The pipes, the pipes: Frank McNally on smoking, cartooning, and war

An Irishman’s Diary

Reading Edmund Blunden's classic memoir Undertones of War a while ago, I was intrigued by the mention of one of his colleagues, a fellow officer in the first World War trenches, with the surname Kapp. Edmond Xavier Kapp is first mentioned for a habit of making "scribbles and charcoal drawings not unworthy of his reputation as a satirical artist".

The author later praises him as a singer too, and as a shrewd poetry critic, who set Blunden right on some early mistakes in that discipline. But we also learn that Kapp was popular with other officers for lending his "magazines from home, among which was The Gypsy, a frolic in decadent irreverences published in Dublin".

So assuming him to have been a member of the famous tobacconist family, I went searching for more information in The Irish Times archive, where he was nowhere to be found. Instead, while there, I chanced upon a different, but in its own way impressive, contribution to the war effort from Kapp & Peterson.

In December 1914, under the headline "Irish Pipes for the Front", we reported that the firm had dispatched "25,000 pipes" from their factory in St Stephen's Green to soldiers overseas. That was the Christmas by which war was supposed to be over. But as troops settled in for a longer ordeal, no doubt the pipes were some comfort. They certainly gave the lyrics of Danny Boy a new twist.


Founded by German and Latvian emigrés, Kapp & Peterson was already an Irish institution by then, as literature would soon confirm.

Many Dublin businesses from the era can boast mentions in Joyce's Ulysses. K & P can pull rank on them, having featured in both Finnegans Wake (disguised as "Kappa Pedersen") and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

In Beckett’s play, the mysterious slave-master Pozzo searches in vain at one point for his “briar” (from bruyere, a Mediterranean wood whose root was used for pipe-making). Then, “on the point of tears”, he laments: “I’ve lost my Kapp and Peterson!”

There are not many national identifiers in Waiting for Godot, whose tramps Vladimir and Estragon are stateless as well as aimless. But Pozzo's pipe crisis, which they find amusing, betrays their origins. "He's a scream. He's lost his dudeen," jokes Estragon, using the Hiberno-English name for the clay pipes that predated wooden ones.

As for the Kapp & Peterson brand, that was known all over Europe then, and had some dubious admirers. A few years ago in this column, I interviewed a Tipperary-born, Dublin-reared doctor, Vincent Maher, who emigrated to England in the 1950s and, during his national military service, became a medic in Spandau Prison.

His patients included Baldur von Schirach, former head of the Hitler Youth who still clicked his heels, Nazi-style, but was disarmingly affable and delighted to hear of Maher’s Dublin origins because, being a smoker, he had always bought his pipes from K & P, masters of the art.

But back to Edmond Kapp, Blunden’s trench comrade, who as I now know was neither a Dubliner nor a pipe-maker. He was in fact English, and although he disappears from the book early, promoted to intelligence work in HQ, he went on to great renown as a portrait painter and caricaturist.

After being gassed in the first World War, he survived to be among the official artists of the second, recording the London Blitz and other subjects far removed from the “scarcely proper” sketches with which he had once amused Blunden.

I'm reminded of him now because, as the 1914-18 centenaries enter their final week in Ireland, artists and cartoonists may be about to have the last word on the matter.

This Saturday, a day-long conference in NUI Galway will discuss the use of cartoons during the war and since, with topics ranging from the Franco-Belgian tradition of bande dessinée to the way press cartoonists influenced opinion about Ireland after Easter 1916.

The conference coincides with the second annual Galway Cartoon Festival, which begins the same day. Last year's inaugural event was a modest one, in two venues. This year it will have at least eight, featuring the work of 70 cartoonists from all over the world, including Martyn Turner of this parish, Tom Mathews, and Graeme Keyes.

Because of the year that’s in it, the war will be a major theme. And the festival continues well past Remembrance Day, until November 17th.

Thus it seems safe to say that, after four long years of centenary commemorations, and in more ways than one, cartoonists will draw the whole thing to a close.