How the Civil Service became a hotbed of great Irish writing

The bureaucrat is bound by language. Which perhaps helps explain why so many Irish writers have honed their skills in the Civil Service

Troubled origins: Custom House in Dublin after the Irish Republican Army destroyed it in 1921; it is now home to the Department of Local Government, which once employed Flann O’Brien. Photograph: Walshe/Topical/Getty

Troubled origins: Custom House in Dublin after the Irish Republican Army destroyed it in 1921; it is now home to the Department of Local Government, which once employed Flann O’Brien. Photograph: Walshe/Topical/Getty

 

Thinking back to when her late husband, the novelist Richard Power, was a civil servant, his wife, Ann, has remarked that those were the days when the Irish Civil Service must have been the biggest patron of the arts since the Medici, simply on account of the number of writers, artists and so on who worked for it.

This was in the 1960s. But it was nothing new: the connection between the two occupations had by then been well established. And 50 years later that same connection can be seen to be of such long standing and feature such a cast of noteworthy characters – some of them definitely Renaissance men – as to constitute a capsule history of Irish 20th-century literature.

In fact such a history would not just be a recitation of personages and publications but would illustrate certain questions central to Irish culture as a whole, questions dealing with expression and identity, with service and criticism, with vocation and duty.

But even simply to call the roll of civil-servant writers is to outline a lengthy and complicated lineage that includes such polar-opposite temperaments as Brian O’Nolan and Conor Cruise O’Brien; an ambassador, in Denis Devlin, who was path-breaking in his poetic practice; and two poets, Thomas Kinsella and Dennis O’Driscoll, who developed distinctive poetic standpoints while holding down day jobs in departments that don’t appear particularly conducive to such activity, Finance and Revenue, respectively.

Civil-service writer: Brian O’Nolan (right), aka Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, with the writer, playwright and National Gallery of Ireland registrar John Weldon, aka Brinsley MacNamara
Civil-service writer: Brian O’Nolan (right), aka Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, with the writer, playwright and National Gallery of Ireland registrar John Weldon, aka Brinsley MacNamara

Clearly in the works of these half-dozen alone there is a range of accomplishment that in its individuality and commitment forms a bold antithesis to any notions of humdrum pen-pusher that the designation civil servant might connote. And if the notion of civil service takes in institutions beyond those directly connected to Leinster House, Thomas MacGreevy’s directorship of the National Gallery of Ireland, and the role of the poet Roibeárd Ó Faracháin as Radio Éireann’s controller of programmes and the contributions of the novelist Francis MacManus as head of the station’s talks and features, are also in their own way indicators of cultural trends and aspirations in mid-20th-century Ireland.

To these may be added the Civil Service careers of two more poets: Padraic Fallon, who worked as a customs officer, mainly in Wexford (and whose son Brian was an Irish Times journalist and critic), and Seán Ó Ríordáin, who put in a long stint clerking at Cork City Hall.

The Civil Service was seen as the cushiest of numbers – a view not shared by many of the writers working in it. One sign of discomfort was their assumption of pseudonyms

Back in the day when jobs of any kind, never mind those of the permanent-and-pensionable variety, were few and far between, the Civil Service was seen as the cushiest of numbers. But that view was not shared by many of the writers working in it. One sign of discomfort was their assumption of pseudonyms. As the case of Frank O’Connor illustrates, it was a discomfort based on vulnerability: O’Connor – real name Michael O’Donovan – took his pen-name to create a protective space between his position as a librarian and his budding writing career. Similarly, as he recounts in Memoir: My Life and Themes, Conor Cruise O’Brien considered it prudential to publish his first book, Maria Cross, under the name Donat O’Donnell, not because the subject – modern Catholic novelists – was likely to precipitate a diplomatic incident but because of how book writing was viewed at work.

Civil-service writers: Conor Cruise O’Brien (second left) with his wife, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, both of whom worked for Iveagh House. Photograph: The Irish Times
Civil-service writers: Conor Cruise O’Brien (second left) with his wife, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, both of whom worked for Iveagh House. Photograph: The Irish Times

On the other hand, Brian O’Nolan, then of the Department of Local Government, seems to have taken the name Flann O’Brien off his own bat; it was already on the manuscript of At Swim-Two-Birds when he showed it to John Garvin, his department boss (who himself wrote under the pseudonym Andrew Cass). Horgan’s reminiscence of working with O’Nolan (who wrote his Cruiskeen Lawn columns for The Irish Times under a second pseudonym, Myles na gCopaleen) dwells on the choice of name, not any perceived need for using it – although maybe that went without saying.

And speaking of writers who were in the same department, it’s intriguing to imagine how the now forgotten novelist Joseph O’Neill, permanent secretary of the Department of Education, might have got on with the poet Máirtín Ó Direáin. Of course their paths might not have crossed at work, but in a departure from his usual historical novels O’Neill’s final work, The Black Shore, combines lament and satire to depict a dying community on the western seaboard.

O’Neill is the comparatively rare civil-servant prose writer not to adopt a nom de plume; Mervyn Wall (born Eugene Whelply) rounds out the roster of noteworthy ones who did. And perhaps publishing pseudonymously was not merely a matter of personal choice by those writers but also had something to do with the fact that their medium itself has a more marked critical kilter.

Wall went on to a noteworthy career as a public servant, but this was after he left the Civil Service, which, like Brian O’Nolan before him, he couldn’t stand. It doesn’t take much to detect in the work of both writers signs of the service and their attitude to it. The major satirical target of Wall’s famously hilarious Fursey novels is “the system”, whether witchcraft, statecraft or the God-almighty writ of clergy. As such the book follows the lead of At Swim-Two-Birds, a novel dedicated to a seemingly unsystematic ridiculing of the very idea of singular executive authority and hierarchical organisation.

Civil-service writer: Mervyn Wall, in his famously hilarious Fursey novels, satirically targeted “the system”, whether witchcraft, statecraft or the God-almighty writ of clergy. Photograph: The Irish Times
Civil-service writer: Mervyn Wall, in his famously hilarious Fursey novels, satirically targeted “the system”, whether witchcraft, statecraft or the God-almighty writ of clergy. Photograph: The Irish Times

Richard Power, with a temperament unlike either of theirs, and who succeeded to Brian O’Nolan’s departmental desk, also had a Civil Service satire in the works, a casualty, alas, of his untimely death. Philip Larkin’s “Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?” comes to mind. But, as ever, there are exceptions, most strikingly, perhaps, some remarks of Thomas Kinsella’s to the effect that the structures and principles he observed in his Civil Service job – “alertness, openness, organisation” – influenced and helped him at his other desk. These remarks occur in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll – who is, of course, the example par excellence of somebody who maintained a balance between administrative duties and imaginative interests.

Not that O’Driscoll is the only poet to have been a long-serving civil servant: so also were Valentin Iremonger and Richard Ryan, both ambassadors. Anyhow, endurance is less the point than keeping a foot in both worlds, and O’Driscoll’s breadth of knowledge and appreciation of the national and international poetry scenes is, in a way, a tribute to how well he must have managed his time. Not only that: if there were times at work when “my brain is crammed with transient details”, by saying so in a poem he turns them to artistic account. Maybe for a writer not to quit his Civil Service position – the novelists Leo Cullen and, in a way, Donal Ryan are other cases in point – suggests changes both in attitudes towards them and in their status generally.

The tasks that civil servants carry out necessarily sharpen awareness of language (both Irish and English) as a resource, an instrument

One way or another there is at least one common denominator that civil-servant writers share, and that is the emphasis of their duties, regardless of department, on language. Like the other professions – the law, the church, teaching, journalism – the bureaucrat is first and last bound by language. The man – and it is all men, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, like her husband in the department of external affairs, the exception proving the rule – with an ear for language will find that faculty being additionally fine-tuned by the statement, the position paper, the parliamentary answer. The kinds of tasks that civil servants carry out necessarily sharpen awareness of language (both Irish and English) as a resource, an instrument, at times a formalising agent and at other times a means of masking.

Conor Cruise O’Brien’s clear and forthright style did not originate in Iveagh House, but his being external affairs’ head of information did it no harm. It could well be, too, that this extra verbal attentiveness was rehearsed in exchanges between the higher-ups and those under them. Brian O’Nolan was told off for joking. And it’s not too difficult to understand how important an ear might be for an ambassador, although undoubtedly that position could mute the muse – see Thomas Kinsella’s In Memory on Valentin Iremonger. As for Kinsella himself, he has said that “composing a particularly difficult minute is not unlike the process of writing a poem”.

Civil-service writer: the poet Thomas Kinsella regarded the principles he observed in his Civil Service job – “alertness, openness, organisation” – as helpful at his other desk. Photographed in 1971 by Jack McManus
Civil-service writer: the poet Thomas Kinsella regarded the principles he observed in his Civil Service job – “alertness, openness, organisation” – as helpful at his other desk. Photographed in 1971 by Jack McManus

In 1952, as minister for lands, Thomas Derrig opined that “it was a pity that there was not now the close connection between the poets and the people such as existed fifty years ago”. The very existence – and persistence – of civil-service writers argues the opposite, however, but less simplistically. The allure of very different verbal spheres for poets and novels all too well versed in officialese might well seem irresistible, and not just because poets are supposedly “unacknowledged legislators”. Even if the likeness to which Kinsella refers is acknowledged, and the possibility admitted that others similarly placed experienced the same thing, the communicative difference is clearly not the same. And, of course, the effect on a reader of a fresh artistic perception is far removed from that of trying to get through departmental jargon.

The citizen of whom the writer implicitly conceives is not at all the entity whom bureaucratic discourse has in mind, so much so as even to suggest that the transactions between writer and reader is a more open version of the social contract than the official mind may concede. It’s differences of this kind that place the civil-servant writer in a unique position. Instead of being seen as, perhaps, an eccentric case, he turns out to be an exemplary one, doing the State some service during office hours while in off hours opening windows for any and all citizens freely to frame overlooked perspectives and handsome views.

George O’Brien is professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC, and author of three memoirs, The Village of Longing, Dancehall Days and Out of Our Minds

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