Monday, January 4, 2010

Hymnists, code-breakers and masonic eavesdroppers

Ireland has a lot of history for a small place. And a lot of history writing. I'm aware of at least 6 multi-volume histories (not all yet completed) of the country since the 1970s, three of which have come from the same publisher. I own a mere 8 one-volume histories that follow the full timeline from prehistory to the modern day: judging from the books available online, there must be dozens of these. Since F.S.L. Lyons' landmark Ireland Since the Famine in 1971, histories of modern Ireland have poured forth from major historians - among them, R.F. Foster, J.J. Lee, Alvin Jackson, Paul Bew and Diarmuid Ferriter - alongside monographs on every conceiveable topic, with legions of them on the big subjects (Parnell, anyone?). For an amateur with a day job such as myself, it's quite impossible to keep up, no matter how motivated; I imagine it's hard even for the professional historians. The current population of the entire island, north and south, is currently around 6.2 million. Do countries of comparable size have as much written history or as many professional historians? Laos? Jordan? Denmark? Maybe, but I'd bet against it.

A massive project such as the DIB contends with the incredible weight of all this history. For many Irish, the lives of others seem to take place in a parallel universe. While many are comfortable with, say, the influx of West Africans or Poles that have transformed the look and feel of the place in the past 20 years, you'll still hear in polite conversation terms of denigration towards the Irish-born that are throwbacks to the colonial period - "West Brit", "Castle Catholic" and the like. (As recently as the 1990s, I heard the leader of Fine Gael described as the latter by someone who [a] was under 40 and [b] wasn't drunk at the time.) I mentioned Daniel Corkery a couple of days ago: while he was a considerable literary and cultural critic, he certainly had a few blind spots, as Roy Foster and others have rightly pointed out. In his book on the playwright John Millington Synge, he says of Synge's protestant family, which came to Ireland in the seventeenth century, that (and I quote from memory) it was "in Ireland, if not of it." Well, I sort of get the point, but it doesn't really reach the complexity of the question. Quite a lot of people whose families had been in Ireland for generations of course shot off to Britain in the 1920s after independence, but there were others, such as the Protestant nationalist Hubert Butler, who roundly criticized them for it.

The DIB reflects this. Many 19th- and 20th-century lives start in Ireland and end in Britain, usually England. And they often evade our casual definitions of Irishness. Nothing could be more English, could it, than the choir of King's College, Cambridge singing Once in Royal David's City at its annual Christmas festival? Indeed not, and properly so. Except it's no secret that the author of the carol and other canonical hits such as All Things Bright and Beautiful, and There is a Green Field Far Away, Cecil Frances "Fanny" Alexander was born in Dublin, lived in Wicklow and Tyrone and died in Derry (this is what the DIB calls the city, as do I, but strictly it's incorrect since the legally-required peition to make the change from Londonderry to Derry has not yet been submitted to the Privy Council in Britain). So, Irish through and through, but not in a way Corkery would have acknowledged.

Or Hugh Alexander (full name Conel Hugh O'Donnell Alexander, a truly outstanding chess player from Cork, son of an Irish-born engineering professor at Queen's College (the predecessor of the present University College), who once beat Botvinnik (one of the best ever) and who also worked during the Second World War as a cryptanalyst with Alan Turing during the Second World War as part of the team that cracked the Enigma ciphers. However, CHO'D, as he was known for his chess writing, moved to England when he was 11, completed his education there as well as his entire professional career. He played chess many times for England, and declined an invitation to play for Ireland.  So, how Irish is that? I think the answer is, as much as he felt. He also features in the British Dictionary of National Biography and his inclusion in both volumes seems right to me.
It's interesting to me that these contradictions have kept coming up in the first few days' reading of the DIB. I think they're not going to go away, because they're instrinsic to Irish history and the Irish (I almost said "national" before slapping my own wrist) condition. Last summer, I took Liam to the excellent Wicklow Gaol, which has a very touching set of material on the transportation of Irish convicts to Australia. It's a familiar story touching on poverty, class and colonialism and resonant of the state of Ireland and Irish life at the time. However, meeting the unlucky convicts off the boat in Van Diemen's Land (modern day Tasmania) might have been Antrim man James (later Sir James) Agnew, who went on to be premier of his state. (Of course, the people who arrested, charged, tried, judged and sentenced the convicts, as well as the captains and crews of the ships that took them away were most likely Irish as well.) If nothing else, the DIB puts any atavistic victimhood in which one might indulge in its proper context, not least by putting Irish people on both sides of the equation.

Some other gems from today's reading: Josie Airey, the battered wife whose courageous and lonely court battle culminated in victory before the European Court of Human Rights (her barrister was the future President and United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson) and forced the Irish government to provide legal assistance to similar claimants, a step towards a more comprehensive of the country's antiquated family laws. (The DIB entry relies on mainly second-hand sources, and its bibliography does not reference the text of the ECHR's judgment, which is available on the internet.)  Thomas Allan, an eighteenth-century politician whose large fortune was kick-started by a lottery win of the enormous sum of £9,000 - a nice change from the usual exemplary tales of hard graft and dedication.

Also, John Aird, the Scottish civil engineer who was resident engineer and later chief engineer responsible for building the harbor at Dun Laoghaire (my birthplace), an enormous project whose piers still offer one of the nicest walks in south Dublin. The DIB doesn't mention (at least not here) that the harbor was built in response to an appalling shipwreck in 1807 that claimed the lives of 380 people: it was called the "Asylum Harbour" because its initial role was less a commercial enterprise than a means of providing ships with shelter from the severe conditions in that part of Dublin Bay. And, Elizabeth Aldworth, an 18th-century Cork woman who was threatened with death because she eavesdropped on her father's masonic lodge meeting. The solution: make her a mason, apparently one of the few women ever to be a regular lodge member. You think the Irish have inclusion issues? Ask the freemasons ...

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