Tag Archives: literature

article for Irish News Review – A Blast from the Past

4 Nov

A Blast from the Past

 

Book Reviews and snippets from history

 

In 1981 Sean McBratney wrote a book called “Lagan Valley Details”. What is it about Northern story-tellers that make their tales so endearing? Simple plots, human observances, a little humour and an unfussy narration perhaps. Sean McBratney has a beautiful tendency to jog the reader along with fun and then slap home a tragic twist in his last paragraph. There is the hilarious story of ‘Patsy Quigley’s jump off the Viaduct near Dromore’. Making a pair of wings, Patsy was to perform the deed. Bets being laid in the local pub. The church unable to persuade him to change his mind. When McHenry heard the proposition: ‘……..the sort of easy-going man who would often save up his words until his pipe went out …..- looked very pensive…..’, and Patsy’s wife: ‘…..had a vision of herself left  a widow and young Pat left without a father ……(and) phoned a solicitor and asked him if she could take out one of these injunctions to stop a man jumping off a great height in an attempt to fly ….’.  Humpy Davis tells an ‘unbelievable tale’ of a talking tree in which he observes: ‘….Leprechauns are diminutive Irish Nationalists. Proper fairies…..have no interest in politics at all and have no nationality….’.

In 2001 RTE had a new series called “Ireland’s Greatest Hits” which answered some interesting questions. Did you know for example that Andrea Corr likes to bathe to help her write sexy lyrics? Or that Gloria’s smash hit One Day at a Time was recorded in Nashville in just ten minutes? Did you know that King of the Culchies, Aon Focal Eile star Richie Kavanagh was booked to play at a party in the jet-set South  of France resort of St Tropez every summer ? RTE 1’s new series looked at the stories behind the songs, talked to the singers, the writers and the  producers and uncovered all the tricks,  magic, coincidences, luck and success that are part of every hit.

Also in 2001 the film “Merlin: the Return” was released. Rik Mayall as Merlin and Patrick Bergin as King Arthur – magically  transported to 21st century Stonehenge, where they run for their lives from an evil scientist played by Tia Carrera from Wayne’s World. Someone. Please. Tell me I’m hallucinating.

In olden times beards grew more out of necessity. The fashion of the beard varied in different countries at particular times. Surprisingly enough the Egyptians were clean shaven and also the young Greeks. It is believed that the Romans didn’t start shaving until about 454 AD. The first day of shaving was regarded as entering manhood. It was celebrated with a festival where the newly-shaven wined and dined. Ceaser tells us that the ancient Britons let the hair grow long only on the upper lip corresponding to a  moustache, although they didn’t have a name for it. The Saxons are said to have grown beards but the Normans shaved the entire face. Until about the 17th century the beard was in fashion and was accepted as part and parcel of human apparel. It was now the hey-day of the razor and the familiar ‘cut-throat’  bared men’s faces throughout England and America. With the Crimean War and its subsequent hardships the beard came into vogue once again and many took a soldier’s licence. The long beard adorned the face until the 19th century. In the early 20th century it again disappeared from fashion but the Second World War brought the hair back on the faces of Europeans, but Americans were  reluctant to do so.

Back to 1981 again and in this year Uilick O’Connor wrote a biography of Oliver St John Gogarty. Biographies of famous literary people are seldom uninteresting. A biography ‘of one of the great lyric poets of his age  who was also a wit, a surgeon, a senator, a playwright, an aviator, athlete and Irishman is most interesting. Passages of Gogarty’s own writings adorn the manuscript. Brilliant –  like his description of a Dublin Madam, Mrs Mack of Nightown: “A brick-red face, on which avarice was written like a hieroglyphic, and a laugh like a guffaw in hell ….”. He gives information on a number of people -Arthur Griffith, George Moore, architect Michael Scott, Gabriel Fallon, Eamon de Valera, James Stephens and many others. As a surgeon Gogarty was something of a Robin Hood. He refused to charge Gabriel Fallon for his professional attendance remarking: ‘I have a Duchess coming from London  and I’ll settle her snout for a century’. A touch of M.A.S.H in the operating theatre too: “Jesus Christ”, cried a young assistant in dismay when a lesion burst during an operation. “Cease calling on your unqualified assistant”, Gogarty hissed. Dublin’s great institutions come alive for us here:  The Bailey, TrinityCollege, Joyce’s Tower, the better classes (‘born concussed’) or the larger than life Dubliner ‘six feet three in height with a head like the Kaiser’ reading Shakespeare while other people slept. Visits to the country too – to Renvyl and farther south for a sarcastic diatribe on Eamon de Valera: “….they say in Clare that the blacksmiths are shoeing the cattle so that they may gallop round the fairs on the look out for a purchaser….”

Also in 1981 Peter Haining wrote “The Leprechauns Kingdom”. The subject may be open to ridicule in our twenty first century but anybody with even a big toe still in the past will be pleased to ponder again on the Tuatha de Dannan and their contemporaries. There is no mention of the famous O’Grady banshee in the section on that lady whose comb (rack) so  many of us picked from a ditch with mock bravery. The song of O’Neill’s banshee is given – treble clef key of E (those O’Neills were always snobs – we always deemed the banshee to wail not sing an aria!). The Kildare Luricheen does not  figure in this book either but its pages bulge with other Lullachans, merrows, pookas, water sheerie – even were wolves and vampires.

Many years ago Kathleen Clarke wrote “Revolutionary Women”. There is adequate factual  (and fictitious) material available for the historian or general reader. Which makes Kathleen Clarke’s autobiography all the more  welcome. Wife of Tom Clarke, one of the executed leaders of the 1916 rebellion, she was a Daly from Limerick and her story gives fascinating background information on the whole struggle. For example she tells how a Dublin festooned with Union Jacks annoyed her so much that she began making up tricolours from yards of ribbon and soon had the tide of colour in Dublin streets changed. Her memoirs tell of her time in the United States, her part in the rising and its aftermath including imprisonment with Countess Markievicz. IRB and Cumann na mBan activity is outlined. The German Plot, the Black and Tans, Collins advising her to go on the run and she refusing because of her 3 children. The story goes on until we reach  the amusing take-over of Lord Mayor of Dublin from Alfie Byrne in 1939. Not for Kathleen portraits of Queen Victoria and others that had survived in the Mansion House. She ordered removal men to arrive at 6am and sat up all night to make sure they were admitted.

In 1991 a man called Teddy Delaney wrote “Where we Sported and Played”. At the time on radio,  one channel chat-show was discussing the availability of condoms to young people, the other featured a couple (husband unemployed) with nineteen children who spoke of their happy family. Books like Where we Sported and Played provide a soothing read in such times. They tell of less complicated times when simple sporting and playing went alongside hard work and when life seemed to be happier. Teddy Delaney slots in snatches of history as he describes the life of a Cork youth in the early 1950s and   1960s. Raza and queen  cakes, holidays in Youghal, hanging around the quays in the hope of getting some chocolate crumb from a docker uploading Cadbury’s merchandise, verses of street rhymes and loftier verse, including Goldsmith – here is  a mix as strong as drisheen that would make you ‘wax a gaza in Pana ‘.   And if you don’ know what that means you should never dare sing ‘De Banks’. Nice one, Mercier and Teddy Delaney.

In 1999 Gene Kerrigan and Pat Brennan wrote a book called “This Great Little Nation”. It’s ‘the A-Z of Irish scandals and controversies’ and covers everything from the Fethard boycott of the 1950s to the tribunals of the 1990s and such  issues as the Ann Lovett case and the downfall of Albert Reynolds government. And did you know that one of the first tribunals of inquiry was held  in 1947, the subject of which was Locke’s Distillery in Kilbeggan? The sale of the distillery by the two remaining members of the Locke family in 1947 attracted the attention of a group of international chancers. These were Englishman Horace Henry – Smith, Austrian Herbert Saschell and Georges  Eindiguer from Switzerland, who made up Trans-World Trust based in Lausanne, Switzerland. They quickly got the support of the Department of Industry and Commerce in their plan to buy Locke’s Distillery. The intention they claimed was that they would manufacture whiskey for export but they would also develop the home market. They would revive the great and ancient little distillery. However after the trio had tea with the President Sean T O’Ceallaigh at the Aras, it was discovered that the lads were crooks and Smith was really a Russian with a false passport wanted by the British police while the Austrian had been given a month to leave the country by Gardai three months earlier. It eventually transpired that the boys were after the 60,000 gallons of matured and maturing whiskey at Kilbeggan and that they had no intention of getting the company up and running at all! Three judges oversaw a tribunal of inquiry but found that there had been no political collaboration in Transworld’s scheme. And you remember that famous necklace that Maureen Haughey received from the Arab about 25 years ago- well the allegation at the time of Locke’s Distillery was that Eindiguer had presented a gold watch to a son of the Taoiseach Eamon De Valera or had been advised to, to smooth his way towards the distillery purchase!

In 1971 a Dublin journalist wrote a book called “How to read between the clichés”. How usually reliable is “the usually reliable source”? How expert “the leading expert”? How uncomfortable are you likely to be in a hospital ward when a newspaper blithely describes you as “comfortable”? The answers to all these questions and many more will be found in this definitive if somewhat satirical work. If a newspaper report describes you as being “comfortable” in hospital following an accident it can be taken for granted that you are uncomfortable. If you are described as having had “a good night” it can be taken for granted that you had a bad one. “Slightly improved” means you are about to be discharged; “no change” means that the hospital staff didn’t bother to check for the reporter when he telephones. “Seriously ill” means that you are in the operating theatre and they’re working on you. “Critical” means that you have just come back from the operating theatre. ”Very critical” means that it is time to send for the shroud. “A raging inferno” is any fire which causes loss of life even the life of the semi-detached budgie. “The girl was not however criminally assaulted” can usually be taken as meaning that although she was beaten up she was not raped. “Frantic efforts” in general are often normal activities of people the firemen, police and doctors. “Heroic efforts” are civilians attempting to perform the normal activities of firemen, police and doctors. “Trojan efforts” means that both the “frantic efforts” and the “heroic efforts” failed in the face of the emergency. The gardai “are anxious to interview” is a full scale manhunt