Iraq, and the Dublin Belfast Railway


THESE TWO BUCKOS are obviously acting the maggot. And that sentence will hopefully lessen the surprise of learning that these two buckos are two Irishmen . . . Irishmen in A ForeignLand. Issue them with large blow-up plastic tricolour-coloured hammers and you’d have instant football supporters.

This particular duo are in fact soldiers – Irish soldiers in the British army. And yes I am well aware of the tired old controversy about the conflicting concepts of being an Irish soldier and being an Irish soldier in the British army. I’ll have none of that. They’re still looking for the body of my wife’s grandfather at Ypres. (It’s complex, because many of her people fought in the War of Independence, and on the other hand my own late Protestant-but-nationalist father did once describe the likes of my wife’s antecedents as “a bunch of ditch murderers”. Yes, we did have fun at family gatherings.)

The man on the right is Major Bertie Plews, a Dublin man of English parentage. Aha, a reader might correct, so he wasn’t a real Irishman.

Okay, but if the reader does feel so, then they must also believe that there are now thousands of Dublin-born children of Nigerian/Polish/ Whatever parentage languishing in the unreal state of not being “real” Irish people. A slippery slope, that, applying the adjective “real” to any nationality. Bottom of the slope is a pogrom.

The photograph was taken in Iraq, then known as Mesopotamia. The British army was, with great difficulty and suffering huge losses, trying to put manners on the place, so to speak. Essentially, it was a cack-handed colonial adventure by an empire in decline which could only end badly. It did. Any similarities to present-day cack-handed colonial adventures by empires in decline are entirely predictable. But men like Plews are, as the song has it, the universal soldier. They do what they’re told, tell others to do what they’re told, and hopefully stay alive in the process.

Plews did stay alive, and his photographs of Mesopotamia also survived.

Yes, he was something of a significant photographer, and after the wars and back in Ireland he was president of the Photographic Society of Ireland in 1927-28. Many of his photographs have been deposited by a generous and public-spirited citizen (me) with the National Library’s National Photographic Archive, in Temple Bar. But I held on to this one. I also held on to the notes which he wrote to accompany the photos. His observations on Iraq include the following:

“Basra – or Busra – the Bastra of Marco Polo, and forever linked with adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, is one of the most important ports in Asiatic Turkey, is situated on the right bank of the Shat el Arab. Built on low lying swampy ground where the malarial mosquitoes lead a healthy and energetic life, Basra proper is about two miles from the river on a narrow and very malodorous creek: When the tide is out, this creek cries out in strange tongues; the natives, however, seem to thrive upon its nauseating vapours. It is at once the source of their water supply, and the receptacle of the sewerage. In this place – as indeed throughout Asiatic Turkey – sanitary science is still unborn, and the streets are the dumping ground for all household refuse.

One’s first feelings are of wonder and bewilderment that the entire population has not long ago been wiped out by disease. Going along the banks I have seen Arab women washing Salad, etc. alongside others dealing with the family washing. As successors to the dirty and lazy Turk, the British in occupation of Basra have set themselves to remedy this state of affairs, but it is uphill work.

Manners and customs of centuries are not easily laid aside, and your Asiatic sniffs suspiciously at anything labelled “sanitary reform” while the very word “hygiene” sounds to him like blasphemy against abominations with which he loves to surround himself.

The Turk never bothered his head whether the inhabitants lived in unhealthy conditions. When an epidemic broke out and carried off a certain portion of the population, the Turkish Governor would bow his head in meek resignation before the inscrutable will of Allah.”

There you have it. Okay, I merely mentioned that Major Plews was a social observer, not a politically correct social observer. And as for the connection between him and Iraq and the Dublin Belfast Railway? Well, the then Great Northern Railway (Ireland) was in early days controlled by one Henry Plews, father of Bertie. And so, naturally enough, on the latter’s return from the wars, Dad slotted his son into a handy little number of a senior managerial job in the company. Who said these people weren’t real Irish?

Conan Kennedy is a writer whose most recent books include the novel Ogulla Well, and (as editor) the recently published five-volume edition of The Diaries of Mary