Brigid over troubled waters: confusions over Anglo-Irish literary identity

Frank McNally: It is only fair to disavow a case of reverse-colonisation

‘I’m reminded of a feature the Observer ran back in 2011 on “Britain’s top 300 intellectuals”. The list notoriously included Seamus Heaney, Colm Tóibín, and this newspaper’s Fintan O’Toole’. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

‘I’m reminded of a feature the Observer ran back in 2011 on “Britain’s top 300 intellectuals”. The list notoriously included Seamus Heaney, Colm Tóibín, and this newspaper’s Fintan O’Toole’. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

In suggesting that the journalist and author Rebecca West (1892-1983) was born in Kerry, as I did here the other day, it seems I was perpetuating a myth.

It is truer to say, as the column in question also did, that there was “not much Kerry” in her. But as West’s great-niece and literary executor Helen Atkinson has written from New York to point out, even that may have been an overstatement.

She asks us to “please note that Rebecca West was born in London and never lived in Ireland”. The email continues: “Her father, Charles Fairfield, was born in Kerry, but Rebecca was a native Brit. I have seen [her] persistently claimed as an Irish author. For better of worse, she is not. Please issue a correction to help dispel this misunderstanding.”

Consider it done, Helen. And since we can be notoriously touchy in this country when our own high achievers are claimed by the next-door neighbours, it is only fair to disavow a case of reverse-colonisation. As to how the allegation of West’s Kerry birth ever arose, I can’t say. But it has a long history.

The suggestion was first made in this newspaper at least as far back as 1950, in An Irishwoman’s Diary by “Candida” (a pseudonym for Eileen O’Brien). Reviewing one of West’s books then, she wrote: “It may not be generally known that this intrepid traveller and writer is Irish by birth”.

But the habit didn’t start there, because I’ve also seen West’s Kerry nativity mentioned in a Time Magazine report from 1945. It has been regularly repeated in Britain too, including among other places, an Oxford “Who’s Who in the 20th Century”, now online.

How much our correcting the record will “help dispel this misunderstanding”, I don’t know. These legends can be notoriously hard to kill. Now that I know Rebecca West was not born in Kerry, in fact, I look forward to being annoyed by reading suggestions to the contrary for years to come.

Top intellectuals

In the meantime, I’m reminded of a feature the Observer ran back in 2011 on “Britain’s top 300 intellectuals”. The list notoriously included Seamus Heaney, Colm Tóibín, and this newspaper’s Fintan O’Toole – I had a lucky escape, obviously – among others.

In a subsequent correction, the Observer admitted that these “would not claim to be British” (which seemed to leave open the possibility that it could be claimed on their behalf). Mind you, the most egregious inclusion among the living intellectuals was the writer Brigid Brophy: who, as the correction also pointed out, had died 12 years previously.

In the context of West’s origins, Brophy was an interesting case. She too was born in England, as were both her parents. But as the name suggests, she had Irish heritage, via her father John Brophy, the Liverpool-born son of a Laois emigrant. Indeed, the family may have left a bit of itself behind here: their home village was Ballybrophy.

Enfant terrible

During the 1960s and 1970s, Brigid was an enfant terrible of British literature, known not just for her books but for fiercely held opinions on many subjects, including her fellow writers.

She was a vociferous advocate for feminism, atheism, animal rights, vegetarianism and, decades ahead of her time, same-sex marriage. She also successfully campaigned for authors to get a royalty whenever libraries lent their books, a cause that (like her atheism) she had inherited from the old man, himself a prolific writer, who called it the “Brophy Penny”.

It is poignant, therefore, that she became a forgotten figure in later years, a fact of which her posthumous inclusion in the Observer list was an ironic illustration.

Anyway, returning to our earlier theme, one of Brophy’s writings was an essay entitled: “Am I an Irishwoman?” (1966). By the normal criteria, the answer was no. After all, Brophy was a generation further removed from this country than West. She didn’t see it that way, however. “I feel a foreigner [in Ireland]” she wrote, “but I feel a foreigner in England too. I was brought up to do so.”

One of the odd things about this is that not only had John Brophy lived his whole life in England, he had served it in two world wars. During the second, in his 40s, he was limited to the Home Guard. But he had survived the entire first as a soldier, having falsified his age to enlist as soon it broke out. He was born, by the way, on December 6th, 1899: 120 years ago on Friday. By the time of his first Christmas at war, he had just turned 15.

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