An Irishman's Diary

 

THE recent high-level meetings, official and unofficial, between Irish and Czech political figures recall another set of engagements between activists from two small countries seeking redefinition in the turmoil of Europe after the second World War, writes Luke Gibbons.

Among the Irish participants in these encounters was the writer Dorothy Macardle, who died 50 years ago today on December 23rd, 1958.

Dorothy Macardle was born into the prominent Dundalk brewing family in 1889, and established a formidable reputation across a wide range of fields - as historian, novelist, playwright, journalist, lecturer, republican, feminist, humanitarian and civil liberties activist. She is remembered today primarily for her monumental study The Irish Republic(1937) - regarded in many nationalist households as the bible of the struggle for independence.

Less well-known are her achievements as a Gothic novelist, whose explorations of the uncanny took place in distinctively modern settings. Her first novel The Uninvited(1941), filmed by Lewis Allen in 1944, became a cult movie, earning the ultimate accolade in William Everson's Classics of the Horror Filmas "quite possibly the movies' best ghost story".

Although she is often seen as little more than de Valera's spokesperson, Macardle's own struggle for independence led to radical breaks with him over the unequal status of women in the 1937 Constitution, and Ireland's neutrality during the second World War. Her awareness of the Nazi menace, acquired as an Irish Pressjournalist at the League of Nations in the late 1930s, prompted a move to London during the war years. There she identified with the plight of other small nations fighting for their survival, not least the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile under Edward Benes and Jan Masaryk (son of the founding father of Czechoslovakia republic, Thomas Masaryk).

Much of Macardle's sympathy for Czechoslovakia derived from the condescension, if not hostility, shown in some British circles towards such "synthetic" nations (as a character in her 1944 novel The Seed was Kindtermed them). Her arrival in London coincided with the harsh treatment of East European refugees (including up to 8,000 Czechs) by the British authorities, leading to the internment of thousands suspected as being Nazi "fifth columnists". "Why not lock up General de Gaulle?" Michael Foot protested in the Evening Standard. The pressure to prove loyalty was such that one refugee broke down in tears on receiving his naturalisation papers many years later. "Don't worry, old chap," were the reassuring words of his friends. "I know," said the migrant, "But why did we have to lose India?" It was precisely the multicultural composition of Czechoslovakia that attracted Macardle, the political experiment of building a nation out of seven major linguistic groups and an equal number of religious denominations. The key to success in her eyes lay in the country's enlightened educational policies before Nazi occupation, as outlined in her publication Educating a Free People(co-authored with M, Sargantova) in 1945. Her admiration for the non-compulsory nature of the Czech language in schools instigated a controversy in the Irish Presswith supporters of compulsory Irish; but questionable aspects of British education, such the privileged ethos of private and boarding schools, were also compared unfavourably with the public, egalitarian system in Czechoslovakia.

Macardle's commitment to the exiled Czech community in London gave rise to her only "realist" novel, The Seed was Kind, a reflective story about the breakdown of the League of Nations and the subsequent fate of Czech refugees in war-torn London. The novel opens at the League of Nations as a young girl, Diony, joins her Irish grandmother and French grandfather, a political theorist, in Geneva to pursue a scholarship in the study of international relations. Ending up as a voluntary worker with refugees in London during the Blitz, Diony falls in love with an Czech expatriate writer and activist, Karel Marek, who completes her grandfather's magnum opuson the need to protect small nations in an age of realpolitik in international relations.

For Macardle, her republican past and experiences of prison during the Irish Civil War were a means of opening up, rather than closing off, identification with others in the unfolding catastrophe of the second World War. The devastating consequences of the war, particularly as it affected the suffering of children, prompted extensive travels through Europe that laid the basis for Children of Europe: A Study of the Children of Liberated Countries (1950), a landmark in early Holocaust studies.

"This terrible and magnificent book," wrote the Spectator, "will undoubtedly remain the standard work on the children of this war".

Macardle's internationalism led to her becoming a founding member of the Irish Institute for International Affairs (IIIA) in the late 1930s. In 1943, the IIIA attempted to host a public talk by Jan Masaryk, deputy prime minister of the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile, who had spoken earlier in the week at Trinity College on a platform shared with the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera. Masaryk's second "unofficial" appearance was considered a bridge too far over the troubled waters of Irish neutrality where the Government was concerned, and accordingly the meeting was banned.

The cancellation was highlighted with due diligence by Bertie Smyllie, editor of The Irish Times, in an attempt to expose excessive interference with free speech, but his report in turn was suppressed by the censor. Smyllie also had a deep interest in Czech affairs, visiting the country in 1937 and publishing his account, "Carpathian Contrasts", under the pen-name "Nichevo" in 1938.

Not least of the ironies of the "unofficial" phantom meeting between a prominent Czech leader and Irish critics of government policy on Europe was that it was scheduled to take place in the Shelbourne Hotel. History, it seems, is no stranger to the uncanny that so fascinated Dorothy Macardle in her fiction.