Irish culture in 1945 was both lively and bleak

The ‘Irish Times’ Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks project has published its first 30 entries, covering 1916-1945 – a time of paradoxical philistinism and creativity

The February 1945 edition of The Bell, Ireland's main intellectual monthly, carried an essay by one Donat O'Donnell on the Irish Independent. The author was described only as having "recently graduated from Trinity College Dublin". He was, in fact, the young Conor Cruise O'Brien, writing under a pseudonym.

In his essay, he noted that The Irish Times paid nothing for unsigned book reviews. The Independent, on the other hand, paid good money but only on certain conditions.

The neophyte reviewer was given a stern warning: “When you get a book from us the first thing to look for is to see if there’s anything objectionable in it. You know there are a lot of these books coming in now — books with some scene in them. If there’s anything like that in it, we don’t want any review, good bad, or indifferent.”

The problem, it was explained, was that the objectionable bits could not be described in print and therefore some innocent parish priest might buy the book and then there would be hell to pay.


So books were only to be reviewed if they were “all right, right through”. “With the others you needn’t write anything and you won’t get any pay, but you can sell the book.”

That same issue of The Bell carried pieces by Sean O'Casey, Bernard Shaw and others on Ireland's ferocious censorship; an essay by Peadar O'Donnell on mass emigration to wartime Britain ("If the way were open to the U.S.A., there would be a stampede") and a gloomy piece by Arland Ussher on the future of the Irish language ("with the improved and cheapened means of travel and radio-transmission which we may expect after the War, nothing is more certain than that the vernacular will very quickly be swept out of its last hiding-holes").

The only mention of the visual arts in the whole issue was a digression in O'Donnell's essay calling on Irish architects to present their plans for demolishing the older parts of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Derry and Belfast, "for we want our cities transformed, not patched, and we want pictures of the transformed cities NOW".

Bleakly lively

This one issue, chosen at random, gives a rather bleak picture of the state of Irish culture as the second World War entered its last year. Yet it is a peculiarly lively kind of bleakness. In these pages alone, there are three young writers who will go on to great things in three different forms.

There is Cruise O’Brien, later one of the leading essayists of the late 20th century.

There is the first appearance, with the exquisite short story Janey Mary, of James Plunkett, who will go on to become the finest historical novelist Ireland has ever produced.

And there is the fifth and final instalment of a groundbreaking autobiographical series on prison life called I Did Penal Servitude. The author is identified by his prison number D 83222. He will later be famous as Brendan Behan.

So here we have in one snapshot the paradoxical narrowness and fecundity, philistinism and creativity of Irish culture almost 30 years after the 1916 Rising.

Perhaps the key to this paradox lies in the two faces of indifference. In the most sustained satiric attack on the culture of the new State, Denis Johnson's 1929 expressionist play The Old Lady Say No!, the second act is a burlesque on the arts scene.

It features a salon with the “well-known dramatist” O’Cooney, the “famous novelist” O’Rooney, the “rising portrait painter” O’Mooney, and the Minister for Arts and Crafts, along with chorus of the Irish people.

At one point the minister explains, “Well, a young fellow comes along to me and he says, Now look Liam, here’s some Art I’m after doing . . . it might be a book, you see, or a drawing, or even a poem . . . and can you do anything for me, he says? Well with that, I do . . . if he deserves it, mind you, only if he deserves it, under Section 15 of the Deserving Artists’ (Support) Act, No 65 of 1926 . . . And of course, then, you see, it helps us to keep an eye on the sort of stuff that’s turned out . . . ”

The Chorus intones: “The State supports the Artist./And the Artist supports the State.”

This is a very good description of what we might expect in a revolutionary State, an ideological regime using the arts to bolster its authority. And yet, as satire, it is wide of the mark. There was no Deserving Artists Act. There was not even a minister for arts and crafts – or even so much as a humble parliamentary secretary.

The State had two main cultural interests. One was stopping the spread of “evil literature”. Hence the rapacious apparatus of censorship. The other was the revival of Irish as the everyday language of the people. But even these were shot through with hypocrisy. The wealthy and well-educated could still get their hands on most “evil literature”. And the revival of Irish was as much a rhetorical as a real project.

Beyond these projects, there was in fact a remarkable indifference to artists. The downside was that the first part of the chorus’s claim (the State supports the artist) was largely unfounded. There were some specific projects that the State or its agencies did invest, such as Sean Keating’s paintings of the ESB’s Ardnacrusha scheme, Michael Scott’s Irish pavilion at the New York world’s fair (1939), and Gabriel Hayes’s fine sculptures on public buildings.

But even then, these commissions could be horribly fraught experiences, as with Harry Clark’s rejected Geneva window.

The Abbey Theatre (and later the Gate) received small State subsidies, but here too writers such as Johnson, Teresa Deevy and the wildly imaginative Kerry playwright George Fitzmaurice could suddenly find themselves on the outside for no obvious reason.

What is much more striking than the occasional forays into official patronage is the State’s lack of any sustained interest in developing an artistic hinterland on which it could draw for support.

The upside was that the other part of the chorus’s slogan – the artist supports the State – was equally untrue. Official indifference was a cruel kindness, but a kindness nonetheless.

For architects, lack of official patronage in an economy with a small and sluggish private sector, was hugely problematic. But for other kinds of artists, it was what might be called a mixed curse.

It may be unfair to speculate whether, for example, Keating wold have become a better painter had he not been given a semi-official status and the relative comfort that came with it.

But it is worth wondering what might have become of some of his literary counterparts had they not been alienated from the State.

One can think of a number of major writers – Sean O’Faolain, Brian O’Nolan, Kate O’Brien, Frank O’Connor, Teresa Deevy – whose backgrounds in nationalism, Catholicism or the Irish language might have made them suitable material for semi-official status.

We have no idea how they might have responded to such blandishments. What we do know, of course, is that the State (and the church) spared them the torments of such temptation. They remained, in different ways, on the outside – a relatively free place to be.

Hence that paradoxical cultural space, a gloomy sky lit up by flashes of brilliantly jagged anger.