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!