In Down by the Liffeyside  (Somerville Press, 2019) Colbert Kearney celebrates his parents – Con and Maisie – as valiant and versatile a pair of Dubliners as ever stood in shoe leather. He was their pride and joy, and (not uncoincidentally) their only son, so it’s also the story of a working-class hero, the scholarship boy who makes it into the ranks of the tenured intelligentsia. In post-war European terms this is a classic trajectory, reminiscent of the start in life recalled by Belgian writer Luc Sante in The Factory of Facts (1998).

“We bought fresh food for every meal, not because we were gourmets but because we lacked a refrigerator…. My mother got up every morning in the chill and made a fire in the parlour stove. Running water came in only one temperature: frigid. We communicated by mail and got our news chiefly from newspapers (we were sufficiently modern, though, in that we owned a radio roughly the size of a filing cabinet). My early classrooms featured pot-bellied stoves and double desks with inkwells into which we dipped our nibs. We boys wore short pants until the ceremony of communion solennelle, at age twelve.”

To this inventory of modest ways and means Kearney adds the overcoats that doubled as winter quilts, the fruit wrappers that served as loo paper, and the greasy comfort of bread and dripping. Great changes were afoot in the 1950s, but dip pens and washboards co-existed with ballpoints and the first washing machines; and radios hadn’t, yet, banished the sheet ballad sellers who plied their trade at Croke Park. But this ain’t no misery memoir. Au contraire! These people may be down but they are never out. There is light and dark, hilarity as well as pathos, in the disdain of an “Irish only” Kerry Blue bitch, in the outcome of a rigged “crooning” contest, the acquisition of an utterly gorgeous, self-moving plastic horse, the sensational impact of a “whistling” kettle.

Again and again, there are reminders of Kearney’s (completely fair!) advantage, as a congenital Dub, when it comes to Joyce and O’Casey studies. Down by his Liffeyside, every other household, every pub, is materially poor and psychologically loaded: rich in the cynical optimism, the blithe fatalistic “talk” that works as well as any cognitive behavioural therapy. His father, Con Kearney, was, literally, a behind-the-scenes man. In addition to his day jobs, he was an esteemed stage lighting technician. Unlike his conspicuous cousins, most notably Brendan Behan, and notwithstanding his own obvious charm and talents, he opted for a quiet, relatively sober life. Although Colbert Kearney is at pains to avoid the “condescension of posterity” it seems that Con was marked by the fate of his own father, a complicated and uncommonly gifted poet-patriot by the name of Peadar Kearney.


“A house painter by trade and a poet by choice”, Peadar Kearney is famous today as the author of our national anthem, among other classic Irish songs. A close comrade of Michael Collins, he survived active (and sometimes undercover) military service in Ireland’s liberation struggle only to be damaged by the poverty, ill health and depression that came with the peace. Unusually among republican rebels, this radical Dubliner already had a young family to support, and it was on their behalf that, eventually, he received state assistance in the form of a subsistence pension and a modest payment for “A Soldier’s Song”.  The application process makes for painful reading, because it’s incredible that a man who gave so much to his country should have had to ask for basic support for his long-suffering family. But those were different times. Men never cried and victims of post-traumatic stress were inclined to drown their sorrows. And as for the women, don’t get me started!

Cows in Ireland: a special relationship

I’ve always had strong feelings about cows, beginning with the unease of a suburban child.  Even for sixpence – serious money in the early 1960s – I refused a dare to dash from one end of a Kerry cowshed to the other, from a fear that one of those smelly fly-ridden beasts would raise her tail and crap all over me. To be bovine was to be an object of abuse: poor cow, silly cow, stupid cow, fat cow! To be bovine was to be slow and heavy and sloppy, the epitome of an embarrassingly obvious femaleness. But this was way before I had any notion of myself as a female mammal. Decades later, when I was plugged into the steam-punk milking machine of the Special Care Baby Unit of St Thomas’s Hospital in Westminster, and proudly donating the surplus product to the breast milk “bank”, I began to feel a kind of solidarity with dairy animals in general, and milch cows in particular.


This affinity was taken for granted by our pasture-farming ancestors. Ireland’s ancient stories, poems, chronicles and laws – composed in prehistoric times and transcribed hundreds of years later by Christian monks on to parchment derived from the skin of calves – are saturated with cow lore. Literally and figuratively, cows were the crème de la crème of cattle, the be-all and end-all of health, wealth and happiness. The newborn babies of ruling families were ceremonially bathed in milk, and the keening of the professional mourners at VIP funerals was accompanied by the doleful cries of deliberately starved calves. The epic story of the Táin begins with the queen of Connacht’s determination to acquire a bull as fertile and powerful as her husband’s white-horned prodigy. At one stage in the subsequent conflict the Morrigan appears to Cúchulain in the guise of an old woman milking a cow. The river Boyne is named after a pre-Christian “white cow” goddess, and the primal bovine theme is obvious in the Irish for road (bóthar). A high proportion of the “miracles” attributed to the saints and scholars of the otherwise “Dark Ages” pertain to the herding and milking of cows. The centrality of these generous animals in Irish culture persists in proverbs and idioms: faraway cows have long horns! In one haunting seventeenth-century poem (and song) the sorry state of the whole country is represented as the struggle for survival of a darling brown heifer (droimean donn dilis).


For at least five thousand years, grazing and browsing cows have been the most efficient means of converting Ireland’s grassy pastures and leafy woodlands into human food. In summer the tribal herds grazed upland ranges; in late autumn they returned to graze, and incidentally fertilize, winter pastures, including the stubble fields of harvested crops of oats, rye and barley, which were near the permanent human settlements. The chunky hand bells in the National Museum in Dublin are associated with early monastic communities, which revolved around set times for praying and eating, etc., but as likely as not some of the plainer ones functioned as cow bells. The clink of the bell on a “leader” cow would alert the herder to the wandering cows’ whereabouts.

This “low-intensive” dairy farming resembled the sustainable “permaculture” practices of today, which is not to say that these pre-modern animals were footloose and fancy free. In late winter and early spring, when the starving herds were barely able to stand up, exceptionally cold weather was catastrophic. Calving had to be strictly managed, so that, ideally, most of the calves would be born in May, at the start of summer when the cows would be enjoying the rich new grass – in clover, so to speak – and there would be enough milk to go round for newborn calves and people alike. The ancient Irish didn’t go in for haymaking – which started with the Normans and their powerful horses – but fodder was provided for the select few late calving cows who would be kept under the same roof as the households for whom they provided winter milk.

White food

Without cows there could be no banbhia (literally “white food”). Like their Indian contemporaries, old-time Irish cows were not reared for meat. The diehard warriors of the legends feasted on pork and mutton and venison, never beef. (Wild pigs and boars provided the pork; smallholder pig-keeping didn’t take off until the introduction of the miracle food called potatoes.)  A few male calves were reared to serve as breeding bulls or draught oxen – plough and cart horses weren’t viable as such until the invention of the horse collar in medieval times – but the majority of the slaughtered bull calves provided leather and vellum, as well as multi-purpose horn, and rennet for cheese-making. I was puzzled by the predilection of the classic American cowboys’ for black coffee until I remembered that their “cows” are actually beef steers.

Cattle droving (and cattle rustling!) was men’s work, while the milking, calving and churning was female business. In other cultures the spindle, or distaff, is the definitive female accessory, but in ancient Ireland a woman was inseparable from her personal spancel or buarach: the length of plaited hair from the tail of a cow or a horse, usually fastened with wood, which steadied the back legs of a cow during milking. In one old tale with contemporary resonance an outraged goddess strangles a sex pest with her deluxe spancel made of bronze. In true life, metal spancels would have been impracticable, which is probably why none have been found among the gorgeous torcs and brooches of archaeological hoards.

Children helped to keep the calves apart but still within earshot of the cows, so as to stimulate what human mothers call the “let-down”, the flow of the milk. Problems with the flow were resolved by “cow-blowing”: blowing air into the cow’s vagina. English commentators were horrified by the “shitten nose” aspect of cow-blowing but this technique worked, which is why it was as familiar to the ancient Babylonians as it still is to the Masai and other pastoral people. At night the cows were corralled in circular wattle-and-daub (mud) or stonework enclosures, the herdsmen and their dogs sharing the space and keeping an eye out for wolves. Wolves were a major problem in Ireland, which is probably why wolfhounds – dogs that could cope with wolves – were a favoured breed. The milking yards were smaller enclosures called machas, and it’s likely that when the cows were grazing their upland summer pastures the day’s milk would be churned into butter on the spot. Butter is easier to transport and conserve than milk.


Blood and war

For colonial English functionaries of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, hailing as they did from a land of tillage and towns, of bread and beer, milky, meaty Ireland was backward and barbaric. But though the majority of the “mere Irish” were materially poor, their culturally rich and relatively leisurely way of life was far from wretched. They lacked ambition – the individualist and entrepreneurial spirit of the new religion – and they had an unfathomable relationship with the landscape on which their precious cattle grazed. In fact, there were well-understood boundaries to the land “owned” by the extended families of the ruling “tribes”, but these ditches and landmarks were invisible to English eyes. The more military-minded observers noted the dependence of the native armies on their “creaghts”, the herds and their minders who provided the soldiers’ food. The separation of the creaghts from their battalions was a key factor in the defeat of Gaelic Ireland and success of the conquest. Some historians see the origins of Irish travelling people in the disruption of the creaght system, and the displacements of the subsequent plantations.

If cow-blowing was disgusting, barely mentionable behaviour, cow-bleeding – the practice of bleeding live cattle – was something else again. Before they were driven to their upland summer pastures, the cows were rounded into small valleys, or on to marshy ground, to be bled. This ritual may have begun as a blood sacrifice to a god or goddess, but from Christian times onwards it was understood as a preventive, health measure. It was believed that the cattle would be better able to resist the “murrain” and other bovine afflictions if they were bled. This detox argument is hardly surprising, given the reality that humans used to pay quack physicians to bleed them in the belief that it would do them a power of good.

The really troubling thing, from the point of view of early commentators, was the Irish habit of mixing the blood taken from live cattle with milk and oatmeal, and maybe a bit of sorrel or watercress, to make a sort of bloody porridge, or black pudding. For Edmund Spenser the cattle-bleeding tendency was proof positive that the aboriginal Irish were descendants of the Scythians, whose bloody customs in connection with their horses were described by Herodotus. In one form or another, this cattle-bleeding tradition persisted, but at different times and places it was done for different reasons. The nicking of a cow’s ear as a “healthful” measure in early summer isn’t as risky or serious a business as the tapping of the animal’s neck vein, supposedly also for its own good but incidentally providing life-sustaining food for humans fallen on hard times. As a regular blood donor, I don’t need to be assured that healthy cattle could withstand this kind of larceny, but I’m glad, all the same, that this tradition is dead and gone.

The nineteenth-century scholars and antiquarians who set about preserving and translating the old legends also sanitized them. They edited out and glossed over references to sex and other human bodily functions, so we have only recently become re-acquainted with queens and fairies and goddesses, personages who, for all their super powers and appetites, are also fully functional, flesh-and-blood females. And in the same spirit of reconciliation with our shared animal natures, I think we should celebrate the down-and-dirty aspects of our forebears’ relationship with their cows, and hope for a continuation of sustainable, quality-before-quantity  dairy farming.


Inspirational books

Cattle in Ancient Ireland A.T. Lucas, 1989

Milk and Milk Products P.Lysaght (ed.), 1992

Hail Mary full of Myth

To begin with, my fondness for the Blessed Virgin Mary had a lot to do with her looks: the free-flowing hair and robes of white and azure-blue, the gilded crown, and the contrast between her Mona Lisa smile and the serpent squirming under one of her dainty feet. This was the standard issue BVM of my early childhood. I was born in the Marian Year of 1954, the heyday of the parish “grotto”, when so many Irish communities were setting up wayside rock gardens and shrines dedicated to Our Lady. One of my grandmothers lived in Kilkenny and if it wasn’t raining the local grotto was the incentive for a summer evening’s constitutional.IMG_4282

The smiling Mary of grottos and school alcoves was the ultimate Flower Fairy, as pretty as she was heavenly. Moreover, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that she might make another appearance on Earth, to a hopeful girl of the suburbs! After all, it had only taken four years for the authorities to decide that St Bernadette wasn’t letting her imagination run away with her, and once endorsed Our Lady of Lourdes paved the way for Our Lady of Knock, Fatima, Medjugorye et al.

Although little Marie-Bernarde Soubirous’s visions of the late 1850s led, with astonishing speed, to the establishment of a world famous healing shrine at Lourdes, she herself shunned the limelight. Bernadette didn’t attend the consecration of the Lourdes basilica in 1876 and spent her short adult life as an unassuming nun. (She died three years after the consecration and was canonised in 1933.) But for all her precarious physical health, Bernadette was sure enough of herself and her remarkable experience to say that the statue of Our Lady presiding over the Lourdes grotto didn’t resemble the “Lady” who appeared to her. The BVM of Bernadette’s visions was dressed like the nuns of a local religious order – a white habit with a blue sash – and though she spoke with the authority of a mother or a big sister, she looked like a girl of Bernadette’s own age and height, i.e. a fourteen-year-old of about 140 cm.


Our Lady of Lourdes, like all Our Ladies, was very much a phenomenon of her time and place. France was going through the ideological civil war that led to the formal separation of Church and State, a conflict in which, broadly speaking, town and country were on different sides, and the re-appearance of Mary on Earth heartened the beleaguered faithful. This was also the era of railways, telegraphs, indoor sanitation, mass circulation, illustrated newspapers, and Lourdes was as good and better than a conventional spa resort. You could get there by train, mingle with simpaticos, feed your soul as well as your body, and go home with souvenirs as spiritually functional as they were ornamental: medals, figurines, rosaries, musical boxes, holy pictures, holy water fonts and bottles.

I’m not knocking or doubting the miraculous cures of Lourdes because I would never underestimate the placebo effect, and the development of the mother of all Marian grottoes included facilities – pioneering facilities – for the sick and the disabled. In any case, pilgrimages have always worked in terms of the “feel good” factor. The ancient etymological connection between “healthy” and “holy” is ongoing. Many of the miracle cures recorded at great medieval shrines like Canterbury and Santiago de Compostela pertained to dietary deficiencies and nervous disorders. Since spring was the traditional season for setting out, it’s likely that pilgrims benefited from fresh greens, sunlight, a change of air and water, and exercise in the form of walking and “active” praying. (There is some evidence that the Ave Marias and Pater Nosters of the olden days were accompanied by genuflections and prostrations, so a medieval pilgrim’s penance of, say, three hundred Hail Marys, was more physical, more like Muslim praying, than the kneeling rosaries of our own time.)

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Context is everything when it comes to Marian icons, and the “fixing” of the image of the Mexican Our Lady of Guadalupe has a particularly revealing history. She began as the Mary who appeared to a herdsman near the Guadalupe River in the Estremadura region of Spain during the fourteenth century. The shrine that housed her statue was replicated in the New World by the Conquistadors, many of whom hailed from Estremadura. Round about 1530, a shrine was dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe at Tepeyac in Mexico, a mountainside that was already hallowed ground because of its association with the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. This New World shrine celebrated the apparitions of a recently widowed Christian Aztec called Juan Diego. Telling him he was under her protection, Juan Diego’s visionary Mary asked him to climb Tepeyac and pick the roses he would find growing there, even though it was neither the season nor the place for such blooms. She herself tied up Juan Diego’s cape to contain these miraculous roses and when this workaday garment was unfurled before the local bishop, there was the rose-adorned image of the Virgin who had comforted him. The gap in time, between the story of Juan Diego’s apparition and the emergence of the famous, definitive image on cloth, suggests that the original Spanish Mary of Guadalupe was absorbed and re-imagined by her New World devotees. The tying up of a cloak, for example, was an Aztec wedding ritual, and the sounds, flowers and vivid colours of Juan Diego’s apparition are consistent with the drug-enhanced hallucinations of ancient Mexican rituals.


Mammals and mothers

By the time I started secondary school I was beginning to resent the Blessed Virgin Mary, who doesn’t work as any kind of role model for thinking as well as growing virgins. Her representation as the be-all and end-all of female achievement was frankly annoying, but it was a silent annoyance. I didn’t have the nerve or the biological know-how to ask how come Mary had a blessed womb but no ovaries to go with it? The ovum – the female half of the ingredients of the process of generation – wasn’t actually discovered until 1827 (by K.E. Von Baer), but the language of Catholic dogma remained oblivious to this deliciously awkward fact. Although the Vatican of our own times has wholeheartedly acknowledged the scientific breakthroughs of Galileo and Darwin, it would seem that the spirit of enquiry and apology is less willing when it comes to an appreciation of female anatomy. In short, the “immaculately conceived” Blessed Virgin Mary of my childhood – she who still weeps but no longer lactates and never ever menstruated – is the fag end of a dogma dreamed up centuries ago by professional bachelors who conflated sex with sin, and female blood with filth. Why did they bother? Why was it so important to that Our Lady should be so immaculately sexless? She didn’t start off like that.

Mary has always been the best-loved saint. Once learned, no one forgets the poem-like Hail Mary – the prayer made up of words spoken to her by the Angel Gabriel and her cousin Elizabeth – and she has never lost her association with love, mercy and justice. As the mother of Jesus she is a major character of the New Testament, but she wasn’t a major player in the minds and teachings of the first Jewish Christians until the new religion took off among the Gentiles of the wider world. Feelings give rise to ideas and religions, not vice versa, and the revelations of the early evangelicals were not enough to shift the pre-Christian mother goddesses from their pedestals. Instead, Mary assumed their roles as readily as she was “assumed”, without reference to holy writ, straight up to her heavenly throne.

Artemis, Isis, Astarte, Ishtar, Cybele, Magna Mater, we may have forgotten the names of these ancient goddesses but via Mary their attributes and stories, even their poses, are familiar. The concept of the virgin who is impregnated by a god and gives birth to a hero is a regular component of pre-Christian Mediterranean mythology. Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were supposedly born to a mother who had sex with the god Mars. If we didn’t know the archaeological context in which they were found, the museum figurines of Isis with the baby Horus, Aphrodite with Eros, Demeter with Kore, might just as easily be taken for Mary and Jesus. It was customary in the towns of the classical world for the brightly painted and gorgeously dressed statues of major goddesses to be dressed up and paraded through the streets on feast days, and many a Mediterranean Madonna inspires similar processions.


Small Cakes

In the Orthodox Christian world, Mary has been venerated primarily in her role as Theotokos (Mother of God) and not so much as a lone virgin. It’s possible that this emphasis was a response to a popular heretical sect called the Collyridians. Their name derives from their ritual of offerings of small cakes (collyris is Greek for a small cake or loaf) to Mary as a goddess in her own right, and her priests were female. The male leader of the Montanists, another Mary-focused heretical sect, was actually an ex-priest of the pagan “Great Mother”, a.k.a. Magna Mater. By dint of a more generous celebration of the Mother of God, these Mary-focused heresies were gradually corrected and absorbed by the official Church in the fifth and sixth centuries. This process was happening all over the place, as the gods and goddesses of small things evolved into “patron” saints, and time-honoured pagan symbols, Thor’s hammer, for example, acquired a fresh Christian legitimacy as a cross.

But pagan mother goddesses were virginal in a magical way. Just as a god is never killed in battle, a goddess never dies in childbirth. She is immune to the hazards of an active sex life and her virginity is a renewable resource. Mary is different because she is such a literal and perpetual virgin. This notion began with the mistranslation of the Aramaic word for a young woman and developed as a metaphorical way of expressing God’s special involvement with the birth of Jesus, and distancing him and his mother from the messy realities of human reproduction. For ancient Jewish commentators on the upstart religion, the very idea of a virgin giving birth to a self-styled messiah was ludicrous. It’s possible that conventional Jewish objections to the circumstances of Jesus’s birth inspired the relatively sympathetic Muslim version of Mary’s situation: a case, perhaps, of my rival’s rival being my friend! In the Koran, the pregnant Maryam is disgraced and lonely until, from her womb, the unborn Jesus speaks up for her and assures her relations that she’s a good girl and that he will be the prophet Issa.

The Holy Family, including Granny

Some of the best reads by serious scholars of the history of Mary and Marian phenomena are listed below. As an armchair student I can’t helping seeing similarities between the evolution of Mary’s cult and the machinations of those Hollywood producers who, in order to sustain a blockbuster franchise, resort to more and more complicated plot developments and back stories. I’m particularly fond of the “prequel” featuring Saint Anne, the granny of the Holy Family. Anne is a fusion of Hannah, the biblical mother of Samuel, and female characters from Greco-Roman legend. She didn’t really take off in terms of popular devotion until medieval times, when she found her role as the mature, down-to-earth mother of Mary, who by then had become a fully-fledged goddess in all but name.

As the epitome of female nobility and power, the medieval Our Lady was a suitable object of adoration for all men and women. As beautiful as she was blessed, the humble Virgin was simultaneously the compassionate Mother of All Sorrows and the powerful Queen of Heaven. It’s no accident that the celebration of this multi-faceted Mary in art and music and prayer (the rosary) coincided with the spread of new religious orders, notably the Cistercians, and the town-based Franciscans and Dominicans. Having left their own mothers at an early age, these monks were especially responsive to the cult of a divine mother, and their sisters-in-Christ, the many thousands of nuns, were equally well disposed towards a role model who endorsed their life choices.

In Ireland we missed out on some of the splendours of Mary’s medieval and Renaissance reign. For us, the magnificent interiors of the churches of Spain and Austria and Italy are at once familiar, and disconcertingly foreign. In the heyday of the Queen of Heaven we didn’t have much in the way of towns, banks and guilds – or New World riches – the context in which sculptors and artists and composers found their patrons. (My favourite hymn, the Salve Regina, dates from this period.) The relative poverty of our material culture was compounded by the catastrophes of the late seventeenth century, which effectively outlawed Catholicism and drove it underground. This is one of the reasons why the image of Our Lady of Lourdes was so popular in Ireland. Her appearance came in the wake of Catholic emancipation, when the faith of the common people was visible again.

Back to the kitchen

The centrality of Mary in the medieval and Renaissance Church offended the scripture-driven reformers of western Christianity. For these men, “Mariolatry” was an over-the-top distraction from the plain truths of the Gospels. They protested and in due course their churches would focus on the pulpit and the stark simplicity of the cross. The curious thing is that Martin Luther never repudiated Anne or Mary. As a young law student, he was caught out in a terrible thunderstorm, and it was in thanks to Saint Anne, to whom he had prayed for his survival, that he became a monk. And so it came to pass that the venerable Anne lives on in the place names of the Protestant realms, where her daughter Mary, still a virgin but no longer a queen, is esteemed as a paragon of domesticated female virtue.

When the reformers dispensed with the extravagant cults of the Catholic Mary, they were creating a vacuum. Unwittingly – and sometimes wittingly – these rigorous patriarchs were eliminating the most significant female presence in Christian discourse, the main link between the human and the divine. The “Mothering Sunday” of the Anglican tradition doesn’t fill the gap left by the toppling of the Queen of Heaven from her throne. For Catholics, every day is mother’s day, and for “Catholic atheists” like me, Mary lives on in her diversity as a global icon. I have some miniature Our Ladies, including the dark ladies of Guadalupe, Montserrat and Cuba, as well as Michelangelo’s Pieta, and a luminous one, picked up in a charity shop in West Cork when such items were commonplace. They are complemented by picture postcards of goddesses of the ancient world, including the mysterious but instantly recognizable figuras femeninas of Ibiza, Baza and Galera,. These images remind me that art, like religion, has a redemptive function. And so! Hail Mary, full of myth, who links us to the eternal and captures something enduring about the human condition in general and the female condition in particular, and long may her personas transcend and outlast the contexts in which they were created.

*            Nicholas Ayo The Hail Mary 1994

Diarmaid MacCulloch Reformation 2003

Uta Ranke-Heinemann Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven 1990

Miri Rubin Mother of God 2009

Marina Warner Alone of All Her Sex 1976, 1990

No Freud Please, We’re Irish…

In The Departed, a film by Martin Scorsese set in Boston, Matt Damon, protégé of the arch-villain played by Jack Nicholson, explains: “What Freud said about the Irish is we’re the only people impervious to psychoanalysis.” In fact, Freud was never that specific – about us, or any other ethnic group – but the enjoyable myth conjured up by screenwriter William Monahan has acquired marathon legs and romped around the world as a “factoid”.

Like all great factoids, our imaginary status as hopeless cases in Freudian remedial terms is as plausible as it’s irresistible. For the self-congratulators among us, it’s even mildly flattering. Ah now, they say, why would we be falling for the pricey hocus-pocus when we’re barely over the old-time religious repression? There’s nothing buried or unconscious about our anxieties. In fact and fiction, we’re rather inclined to flaunt our damages. And when we’re not pioneering new ways with misery, we’re fighting, drinking, smiling, weeping and talking to excess.

But this would be to protest too much. When the cartoon Irish start acting up, and out, the cartoon shrinks nod their bespectacled heads, and scribble in their little notebooks: “These peasants are sooo obvious…” Cartoons are fun and seldom fair. In true life there is nothing special about our immunity to Freudian-style psychoanalysis – so memorably put down by one of Freud’s own contemporaries as “the disease that purports to be its own cure”. One way or another we are all indebted to the father of the talking cure.

The Viennese Tweedledee


Freud’s life and works are more interesting than the Oedipal Schmeedipal, phallic-centred and anal-retentive clichés. It is too easy to forget how original, and liberating, his theories were in the days when sexuality was “unmentionable” and “dirty”. Nothing human disgusted Freud: “To turn human beings into gods, and the earth into heaven, would not be an aim of mine. We humans are too rooted in our animal nature and could never become godlike; the earth is a small planet and not suited to be a heaven.” Without seeing inside any living person’s brain, he had a great stab at understanding the roots and fruits of human unhappiness. He tried to reconcile the medical science of his day with pre-modern psychologies in the shape of mythology, literature and religion. There was, he insisted, method in our madness, telling patterns and reflexes in the traditional stories and symbols that have enabled us to stagger on through this vale of tears. A tidal wave of neuroscience has swept aside the Freudian “anatomy” of the mind, but the detritus is, still, of immense cultural and emotional value. Freud gave us a new way of expressing the urges, issues, phobias and defence mechanisms that we all have to deal with.

Like some other patriarchal ideologues I could mention – St Augustine, Rousseau, Marx – the Viennese pathfinder has been a victim of his own success, at the mercy of his least agile disciples, but he was lucky with his translators. He will always be worth reading, an irony he may not have appreciated in view of his own ambivalence towards artists and writers. In the case of Schnitzler (also Jewish, also Viennese, also trained as a doctor) it was an ambivalence tinged with envy: “I have often asked myself, wonderingly, whence you were able to draw that secret knowledge which I have had to acquire through laborious research into the subject; and in the end I have come to envy the poet whom earlier I had only admired.”

There was nothing ambivalent or envious about Joyce’s attitude towards psychoanalysis. Our James was scathing about “the Swiss Tweedledum (Jung) and the Viennese Tweedledee (Freud)”, so consistently scathing that he has to be the prime suspect as the inspiration behind the myth of Freud versus the Irish.   It may be that his own techniques and interests as a writer were so similar to Freud’s that he felt the need to assert his own originality as a great spirit of the age. And the Freudian-Joycean parallels are no great coincidence, given their schooling in the classics of antiquity. In Dublin, Joyce kept a diary of dreams, sometimes entertaining his friends by interpreting their dreams as well as his own. He also experimented with word-associations, making connections in much the same way as Freudian therapy. Even so, he dismissed psychoanalysis as “nothing more nor less than blackmail”, adding, “Well, if we need it, let us at least keep it to the confession.”

The Box versus the Couch

Whenever confession comes up, as a forerunner, or a substitute, for psychotherapy, I feel mildly rueful, because I stopped going to confession before I had anything interesting to tell the man behind the grille. In my believing days, there were queues for confession and no one hogged the box for more than ten minutes. It was more like speed dating than therapy, though it’s possible that the proper sinners sneaked in just before closing time for heart-to-hearts with sophisticated priests who dispensed words of wisdom and reassurance along with penance and absolution. In any competition between the confession box and the couch, the couch would always win on humanitarian grounds. On the couch you’re not a sinner, you’re only human. Your darkest thoughts might make you feel guilty, but hell is all around us, not something in the offing.

My problem with classic Freudian attitudes is socio-economic. As such, it’s a problem shared by anyone who isn’t a man of Sigmund’s time and place. The terrain in which he practised what he preached was urban and bourgeois, a newly godless, newly prosperous world of corseted ladies and buttoned-up gentlemen. Most of his clients were educated, relatively well off Viennese. They had pianos, servants and holidays and they were unusually receptive to new ideas in art and science. Like all parvenus, they were acutely caste-conscious and in Vienna they were the objects of anti-Semitic prejudice, and worse, much worse. When this urbane world was blown apart by the Nazis, Freud himself became a refugee and the famous “couch” – actually, an old fashioned medical examination bed with a quality carpet on top – found a new home in Hampstead.

I’m no stranger to Freud’s world because I married into its lower echelons. My in-laws were secular Jewish refugees from Vienna. As a toddler, my father-in-law was taken to see a psychiatrist on account of his habit of repeatedly kicking the bar between the legs of his chair legs. This is a typical toddler’s exercise and it says something about bourgeois family meals – multi-course events involving lots of dedicated silver cutlery – that it wasn’t recognized as such. Taking the child to see a psychiatrist was kinder, maybe, than roaring at him to stop, or forcibly removing him from the table, which is what would have happened to him in an Irish household, but in any case there was no need to worry: he grew out of it.

But if it comes down to a simple question of class, how did Freud’s American heirs come to rule the hearts and minds of so many twentieth-century New Yorkers? My guess is that it’s something to do with the shared Jewish heritage. Many of the Woody Allen New Yorkers were the children and grandchildren of the huddled masses who fled, in the first instance, from the persecutions of the Tsarist empire. More often than not, these immigrants came to America as families, and the stereotypical Jewish mother is (understandably!) anxious for her children to keep the traditional show on the road. But Irish-Americans weren’t like that. On the whole, Irish immigrants were single and young, and the unlovable rogue played by Jack Nicholson in The Departed is one of their fictional descendants.

Common people, common readers

Until recently, in our world, success and survival were synonymous; to survive you had to move away, or have relations abroad. For exam-passing peasants, like my grandparents, upward social mobility meant a steady job with a pension. But the beds were crowded and the food was cooked by at least one of the people who ate it. Children were “reared” like small animals and there were more of them, so the older girls often “functioned” as auxiliary mothers. For our parents, sibling strife was more of a thing than it seems to have been in Freudian families, and they moved from childhood to adulthood without ever knowing themselves as teenagers. Of course it’s different now that we are all adolescents at heart for as long as we like. But it’s not that different. And for consolation and escape from what Graham Greene called “the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in a human situation” we still resort to stories.

IMG_3134 Athene statue, Parliament, Vienna

Religion has never been the only opium of the people. Fiction works too, and the supernatural characters of the great religious epics are as recognizable as their mortal companions, and victims. The great thing about great stories is that, no matter how fantastic they are in terms of time and place, they are always “relevant” because human beings made them up. I would have been a stranger in Alice Munro’s Canada and Balzac’s Paris, but as a reader I’m completely at home.

There are a lot of theories about the origins of the Irish susceptibility to words, written and spoken. One explanation harks back to tribal, pastoral times, when people didn’t live as long but they had more spare time. Necessity is the mother of invention, and so is boredom. When winters were dark and cold, our soul doctors – accidental psychotherapists – came in the guise of musicians and storytellers. And these ancient proclivities were subsumed into our “take” on the English language. The real “luck of the Irish” derives from the fact that the language we acquired at the behest of our political masters became a global language. As such, English has enabled us to travel, in more ways than one.

Damaged but not undone

Every Irish person knows of at least one person with the surname of Morrissy, with or without an “e” at the end, and some of them are great travellers of the mind. In the wider world the name is synonymous with a Mancunian master of fear and loathing and laughter. If this Morrissey’s interviewers are to be believed, he hates Freud because he “just made people feel so neurotic about their lives”. He prefers to embrace his neuroses, and make an art of them: “There’s more to life than books, you know. But not much more.”

One of the moreish things about Mary Morrissy’s latest book is that, while it seems to be anchored in a 1960s Dublin suburb – the eponymous Prosperity Drive – its characters are lost and found all over the world, from Arkansas to Australia. Like many another post-war suburban road, Prosperity Drive accommodates nuclear families. By day, the fathers are away at work, and the mothers are at home, “minding” the children and keeping up appearances. This being an Irish suburb, the only Spock in these children’s lives is an extra-terrestrial being, and for any reader who grew up in a similar time and place, there are flashes of temps perdu: the moss growing in the window crevices of a neglected car; the “dry whinge” of a pub door; the “introverted slump” of the lone drinker at the bar; the “arthritic roots” of a tree poking through paving slabs; the street games with more stoppage time than play because of disputes about the rules.

This Morrissy-land is a circumscribed place of “querulous misapprehensions” and “plaintive possibility”, which is not to say that there’s any shortage of the big beasts – love and death – in Prosperity Drive. I say “in” rather than “on” Prosperity Drive because that’s where the main threads of the stories are pulled from, but it’s a subtle and circuitous weave. As they wend their tragic-comic ways through swimming and typing pools, airports and hotels, department stores and shoe shops, ocean liners and piazzas, pubs and hospitals, none of the characters see the connections. Most of them are ordinary people, trying to keep their balance, chancing their luck, up to all kinds of mischief. Nothing is missed, and it helps. It helps.

Analyse that!


Easter 1916: Oh What a Lovely Rising!


Michael Mulvihill, died Easter 1916

I was twelve in 1966 when the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising – the catalytic event of modern Irish history – was celebrated. It was my last year at primary school, where we marked the occasion by singing patriotic songs and solemnly chanting the Proclamation of Independence with what was, in the context of an all-girl classroom, a commendable emphasis on its third word: Irishwomen. I still have my copy of the astonishingly dull commemorative booklet, which, with its turgid prose, dense print and dull grey photographs of the proclamation’s “signatories”, might have been designed to alienate its juvenile recipients. Not me though. I was made of such devoutly patriotic stuff that I uncapped my swanky green felt-tip pen and wrote a 1916 poem:

On Eire’s white throat a red ruby gleams

Fashioned of patriots’ blood and dreams

There was more, a lot more, and although I cannot recall the rest of it, I do recall the look of strangled mirth on my father’s face as he perused those livid green verses.

By 1966, I’d known for years that you couldn’t dig your way to Australia, and I was beginning to have serious doubts about the existence of a supernatural almighty being, but I was still sure that the Easter Rising was a fine and noble endeavour. I even had a direct connection with our liberation struggle, courtesy of a grand uncle called Michael Mulvihill, who was among the rebels in the General Post Office, and shot dead on as he made his escape from that blazing symbol of British political power in Ireland. Although I was proud of this dead grand uncle – my own father’s namesake – it was a formal pride, nothing like hero worship. My heroes were heroines, “true-life” activist females, as opposed to allegorical or holy females: women like Joan of Arc, Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday, Anne Devlin and the conspicuously combatant, flamboyantly uniformed Constance Markievicz.

Margaret, Republican brooch

Badge of the women’s brigade, Cumann na mBan

Feet of Clay

Six years later, it was a different story. I was a history student at UCD, where the parricidal, revisionist backlash of the early 1970s was in full swing. Now, with the exception of James Connolly, whose participation in the Rising could be linked with respectable, ongoing socialist narratives, the leading characters of the 1916 drama were fair game for mockery and scorn. Although they were, undoubtedly, as brave as they were conscientious, they owed their posthumous glory to the stupidity of their militaristic executioners. Otherwise, the wider truth of the matter was that the martyrs of 1916 were as delusional as they were unrepresentative.

The “unrepresentative” angle of the revisionist argument, if you could call this adolescent dissent an argument, never quite washed for me because the same critique could have been made of every other liberation movement that matters. Before there are great crowds of meeting and marching “normal people”- be they peasants, slaves, proletarians, females, or non-European “natives” – there is, invariably, an unrepresentative avant-garde of non-conformist and, yes, downright eccentric individuals.

My youthful problem with the terrible beauty of 1916 was its plain and repressive legacy. In the early 1970s we weren’t living the republican dream, any more than the citizens of the Soviet Empire were living a socialist one. We did have a free press and an unarmed police force – and these things are important – but many of our laws and institutions were more informed by Catholic patriarchal values than the classic republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity. This deficit was further complicated by the vicious little war going on in the northeast of Ireland, where the ongoing political injustice was, to my way of thinking, mitigated by the superior social and medical services, not to mention the generously funded educational system, of post-war Britain’s welfare state. (I was so jealous of the seemingly lavish and never-ending grants of UK students!)

In fairness to the 1916 grand uncle, I should say that he was the genuine republican article. An anti-clerical, Jacobin streak runs in my Kerry family. This oppositional tendency is almost as persistent as our squints (strabismus with hypermetropia) and it dates back to a classic clash between my great grandfather, a freethinking schoolmaster, and the local parish priest. I say “classic clash” because priests and teachers were natural authority figures in the rural parishes of nineteenth-century Europe: inevitable rivals if they didn’t get along. Moreover, this particular clash of personality and politics happened in seditious north Kerry, not long after a famously forceful bishop of that same county had declared that hell was not hot enough, nor eternity long enough, for Fenian (i.e. republican) men. (Incidentally, this bishop was a Moriarty, sharing his Kerry surname with those school fellows of Arthur Conan Doyle thought to have inspired the identity of Sherlock Holmes’ adversary.)


My great grandmother, and Michael Mulvihill’s mother

The curious, and perhaps peculiarly Irish thing about this family feud with the parish priest is that, while it did entrench anti-clerical attitudes – there were no nuns or priests in my family – it didn’t lead to a permanent and irrevocable loss of faith. My grandparents and parents chose to sustain our Catholic cultural identity on their own terms. We went to ordinary schools, made our first communions and so on, but the rites and rituals were accompanied by a scepticism that enabled me, in due course, to make up my own mind. Even now, I would describe myself as a Catholic atheist.

Citizens and subjects

But now, now that I’m old and grey, my feelings about the Easter Rising have been sieved again, and my republican soul has been rebooted. I live in the realm of the Queen of England, a paragon of constitutional monarchism who enjoys the esteem and loyalty of the majority of her “subjects”, but I would never choose to be one of them. I am more comfortable as a citizen of a republic and, as such, the French Revolution will always mean more to me than the “Glorious Revolution”. My heart lifts to the strains of the Marseillaise, and when I hear “God Save the Queen” there is, still, an inner flinch, a frisson of distaste. And because I identify myself as an Irish European, I’m mildly distressed by the persistence of English separatism in regard to continental Europe. (For various reasons, the Scots and the Welsh don’t choose to affirm their identities in anti-European terms.)

Elements of the English intelligentsia have always disdained the otherness of their closest neighbours. The makers of a BBC documentary about the splendours of the Australian landscape will translate the Aboriginal place-names sooner than they will translate aboriginal British, i.e. Welsh, Scottish or Cornish, place-names. It’s possible that this Anglo-Saxon reticence is rooted in nostalgia for the days when “England”, “home” and “Britain” were synonymous. (I spent nearly two years poring over the correspondence of the British military establishment in Raj India, in which those three words were synonymous.) In the century after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Britain became an industrial superpower: buying in the cheapest, selling in the dearest, and generally having its own way in matters of language, culture and ideology. It’s more than irritating for the heirs of imperial Britannia’s hegemonic heyday when these upstart minorities presume to rename their streets and cities in honour of their own movers and shakers, and insist on writing their own history, inventing and celebrating their own self-congratulatory myths.

Heroes and poppies

In the UK, the centenary of the First World War has occasioned a barrage of commemorative rituals, films, period soaps, art works, books and exhibitions, and sanctified the red poppy as a badge of British pride. This latter-day poppy fervour, which goes on for weeks, is not just about the First World War. Officially, it’s also in honour of the people who suffered and died during the Second World War and every subsequent conflict involving the British Army, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. Unofficially, it’s a way of affirming a collective British identity in the face of new fractures and threats (notably, the jihadi elephant in the room). Fair enough unless, like me, you’re still inclined to consider the First World War as a multi-faceted tragedy, as opposed to a simple victory of right against wrong.

According to this new jingoism, it was for freedom and democracy in the shape of “little Belgium” – invaded by the forces of the evil German Empire – that Britain, ever so reluctantly and conscientiously, went to war in 1914. The full story is perhaps too complex and too morally ambiguous to be remembered, or told, and for most people the salient truth is that 720,000 British soldiers were killed in 1914-18. It’s the sheer scale of the loss, and the fact that the grief was relatively widely shared that informs popular understanding and remembrance of the First World War. The rank and file Tommies are all heroes now, as opposed to victims of a deceitful recruitment campaign and the power politics of the early twentieth century.

Even so, it’s worth mentioning the appeal of a publicly applauded war effort – a state-funded adventure – for young men, especially if you were a poor, unemployed, unhappily married, underfed or inadequately shod young man in search of a break. This consideration brings me back to my grand uncle, who resisted the blandishments of church, state and media, and didn’t volunteer to fight for “King and Country” against the Kaiser and his Huns. (He might well have appreciated the ironic fact that Lord Kitchener, the face of the famous recruitment poster – “Your Country Needs You!” – also had a terrible squint and was actually born in north Kerry.)


Tom and Maggie Mulvihill, the 1916 Michael’s youngest siblings

By spring 1916, as the British Army ran low in trench-war fodder, conscripts rather than volunteers were required. A few weeks before Easter, Michael Mulvihill was called up for military service. He ignored the call, thus forfeiting his government office job, and becoming a wanted man, liable to arrest in Britain and Ireland. He was already a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. When he and his comrades – who included his brother-in-law Austin Kennan – decided to act on their political convictions, and join the Easter Rising, they knew they hadn’t a snowball in hell’s chance of success in military terms. But that very amateurishness was the whole point of the exercise. Sans training, sans serious artillery, sans armoured cars, these weekend combatants wanted to shake things up, and they expected to be judged by posterity. As things turned out, the all-important emotional, moral and political victory was promptly assured when the authorities executed the leaders of the Rising, and turned them into our very own “Glorious Dead”.

If he had been killed in action as a uniformed soldier of any of the regular armies of the First World War, Mick Mulvihill’s family would have had official condolences, medals, pensions, etc. But none of that mattered in Kerry, where Michael Mulvihill and his comrades were more or less immediately hailed as heroes. Eventually, in the 1920s, when his mother was a widow, the newly independent Irish government awarded her a pension of £1 a week as a dependant of “officer volunteer Michael Mulvihill”. Family tradition has it that she received a letter of condolence from Michael Collins but none of us knows what became of it.

All over Europe, especially in the towns and cities of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, there were young men and women like my grand uncle: ink-stained, bespectacled, bike-riding office workers and teachers who trusted in national self-determination as a key stage in the forward march of economic and political progress. Of course their optimism was misplaced. For many of them, change, any sort of change in the status quo, was progressive, and they welcomed the disruption of the First World War. Few of them could have foreseen the unintended consequences of the great upheaval – civil wars, famines, genocide – and no one anywhere anticipated the sheer resilience of capitalism, its global reach, and its ability to adapt and to generate new inequities.

It’s not you; it’s me

After the Rising, it was only a matter of time before the post boxes were green and Irish school children had the basics of the language that “ghosts” and enlivens our use of English, and lives on in our songs, place names and surnames. Some of the greenery was way over-the-top, as absurd as it was reactionary, and small consolation for the economic poverty of our first fifty years as an independent state. But in politics, hearts and minds count as much, sometimes more, than taxes and gross national produce. For the “native” Irish, self-respect went hand-in-hand with national self-determination. It’s often forgotten that the early twentieth century was a social Darwinist world, one in which we were on the lower rungs of a ladder topped by the “advanced Germanic” peoples. In that climate, was it any wonder that we were inclined to shout and make a virtue of our noble and still largely rural savagery. By way of a sample, of the sheer condescension of the Anglo-Saxon ancien regime, I will quote from the “The Story of Ireland” in the Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedia.

Who those very early Irishmen were is not quite clear. We can still find characteristic examples of at least three types. There is a very primitive type still to be met with in the west. It is the one which was formerly used in Irish caricatures by unfriendly observers. The forehead is low, the mouth and lower part of the face are large, there is an inclination to a squat figure, and the general effect is that of a survivor from an early period in history. Then there is the tall, often blue-eyed, engaging Irishman of easy address and good-humoured air, who would wile a bird from a bough by his fluent tongue, ready for adventure anywhere. And there is the businessman, chiefly from the north, who carries in his speech and form and features signs of being of a stiffer and less pliant breed, as from Norse, Scottish or English forefathers.

All these mixed together to form the Irish people, and their mixing makes up the whole story of Ireland from the first – a tragic story in the main because the mixing was long delayed. Education and easier communications, however, are fast bringing about a better state of affairs.

The first two types appeared in Ireland before history has any definite record. There must have been a primitive race which was not killed off by the incoming of a brighter and superior race, the different waves of Celtic invasion, first the Goidels and next the Brythons, in the thousand years or more before the Christian era. Both these earlier and later types of mankind contributed to the character of the Irish people today – particularly in the south and west – a strain of primitive man’s long inherited superstition, and, from the finer race, a strain of ideality and sentiment and artistic quality. The one infusion has made Ireland a land given far too often to brawls and bloodshed, while the other infusion has made it from time to time a land where religion and learning have held sway though its remoteness from the centres of intellectual activity left it to stand alone in is preservation of the finer and gentler qualities of life.


My father bought Arthur Mee’s encyclopedia for children in the late 1950s from a door-to-door salesman, and it’s full of this sort of thing. The “Story of Ireland” is a laugh, compared with the “Story of the Jews”, or the stories of Australia and Africa. When all is said and done, we got off lightly compared with other minorities and “primitive” peoples, largely because we were able to talk back in the same language. In the end, we won the right to affirm our identity on our own terms, and we can celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising as the beginning of our story as the citizens of a small and incontrovertibly European republic.



Saint Patrick: a Paddy who wasn’t

image1 (1)_mod

As an ancient celebrity and ongoing marketing brand, Saint Patrick is not in the same league as Saints Valentine and Nicholas, possibly because the historical figure behind the myths is inseparable from a particular time and place, not to mention old-time religion. I’ve been thinking about Saint Patrick again (see March 2013 post called Armorica) because of something rather obvious about his career, which has, nevertheless, only just occurred to me. (I owe this head-slapping moment to a riveting book about the history of Latin by Nicholas Ostler called Ad Infinitum.)

As every Irish schoolchild used to be told, Saint Patrick, the male patron saint of Ireland, was a true-life legend: as brave as he was good, a worker of wonders as well as a charismatic evangelist. According to his own self-deprecating autobiography, he was snatched by pirate-slavers from his boyhood village, thought to have been somewhere in northwest Britain, and sold into slavery in Ireland. After six years as a slave, minding his heathen master’s cattle, his prayers to the God of his childhood were answered and he managed to escape. He made his way back to his family in Britain and began training as a priest.

Gift of the Gab  

As a young priest, Patrick hoped to be appointed as a missionary to the pagan Irish, whose voices, pleading for his return, he still heard in his dreams. Although this job wasn’t an easy “get” – especially for a young man whose education had been so cruelly interrupted – eventually he did make the grade and return to Ireland as a fully licensed Christian missionary. Even if his conversion rate has been exaggerated (at the expense of the missionary work of less charismatic personalities) there is no doubt that when Patrick died, around AD 460, Ireland belonged to Christendom. Although he does report his life-changing visions and “voices”, Patrick himself doesn’t dwell on the miracles performed in support of his mission. These miracles are literally legendary: reported and embellished according to the conventions of hagiography (the literature of saintly lives). The Patrick of the hagiographical spin-doctors was a shape-shifting virtuoso who controlled fire, cured the blind, healed mad cows, banished snakes, turned water into honey and tamed wolves as well or better than his druidic rivals.

Another remarkable attribute of the “Apostle of Ireland” was his command of the Irish language. In my juvenile mind’s ear this was a big deal. When I imagined Saint Patrick, an Englishman, speaking our ancient teanga, I was inclined to hear the Beatles, the most famous Englishmen in the world, speaking Irish. And since an Englishman speaking Irish wasn’t something you would ever expect to hear in “true life”, this capacity of the first Paddy’s, if not quite as amazing as the snake-banishing and wolf-taming, was still a sensational one.

Duh! Even if he did hail from somewhere north of the Beatle Country, Saint Patrick wasn’t English like the Beatles, or any of my cousins. As a fifth-century Romano-Briton, his mother tongue is likely to have been an aboriginal British language, i.e. a Celtic one, so he wouldn’t have had much difficulty in making himself understood in Ireland, or Gaul for that matter. (Bua, for example, the Irish word for victory, is a recognizable component of the name of the insurgent queen Boudicca.) It’s still the same for speakers of Romance, Germanic or Slav languages: if one of them is your mother tongue, it’s relatively (sorry!) easy to understand other languages of the same family. Hence, Patrick’s ready success as a Christian missionary among the heathen Irish, which was replicated, nearly three hundred years later, by the success of the Frisian-speaking Briton known as Saint Boniface among the Germanic-speaking barbarians of Continental Europe.

It’s an irony of “progress” that pre-modern people were better at languages than most of us are today: better at listening and learning, and remembering things by heart. The printed word can block the connections between words and make them seem more “foreign” and difficult. I see examples of this all the time. Take seomra, the Irish word for “room”, which sounds so similar but looks so different from the French chambre. But I’m way out of my depth when it comes to the emergence and divergence of European languages, which deficiency brings me back to the expertise of Nicholas Ostler, author of the aforementioned “biography of Latin and the world it created” (Ad Infinitum, London 2007).

Rude Britannia

image2Nicholas Ostler considers the reasons why Britannia, unlike other former provinces of the Roman Empire, didn’t generate its own Latin-based vernacular.

“Preconquest Britain, to judge from the names of its leaders, had spoken a language much like continental Gaulish; yet there is little evidence that Latin ever trickled down to become the usual language of the common people in Britain, as it did in Gaul.”

One explanation is that the island province of Britannia, for all its economic importance, was always inclined to go its own way, and considered a cold and wet back of beyond by elite Romans. But while this insularity may explain why Latin didn’t put down roots as the basis of an everyday, majority language, it doesn’t explain the extinction of the Celtic language, or dialects, spoken by those natives of Britannia who lived in the area of present-day England (apart from Cornwall).

For late Victorian scholars, and contributors to the encyclopaedias and reference books of my childhood, it was a simple matter of the survival of the fittest. Left to their own primitive devices after the departure of the Romans, the ancient British natives were slaughtered, or pushed into the Celtic-speaking “fringes” of Wales and the West Country, by hordes of superior, all-conquering Germanic-speakers: Angles, Jutes, Saxons and assorted Scandinavians. But even if this simple-minded social Darwinist picture is set aside, we are still left with a scenario, confirmed by DNA evidence, in which much of sixth-century eastern and southern England was settled by new people. However much these newcomers may have despised or oppressed the natives, they are unlikely to have obliterated all trace of them because subject races make useful slaves (and wives!).

So what really happened? We will never know for sure, but it seems that parts of the Atlantic Islands were ravaged by a deadly plague of the middle decades of the sixth century, leaving a drastically reduced population in no fit state to resist an influx of healthy newcomers, or sustain their native language and culture. Another complication is the possibility that, far from being a case of armed mass migrations, the establishment of Anglo-Saxon communities in England may have been a gradual process: a case of established coastal enclaves growing and spreading, not always at the point of swords and battleaxes. This scenario fits with the Roman strategy of encouraging some barbarians to settle on their borders, the idea being that these relatively tame barbarians would provide the best defence against proper savages.

Hearts and minds

New kinds of evidence, and more accommodating attitudes on the part of historians and archaeologists, are making the ancient history of our islands more complicated, and even more interesting. Nothing about our stories is as straightforward as it was in the days when invading peoples and ideologies were given immediate, blanket coverage, consigning to oblivion everything that came before them. The first Christians made common cause with the common people of the Mediterranean world, but from the time of the Emperor Constantine onwards, it was also a prestigious religion, associated with the rich and powerful as well as the masses. Thereafter, a top-down strategy made sense for Christian missionaries in heathen parts. By concentrating their efforts on the hearts and minds of the ruling families, they hoped to get royal backing for the eventual conversion of their humbler subjects. The Venerable Bede wrote the history of this process in England. He describes how Saint Paulinus recommended Christianity to a group of Anglo-Saxon nobles, suggesting that their lives without the one true God were as transient and ultimately meaningless as the accidental flight of a sparrow on a winter’s night, into a long hall and then, after a few moments of warmth and light, back out into the cold and dark. This is such an unforgettable metaphor that I think it must have been inspired by the flight of an actual sparrow through an actual feasting hall.

Before Christianity went global, its evangelists were great improvisers, pragmatic and relatively generous in their approach to pre-Christian values and traditions. So long as the core beliefs of the new religion were accepted, the lesser old gods might be reconstructed as local saints; the old feast of the new year might become the new feast of all souls; the winter solstice might be celebrated as Christ’s birthday, and so on. Saint Patrick was a man of intense faith and extraordinary purpose, but the resounding success of his mission owed something to his sympathetic understanding of pagan Irish society. And so it came to pass that, just as the world created by Latin and Rome was in crisis on the Continent of Europe, it was finding a haven among the tribes of a peripheral island.


Accentuating the Positive: decline and fall of the party piece


What was your party piece when you were little? Most of the people I’ve asked can’t answer this question. They are familiar with the concept of the party piece, but it’s nothing personal, nothing to bring on their own temps perdu. Further interrogation suggests that they were never equipped with a party piece, as such, because they were born in the age of mass television, by which time home entertainment had gone electric and the party piece had joined curtseying and snuff-sniffing in the attic of human behaviour.

Nowadays it’s only at weddings and funerals that we are called upon to speak or recite something, but in the days of parlour pianos and fossil fuel fires, everyone had to come to the aid of any sort of social gathering with some sort of “turn”: songs, poems, tricks, anecdotes, riddles, vignettes, jokes, headstands and all manner of dance displays. I used to hear of a tenor uncle who was good for “My Lagan Love” at weddings, of a gravel-voiced grand uncle whose forte was J. Milton Hayes’ dramatic monologue, “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God”. I never witnessed these performances because, by the time I was walking and talking (c.1956), the groan-ups were no longer required to make a show of themselves.

For children, a party piece was once as indispensable as a clean hanky. To start with there were rhymes featuring numbers, animal sounds and “actions”: “Three Blind Mice”, “Baa Black Sheep” and “I am a Little Teapot” come to mind. At this stage in the business there was no shame in a bit of audience participation, or prompting. It was all praise and applause, no matter what the performer or the audience had endured, and children whose demonstrable talents were not verbal, or tuneful, were accommodated, literally. I can remember the floors of “good rooms” being cleared for demonstrations of handstands, somersaults, cartwheels, ballet positions, tap dances and jigs. I say good rooms plural because, in suburban Dublin in the mid 1960s, party pieces were on the agenda for birthday teas as well as the visitations of venerable kith and kin. And even if you didn’t cover yourself in glory, you could expect material rewards in the shape of sweets, party favours and small change “tips”.

Most of the songs that worked as party pieces derived from popular stage and film musicals, having percolated into the collective sound track via sales of sheet music as well as the “pop” numbers played on the wireless. (Even the aforementioned “Green Eye of the Little Yellow God” had a popular entertainment history as a staple of the early 20th-century music hall.) Indeed the songs and poems that best pleased fond and aged relations were songs and poems that pre-dated their juvenile interpreters. Several 70-something English friends of mine recall holding the floor with “Did You Not Hear My Lady”. This 1928 sheet music number, formally entitled “Silent Worship”, is an adaptation by Arthur Somervell of a song from Tolomeo, a Handel opera of 1728. For her turn, another friend of similar vintage used to sing “My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown”. (Not uncoincidentally her mother’s name was Alice.) Again, this song has a lineage that reaches back, in terms of its lyrics, to the American presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, whose daughter Alice’s signature colour was ice blue. The song was first performed in a Broadway hit musical, Irene, of 1919, which enjoyed further success as a film in 1940, and so on.  

I should confess that my own best-remembered party piece was a hearty rendition of “Will Ye Go Lassie Go!” Nothing to do with the omniscient sheepdog but a hit song of the late 1950s written by Francis McPeake of the eponymous and illustrious Ulster family of musicians. It was inspired by a tune heard on holiday in Scotland, and this traditional provenance is perhaps one reason why it was such immediately easy listening, as well as learning. That’s the magical thing about songs: it’s often the case that the tune is already in the common ether, available for a new life with new words, in new languages. Before I heard Burl Ives (or Harry Belafonte and Loretta) singing the hole in the bucket song on the radio – and it started to serve as a party piece – it was a German folk song, which probably arrived in the USA in the cultural baggage of the Pennsylvania Dutch community. All over time and space, singers and musicians have been – and still are – oblivious to geo-political boundaries. Consciously or unconsciously, they operate on the principle that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

As poems that can be sung, the works of Burns exemplify the ancient overlap between music and verse, and they will live forever in the “by heart” repertoire of the Scots. Many of the traditional Irish poems I learned at school also have great “airs”. The same goes for the psalms we learned to sing as hymns, and unforgettable poems of Leonard Cohen. But most of the time, for party piece purposes, the poems that we learned off by heart were recited, and this verb raises the genteel spectre of the elocution teacher.

Elocution lessons may well have been as therapeutic as they were liberating for some kids, but for my parents they were synonymous with a pathetic self-hatred. Elocution as we understood it was all about the acquisition of a peculiarly inauthentic English accent, a matter of strangled vowels, muted “rs” and hot potato “hs”. In Pygmalion (and its musical derivative My Fair Lady), George Bernard Shaw sent up the class basis of the how-now-brown-cow business. His glorious achievement makes it all the more curious that his wife, a seemingly uncomprehending grande dame by the name of Charlotte Payne-Townshend, left money in her will for the education of common Irish folk in elocution and deportment.

Anecdotal evidence (i.e. my random poll) suggests that Hilaire Belloc’s “Tarantella” did sterling service as a party piece. For this sort of poem you would use your most sonorous accent, but if your piece was something funny like “Albert and the Lion”, or “My Old Man’s a Dustman”, there would be scope for a Lancashire burr, or a bit of mockney-cockney. Recently, I heard a recording of Hilaire Belloc reading his own “Tarantella” and his pompous reedy voice doesn’t seem to “go” with it at all. By contrast, once you have heard Larkin reading his own poems no one else will do. I was surprised to learn, from Matthew Hollis’s book about the English poet Edward Thomas (All Roads Lead to France, 2011), that it’s a comparatively new thing for poets to read their own work at poetry readings. Until the early twentieth century, it was conventional for poets to read poems they rated, not their own stuff.

My career as a performer of party pieces ended around the same time as I became oblivious to cracks in the pavement, and climbable trees. Until then, like Miss Mary Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I enjoyed doing my thing, and so I always feel for Miss Elizabeth Bennet when she has the “mortification” of seeing Mary “after very little entreaty, preparing to oblige the company”. Mindful of the sneering Mr Darcy, Elizabeth has to endure it until, at last, her father tells Mary: “That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”

For all the people who shudder at the memory of their party pieces, there will be others who found a way of sustaining the performance impulse. In 1946, at a Mother’s Day celebration in a local hall, the four-year-old boy who became Bob Dylan got up on the stage, stamped his foot and demanded the crowd’s attention: ‘If everybody in this room will keep quiet, I will sing for my grandmother. I’m going to sing “Some Sunday Morning”.’ The audience clapped so hard that he sang his other big number: “Accentuate the Positive”. Within two weeks, he had another gig, his aunt’s wedding. The fact that this particular four-year-old was wowing the kith and kin with “Accentuate the Positive” when other kids his age were offering “Mary Had a Little Lamb” did not strike his father as anything special: “People said he was brilliant. I didn’t pay much attention to this, frankly. I figured any kid could learn a song like that from the radio – if he heard it often enough.” (Quoted in Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan, London 1986)


A Casey without the O Factor

If her first-born child failed to be a man-child, an Irish matriarch wasn’t too desolated, whatever the patriarchs were saying about it. As soon as she was on her feet, this eldest daughter would be her mother’s little helper, well placed in due, cruel course, to take over the job of mothering her younger siblings. Until recently, maternal big sisters were central figures in Irish family life, making regular appearances in the autobiographies of their famous little brothers, Dr Noel Browne and Bob Geldof being two that come to mind. But this big sister character, omnipresent in “true life”, is absent from the realms of poetry, prose and song. Our collective imagination harbours every variety of shemale – mothers, grandmothers, lovers, goddesses, queens, saints, hags, fairies, banshees – and no big sisters, apart from Fionnuala, eldest of the mythical children of Lir.  So it’s fair to say that in taking a creative interest in Bella Casey, big sister of the famous Sean O’Casey, Mary Morrissy is, once again, breaking new fictive ground (The Rising of Bella Casey, Brandon Press, Dublin 2013).

Until Morrissy re-imagined her, Bella Casey only existed in O’Casey’s autobiographical words, including the texts archived in the New York Public Library. Bella was fifteen when the great dramatist was born, old enough to assist at his delivery on a washing day – among “the suds left by her mother’s smalls” – and to inspire one of this novel’s most mesmerising scenes. O’Casey freely acknowledged his debt to Bella, the caring, accomplished and confident older sister of his troubled boyhood, when he was plain Jack Casey. His father, John Casey, had converted to an evangelical, low church brand of Victorian Protestantism – in direct opposition to the high church “smells and bells” of the Anglo-Catholic revival – and the family had a foothold on the lower middle-class rung of the Irish social ladder. When John Casey died, his widow and children were still shabby genteel, a status symbolised by the family’s silverware which, in another of Morrissy’s set pieces, the mother peevishly polishes. George Bernard Shaw once referred to his similarly anomalous Dublin childhood as “rich only in dreams, frightful and loveless in realities” and his marriage to a dull Anglo-Irish heiress probably had more to do with a lingering caste anxiety than money.  As a Protestant God-fearing, piano-playing, trained elementary schoolteacher, Miss Bella Casey had every chance to sustaining her family’s status. Instead, she fell off the social ladder as Mrs Beaver, hapless wife of a hard-drinking British Army bandsman turned railway porter. But even as she moved from bad to worse addresses, increasingly desperate and déclassée, Bella refused to connect with her working-class Catholic neighbours. She retained the faith of her father, never lost her identification with an imperial and Protestant Britain. And while she raged alone against the zeitgeist, brother Jack was raging with it.

The cities of early 20th-century Europe were teeming with idealistic young joiners: socialists, feminists, trades unionists, scouts, cyclists, vegetarians, teetotallers, secessionists, folklorists, Zionists, pan-Slavists, anarchists, theosophists, et cetera. When he gaelicised his name, and was born again as Sean O’Casey, Jack Casey was aligning himself with the Gaelic-flavoured counter-cultural dream of a socialist new age. But he couldn’t forget Bella’s alienation, any more than Joyce could forget his mother’s reproaches, and some of the classic O’Casey female characters – Minnie Powell, Juno Boyle – must owe something to his big sister’s fierce dissent.

Bella Casey is hard to like, impossible to ignore. As a virtuosa translator of rude female experience into powerful, immersive prose fiction, Morrissy is well able for her story. She never condescends to her anti-heroine, and although she endows Bella with a persuasive back-story – putting an entirely new complexion on the little brother’s understanding of all things Irish, republican and religious – she herself remains an awkward customer. Bella’s Rising is not Jack’s Rising. She has her “rush of the sublime” when, on a strife-torn Dublin street, she comes upon a Broadwood piano, a gorgeous instrument for which she risks her life and saves what is left of her soul. For Bella’s readers there are more rushes of the sublime. I can’t think of another novel like it, but it did make me think about Brecht’s great anti-war play Mother Courage.

Brecht was disappointed when, instead of thinking combatively about the issues, audiences sympathised with his ignoble, profiteering Mother Courage character. For the punters, no matter what the righteous playwright made her do or say, Mother Courage was an uncomplicatedly heart-rending maternal creature. Bella is another Mother Courage but I mean nothing ironic by that designation because, in having the courage of her unfriendly convictions, she makes life even more difficult for herself.  The “issues” are there all right. You cannot read The Rising of Bella Casey without thinking about what became of Romantic Ireland – of which, more anon – but we are allowed to get involved, emotionally as well as intellectually, because this is a novel of terrible beauty.

Tea People

IMG_2342In the early 1980s, my day job was in the gardening department of a London publisher of what used to be called “coffee table books”. In the Atlantic Isles coffee was, even then, a vaguely foreign beverage, an element in the sophisticated, cosmopolitan “lifestyles” of people who had bidets, duvets and books as big as tables in their design-conscious homes. For the common or garden majority of us, tea still ruled as the default, everyday beverage. So when the Tippex-encrusted typescript of my first novel was rejected with a scrawled “Not my cup of tea!” I wasn’t too demoralised. It was an honest response and, with a bit of luck, I could hope, eventually, to find a publisher’s reader with compatible tea specifications.

But how and why did the British and Irish become so collectively and individually addicted to tea, rather than coffee? The most obvious answer lies in the East – first China, then India and Ceylon – where British merchants operating under the auspices of colonial institutions, notably the East India Company, did their business. Crucially, it was at roughly the same time that the entrepreneurs of the West Indies were making a killing – in more ways than one – in slave-grown sugar. Until very recently, our precious daily cuppas have been inseparable from sugar and milk.

Tea began as an expensive, élite taste, a luxury import that went with other luxuries such as silver tea pots, jugs and spoons, porcelain cups and saucers, and gilded mahogany tea-tables. It was a mildly stimulating, mildly addictive beverage for sober, genteel folk in general, and ladies in particular. In Britain, the taste for tea trickled rapidly down the social scale, replacing what was called “small beer” (low alcohol homebrews), as well as traditional herbal and hedgerow infusions (some of which have staged a comeback). In England, the mass consumption of Chinese tea in the late eighteenth century coincided with the disruption of old rural ways of life. In fact, tea, which requires boiled and therefore relatively safe water, was probably a life-saver as well as a life-enhancer for the huddled masses of the new industrial and insanitary cities. Another factor in tea’s popularity was that it could be “stretched”, i.e. diluted and even re-used, by the people who increasingly depended on it to get them through long hard days. Tea became so integral to everyday lives that in parts of England and Ireland the noun “tea” is still synonymous with a full meal.

In Ireland, the story of tea began the same way – as an élite thing – but it wasn’t until the mid 19th century, roughly a hundred years later than Britain, that it had established itself as an item of everyday consumption. To start with, tea was a special treat, something for Sundays and big occasions – Christmas, Easter, St Patrick’s Day, Halloween – as well as wakes and weddings. Ireland was still an overwhelmingly rural society and the taste for tea went with a taste for white baker’s bread, available from the new grocery stores, where tea was often exchanged for eggs. Again, sugar was a major component of tea’s appeal. “Tay wather” was appreciated as a sustaining, cheering drink, something to get you going first thing, and keep you going until your next “square meal”. And there was something reassuringly familiar about the milky element. One way or another, milk has always been important in Ireland, where, traditionally, cattle were reared for dairy produce rather than meat. Our mythical warriors feasted on pork and venison, not beef. Indeed, it was a bit of a head-slapping moment for me, when I realized why it is that cinematic cowboys, despite their name, never seemed to have any milk to go with their coffee – range cattle being beef cattle, duh!

Gradually, we all acquired a taste for “real” coffee – as opposed to the instant stuff – and some of us even learned how to make it. Now the land is flowing with cappuccino and the like, as well as all manner of herbal infusions, but for those of us who grew up in the era of tea-totalism there is, still, nothing quite as restorative as a cup of tea. And as the conflict between Britian and Ireland evolves into an historical matter, we have all the more reason to celebrate the persistence of our joint incontrovertible and uncontroversial love of tea! Even so, there are subtle differences in our ways with tea. I have a vivid memory of a friend’s return to my house after a visit to some English friends of hers in another part of London. She was dying for a cup of tea because, having declined the first offer of a cuppa from her English host, she received no more. Big mistake! In Ireland, you can safely and politely decline the host’s first offer of tea because the offer will be repeated again, and again, until you’re ready for it. But that’s only if you’re there for more than an hour, and in any case the “rules” are quite different for coffee…

The Banshee: too bad for heaven, too good for hell

The banshee lives on in cheap cartoons and the slang for a police car alarm, and her place among the classic female demons – the furies, harpies, sirens, valkyries, et al – is assured. But unlike her mythical sisters, the banshee had a very particular job to do in the lives of ordinary mortals, as opposed to epic heroes. Supposedly, her folkloric role as a herald of death derived from the uncertainty of her own situation. The banshee was an in-betweener – too good for hell and too bad for heaven – and, generally speaking, she was more heard than seen.

The word banshee is an anglicisation of the Irish words bean sí, literally, “woman spirit” or “fairy”. She was said to follow families with an O or a Mac (or, if female, a Ni or a Nic) to their surnames. As a clientele, this was not all that exclusive because, if you go back far enough, those prefixes were attached to the family or clan names of all Irish-speakers, even those with Norman or English surnames.

Our perceptions of supernatural phenomena have a way of complementing earthly realities. We have table-rapping, knock-knocking ghosts following on from the invention of telegraphy and the Morse code; ectoplasmic phenomena and floating, fuzzy apparitions synching with developments in photography; little green men and flying saucers arriving with the postwar space race, and so on. No surprise then, that the banshee’s heyday was pre-electrified Ireland, where the night was as mysterious as it was dark, and births and deaths happened in the seclusion of relatively isolated rural homes.

The banshee was a creature of this primal dark and her eerie wail is sometimes explained as the sound of mating cats, the screeching of certain birds, or the vixen’s call for a mate. Foxes are commonplace in my London neighbourhood, where – unless we have a power cut – it’s never really dark, so I can vouch for the unnervingly plaintive note of a vixen’s midnight screams. In her seminal study of the banshee, Patricia Lysaght (The Banshee, Dublin 1985) observes that it wasn’t necessarily the nearest and dearest around the deathbed who would hear her. Often, it was the people round and about who sensed the presence of the death messenger. Since they were expecting sad news anyway, these friends and neighbours were pre-disposed to interpret the sounds of the night as an alert: for them, the banshee’s wail was a kind of “go” signal, permission to mobilise emotionally as well as practically for a wake and a funeral.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

In some parts of Ireland the banshee was seen as well as heard, possibly because she took on the characteristics – the high-pitched wailing, the weeping, breast-beating and hair-rending – of those old-time professional mourners, the keening women who, from ancient times, would perform as a sort of chorus at prestigious funerals. In fact, I cannot look at the famous photographs taken of the “hysterics” at the Salpêtrière – the former gunpowder factory that served as the female madhouse of Belle Epoque Paris – without recalling the banshee. The pioneering neurologists who “examined” and recorded the behaviour of these female lunatics, notably Charcot and Freud, chose to understand them as victims of a condition they called “hysteria”. But there are good reasons to suppose that some of these hysterics actively colluded with their celebrity, putting on a great show of “attitudes passionnelles” for the well-intentioned but buttoned-up and, in some ways, rather innocent men of science. (Something similar may be going on, methinks, in 1960s newsreel footage of young female fans of the Beatles: it’s the wildest, screamiest girls that get noticed, and they seem to know it!)


Source: Visual Bible Alive

In those parts of Ireland where she might be seen as well as heard, abandoned combs were explained – and disdained – as the lost property of a disturbed banshee. And since pestering a distraught, demonical female was a risky business, men would be wary of any lone woman encountered at night – which, I’m sure, was no bad thing.


Source: Driftwood Hearts blog

But the typical banshee, the phantom woman who was heard and not seen, was not so much bad as sad. Although her cry was spine-chilling, hair-raising, she herself was more pathetic than threatening. She was just doing her job, alerting both kith and kin to an impending departure from this valley of tears, and incidentally reminding them of their own mortality.