Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Lithuanian revolutionary, a family of artists, the upper-crust hardliner and the shoe-burning paterfamilias

Robert Emmet Briscoe. The first two names are those of a venerated Irish patriot, executed after an abortive uprising of 1803 but celebrated for a fine parting speech. The last name: it's interesting. The dictionaries say that Briscoe is a Yorkshire-Cumberland name, derived from the Norse, meaning the place of birch wood. But Robert Emmet Briscoe's people probably never went near Yorkshire or Cumberland: they were Lithuanians, from a shtetl in the province of Kovno, in the tsarist pale of settlement in which Jews were concentrated. I don't know the Lithuanian original of Briscoe, but it may well have been closer to its Irish version than my surname, Grantham, which my father took from a book to supplant his Hungarian-Jewish name, Gross (originally Grosz). Robert's father Abraham arrived in Dublin at the age of 14, part of the great late-19th century migration of Jews from the pale of settlement, of which a number wound up in Ireland. (Between 1871 and 1911, the Jewish population of Dublin rose from 189 to 2,965: the total population of the city in 1911 was around 350,000.) Somewhere along the line, Abraham added Irish nationalism to his fairly strict religious observances, which resulted in Robert's patriotic name, as well as that of his brother, Wolfe Tone Briscoe.

After the Easter rising, Briscoe embraced physical force nationalism and returned to Ireland from the USA, where he had run a Christmas light business. He rose in the nationalist movement, but his origins were not always overlooked: we've already seen how another leading nationalist, Charles Bewley, expressed his anti-semitism openly to Briscoe. It can't have been easy: another important nationalist, George Gavan Duffy, attempted to enlist the support of the Vatican behind the independence movement by informing it that "Jews and Masons were united against us in foreign press in support of England." But Briscoe stuck it out, and was elected to the Dáil for a Dublin constituency in 1927: between Robert and his son Ben, the family held the seat for 75 years. We've also seen how Robert advocated the admission of Jewish refugees to Ireland before, during and after the Second World War, with some limited success.

After Ireland, his biggest enthusiasm was for Zionism, which leads to some interesting parallels. One thing Briscoe knew a bit about was revolutionary war. He embraced Ze'ev Jabotinsky's ideology of revisionist zionism (the DIB refers to Jaboinsky's Revisionist Party, but the political body was called the New Zionist Organization) and advised its military wing, the Irgun, on military matters, including the conduct of a guerrilla war. Although this war in the years up to the foundation of the state of Israel was in part being waged against the British, the principal victims of Irgun attacks were Palestinian arabs: abaout 500 dead between 1937 and 1948. According to the DIB, after the Second World War, Briscoe advised the Irgun leader Menachem Begin to emulate De Valera and embrace parliamentary politics: in that sense, Likud is the Fianna Fáil of modern Israel.

Late in life, Briscoe became a sensation in the USA, where he toured during his tenure as Lord Mayor of Dublin. Even now, more than 50 years later, alter kockers still bring up Briscoe as one of the few Irishmen they've ever heard of. Improbably, Briscoe's American reputation was so high, that an episode of CBS's legendary Playhouse 90 series was devoted to him, directed by John Frankenheimer with, even more improbably, the very goyisch Irish-American Art Carney in the leading role. Apparently at one point in the play, he recites the prayer for the dead, the kaddish, in Hebrew. That, I would have liked to see. (By the way, my attempted embrace of Yiddish is completely phony: Hungarian Jews largely spoke ... Hungarian.)

I'm indebted to a website called the Irish Comics Wiki for this 1810 illustration, by the caricaturist Henry Brocas, Sr., who produced lively political stuff as well as more formal portraiture, including of Robert Emmett, who bestowed his names on Robert Briscoe, above. He found employment running an art college in Dublin, but was fired for being "erratic", unpunctual, insubordinate and disobedient. The family was very gifted: Henry's brother, Arthur, was also an artist, as were his four sons, including Henry junior, who emulated his father in another respect: he rose to take charge of the same art college, the Royal Dublin Society's School of Landscape and Ornament, only also to be dismissed for his failings in the post.

It's striking how many high-bred Irish women embraced nationalism at the turn of the 20th century. We've already encountered the Gore-Booth sisters; among many others was Albinia Brodrick born in London, daughter of Viscount Midleton. She came to know Ireland through visits to the family's estate in Co. Cork; her brother William was a leading unionist. I had forgotten that I encountered Albinia once before, in Hubert Butler's marvelous essays - in her case, in the autobiographical one called "The Auction" collected in his book Grandmother and Wolfe Tone - in which it was said of her that she
[C]onceived it her mission to atone for the sins of her ancestor, exacting landlords of the south-west; she dressed as an old Irish countrywoman and ran a village shop, while behind her on a stony Dunkerron promontory rose the shell of a large hospital which she had built for the sick poor of Kerry, but which, because of its unsuitable though romantic site, had remained empty and unused.
Butler made her seem a merely local curiosity; in fact, she plunged into national politics, supporting the Easter rising and visiting republican prisoners. She took the name Gobnait Ní Bhruadair, opposed the Anglo-Irish treaty, and during the civil war was shot in the leg by Free State forces. At the same time, she was a stalwart of her local protestant church, where she played the harmonium (while requiring her catholic employees to attend mass. The DIB says that she was "difficult and eccentric"; she left most of her estate to republicans "as they were in the years 1919 to 1921" - a bequest that a court ruled was "void for remoteness". Butler, writing of her failed hospital, could have been summing her up as well:
There is a labyrinthine story of idealism, obstinacy, perversity, social conscience, medicine, family, behind this empty structure. The man who could unravel it would be diagnosing the spiritual sickness of Ireland ...
The Brontë sisters had a Brontë father, and he was Irish. Patrick Brontë started out as Patrick Prunty (the DIB also has Brunty, which I hadn't previously seen), a farm laborer's son from Co. Down. He seems to have been lucky in his clerical friends: one presbyterian minister tutored him and found him a job as a teacher (he was fired for an affair with a pupil) while an anglican one obtained a scholarship to Cambridge for him, where he changed his name in recognition of Admiral Nelson, who had been named Duca di Bronte by King Ferdinand of Italy. Once ordained, he found himself eventually in Yorkshire, where according to Elizabeth Gaskell he lost all traces of his Irish accent. The DIB entry doesn't mention this, nor Mrs Gaskell's claims that Brontë burned his children's brightly-colored boots because they were too showy, or that he fired pistols outside the back door of the Haworth parsonage to dissipate his "volcanic wrath". He bore the death of his wife and all four of his very talented children before dying at the age of 84.

The Brookes received their estates first in Donegal as a reward for military service in the early 17th century and then in Fermanagh following the 1641 rebellion. They were soldiers - 53 of them served in the First and Second World Wars, one, Alan, as the chief of the imperial general staff. They were  politicians in the protestant interest, and Orangemen, and the family's unionism became more strident as militant nationalism grew in the late 19th century. Alan's nephew, Basil, was a typical Brooke, who served in the army and became increasingly involved in Irish affairs on his trips home to visit the family estates, which he had inherited. When he settled down in Fermanagh in 1918 he had, as the DIB puts it, "been elsewhere for most of the previous twenty-two years." He organized militias to oppose the emerging IRA military campaign, and after partition was elected to the Northern Ireland parliament, ultimately serving as prime minister for 20 years until 1963. He embraced the sectarianism that was essential to the career of any successful unionist politician, telling supporters "to employ good protestant lads and lassies" only. While he was prime minister, catholic grievances festered: as the DIB describes them, "the restricted local government franchise, gerrymandered electoral boundaries, religious discrimination in public bodies and private firms, and perceived shortfalls in the funding for private schools." He also resisted modernizers in his party who wished to recruit catholics. "It is difficult not to conclude," writes the DIB's Brian Barton, "that he lacked that higher quality of leadership that does not simply reflect and pander to its supporters but dares to challenge and dispel their prejudices." Naturally, he was ennobled, knighted and otherwise lavishly honored in recognition of his service.

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