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.
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.
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.
I wanted to call this final blog ‘the blog of blogs’ but I think someone else has done that already.
And, as I was reading Seamus Heaney’s bog poems in North for an upcoming seminar with Dr Adam Hanna, I thought I would open my final blog with a class that hasn’t yet happened. This illustrates, once again, my rebellious and unnecessarily maverick approach. So my blog journey, instead of going forward from the first blog, goes backwards from 20th March 2017 to 8th October 2016.
There are quite a lot of blogs but it’s cheating really as 50% of them (those in orange) are book reviews that I wrote for the Irish Examiner. I included them because Donna encouraged me to display my published work. There are another five review blogs in my drafts box, waiting for publication dates in the paper, and another three actual books, to be reviewed, on my kitchen table. So that’s at least another eight blogs to go, after this one.
Today! March 20th: Glob-bog-blog
March 18th: Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep
March 13th: Horrorshow
March 13th: To seem a white king’s gem
March 12th: Breakdown: the crisis of shell shock
March 17th: #textualities17
March 6th : Paddling with Pecha Kucha
February 11th: The novel of the century
February 10th: Jonathan Swift: the reluctant rebel
February 8th: Walsh and Wiki
January 26th: My Literature Review
December 19th 2016: Goldfinch in the Snow
November 26th 2016: Not Waiting for Godot
November 20th 2016: Not normally angry in Ireland
November 10th 2016: It’s the Economy Stupid!
November 4th 2016: A Shared History: Dadland
November 3rd 2016: Darkness Visible
October 30th 2016: They Dreamed and are Dead
October 29th 2016: Perils of Popery
October 8th 2016: Not all Plans are Idiot Proof
The book reviews are rarely viewed which is a shame as I think they’re quite interesting. I never know what the book editor will send me and I sometimes wonder if he is a bit of a sadist. Why would anyone send an ‘oh so English’ woman Blanketmen? It’s ‘an untold story’ written by one of the hunger strikers. I chose every word that I wrote very carefully. Proofreading had to reach the highest level possible.
When I look at my categories and tags I know that it’s the book reviews ‘what done it’. Catholicism and Protestantism rule the tag cloud although I see that Enda Walsh has now overtaken them.
The Jonathan Swift review , in particular, would be interesting to the student of Irish Literature. It’s a brilliant literary biography and if anyone wants the book just ask and I will give it to you. Or if you fancy any of the other texts let me know and I will bring them in. Not the Meryl Streep book though. Donna’s got that. And Blanketmen has gone to the head of maths at the Camden school in which I taught from September 2002 to July 2015.
Donna’s list for the Glob-Bog-Blog:
I think Donna means that we should have everything well organised or in good order rather than ordered numerically. And she hasn’t mentioned citing. I checked on Ellan’s and Emilio’s blogs-of-blogs from last year. It looks as if you just cite your own blogs. Other works mentioned, perhaps, are merely found within the blog. Here is Emilio’s:
Bonome Ares, Emilio José. ‘About‘. Irishness and Beyond: An Irish Writing and Film Student’s Blog. WordPress. 16 Sept. 2015.Web. 24 Mar.2016.
Horrorshow! was posted on March 13th and gives my reflections on the mini-conference. It picks up on #textualitiesandPaddling with Pecha Kuchawhich charter my journey towards Textualities 2017. Extracts from Horrowshow! suggest that by 13th March I am not feeling too bad. Extracts from my previous blogs are given in pink.
When the day came I was no longer nervous. Either I was numb as my nerves could support no more effort or I was as well prepared as I could be and I could do no more. And I knew that my mate Emilio would be coming to support me.
Donna was in the room and when she is there I always feel calm.
Annie and Rebecca had my back on technicalities. They were both so kind and so competent. It would all be cool.
Then it was me doing my talk on Enda Walsh’s use of ‘living room’ in his plays. I like the images as they are all simple – just photographs of stage sets. But they looked good I think.
Annie was there to press the buttons so that everything worked. I launched into my carefully timed narrative. Questions, when they came, from Graham Allen, Adam Hannah, Anne Etienne and others were supportive and not hostile as I had feared. I am looking forward to engagement with all three named faculty before I get much deeper into my research.
#textualities is the live blog that I did on March 10th. It was the final panel of the day and I was quite tired by this time. I would probably give that blog a fairly low grade (like 3/10), although Siobhán, whose presentation I blogged, was very generous. She sent me a comment:
Wow! You really kept on top of that, Josephine. Much impressed by your powers of endurance and attention. Well done!
It was really hard to listen and type – as I had no idea what they would say or in what order. I did not know what the key points might be. But I tightened my narrative up a bit during Q&As and was able to publish immediately. I felt that it was important to have it published and entered as a link on Twitter before we broke up for the day. So this shows you how far I have gone in technical terms. This is mainly down to Donna, of course, and Emilio, who was on the MA in Irish Writing and Film last year with me. He gave me one-to-one tutorials.
I have just had to leave this blog for a few minutes to Tweet about my best ever acting student, Daniel Kaluuya, who opens in Cork tomorrow (it is not tomorrow now but was St Patrick’s Day) in the comedy horror Get Out. There are serious issues for him (and for me, although that does not matter so much) in terms of the way people regard him racially. You can see my blog from last year about this and I will write another soon once I have seen the film.
So now we journey back to March 6th. It’s Paddling with Pecha. I sort of like this title as it links in with a bookreview I was writing at the same time but which is not yet published.
I headlined the review Queueing with Elephants. The book is about finding a place, in the world , a sacred combe. in which you can commune with your soul.
But, for me, Pecha Kucha was not really a place that I could use for communicating with my soul. But I did paddle in it and I felt that I understood and liked and respected it in the end. Nevertheless I think that I would prefer a spot in West Cork or on the Hook Peninsula for my combe. Although I am quite fond of certain parts of London, especially bridges.
My Pecha Kucha is complete. The slides are chosen and ordered. The narrative is written. I forgot to do the storyboard thing but never mind.
Others are beavering away at the online presence and organisational matters. Thanks to all of them. Soon the day will come and we will strut our stuff. Then it will be over. Bring it on.
Donna’s list, above, tells me that I must mention my two research seminar blogs. To Seem a White King’s Gemwas posted on March 13th.
This was a seminar given by Benjamin Keatinge about the Anglo-Irish poet Richard Murphy. I was thrilled by the prospect as it particularly focused on Post-Colonialism and form.
Keatinge suggests that Murphy had a ‘quarrel with his own inheritance’. That he sees ‘himself as a victim as well as an inheritor of colonialism’. I find it poignant thinking of Murphy – sexually ambivalent, ancestrally misbegotten, and spatially unsettled – his life seems to have been exceedingly liminal. For further elucidation you might read Maurice Harmon’s 2007 ‘In Good Form’, an interesting account of Murphy’s life and work and/or his own piece ‘Notes for Sonnets’ published in The Poetry Ireland Review (2011).
What I find most interesting about Murphy is his use of the sonnet form. I have always regarded this structure as a sort of corset for composing poems. If you can get into it, it provides an elegant silhouette. But if you are flabby or loose you’d be better off leaving it alone.
In his journal ‘Notes for Sonnets’ Murphy writes to himself: ‘Have all possible cadences been tried and exhausted in the sonnet? … Ask this question in the Wellington sonnets … ? Are you square bashing in rhymed metrical verse … ? constrained by the left right left right of the metre and the rhyme, the platoons of polished boots on the parade?’
So I would say that this is the best blog I have written in terms of the MA. After I had written it I send it to Adam Hannah, who had been at the seminar. He sent me a really useful link to a film by Richard Murphy’s niece, about her parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents in their ‘quite’ big house, Milford. It is fascinating if you are interested in the last remnants of the Anglo-Irish. And shows me how useful research blogs can be if someone reads them and offers useful comments. Thank you Adam.
Back we go to February 8th and it’s the aftermath of the Wikipedia Editing session. I am writing about my efforts to edit the page on Enda Walsh. I was quite interested in the idea that the entries on Wikipedia had to be factual and objective, like an encyclopaedia. That was a discipline. There were more gushing compliments to Donna and Emilio, of course.
I put in another new heading which is ‘Themes’. There is an issue with this I think. Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia and the idea of themes might be a little too interpretative. To get around this I used only Walsh’s own words. He is a great one for saying what his plays are about, unlike Beckett or Pinter, but he doesn’t always say the same thing. I love his sweeping statements which suggest that all his plays are about . . . whatever he says at that moment. So, even if someone eventually cleans this section off the page I have put in on as I think it is fascinating.
I found the technicalities of citations, links and screenshots very straightforward. I also managed to send some rather dull tweets although I am not sure whether I am following enough people or if enough people are following me. Thank you Annie, Roy and Donna for your ‘likes’. I am indebted to Donna Alexander and Emilio Bonome-Ares for teaching me how to edit Wikipedia. They were both very kind and supportive. Also calm in the face of my panic.
In terms of live Tweeting. I got a reply from an Irish friend who is a Chelsea supporter but not, in the slightest bit, interested in my studies. He said that I had to put an icon on my Twitter account. All Greek to me… Icon? But I dug out an old photograph.
Actually this had been scanned for me by the Irish Examiner for an illustration for my review of Dadland.It wasn’t used in the end but three other images of my family were used. The reason for this was that the writer, Keggie Carew, and I were born around the same time, as were our fathers. So my review looked at her father in terms of his success as a soldier and failure as a dad. My father was the opposite although he had been ‘steady under fire’ at DDay+1.
In England we call that the Second World War whereas in Ireland it was known as the Emergency. My father came from a family of Quakers and pacifists – both my grandfathers were conscientious objectors during the Great War – but he felt strongly that, weedy as he was, he would have to take up arms against the evil of Hitler and Nazism. Many Irish fought alongside my father. So died, some lived.
Back we go to January 26th and I am on my high horse about the literature review. Heather Laird had delivered an inspiring session and I had rushed home and drafted a literature review, a concept on which I blogged in my usual mean-spirited way. I have not even looked at the review since – but, oh gosh, we have now had strict instructions to submit our literature review under Turnitin. Maybe because I mentioned the availability of buying one we all have to use Turnitin. Whoops!
As I do not choose to avail myself of a bought product I will have to re-write the Literature and IT Review shortly, in the light of work that I, and no one else, have done since January 26th. The deadline looms. Hoping to meet it somehow.
Now it’s a long way back…
December 2015. I was writing about Modern Irish Gothic. This post springs from a reading of Irish work at the UCC Boole library. I was very taken by a story Eílísh Ní Dhuibhne called Goldfinch in the Snow. I wanted to write about it for the Gothic to Modernism unit. I was not allowed to as I have not been taught the work, the writer nor modern gothic. So I wrote a blog instead. I think it has particularly nice images and Heather liked my work on colour imagery.
Ní Dhuibhne uses colour in interesting, if rather heavy-handed, ways. Darina, the eponymous goldfinch, looks like one. She wears ‘high heels and … black lacy stockings’. On her feet are ‘shoes, black patent, strappy, more sandals than shoes?’ and ‘her long black hair [has] the tiny red cap on top … the scrap of yellow silk at her throat’ (54/55). Darina is representative of colour. We hear of the colour of her home town of ‘Golden Beach’ (presumably Golden Sands, near Varna, on the Black Sea) where the sea is blue, the boats and birds are white, and ‘the women in their bikinis’ are ‘like tropical birds’. We hear about the liminal colour of dawn, ‘a pale, milky colour … a pale bluey grey … maybe, pearl blue’ (53/58).
I am quite annoyed that only 4 people looked at this blog as I am proud of it. One was Heather Laird, of course. One was my partner. One was Margaret, my peer from Irish Writing and Film. And it is one of my key blogs as it counts as a Research Seminar blog.
But I know that some of my feminist peers would have been interested to read it, had they known. I read Louise O’Neill, in the Examiner, every week, and have read her novel, Asking for It, about rape. I have also reviewed, for the Irish Examiner, the book Animal by Sara Pascoe. My review cannot be blogged yet as it has not been published. Other reviews of it have already appeared. Pascoe, a woman from Essex, is an ardent feminist and comedienne. She is brave and funny. Pascoe cannot believe that it is illegal to have an abortion in Ireland.
She comments in her introduction to the reprint of her book that she feels confident that by the time the reprint is published the Eighth will have been repealed. Well, the reprint was published a while back. And, according to my sources, the Eighth is nowhere near being repealed. For me abortion is a basic human right. But I am too ignorant on the detail of the Irish debate to comment.
Before Goldfinch in the Snow we find a blogging fest in November 2016. Three reviews, including Dadland and one blog about Remembrance Day. The latter is another of my high horse issues. I am not a fan of the establishment. Not in England and not in Ireland. But I have a blog with images of Queen Elizabeth II of England and prime ministers and presidents.
What is going on?
I am offended as there is , in Ireland, to my knowledge, no official two minutes’ silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. We do have this in England at schools and workplaces.
I am a bit of an aficionado of literature of and about the First World War. I taught it for years for a synoptic paper at A level. I led trips to the battlefields and identified site-specific readings for my students to deliver. I took a particular interest in Irish literature as my partner was working here in Cork. In fact, I wrote about it in the Irish Examiner and my partner wrote about the historical context. He also spoke to my students, over the intercom in the coach, about the history of the war and the contribution of the Irish.
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 recommend Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way to anyone wanting to engage with the conflicting ideas of this period.
My interest in the First World War was deepened by reviewing a book about shell shock called Breakdown. Ignorance and fear led to traumatised young men being badly treated or even shot at dawn.
I also wrote, on 26th November about a book by the Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington. It was called The101 Greatest Plays. My blog, which focussed only on the Irish playwrights therein, was called Not Waiting for Godot.
Nine Irish playwrights and a total of ten plays make the cut. Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Shaw (twice), Joyce, O’Casey, Beckett, Friel and McPherson. But where are Boucicault, Synge, Behan, Keane, Murphy, McGuinness, Carr, Barry, and Walsh? Another nine off the top of my head, and I haven’t even started on those born elsewhere such as McDonagh.
Instead Billington chose All That Fall, a radio play, because of its “vivid particularity” rather than “exemplary archetypes”. Helen accuses Michael of a “dated penchant for observant realism” but he insists that the play contains “all the great Beckett themes given flesh and colour”.
Interestingly, although the MA students studying English and American Literature and Film did study Waiting for Godot, we in Irish Writing and Film looked at Happy Days. I wrote an essay for Anne Etienne on Lust, Love and Loss in the play.
This is one of the few blogs that I have written which has received a comment – and one from a total stranger!
Well, that was an interesting juxtaposition of subjects! I thought more Bill and Ted than George and Lennie, but I enjoyed both the film and your review. Cheers. BTW interesting dilemma about the barnacle!
What a result! The above popped in five months’ later on March 16th 2017.
So my blogging journey has been long and varied. I would say that is nothing like scholarly enough – I tend to keep that for my essays. But I have really enjoyed writing it and I have enjoyed reading my peers’ blogs too. Have a look at my first post for a laugh.
Oh guess what? I do not think this blog-of-blogs will be shown as an example of excellence next year, do you? But here is what Maureen sent me before leaving for her sabbatical: A model blog! You have tags, a category ‘cloud’, links to other blogs, thoroughly engaging, provocative entries, made with regular frequency and which strike the perfect tone. Your multimedia elements are appropriate and Illuminating and your citations are pristine!
Barnes, S. The Sacred Combe. London. Bloomsbury. 2015. Print.
Fenton, Josephine.’#textualities17‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 17 Mar. 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.
Textualities 2016 was literally on Friday 13th. I had been dreading it since September 2015 when I heard about it being part of the MA – alongside the Wikipedia editing. So even though it was awful to have to drop out of the MA to return to London for a month in January 2016, at least it was a relief not to have to face these technical challenges.
In 2017 the date was less threatening. Friday 10th. But when I heard the date it was seared into my brain as if by a hot iron. Everything in my life became divided into: before the mini-conference and after it. Because I did know that I would survive it. I booked tickets for Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk at the Abbey in Dublin for Saturday 11th. Here are Emilio and Maria (photo: Josephine Fenton) ready to see the play.
When the day came I was no longer nervous. Either I was numb as my nerves could support no more effort or I was as well prepared as I could be and I could do no more. And I knew that my mate Emilio would be coming to support me.
Also it was just so great seeing everyone ready to go. Daniel Lynch in a suit is a sight for sore eyes. And there were some amazingly elegant high heels on display. Donna was in the room and when she is there I always feel calm. Annie and Rebecca had my back on technicalities. They were both so kind and so competent. It would all be cool.
But the morning was all about other people and their work. For me the star of the day and of the week was Ellen Reid. Her activism in support of feminism, and, in particular, Repeal the Eighth is, as I said from my position of chair of her panel, GLORIOUS. She had told me the previous day that she kept bursting into tears. I thought of King Lear ‘And let not women’s weapons, water drops/ Stain my man’s cheeks’. I absolutely do not want Ellen crying, for feminist reasons. ‘You think I’ll weep? No I’ll not weep.’
And, of course, on the day there was no sign of tears. Rather we heard an excellent presentation on Irish women’s protest poetry which linked out to other aspects of marginalisation. I had been impressed by Ellen’s previous blogs and I was particularly struck by the post showcasing this film.
Among others I also loved Rebecca’s presentation on William Godwin and wanted to get into discussion with her about the play Mary Shelley by Helen Edmundson, a work which investigates Mary’s relationship with her father, Willian Godwin. The father does not come out of it very well. Edmundson has done loads of research mainly at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. But I also wanted Rebecca to know about the wide range of letters and papers from the family that are available at http://www.bodley.ox.ac/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/1500-1900/abinger/abinger.html
Actually the whole day was brilliant although perhaps the most exciting research is that which Lena is doing in terms of German business in Ireland. Now that is in the real world!
Siobhán is working on famine roads and I think her thesis will be fascinating. I am looking forward to reading it. I saw an earlier iteration of her presentation last semester in Irish Studies – I was auditing a unit. She has done so much work and her delivery, like Annie Curran’s on John Huston, was authoritative.
So we got through with nothing worse than a bit of a headache. And now I will never be frightened of Friday 13th or Friday 10th or Pecha Kucha ever again.
All that is left to do is write the thesis. Easy Peasy! ???
Edmundson, H. Mary Shelley. London: Nick Hern Books. 2012. Print.
Walsh, E. Ballyturk. London: Nick Hern Books. 2014. Print.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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? It 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.
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.
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:
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.
Since 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.
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.