Friday, March 12, 2010

The "moron" bishop, the bishop's antagonist, another botanist and the spycatcher

Michael Browne was catholic bishop of Galway in from 1937 to 1976 and seemed to exemplify everything that was wrong with the church. (I meant to write about him a couple of entries back, but overlooked it: he's accordingly a little out of alphabetical order.) He was among those who led the hierarchy's objections to Noël Browne's mother and child health scheme. He supported a boycott of protestant businesses in Co. Wexford during a dispute over a protestant woman married to a catholic man who refused to educate her children at the local catholic school. He described Trinity College Dublin as "a centre for atheist and communist propaganda". He forced the segregation of the sexes on Galway beaches. He seemed so perpetually angry that his episcopal signature - "† Michael" - was popularly rendered as "Cross Michael". He supervised the construction of a grandiose new cathedral in Galway that local wits dubbed the "Taj Micheáil" (pronounced Meehaul). And it was in connection with the Taj that my life path ever-so-slightly crossed with that of Michael Browne.

In 1966, my father appeared on The Late Late Show, a very long-running Saturday-night TV show that became an outlet for all sorts of discontent in Ireland. My dad contributed to a discussion of popular radio and TV series, one of which he wrote. After he'd left the stage, the real fun began (I was allowed to stay up to watch). A Trinity College undergraduate named Brian Trevaskis said some very rude things about Bishop Browne and his cathedral: one of the words he used was "moron". All hell broke loose - saying even politely critical things about the church was rare in public discourse in those days, and invectve virtually unknown. The papers were full of back and forth for days, and eventually Trevaskis returned to The Late Late Show to apologize. I was allowed to stay up and my memory is that Trevaskis cut a very unimpressive figure to my young eyes and ears - I basically thought he sold out, like Mick Jagger singing "Let's spend some time together" on Ed Sullivan. The record seems to suggest that Trevaskis wasn't as abject as I recall, and that he was quite rude again to Browne.

Of the two, Trevaskis turns out to be the more interesting figure. In 1966, he was quite an old undergraduate (26 or 27) and, contrary to the image of the Trinity student of the time, was both catholic and working class - he had been raised for at least part of his life in an orphanage. He became president of the Trinity debating society, the Phil, and wrote a couple of plays. He also failed his English exams and had to leave. My old undergraduate tutor, Nick Grene, who now has a chair at Trinity and who performed in Trevaskis' plays, kindly provided some memories of him:
Brian was a quiet spoken, heavy-set man with a red complexion, who was bent on defying all the orthodoxies. He supposedly failed his English exams because he determined to go to the zoo rather than attend the Anglo-Saxon exam, which he regarded as a waste of time; unfortunately he mixed up the timetable and therefore missed another of the literature papers, thereby failing more of the year than was acceptable.
In the wake of this setback, he moved to Cornwall (Trevaskis is a Cornish name), joined the church of England, went for a while to Bristol University, and eventually returned to Ireland. He engaged constantly in controversy; attacked, for instance, the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Easter rising in 1966, the inability of the Irish in Britain to vote in elections back home, the decision of the Abbey Theatre to stage a play by Boucicault that he deemed to be paddywhackery, and dubbing the ruling Fianna Fáil party "neo-fascist". He was hit by a train in north Dublin in 1980, and died. I've read accounts that he committed suicide, but have been unable to confirm these. He seemed to me in the spring of 1966 - I was not yet 9 - to be intelligent, articulate and very angry. As Nick Grene wrote to me: "I was very sad to hear of his later life and death: a waste of energy and talent." Bishop Browne had nothing to do with the death, but he was in a way part of the Ireland that Trevaskis couldn't live with. The old Ireland, I think: it all seems much longer ago.

I've found that I have a weakness for botanists. Here's another: J.P. Brunker worked for the Guinness brewery and spent weekends in Co. Wicklow, studying the local flora. After 30 years of what the DIB describes as "tramping", he published his master work, The Flora of the County of Wicklow (his DIB entry omits the second "the" and the "of", but I think that may be incorrect). He also contributed to a catalogue of the flora of Co. Dublin. I'd imagined that all of this sort of work had been completed in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it's clear there was still plenty to be done in modern times. Brunker died aged 85 after being injured by a car while conducting field work. I imagine he was descended from Sir Henry Brouncker, an Elizabethan soldier in Ireland I encountered a while back but didn't write about. Sir Henry was so zealous an anti-catholic that even the English privy council told him to tone things down. I'm glad his later relatives were given to gentler pursuits.

For quite a while, we've known about the attempts of German intelligence to place spies in Ireland during the Second World War. There was quite a good miniseries about it in 1984 called Caught in a Free State, which to my recollection depicted the nazi efforts as somewhat hapless, and the attempts of certain IRA elements to engage with them - the usual my-enemy's-enemy-is-my-friend stuff - as close to comical. Hapless, or not, they were spying in a neutral country, and thanks to the Irish intelligence service, G2, headed by Col. Dan Bryan, all 12 nazi spies in Ireland were identified and arrested by the end of 1943. Bryan, with the knowledge of the Irish government, cultivated close relations with British intelligence and exchanged extensive information with it: this did not prevent him from successfully recruiting an informant in the British intelligence operation in Ireland, whose activities he was able to monitor until the end of the war. One of the reasons Bryan was able to roll up the German spy ring was in part because he recruited a librarian-cryptographer, Richard Hayes, who cracked the code they were using. This success was initially withheld from Bryan by subordinates, who believed he would provide the information to MI5. When he got it, he did. Ireland's neutrality caused it serious political and diplomatic problems which the intelligence cooperation was intended to relieve. Unfortunately, even senior figures were unaware of what was happening in the secret world: I've previously written of how Irish diplomacy had to try to overcome the negative impact of the attacks on Irish policy by the wartime U.S. ambassador, David Grey. Bryan's own operation was rolled up at the end of the war, which distressed him no end.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. R.m. Douglas describes Browne as 'the most outspokenly anti-fascist of the Irish bishops'. At a time - 1939 - when much of clerical and official Ireland had some later to be denied sympathies with the nazis, on anti-communist and anti- British grounds, Browne appears to have been staunch.