Friday, January 22, 2010

Harmless drudges, bad and good Bewleys and Billy in the Bowl

I'm sure that many you have been asking, why has nobody previously compiled a dictionary of Irish biography? I'm sure you have. Well, as it happens, they have, and I've been looking at all three of them. They're one volume affairs, each compiled by a single person, which makes them rather impressive. The first, published in 1878, was A Compendium of Irish Biography: Comprising Sketches of Distinguished Irishmen and of Eminent Persons Connected with Ireland by Office or by their Writings, by Alfred John Webb, a nationalist politician. It's a monumental work, with some 1,500 lives over nearly 600 pages, citing 350 authorities as source for the information. The next, published 50 years later in 1928, was A Concise Dictionary of Irish Biography, by John Smyth Crone, a Belfast-born physician who moved to London where he explored his Irish antiquarian interests. Dr. Crone amassed more than 4,000 lives, although in the fewer than 300 pages published, they're capsule entries, albeit useful. Another 50 years on, in 1978, came A Dictionary of Irish Biography, by Henry Boylan, a writer and civil servant, who provided just over 1,000 elegantly-written lives, in under 400 pages. Now comes the DIB, an upstart just 32 years after Boylan's work. It's obviously an enterprise in a different league from its forbears, but also following in their footsteps. All hail these harmless drudges! Enthusiastic amateurs, like myself.

I don't mean to go on about this Irish nazi thing, but there's something about being a "B" that seems to bring it out. I read Charles Bewley's "unreliable" autobiography Memoirs of a Wild Goose a few years back,and while it's full of wit and naughtiness, it can't paper over the deep unpleasantness that lies underneath. He was from an establishment family (of which more later), and he was very bright. He was also a contrarian, so to the consternation of his staunchly unionist and quaker family, he became equally staunchly nationalist and catholic. He was a successful barrister, among other things serving prominently in the courts set up by the Dáil in parallel to the British ones during the war of independence. He was a talented linguist, whose skills included excellent German. Another prominent Sinn Feiner with excellent German was Robert Briscoe, whose Jewish family had moved to Dublin from Lithuania. It was accordingly sensible to send both of them to Germany on an unofficial Irish trade delegation during the war of independence. It did not go well. One night, Bewley turned up drunk at a Berlin cafe and hurled anti-semitic insults at Briscoe and the cafe's Jewish owner. He was thrown out. (Bewley's own account of the incident included the admission that a waiter had asked him if Briscoe was the Irish consul, to which he relied "that he was not, and added that it was not likely that a Jew of this type would be appointed.") He kept it up. When Briscoe attempted to buy a ship for smuggling fugitive IRA men out of Ireland and weapons back in, Bewley told Dublin, falsely, that Briscoe was motivated by financial gain. Bewley tried to obtain premises for the Irish delegation, and told Dublin that he had rejected an offer from a Mr. Loewi and a Mr. Jacobowitz, adding "I think it likely that in any bargain with gentlemen of their ancestry we would not get the best of it." On other occasions, he told Dublin that Briscoe was "out on the make" and "a decidedly ... shady character." To some extent Bewley was pushing at an open door: the minister of external affairs, George Gavan Duffy, to whom he reported, once wrote that Briscoe was "an undesirable person". (Briscoe served for 38 years in the Dáil and became lord mayor of Dublin.)

Worse was to come. After a break, Bewley rejoined the diplomatic service in 1929 and four years later was posted .... back to Berlin. Upon presdenting his credentials to President von Hindenburg he made a point, as the DIB put it, of praising "the rebirth of the German nation under Hitler." He regularly attended nazi rallies, which were avoided by diplomats of other democratic states. Because of his proximity to nazi circles - including Hermann Goering, on whom he later wrote a book that is quoted in Holocaust denial circles - his descriptions of anti-Jewish measures were most thorough and informative. He also added his own spin: that "no Jew is bound by any duty towards a non-Jew", or "bound by the ordinary moral law ... in his relations with non-Jews" and that "the Jew ... strives to destroy [non-Jewish patriotism and religion and morals] when allowed into positions of power or influence." He went on to say that if these precepts were true, it was "only logical for the [German] government to take steps to eliminate an influence ... so fatal to the race." He told a German newspaper in 1937 that "your Reich and its leaders have many admirers among our youth."

One of the the results of the steps that Germany took to "eliminate" this "influence" was that many European Jews became refugees, particularly after the Munich crisis of 1938. Bewley created harrowing scenarios of these Jews turning up on Irish doorsteps, perhaps sneakily slipping first into Britain from which they could easily take the Holyhead ferry to holy Ireland. Dublin accordingly asked Bewley for a report on the state of anti-semitism in Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia - akin to asking Hannibal Lecter for his views on anthropophagy. His report, in the words of the historian Dermot Keogh, "uncritically mirrored the central Nazi ideas on anti-Semitism" and, after lengthy exposition, concluded:
It is ... clear that if the Irish press and public opinion indulge in paroxysms of moral indignation at the teratment of Jews but remain blind and deaf to atrocities committed on Christians in other parts of the world, they lay themsleves open to a charge of ignorance or hypocrisy, and scarcely contribute to an amelioration of the general international situation.

After this, even Dublin had had enough, and Bewley was recalled. Instead, he stayed in continental Europe throughout the Second World War, in Germany and Austria and, having narrowly escaped execution as a collaborator, moved to Rome, where after a period of silence, he was eventually permitted to attend St Patrick's day celebrations at the embassy until his death in 1969. The DIB thinks he desired "to be diametrically different to established conventions and to be awkward." True enough, although supporting the nazis in 1937 Berlin wasn't exactly the sign of a maverick character.

Fortunately, when most Irish, including me, hear the name Bewley, they have much happier associations that the revolting Charles. In particular, they revere Ernest Bewley, a cousin of Charles (they shared a grandfather), who founded the legendary Bewley's Oriental Cafes in Dublin. Bewley's - particularly the remaining branch in Grafton Street (pictured) - has simply been the best place for a cup of tea in everybody's living memory. The flagship Grafton Street branch was in fact the last (1927) of four cafes, the first of which was opened in 1896. Spread over several floors with different rooms of varying function and character, it's a place I still visit whenever I'm in Dublin and eat the cherry buns that my mother introduced me to as a treat on our visits to town. Proust had his madeleine and I (no comparison of literary worth intended) have my Bewley's cherry bun - a vivid taste memory that takes me back to early, fondly-remembered times. To be truthful, the place has had its ups and downs: the cherry buns became heartbreakingly poor in the 1980s (imagine biting into a stale madeleine). Commercial vicissitudes have led to all sorts of transformations and tinkering, not to mention the closure of the Westmoreland St and Great Georges St branches. But on my last visit in 2009 with my mother's sister, it was still as wonderful as ever, and the cherry buns were completely up to scratch. My mother always spoke reverentially of the Bewley family: "quakers" - always a term of approbation with her - and "good to their employees". Ernest's son Victor in particular, who turned around the business and paid off its debts, was always referrred to with great respect.

Some short lives: you'll have gathered by now that the DIB - and I - have something of an antiquarian bent. So it's a pleasant surprise to find a lengthy quote from Shane MacGowan in the middle of an 18th century life. The subject is the Dublin beggar Billy in the Bowl, whose name matched his appearance: he had no legs and moved around in a large bowl with wheels attached. He was apparently a charmer and somewhat successful with women. He was also a robber and ended up in jail, where worthies would come to take a look at him. He's mentioned in Finnegans Wake (the book not the song) and in The Pogues' The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn: the following lines are quoted in full in the DIB: "You remember that foul evening when you heard the banshees howl / There was lazy drunken bastards singing 'Billy in the Bowl' / They took you up to midnight mass and left you in the lurch / So you dropped a button in the plate and spewed up in the church." Fabulous stuff. I haven't been able to find the song MacGowan refers to, although there's a Dubliners' song, The Twang Man, which also mentions it. Charles Bianconi (pictured), an Italian artisan, started a coach service in Tipperary in 1815 with one horse; by the 1840s, he had 100 coaches, 1,400 horses and served 120 cities. Before the railway, it was how you got around Ireland, and even later the Bianconi service remained significant, offering feeder coaches to the main train stations. He embraced nationalist politics and organized monster meetings in Tipperary for Daniel O'Connell; a daughter married the Liberator's nephew and a son his grand-daughter. Isaac Bickerstaff, now all but forgotten, but a formidable dramatist in the 18th century: after a towering 12 years on the London stage, he had to take the conventional route of blackmailed gay men and flee to "the continent", where he died "in poverty and exile" about a century before Oscar Wilde endured a similar fate.

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