Somerville and Ross have a laugh

Two Irish Girls in Bohemia by Julie Anne Stevens

Julie Anne Stevens. Image:

Dublin academic Julie Anne Stevens is an expert on the great Irish writing duo Edith Somerville and her cousin, Violet Martin – who wrote under the pseudonym, Martin Ross. Prurient reader speculation on the exact nature of their relationship, however, remains unsatisfied. Were they more to each other than a professional team? Stevens quotes from a letter that suggests they shared the same bed. She also states that Edith rejected the advances of a well-known lesbian, Ethel Smyth. Other than that this book concentrates on their nascent feminism.

In the mid 1880s Somerville travelled frequently to Europe, studying art in Dusseldorf and Paris. She saw that men were more readily accepted into that world; women were thought of as muses or models rather than artists. Some of the sketches that Stevens has selected for Two Irish Girls in Bohemia are portrayals of women artists and others have women as central figures.

Interior of Colarossi’s Studio Paris. Sketch: Edith Somerville. Crawford Art Gallery.

Violet Martin was often a subject of the drawings including one entitled Miss Neruda Jones which was part of a cartoon strip showing an androgynous being in spectacles, bowler hat and short hair.

81iwfSeaVML._SY450_.jpgStevens suggests that there is comedy in the fact that Violet is pretending to be ‘Neruda’ who is herself posing as an artist. Somerville and Ross are mocking themselves by showing that their status as professional writers/illustrator is seen by the outside world as amusing frippery rather than serious work.

In Paris Somerville was able to live in a flat with other women artists, to study alongside men in studios and museums, and to move unchaperoned in the public parks. Combining her Anglo-Irish sense of social superiority with these new-found freedoms enabled her to define and develop a sense of professionalism which fed into the financial success that she and Ross, as impoverished latter-day members of their nearly extinct tribe, required.

Away from their family homes in West Cork and Connemara Edith and Violet were exposed to all sorts of exotic behaviours and these they diligently recorded. As well as being prolific correspondents they kept diaries and journals of notes and sketches. Stevens foregrounds many of the Edith’s drawings and suggests how they provide a context for the pair’s published work.

Edith and Violet.  Sketch by Somerville. University of Belfast Archive.

Although they spent time abroad Somerville and Ross wrote most memorably about Ireland. In their well-known works, The Real Charlotte and the series of Irish R.M. stories, they satirise all echelons of late nineteenth century Irish life. Visiting Englishmen, such as the eponymous Resident Magistrate, come in for the same savage treatment as the inhabitants of the Big House, the servants’ hall or the thatched cottage. They wrote more compassionately and enthusiastically about horses and hounds and pet dogs.

Violet Martin thought that, partly as a result of the work of Revivalists such as Yeats and Lady Gregory, the Irish had developed a ‘fear of being laughed at’ resulting in an ‘incapacity to recognise true art’. Ross and Somerville’s irreverent class and gender based humour was out of kilter with such works as W.B. Yeats and George Moore’s romantic Diarmuid and Grania. In their version of the tale Diarmuid becomes a skittish ‘horse called Dermot’ ridden and controlled by a woman.

Edith and Violet. Image: Irish Times.

In her informative, if somewhat repetitive, account of the lives and work of Somerville and Ross Stevens concludes that they might have been more lauded had they not been women with Anglo-Irish backgrounds who used ‘humour as the weapon to attack male vanity’. Their style, then regarded as vulgar, is now seen as ground-breaking.


Works cited

Somerville, E. and Ross, M. The Real Charlotte. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1894

—. Some Experiences of an Irish RM. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1899.

—. Further Experiences of an Irish RM. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1908.

—. In Mr Knox’s Country. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1915


Stevens, J. A. Two Irish Girls in Bohemia. Dublin: Somerville Press. 2017.

Yeats, W. B. and Moore, G. Diarmuid and Grania. 2011.


A version of this review was first published  on page 36 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 3rd February 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.


Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser

Fall of the Titans by Rubens. Image classic

Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser by Trevor Joyce.

Londoner Edmund Spenser, born mid sixteenth century, travelled to Ireland to help put down the Desmond Rebellions. As Secretary to Lord Grey, Queen Elizabeth’s Deputy, Spenser was able to lay his hands on property in North Cork where he settled at Kilcolman Castle.images-1.jpeg

There he wrote much of the great epic poem The Faerie Queen, a work in which the figure of Gloriana represents his queen. The locations reflect the glorious pastoral countryside in which Spenser lived but the representation of Irishness is entrusted to deceitful, treacherous characters such as Malengin.  Spenser also wrote a prose work, A View of the Present State of Ireland, an excruciatingly racist account of the Irish often considered to have influenced Oliver Cromwell’s later earth-scorching and ethnically genocidal practices in Ireland.

spensersfaeriequ01spenuoft1.jpegPublished posthumously with the final segment of the twelve-book poem, are the Mutabilitie Cantos. These tell the story of a challenge that Mutability makes to the king of the gods, Jove. She says that he has stolen her birthright because Jove’s father, Saturn usurped her father, Titan. Now, she mocks, Jove can only keep power by using military might. Eventually, however, Jove’s position is confirmed after a court case overseen by Nature.

Cork-based Trevor Joyce is fascinated by Edmund Spenser and published a translation of his sonnets, Ruines of Rome, retitled Rome’s Wreck (2014). His latest book, Fastness is a reworking of the Mutabilitie Cantos. In his introduction Joyce explains how Nature’s court is on Arlo Hill, a name Spenser used for ‘Galtymore, the tallest mountain in the Galty range, which itself continues the arc of the Ballyhouras’. Joyce points out the similarity between the sounds Arlo and Aherlow, concluding that the setting for the Mutabilitie Cantos is thus the Glen of Aherlow.


Joyce suggests that Spenser, himself a local planter, felt threatened by ‘wolves and human miscreants’ in the glen, which was used by ‘insurgents during the Desmond Rebellions’. Spenser might be explaining to his Protestant queen that only her military power could ensure the safety of her loyal subject on his plantation in North Cork. Famously Spenser was run out by Hugh O’Neill. On his return to London and feeing betrayed by that queen he died, aged 46, in poverty.

As a poet Joyce decides that the best way to refute Spenser’s imperialistic or land-grabbing stance is to recast his verse. He thinks that it is his right to ‘intervene’ in Spenser’s work because he feels that Spenser has intervened in his own heritage. In other words the Protestant English colonists affected every aspect of Irish history and culture so that Joyce and every Irishman alive today is tainted with their stink.

Joyce rejects ‘highfalutin’ language and replaces it with his own vernacular. This is because he feels that the character of Mutability (Ireland) in her need to outmanoeuvre Jove (England) is diverted from her muscular aggression to the ‘high rhetoric’ of the courthouse. Thus she mistakenly decides to fight Jove with his own weapon, the Queen’s English.  Joyce suggests that if Mutability had used different means she might well have succeeded. Had Ireland fought on her own terms and rejected English laws and customs then the island might have been free of the yoke of imperialism much earlier and more completely.

He annexes Spenser’s tale and replaces the rhetoric with something much grittier but arguably more accessible. He writes his own view of late sixteenth century Ireland in the penultimate stanza, ‘I’m sick to death of seeing / this dodgy state of things’. On the back cover David Lloyd calls Fastness ‘a radical postcolonial Irish poem’. It’s worth engaging with.

Works cited

Joyce, T. Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser. Miami University Press. 2017. Print.

Spenser, E. The Fairie Queen. 1609. Print.


A version of this review was first published on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on November 18th 2017.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.



James Joyce and Hardiman face the facts

Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law by Adrian Hardiman

Supreme Court Judges, President of the High Court & President of the Court of Appeal during a sitting to commemorate Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman.               Photo: The Irish Examiner.

The late Honourable Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman, Supreme Court Judge, had completed a rough draft of this book when he died suddenly last year. His name was well known to the public because of his fearless fight for, and defence of, the Irish Constitution and Irish Law. He was a believer in freedom within the law and abhorred prejudice. He refused to be swayed by media pressure and stood for honesty and integrity in every area of society, including and especially the Gardá.


The published text of Joyce in Court had to be edited by Neil Belton, who had commissioned it. The two men had worked successfully together on the early chapters so it seems likely that Hardiman would have approved of the result.   The book reads like one of his elaborate court arguments and it is redolent with the knowledge for which he was renowned. It is a seemly memorial of his professional life in the courts as well as his parallel life as literary scholar.


One of Hardiman’s pet hates was the obfuscation that is the result of the “contrived terminology cultivated by so many Joycean critics”. Hardiman, whose papers on James Joyce, unlike those of some of the academics he criticised, kept to the facts. He researched the court cases mentioned in Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Joyce’s journalism. In addition he studied the legal context of Joyce’s life as a child and young man at a time when Ireland was moving from fin de siècle to twentieth century. As an opening quotation to Joyce in Court Hardiman chooses Joyce’s own words, “I tried to keep close to fact, to reality, which always triumphs in the end”.

Hardiman thinks that Joyce was so concerned about facts because he discerned a laziness all around him, in newspapers, for example, or at the bar – in both public houses and criminal courts – to establish what is beyond reasonable doubt. In other words Joyce, like Hardiman, was fascinated and horrified by miscarriages of justice caused by prejudice of one kind or another.


Hardiman points out that the most egregious cases at the turn of the century in Britain were those in which prejudice, either gender or ethnicity based, was at work. He also explains that it was following these that the Court of Criminal Appeal came into being. It would, of course, be many years before Ireland, then still called the Free State, got her own appeal court in 1924. A theme of the book is a comparison between British and Irish law and the tendency for Irish law to be left behind because of British prejudice against the Irish and their competency as a self-sufficient society.

Hardiman mentions that Ulysses includes references to 31 different criminal and civil cases from both Ireland and Britain. He also lists those who conducted them, including 11 judges, 13 barristers and any number of lesser professionals including a variety of hangers-on or disgraced practitioners. Hardiman obviously takes delight in minutiae as he details not only the participants but also the types of case from the momentous to the petty.

In September 1899 Joyce attended the three-day trial of Samuel Childs for the murder of his brother, Thomas. This, according to Hardiman, was life changing for 17 year-old Joyce. He states that it began a “lifelong preoccupation with guilt, innocence, proof, framings and officials who were ‘unscrupulous in the service of the Crown’”. Hardiman argues that Irish trials like Childs would have been forgotten had they not figured in Ulysses. He relishes the power of the great novel to keep them alive partly because he feels that they help provide the rich context of legal, political and social practice of the time.

Additionally Hardiman sees Joyce’s references to the law as a key technique in the novelist’s aim to achieve universality whilst writing only of Bloomsday. Part of Joyce’s technique, according to Hardiman, is to have his characters speak or think of the cases without any authorial explanation. They were part of the fabric of that day.

For many readers, however, the cases might be less familiar and this is where Hardiman’s helping hand becomes desirable. Thomas Childs was a rich, miserly, single recluse. His brother Samuel, the only other key-holder of the house in Bengal Terrace near Glasnevin Cemetery, was the sole heir to Thomas’s estate. He needed money as he had been made redundant and had insufficient to meet the needs of his wife and children.

The Crown’s case collapsed in front of Joyce’s eyes. This fed his suspicion of the police and the prosecution. They were seeking the death by hanging of a man against whom they had a weak case. Hardiman, to the joy of the reader, assesses the case himself and comes up with a likely scenario, considering that no one alive today saw what happened. One of Joyce’s and Hardiman’s interests in the Childs case is the fact that Samuel’s wife is not allowed to give evidence because of her status as his spouse.


A further chapter, fascinatingly intricate, is on the subject of life insurance. Here a focal point is the question of suicide and the fact that life insurance policies did not pay out in that event. In addition it proves to have been the case that many citizens mortgaged out or sold their policy, resulting in possible non-payment on death. This applies to Joyce’s character Patrick Dignam who dies suddenly leaving his wife and five children impoverished as well as bereft. Joyce concentrates on the fate of the children especially the elder two who will be apprenticed to augment the family’s income.


In spite of its being set in 1904 Ulysses is infused with references to the romantic Irish hero Robert Emmet. In Joyce in Court there is a chapter on his trial in 1803 and at the end of the text there in an appendix with an account of it. Both Joyce and Hardiman, like many others, are mightily impressed by Emmet’s speech. It is quoted at length and admired for its elegance, balance and content. They are also both, somewhat gorily, insistent on detailing the process of hanging, drawing and quartering.

Finally Hardiman turns his attention to censorship and legal attempts to prevent the publication of Ulysses. These focus mainly on America and England although it is impossible to overlook the heinous behaviour of the Irish Censorship of Publications Board. It is wonderful that today anyone can read Joyce’s work and then check out the legal context in Hardiman’s book.

Adrian Hardiman. Image: Irish Examiner

Joyce in Court is not entirely cohesive because it is to a great extent a collection of the papers written, for differing purposes, during Hardiman’s lifetime. Some chapters skim over vast areas whilst others go into the forensic detail of one case. In the latter there is a tendency to repeat sections from the former – not only in terms of content but also the bon mots which are so much a part of Hardiman’s style. It is impossible, however, not to feel a tear at the corner of an eye in reaction to the poignancy of the words of such an eloquent man, one who devoted his life to law, history and literature. And to facts.

Works cited

Hardiman, A.  Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law. London: Head of Zeus. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 21st October 2017.  It is republished here by permission of the Editor.


MacLaverty salutes Heaney’s bog poems

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty 


Hailing from Belfast, MacLaverty now lives in Glasgow, having spent the majority of his life in Scotland, first as a teacher, including a spell in the Hebrides, and afterwards living by his writing on the mainland. As a young man at Queen’s College, where MacLaverty was working in the biology department, he joined a writing group with Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley.  There his proferred poems were soundly rejected (by Heaney) although his short stories were lauded.

Avid readers of MacLaverty have been waiting for a new book since 2013, when many of his stories were republished in a collection. Previous to that there was Matters of Life and Death in 2006, other collections of stories and four novels, including  Lamb, and  Cal,  both of which were filmed (the former with Liam Neeson and the latter with Helen Mirren).  Whilst Cal and Lamb both provide contemporaneous accounts of the politics and violence of the Troubles, which MacLaverty lived through, Midwinter Break deals with the aftermath.

During the early years of their marriage, the central characters, Gerry and Stella were indirectly involved in bombings and shootings.  He always sought solace in the bottom of a glass whilst she turned to her religion. Now that they are retired each can give full attention to these crutches.

A long weekend in Amsterdam enables each an opportunity to indulge themselves. Gerry drinks most of a bottle of duty free whisky on their first night allowing Stella to rise the following morning without waking him. She makes her way to visit a religious order. Unfortunately Stella’s contact will not be available until Monday morning so she and Gerry have an uninterrupted Saturday and Sunday. For Gerry this means he can have a fat-laden cooked breakfast in the hotel whilst Stella makes do with a croissant and jam in a café.

The Milkmaid.  Vermeer.

There is time to visit art galleries and the red light area. MacLaverty draws parallels between the two experiences in a slightly clumsily manner. Both are perceived framed – the women behind their windows, the paintings also orientated as landscape or portrait. Perhaps MacLaverty is suggesting that both the women painted by Vermeer and the present day prostitutes are victims of economic deals.

But Gerry is not a philistine. He has made a career as an architect and loves classical music. Stella, who was a teacher, is no saint. Both are selfish in their ways. Both are loving and compassionate too.

It is important and moving to find elderly people as protagonists in novels. Their habits are irritating. Their bodies are failing. One needs artificial eye drops to replace the essential tearing function of the eye. One snores. Neither has a beautiful body.  Both make love with each other.

All couples must face these sorts of issues if they want to stick together until ‘death us do part’. An important question is, did the personal horrors that afflicted Gerry and Stella during the Troubles lead to their current unhappiness? I am not sure what MacLaverty would say in answer to that.

But, in an interview with the Guardian in 2013, he did explain that in 1975, already a father of four children, he said to himself, ‘Why do I have to stay here? I can teach anywhere’.

Who would condemn him for leaving his motherland? For taking his wife and children to a safe island off the coast of Scotland? For writing wonderful books, which became films and gave him an entry into the life of the arts in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Many writers in the North found safe havens in small cottages in remote areas. Many, like Seamus Heaney, are accused of watering down politics or hiding, in for example, the bog poems, behind ambiguity and metaphor. It may be that MacLaverty is saluting the late Irish poet, when, at the end of Midwinter Break he includes a meditation on bog people.


Works cited

Heaney, S. North. London: Faber & Faber. 1975.

MacLaverty, B.  Cal. Jonathan Cape. 1983.

— Collected Stories  Vintage. 2013.

Lamb. Penguin. 1980/

Matters of Life and Death. Norton. 2006.

—Midwinter Break. Jonathan Cape. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on 26th August 2017 in the Weekend section (page 37) of the Irish Examiner.  



Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel


A Flock of Swifts

Reclaimed, by Irishmen such as Yeats, from the canon of English Literature, Jonathan Swift has become an icon of Irishness and Stubbs’s book provides an insight into the Dubliner who insisted he was English.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In his introduction to this excellent biography John Stubbs is at pains to point out the complexity and contradictions in both the character and the life of Jonathan Swift. Like Yeats, who was born two centuries later, Swift believed in the desirability of a pastoral society run by landed gentry and the Anglican church. He abhorred the burgeoning urban financial centre of London, almost as if its participants were usurers in the temple. Ordained in a high church tradition, Swift despised low, dissenting, Protestantism, as well, of course, as Catholicism.

Arriving from Dublin to London in 1710 Swift, at 43, soon became an important ‘spin doctor’ to Queen Anne’s chief minister, Robert Harley. His work consisted of briefing against members of the former Whig government, which he did with alacrity and vitriol. These unfortunates included the victor of the Battle of Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough; the former Lord Treasurer, Earl of Godolphin and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Marquess of Wharton.

Speaking with a patrician voice from which nearly all traces of Irishness had been meticulously eradicated and wearing the orthodox dress of a clerical gentleman, Swift’s impressive public persona disguised altogether another personality.   Known to intimates as Presto, Swift was an incorrigible mischief-maker. There were many more than one Swift.

Possibly “Stella”: Crawford Gallery
Possibly “Vanessa”: Millais

Although marrying neither, he had two close lady friends at this time – one in Dublin, ‘Stella’ (Esther Johnson) and one in London, ‘Vanessa’ (Esther Vanhomrigh). His comportment towards them was respectful and he relied on them for intellectual as well as emotional support. Another, darker side of Swift emerges too – consorting with prostitutes and his scurrilous writings, such as ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’: a poem dealing with, among other sordid matters, the odours and stains of feminine underwear.



Swift was a stickler for personal hygiene; a habit unusual for the period and he exercised regularly, walking and riding. But his health was not good, suffering as he did from debilitating deafness and often confined to bed by extended fits of vertigo and tinnitus. This ailment was to plague him until the end of his life; exacerbated by several strokes which left him mute as well. But before Stubbs reaches the endpoint he offers over 600 pages documenting Swift’s political and writing career, his avoidance of marriage and his position as a revered Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Obfuscated by lack of evidence, and the differing stories that Swift himself told, is the strange mystery of Whitehaven, Cumbria. As an infant, it seems, Swift was taken, perhaps kidnapped, by his wet nurse, to the small English port. He stayed there for some years, maybe two, maybe three.

On his return, his father having died before his birth and his mother now impoverished, Jonathan was brought up in the Dublin household of his Uncle Godwin. He seems to have been denied affection but was, unsurprisingly, precocious.

It is tempting for biographers and critics to apply modern psychoanalytical techniques to Swift’s life and work and to trace his peculiarities to early emotional trauma, or indeed, a position on the autism spectrum. Medical approaches have suggested that he suffered from syphilis, contracted from streetwalkers. Although, as his father is recorded to have died from this disease it may be that it was congenital.  Stubbs, like others, indulges in this kind of speculation but always gives the caveat that these conclusions are anachronistic and thus unreliable.

Nevertheless it is disturbing to read that after an inauspicious start in life the boy went sent to boarding school in Kilkenny aged “about six”. It is difficult to see how the child, Jonathan, could become an emotionally stable adult.

With an education in the classics under his belt Swift arrived at Trinity College, Dublin in 1682. According to his autobiographical accounts he did not prosper and contemporary college records show many instances of the undergraduate being fined for misdemeanours. The ‘Presto’ side of his character was in ascendant.

In 1689, just too early to take his master’s degree, Swift, along with many other students and faculty, fled to England. The Williamite war had revived, among Protestants, fears of a massacre similar to that carried out by Catholics in 1641. Now 21, Swift became secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat, who was to familiarise the young man with the mores of English society and politics.

By 1692 Swift was in possession of an MA from Oxford although he had to wait until 1702 to attain a doctorate in divinity from Trinity in Dublin.   In between he took holy orders in the Church of Ireland and was allocated a parish north of Belfast Lough. At this time, and in this location, the role of the Established Church was under siege from Ulster Presbyterians.


In 1696 Swift, perhaps bored and disillusioned, returned to the hearth of Sir William at Moor Park in Surrey.  When his mentor died in 1699 Swift was left adrift until becoming private chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, who was immediately appointed as a lord justice in Ireland. Swift reluctantly returned to the city of his birth. Here he pursued his clerical ambitions; the path was rocky but eventually he found himself with a seat as a prebendary canon in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

For the next few years Swift continued to hold onto his benefices in Ireland, as well as his position in the retinue of the Berkeley. He travelled to and from England crossing the Irish Sea, always expecting it to swallow him whole. He rode and walked in both countries, visiting his parishes, his relatives and his patron.

He rescued ‘Stella’ from a life of drudgery by settling enough money on her for a move back to Ireland with her friend, Miss Dingley. The two ladies would discreetly follow Swift on his parochial journeys, providing him with companionship. Life was not really too unpleasant.

Then began, in 1710, the four influential years in London. In 1713 Swift was offered, and accepted, the post of senior priest in Dublin, that of Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Strange though it may seem he was disappointed by the appointment, having wanted a prestigious deanery in England. But on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, and the subsequent rise of the Whigs, Swift knew that it was time to go back to Ireland.


Thus Swift’s entered into the church and state politics of his homeland.  A nostalgia for an English-country-garden-like Ireland enthralled him. He longed for a “romantic Ireland” that was not “dead and gone” but one that never had nor could exist. Instead he had to engage with the realities of the rise of the Non-Conformists and the Catholics, and to rail against the inadequacy of English policies towards her Irish sister.

He felt obliged, however reluctantly, to rebel against his beloved England, which had served him literally, as well as metaphorically, as a nursery. Ireland, who had birthed and educated him, could now reclaim her son, and, eventually, place the great satirist at the centre of her literary heritage.

John Stubbs

Irish-born Stubbs, is well placed to write Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, as he studied English at Oxford and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. Historical and political context encourages a greater understanding of Swift’s work and detailed analysis of this work reinforces comprehension of the man. Although 25 pages of notes exemplify his academic background, Stubbs has an accessible style and writes beautifully.

Works cited

Stubbs, J. Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel. London: Penguin Random House. 2016.

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner, Weekend section pages 33 and 34 on 18 Feb 2017.


Not normally angry in Ireland

but I am a bit just now.

Westminster Abbey: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Last Sunday, 13th November, I was sitting, at 11.00am, in the Galway Hooker in Heuston Station, Dublin waiting for a train home to Cork (hilariously, my partner’s daughter, phoning him, thought he was in Houston, Texas).  Silently, and unnoticed by other punters, the Remembrance Day commemorations, in London, were playing out on the TV screen.

Armistice Day in the Lloyds building, London.  Leon Neal, Getty Images

We were awaiting the two minutes’ silence.

Had I been alone, and thus unable to embarrass my partner, I would have mounted the stairs to the gallery of the pub to ask everyone to respect the moment marking the end of the First World War, in which, 35,000 Irish served (and many more in British Regiments, and of Irish heritage in Commonwealth regiments) and, of whom, many thousands were killed or maimed.  But he was there and so I spared him that embarrassment and just sat there with him as our companions munched their way through belated full Irish breakfasts, unaware of the event playing out above their heads.

The Queen on Sunday 13th November: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The Munster Fusiliers (and soldiers from many other regiments) are sorely neglected in their homeland in terms of  First World War memorials and commemorations.  We were reminded of this when their Battle of the Somme remembrance  wreaths were thrown into the Lee earlier this year.

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day  of the eleventh month is a full stop that has punctuated my life since I was born.  I am not militaristic and neither was my father.  But, nevertheless, after a year studying at the Sorbonne in 1938 and going up to the University of Cambridge in September 1939, at the age of 19, he found himself an officer in the Second World War, named ‘the emergency’ at the time in Ireland.

As a republican and left-winger he would have not have fought in the 1914-1918 war.  He would, like my two grandfathers, have been a conscientious objector.  But here, facing him, was Hitler and National Socialism.  So my father, Alan Smith, a puny, literary and art-loving young man,  who, because of his university, was officer class, and, being good at trigonometry he was sent to the artillery so that he could work out how to aim the guns.  He ended up at D Day + 1, being ‘steady under fire’.

Where was Ireland then?  Untitled.pngIt was introspective, dreaming of ‘a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youth and the laughter of happy maiden’.  It sounds suspiciously like Hitler’s Aryan ideal, which is still encapsulated in Berlin’s 1936 Olympic stadium which I saw last month on a visit to that fine city.

But there were, always available, (often impoverished) young men and women, willing to serve in the British army and to send money home to their families.  And there were those who hated the stultifying Irish society that was ruled from Dublin, in an almost, medieval, or at least, Victorian manner, closing down freedom and denying thought.

Reading John Bruton’s article in ‘The Centenary Conversations’ (p19), which argues that “commemoration should emphasise non-violent events” I was struck, in a way that I have not not been previously, by the idea that “the 1916 Rising and Proclamation” should not be “treat[ed] as the foundation event of our democracy”.

This uprising, he says, and I agree, “involved the deliberate taking of human life, in the middle of a war, and in alliance with the central powers, the first World War grouping that included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.  The Rising lacked a prior democratic mandate of any kind and was in breach of a countermanding order.” For me, Bruton’s key phrase  is “in the middle of a war”; also important is his noting of the rebels’ connections with  Germany.

Michael Anderson holds the helmet of his father, Lieutenant Bill Anderson with his nephew Vincent Murphy: Colm Mahady/Fennells

To return to the point,  Armistice Day, is a commemoration of the ending of a violent event, rather than the violent event itself.  Can that be argued for commemoration of the Easter Rising?  If you commend Bruton’s remarks then you should not really celebrate an uprising which deflected resources from a world war which was fought to establish the self-determination of small nations; especially given the contribution to the hard-won victory by soldiers from the island of Ireland.  I commend Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way to anyone wanting to engage with the conflicting ideas of this period.

Works cited

Barry, S. A Long Long Way. Faber & Faber. 2005

Bruton, J. ‘Commemoration should emphasise non-violent events’. The Irish Times. 29th October 2016.

DeValera, E. Broadcast to the People of Ireland. 1943.

Fidler, Matt. ‘Remembrance Day around the world in pictures’. The Guardian website. 11th November 1916.

Other blogs relating to the First World War can be found on my other site:

Have you forgotten yet?

Where is the Irish Literature of the First World War?

You might also like Dadland on this site.


They dreamed and are dead


35 years ago, on the 30th October 1981, the H-Block hunger strike officially ended.  In Long Kesh prison, a sequence of ten deaths had taken place between May and August. In 2005, Richard O’Rawe, who served as the IRA public relations officer inside the jail, wrote Blanketmen, in which he asks whether the final six hunger strikers were forsaken by comrades on the outside.

Blanketmen, first published in 2005, has been reprinted in 2016 with a new foreword by Richard English. Setting the context for the strike and trying to unpick the claims and counter-claims, English demands that we engage with Blanketmen if we want “to understand those grim years of prison war”. Indeed, he insists that the book is not only “a compelling and personal narrative” but contains “wider insights into republican activism and legacies”.


2016 is a telling year for Blanketmen to be re-presented, because, as O’Rawe states “there was an almost biblical reverence for the 1916 Proclamation” among ‘Special Category’ prisoners. As we revisit and rethink the complexities of the Easter Rising, it seems appropriate to reconsider the controversial events of the summer of 1981 when certificates were written for ten deaths from ‘self-imposed starvation’ in Long Kesh.

O’Rawe, receiving a death threat in 1991, kept silent for many years but as the century turned, and the armed struggle gave way to the Peace Process, he decided that it was his duty to expose “duplicity”. O’Rawe attempts to peel “away the layers of carefully scripted myths that have surrounded this momentous event in Irish history, the most insidious being that the prisoners were always in complete control of the hunger strike”.

O’Rawe’s prologue begins in early July 1981 when “the leadership of the republican prisoners in the H-Blocks accepted a set of proposals that had been presented to them by the ‘Mountain Climber’, an intermediary from the British Government”. But the Army Council of the IRA rejected the offer and six more men died, the last one on 20th August. The strike ended, partly due to the strikers’ families intervening, on 30th October and, soon after, most of the rights demanded were granted.

images.jpegSince 1976 some Republican prisoners, furious at being classed as criminals rather than politicals, refused to conform to prison rules, wearing blankets instead of “monkey suits”. When O’Rawe arrived that year at Long Kesh the “streaker” tradition was well established and with each day that passed Blanketman O’Rawe lost a day’s remission.

Frustrated by stasis, O’Rawe and his comrades, including Officer Commanding, Brendan Hughes or ‘The Dark”, and public-relations officer, Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, instituted a ‘no wash’ protest. Although the prisoners felt that they were “being buried alive in a sewer” they refused to comply with regulations.

Prison guards subjected the political prisoners to beatings and torture and many of the latter submitted to the Long Kesh regime leaving only a core of “hard men” resisting. These, in order to reinforce their position, and with permission from the Army Council, reluctantly decided to embark on a hunger strike. Strikers were selected from a list of IRA and INLA volunteers.

O’Rawe’s account of the organisation of the hunger strikes displays an unsurprising disconnect between the Army Council on the outside and the inmate leaders. Communication was difficult; additionally vehement disagreements and strict enforcement of “need to know” contributed to the chaos.

Meanwhile men died, their skin “breaking out in sores”. For what? Five rights: not to have to wear prison uniform, not to do prison work, to have free association amongst themselves, to receive weekly parcels/visits and unlimited letters and to have their remission returned.   Apparently the ‘Mountain Climber’ offered: their own clothes, parcels/visits and letters, unofficial segregation, regular free association and acceptable ‘work’.


O’Rawe claims that he and ‘Bik’, as the senior IRA officers inside the jail, and the only two who ‘needed to know’, accepted these terms, although ‘Bik’ McFarlane has always refuted this. The Official IRA line is that Gerry Adams and his colleagues had been awaiting a second, better, but undelivered, offer from the ‘Mountain Climber’. O’Rawe wonders if the Army Council’s refusal to end the strike was a political move to ensure the election, on 20th August, of Owen Carron, standing as the Anti H-Block/Proxy Political Prisoner, to replace the deceased Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone.


Blanketmen is a brave book written by a man who is passionate not just about his “ten dead comrades, who gave their lives for the Republic” but one who cherishes republicanism. He also spins a good yarn. His reportage of the banter between prisoners is priceless. As Richard English commands in his foreword, engage with Blanketmen; I add that you will also find it engaging.



Works cited

O’Rawe, Richard. Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-Block Hunger Strike 2nd ed. Dublin: New Island. 2016. Print.

Wolfe Tones. “Longkesh” Let the People Sing. Dublin: Dolphin Records. 1972. LP.

NB A version of this review was first published in the weekend section (p37) of the Irish Examiner on 22nd October 2016.