Turning an Old Leaf – Frank McNally on the revelations of second-hand books

An Irishman’s Diary

My local café operates an informal library service – or did before the pandemic – whereby customers are encouraged to “take a book, leave a book”.

Between ourselves, I have occasionally just taken one, on the grounds that I’ll return it later, which is broadly in keeping with the scheme. But I’ve also deposited the odd one without a withdrawal, so I think we’re about even.

The last one I took, which I promptly forgot having until recently, was a collection of interviews published in 1987, subtitled Conversations with Irish Leaders, by Ivor Kenny. Kenny, who died in 2016, was himself a leader, in business and academia. And as admitted in the introduction, the subjects were all friends of his. But he hoped to gain new insights from the interviews. As did I when borrowing the book.

Only when I finally got around to opening it this week did I notice the author's inscription on the flyleaf: "For Henri de Coignac, to welcome him to Ireland, October 1998". Thus my first insight was to find out who this aristocratic-sounding former owner of the volume was and why he hadn't kept it.

As I now know, de Coignac had been the new French ambassador then. His tour of duty in Ireland must have coincided with the Tour de France starting here – a fraught episode in the race's history. And of course it was also a busy period politically. Still, I'm sure the ambassador took the time to read Mr Kenny's gift before deciding that it wouldn't be accompanying back to Paris. Maybe he regifted it, en route to it ending up in my local café.

I myself tend to be a bit squeamish about recycling such books.

Every time I fill a box of pre-loved (or never read) titles for the charity shop, the first thing I have to do is check their flyleaves.

The cautionary precedent is a story about George Bernard Shaw who, browsing in a second-hand shop somewhere, found one of his own works, inscribed for a friend "with esteem, GBS". Naturally, he bought it and returned it to the same friend, "with renewed esteem".

This is why, when I find books that have been dedicated to me, even by strangers, I have a dilemma. Either I keep them, however unwanted, or I tear out the fly-leaf and any other incriminating evidence.

Maybe I’m a spoilsport. After all, part of the charm of old books is seeing where they have been before you. In many cases, it’s more interesting than the text.

Anyway, the only part of Kenny's (otherwise suspiciously pristine) book I have got around to reading yet is his interview with a former editor of this newspaper, Douglas Gageby, which is fascinating. I never met the latter man, but his perspective as a Belfast Protestant in 1980s Dublin has lost none of its wit or wisdom in intervening decades.

The chapter is full of spikily humorous recollections, including the time he turned down a job with the then Irish Times editor Robert Smyllie, insulting him and the other "Trinity fellows" there, in favour of staying with de Valera's Irish Press ("I loved that paper").

Or one from years later, after he had taken the IT’s shilling but was back in his hometown, being given a tour of the Belfast Newsletter by an old schoolmate.

The Newsletter man jokingly introduced him as “a traitor, a Lundy”, who had gone to school “up the road in the Academy” but was now “editing a Fenian newspaper in Dublin”.

Gageby laughed along but then reminded them that the Academy had been founded in the days of the United Irishmen, whose principles it shared. “I am the one who is true to the Academy,” he said. “The rest of you are the Lundys.”

But the part of my latest second-hand book that has been most instructive so far was a detail about Gageby’s father Tom, a “commonwealth man and a unionist” who was a civil servant in Dublin before 1922, then returned to Belfast to join the new administration there. Gageby thinks he never liked Belfast. He may also have been prone to depression. Either way, he arrived home from work every weekend “with an armful of books from the free library” and never went outside again until Monday.

In the meantime, the free library must have rubbed off on his son. Ideas can be viral, as we know (let’s hope borrowed books are not, for now).

And it seems telling that among the texts his unionist father encouraged Gageby jnr to read was a classic from the War of Independence, Ernie O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound.

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