James Plunkett was one of Ireland’s greatest writers, author of the great Irish novel, Strumpet City. This extract is from The Gems She Wore (1972), his account of some Irish places and his travels to and in them, while he was making a programme for the BBC and RTE.
We set out from Castletownbere by helicopter, filmed here and there for some hours and were, from my amateur grasp of navigational matters, firmly in the middle of nowhere when the pilot asked me if there was any place near in which we could get morning coffee. I looked down. There was a great lump of uninhabited mountain below, forbidding cliffs ahead and the rolling sea beyond. The most I knew about our whereabouts was that we were certainly not over the Phoenix Park, but being the only Irishman at hand I had to pretend to be knowledgeable. Seawards, the nearest coffee shop would be in New York, so we turned inland. Stony fields, narrow tracks and an occasional cottage with hens and domestic animals scattering in all directions at the noise of our approach were the only signs of organised society, until we passed over an isolated building which from the air looked very much like the others, except that it was larger and there were three cars parked fairly near it. I pointed down and said: `There’. We circled, saw a possible landing place about half a mile away and descended near a beach, where a party of men were packing up some land-sea rescue equipment with which they had been practising. They were speaking Irish, but answered the pilot’s inquiry about coffee in English. The pilot, Peter Peckowski, speaks with a slight Polish accent. By all means they said, but doubtfully. Coffee is not very usual in remote Ireland. They led us over ditches and by tracks to the roadway and there, in front of us, was the building I had spotted from the air. It was a public house.
`Tell me’, said one of the men, `did youse ever drink tea?’
I assured him we had.
Inside the women of the house went off to make coffee without fuss, while Peter asked where we were.
`In Ballydavid’, said the owner, `if you go by the map, but the right name is Baile na nGall’.
I was sitting at one of the tables and said: `The town of the Strangers’.
He hadn’t expected that and came over to scrutinise me.
`You’re not foreign’, he said.
`I am not’, I said.
He looked more closely.
`You have the look of a Dublin man?’
`Now you have it’.
`A writer maybe?’
It was embarassing. It was also, quite unexpectedly, deeply moving to be recognised in my own country so far away from my own small world.
`Pleased to meet you’, I said.
If he had presented me with the Freedom of Dingle I wouldn’t have been so genuinely honoured and I felt, not for the first time, that before I die I will speak my native language adequately enough to talk with those of my countrymen who have it from birth, so that they won’t shame me by having to change to English on my account.
I have now been in the middle of Sao Paulo state for just over a fortnight. Lessons learned:
- It is hot, like Africa hot, like you could fry Sally O’Brien on an egg if you had a stone hot.
- There are two big black cats around here that look as if their mammies were interfered with by jaguars.
- Brazilians eat a lot of meat. Round here Desperate Dan would be considered a perfumed ponce for having that effeminate pastry nonsense.
- Sliced, grilled cow hump is very tasty.
- Do not cross the woman with the machete who chops the ends off the unripe coconut so that you can drink the coconut water. She has a machete and she chops the ends off coconuts to make a crust.
- There is at least one person here who believes a chap can put coconut water in whisky and remain a gentleman. Such a man probably cheats at billiards.
- Everybody knows somebody who has been to Dublin, except for the people who have been there themselves.
- Brazilian academics will cheerfully go on strike for three months in pursuit of an above inflation pay claim.
- Brazilian academics have had their pensions slashed: they can no longer retire on full pay after thirty five years service.
- I might need to do a t-test on my sample size, but there is only one vegetarian in Sao Paulo state. Or all of Brazil, quite probably.
Dublin, perhaps uniquely, has suffered mythologization by genius and by sentimentality. Caught between Leopold Bloom and the Leprachaun Museum (yes, there is), the city of Dublin, the living breathing people and the physical structures they live in and on, has fallen out of sight. Joyce and Flann O’Brien caught its speech, but the one did it so perfectly people are afraid to read him, and the other was so accurate they think the humour is a laughing matter; James Plunkett wrote Dublin on a human scale and gave it flesh and blood characters, but is little known outside Ireland. We have ended up with Bloomsday and Paddy’s Day, the first now more kitsch than the second.
Karl Whitney has now written a book that gives us back Dublin as a city, not the set of a novel, or the battlefield of dreams of some misty eyed tourist in search of their heroic and downtrodden ancestors.
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Today’s Guardian carries an article from Elaine Byrne on the Irish who fought for Britain in the First World War. Without taking a view on the actions of those men, Byrne’s account of Irish memory of the conflict is very seriously flawed. Here:
It was not until 1988 that the Irish National War Memorial Gardens, 5km from parliament on the outskirts of Dublin, were formally dedicated and opened to the public. The Queen’s visit to the Islandbridge memorial in 2011 was the first time that I became aware it existed.
The Irish National War Memorial Gardens, constructed to a design by Lutyens, were indeed only formally dedicated in 1988. They were constructed, however, in the 1930s, with funding from the Irish government of Eamon De Valera, who would have been considered `anti-British’. Planning for the gardens, intended to commemorate all Irish people killed in the conflict, had begun under the government of W. T. Cosgrave in the 1920s. Both Cosgrave and De Valera had fought against Britain for Irish independence, and yet were keen to commemorate Irishmen who had fought for the former colonial power.
As for the gardens being 5km from `parliament’, that is about the distance from the Palace of Westminster to the far side of Hyde Park, hardly a trek requiring the use of pack animals and supply depots. Incidentally, the gardens are a kilometer, or fifteen minutes walk, from Kilmainham Gaol, where the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion were executed. If nothing else, the symbolism is pleasing.
Dr Byrne claims that she was not aware until 2011 that the gardens existed: there was a long public discussion about reopening them during the 1980s, largely driven by Kevin Myers in the Irish Times. The gardens were restored by the Irish Office of Public Works, i.e. the Irish state, and dedicated while Charles Haughey was Taoiseach. There was also a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme there in 2006, with the President and the Taoiseach, among others, in attendance, as well as the Irish Army band.
Dr Byrne continues:
The first world war was not taught in Irish schools. Most Irish people would be surprised to learn that an estimated 200,000 Irishmen served in the British army.
I left school in 1988 and most certainly learned, at school, about the first world war, and that Irishmen had fought in it. My parents had learned the same. Part of the nationalist narrative was that Irishmen under Redmond had been, in effect, tricked into fighting for Britain, which claimed to be defending the rights of small nations such as Belgium, and which had granted Home Rule to Ireland, though it clearly had no intention of imposing it. Whatever the validity of that narrative, it certainly did not ignore Irish involvement in the war. Indeed the `great Irish novel’, Strumpet City ends with a blacklisted striker from the 1913 Lockout enlisting in the British Army and leaving Dublin on a troop ship.
The history of the First World War, and of its memory, is quite complex enough; we are ill served by authors whose memory has clearly lost the struggle against forgetting.
Update 7 April 2014: In her original article Dr Byrne says this:
His attestation papers are a reminder of an Ireland that no longer exists. A handwritten “Yes” is placed beside the question, “Are you a British subject?” Sylvester did not know it then, but Ireland was on the cusp of the 1916 Easter Rising, which would come to define the nationalist narrative of post-independent Ireland. “I, Silvester James Cummins, swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs, and Successors … So help me God,” reads the oath.
But he did not sign it. Sylvester spelt his name with a Y, not an I. A glance at other attestation papers of Irish recruits reveals blanks in the oath, or a signature different to that elsewhere. It is a small thing, but I noticed it, and 100 years later that dormant nationalism still matters somehow.
In a second article, Remembering my great-grandfather and the Irish heroes lost to history, Dr Byrne has an image of her great-grandfather’s attestation papers and the signature is clearly spelt `Sylvester’. The entries in different handwriting, spelt `Silvester’, were inserted by the recruiting officer. It appears very unlikely that Sylvester Cummins did not sign the attestation papers, or that the misspelling of his name was the result of some `dormant nationalism’.
Strumpet City is a novel of Dublin in the early twentieth century: between the royal visit of 1907 and the hero’s departure for Flanders in 1914, a servant girl marries her sweetheart; the slum of her employer collapses; three priests contend for hegemony over the allegiance of Dublin’s poor; an ageing rake finds a cause; a labourer falls in love with a prostitute; a raggedy-arsed chorus of beggars are Godoted into comment by the shambles they see about them.
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