Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Athlètes maudits, hubristic painters and a damn fine cup of tea

There's something of the poète maudit about some Irish athletes. George Best, of course, one of the most talented football players of any generation, died aged 59 of multiple organ failure brought on by alcoholism. His famous quote "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered" is very funny, until you consider the price he paid. (Best isn't in the DIB yet, since he died in 2005, three years after the cutoff date for the print edition. He will be, I'm sure.) John Joe Barry, the "Ballincurry Hare", had more than a touch of the Best about him, alas. A middle distance runner of great ability - he held the world record at a mile and a half, and thrashed a world class field in a three mile race in Dublin - he blew his chances in the 1948 Olympics, in part at least because he hadn't trained hard enough, failed to make the 1952 team and retired before the 1956 Olympics, in which his countryman Ron Delaney won the 1500 metres gold. Drink, drugs and three unsuccessful marriages brought him down, alas. But he was an inspiration for those who followed him and avoided his mistakes - Delaney, Eamonn Coghlan and Sonia O'Sullivan among them.  (Yesterday, I failed to mention another great athlete, Edward Barrett, who won a gold medal for tug-of-war and a bronze for wresting at the 1908 Olympics and also had an all-Ireland senior hurling medal.)
James Barry (not obviously related to John Joe but possibly distant kin - it's a Norman surname) also had self-destructive gifts. He engaged in ferocious disputes with his opponents - "real and imaginary" as the DIB puts it - which led to his being kicked out of the Royal Academy in Britain, "withdrawal from society" and descent into "increasing depths of introspection and alienation".  Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was drawn to portrayals of victims, such as the pictured Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos, which hangs in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna. Philoctetes, alone, abandoned by his former comrades-in-arms and afflicted with a suppurating wound, suggests the artist's powerful identification with his theme. At the same time, the wounded subject has also been correlated with the condition of Ireland, and there's evidence that Barry saw things that way, as well. He combined mythology and actuality in so complex a way that it's challenging to peel away all the layers.

In his Portraits of Barry and Burke in the Characters of Ulysses and his Companion fleeing from the Cave of Polyphemus, which hangs in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, Barry portrays himself as the wily Odysseus - ironically the one who abandoned Philoctetes on Lemnos, making for a strange double-identificaiton on Barry's part - leaving the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus with his companion and friend Edmund Burke warning him against the hubris that in the original story brings down Poseidon's anger on Ulysses/Odysseus' head. It's a fascinating glimpse of someone who, like Ulysses, had prodigious talent but knew he couldn't constrain himself from exercising it without compromise. The DIB entry, a model of fact, background and appraisal, is by the art historian Peter Murray, who irrelevantly, also compiled a catalogue of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which until recently was part of the same foundation as my old school.

Another James Barry, also from Cork, was a bird of a different feather. Barry's real name was probably Margaret, and she managed to pass as a man from at least the age of 17 until her death at 73 (she's on the left of the photo). Remarkably, she spent these years first as a medical student, then as an army and colonial doctor, in which role she pioneered hygeine standards, vaccination, limitations on the sale of prescription drugs, enlightened treatment of lepers, the caesarean section and much more. Like her painter namesake she partook in furious rows, including with Florence Nightingale, and fought at least one duel. One or two people may have known her secret, including her patron Lord Charles Somerset, who may have fathered her child and who was ironically accused of homosexuality because of the relationship. Her "true" gender was only revealed after her death in 1865, the same year as the "official" first woman in Britain to receive a medical degree, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, graduated.

One more Barry. We islanders in America have one thing on which we're all agreed: it's really hard to get a good cup of tea here. The water is rarely boiled and the raw material is generally weak and insipid. The robust, heroic Irish tea is strong, masculine and contemptuous of the effete versions offered on this side of the Atlantic. Accordingly, we seek out obscure ethnic stores for the real thing, of which to me the locus classicus is that made by the great family firm Barry's of Cork. The founder of the firm, James J Barry, doesn't rate a DIB entry - for shame! - but his eldest son, Tony, does. Tony was said to be "one of the foremost tea tasters in these islands" and steered Barry's to the Empire Cup in 1934 (when we were still nominally part of the Empire). He really rates his entry because of his distinguished political career, which is all very well, but his true fame surely lies in bringing a great cup of tea to the breakfast tables or the world, including mine, daily.

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