John Bowman: 10 tales of modern Ireland

The historian and broadcaster’s new ‘autobiography of Ireland’ uses letters, diaries and other ‘authentic’ documents to tell new stories of Irish life

In a library I have always found myself easily distracted, drawn to a topic other than that which brought me there in the first place. But this lifelong habit has had its rewards, and some of them can be found in the collection of documents that are being published as Ireland: The Autobiography – Eyewitness Accounts of Irish Life Since 1916, and that I hope will bring new insights into Irish life in the past century.

1: Ireland's "psychosomatic" ills
One of the first fruits of such browsing in the library of Trinity College Dublin many decades ago was an article in the influential American journal Foreign Affairs. It was by John V Kelleher, who had pioneered Irish studies at Harvard.

“Ireland . . . and where does she stand?” was Kelleher’s title. And although he did not describe us in the 1950s as a most distressful country, his verdicts made even bleaker reading: emigration rates were high, and “in what emigration leaves behind there is apathy below and smugness above”. The education system was not fit for purpose; it especially discriminated against those destined to emigrate; timidity and cowardice prevailed among the political class, especially in their failure to demarcate a healthy church-state relationship.

When I first read it I reckoned it unfair, but revisiting it as the years passed, I thought it more and more insightful. Kelleher reckoned Ireland’s ills were “largely psychosomatic”. He thought our whinge of historic oppression overstated, reckoning that in the 20th century, at least, Ireland had had “an almost fatally easy time of it”. And he concluded by imagining that Ireland might do what no other nation had ever tried, “and perish by sudden implosion upon a central vacuity”. His was one of the voices in the 1950s that were trying to tell us the emperor had no clothes.


2: TK Whitaker's tipping point
I have long thought Kelleher's essay neglected and am more than pleased to feature it in this anthology, where it provides a perfect introduction to the extract chosen from TK Whitaker's initiative with Economic Development, which would mark a turning point in Ireland's fortunes. I was especially struck by Whitaker's acknowledgment of the inspiration he took from the criticism made by the then bishop of Clonfert, Dr William Philbin, that the Irish version of history tended to see independent government "like marriage in a fairy story – as the solution of all ills". Philbin and Whitaker rather saw freedom as useful "in proportion to the use we make of it". If the 1950s was the most pessimistic decade since 1916, I'm pleased to also include some evidence of this critical tipping point in Ireland's fortunes.

The book reflects the remarkable shift in Irish values over the century that it covers. Read, for instance, how boy met girl in Ennistymon as recorded by Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball in their Harvard anthropological study of life in Co Clare in the 1930s.

Other documents could make you wonder how boy ever met girl, given how the bishops railed against company keeping and occasions of sin – a warning, as Seán Ó Faoláin suggested, that could have been made of life itself. The selection also reveals how the censors – official and unofficial – busied themselves with curbing ideas, books, films and the “wrong” music. Jazz was a special target.

3: Easter Week diary
It is the century of Irish life since the Easter Rising of 1916 that is the book's timeframe. The anthology does not content itself with big historic documents. From Easter Week itself Thomas K Moylan is quoted from a private diary in which he recorded his impressions. Shopping and gossiping seemed to be the preoccupation of Rathmines, then a unionist and Protestant enclave in Dublin. Moylan saw what he recorded as "the extraordinary spectacle of all the toffs and lady toffs, nuts of the highest type wending their way homewards with a plain cottage loaf or two under their arms, without even a scrap of newspaper to hide its nakedness".

4: 'You have let hell loose in Ireland'
Another voice from that period is that of John Dillon MP, who must have sensed his life's work as a politician ebbing away during the short period of the Rising and the executions. Having remained in Dublin and living on North Great George's Street, he was but five minutes from its centre. He was quick to mark David Lloyd George's card. In a private letter he told him that if only there had been no executions the country "would have been solid" behind the Parliamentary Party, and "we could have done what we liked with it." Instead they found themselves in "one of the greatest tragedies of all history", triggered by "the blunders and perversities" of the British government. "You have let hell loose in Ireland, and I do not see how the country is to be governed."

5: 'A piano thrown back into the flames'
And in JC Smuts's voluminous archive in South Africa there are traces of his important intellectual engagement with the Irish Question informed by, among others, Tom Casement, whose appeal to Smuts is brilliantly pitched, referencing some comparisons with the Boer War, in which the men had been comrades.

Casement briefs Smuts concerning one “official reprisal” by British forces where “a poor fellow managed to get a £50 piano out of the house”. But despite his pleading with the British officer that it be spared, as it was his daughter’s, the officer ordered that it be “thrown back into the flames”. Reading this in the national archives of South Africa, in Pretoria, I imagined Smuts reading it in his atmospheric study in the modest corrugated-tin house that I had first visited en route to an earlier visit to the Smuts archive. The image of the piano being tossed back into the flames was so telling that it would, I believed, be remembered more vividly by Smuts than any number of policy documents.

6: The intimidation of a Fenian
In choosing documents for inclusion I found myself favouring those where I believed I was hearing an authentic voice – especially if that of a foot soldier – but that I reckoned could not but be influential when read by those wielding power.

In the Lloyd George archive I found a sequence of letters that captured the plight of many catholics in Belfast in 1920. Michael Cunningham wrote to his constituency MP, Joe Devlin, complaining that he had been driven from his work in the shipyards with hundreds of other former servicemen, “expelled for no other reason” than that they were Catholics. And although he was wounded in the war, as his workmates knew, “still I was a Fenian and deserved to be murdered, although I was fighting in France while my assailants were earning big wages in peace in Belfast”.

He was now obliged to seek housing in Durham. Devlin sent the letter to Lloyd George, fearing that it would be from the ranks of Cunningham’s shipyard assailants that the part-time special constabulary would presently be formed. Devlin felt that his responsibility was “a terrible one because through me these men went out to the war, and every one of these cases wrings my heart and makes me feel utterly ashamed that I asked them to make such sacrifices”.

Lloyd George passed the letter to Sir Edward Carson, who agreed that the case was deplorable and most discreditable but insisted that the special constables, “if properly selected”, would go far to prevent similar cases recurring. And there this correspondence in Lloyd George’s papers peters out. I cannot but think that Michael Cunningham’s original letter must have left an impression on Lloyd George, as it will on any reader of this book.

7: A southern Protestant, 1921
In the British Library I came across a personal letter to the provost of Trinity College Dublin from a man who would be his successor some six years later but who in 1921, on the eve of the Treaty negotiations, was in some despair for the future of Protestants in Ireland. Throughout the turbulent events of 1921 EJ Gwynn admitted that he had begun to feel for the first time "that I am myself essentially English and not Irish, in spite of certain sympathies and antipathies".

A man was what he inherited, and for “most of us Protestants these things are 90 per cent English or Scotch traditions, beliefs, customs, mental furniture, all that”. He now felt alienated from the new order not so much because of any material loss as because of “the tendency to cut us away from our roots, or civilisation, which is bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh”. Perhaps “the other side” should not be blamed “for wishing to attest their separate nationality at all points”, but he had become fearful that his own children might “feel aliens in their own country”.

8: Erskine Childers's last letter
The only occasion on which I have found myself close to tears in an archive was when reading what was to be the last letter to Molly Childers – of 1,300 – from her husband, Erskine Childers. She received it after his court martial and death sentence in the Civil War. The letter is 22 pages long, was written over the course of five days and concludes with this final paragraph before he was taken out to his execution on November 24th, 1922: "You must be pleased to see how imperturbably normal and tranquil I have been this night and a.m. It all seems perfectly simple and inevitable like lying down after a long day's work. Thus our precious equanimitas and I draw it all from you."

Childers insisted that he was now facing the easier challenge. “But you will tread it like the gallant soul you are with the dear boys beside you. And now I am going. Coming to you, heart’s beloved, sweetheart, comrade, wife. I shall fall asleep in your arms, God above blessing us – all four of us. Erskine.”

9: Belfast's nudists
In all the book is composed of 170 documents. Making choices concerning inclusion was difficult. But choosing some few for this article is more challenging still. I have favoured documents that I hope reveal something of the complexity of Irish life but that also stand alone as vignettes.

RM Smyllie, as the irascible and highly opinionated editor of The Irish Times, scarcely hid his antipathy to the government censorship imposed on all Irish newspapers on the outbreak of war in 1939. The newspapers were especially forbidden to advocate or publicise recruitment to the armies of the belligerents.

Within weeks The Irish Times tested the censor’s patience. When I first came across some paragraphs entitled “Belfast nudist colony” in the censor’s archives I presumed it was yet another page proof that had been submitted in advance of publication, and I wondered why it hadn’t been scored through with the censor’s blue pencil. But on closer examination it proved to be a clipping from the published paper and had been “innocently” omitted from that day’s submission of proofs.

The text announced that Belfast had a nudist colony and that “mere striplings and men well matured”, from both sides of the Border, were seeking it out. Crucially the address of the nudist colony was smuggled into the piece: 72 Clifton Street, Belfast. When ushered in, the writer was asked many questions and filled many forms before receiving “the secret pass-word, ‘Straight through and up the stairs.’ I went as directed and joined a group undressing in a too-small anteroom. Then we, nudists, filed out and along the cocoanut matting to the stairs. At the top, five doctors set to work to test our fitness for His Majesty’s forces! We were recruits.”

10: Kay Duddy's Bloody Sunday
From the more recent period the Northern Troubles, from civil rights to virtual civil war, is also reflected in this anthology. Most tellingly, the testimony of Kay Duddy about the death of her brother Jackie on Bloody Sunday in Derry, first printed in a paperback book, comes to the same conclusion that took decades and €300 million of British taxpayers' money to arrive at in Lord Saville's report.

The peace process is covered, as is Morgan Kelly’s prediction of the banking crisis. And ordinary Irish life is not forgotten: from the Ryanair experience to the National Lottery; from Eamon Casey’s downfall to an adopted child finding her birth mother and the complexity that followed in all their lives. One might say of this anthology that, in the century since 1916, all human life is here.

One would expect readers of history to enjoy the book. But more general readers will know that with an anthology they can pick and choose, browse and skip. Each document speaks for itself, although one also hopes that the sum is greater than the parts and that readers will be encouraged to further exploration.

Ireland: The Autobiography – Eyewitness Accounts of Irish Life Since 1916, edited by John Bowman, is published by Penguin