Saturday, January 23, 2010

The typographer, the textual scholar, the unlucky Lucans, and the unluckier chief secretary

I have a fondness for typography, which I first learned about in printing classes at school, and then from my father. Michael Biggs was inspired by the great Eric Gill, like him a sculptor and stonecutter as well as typographer. Biggs designed the Irish script typeface for Ireland's pre-Euro banknotes. He carved altars, fonts and other features for churches all over Ireland, including at St Michael's in Dun Laoghaire, whose predecessor was destroyed in 1965 by a huge fire that I remember clearly. In this massive work of so many "great" lives of people who ruled, controlled, killed and otherwise had reign over the lives of others, it's a pleasure to see recorded the contribution of one who wrought many fine ordinary things that form part of our everyday visual furniture. Every time you took out your wallet, you saw something beautiful. The DIB says that Biggs was "a gentle man, affectionate and generous." As George Eliot said, " the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts."

We probably had enough of Charles Bewley yesterday.  In between his two ghastly stints in Berlin as a representative of the Irish state, there was a genuinely fine diplomat, Daniel Anthony Binchy, a fluent German speaker who made an impact in the right way - to the extent that any representative of a small country could make an impact in a big one - and received a signed portrait from Hindenberg upon his departure in 1932. He returned to academia, where his was one of the founding appointments of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, a distinguished but somewhat eccentrically-constituted institution in that its fields of research are limited to Celtic studies and physics. In the narrow areas of ancient Irish legal history, palaeography and philology, Binchy became a giant. My copy of Fergus Kelly's A Guide to Early Irish Law, published by the DIAS, contains six pages of bibliography; more than one of these consists of works by Binchy. More unhistoric acts.

Another big family: the Binghams. The most famous of these for my generation doesn't figure in the DIB, since other than his family title, the Earldom of Lucan - named for a town west of Dublin - "Lucky" Lord Lucan the nanny-murderer had scant connection to Ireland.  Things started well: the first Earl of Lucan, Patrick Sarsfield, was one of the Irish commanders who gave William of Orange's armies a hard time during the 17th century Williamite wars. The title died out, but a distant relative of Sarsfield's arranged for it to be revived in 1776.  This new first Earl, Charles, was said to have been regarded with "great respect" by his tenants; this did not protect his home in Castlebar from being ransacked by rebels during the 1798 rising. Otherwise, he was a landed parliamentarian who did his bit for the interests of which he was a part. Sometimes, the details of such people are rather inconsequential: according to the DIB, "he was regarded as an amiable man, respected both in parliament and in Mayo ... [m]usically inclined, he was reasonably proficient on the German flute." Less proficient was the third earl, George (pictured), famous for a historic act: he ordered the catastrophic Charge of Light Brigade at Balaclava during the Crimean War. The DIB tells us that Lucan "lacked all common sense, and his severity and pettiness made him deeply unpopular with his officers and men." Although his military career formally ended then, he continued to accumulate military offices and titles, even being appointed field marshal in his 88th year.

Harold Binks was a Northern Ireland trade union leader. Unusually, he attended a multi-denominational infants school, an experience he later said influenced his anti-sectarianism. He was a classic working-class autodidact who left school at 14, started reading on politics and economics, was drawn into the union movement by both local and global conditions - the Spanish civil war had its impact, as well as poverty in Belfast - and rose and rose. He strove, successfully, to reunite the northern and southern trade union congresses and had his finest hour during the the unionist strike of 1977 which attempted, unsuccessfully, to bring down the Northern Ireland administration. He condemned the strike as a "fascist coup" and tried to mobilize the union movement against it. As so often with historic union moments, his was a gallant failure. But he was not wrong to regard it as "our finest hour."

Augustine Birrell was possibly the most interesting and capable British public servant to rule over the Irish. He was chief secretary in Dublin Castle in the early years of the 20th century and was more sympathetic to Home Rule in particular and catholics in general than most of his predecessors. I've recently been reading Leon Ó Broin's terrific 1966 biography of Birrell, a rich portraint of a genuinely interesting man. In the early part of his tenure, he successfully reorganized the university system and introduced important land reforms. Like many before and after him, he had problems with Irish traditions of political violence. His instinct to avoid coercion - a key element of the policy of his predecessor Balfour - steered him away from confrontation both with Ulster unionists when they began to militarize and the nationalist militias who organized in reponse to them. (Although his confrontation with the union leader Jim Larkin was more typically coercive.) His reputation was largely destroyed when the Easter Rising occurred on his watch: although the intelligence failures before the rising were largely those of other agencies, not of his, he nevertheless took - and accepted - most of the blame. The DIB's entry - by Kevin Barry's grand nephew Eunan O'Halpin - probably strikes the right balance in stating: "Had Birrell retired as he wished in 1913 or 1914, his political obituaries would undoubtedly have been kinder." He strove to do the right thing, which is more than you can say of most of his parliamentary predecessors - and successors in northern Ireland.

One final delight: John Birchenshea, the 17th century musicologist who devised a mathematical system for composition, which he claimed could teach a beginner to compose seven-part harmony in seven months. Deaf people could also learn the system. He helped Samuel Pepys set a couple of poems as songs, and was well paid for it.

1 comment:

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