In Memoriam

It was a beautiful summer’s day. A weekend volunteer at the museum, I dutifully patrolled the upstairs galleries, watching from the windows as the tour guide led the people towards the first stop, the graves of Roger Casement and the Mountjoy Ten, and thinking that it would be quiet until they came back.

However, voices drifted up the stairs; not those of tourists, but of resident historian Shane MacThomáis together with a camera operator and veteran actor Jer O’Leary, who was dressed in Edwardian garb. They set up in the Prospect Gallery while I peeked in from the adjoining Milestone Gallery, Jer O’Leary standing in front of the wonderful cemetery view to be filmed. He declaimed and roared, while Shane stood and watched with evident enjoyment. Puzzled, I guessed that the filming was for a Bloomsday event until I distinguished the words of Jim Larkin – “the great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise”. I listened, occasionally glancing through the door as I paced up and down.

After about half an hour there was silence, and then applause; Shane, laughing, was congratulating Jer warmly. They packed up and left, and I went on patrol again.

Just another day; bringing history to life. Rest in peace, Shane.


Rhetoric and the Irish civil war

Something that has piqued my interest about Irish civil war historiography is its skewed nature and lack of context. The more thorough reading of the secondary material that my current work has involved has made the reason clear. Many historians refuse to engage with anti-treaty arguments on their own terms. Very few historians are not affected by pro-treaty propaganda, its scapegoating of individuals and groups (such as women and socialists) and especially its success in depoliticising the core arguments.

A quotation from Eunan O’Halpin’s Defending Ireland (1999, p. 37) is  particularly indicative of some widely held beliefs about republican ideology:

Republican complaints about the government’s attitude are revealing of an enduring strain in republican thought, whereby an extraordinarily strict litmus test of legality, of due process, and of general is applied to the actions of everyone save those in the movement itself… the movement on the one hand denies the legitimacy of the laws it happens not to like yet consistently complains that they are not fairly and correctly administered. This emphasis on fairness is deeply rooted in republican critiques of the state, and goes well beyond the necessary sophistries of defence counsel. It remains a central though puzzling part of republican doctrine and propaganda.

The point about the failure on the part of the republican movement to meet the standards it sets others is a fair one. However, there is also the assumption that there can be no justification in any republican position – whether this encompasses the entire period from 1916 to the present is not quite clear but we might perhaps infer that. It also downplays the role of state power – in this case that of the Provisional/Free State governments – and suggests that, because republican claims can a priori be dismissed, abuses by state power (as the forces of law and order) need not be too closely examined.

Yet, having only glanced at some of the many anti-treaty newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets, cartoons and posters in a rich and increasingly accessible body of sources, it is clear that there was a coherent and logical opposition to the treaty which was based on serious reservations about partition, empire, the rights of workers and the political stance of the Catholic church. Certainly, the rhetoric could be off-putting and inappropriate in some instances. The point remains that it is not good enough to assume that opposition to the Anglo-Irish treaty was based on personal inadequacies or a culture of violence for its own sake which some attribute to the IRA. It is telling that Nikolaus Braun, who made an extremely thorough and comprehensive study of the propaganda of both sides, could not “offer any objective cause” of the civil war conflict – “because I fear, none exists”. (Terrorismus und Freiheitskampf, 2003, p. 592) This does not  illuminate the exceptional nature of the Irish political landscape, but rather, perhaps, the inadequacies in the way in which it has been described.

Incidentally, for those who would like an introduction to the issues of the civil war, I would highly recommend Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution by C. Desmond Greaves. It is an attempt to describe the Irish revolution from about 1910 to 1922 through the participation of Liam Mellows in various organisations and movements and it succeeds amazingly well.

On being a postgraduate

It is quite a while since I blogged here either about history or about M.E. I’ve had a bit of an identity crisis about the blog, since I couldn’t force myself to decide to focus on just one of those topics (as common sense might dictate); however, as I am now a postgraduate student, and my M.E. must necessarily impinge upon my studies I can perhaps leave that dilemma aside again.

There are many quotable sayings by Albert Einstein on education, many of which tend to the idea that education is not essentially about facts learned, but about adaptability, persistence and imagination – certainly a good thing for me, since my memory is a little bit of a problem and facts cannot be my strong point any more. The attributes listed would apply as much to obtaining the information itself (issues of energy and stamina) and finding ways to sort and remember key details, analyse it and write it coherently (cognitive issues), as to developing new approaches, but perhaps that very difficulty may serve my cause.

Perhaps Einstein’s point is that as art is born out of adversity, so intellectual advances do not come in a peaceful sequence but thrive on difference, opposition, struggle, revolution. Zero Anthropology argues that universities often foster a climate that kills creativity and independence of thought in graduate students in the social sciences.

The only independence shown is in trying to find some niche in the mass of literature where one’s project “fits,” so that the effort of reviewing literature itself inspires a conservative approach to contributing to what is already in place, the status quo. One day, some may apply for academic employment, and in secret hiring committees will meet to discuss whether the applicant is a good “fit” with the Department. They tell applicants what the Department wants, and applicants better suppress any independent streaks that could promise threatening new directions.

I’m not about to say that having M.E. is a blessing in disguise yet. Given that it’s so beyond the experience of many people that they refuse to believe that it exists, perhaps it is an indication of the foolishness of an attempt to do a higher degree, much less full time. I’m not going to comment on that just yet, except to say that success will require an endurance and ingenuity that Einstein would surely approve of.

But those are just a few thoughts on being a history postgraduate with M.E.; I hope to write some more specific posts soon.

Open letter from the Countess of Mar to Simon Wessely

I think this can stand as it is without the need for context or introduction. The Countess of Mar is a British peer who has stood for the rights of people with M.E. for many years; Simon Wessely has featured in this blog on previous occasions.

Incidentally, given his past association with NATO and the British military, and his campaign to prevent Gulf War Syndrome being recognised as a physical illness, Wessely’s comments on the campaign for a pardon for a soldier who was executed in World War I for “cowardice” (or what the family believed was shell shock) are very interesting.

4 December 2012

Dear Professor Wessely

I note from recent correspondence arising from the report in the Independent on Sunday on 25 November 2012, that you believe me as guilty of harassing you. Perhaps it is not surprising that I regard this belief with something less than amusement. Continue reading

Fabricated stories of ignorant bards

In spite of being in a state of almost constant exhaustion since November due to about four successive viruses (Christmas and Easter saw me in bed with the flu) I managed to make it to a couple of talks this year. The first was part of a series hosted by the Royal Irish Academy about the Halliday papers. Dáire Keogh’s paper was an overview of the pamphlets from the 1790s. Given that pamphlets were still a central means of circulating ideas (and this in itself has its own politics; being relatively expensive, pamphlets were not aimed at the populace at large, and one of the revolutionary acts of the United Irishmen was to print a newspaper dealing with Irish political issues) the Halliday collection is remarkably diverse. Alongside political and religious issues, there were subjects such as agriculture, new forms of transport and technology, and, notably, concerns about education in the context of population growth in Ireland.

Probably addressing the great public debate surrounding the anti-slavery movement in Britain at this time, an account of slavery in Antigua was published in Cork in 1789, listing specifically and in detail the nature of the abuses, lending it a very modern tone. A tract by John Wesley, a frequent visitor to Ireland, was also printed in Cork the following year. The French Revolution was, of course, a huge topic for polemic. The test of every man’s political creed, as Wolfe Tone put it, issues of empire, kingship, nation and citizenship were writ large, and the debate was polarised between supporters of Paine and Burke. The issue of Catholic mobilisation emerged, as Tone argued for their inclusion in the discussion of revolution. John Fitzgibbon argued that the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 made it inevitable that Catholics would eventually gain their lands back, and that an act of Union was the only solution.

On March 14, I went to the Brendan Ó Buachalla memorial lecture at the National Library of Ireland, which was given by Pádraig Ó Riain on the development of his Dictionary of Irish Saints. That such a work did not previously exist in spite of the enormous amount of scholarship on the lives of saints [1] may seem a little extraordinary, but it had its ancestors in Liam de Paor’s Dictionary of Irish Saints, which was unpublished at his death, as well as the unpromisingly titled Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae (1962) and Ó Riain’s Corpus genealogiarum sanctorum Hiberniae (1985). The difficulties of compiling such a record becomes obvious when the impressive breadth of sources is viewed, ranging from annals to literature to hagiography, especially given that many of the manuscripts lie in various repositories in mainland Europe and England. However, it is also clear that the author engaged in painstaking and very practical folklore research as well.

One particular difficulty facing historians was raised by John O’Donovan, who, with Eugene O’Curry, collected information about local saints as they worked on the Ordinance Survey. Often accounts of the lives of saints were based on “the fabricated stories of ignorant bards and Ecclesiastics, [rather than] containing the sentiments of the original teachers of Christianity in Ireland” [2]. One famous example of the way in which politics led to historical fabrications is the turf war between Kildare and Armagh which caused works such as the 9th century Tripartite Life of St Patrick (Bethu Phátraic) to be written in order to promote Armagh’s claims to supremacy. The Tripartite Life had St Patrick make a journey to Munster, and although this was apparently not based on any historical evidence (the Book of Armagh does not mention it, for example) there still seems to be a strong belief in Clonmel that he visited what is now known as St Patrick’s Well. Ó Riain’s account of the cult of Finbar is another such example, as he made the extremely controversial suggestion some years ago that the saint intimately associated with Cork may never have set foot in the area and was, in fact, from North Down. Finbar’s cult spread to Scotland and Cornwall, and there is evidence that elements of his life may have been incorporated into the legend of San Frediano of Lucca owing to the travels of Irish monks.  Ó Riain also hypothesised that St Finian (on whose works Columbanus of Bobbio drew when composing his Penetential, was in fact Finbar, and also that St Colmcille, a pupil of Finbar, was the same person as St Canice and St Colmán.

Before the lecture I stayed a few minutes at the launch of Catherine Morris’s biography of Alice Milligan. I had originally intended to stay for both, but I only really had the energy for one (still feeling some of the effects of a bad cold, as distinct from the flu I have at the moment), and in any case the launch ran late. You can watch Declan Kiberd and Catherine Morris talk about the process of writing the book here. (The first video is linked to the others.) I don’t have any notes, and my virus-addled recollections don’t really shed any light on anything at all, so you’re better watching the videos.


This is a list of works on St Patrick alone.


The full text of O’Donovan’s letter.

De Valera, Asperger’s and psychiatry

An article by Dr Tony Humphries in The Irish Examiner on autism provoked a furore in the Irish media and online. There are some troubling assertions in the article, and the author does not seem to have a very sophisticated grasp of the issues that he would seem to claim an expertise in. However, as I have previously chronicled in this blog, unscientific claims are not unknown to the medical or psychiatric professions, and often seem to coincide, in a most serendipidous fashion, with political expediency. And, as I noted in this blog post, Irish doctors are always on hand to assist in targeting the disabled. Having a need to procrastinate this evening, I’m going to write about an attitude to Asperger’s Syndrome that is influenced by 90-year old political propaganda and the mental health stigmas that it exploited.

A few years ago, Dr Michael Fitzgerald, who is a professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin and has a private practice in Blackrock, wrote a book in which he claimed that certain figures in Irish cultural and political life bore all the signs of having had Asperger’s Syndrome. Entitled Unstoppable Brilliance: Irish Geniuses and Asperger’s Syndrome, the book’s list of Irish “Aspies” includes Robert Emmet, Patrick Pearse, Éamon de Valera, Robert Boyle, William Rowan Hamilton, Daisy Bates, WB Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Fitzgerald wrote that he wished, in connecting Asperger’s with achievement, to gain some social acceptance for eccentricity. So far, so noble, but while the book provoked complaints about the sheer number of such posthumous “diagnoses”, for me it raises a few serious questions about Dr Fitzgerald’s attitude to Asperger’s. Continue reading

A small puzzle about (possibly) the longest continuous hunger strike

I was looking at an obituary of my grandmother’s cousin in the Irish Press. One of the nine survivors of the Cork Prison hunger strike in 1920, he died in 1965 at the age of sixty-eight. The hunger strike of Terence McSwiney, in particular, was watched with interest by the world’s media, as it was not known at the time how long a person could survive without food. McSwiney, Mick Fitzgerald and Joseph Murphy all died on the strike. The Press clipping says that the survivors lasted 94 days on hungerstrike, and incidentally that figure was also given in the Guinness Book of Records. Of course this figure is absolute nonsense. While the hunger strike itself lasted for that length of time it is impossible that any single one of them went without food for the entire length of the hunger strike, let alone all nine. For comparison, Terenece McSwiney died after 74 days and in 1981 Bobby Sands died after 66 days. (By “hunger strike” in this instance, I mean a successful refusal of food. A woman has maintained her hunger strike for several years, but she is force fed.)

I recall my mother saying something about 78 days in relation to her mother’s cousin, who she describes as cranky and obsessed with greyhounds. There’s also a mention by someone in Uinseann MacEoin’s Survivors who was in Cork Prison at the time that he knew someone there who had survived nearly 80 days. These are more realistic figures, I think. This is something I’ve intended to look into for some time, and I’m hopeful someone from the Cork perspective can point me in the right direction. Though Limerick and national newspapers haven’t yielded any useful results, family histories and local historians may help. Like three of the other hunger strikers, my grandmother’s cousin was from the Ballylanders area.

Incidentally, his uncle, my great-grandfather, was born 147 years ago yesterday.