Dubliners

Charles Lysaght

  • Dublin made me by C.S. Andrews
    Mercier Press, 312 pp, £9.00, November 1979, ISBN 0 85342 606 6
  • Home before Night by Hugh Leonard
    Deutsch, 202 pp, £5.25, October 1979, ISBN 0 233 97138 6

Most of those who made the new Ireland have gone to their graves leaving no memoir behind them. For this reason alone, the appearance of Dublin made me, the autobiography of Todd Andrews, is to be welcomed. Andrews has been a kind of Lord Robens or Doctor Beeching of Irish life, presiding over the destinies of state companies and exercising considerable influence in the governing Fianna Fail party founded by Mr De Valera. But the story of these years of power has yet to come. This first volume of his memoirs is about the first 23 years in the life of an Irish freedom-fighter who was born in 1901 on the edge of Joyce’s famous ‘Night-own’, known as ‘Monto’ – a red-light quarter with no red lights near Dublin’s wide main thoroughfare. Andrews’s family belonged to the lower middle class, and lived over their small dairy business in a slum area. He grew up close to the kind of people whose talk has been immortalised by Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan. Indeed, Andrews claims that Fluther Good in O’Casey’s Plough and the Stars was once employed in their dairy. In this ‘most pathetic and apathetic city in Europe’, the slums kept on increasing and the poor got poorer and more degraded. But the Andrews family were comfortable in their modest prosperity, and the author’s childhood was happy. He grew up loving the pavements of his native city. Several times he returns to the theme of only feeling secure when he is there, close to his roots. He has recaptured in enchanting detail the flavour of his life in those Edwardian days: the family outings, the genteel entertainments, the spacious and the seedy characters. There is a Joycean flavour about it. This part of the book will cause the tears of nostalgia to well up in many an ancient Dublin eye.

There was nothing especially nationalist about his upbringing. His people were Catholics and viewed Protestants with suspicion, if not hostility – conscious that their Catholicism made them second-class citizens. But that was as far as it went. ‘Dublin,’ the author writes ‘was a British City and accepted itself as one.’ In the course of time, under the influence of a cousin who was, ironically, employed in the British civil service, Andrews was drawn into the Irish Ireland movement. He joined the Republican youth movement, narrowly missed involvement in the 1916 Rising, took part in the guerrilla war against the British after the victory of Sinn Fein in the 1918 General Election, and participated on the Republican side against the Government of the Irish Free State in the civil war which followed upon the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Andrews was not a leader in these events. His account is from the ranks, and much of it is an account of his own reactions – a kind of personal odyssey. The writer is as frank about himself as about everybody else, and there is none of the smooth smarminess that has become commonplace in the memoirs of successful men. ‘In my case,’ he writes, ‘the chemistry of attraction and repulsion is particularly strong. I am very much aware that my own particular personality has the same effect on other people.’ He was a thoughtless, ungracious, tough, awkward youth, full of strong feelings and resentments, but he possessed a basic self-confidence rooted in a total acceptance of who and what he was. As a fighter, he was sometimes frightened, and he makes no bones about it. He was one of those detailed to kill British agents in their homes in the original Bloody Sunday of November 1920. In the event, his quarry had fled, but the account remains gripping.

He did not expect the struggle against the British to succeed any more than had previous Irish revolutions. Yet when Griffith and Collins settled for Dominion Status, rather than a Republic, he felt betrayed. His unquestioning trust in the leadership was shattered. The age of innocence was over. The starry-eyed idealism of the War of Independence gave way to the disillusionment of the civil war, when old comrades killed and brutalised one another. Andrews writes grimly of these enmities, with which he has lived for so long. ‘I am never certain that even in my old age, my views or feelings on any aspect of Irish life are not distorted by the lesions that this hatred and bitterness has created in my mind.’ He scarifies the bishops and the bourgeoisie for their part in downing the Republicans and seems unable to accept that the majority had a right to rule.

After recovering from wounds received during the initial fighting in Dublin, he fled to the country, where the Republicans remained strong. His picture of life among the retreating ‘Legion of the Rearguard’ is masterly. He describes his own suffering from scabies, and gives an excellent portrait of Liam Lynch, their Army chief, a high-minded irreconcilable who resisted all efforts to stop the war even when the cause was hopeless. Only after Lynch’s death in action was De Valera, the political leader of the Republicans, able to reassert control and direct the movement into the constitutional channels which eventually made it, under the name of Fianna Fail, the dominant political force in modern Ireland. Andrews himself remains a pretty irreconcilable character. He writes of the permanently irreducible minimum number of separatists, consisting of one-third of the Irish people (Protestants don’t seem to count), who will ensure that, as long as the British occupy any part of the island, normal political conditions cannot prevail.

As history, Andrews’s account cannot be said to be impartial, but there is a characteristic straightforwardness about this. ‘From a very early stage in my life,’ he writes, ‘I had not the capacity to contain two divergent points of view at once. Everything I thought, or rather felt, was right and everything else was error. I would have had no problem, if I had lived at the time of the Inquisition, in accepting employment in the Holy Office.’ He seems largely oblivious of the atrocities committed on the Irish side in the War of Independence, and on the Republican side of the civil war, reserving his censure for the misdeeds of their opponents. More serious in the long term was the failure on the part of men such as Andrews to appreciate traditions of Irish life other than the Republican one, and the need for reconciliation if all Irishmen were to be united. Protestants, Redmondites, Free Staters were dupes or traitors whose views and aspirations were to be given short shrift, although it must be said that Andrews is generous towards those who gave their lives in the First World War. On another plane, there was no coherent social philosophy in the Irish national movement beyond a crude levelling, and a desire to get rid of the British and their Irish friends. The deficiencies of men like young Andrews became the deficiencies of the Irish state which they ruled for almost fifty years after independence. Nobody will leave this volume of memoirs without a greater understanding of the historical roots of that state and the outlook of those who ran it.

Hugh Leonard is a successful modern Irish playwright. Born in 1926, he belongs to a later generation than Todd Andrews. He was brought up as the foster child of working-class parents in the village of Dalkey on the south side of Dublin Bay. In Home before Night he tells the story of his early life, of the foster-mother who never let him forget the favour she had done him by adopting him, of his easygoing foster-father, the cruelties of the middle-class school he attended as a scholarship boy, and the shabby boredom and gnarled personalities of the Irish civil service. His foster-father had been out in the Fight, and his only strong emotion was a fierce hatred of England which co-existed anomalously, but not untypically, with a cringing respect for the Anglo-Irish gentry who employed him. This is an artful account, and a somewhat bitter one, of what was a very unhappy childhood. Many of the characters and incidents have an unreal, burlesque quality, and the very skill of Leonard’s writing seems to add to the impression that the account is not wholly authentic. Not that it lacks good lines, or glimpses of the truth. ‘Bastardy is more ignominious in a small town than a large one,’ a would-be mentor assured the author, ‘but please God it may light a fire under you.’ If that didn’t, something else did.