Friday, January 1, 2010

Planters, photographers, phrenologists and a "lady" golfer

It's the Dictionary of Irish Biography, not, as in Britain, the Dictionary of National Biography. Because, of course, in Ireland the word "national" evokes the "national question" and the fact that  two sovereign nations exercise jurisdiction on our small island. Maybe inspired by rugby rather than soccer, the DIB has opted for the only sensible approach and made itself an all-Ireland affair - after all, the political partition of the country has only existed for 90 years, a few grains of temporal sand. (There is, in fact a Dictionary of Ulster Biography, happily dedicated to all nine counties of the ancient province, not just the six of the present Northern Ireland.)

But other fissures exist of course, without the need for anybody to draw lines on the map. In Barry Levinson's enjoyable comedy film about a cross-community pair of toupée salesmen in Belfast, An Everlasting Piece, the Protestant is called George O'Neill, a name ambiguous enough to evade automatic classification by faith. Stopped by an RUC - and therefore likely Protestant - policeman, he makes a point of identifying himself as George ENOCH O'Neill, with loud emphasis on the middle name. No doubt there. Coming from Dublin, I haven't had to contend much with the name game, even though my own surname, for the historically alert, is definitely "planter" - Grantham Street in Dublin is named for a minor baronial title of Earl De Grey, lord lieutenant from 1841-44. (This is pretty funny, since my father got the name out of a book when he traded in his Hungarian surname for something that he thought would blend in better. I may return to this.). But the moment you open the DIB, you realize that in a way, it's a segregated work.

Take the A's. Once you get past the first two exotica - a huguenot divine, Jacques Abbadie, and the sixth-century Saint Abbán - it's planters and blow-ins all the way: Abbot, Abbott, Abell, Abercorn, Abercrombie, Abercromby, Aberdeen, Abernethy, Abrahams, Abrahamson ... no obvious Celts until page 25 when the seventh-century Abbot Abdomán makes his appearance. If Daniel Corkery was right in locating "true" Ireland among the rural, Catholic and Irish-speaking (he wasn't), he wouldn't have found much to cheer for in this long procession of urban Protestant English-speakers (and one can only imagine what Corkery would have made of the Ukraine-born Irish-speaking physician Leonard Abrahamson, possibly the only vice-president of the Christian Brothers' Schools Past Pupils' Union to be buried in a Jewish cemetery). I expect the flow will go in the other direction when we get to the O's, but it's arresting to be reminded right up front, as it were, that the richness and range of lives will lead us to all kinds of places, and also posit some very different worlds trying to co-exist in the Irish space.

The early A's leading us to Scottish and Anglo surnames and therefore often to El Norte, there are some surprises and treats for this parochial Leinsterman. I hadn't known that the legendary suspected (and acquitted) serial killer Dr. John Bodkin Adams, who was, er, implicated in the deaths of 132 patients who left him money in their wills and a couple of dozen others, was raised by strict Plymouth Brethren in Randalstown, Antrim and took his medical degrees in Belfast at Queens. The DIB entry relates the salient facts of his life, but avoids speculation, of which there was very, very much back in the day. So his likely gayness, friends in high places and the like, don't make it into the DIB's account. Maybe out of considerations of space, but regrettably in terms of describing a colorful life, the DIB also omits the fact that Adams was President and Honorary Medical Officer of the British Clay Pigeon Shooting Association, all the more relevant since he apparently died as the result of a clay-pigeon-shooting-related accident.

Another Ulster sporting legend - now there's a segue - was also new to me. Rhona Adair from Cookstown may have been the best woman ("lady" as they used so say) golfer in the world, playing from the age of eight and still lady president of Royal Portrush at her death at 82 or 83 in 1961. My mother remembered going to Portrush in 1951 to see the British Open with her father, who played serious stuff for Portmarnock; maybe their paths crossed. Again, a bit of color might have helped: the New York Times' 1903 account of Adair's conquest of the U.S.  is full of wonderful detail, heaping praise on her while pointing out that her play was often casual and lackadaisical - contrasted favorably to the high seriousness with which her American opponents conducted themselves.

The other Ulsterperson who charmed me among the early A's is the studio photographer William Abernethy, who expanded from his original Belfast location to Bangor, Newry and Dundalk and claimed to have taken 18,000 photographs in 1894. This lovely portrait, apparently taken by Abernethy in the 1920s (I say "apparently" because it might have been done by one of his employees), illustrates the quality of his work, or at least his house style. (It seems odd to have a biographical dictionary without pictures, particularly of artists and their work, but one can imagine the space and costs that prevented that. Thankfully, the internet turns up all sorts of wonderful things, like this, just one of a host of Abernethy studio portraits, on Flickr.)

It may be my own lack of high seriousness that draws me to the offbeat details. Worthy entries on a pair of Abell brothers from Cork, antiquary Abraham and philanthropist Joshua, each mention a third brother, Robert, a phrenologist, without further detail. I'm happy to learn about Abraham's distiguished antiquarian enquiries, sadly evidenced by a single extant work, "Origin of St Patrick's Pot." I'm also highly impressed by Abraham's earnest activities in promoting peace and attacking slavery. But couldn't there also have been a paragraph or two on the activities of a leading nineteenth century Irish phrenologist? It's such a lost practice, and there's much I'd like to know.

Some early trends (?) The fantastic disputatiousness of presbyterian clergy seems inevitably to portend the fractious fissiparousness of modern unionism. John Abernethy, Robert Acheson, Patrick Adair ... we've barely reached page 19 and there seems to be no end to the investigations, hearings, recriminations, expulsions, reinstatements, re-expulsions, all rotating angelically on theological pins. Also, querulous soldiery. General Sir Ralph Abercromby, the commander-in-chief of government forces in Ireland, declaimed in 1798 that his own army was "in a state of licentiousness which must render it formidable to everyone but the enemy."  General Sir William Adair, who served in the British Army while running guns for the UVF in 1914. And the Dubliner William Augustus Adams, soldier and poet, who took an action against the British army - he claimed that adverse reports that blocked his promotion violated regulations - all the way to the House of Lords, and lost.  Sweetest detail? The Coleraine-born surgeon James Johnston Abraham set a chicken's broken leg when he was child. Most revolting person so far? John George Adair, whose capsule DIB description - land speculator and evicting landlord - says it all. The small life whose telling justifies its inclusion? Charles Acton, who reviewed more than 6,000 concerts for the Irish Times. Happiest rediscovery? To be reminded of Max Adrian, né Bor in Enniskillen, whose 50 year career on stage and screen embraced everything from Shakespeare to Up Pompeii! Unaccountable that the DIB mentions his movies for Ken Russell, including The Devils and The Music Lovers but not his greatest Russell performance of all, as the composer Frederic Delius in 1968's Song of Summer. So much left out already, and we're only on page 28.

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