Thursday, February 11, 2010

An effective diplomat, two legends of Hollywood and two legends of history

(A quick word about pictures. I do my best to find pictures that are, first, actually of the person discussed and, second, in the public domain. Neither of these tasks is straightforward. In the case of the adjacent photo, I'm really proceeding on faith and it might be a dentist from Dusseldorf: read and view at your own risk.) Maeve Brennan's father, Robert, like so many in the DIB, started out quite conventionally and found his life transformed by revolution. He was from Wexford, worked for the county council and became a local newspaper reporter. As a 35-year-old revolutionary, married with two children, he was sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 rising , and when his sentence was commuted, served time in prison in England and upon his release became involved in international relations for the revolutionary government, travelling to the United States and France. After starting the Irish Press newspaper, he joined the Irish Free State's diplomatic service in 1934 and was posted to Washington DC, where he rose to the rank of minister. This became a very tricky job after 1941, when the USA entered the Second World War while Ireland remained neutral, with German, Italian and Japanese diplomats remaining in Dublin. In 1944, at the behest of the U.S. Amabssador David Grey, who was - unfortunately for Ireland - both close to Franklin Roosevelt and unsympathetic to the Taoiseach, Eamon De Valera, delivered a diplomatic note calling for the expulsion of Axis diplomats from Ireland, which note he immediately leaked to the press. The note caused uproar in Britain and America, and Ireland's reputation in public opinion sagged. However the note caused a much bigger problem: the U.S. and British security services were at the time highly satisfied with the sub rosa cooperation they were receiving from their Irish counterparts and were horrified that this diplomatic démarche might undermine it. Brennan worked in Washington to educate the State Department - whose officials were not always abreast of security matters - to the extent that Grey had to admit that he had not known of the degree of cooperation at the time he delivered the note. (Not everybody will agree with this assessment, but recent archival research tends to support it.) On top of all that, Brennan published novels and memoirs, and wrote two plays, one of which was performed at the Abbey.

My friends, the late journalist Steve Brennan and his wife Bernadette O'Neill put together a very good book, Emeralds in Tinseltown: The Irish in Hollywood, that begins its story in the earliest days of the film business. Hubert Brenon from Dublin, virtually forgotten today, was directing Mary Pickford films for Carl Laemmle before Hollywood even existed: it's been claimed he directed more than 300, most of them lost. He gave early leading roles to Theda Bara, Pola Negri, Ronal Colman, Clara Bow and Lon Chaney. According to Emeralds in Tinseltown, but not the DIB, Brenon sued the mogul William Fox when his directing credit was removed from the over-budget (but smash hit) Daughter of the Gods (1916): he was unsuccessful but the lawsuit emboldened directors to insist on credit in their studio contracts. Like so many, including his great countryman the director Rex Ingram, Brenon's career did not survive the transition to sound, although he made a steady stream of films in England until 1940. He died in Hollywood in 1958.

More Hollywood: the DIB's a little hard on George Brent (pictured here with his second wife Ann Sheridan). Born George Nolan in Co. Galway, he played at the Abbey Theatre but skipped out to Canada when suspected of IRA activity (you never know how true these stories - he appears to be the source for this one). While he was never a screen legend like Clark Gable, he was leading man to a host of the best Hollywood actresses including Greta Garbo, Merle Oberon, Olivia de Havilland, Barbara Stanwyck and, above all, Bette Davis, with whom he appeared 11 times, including in the sublime Jezebel and Dark Victory.  The DIB is a little quick to push him off his pinnacle: even though he obtained fewer leading roles as he grew older, he still had large parts in major studio pictures until the late 1940s, and some the work of his "severe decline" is nonetheless interesting, including The Last Page, Terence Fisher's first film for Hammer Pictures, with a script by Frederick Knott (Dial M For Murder, Wait Until Dark) based on a play by James Hadley Chase (No Orchids for Miss Blandish). His post-movies television career was distinguished enough to earn him a second star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Still, as it must to all actors, obscurity finally descended on George Brent: after a spell of horse breeding, he died of emphysema in 1979.

Remember what I said about pictures? I don't claim that this is actually a picture taken from life of the High King Brian Boru, or Brian Bórama, as he's more accurately known (it means Brian from Bórama, a place near Killaloe in Co. Clare).  He died in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf at which the Irish defeated the Vikings outside Dublin. I still have my history textbook from national school 45 years ago, by "D. Casserley, M.A.", an interesting woman I would have like to have seen in the DIB. She tells the story all Irish children learned, and maybe still learn: how Boru united the Irish under a single High King and then broke the political power of the Viking invaders, dying at the moment of his triumph. It's quite a nuanced account for a book aimed at elementary schoolchildren (for instance, wondering if Boru felt any pangs of conscience about overthrowing his nearest rival - "we can only hope he did"). The DIB gives him his due - "an outstanding success" and "the most powerful of rules in his day" - while noting shrewdly that the image that grew after his death was one he himself had begun to cultivate beforehand.

Another legendary Irish figure: St. Brigit. This is what D. Casserley, M.A. had to say about her: 
Bridgid, who was the daughter of a nobleman, was born at Faughart, near Dundalk, a few years before St. Patrick's death. When she grew up, she determined to devote her life to God's service, so she became a nun, and did splendid work among the poor, as well as converting many of the pagan Irish, of whom there were still a great number. The monastery which she founded was called Cill Dara (the Church of the Oak Tree), and it is from it that Kildare gets its name. Many stories are told of St. Brigid's goodness to the poor, and her love of children and animals. Under her wise and gentle rule the monastery and convent of Kildare were renowned throughout Ireland.
The DIB harshes this buzz. Here is how its entry begins: "BRIGIT (Brighid, Brid, Bride, Bridget)  (possibly c.450-524), reputed foundress and first abbess of Cell Dara (Kildare), is the female patron saint of Ireland, but it is uncertain whether she existed as a person." Oh well. She is posited as more likely a "ghost personality", founded a pagan goddess, also Brigit, who was used as an exemplar in the transition to Christianity. This did not prevent - or perhaps is the reason for - her cult becoming widespread and her name being given to a large number of places, churches, wells and the like in Ireland and in places where the Irish went. I always liked her feast day, February 1, since it marked the beginning of the end of winter, when snowdrops would push through the melting snow, the first sign of the renewal of spring. It's a long time since I've seen a snowdrop, but I always think of them at this time of year, so here's a picture. A real one, I think.


  1. I've heard that the man in that photo was the father of the Viagra invention I don't know if this is true if not correct me.

  2. The photo you've found of Bob Brennan is the man you're speaking of.