Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The admiral of 1200 streets, the dead of foreign wars and the natural oppositionist

The DIB doesn't say it, but Wikipedia claims, that William Brown has more than 1,200 streets named after him. I doubt that there's a Calle Guillermo Brown in Foxford, Co. Mayo, where he was born in 1777, but there is a rather nice bust in his memory. He joined the British navy, then shipped out in the merchant fleet, ending up in the West Indies and finally Buenos Aires. With his maritime training, he was hired by Argentine rebels to raid Spanish shipping and found himself in command of 19 ships, which he turned into a navy. He may have brought the fine Irish traditions of splits and begrudgery with him, because although successful in war, he was driven out of the navy, then brought back, then forced to retire, upon which he tried suicide - apparently one of his rare failures. Of course, once the new Latin American states stopped fighting the colonial masters, they started wars with each other. In 1825, Argentina began to fight Brazil and he was called back to service, in which he was again successful. He later fought in a civil war as well as in what a "stupid war" with Uruguay, before retiring to farm. If the story of the 1,200 streets is true, the begrudgers lost comprehensively.

As we've already seen, Irish military types, particularly soldiers, have turned up all over the world. For a while after the country was finally admitted to the United Nations (as a Second World War neutral that had maintained diplomatic relations with Germany, Italy and Japan, it was at first excluded), its small army was frequently put into service in peacekeeping roles. Which is how in 1960 Anthony Browne, not yet 20 from the Fatima Mansions council flats in Dublin, found himself in an infantry patrol in Katanga, which had attempted to secede from the rest of the Congo. Browne was one of more than 6,000 Irish troops who served in the Congo in an effort to maintain the unity of newly-independent state. As often in the fog of war, the details aren't clear. On November 8, Browne was a member of a patrol that entered the village of Niemba to examine a damaged bridge. There, they encountered a group from the Baluba people, who opposed the Katangan secession. They were armed with arrows, some of which were poison tipped, as well as possibly some guns. Gunfire broke out - according to one report, it was the Irish that fired first, but it's impossible to say. Arrows rained down on the Irish soldiers, and eight died, either from arrow wounds or subsequently beaten to death. The Irish fought back and killed around 25 Balubas. Trooper Browne was one of three Irish who survived the encounter, but, cut off from the rest of his patrol, he was killed by Balubas some days later while trying to obtain food. Browne was posthumously decorated for his gallantry in the skirmish, in particular for having endangered his own life while attempting to protect those of others. However, in a strange coda to the skirmish, one of the two survivors, whose life Browne was claimed to have saved, later denied the official army account. (The DIB account glosses over this claim.). The Congo war was a murky one, with elements of a proxy war among Western powers over the country's hugely valuable mineral resources. The war claimed the lives of the revered United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld and the Congolese leader, Patrice Lumumba, both of whom died in questionable circumstances. Another Irishman in the Congo, Conor Cruise O'Brien, who served as Hammarskjöld's representative in the country, was recalled, he believed, because he opposed an alleged British plan to amalgamate Katanga with its then-colony Rhodesia. Murky times, into which Browne, not yet out of his teens, stumbled. (So alien and remote was the Congo to these cloistered, often ill-educated working class men that there's a story - probably apocryphal - that one soldier's wife believed her husband had been posted to Cong, Co. Mayo, and wondered why she hadn't seen him for six months.) More Irish soldiers died in the Congo, as they did on subsequent UN missions in Cyprus and Lebanon. Let's hope they did some good.

Noël Browne was one of the really interesting Irish politicians in the period following independence. He was a doctor who came from a family that had been ravaged by that great scourge of the pre-antibiotic days, tuberculosis: his father, mother and older brother all died of it, and he himself was a sufferer. It was his zeal to eradicate tuberculosis in Ireland that drove him into politics in 1948, as a member of the newly-formed Clann na Poblachta, a left-leading nationalist political party. Elected in Dublin, Browne joined an unwieldy coalition of Fine Gael, Clannn na Poblachta and several other parties as minister of health, from which position he launched a wide-ranging and largely successful anti-tuberculosis campaign, funded substantially by the legendary Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes (I was one of the beneficiaries of this scheme, receiving free vaccination at birth.).Browne came unstuck, however, in his next campaign, for what became known as the Mother and Child Scheme, to provide free maternity care to mothers, and free healthcare for children under 16. The catholic hierarchy opposed the scheme on the grounds of both principled opposition to state control of the health system and institutional self-protection of the widespread church involvement in healthcare provision. As in many other countries, including the UK, doctor opposition to state-controlled medicine was also massive. This opposition was bad enough, and potentially fatal to Browne's efforts. But his own combative character did not help, either, and Browne alienated his allies in government, including, ultimately, his party leader, Seán MacBride, who demanded and obtained his resignation. He left noisly, and was noisy ever after. He joined Fianna Fáil, then left it, started a new party, then joined the Labour party, was kicked out, started another new party .... all the time being re-elected (with a couple of brief gaps and a stint in the upper house, the Seanad) in Dublin. He continued to practice medicine, although ironically, his success against tuberculosis reduced demand for his specialist skills and his income suffered. He was perhaps a natural oppositionist - he never seemed to stay friends with his allies for long and was most effective when whichever party he supported was out of power. The DIB's entry, by Browne's biography John Horgan, neatly points out Browne's many contradictions: against then for contraception, republican  then anti-republican, anti-communist then pro-Soviet, a devoted parliamentarian who later advocated extra-parliamentary action. Horgan shrewdly notes the Browne "paradox": "whichever position he happened to espouse at any particular point of time, he continued to act as a political magnet for Irish people of all generations and social classes who saw him as the apostle of social change." 

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