Thursday, January 21, 2010

The tar-water bishop and the go-slow civil servant

I studied law at Berkeley (pronounced Burke-ley), which is named after George, Bishop Berkeley (currently pronounced Barclay). I've long suspected that he pronounced his name the Californian way, based on this circumstantial observation: the pejorative Cockney epithet "berk" (pronounced "burke") is an abbreviation of "Berkshire Hunt" (it rhymes; work it out). It's not pronounced "bark". Anyway ...

Berkeley is called Berkeley because of a poem by Berkeley, called Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America, which contains the line "westward the course of empire takes its way." Berkeley, a Kilkenny man, tried to start a university in the Americas - Bermuda was one possible location, Rhode Island another. The venture failed, but the precepts that he expounded influenced the foundation of other new world colleges, including Columbia and Yale. More than 100 years later, when it was planned to locate the new University of California in a dull place near Oakland called Ocean View, one of the trustees, a lawyer named Frederick Billings (the Montana city is named for him), recalled Berkeley's poem, with its appeal to the manifest destiny of the westward push, and suggested the writer's name for the new institution. (The pictured allegorical image, named for the same stanza, is by Emanuel Leutze and hangs in the House of Representatives. Can't get more manifest than that.)

Berkeley, after a career at Trinity College Dublin and his American sojourn, became Bishop of Cloyne in east Cork. It's a small place, not much more than a crossroads, really, with a pub at each corner, close to the more substantial town of Midleton, home to Jameson and Paddy's whiskeys. There's a round tower and the cathedral, St Coleman's, which is more the size of the parish church that it now is. That's about it. When Berkeley moved to Cloyne, in 1734, at the age of 49, he had already had two careers, as an an acclaimed philosopher and, as the DIB puts it, the "social idealist" behind the American university project. He threw himself into his work, particularly into alleviating the poverty of so many within the diocese. While writing theoretically on economics he engaged in practical intervention, encouraging local industry and distributing money to the poor during times of hardship. I own the second edition of his best-seller from this period, Siris: a Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar Water, And divers other Subjects connected together and arising one from another (1744), which bears the epigraph from Galatians, "As we have opportunity, let us do good unto all men." As the DIB explains, Berkeley extolled the virtues of tar water - apparently learned from the Narrangansetts of Rhode Island - as a panacea for a suffering population that otherwise had scant access to medical care: "his claims for the substance were modest; he found it good for alleviating his own health problems, and found that others reported similar results." The wits mocked him, and tar water sales soared.  The medicinal use of tar water apparently lasted a long time, although by 1911 the Encyclopedia Britannica  would state that "taken in large quantities it causes pain and vomiting and dark urine, symptoms similar to carbolic acid poisoning." Did I mention that Berkeley was a great philosopher? Of course, you knew that already. The DIB's entry, by Paul O'Grady, is both thorough and touching, culminating in a fine tribute from another Irish philosopher, A. A. Luce, "who remarked that one initially thinks on reading him that Berkeley is building a house, but subsequently discovers that he has built a church."

I mentioned a couple of days ago the anti-semitism of "Two-Gun" Pat Belton, the politician and businessman.
Writing the day prior to that about Samuel Beckett, I didn't refer to his role as a witness on behalf of a Jewish cousin ny marriage, Henry Sinclair, who sued the writer Oliver St John Gogarty (of whom more when we get the the Gs), who had written some derogatory and anti-semitic lines which Sinclair claimed, successfully, referred to him. Beckett was roundly blackguarded by Gogarty's barrister, and accused of belonging to a "coterie of bawds and blasphemers". This was in 1937. In 1953, a civil servant at the Department of Justice named Peter Berry responded to a request by Robert Briscoe, a Jewish senior member of the governing party, 1916 combatant and future Lord Mayor of Dublin, that Ireland admit 10 Jewish refugee families from continental Europe. In his memorandum, Berry wrote:
In the administration of the alien laws it has always been recognized ... that the question of admission of aliens of Jewish blood presents a special problem and the alien laws have been administered less liberally in their case ... there is a fairly strong anti-Semitic feeling throughout the country based, perhaps, on historical reasons, the fact that the Jews have remained a separate community within the community and have not permitted themselves to be assimilated, and that for their numbers they appear to have disproportionate wealth and influence. [emphasis added]

Berry also referred to our old friend "international Jewry" using money to obtain preferential treatment of Jewish refugees. In fact, the cabinet, to which the memorandum was submitted, overruled Berry and decided that 5 of the 10 families should be admitted. Berry - who also owned up to pursuing a "go-slow policy" in dealing with Jewish refugee applications - showed a civil servant mentality typical of his peers in many countries before, during and after the Second World War, including the USA, UK and France. And this unquestionably ugly stuff should not diminish the fact that I'm writing about him today because he ended up a hero in one of the biggest Irish political scandals following independence.

In 1969, when violence in Northern Ireland had reached a very significant and dangerous level, Berry, by then a senior Department of Justice officer, learned that an Irish cabinet minister - later revealed to be Charles Haughey (pictured) - did a deal with the IRA that allowed it to use the Republic of Ireland unmolested for cross-border operations. He also learned that the IRA had been meeting with Captain James Kelly, Ireland's director of military intelligence. Berry later learned that Kelly promised the IRA money to purchase arms, and that Haughey, together with another cabinet member, Neil Blaney, had connived in this scheme, diverting funds from a civilian relief project administered by Haughey. The then-taoiseach (prime minister) Jack Lynch was unaware of this maverick operation by his subordinates. Berry was tipped off that weapons, allegedly acquired by a Flemish ex-nazi restaurateur named Albert Luykx, were due to arrive in Dublin, en route to the North. Berry brought in the police to prevent entry of the weapons and confronted Haughey on the telephone; the shipment was called off. (Ironically, Berry had approved Luykx' admission to Ireland in 1948, during the period he was "going slow" on Jewish applications.) Berry's life was threatened by republicans for his role in the affair, and for testifying against Haughey, Blaney, Kelly and Luykx, among others. The trials, poorly handled by the prosecution, ended in the acquittal of all defendants (or dismissal of charges): Haughey, of course, went on to be taoiseach on two occasions; his utter personal and financial corruption, although widely known, was not officially confirmed until after his retirement.

The DIB's Partrick Maume does a very nice balancing act on Berry, giving space to the significant arguments for both positive and negative assessments. Maume quotes another Irish maverick (and hardly a fan), Noel Browne on Berry: "a main of obsessional type, preoccupied with the minutiae of his job, but a man of extraordinary dedication in his way to what he felt were the best interests of his job." Damned a little with faint praise, but praiseworthy still, up to a point.

1 comment:

  1. 2 minor errors in the above - [a] Robert Briscoe was not involved in 1916 but became involved later in the Irish Volunteers, including arms procurement, and [b] Capt James Kelly was not the Director of Military Intel in 1969-1970 [ that was Col Heffron ] but was a Staff Officer in G-2 [ Intel ] in GHQ