Singing flames, broken records
An Irishman’s Diary about guests of the nation and hostages of history
‘A photograph of the aftermath, taken from Watling Street Bridge, shows the giant plume that rose from the Four Courts that day. In an incidental foreground detail, it also depicts a row of houses that included No 6 Ushers Island.’
It promises to be an occasion both happy and sad when a globally-extended Irish family gathers on a Dublin bridge this coming weekend. Happy because it will mark the reunion of the Moran clan, formerly of No 6 Ushers Island: whence, since 1917, they have scattered around the world.
The 70-strong group have no ancestral home to return to, because No 6 is long gone. But happily, too, they will be the guests of another address on Ushers Island: No 15, the James Joyce “House of the Dead”. Which is now, among other things, a gathering place for the diaspora: an idea it had even before the official Gathering joined the cause.
The sombre part of this weekend’s event is that it will also mark the anniversary of one of the darker days of Irish history: June 30th, 1922. That was when, as Ireland descended into Civil War, a huge explosion destroyed the western wing of the rebel-held Four Courts, and with it the Irish Public Records Office.
Anti-Treaty forces had stored their munitions in the latter building, defying repeated Free State warnings – oral and written – that they were endangering a priceless archive. In effect, history was a hostage in the stand-off. And when the shells finally fell on the Four Courts, the hostage paid the price.
Ernie O’Malley, by then in command of the group inside, would later write two of the best books of Ireland’s revolutionary period. Unlike Tom Barry or Dan Breen, he was a natural and very talented writer, whose descriptions of violent events are all the more powerful for being cool and detached.
So it only adds to the frustrations of historians to read his philosophical reflections on the disaster. O’Malley’s fascination with the fire inspired the title of his second book, The Singing Flame. And apart from its musical qualities, he was most struck by the archive’s avian appearance as it went up – literally – in smoke.
Against the dark backdrop, leaves of paper looked like “hovering white birds”, he wrote. Elsewhere, he describes them “gyrating in the upper air like seagulls”.
Among those seagulls, sadly, were the Census records from 1821 to 1851; church records dating from the 12th century; court records from the 13th. There were also ancient wills, financial documents, military records, details of imprisonment and transportation, including hand-written appeals for clemency. All irreplaceable and all reduced to ashes by the bitterness into which the pro- and anti-Treaty forces had fallen.
A photograph of the aftermath, taken from Watling Street Bridge, shows the giant plume that rose from the Four Courts that day. In an incidental foreground detail, it also depicts a row of houses that included the aforementioned No 6 Ushers Island. Thus when the Morans gather on the James Joyce Bridge – just down-river from Watling Street – this weekend, they will revisit that view, while reflecting on the parts of it now gone forever.
No 15 was very nearly gone too some years ago, before its saviour, Brendan Kilty, intervened. When he bought what remained of the building, it lacked many of the things necessary to a house: a working roof, for example.
Among the delights it did have, by contrast, were an extensive collection of discarded syringes: a testament to how far it had sunk since the era, now immortalised in literature and film, when James Joyce’s aunts hosted elegant Christmas parties in it for their friends and music students.
A martyr to his enthusiasm for Joyceana, Kilty has since restored the interior to something like its former glory. The work continues. But in the meantime, the house serves occasionally as an informal public records office: collecting memories – oral ones, usually – relating to Dublin and Ireland during the house’s glory days.
Like the guests at The Dead’s dinner, now frequently recreated in the room where it happened, guests in No 15 are always encouraged to bring the past alive. The Morans will be no exception. Among the family lore they will share are accounts of their grandfather’s childhood, when he delivered milk through the lines of Easter Week.
The Mendicity Institution, a stone’s throw from No 6, was of course one of the republican garrisons. And the Morans’ memory archive also includes a story of a visit from an IRB member on Easter Sunday night, during which it was mentioned, over a glass of whiskey, that the next day might be a good time to bring their children “for a picnic in Ballyfermot”.