All Strangers Here: diplomatic masters of language

Book review: Choice to include work by family members makes for a fascinating read

Máire Mhac an tSaoi with husband Conor Cruise O’Brien. All Strangers Here features 54 contributors, who are former or current officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs or family members who accompanied them overseas. Photograph: Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Máire Mhac an tSaoi with husband Conor Cruise O’Brien. All Strangers Here features 54 contributors, who are former or current officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs or family members who accompanied them overseas. Photograph: Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Sat, Nov 13, 2021, 06:00

   
     

Book Title:
All Strangers Here: 100 Years of Personal Writing from the Irish Foreign Service

ISBN-13:
9781851322480

Author:
Edited by Angela Byrne, Ragnar Deeney Almqvist and Helena Nolan

Publisher:
Arlen House

Guideline Price:
€25.00

“Throughout its first century, the Irish civil service has sheltered many fine writers,” Niall Burgess, secretary general at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, remarks in his eloquent preface to this volume. More specifically, as the editors pithily note, “diplomacy attracts writers”.

This handsome new anthology from Arlen House features 54 contributors, who are former or current officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs or family members who accompanied them overseas. The contents are refreshingly eclectic: from memoir, essay and historical study to fiction and poetry (in Irish and English). An impressive 21 poets appear, ranging from those with well-known diplomatic careers and connections (Eavan Boland, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Denis Devlin, Biddy Jenkinson, Valentin Iremonger) to recent fine writers such as Siobhán Campbell and Helena Nolan.

While initially surprising, the choice to include work also by family members brings not only rich individual contributions but also fascinating clusters: Maeve and Robert Brennan; three members of the McDonagh family including Róisín (O’Doherty) McDonagh, who joined the department in 1947, had to resign on marriage to another diplomat, Bob McDonagh, and published children’s novels in Irish in the 1960s; Mhac an tSaoi, her step-daughter Kate Cruise O’Brien and husband Conor Cruise O’Brien.

The subtitle of the anthology emphasises – for diplomatic reasons, one surmises – that this is a volume of “personal” writing; in other words, imaginative and creative. However, one of the central pleasures of the collection is that the lines between the private and political, and between the professional and the personal, are so porous.

A short poem such as Devlin’s Anteroom: Geneva, set in 1938, is a powerful example of the layers of history, intrigue and failure that underlie a quiet observation: “Their mutual shirt fronts gleamed in a white smile/The electorate at breakfast approved of the war for peace”. Similarly, Jenkinson’s Sráideanna Sarajevo describes the wall of a shop honeycombed with bullets (“Falla an tsiopa/criathraithe ag piléir”).

Some tantalisingly brief geo-political insights are provided from those who witnessed from behind the scenes: an early, chilling instance is Daniel Binchy’s remarks on Adolf Hitler; other examples include Noel Dorr’s recollections of Ireland’s first contributions to UN peacekeeping and Sinéad Walsh’s piece on the Ebola epidemic. The volume ends with a welcome chronology of publications and detailed bibliography for much further reading.

Margaret Kelleher is chair of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at University College Dublin