Scrutinising the myths of the past

Sat, Jul 28, 2012, 01:00

ONCE AGAIN the airwaves were thick this week with lurid accounts of casual violence and riotous behaviour. Witnesses described how gangs of aggressive young men, stoked by alcohol and armed with knives, regularly congregated around Dublin, intent on causing trouble for the fun of it. Fights and stabbings had become an everyday fact of life throughout much of the capital: one woman told of the “blood on the street” that the lawless youths regularly left in their wake.

It was a grim portrait of urban dystopia, familiar to anyone who has listened to news programmes or phone-in shows in recent weeks, but not a new one: welcome to Dublin circa 1940. For anyone who thinks that today’s young have a monopoly on antisocial outrages, Documentary on One: The Animal Gangs (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday) provided a bracing rejoinder, uncovering the tale of the eponymous mobs that thrived in poor neighbourhoods from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Compiled and presented by John Gibney, the programme recounted how the gangs had their origins in a dispute between newspaper vendors and the IRA around 1934. They soon evolved into local groupings of “corner boys” (to use the parlance of contemporary reports), whose main interest appeared to be scrapping with other crews or, failing that, each other. “That was their pastime, fighting,” recalled one woman. “Drinking, fighting.”

Equipped with a fearsome arsenal that included razor-studded sticks and swords – a man was murdered in the Liberties with such a weapon – the gangs were sometimes employed in turf wars between bookies. This rivalry culminated in a mass fracas at Baldoyle racecourse in 1940, which resulted in numerous stabbings, hospitalisations and arrests. Talk about deja vu.

As well as revealing a hidden slice of social history, Gibney’s documentary was a snapshot of a world that is gradually disappearing, namely the working-class communities of inner-city Dublin. There was an audible, if raucous, affection in the exchanges between the elderly locals as they haggled in greengrocers or socialised over drinks.

The programme was also an intriguing exercise in oral history, both its strengths – the rituals of these gangs would have otherwise gone unrecorded – and its limitations, most notably the temptation to sugar-coat the past.

For all their brutality, one woman noted, the gangs weren’t “druggies” armed with guns; another stressed that they were always “gentlemen” towards women. Then there was the verdict of the two auld fellas whose entertainingly chaotic reminiscences closed the documentary: “Nice people, basically.” Such are the softening effects of nostalgia. It will be interesting to hear how recent events in Phoenix Park are recalled in years hence.

Time does not necessarily heal all wounds. On Tuesday Joe Duffy spent an entire edition of Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) talking about former justice minister Kevin O’Higgins’s decision to execute the anti-Treaty IRA leader Rory O’Connor at the height of the Civil War in 1922. Despite occurring 90 years ago – not 80, as Duffy repeatedly stated – the execution clearly still exercised a powerful hold on public emotions.

Spurred by this week’s unveiling of a plaque honouring O’Higgins, who was himself assassinated in 1927, 83-year-old Pat called to say she had a photograph of O’Connor facing the firing squad, which she wanted to give his family. What followed was testimony to the potency of the social network that is the Liveline audience. Not only did O’Connor’s niece get in touch, but so did a woman who had known the executing officer, a man apparently haunted by his actions for the rest of his days. The following day another relative of O’Connor’s read out letters written by the doomed republican an hour before being shot; he was going to “a magnificent death”, he wrote, adding that he forgave his enemies. It was resonant stuff, undimmed by the passage of 80 years. Sorry, 90 years.

There was also some striking debate about O’Higgins’s order to shoot O’Connor, his best man, in retaliation for the murder of a pro-Treaty TD. One caller, Rory, said that, had the deed been ordered by the British, it would be called a war crime. The historian Brian May disagreed, saying that “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures” and pointing out that independent Ireland made the successful transition to democracy, with the Civil War victors eventually handing power to the vanquished, in the form of Fianna Fáil.

Democracy aside, the ambivalent legacy of the State’s founding fathers came under scrutiny on Wednesday when the historian Tony Farmar discussed the evolution of the Irish middle class on Today with Pat Kenny (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Farmar said that, while this sector has grown in recent years, it has long been a powerful force in Irish life, despite the protestations of Fianna Fáil grandees such as Todd Andrews that Ireland was a classless society.

Such assertions were fiction, Farmar said, driven by the republican instinct to differentiate Ireland from class-ridden Britain: one only had to cross the Liffey from Grafton Street to Henry Street to see the differences in society. Too true. As the history of the Animal Gangs shows, the myths of the past rarely stand up to scrutiny.


radioreview@irishtimes.com

Radio moment of the week

On Thursday’s Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Ciaran Mullooly reported on the Gathering, hinting at why the tourism initiative may struggle to achieve its aim of attracting the diaspora. Mullooly spoke to a German tourist who said she enjoyed her trip, with one caveat. “It is not so cheap as Germany,” she said, hurriedly adding that it was worth it. More expensive than Europe’s most powerful economy? Tourism chiefs will need to gather their wits to sell that during a worldwide recession.

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