An Irishman's Diary

 

NEWS THAT Dublin is to get a directly elected mayor reminded me of a letter from an elderly reader a while back that I meant to reply to and then forgot. It arrived about six months ago, or maybe 10, I calculated, rummaging through the likely areas of my desk. But when I eventually found it, filed under P (as in “pile of old newspapers”) I discovered to my horror it was dated November 2006, writes FRANK MCNALLY

The name was hard to decipher, other than a “Mrs”, followed by “Patricia” or possibly “Patrice”, followed by a surname starting with “B”. The address was “Mylerstown, Co Kildare”. And the other bit I could make out clearly was the note in brackets about her age: “80 plus”. So, two and half years later, racked with guilt, I re-read the letter.

“In the 1940s, in my time in Dublin,” she wrote, “Myles na gCopaleen used to put [the acronym] ACCISS – meaning ‘Andy Clarkin’s Clock is Still Stopped’ – on his [Irish Times] column. I think the Lord Mayor of Dublin at the time was Andy Clarkin [but] I don’t know the significance of it, other than that it was of some amusement to Myles. I wonder could you or anyone else explain.”

Well, Patricia or possibly Patrice, the man who can explain is writer Anthony Cronin, and fortunately I have his relevant book: No Laughing Matter – The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien. The year was 1951, in fact. But you’re right: Andy Clarkin, a Fianna Fáiler, was lord mayor. And he had a coal merchant’s shop in Pearse Street, with a big clock outside. And the clock was stopped.

It had been stopped a long time, in fact. And Myles saw in this a microcosm of the lack of civic pride among those who governed Dublin. So he waged a campaign to shame the mayor. Which, once launched, was reduced to the aforementioned acronym, posted daily.

As was often the case with Myles, there was a private joke, or in this case semi-private, as well as a public one. Those in the know – half of Dublin, as usual – knew that Clarkin had the common habit of saying “axe” instead of “ask”.

They also knew that, in Cronin’s description, he “was a man of few words who could sometimes seem a little slow-witted; that he had a wife called Cis who seemed to be a stronger and more capable personality than himself; and that when baffled by this or that he had a habit of bringing the discussion to a close by saying, ‘I’ll axe Cis’.” ACCISS was therefore a double-edged rapier.

Despite its wit, the campaign was a resounding failure. The clock stayed stopped. And, unlike the real-life Myles, civil servant Brian O’Nolan, the lord mayor stayed in his job.

It wasn’t the clock that got O’Nolan sacked from the Department of Local Government. But its stopped hands (Myles had also been encouraging citizens to greet the mayor with a special two-armed salute, suggesting the timepiece) pointed him to the exit.

In short, at the height of the campaign, Myles made the mistake of being photographed with the clock.

This undermined a defence often used by his departmental supporters when he was in trouble for writing things critical of his superiors, including sometimes the Minister for “Yokel Government” himself. On such occasions, it was pleaded (with some truth) that O’Nolan was only one of the three contributors to the Myles column, and that the offending comments might be the work of others.

The case for the defence was also being weakened by O’Nolan’s drinking, and by an attendance record so bad that when he wrote of the Scotch House pub being his “office”, it was not entirely a joke, private or otherwise. In any case, the clock-picture was entered on his personnel file. And this followed ominously upon the end of the first Inter-party government, when O’Nolan had acquired a new minister, Cavan Fianna Fáiler Patrick Smith, who had less tolerance for literature than his predecessors.

The omens collided in early 1953 when Myles wrote a colourful portrait of an unnamed politician struggling with some intellectual question. Most readers took it to be Clarkin. The initiated knew it was Smith. So did Smith, unfortunately, and it was the final straw. Negotiations on O’Nolan’s severance terms were initiated there and then and concluded successfully soon afterwards.

The tale has no obvious moral for potential Dublin mayoral candidates; although Bertie Ahern may be inspired by the clock’s ability to adopt a story, however dubious, and stick to it. In any case, I hope the foregoing has answered your question, Patricia or possibly Patrice. And even if it didn’t, I hope you’re still reading.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com