Iris Murdoch, who was born 100 years ago on unfashionable Blessington Street in north Dublin, published 26 wonderful novels and some ground-breaking moral philosophy.
Each of her novels shows us our mundane world in a new, strange and magical light; while the influence of her philosophy is still growing, especially in the US, where many testify to her bravery in championing virtue ethics and the inner life.
Though she and her mother left for London before she was two, she cherished her connection with Ireland, always described herself as Irish and wrote about Ireland in two novels – The Unicorn and The Red and the Green – as also in her only short story Something Special.
Murdoch saw Ireland in the 1950s as 'something of a dream country where everything happens with a difference'
The Murdoch family never assimilated into English life. Iris and her parents divided their summer holidays between Dublin and her civil servant father’s cousins in Northern Ireland. Both parents sounded Irish: Rene had a “refined” Dublin accent, Hughes a mild Ulster intonation and idiom: “Wait while I tell you!” he would advise. Young Iris’s slight brogue was acquired from her parents so that Denis Healey, who met her in Oxford, believed she had come straight from Dublin.
In 1938, her first undergraduate year, in an article in Cherwell entitled The Irish, Are They Human? Murdoch referred to the Anglo-Irish as “a special breed”. It is a fairly savage – maybe even crude – undergraduate satirical attack on English self-conceit, and a defence of everything Irish and Celtic. She argues that Shakespeare must have been Irish, as the English are too stupid to have been responsible!
In her second year, after the IRA had declared war on Britain in January 1939, she was treasurer of the Irish Club, heard Frank Pakenham talk of “chatting with de Valera”, and gave a paper there on James Connolly, hero of the 1916 Rising, praised by Lenin for fusing class militancy and revolutionary nationalism.
After a walking holiday in Glengariff in 1954, she wrote the short story Something Special about young Yvonne Geary who lives in her Protestant working class mother’s Dún Laoghaire stationer’s shop on Upper George’s Street. The title refers to Yvonne’s fantasy of escape from poverty, through marriage to a Jewish tailor’s apprentice. Their walk around the town encompasses Protestant landmarks such as Ross’s Hotel, the yacht clubs and the Mariners’ church: a milieu she knew at first hand.
A dream country
Murdoch saw Ireland in the 1950s as “something of a dream country where everything happens with a difference”. The first draft of A Severed Head (1961) was set in the west of Ireland, the region Gabriel Conroy, in Joyce’s The Dead, was rebuked for not visiting. And Co Clare inspired her gothic romance The Unicorn (1963). The Scarren in that novel stands in for the Burren, and the great cliffs based on those of Moher. Its gentry consume quantities of whiskey – something Iris may have observed when she stayed at Bowens Court in 1956. Their names are from Iris’s family: Effingham Cooper from Iris’s grandfather; Denis Nolan’s surname from Iris’s grandmother. The Unicorn explores Murdoch’s theme that life is – or should be – a spiritual quest or pilgrimage. To say that Ireland seems here her chosen “spiritual home” is not an idle metaphor.
From 1961 onwards, Murdoch’s book-jackets start to describe her as Anglo-Irish. This is sheer fantasy if meant to imply an Ascendancy background. True, the Richardsons – her mother’s family – had three centuries earlier owned estates in Co Tyrone but had come down in the world. Three of Iris’s Dublin first cousins worked for Cadbury’s as long-distance lorry driver, fitter and store-man while their father, Iris’s uncle Thomas Bell, was a mechanic on Talbot Street. While Rene described her father on her marriage certificate as a solicitor, the Law Society in Dublin has no record of him and he probably worked as a solicitor’s clerk. Iris was the first in her family to go to university.
Her father’s family had farmed at Ballymullan House, Hillhall, in Co Down for eight generations. Here a further three first cousins – Iris’s closest living relatives after her parents – were all brought up as strict, teetotal Plymouth Brethren. The home of one second cousin contained 37 Bibles, and Murdoch’s fierce aunt Ella was a Baptist missionary.
She drew on some of this when, around 1962 she was researching The Red and the Green. She also learnt some Irish. The action takes place during the week leading up to the Easter Rising. Iris invents an Anglo-Irish cousinry with branches on both sides of the Irish sea, Anglican and Catholic, dramatising within itself the historical tensions. While the Murdochs were anti-nationalist in 1916, some Richardsons were pro-independence.
Chapter two, a seminar on Irish history, gives the 1801 Act of Union as the major disaster of Irish history, since it demoralised Ireland’s ruling class. “Ireland’s real past is the ascendancy,” ventures one character, who reminds us that many great Irish patriots have been Protestants.
Perhaps Murdoch's willingness to mythologise her own origins marks her out as a kinswoman of Yeats
England had destroyed Ireland, one of her characters argues, “slowly and casually, without malice, without mercy, practically without thought, like someone who treads upon an insect, forgets it, then sees it quivering and treads upon it a second time”.
This was the only novel she regretted writing. The Troubles soon changed her from a romantic nationalist to a hardline Unionist and defender of Ian Paisley. Nor is any occasion recorded henceforth on which she allowed that the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland had, in 1968, distinct and legitimate grievances. As she grew older, she became both more right-wing and more British.
Perhaps Murdoch’s willingness to mythologise her own origins marks her out as a kinswoman of Yeats. As the Irish historian Roy Foster has shown, the cult in Ireland of a lost house was a central component of that “Protestant magic”, shared by Yeats and Murdoch’s good friend Elizabeth Bowen: Irish Protestantism even in its non-Ulster mode, is a social and cultural identity as much as a religious one. Some of its elements – a preoccupation with good manners together with a love of drama and occasional flamboyant emotionalism, a superstitious bent towards occultism and magic, an inability to grow up, an obsession with the hauntings of history and a disturbed love-hate relation towards Ireland – can be found in Murdoch as in Bowen and Yeats.
And just as Yeats, coming from “an insecure middle class with a race memory of elitism”, conquered the inhabitants of great houses such as Coole Parke through unique “charm and the social power of art”, so Murdoch later visited Clandeboye, a Guinness ancestral home, and Bowens Court. Yeats and Murdoch elevated themselves socially “by a sort of moral effort and a historical sleight of hand”. Each was, differently, an audacious fabulator, in life as in art.
Family Business: A Memoir by Peter J. Conradi is published by Seren, £17.99