community and the local Indian rulers and some of the French. Clive was born in 1725 in Shropshire where his family was part of the minor gentry. Like many other famous people; he had an undistinguished career during and immediately after his schooling. At the age of 17, and with much influence, he was appointed to a position in India. Clive first travelled to India on the Winchester, a ship of 500 tonnes, a larger vessel than the ships commonly employed at the time.  He had an eventful journey of nearly one year which included various catastrophes at sea, including many months in Brazil where the ship was being repaired after spending much of that time grounded off the coast of Rio. It is astonishing how sea travel to India at that time, often lasting six months or more, could have been tolerated, with cramped and unhygienic conditions, the close contact of so many individuals of different gender, education, social status and temperament, not to mention the appalling diet. It is difficult to understand how these small vessels, entirely dependent on sail, could survive the storms, the uncharted seas and the navigational problems which prevailed in these early years.

Model of a 1750s ship
As a young man he appeared to be quite individualistic and he found it difficult to conform to the conventions of society. He proved to be a person of enormous courage and on several occasions, when he became involved on the military side in India, he showed little caution in undertaking the most hazardous actions. His military victories were mostly against the greatest odds, although history described by British sources and the current author may exaggerate the disparity between the British forces and the opposing local Indian troops and their French leaders.

The book gave me for the first time an insight into the development of India under British rule. Clive’s exploits up to the time he last left India had not yet established the full control by the British of the Indian sub-continent and it was before the diatribes about the East India Company’s activities which were a prominent feature of Edmond Burke’s political campaign at the end of the eighteenth century.  Followed as Clive was by other imperialists, the leading Muslim business and the Hindu Nabobs eventually came under British military protection and economic control some time after Clive’s third and last visit to India when he was appointed Governor of Bengal, replacing the local nabobs there.

British rule was not entirely devoted to exploiting the local population on behalf of the mother country. An excellent civil service was established along the tradition of the British colonial system, and some of the Indian troops, under British tutelage, became gallant and efficient soldiers to serve in later wars involving Britain and the Empire. This vast country remained under British control until the independence movement started in the early twentieth century with the evolution of democratic ideas and the gradual loss of power of the nabobs. Gandhi was of course the person who spearheaded Indian independence and it was he who was to cause such distress and sense of loss to the British imperialists, such as Winston Churchill. Independence probably evolved in  practice as local government gave a thrust to the aspirations of the people of India, as it did in Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twenty centuries where control of local government and of education made it inevitable that the British hegemony would end.

In the final settlement with the British, India was partitioned into the Hindu dominated India in the south and the Muslim dominated Pakistan in the north, where, as in the North of Ireland, religion and its divisive effects has left serious problems in relation to minorities and the control of Kashmir. Both Pakistan and India became republics but remained in the British Commonwealth and have maintained good relations with Britain, unlike the situation in  Ireland where the effects of the civil war was to cause a serious alienation among some Irish which now is happily resolving. We also rashly retired from the Commonwealth in 1949 at the time of the declaration of a republic and on the impulse of the then Taoiseach Jack Costello.

Clive was still in his forties when he returned to India for the third and last time. He had made an immense amount of money during his times there. He became passionately interested in entering British politics, but, because of poor judgement and the many enemies he created among influential politicians and within the East India Company and the British administrations, he essentially failed as a politician although he had been a Member of Parliament for some years after his return from India. He was probably a very unhappy man who’s materialistic and political ambitions were associated on many occasions with stress and failure, and with adverse public opinion despite his having many admirers. Because of his wealth and his conflict with political colleagues and some directors of the East India Company, he was subjected to a Parliamentary enquiry. Although he was eventually absolved of serious corruption, it was a time in England where there was little or no libel law and when the most atrocious charges were made against prominent people such as Clive which were as difficult to refute as they were to prove. I expect the nouveau riche and those who enriched themselves in the service of the Empire were particularly vulnerable.

He died mysteriously in his early fifties and is buried in an unmarked grave in an obscure village in the West of England. The exact site of the grave in the churchyard is not known and the only memorial plaque to him is in the adjoining church. He married his wife Margaret during his first visit to India after he had earned renown as a young and successful military strategist and he returned to England on his honeymoon in triumph and already enjoying some wealth. She lived for many years after him as Lady Clive and climbed successfully the social ladder after his death. One of Clive’s great ambitions was to join the aristocracy with an English peerage but this he never achieved despite the acquisition of a few fine country houses and estates in the West Country. He was largely snubbed by leading politicians and by the aristocracy, and his only recompense was an Irish peerage, one which was considered of secondary importance in English circles.

On balance I was glad to have read the book, not in any sense for its literary merits, and its cohesive structure, but in relatively few pages it gave me an insight into the history and political development of India as it is to-day. The population of Greater India at the time of Clive’s first visit was estimated to be 150 million. Its population to-day is close to 1,100 million. The latter figure does not include the population of Pakistan. One wonders if we are in complete denial about the critical effects of the exponential human population increase over the last century.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Just one more thing...

This is a brief comment arising out of the Myles Dillon letters published in my blog a few days ago.
The initial common-place, family and personal  lines of this blog on Myles Dillon's correspondence  may discourage some of our readers and yet they prove interesting to  me and probably to some of my readers because of the reviving interest in Ireland in the history of the Irish Parliamentary Party and of Parnell and the other leaders of Home Rule. Their endeavours  could easily have led to a peaceful settlement of Ireland's aspirations as an independent country within the Commonwealth if 1916 had never been  organised and initially approved by a handful of individuals such as Clarke, McDermott and Pearse. Nor might the perpetuation of the division of the country have been so compelling and implacable  as a result of the extreme and quixotic measures adopted by these few men. No doubt we shall celebtate the memory of the men of 1916 to confirm their extraordinary sacrifice to their country  but surely history tells us that our celebrations should include a wider spectrum of those men and women who had a diffirent view from the 1916 men but who were equally concerned about Ireland's unique cultural, historical and geographical standing in the world.

Friday, 8 August 2014

The Correspondence of Myles Dillon. 1922-1925

The Correspondence of Myles Dillon. 1922-1925.
Editors: Joachim Fischer and John Dillon.
Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1999. pp 298. HB.

This review was written on June 30th 2000

Joh Dillon, Myles' father.
Myles Dillon (1900-1972) was the third son of John Dillon's five boys and one girl, and the grandson of John Blake Dillon, the Young Irelander who was a co-founder of The Nation and a member of the Commons for Tipperary. John Dillon had qualified as a doctor but soon entered politics as a supporter of Parnell and a prominent member of the Irish Parliamentary Party. He was involved in the agrarian struggles of the late nineteenth century and was arrested several times because of his political and agrarian activities. He led the anti-Parnellites after the split but was active in bringing about a reconciliation when John Redmond became the leader of the combined Party. He succeeded as head of the party when Redmond died in 1918, but he retired from politics when he was defeated in the December 1918 election at the time of Sinn Fein's electoral triumph.

John Dillon was also the proprietor of a prosperous general merchants business in Ballaghdereen which was eventually taken over and managed by his fourth son, James Dillon, the subject of another biography by Maurice Manning.

Myles Dillon
Myles followed an academic career and, like his brothers, was educated by the Benedictines at Mount St. Benedict in Gorey, Co. Wexford. After occupying various academic posts in Ireland and abroad, he was appointed senior professor at the School of Celtic Studies at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies in 1949 where he remained until his death in 1972.

The 175 letters were mostly exchanged between himself and his father during his sojourn in Germany from 1922-1925 where he had pursued his postgraduate studies and earned his degree in UCD and his doctorate in Berlin. A few letters were exchanged with other members of his family and with a few academics in Ireland who were in one way or another involved with his career.

The letters have no particular literary merit. They mostly deal with mundane personal, family and domestic affairs. At first I read them with little interest and even less hope of finishing the 242 pages of text. However, as I persisted, I became more intrigued, not by the specific details in the letters, but by an evolving insight into the minds and opinions of a Catholic Irish middle class and prosperous family which had been involved with the Irish Parliamentary Party since its inception 40 years earlier and which found itself and all it stood for nationally suddenly undermined by the 1916 Rebellion, the Sinn Fein electoral triumph of 1918 and the subsequent War of Independence and the Civil War.

Support for the Irish Parliamentary Party (in light Green): on the left - 1910, on the right - 1918.
John Dillon retired, perforce, from politics after the 1918 election, but it is clear from the letters that he continued to have a close interest in Irish and international affairs. His interests, opinions and prejudices were shared by his family. They, like many others who continued to believe in the Party's long- standing policies of peaceful political progress, abruptly found themselves in a vacuum and entirely helpless in influencing the progress of the nation by 1918. It is clear from the letters that, while John Dillon and his family condemned the behavior of the irregulars during the Civil War, they also found it difficult to accept the reality of the new Free State Government and showed little sympathy with its difficulties during the Civil War and afterwards. In letter number 117 Myles writes "I sometimes say things I regret when I say anything about the Irish Government, so I say nothing". And Maurice Manning, in his biography of James Dillon, notes his subject's antipathy to the new government, an antipathy which continued up to 1932 when, as an independent TD for Co. Donegal, he voted for de Valera as the new president of the Executive Council.

John Dillon, in his letters, was over pessimistic about the survival of the Free State Government and continued to predict dire disaster up to 1925 when the correspondence with Myles came to an end.

John Redmond (leader of the IPP) and John Dillon - 1910
There was an element of poignancy about this family and the wider society which they represented in Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century. John Dillon, as far as I am aware, spoke for the Irish Party and its role in Anglo-Irish politics only once after his retirement when he published a letter in the Melbourne Argus in April 1922 in response to the dissolution of the United Irish League of Australia which had traditionally supported the Irish Parliamentary Party. This letter was subsequently published by the Freemans Journal on 12 May 1923, and is included in the appendix of the book. It makes sad reading, even for those who supported 1916, Sinn Fein and the subsequent War of Independence. In it the achievements of the Party during the 39 years of its existence are spelled out in detail.

He reminds us that a whole generation or more of Irish people, pluralistic in spirit if not in reality, and with strong cultural leanings, were abruptly deprived of their influence, suffered the ignominy of an outworn patriotism and, worse, were virtually forgotten by an ungrateful public and by the leaders who replaced them. To recall the achievements of the Irish Parliamentary Party is not simply a question of revisionism, but a desire to remember the achievements of the Parnellite movement which, by peaceful constitutional means, greatly improved the lot of the people of Ireland. It is a plea to include these patriots in our hall of fame with those who preceded and who followed them.

% of people in 2011 who spoke Irish daily.
The Dillon family had strong cultural interests as well as their commitment to politics and business. This included an interest in the Irish language, and the language and general educational policies being promulgated by the Free State government. Myles and his father were entirely opposed to compulsory Irish being applied to the schools and, presumably, to public appointments. This was a view they shared with many others, including members of the universities and other prominent academics who had supported the revolutionary movement. Eoin MacNeill, who was in the Free State cabinet, was earlier opposed to the concept of the Irish revival depending on the schools. Yet he supported his colleagues in proposing compulsory Irish for children. Perhaps, in the circumstances of the Civil War they might have been accused by their opponents of being unpatriotic if any other policy were adopted. One wonders if a different policy would have been adopted if the Civil War had not followed the Treaty settlement. Compulsory Irish was a policy which led to much cynicism, hypocrisy and political cant, and which, beyond any other factor, accounted for the widespread indifference to the language and its failure to be adopted as a functional tongue.

My father was the minister for education in the two inter-party governments. He might have negative views about  compulsory Irish just as he had negative views about the  Department  of Education in general but he made no attempt to change the compulsory policy almost certainly because such a change would have destabilized the inter-party government which had a very thin and fragile majority in the Dáil.

The letters written in late 1922 and early 1923 contain many references to Civil War events. They are a reminder of how the civil war had degenerated into a widespread campaign of pure vandalism with senseless destruction of property, disruption of public services and unnecessary loss of life, and with no hope of military success for the irregulars. The more formal aspect of the war had ended within a few months. It should have been clear by then that the republican aspirations of the irregulars could only be achieved by political means. It is surprising to us at this distance in time that, despite one offer of amnesty and several efforts to arrange a truce, the prolongation of the conflict should not have been discouraged by those anti-treaty leaders who were later to give dedicated service to the state.

Myles letters also describe the hardships of post-war Germany and the severe measures adopted by the French in particular to ensure that German reparations were paid promptly and in full. The draconian measures adopted by the French led to their occupation of the Ruhr and other parts close to the Rhine and ultimately to strong protests from the British and Americans.

60,000 French and Belgium troops marched into the Ruhr (essential part of German industry) in 1923 and seized control of factories, mines and railways. They erected machine-gun posts in streets and took supplies from the shops.

The appendix contains 42 short and informative biographical notes of contemporaries of the Dillons - journalists, politicians, academics, writers and poets. For most of those of my own middle and late 20th century vintage, they have become shadowy figures in folk memory - the Dillons themselves, Delargy, Robin Flower, Stephen Gwynn, T.P.O’Connor, Douglas Hyde, Sarah Purser, Agnes O'Farrelly, George Russell, Monsignor Boylan and others.

There are 674 footnotes, all in reduced print and adding to the tedium of ploughing through the letters. However, for those with the time and the patience, they are a valuable source of information about the people and the political, cultural and academic affairs of Ireland and Europe during the early 20th Century.

The apparent demise of letter writing in more recent times will surely leave a serious gap for historians and biographers of the future and for idle commentators such as the author of this essay.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Anyone for Scorzonera?

Vegetables for the Irish Garden. Klaus Laitengerger. Milkwood Farm Publishing, 2010. Available. at or

This review was written on November 2nd 2013

I found this very attractive book on the recently arrival section of the RDS library. For the reader’s convenience and to rest my own overactive brain I am quoting the comment made about the book by Joy Larkam on the back cover:

Klause has spent many years learning the art and craft of vegetable growing, experimenting with different plants and techniques, and passing on his knowledge to countless students of all ages. The last ten years have been spent in Ireland, where you could say that his teacher has been the Irish climate and Irish conditions. So he has mastered the vagaries of boggy soils, high rainfall, the most common pests and diseases, and has dispelled what he has learnt into this book.

It embraces everything from lazy beds to green manuring; there’s even a section on the common mistakes beginners make. This book will be an invaluable source of information for vegetable growers here – novices and experienced alike.

I was interested in this book because my daughter Barbara has organised a vegetable plot in the grounds of a local Church of Ireland site and intends to grow her own vegetables for herself and her partner when he is visiting the city (and the possible table of her father and step mother, Louise!). Her partner is a long-standing vegetable growing enthusiast and she has been affected by him in more ways than one.

Klaus deals in short sections with each of the forty two different vegetables which he deems suitable for the Irish climate and Irish soil. They are arranged in alphabetical order starting with Artichoke Globe, Artichoke Jerusalem, Asparagus, etc and finishing with Sweet corn, Swiss Card and Turnip. Each section contains a black and white drawing of the vegetable concerned and there are 24 full-page photographs of some of the vegetables in a later section and of the staff at work. I was struck by the beauty of some of the vegetables such as the Dutch Cabbage, the Butter head Lettuce and the Borage ‘’an edible flower which lifts the spirit’’.

The author devotes three or four pages to each vegetable including nomenclature, botanical classification and an introduction, which includes the plant’s history. He advises re suitable soil and site, sowing and planting techniques, rotation, plant care, harvesting and storage. He advises about the quantity produced, varieties available and, finally, a note about potential problems which are endemic to each vegetable. All in all, his approach to vegetable growing seems an easy and fulfilling occupation.

Barbara's plot; the first season's fare.

With practice and with the aid of this book, it should be easy and satisfying to have each household provides its own vegetables. It is a shame therefore that those of us who are largely depending on home cooking by our providers or partners are limited to such mundane fare as peas, traditional Irish cabbage and broccoli when we could be titillated by Kohlrabi, Oca, Celeriac and an occasional Pumpkin or the tempting Scorzonera and Salsify.

Are such delicacies forbidden fruit on the part of our cooks when our affection and love, not to mention the serenity of the household, could be encouraged in more ways than one by a greater variety of vegetable fare?