AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY
FOR Americans of Irish background, the 80th anniversary of the 1916 Rising vividly recalled the stirring events of that year in Ireland and their troubled aftermath. In addition, the recent Coogan books about De Valera and Collins and the current movie, Michael Collins, have moved the Anglo Irish War, the Treaty and the Irish Civil War to the forefront of our consciousness.
De Valera and Collins have received the major share of this renewed attention but my own memory has turned equally to Dan Breen who fought manfully along with them and ignited the flame whose energy eventually resulted in nationhood.
I had become acquainted with his characterisation as "the man who started the Anglo Irish War," his career as a daring street fighter and a sought revolutionary upon whose head the British had set a price of £1,000. I had learned that he had gained lasting fame as a leader in the band of activists who provided the pressure which impelled Lloyd George to halt the fighting.
I thought of him because I had met him in Dublin in 1948, had talked with him at length and never forgot the experience.
An Old Lion
At that meeting, he appeared to me as an old lion who had lost his zest for combat. He was then 54 and it was obvious that the revolutionary fires had been banked for some time. Of medium height and solidly built, with a shock of white hair, a ruddy complexion and steel blue eyes, he nevertheless radiated a sense of suppressed power.
He had invited me and several friends to dinner and, as we approached his house, I saw that Dan, the rapparee and street fighter of old, was living in St Kevin's Park in Dartry, a rather prim, upper middle class section of Dublin, in a comfortable, red brick house surrounded by neat plantings.
The warmth of his welcome was impressive. Later I discovered that he had a special regard for those whose forebears were Irish and felt a call to educate them in their racial heritage.
As he led us into the library, I was struck by the good taste of the domestic arrangements. The shelves were full of books and a variety of prints covered the walls. Lest there should have been any doubt as to his feelings toward the British, however, one saw with a shock that the pictures included two of Adolf Hitler and a medallion of Napoleon, while the radio was a Telefunken.
I was intrigued to find how greatly the fervour and hopefulness of his youth had been dissipated. "The revolution didn't work out," he said. "To get the government they have now, I wouldn't have lost a night's sleep."
He fought for freedom, he said, but not for democracy. He obviously had an affinity for revolution and this strain ran through his discussion. This, as well as his antipathy to the British and, I think, a desire to be outlandish, perhaps accounted for the Hitler pictures.
He appeared to be in comfortable circumstances, but I later discovered that he had lived through very difficult days due to taking the losing side in the Civil War. After their defeat, the insurgents who had opposed the Treaty were chivvied by the Irish government and were excluded from pension payments and other benefits for many years.
Obliged to support his family, he had in desperation come to the United States where his attempts to earn a living had involved running a popular speakeasy in New York.
Although Dan appeared to be in excellent health, in fact the brutal battles in the streets, similar to those pictured in the Collins movie, had exacted a permanent physical and mental toll. He had been hit at least nine times by hostile bullets and he still carried the remains of several in his body.
In addition the experiences of frenzied combat, even a quarter century later, brought nightmares which woke him in the dark, shouting warnings to long dead companions.
After a bounteous dinner, Dan showed us some of the books which he and his son had collected. Although he lacked formal education, he was remarkably well read. I noted on his shelves a handsome edition of the works of George Bernard Shaw. He boasted that he had a first edition of Shaw's first book, inscribed "To my best friend."
"When you talk to him, you realise that he doesn't mean half of what he says," Dan said. It occurred to me that this characteristic was one common to these two Irishmen.
He dismissed James Joyce as being anti Irish and called, O'Faolain a "fake". "He wrote commercially and not in the true Irish fashion," Dan said. "Pig in the kitchen," he added, "because that's what the publishers wanted."
He then laughed and said that a few days previously he had asked an Englishman if the British, then suffering the post war shortages of meat, didn't wish they had a pig in every kitchens today. "We had to do it to keeps ourselves alive," he added.
Dan, in his educatory vein, both then and later pressed on me and my friends notable books detailing critical periods of Irish history. He arranged for us to meet Eamon De Valera and the next day drove us out to Glendalough to see the ruins of the famous monastic community.
He certainly was an impressive figure and one's reactions, while mixed, were admiring. In the background was the guerrilla and street fighter, one who did not stick at killing Irish policemen in the cause, while to the fore now was the genial, friendly, opinionated host, disillusioned and sick of politics, hospitably welcoming American blood brothers.
He was the Anthony Wayne or Ethan Allen of the Irish Revolution, but now sought only to live quietly in retirement. He had once been action personified. He now was a quiet figure in the Irish hall of fame.