The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
In Midnight Oil (London, 1971) V.S. Pritchett (1900-97) describes how The Christian Science Monitor sent him to Ireland early in 1923 to write about the Irish Civil War. The Anglo-Irish treaty had been signed, the Irish politicians split, and the two parties were killing each other. When Pritchett arrived the siege of the Four Courts in Dublin was well over and the fighting was drifting away to the south and west. In fact there was not much more than three months left before the Republicans decided to dump arms
On a misleadingly sunny day on the first of February 1923, I took the train from London to Holyhead. In a heavy leather suitcase I carried a volume of Yeats’s poems, an anthology of Irish poetry, Boyd’s Irish Literary Renaissance, Synge’s Plays, and a fanatical book called Priests and People in Ireland by McCabe [McCarthy, 1864–1926, published in 1902], lent to me by a malign Irish stationer in Streatham who told me I would get on all right in Ireland so long as I did not talk religion or politics to anyone and kept the book out of sight. Unknown to myself I was headed for the seventeenth century.
The Irish Sea was calm—thank God—and I saw at last that unearthly sight of the Dublin mountains rising with beautiful false innocence in their violets, greens, and golden rust of grasses and bracken from the sea, with heavy rain clouds leaning like a huge umbrella over the northern end of them. My breath went thin: I was feeling again the first symptoms of my liability to spells. I remember wondering, as young men do, whether somewhere in this city was walking a girl with whom I would fall in love: the harbours of Denmark gave way to Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Hills. The French had planted a little of their sense of limits and reason in me, but already I could feel these vanishing.
Once through customs I was frisked for guns by a Free State soldier with pink face and mackerel-coloured eyes. I got out of the local train at Westland Row, into that smell of horse manure and stout which were the ruling Dublin odours, and was driven on an outside car with a smart little pony to (of all things, in Ireland!) a temperance hotel on Harcourt Street. It was on this first trot across the city that I had my first experience of things in Ireland not being what they seem. I have described this in a book on Dublin which I wrote a few years ago [more below]. The jarvey whipped along, talking his head off about the state of the “unfortunate country,” in a cloud of Bedads, Begobs, God-help-us-es, but turned out to be a Cockney. The Cockney and Dublin accents are united by adenoids. Cab drivers are, perhaps, the same everywhere.
It was now dark and I went out into the wet streets. Troops were patrolling them and I was soon stopped by a patrol and frisked once more. More friskings followed as I got to the Liffey. It was enjoyable. I didn’t realize that my green velour hat from the Boulevard des Italiens, with its wide, turned-down brim, was an item of the uniform of the IRA. I went straight to the Abbey Theatre. In the shabby foyer, a small middle-aged woman with grey hair and looking like a cottage loaf was talking to a very tall man. He was unbelievably thin. He seemed to be even more elongated by having a very long nose with a cherry red tip to it. The woman’s voice was quiet and decided. His fell from his height as waveringly as a snowflake.. . [suggestive of Yeats and Gregory]
Pritchett took up the story in more detail in that wonderful evocation of Dublin in the 1950s and early 1960s –Dublin: A Portrait (1967) in an essay to provide a setting for photographs by Evelyn Hofer. Pritchett, as a young journalist, crossed over from England to write about the Civil War. The worst of the war was over in Dublin but there were raids and stoppages by the Free State soldiers. Rifle shots (and not just in Dublin) were commonplace, but the war had largely moved to the south-west of the country. Pritchett recalled in Dublin: A Portrait that:
My first Irish friends were boundlessly hospitable, of course, but they pointed out to me that I belonged to a fleshly, materialist, sensual nation given to sex, the love of money and over-eating. This could have been true for I have met the same remark in Aarland Ussher’s The face and Mind of Ireland; but I must point out that Dublin was then, and still is, a city where very fat, black-haired, red-faced men abound, men as soft and plump as tenors in training. This is said to be due to a diet of Guinness and Dublin’s excellent bread. For myself, in two years of Ireland, I faded away to wanness in that languid climate and was rarely able to get up before eleven in the morning. I became sensitive, snobbish and fey; this was much noticed when eventually I returned to England. I was even to come across a Quaker ex-Auxiliary who had settled down with an Irish Catholic girl in Tipperary – a county he had probably terrorised a couple of years before – who had the same characteristics. Something odd happens to the English in Ireland. And to the Irish in England; my schoolmaster, who was an Irish Catholic, denied he was either Irish or Catholic when we attacked him about politics. [Pritchett married too in 1924 to Evelyn Maud Vigors of a upper class Anglo-Irish family. Her mother was an enthusiastic Christian Scientist. He remarried in 1936.]
It could have been the 1920s but it is from Dublin: A Portrait – one of most charming books on Dublin. Published in 1967 it is now only available second hand. This picture is of two chambermaids. The same photograph could have been taken at Flynn’s restaurant, Tullamore up to the early 1970s.
Pritchett goes on:
They were nasty times, often comical, often horrible. Dublin had a terrible six years since the Rising; the ‘War’ was degenerating into gangsterism. The politicals were suffering from strain and many were out of their minds. The public was, quite rightly, weary of the business, just as in Europe people were sick of the 1914 war and its aftermath. Harsh and obstructive as the British had been, the liberated Irish were colder and harsher to one another, as Lord Birkenhead [one of the negotiators of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the British side] had predicted they would be. There was jealousy among leaders. The scale though not the savagery of the Troubles was greatly exaggerated; every week houses were burned down – thirty–seven country houses, some of them very fine – or robbed, and people were murdered or killed in action, the word varying with your politics. There was continual talk of ‘principle’ but, in fact, personal jealousy and vengeance were at the bottom of these actions which have left a deep bitterness that lasts among the survivors of my generation and my few elders to this day. In Dublin nowadays [mid-1960s] if you ask about this crime or that, the memory has to be avoided; it is invariably described as ‘mistake’.
In an article in The Daily Telegraph of Easter Monday, fifty years later, Terence de Vere White (1912–94), cited by Pritchett, makes an important point about the Rising when he said;
There were there were two elements in the Rising – Poetry and poverty. It is the poetry that, in a desperate and dotty way, has survived.
Had Connolly, as he was prepared and determined to, made his own protest in arms on behalf of the Dublin slum dwellers, the horror of whose conditions had been exposed in 1913, his effort would have been able to show, after the October Revolution in Russia, that Ireland had narrowly escaped BOLSHEVISM. Without Pearse and his friends a Rising would have been smaller, more quickly suppressed and, in the long run, unavailing.
Pritchett goes on to cite an extract from deVere White’s useful biography Kevin O’ Higgins (London, 1948)
The relatively small proportion of the population engaged in the conflict with Great Britain acted in concert up to December 1921. The spilt which then occurred involved more than a mere political difference. Personal loyalties and, perhaps jealousies played their part. There were many who took sides against the Treaty who had their spiritual home on the constitutional side and there were those who followed Collins who would have been equally happy on the hillsides and thousands took arms against the Government who had taken no part against the British. Revolutions throw to the surface fierce and dangerous men as pure-souled idealists. These were men who shot down policemen or British soldiers to order but who were quite incapable of enunciating any political theory. They took to violence as a duck to water and revelled in a revolutionary period. These are the men who are misfits in normal times, who clutch at Nazism, Fascism, Mosleyism and in Ireland, at the I.R.A. as an outlet for their anti-social impulses.
Hofer has photographs of Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain, both of whom have left memoirs of their part in the Civil War on the Republican side. Pritchett died in 1997 having been over sixty years a writer and heaped with honours. He collaborated with Hofer for her books on London and New York..
It looks like a O’Neill’s in Suffolk Street. From Dublin: A Portrait – one of most charming books on Dublin. Published in 1967 it is now only available second hand.
Their London Perceived book of 1962 seemed out of date and failed to anticipate the Swinging Sixties. Ireland did not pose that problem even four years later.
Now you can read testimonies of some of those who fought and how the civil war was recalled, and those who suffered. Join us for the April lecture at Offaly History by Síobhra Aiken, the author of Spiritual Wounds, a book that challenges the widespread belief that the Irish Civil War (1922–23) was followed by a ‘traumatic silence’ by uncovering an archive of previously overlooked testimonies by pro- and anti-treaty men and women. Aiken argues that revolutionaries went to great lengths to testify to the ‘spiritual wounds’ of civil war: they adopted fictionalised disguises, located their writings in other places or periods of time, and found shelter behind pen names. This wealth of published testimony reveals that the silence of the Irish Civil War was not necessarily a result of revolutionaries’ inability to speak, but rather reflects the unwillingness of official memory makers to listen to the stories of civil war veterans.
 See DIB for de Vere White, an entry by Owen Dudley Edwards.
 For more on Pritchett see ODNB, entry by Paul Bailey.