New Irish non-Fiction

SAVING THE STATE. Fine Gael From Collins to Varadkar. By Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan. Gill Books 2020. 469 pp. $43.55 h/b

Events in Washington in the early days of this year were a reminder of the chaos that can happen when one side in an election refuses to accept the vote of the people. There were those who expected similar problems after the Irish election of 1932: some members of the winning Fianna Fail side were so afraid that there would be a coup by their opponents that they brought guns to the opening meeting of the Dail in Leinster House. It turned out that there was no need, because the leader of the losing party, William T Cosgrave, handed over power with dignity.

The losers belonged to Cumann na nGaedheal, not Fine Gael, a party which was set up the following year, with Cosgrave as its first leader. In a sense, the distinction is irrelevant because it was a change of name rather than a change of policy or of philosophy. The new party saw themselves as the natural descendants of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. The years ahead saw an association with a neo-fascist group who wore blue shirts and extended their arms in a way that would soon have sinister implications. Even today, Fine Gael have not quite been able to cast off the Blueshirt pejorative, though it is not as widely used as it was in the middle years of the century.

Those like this reviewer who lived in Ireland in those times remember when political affiliation was mostly associated with which side a family took on the Treaty of 1921 and the subsequent civil war. That was slow changing and it was the work of people like Declan Costello and Garret Fitzgerald that slowly persuaded the Irish people that there was more to Fine Gael. Fitzgerald took the party from a kind of Irish version of Toryism to a genuine liberal party, though it took them quite some time to do what young Declan Costello had outlined in his Just Society document of the early ‘60s.

If this book has a hero, it is Garret Fitzgerald. He was fortunate to have a given name that was a bit unusual, so that it was rarely necessary to use his surname: he was simply Garret. Young people loved his all-action methods and he was lucky to have as his main opponent Mr Haughey, whose given name easily shortened to Charlie with the accepted alternative meaning of that word. Those times are all re-created here and it is like reminding everyone of what it was like to live in Ireland in the ‘60s and ‘70s and indeed in the decades on either side of those.

But, far from creating saints, the book is a reminder too of the way that Garret was a thorn in the side of his leader, the taciturn Liam Cosgrave, just as Dick Spring would be a constant thorn in his own side. And it seems to suggest that, in later years, the current President Michael D Higgins was generally a nuisance to everyone.

 The story of how the lacklustre Enda Kenny – also fortunate to have an unusual given name – held on to the leadership of Fine Gael against the bright and media-friendly young guns like Leo Varadkar is worth the price of the book on its own. But there are other conflicts and rows which are fully laid out, so that the reader is never bored into too much policy or economics because this is a book about the people who made Fine Gael. It is a kind of pocket history of Ireland in the century since independence, though that description may hide the effort that is required to stick with more than 400 closely-typed pages. That being said, Collins and Meehan’s book is enthusiastically recommended.

BEING NEW YORK, BEING IRISH. Terry Golway (ed). Irish Academic Press 2019. 206 pp. h/b €24.95

Glucksman Ireland House opened in New York in 1993. Sponsored by and carrying the name of Lew and Loretta Glucksman, it offers courses for New York University in Irish and Irish- American history and literature.

Lew Glucksman died at his residence in Cobh, Co Cork, in 2006. Of Hungarian-Jewish background, he served in the US navy in WWII and worked later as a Wall Street trader, ultimately becoming CEO of Lehman Brothers. His story is told in this collection of essays. ‘A man of the boat, and a man of the Bourse’, in the words of Joe Lee, spoken on the occasion of the award in 2002 of an honorary doctor of laws by the National University of Ireland.

Joe Lee himself is only one of the many Irish people associated with Glucksman Ireland House, of which he was director for a number of years. When he was Professor of History at UCC, he was one of Ireland’s best-known writers and historians; he also served four years as a member of Seanad Eireann. Another well known Irish academic who was involved with the House – in fact one of its first faculty members – was Denis Donoghue. From my own time as a student at UCD, even we dreamy science students would hear periodically of some utterance or action of the Professor of English. (Today, even he has been passed in popularity by his daughter, the novelist Emma Donoghue).

It is hard to know where to start in praising the essays in this collection. Here is John Connolly, whose novels have been reviewed on this site, writing on the Irish crime novel. ‘The genre, in its Irish incarnation, now enjoys significant commercial success both at home and abroad – although, interestingly, in a predominantly female form: women dominate the field, a turn of events which should provide academic essayists with a steady stream of income for years to come.’ Ouch, I think.

There is an essay on Frank McCourt and the story behind the creation of Angela’s Ashes. Another on Tammany Hall and Boss Croker and the work of Archbishop John Hughes. A name mentioned more than once as a lecturer at the House is John Waters, who I presume is the former boss of Magill and author of Jiving at the Crossroads. There is an essay by Colm Toibin titled Marching Towards the Future and another by Alice McDermott, author of Charming Billy. The introduction is written by Colum McCann and there are poems from Billy Collins, Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney.

The longest essays are two by the editor Terry Golway, each a veritable treasure-trove of Irish-America, a comment that indeed applies to the entire publication.

KEVIN BARRY. An Irish Rebel in Life and Death. By Eunan O’Halpin. Merrion Press 2020. 260 pp. €16.95

He is best known today as the subject of a ballad particularly suited to being sung late at night with a little cry in the voice and unsteadiness in the stance. But we know little about Kevin Barry and why he was hanged.

It turns out that his sentence came from his part in an attack on a small British army attachment on a regular outing to collect bread from a bakery in North King Street in Dublin. The purpose of the operation was to capture the guns being carried by the soldiers and then disappear into the maze of nearby streets. However, the attack was a disaster; three of the soldiers, including a 16-year old, were killed, and Barry was found hiding under the army lorry, his gun having jammed.

In the days that followed, Barry refused to recognise the court and would not accept a defence lawyer. His stance was approved by his mother and his siblings, while his case took a back seat to the last days of the hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney in Brixton Prison in London. So, Barry was duly hanged ‘in Mountjoy jail [the following] Monday morning’ and that was the end of the story.

Professor Eunan O’Halpin is Kevin Barry’s grand-nephew and goes to some lengths here to point out that his subject was just another one of the Volunteers who lost their lives in the final years of the War of Independence. As much of the book is devoted to Barry’s sisters as to the man himself, particularly his oldest sibling Kitby and her life after the death of her brother. This included a brief fund-raising visit to Australia which did not seem to be particularly noteworthy or memorable.

The most lasting value of O’Halpin’s book is likely to be the other events of those times and the many characters, known and little known, of the War of Independence and the later civil war. The Barry family took the anti-treaty side in that conflict, but managed to maintain contacts and friendships with many on the other side.