The 'Late Late' of the Emergency generation

Sat, Nov 24, 2012, 00:00

IRISH LITERARY HISTORY: ‘The Bell’ Magazine and the Representation of Irish Identity, by Kelly Matthews, Four Courts Press, 208pp, €50

When did I first read the Bell? It was winter, and I was travelling back to Dublin from Tyrone, from a North that had, however remotely, known the war, to an Eire that had just emerged from the “Emergency”. I bought it at the bookstall at Omagh Station; now both bookstall and station are gone, but my memory of the Bell’s cross-hatched cover remains vivid.

It was probably an early issue of 1951, for it was resuming publication after British board of trade restrictions had brought it to a halt. I think I remember something about William Saroyan, who had become an admirer and friend of Flann O’Brien, but my main surprise and pleasure was that it was “A magazine of Ireland today”, as the masthead declared. Hungry for intellectual pabulum, I had read Penguin New Writing and Horizon but had not known that a similar literary effort was being made in our sidelined island.

I also did not then know that the subtitle was a dip of the sail towards what Kelly Matthews calls the “precursors to The Bell”, the short-lived Ireland To-Day (1936-8) and, of course the Irish Statesman of AE, George Russell. (In our current flood of commemoration, perhaps we should also remember those editors, from AE to O’Faolain, who really loved Ireland and broke their hearts trying to redeem it.)

The combination of the Censorship of Publications Act (the fiercest outside Russia, according to Robert Graves) and wartime censorship sometimes made for a very claustrophobic atmosphere. An article by Con Leventhal, Beckett’s oldest butty, describing how it felt to grow up as a Jew in Dublin was not published until the end of the war, as, Matthews speculates, “Perhaps it was feared that any accusation of anti-Semitism would raise questions of anti-German bias”, thus compromising Irish neutrality. Indeed, “In 1944 it was still not allowable to name the existence of Nazi death camps in print”. It is hard now to credit such craven behaviour, even by civil servants anxious to preserve Ireland’s neutral position.

But the worst example of moral failure was what happened to the Tailor and Ansty when they were compelled to burn the book about them at their own hearth. Her indignation at this point made me wonder if Kelly Matthews had not learnt the cúpla focal, as she seems to feel passionately about the censorship imposed on an older Irish life, which, ironically, we were supposed to be celebrating in de Valera’s Ireland.

As extracts of The Tailor and Ansty had been serialised in the Bell, O’Faolain was furious. But years later he transmuted his bitterness into a homage to that lost world, in his lovely story The Silence of the Valley.

Although this study is admirably comprehensive, it inevitably cannot convey the clash of personalities going on in the Dublin of that period.

That first copy of The Bell included an address, and so I began to frequent its pokey offices on O’Connell Street. These occasions could be fraught, because you never knew who you might meet in that small jousting space.

Patrick Kavanagh was a regular contributor, but what I remember best was his being gracious to Jimmy Plunkett, who had written an essay on Kavanagh’s early poetry. And did Liam O’Flaherty slide through those cluttered offices, with a copy of one of his west of Ireland stories? And then there was a shy young man from Derry, Brian Friel, who crunched on sweets almost fervently, preferring them even to the offer of a drink.

And of course there was Peadar O’Donnell, the Bell’s second editor.

The portrait of him in Anthony Cronin’s The Life of Riley is borne out by Val Mulkerns, who also became an associate editor: “Both she and Cronin describe O’Donnell as affable but disorganised, and largely uninvolved in the day-to-day running of the magazine.”

I appreciated him as a fellow Northerner, but he clearly felt that young writers should be chivvied into action. “Did you read my poem in The Irish Times?” I asked eagerly. “Where?” he glinted. “In the Children’s Corner?”

Perhaps this study should be supplemented by another selection of The Best of the Bell: that essay of Leventhal’s, obviously, which could be set beside the memoir of Francis Stuart on the death of Frank Ryan in wartime Germany. And the fiery rebukes of Sean O’Faolain towards the bishops at the time of the Mother and Child Scheme could appear beside John Hewitt’s The Colony, a poetic parable for all Irish people, Catholic and Protestant, north and south. And these are only from the days of O’Donnell’s editorship, but they suggest how crucial the magazine was as a more intellectually challenging ancestor of The Late Late Show. (After all, we should understand that the most influential Irishman since de Valera is probably Gay Byrne.)

The author herself seems ruefully conscious of her occasional excess of sociological terms, especially “identity”, which appears even in the title, and which she calls “a notoriously slippery idea”. Indeed, Anthony Cronin, in his foreword, knocks that notion on its head: “Now that we are so entirely subsumed into a neo-liberal capitalist world . . . we do not have to worry about [a postcolonial Irish identity] any longer.”

Kelly Matthews also acknowledges the ghostly influence of her great-grandfather: “It was only towards the end that . . . I became conscious of the overlap between the time period of this study and the term in office that my great- grandfather, Francis P Matthews, served as US Ambassador to Ireland.” Having recently fallen under the influence of my own grandfather, I think I understand.

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