Friday, January 15, 2010

Marginal men, vintners, brewers and the best tax exile ever

In the early 1990s, the historian R.F. (Roy) Foster published a bravura essay, Marginal Men and Micks on the Make: The Uses of Irish Exile c. 1840-1922. The "marginal men" were Englishmen (and women) who found in Ireland "dreams or ideas or insecurities too uncomfortable for home", whle the "Micks on the make" were Irish who succeeded in England. Foster was on to something: there's a class of English person who finds in Ireland an opportunity to invent (or reinvent) him or herself. Politicians have done it, from Lord Randolph Churchill to Enoch Powell, both English parliamentarians who wrapped themselves in the Orange flag (it was Churchill who coined the phrase "Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right"). More benign examples can happily be found:  Micheál Mac Liammóir abandoned his original persona, Alfred Willmore, an English child actor, and transformed himself into one of the foremost Irish (and Irish speaking) actors of his era, with an international reputation. And then there was Arnold Bax, the composer. He was from suburban London with no obvious Irish connections. But in 1902, when he was 19, he read Yeats' The Wanderings of Oisin and, as he was to put it in his memoirs, "the Celt within me stood revealed." He moved to Dublin in 1911, where his then-wife gave birth to two children, Dermot and Maeve. He knew Yeats, George Russell and Padraic Colum, and embraced the nationalist cause. Although his romantic life took him back to England after a few years, he remained close to Ireland; he was on a trip to Cork when he died in 1953, and is buriend there. Among his Irish-inflected works is Moy Mell (from Maegh Meall, or a delightful plain), a lovely tone poem for two pianos. In 1992, Ken Russell made a television movie called The Secret Life of Arnold Bax, in which he himself played the composer; I recall the film, and Russell's performance, as endearing and charming.

Foster's delineation of maverick men gets a bit wobbly as the essay proceeds and the blow-ins get a little less English and a little more Irish. Thus, Robert Barton, a leading figure of the war of independence and born in Co. Wicklow, starts to get slipped in as an Anglo maverick on the apparent grounds that he went to public school in England followed by university at Oxford. Well, so did I, and I don't think the face fits. Ironically, Foster, whose historical revisionism has, quite properly, insisted on extending Irish identity beyond narrow nationalistic confines, falls into his own trap, and starts classifying as English mavericks those whose identification with Ireland flows naturally from their own lives, family and experience without conforming to a certain narrowly-constructed concept of nationality. Barton underwent a political transformation - his Irish family was strongly unionist and he switched sides - but his Irishness, in the sense of being wedded to people, place and culture, does not appear to have been adversely influenced by his education. I admit to being a bit sensitive about this: twice in my adult life, I've dealt with other Irish questioning whether my surname - Grantham - was "really" Irish. As I've previously explained, it is and it isn't, but the question is essentially irrelevant. Consider the leaders of Irish independence: Pearce (English father), Connolly (born in Scotland), De Valera (Spanish), Lemass (Huguenot) and so on: we're as mongrel as the next race and thus have to have a big tent, racially speaking. Foster is on to something: some people, like Bax or Mac Liammóir, fasten on to the place without any previously striking connection (although the outcomes of their fantasies seem to me to be wholly positive). But there are attenuated or semi-attenuated connections to the country that give rise to suspicion even from those, like Foster, who would tend otherwise to be big tent Irish. In this, I think the revisonists' suspicion of nationalism overpowers their sense of inclusion. Thus, Barton's embrace of revolutionary politics, combined with his time in England, pushes him into the "marginal man" category. The same goes for his first cousin, Erskine Childers (author of The Riddle of the Sands) whose pre-revolutionary Irish connection consisted of beign Barton's first cousin and, as the DIB says, their growing up "together almost as brothers." Childers took the hardline anti-treaty position that fomented the terrible civil war of 1922-23 - not a position I agree with. But his execution by the Free State government on trumped up charges - pour encourager les autres - was one of the low points in the emergence of modern Ireland. I don't think he deserves Foster's condescension.

Many of the Bartons were in the wine trade, associated with the still-active Barton & Guestier house in Bordeaux. They were among the so-called "wine geese", a play on "wild geese", meaning the Irish who exiled themselves to continental Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. In addition to the Bartons, the wine geese included such families as Lynch (of Lynch-Bages), Kirwan, Phelan (of Phélan Ségur) became leaders of the trade in Bordeaux, while the Hennessy family established itself next door in Cognac. It's an odd ripple in cultural history: why did the Irish get claret while the English got sherry and port?

I realize I'm not the first person to be drawn to the name Narcissus Batt - Paul Muldoon has a children's poem that uses it. The DIB describes a completely unremarkable Belfast banker of the late 18th and early 19th century who rejoiced in this florid praenomen, but doesn't explain why.  His brothers were named Samuel, Thomas, William and Robert. Who was smoking what the day Narcissus was born? (I swear I was at national school in Killiney with a boy named Bambi McKay: I've been unable to trace him, and sometimes wonder if he de-exoticized his name, the way Zowie Bowie became Duncan Jones.)

The Bartons were to claret what the Beamishes were to beer. Beamish stout has been brewed in Cork since 1792, although I confess to preferring its formerly crosstown rival Murphy's. (Formerly because, as a result of corporate consolidation, it's now manufactured at Murphy's brewery, which is owned by Heineken.) As was customary for such grandees, their commercial activities were a springboard to politics and other public service. For some reason, the family had Scandinavian connections: one North Ludlow Beamish, married to the daughter of a Swedish minister, devoted his retirement to the study of Nordic antiquities; another, Richard Henrik, studied agriculture in Denmark and wrote a treatise entitled An Improved Method of Feeding Milch Cows  based on his researches as well as one on the "content of butter."

The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle is one of the joys of the city, an amazing repository of East Asian, Islamic and European manuscripts, pictures and objects, assembled by one of the great collectors of the 20th century. The collection arrived in Dublin in 1950 when Beatty, an American with Irish roots and a mining fortune, baled from the agressive tax regime in the UK to find a sympathetic ear from an Irish government eager to loot the patrimony of the old enemy. My mother, a great lover of Asian art, was a regular visitor to the old library in Shrewsbury Road. Beatty gave his immense collections to the Irish people (as well as the library, there are holdings in the National Gallery and the military museum at the Curragh). We were grateful, and still are. He was the first person born outside Ireland to receive a state funeral and the only private citizen to do so. God bless such marginal men.


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