Ireland: The Autobiography, edited by John Bowman, review: telling glimpses

Selected personal testimonies make for a picture of Irish life that undercuts ‘official’ history

John Bowman: has gathered an original and challenging mix of material. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

John Bowman: has gathered an original and challenging mix of material. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Sat, Sep 24, 2016, 05:00


Book Title:
Ireland: The Autobiography: One hundred years in the life of the nation, told by its people


Edited by John Bowman

Penguin Ireland

Guideline Price:

In 1999, leading Irish archivist and critic Catríona Crowe sought to make sense of the seemingly insatiable appetite for memoirs of Irish childhood. She suggested: “The whole business of untold stories is at the heart of our fascination with these revelations. The private domain of personal experience has always been at odds with the official stories which were sanctioned, permitted and encouraged by the State and the Catholic Church.”

Developing this theme, Crowe observed that “these memoirs run like a parallel stream of information alongside the official documentary record and complement it with their personal immediacy and vibrancy . . . it is the fact that we are hearing a story from the inside of Irish life that gives these books their value as human testimony. The official record can tell us what happened, but rarely what it felt like.”

The power of personal testimony has continued to influence Irish historical narratives in the years since, underpinned by the extent of the revelations of hidden histories, many painful, and the release of an abundance of archival material, much of it digitised. The final piece in this book is an article by the historian John A Murphy, who, reflecting on the centenary of the 1916 Rising, contrasted this year’s approach to remembrance with that of 1966; what was witnessed this year was more concentration on “what happened, with history per se, than with history as nationalist narrative”.

What makes this book so absorbing and illuminating is that John Bowman has selected a range of accounts of Irish life that do justice to what happened, what it felt like, and the personal and societal experiences alongside the “official” version. They are mostly short pieces – “telling glimpses”, in the words of Bowman, who, as a historian and broadcaster, has been accumulating material for decades – but collectively they have an added depth because of the range of Irish realities uncovered and the strong selection of archival material, which makes for an original and challenging mix.

Accounts of the 1916 Rising from the Bureau of Military History include that of Michael Curran, secretary to the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, who talked to Patrick Pearse at the GPO and then “took lunch at the Gresham Hotel”, while, at the same time, for TK Moylan, a clerk in Grangegorman mental hospital, “the main topic of conversation was bread”. In jail after the Rising, Constance Markievicz was still, in a letter to her sister, “quite cheerful and content and I would have felt very small and useless if I had been ignored”; she was dying to see “the faces of respectable people when I meet them”.

Respectable people

Many of the “respectable people” wanted to pursue purity both during and after the War of Independence, and the scale of the moral panics is well documented here. IRA volunteer Francis Tummon recalled how Gen Eoin O’Duffy led a raid on a poteen still in Monaghan, seized a four-gallon crockery jar of the devil’s sup and “with due ceremony smashed this jar on the laneway leading to the house”; the same O’Duffy who developed alcoholism. Cinema was, according to John Ryan in 1918 in Studies, the Jesuit periodical, the “new Piper of Hamelin” luring children to “a sure doom”.

At the time of the Treaty debates, Michael Collins noted the preoccupation with whether the dead would approve; too few of his colleagues “have spoken as to whether the living approve of it”. The following year, Fr Willy Kelly found himself in the midst of the Civil War in Connemara, ministering to a dying soldier, “brain matter bedaubing the wild heather, his head half buried in a clump of furze”.

By 1926, avid theatre-goer Joe Holloway noted Oliver Gogarty’s satisfaction that Seán O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars “will give the smug-minded something to think about”. The smug-minded thought an awful lot about sex; the same year, archbishop of Tuam Thomas Gilmartin announced in Mayo that “the dangerous occasions of sin had been multiplied”.

Coverage of political controversies is bordered by pieces that highlight the contemporary response to religion, language, drunkenness, heritage and dress. Danish writer Signe Toksvig kept a diary when living in Ireland, and recorded in 1929 that “Limerick may be a dank corpse among cities, but it was able to start the Modest Dress and Deportment Crusade”, while Fr Peter Conefrey railed against the “imported slush” of jazz.

Peter Tyrell, an inmate in Letterfrack industrial school, listened to missionaries impart terrifying accounts of boys in hell and “the exact position of the chains on the condemned boys’ legs”. The sociologists Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball described in detail 1940s matchmaking, Irish-style: “the young male says he is not willing to marry without three hundred pounds – but if she’s a nice girl and good housekeeper he’ll think of it.”

Neutrality explained

During the second World War, neutrality and de Valera were explained by George Bernard Shaw to an English correspondent: “Ireland needed a schoolmaster very badly and had enough of hanged heroes.” Unguarded moments are also captured in relation to the irritation of the ensconced political schoolmasters. In a letter in 1940, government press secretary Frank Gallagher derided “every kind of flapdoodle on our lips about Christian social systems”; the poor are “waiting for the government to live their lives for them . . . after a good drink in Dingle”.

As for the possibility of new dawns, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and other feminists unsuccessfully sought election in 1943 and discovered the party machine “is still allergic to women”. Given the prevailing poverty, thousands were forced to emigrate; Dónall MacAmhlaigh, on his way to labour in England, recorded in his diary in March 1951, “my heart felt like a solid black mass inside my heart”.

The 1950s was also the decade when cracks in political, religious and economic facades were apparent. According to a memorandum sent to Catholic archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, Teddy Boys were dancing at the Mambo club in a Dublin ballroom in 1955 where “Indecency was the order of the night”. TK Whitaker, as secretary of the department of finance, wrote boldly of the failures of native government; yet he was more polite than Harvard’s John Kelleher, who in 1957 was scathing about “politicians, clergymen, professional Gaels, pietists and other comfortable bourgeoisie looking into each other’s hearts and finding there, or pretending to find, the same tepid desires”. Focus on the past would no longer suffice, even if, as the poet WR Rodgers saw it in 1966, “Ireland carries a memory in her mouth as softly as an old retriever bitch carries an egg without breaking it”.

Younger activists were determined to start new campaigns, North and South; as Bernadette Devlin observed in relation to the Battle of the Bogside, “these people . . . could never go back to the situation before August 12, 1969”. In private, Whitaker warned taoiseach Jack Lynch the same year to resist the temptation to “cash in on political emotionalism at a time like this”.

The horrors of the Troubles are well covered, from the terrifying humiliation of so-called soldier lovers – “a crowd of about 200 watched as a woman cropped her dark hair with scissors and then poured red or black liquid of either paint or tar over her head” – to the devastating impact of the 1974 Dublin bombs on Bridget Fitzpatrick: “I felt something sticking in my back and pulled out a lump of tin which was in my lung . . . my husband left me as I was not a real woman any more.” Meanwhile, the moral civil wars raged. Colm Tóibín shopped for condoms in Dublin in 1980: “‘French letters,’ [the doctor] intoned, and grinned defiantly. ‘Never.’”

When inaugurated as president in 1990, Mary Robinson spoke of representing “a new Ireland, open, tolerant, inclusive”, though that did not mean that when it was revealed, two years later, that Bishop Eamon Casey was a father, there would be a positive response to David Rice, a former Dominican priest, who called “on all priests around the world who have liaisons with women publicly to declare them on Pentecost Sunday”.

Brilliant women

The book is also a reminder of the brilliant women who have sharpened and deepened Irish journalism over the past 40 years, including Mary Holland, Nell McCafferty, Maeve Binchy, Susan McKay and Ann Marie Hourihane. In 2000, Hourihane grappled with the economic changes in her book She Moves Through the Boom; she visited Carrigaline, where “the road gets rougher as you approach the well and my friends dropped me at the end of it, because they weren’t going to risk their new Alfa Romeo”. For those keen to fly, Michael Cronin observed of boom-time Ryanair, “the labour is done by the passenger, not by the airline operator”.

It was left to economist Morgan Kelly, also included here, to warn in 2008 that in relation to a possible soft landing for the property market, there was “no evidence except wishful thinking”. It is also gratifying to be reminded of others, once banished, who became lauded, including Edna O’Brien, who in 2012 returned to her childhood home and recalled the sheep farmer who had said with satisfaction “they ran that woman out of Co Clare”.

Enda Kenny’s reaction to the report on the Magdalene laundries also features: “for too many years we put away our conscience”. While pieces are included to emphasise the new societal tolerance, others remind us that there is still much starkness, snobbery and discrimination. Caelainn Hogan writes of direct provision and “a man hurrying from communal shower rooms, wrapped in a towel and carrying a bucket”, and Kitty Holland discovers there is no room at the school for “an unbaptised child living around the corner”.

No anthology can be comprehensive enough to satisfy all and, as Bowman notes, “another anthologist could, under the same title, produce a book with entirely different contents”. A big surprise, however, is that there is nothing from the monumental report of the Ryan Commission published in 2009 that uncovered the scale of the abuse of children in institutions, findings relevant to many of the themes in this rich collection. What the book does illustrate, however, is how many “parallel streams” can be combined to create a deep reservoir of the Irish experience over the past century.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history in University College Dublin. His most recent book is A Nation and not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-23 (Profile)