The 'Late Late' of the Emergency generation
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.