Thursday, December 18, 2014

Shadows & Smoke - in search of my grandfather's rebel past

If you follow this blog, apologies for re-posting this one. A few people have asked me to make it available recently, so I decided to put it back up for convenience. It's a long 'un but if you're up for it (and interested in Irish history or 'creative non-fiction' as an approach to history) it may be worth the travel...

The piece first appeared in The Dublin Review, issue 19, summer 2005.


                                      And what danger can there be in being the shadow of a gunman?
                                                                                                                –  Sean O’Casey

In 1997 I gave my father a Christmas gift of a coffee-table History of Ireland, a heavily illustrated book with text by Richard English. As we sat down in the living room to relax after our dinner, my father and I began to look through it. On page 108, my father stopped at a photograph of a ragtag line of men trudging along a snow-covered mountain road. The caption above the image read: “IRA Volunteers on the march in 1922.” My father studied the picture for a long time before saying quietly, “The man in the front of the group is my uncle Martin. The man at the back is your grandfather.” Then, without looking up: “He always told me he never fought in the civil war.”


I never met my grandfather. He died three years before I was born, so I knew him only as a man growing elderly in a succession of family photographs, usually at the edge of the frame with an awkward smile, his eyes directed away from the action and towards the ground in front of him. The camera is drawn to certain faces; my grandfather had a knack of becoming almost invisible to its gaze. 

            I knew he had been a member of the “old” IRA. My father would say, “He did his bit for the country” and leave it at that. I often wondered what “bit” meant but I didn’t press him. Politics was not spoken about with any urgency in our household, though I do remember my mother telling me, as I was about to vote for the first time, “You can vote for whoever like as long as it’s Fianna Fáil.” I voted for Labour as a protest, though not one I was brave enough to mention.
            Growing up in a housing estate in suburban Dublin during 1970s and 80s, I felt very distant from my grandfather and his world. Even as kid, I had a sense that these estates were places without history. The house in which I grew up had been a farmer’s field only a generation before, and whatever landmarks and significance it had have been buried under a grid of streets with improbably quaint names – usually the townlands and villages of the builder’s childhood.
We lived in Kinvara. On holidays with my family one summer, we went on a day-trip to see the actual Kinvara, a small coastal village in County Galway. The late afternoon sun shone down on us as we got out of the car. I walked down the main street with my parents, passing the bright pink front of a sweet shop with a HB ice-cream sign on the pavement. Beside it, there were two pubs with the cream and yellow of the Guinness sign hanging in the window – the St. George and Creen’s. My father stopped and looked up above the white-framed windows to examine the sign-writer’s work.  This was a habit of his on holidays. In Dublin, more and more pubs and shops had gone over to plastic and neon shop fronts. In rural towns and villages, most still went for the more traditional hand-painted sign.
“Not bad,” he said, after a moment, “Nice, clean finish.”
My father, I knew, was looking at how crisp the letter edges were. To me it seemed a simple enough job. He had been teaching me how to create a perspective on a letter by shading it. At home, after finishing my schoolwork, I would often practice on the headlines of the Evening Press. The most difficult letter was ‘S’. When I’d mastered it, I would try to do a headline from unusual perspectives – say, from above and to the right – and show my father my efforts.
He said I had a “good hand” and that I’d make a good sign-writer some day, if there were any signs left to paint. My eldest brother was serving his apprenticeship with him in CIE at the time. They were painting advertisements on buses for the company. They had recently completed the Smarties bus, with  the sweets spilling across the back, front and broad sides of a double-decker. (They had even painted Smarties on the top, though no one would ever see them.) The bus had become something of an icon as it drove around the streets of Dublin that summer. 
As we walked to the harbour in Kinvara, we passed a row of houses that faced onto the sea, their fronts painted in salmon pink, sky blue, or pale yellow. Against the evening sun, all the colours had that particular washed-out Atlantic quality as the light played off the water in the harbour. To me everything seemed aged into mystery – the slightly crooked gable of a house; the orange nets of the lobster pots lying on the worn granite slabs at the harbour’s edge; the stone walls that looked like they would topple at any second.
There were no straight edges here apart from on the shop-fronts. History and geography co-existed. The village did not erase what had been there before, but seemed to grow around it, layer by layer. The past breathed into every brick and window sash. And always the ocean dominating the skyline in front of you, or coming into view in the gap between two houses. I remembered thinking how strange it must be to have the same address as us, yet wake up in such a different world. 
Where we lived, around the time of the IRA hunger strikes, there was a growing and palpable dislike for the Thatcher government, and as that dislike grew so also did a support for the IRA, with slogans like “BRITS OUT” and “UP THE IRA” appearing overnight on walls and laneways. While the majority of people were embarrassed by their presence, these hastily sprayed works of graffiti would rarely be painted over.
I grew to dislike the IRA as much as I disliked Thatcher. Their actions had become increasingly arbitrary and brutal at a time when I was old enough to understand what that meant. They were, I thought, thugs, and their influence had begun to stretch to Dublin, where they ran protection rackets to raise funds for the “cause”. In school we would hear whisperings about someone who knew someone whose brother who had crossed “the Ra” and been knee-capped in Cabra or Finglas. I also remember the day of the funeral of Kevin Brady, in March 1988. Brady and two other IRA men had been killed when a loyalist threw a bomb into the crowd at the funeral of one of the IRA operatives killed by the SAS in Gibraltar.
 The funeral was recorded by a television helicopter. A throng of people marched in procession behind Brady’s coffin towards the Milltown cemetery in West Belfast. A silver Volkswagen, driving at speed, turned into the street and towards the crowd. The car came to a stop then tried to reverse away, but a taxi blocked its path. As the furious mourners descended on the car, one of the two men pulled a gun and fired into the air. The crowd ignored the warning shot and quickly overpowered him. Fear and horror were visible on the faces of the two men as they were  pulled onto the street, blows raining down on them.
I thought it would stop, that someone would intervene, or the RUC would suddenly show up in their armoured jeeps and break up the crowd. But no one came. The men were dragged away into a waiting taxi and taken to a nearby waste-ground where they were stripped and beaten, and eventually shot in the head. The two men were British soldiers. Despite initial suspicion that they were SAS conducting surveillance or loyalist paramilitaries, it later emerged that they were ordinary soldiers driving back to their barracks in Lisburn.
In school we were taught history as though these events weren’t happening. We revised the Easter Rising and War of Independence for the Leaving Certificate (which was only months away), the same profile of Pearse that we saw in our books painted on the gable end of houses in West Belfast or the Bogside like a religious icon.
I had no desire to find out more about what my grandfather may or may not have done all those years before, perhaps because I feared the worst. I studied the history textbook, and diligently wrote my essays as if those events had taken place in a different country. I continued to think of my grandfather as the taciturn, shy man my father spoke of with affection, hovering at the edge of the family snapshot, his eyes down-turned and inward, disappearing into an ordinary existence.


My grandfather, Patrick Duffy, was born in Phibsboro, on the north side of Dublin, in 1895. His mother had died in childbirth when he was three or four years old. His father died suddenly only four years later. He, his brother Martin and sister Nan were sent to live with relatives of his mother, in Clohamon Cross, Co. Wexford.
            The conditions in Clohamon were basic compared to those in Phibsboro, where they had lived in a house belonging to the Midland-Great Western Railroad. There was no gas or lighting, no electricity – this would not arrive for nearly four decades – and no running water.
            After they finished school, my grandfather and his brother Martin were taken on as apprentice coachbuilders by Lar Finn in the nearby village of Kilmichael. In those days, horse-drawn carriages were not mass-produced, so each large town had a coach-building firm that built them to order. After the introduction of the motorcar, coachbuilders extended their business to include modifications and conversions, usually to commercial vehicles such as vans or even hearses. In many cases, they stripped the car to the chassis and built a new one on top of it.
            After my grandfather and his brother completed their apprenticeships sometime around 1915, Hutton’s Coach-building Company in Dublin took them on. At that time Hutton's was the most prestigious coachbuilders in the city, having recently completed a Royal commission – the so-called Irish Carriage – for King George V.  The workshop was located in Summerhill, a short distance from their old neighbourhood of Phibsboro.
On the surface, Dublin hadn’t changed that much since they left. Unlike the mass of unskilled labourers and their families (who lived precarious lives in tenements) my grandfather and his brother had the prospect of a good living. But while the city apparently continued on as ‘a centre of paralysis’ – as Joyce famously described it – the political landscape of the country was changing rapidly. After the Easter Rising was crushed, support for Sinn Féin grew rapidly, partly because the party had been misidentified by the British authorities as the driving force behind the insurrection. In the elections in December 1918, Sinn Féin won a large majority of seats on an abstentionist platform. On 21 January 1919 they formed Dáil Éireann, and followed this by issuing the Declaration of Independence.
            On the same day, two policemen were shot at Soloheadbeg, in County Tipperary. The Irish War of Independence had begun.

I have no idea at what point, or through what incidents, my grandfather decided to join the Irish Volunteers. I only know for certain that in December 1919 he entered the Gaelic League building on Frederick Street with his brother, accompanied by a member of the Volunteers to vouch for his character, and became a member of the Dublin Brigade, 1st Battalion, F Company. He took the standard oath, the stated objectives of which were “to unite in the service of Ireland, Irishmen of every creed and of every party and class” and to “secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland.” In reality, my grandfather was committing himself to drive the British out of Ireland through raid, boycott, and ambush. Up to December 1919, the war had been largely a sporadic affair of tit-for-tat attacks and few casualties. In 1920, it would become much more violent.


After my grandmother’s death in 1985, my uncle Marty came across two documents in an old chest of drawers. He decided not to tell my father about them at the time and they only came to light again when my father mentioned I was writing this piece – by which time my uncle was aware that my father and I had come across the photograph of my grandfather on the march with the IRA during the Civil War.
The first of the documents discovered was a letter from T.J. Merrigan, my grandfather’s Captain in F Company, addressed to the Secretary of the Military Pension Board and dated August 1941. Merrigan’s letter outlines the activities my grandfather participated in during his time as a Volunteer, from December 1919 to September 1923. It states: ‘During the Civil war he was on active Service with F Coy in the O’Connell area and took part in nearly all operations carried out by F Coy including Raids for Arms taking over the Four Courts Attempting to blow up bridges Attacks on Broadstone and Mountjoy Burning of Rotunda Rink Post Office and numerous other operations.’
The letter concludes: ‘During the period I have known Patrick Duffy I can vouch for the very efficient manner [in which] he always carried out his Instructions.’ Merrigan also mentions that he attended all battalion and company meetings. On first reading this seems like faint praise. My grandfather evidently lacked the flamboyance or determination to lead, but his unassuming nature would have made him, in many ways, an ideal Volunteer. Ernie O’Malley, who trained battalions, repeatedly mentions in his memoirs the lack of commitment by Volunteers, with both company members and officers regularly missing meetings. O’Malley, and most officers, also disapproved strongly of drinking among the men out of fear that loose talk would get Volunteers killed or captured. My grandfather, like his brother, was quiet and sober. They were also men who did not draw unnecessary attention to themselves.

Perhaps the most notable of my grandfather’s War of Independence activities referred to by Merrigan was his participation in the defense of Church Street after the arrest of Kevin Barry in October 1920.  Kevin Barry, a medical student in University College Dublin and a member of H Company in the 1st Dublin Battalion, was one of twenty-six Volunteers who assembled for a raid on Church Street on 20th September 1920. At half-past eleven a military lorry drew up at Monk’s Bakery and three soldiers entered. The Volunteers approached the escort and ordered them to drop their weapons. One of the soldiers unexpectedly picked up a rifle and began firing, and the raid rapidly degenerated into a shoot-out. The Volunteers fled into the warren of nearby side streets, but Barry was captured in the chaos. One British soldier was killed in the raid. Two later died from their wounds.
Barry was quickly tried by court-martial for the murder of one of the soldiers, Private Mathew Whitehead, and was sentenced to death. A campaign for his release was launched, but he was executed on 1st November 1920, and became arguably the most prominent nationalist martyr of the War of Independence.
Today, as you walk down Constitution Hill towards Church Street you pass the semi-derelict Victorian façade of the Broadstone bus depot, where my father once worked. A little further down the hill, to the left, is the beautifully maintained King’s Inns building, with its imposing neo-classical columns and high windows that look onto neat lawns and hedgerows. Down the hill by the river, the green dome of the Four Courts dominates the skyline.  Beyond the Gothic spire of the Capuchin Friary, the sky is criss-crossed by nearly a dozen cranes floating above the rooftops. But even the vast regeneration project that is taking place in the vicinity of the old Smithfield Market, only blocks away, has bypassed the Church Street neighbourhood.
            In 1920, this area was one of the main centres of activity for the 1st Dublin Brigade, and the capture of Kevin Barry here was to mark the beginning of a series of events that would culminate in Bloody Sunday, one of the pivotal moments of the war between the IRA and the British administration in Ireland.  It is not difficult to imagine now how dangerous it was to be in these streets during the days after Barry’s arrest. TJ Merrigan’s letter to the pension board says that my grandfather was ‘armed with both Revolver and bombs’. Guns were scarce among the Volunteers, which was the reason they planned so many raids for munitions. To be given a gun meant you were expected to use it.  To be captured with a weapon would mean incarceration and interrogation in Dublin Castle. Interrogations there were brutal. The possession of a gun would often be used to implicate the Volunteer in some other incident. Soon the British would make carrying a weapon a capital offence.
The Volunteers feared that reprisals would be carried out directly on the community as a result of the incident at Monk’s bakery. Their presence on the streets during the day – and in safe houses during the curfew, which now ran from 10pm to 5am – was intended to enable them to respond to any such attacks.
            The Capuchin friars were known to be sympathetic to the IRA. My grandfather told my father that they were the only order in Dublin who would give mass and confession to IRA men during the War of Independence. Several Capuchin priests were arrested over the course of the conflict and a number were placed in custody in Dublin Castle. In a sense, Church Street was the spiritual centre for the 1st Dublin Battalion.
            As companies within the battalion, H and F had carried out many missions together, and it’s likely my grandfather knew Kevin Barry. In a house in the Liberties, on the other side of the river, my grandmother – then in her early teens – gathered in the living room with family and neighbours, and prayed for his safe release. This was more than local piety. She was also Kevin Barry’s cousin.   
After walking around the Church Street area for several hours looking for clues as to what this neighbourhood must have been like in 1920, I decided to visit the Capuchin Friary. After “the scrap”, as the Volunteers often euphemistically called the War, my grandfather and many other members of the 1st Battalion joined the sodality there. He attended mass in the church most Sundays for the remainder of his life, and once a month, on a Friday, the sodality gathered for prayer and discussion.
I sat in a pew beneath the high-arched wooden ceiling. As I studied the statue of St. Anne, the most impressive in the church, I heard a shuffling nearby. A young man in dirty tracksuit bottoms and a denim jacket, lay on a pew across the aisle. He looked like he was trying to sleep but shifting uneasily, his foot constantly tapping with the signature agitation of a long-term heroin user. I looked about; the church was otherwise empty.


On the morning of Sunday, 21st November 1920, fourteen suspected British intelligence agents were shot in a co-ordinated strike by members of Michael Collins’ ‘Squad’ and the 1st Dublin Brigade. My grandfather, who was not aware of the operation (and had in fact been told that it would be a quiet weekend), was part of the large crowd that gathered at Croke Park for a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary later that day. As the RIC cordoned the ground, gunshots were heard. Inside the ground, my grandfather recalled that there was an instant stampede towards the gates, and a man fell in front of him. He recalled that he managed to pull the man from the ground, before making his escape towards the gates. By the end of the afternoon eleven spectators and a member of the Tipperary team had been killed and many more injured.
            Some time during the days that followed, my grandfather and other members of his company were called to an emergency meeting in Lourdes House, near the city centre. The commanding officer, knowing that the police and army presence was intense, instructed the men not to bring their guns, and my grandfather hid his revolver in the cinders of the forge at Hutton’s.
Shortly after the meeting started, the building was surrounded by the Auxiliary police. An officer read the Volunteers’ names from a list and they were arrested and  transferred in lorries to Dublin Castle, where they were placed under armed guard. While the Volunteers slept, a large group of Black and Tans came into the hall and began to beat a number of men. My grandfather’s brother, Martin, was stuck with a butt to the head, and suffered eyesight problems for the rest of his life as a result. Alerted to what was occurring, the regular British soldiers (coincidentally also an F Company) soon intervened and stopped any further beatings.
The following morning my grandfather, his brother, and the other members of his Company, were transferred to Ballykinlar internment camp in County Down.

The second of the two documents concerning my grandfather’s IRA activity that my uncle discovered in 1985 is a photograph of internees taken in the Ballykinlar Camp, sometime in 1921. The twenty-five men pose for the photograph in front of the corrugated wall of the hut where they were to reside for over a year. Most of them are young. Some smile, others don’t. All are dressed shabbily though two men wear neckties and high collars, perhaps indicating their rank.
            My grandfather sits on the ground in the front row. He is half-turned away from the photographer, his arms folded across his chest. There is a look of sullen defiance on his face as he throws a sidelong glance at the camera. Beside him, another man sits with a placard with the simple inscription “Hut 29 B Coy”. In the back row his brother Martin smiles, his hands draped casually over the shoulders of the two men in front of him.
            There is something different about my grandfather in this image. While many of the men look straight at the camera and draw the eye, my grandfather – while not at first noticeable – doesn’t disappear in this picture as he does in so many others. He is there, but grudgingly.
At some point during his time in the camp, he was walking in the grounds with a friend for daily exercise. As they strolled near the perimeter fence a single shot rang out from the watchtower. When my grandfather turned, he found his friend slumped on the ground, dead. The camp authorities used the standard line that he was ‘shot while attempting to escape’. My father told me that my grandfather maintained strenuously that this was a lie, and was placed in solitary confinement for a month as a result. 
I wonder if this photograph was taken before or after the incident?


My grandfather was released from Ballykinlar days after the signing of the Treaty in December 1921. He returned to the Finns in Kilmichael to recover. He was said to have been emaciated and exhausted. Until 1997, as far as my father was concerned, that was where my grandfather’s involvement in the troubles had ended.

         The IRA – like Sinn Féin – was split on whether to accept the Treaty. The gap between the men on the ground fighting a guerrilla war and those engaged in the political wing of the Republican movement widened. In the weeks after the withdrawal of the British Army in January 1922, the pro- and anti-treaty factions of the IRA scrambled to gain control of the vacated barracks, which led to a number of dangerous stand-offs. 
        In April 1922, the men of the 1st Dublin Brigade, joined later by troops from Tipperary, took over the Four Courts and proclaimed it the Republican military HQ. As the IRA remained in the building over the coming months, the interim government found itself in a difficult position. The British pressed for them to take action; failing that, they would send in their own troops to do so. The Republicans’ position had also weakened in the eyes of the public. In the June elections they took only 22 per cent of the vote. 
            On June 28th, after a request for surrender was turned down, the Irish Army attacked the Four Courts.

After recuperating in Wexford, my grandfather rejoined F Company in Dublin and, according to Merrigan’s letter, was appointed Head of Transport. The letter also notes that my grandfather was a member of the Brigade that took over the Four Courts on the night of April 13.
The IRA felt that they had a strong headquarters but this soon proved untrue. Despite having had over three months to create a strong defense of the building, the leadership seemed totally unprepared when an attack finally came. There was no proper contact between the Four Courts Executive and the 1st Dublin Brigade, who were now defending the surrounding area. On the evening of 28th June, a Friar from Church Street came to warn the men in the Four Courts that an attack was planned. It soon came. By the second day, the 1st Dublin Brigade, under the command of Oscar Traynor, had fought its way to the east side of O’Connell Street, but had got stuck in their positions there. 
On the third day, as ammunition ran out and the hopelessness of holding the Four Courts became apparent, a surrender was agreed. The members of the 1st Dublin Brigade retreated from their positions, fleeing through the back streets behind the Four Courts and up towards Church Street and Phibsboro. Some were captured in the following hours, most escaped. My grandfather, wherever he was on that day, avoided arrest.
Photographs of the Four Courts after the attack show a scene of utter devastation. The brickwork is blackened with smoke. Large sections of the building have been completely destroyed, walls collapsed onto the street with the tangle of rafters spiking out of the rubble. All the windows, and those of the adjacent buildings, are blown out or punched through with bullet holes.
            Today almost no signs of the destruction can be seen. All the brickwork has been restored, and the building has the solid, implacable feel of a Georgian monument, untroubled by history. But if you look closely, the engravings of the Irish harp that stand above the railing to the left and right of the main building, have not been repaired. Eroded and battered, they seem more emblematic as a result, like some ancient carving that had been dug up and placed knowingly above the sharply defined, restored granite of the new legislative centre of Irish rule. 


After the failure of the Irregulars (as the anti-Treaty IRA were now called) to hold a prominent building, they returned to the tactics they had used to great effect in the War of Independence. But their advantage was less decisive than it had been against the British forces. Many of their former comrades were now in the Free State Army and knew their hideouts as well as the lie of the land.
            The brutal tactics used by the British administration were now employed by the new government forces, led by General Richard Mulcahy following the death of Collins. Interrogations often resulted in death. Captured IRA men were not recognized as prisoners of war. Seventy were executed without trial. The new Army, which drew its ranks mainly from untrained men, proved to be as undisciplined as the Black and Tans.
By the early months of 1923, the IRA was a severely weakened force. It lacked the support of the local population it had enjoyed during the War of Independence. After the killing of their Commander-in-Chief, Liam Lynch, in April 1923, his successor, Frank Aiken, ordered a cessation of fighting, and the Irregulars decided to dump their arms.       
The silence of my grandfather about his involvement in the Civil War was a silence that was shared by a nation. The legacy of the conflict defined voting patterns for decades, and in some cases persist to the present. There was little or no public discussion on the matter. In schools, Irish history was taught only to the end of 1921.
My grandfather, it is clear, was silent by temperament as much as by force of circumstance. But his denial to his children that he fought in the Civil War goes beyond the reticence of his character, hinting at the depth of disquiet Irish society felt in the wake of the conflict. When I spoke to my father about writing a piece on my grandfather’s involvement, he said, “My father said they had a mandate from the people.” As I scribbled a note down he interjected, “Make sure you put that in.”
            I sensed, through him, an echo of his own father’s uneasy insistence on the point. At the time, my grandfather was making a distinction between the then “new” IRA that had re-emerged in the 1940s, and the “old” IRA in which he had fought.
This line of argument was contentious, even in 1919. It can be argued that the IRA gained widespread support for their actions in 1920 only after the arrival of the Black and Tans. In any case, after the general election of June 1922 the Irregulars could claim no popular mandate. I wonder if part of my grandfather’s silence on the Civil War was a recognition of this distinction.

Writing these lines I know I have inverted my father’s wishes when he asked me to mention what my grandfather had said. After all the time that has elapsed since, I still feel a pang of guilt for having done so, as though I had spoken of some family secret in front of the neighbours.
It is easy from this distance, of course, to make such political distinctions. The view my grandfather faced when the Treaty was signed was of the fields of County Down seen through barbed-wire fences. On their arrival in Belfast from Dublin after their capture, the IRA men had been placed on a flotilla of rafts and pushed out into the docks at Harland & Wolff, where they were greeted with a “shipyard confetti” of nuts and bolts that rained down on them from the scaffoldings above. With access to only one newspaper a day (and undoubtedly one biased towards the outcome desired by the British) it must have been difficult for the prisoners in Ballykinlar to keep a sense of what the court of public opinion felt on the matter.
After the Treaty, there was a movement within the IRA away from the “mandate” idea and towards the earlier principle of the 1916 Rebels: that of forging public opinion rather than responding to it. The diehards, as they were called, saw themselves upholding the original cause that had been, in their eyes, watered down in by the Treaty negotiators in London.


The Bureau of Military History was established under the auspices of the Department of Defense in January 1947. Its aim was to ‘assemble and co-ordinate material to form the basis for the compilation of the history of the movement for independence from the formation of the Irish Volunteers on 25 November 1913 to the [signing of the Truce] 11 July 1921.’ The cut-off date was expressly designed to rule out statements on the Civil War.
            Over the following twelve years, the Bureau collected 1,770 statements. The files were made available to the public at the National Archive in 2003. I decided to visit the Archive in the hope that my grandfather had made a statement to the Bureau. My instinct was that he had not. He almost never spoke about his time in the IRA, and once told my father that he didn’t want to indoctrinate his children with republican ideology. He was also uncomfortable with what he called “showy patriotism”.
On a blustery morning in early April, I hailed a taxi on the Navan Road, near where my parents live. I wasn’t in the mood for making small talk, so I got into the back seat of the car. The taxi-driver, a burly man in his late fifties with a strong Dublin accent, asked me where I was going.
            “Bishop Street,” I said.
And then, as an afterthought, “The National Archives. Do you know where that is?”
            He turned in his seat momentarily and smiled, “Of course. A lot of people, particularly retired people, go there these days. Family genealogy. That kind of thing.”
I could tell he was going to be talkative, but he seemed like a warm character all the same. He faced forward, checked his side mirror, then pulled out into a gap in the traffic.
He glancing in the rear mirror and asked, “Is it the family roots you’re after?”
I wondered, for a moment, how to answer.
“Kind of,” I said finally.
He waited expectantly for me to continue.
“Well, it’s something I’m researching on my grandfather. He was involved in the War of Independence,” I said, trying to sound off-hand about it.
Still, I felt guilty that I had even mentioned it. I didn’t want to be another person who felt he had some special claim on his Irishness because of something that had happened years before. I wondered, also, how my grandfather would feel about me talking about him so casually.
The taxi driver glanced back at me.
“Go ’way,” he said, before adding with that peculiarly Dublin sense of understatement, “You know my own grandfather was in the GPO with Pearse.”
We drove past the spire of St. Peter’s Church in Phibsboro.
“I’ll tell you something that very few people know,” he continued. “They went in there without a teabag or a drop of milk.”
He smiled knowingly. I knew I was meant to get the significance of this, but I couldn’t see any.
After a moment I ventured, “Was that because they knew they hadn’t a chance?”
He looked at me incredulous through the rear-view mirror.
“No! They were certain they would win. Most of the English army was in France. The GPO was a great vantage point. And Boland’s mill too. Ya had a clean shot at the British soldiers as they came down the street. From both directions! What they didn’t know was that they had soldiers training in the Curragh before going to France and the British were able to bring them in, in no time.”
“Yeah… They should’ve taken down the communications lines,” I suggested, making use of my recent reading on the matter. “Then they would’ve gained some time.”
“Maybe,” he replied, unconvincingly. “But I’ll tell you something else that not many people know. It was de Valera fucked it up. He was in charge of the mills but he cracked up under the pressure. They hardly fired a bullet. When it was taken Dev was in the hospital across the road with his nerves gone.”
“Really! I didn’t know that,” I replied, trying to sound impressed, though I knew there wasn’t any truth in it. I was glad now that I hadn’t mentioned my grandfather’s involvement in the Civil War. I recognized the last comment as the kind of coded speech that had existed in my parents’ generation. It meant: de Valera was a coward, and by implication the taxi-driver’s family supported the pro-Treaty side. 
           For me this was an issue without the great emotional weight it carried for previous generations. I was inclined to agree with him that de Valera (and the IRA) had been wrong to split the country down the middle. Still, I knew had I mentioned my grandfather’s support for de Valera, the conversation might have taken a different turn. As I sat on the ground floor of the National Archive filling in the reader’s application form, I thought about the taxi driver’s story. It is a common enough joke in Dublin that everybody’s father or grandfather was in the GPO on Easter Monday, 1916.  He had also told me that his grandmother had attempted to bring a large jug of milk to the men in the building, but had been seen by Black and Tans on Parnell Square. They shot at her three times but the tin jug saved her life. She fell to the ground, blood from a flesh wound mixed in with the milk as it pooled on the cobbles. She pretended to be dead but the Tans kicked her across the street to be sure. He said the scene was used in a film, Insurrection, made about the Rising.
                Which came first, I wondered: the film or the story? It was hard to tell. But one thing was certain: The Black and Tans had not kicked his grandmother or anyone else the week of the Easter Rising. They didn’t arrive in Ireland until four years after the event.

On the fifth floor of the National Archives, I requested the index for the Bureau of Military History. I was given a spiral-bound document. Beside me, the other readers made notes in pencil from old, hand-written documents spread on the desk about them. I searched through the list of names and stopped short when I saw Patrick Duffy. I was momentarily excited but soon realized that this Patrick Duffy had fought in South Tipperary. I checked for the names of six other men I knew had also been in F Company with my grandfather, but none of them had made statements.

The index listed only the county in which the witness had fought, so it was impossible to find others who might have been in the same company as my grandfather. (In Dublin there were four IRA brigades, numerous battalions and even more companies.) I inquired at the desk if company names-lists were available. They were not.
I left the National Archives feeling deflated.  The day had grown sunny as I walked up Camden Street towards the Portobello Bridge. I had read that the British troops nicknamed it the Dardanelles on account of the way the road narrowed and the number of attacks they experienced as a consequence. No trace of these skirmishes remained. The road had been widened to accommodate the city traffic. Many of the old Georgian houses had been restored or demolished. The area was now filled with internet cafes and patisseries, charity shops and halal markets.
            I had planned to go to the Military Archive, in the Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines, to see if I could get more information on F Company. But as I continued up Camden Streets and over the canal towards Rathmines, I had a change of heart. I sat on a bench by the canal and watched the swans float by, occasionally craning their long necks into the water.
            I had a nagging suspicion that I had become like the poet Davoren in O’Casey’s play The Shadow of a Gunman, who allows people to believe he was an IRA volunteer - and with terrible consequences. Did I want to know more about my grandfather, or did I hope to unearth some daring story so as to bask in its reflected light?
I had been shadowing a shadow. My grandfather chose to remain largely silent on the events in which he had been involved. Perhaps, I felt as I sat there by the canal water, that it was time for me to honour his wishes and leave him where he wanted to be – at the edge of the photograph, his eyes turned towards the ground, avoiding scrutiny.


After the Civil War ended in 1923, my grandfather went to work for the Plaxton Coach Building Company in Manchester. (Hutton’s, a Protestant-owned company, had left Dublin in 1921 and relocated to Belfast.) Perhaps, like so many others, he felt there was no place for him in this new Free State. In his absence, his brother and two other members of 1st Dublin Battalion (Dan O’Driscoll and Tim O’Regan) established the Dublin Vehicle Builders Company (DVB), in Summerhill, not far from where Hutton’s workshop once resided.
            My grandfather finally returned to Ireland in 1926. He took the position of head-coachbuilder and foreman in the DVB. In 1927, while waiting for a train in Heuston Station, he met the woman who would become my grandmother. While his brother continued to live in Phibsboro, my grandparents moved to a new social housing estate in Donnycarney, on Dublin's northside.
            As a former Volunteer my grandfather was entitled to a state pension. It would appear that my grandmother had contacted his old captain, TJ Merrigan, in 1941 with a view to claiming this entitlement. My father told me that she had always felt that he should have taken his state pension and that she had a number of arguments with my grandfather over the issue. It seems, however, that my grandfather decided not to forward Merrigan’s letter to the Pension Board. He later told my father that he had joined the IRA as a volunteer and never expected to be paid for what he’d done.
My father served his time as a sign-writer in the DVB and, in turn, all four of his brothers completed their apprenticeships there. My father continued to work there till the day it closed for business over forty years after it was founded, in the spring of 1970.
            On Easter Thursday, 1968, my grandfather took ill while at work. Four days later, on Easter Monday, he died aged 73. As a Third Order Capuchin – or lay monk – he was buried in the brown robes of a Franciscan. In keeping with his wishes, there were no flags or references to his Volunteer past in the ceremony.
In the summer of that year, the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland started its campaign for equal housing and voting rights for Catholics. In 1969, the Provisional IRA was formed. In February 1971 – a month after I was born – the first British soldier was shot in Belfast by the IRA.
            One evening in the workshop of the DVB, a couple of years before my grandfather died, my father was cleaning his brushes in turpentine before finishing work for the day. His father stopped to talk with him. He seemed preoccupied. It was a Friday evening and he was to go to his sodality meeting. He told my father to remind my grandmother that he would not be home for dinner. This was hardly necessary. Just as he never missed a company or battalion meeting all those years before, he never missed his sodality meeting in Church Street. My father said he would pass on the message. As my grandfather walked away, he stopped and turned. Then, after a moment, said, “Tim, thank God I never killed a man.”

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Line of the Known & Unknown - essay

Essay commissioned for the exhibition ‘The Infinite Line [The Search for the Unknown]', 
Tactic Gallery, Cork City: 9th-22nd May, 2014. 


In 1819, John Keats wrote these famous lines in his long narrative poem, ‘Lamia’:

                        Conquer all mystery by rule and line,
                        Empty the haunted air and gnomèd mine –
                        Unweave the rainbow, as it erstwhile made
                        The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Keats was, of course, referring in those last lines to that towering figure of science Isaac Newton and how, for him, the rainbow demonstrated the reflection and refraction of light through moisture in the atmosphere to reveal the full glory of the visible spectrum. For Keats, such a description of this natural phenomenon robbed it of its former mystery, reducing it to mere explanation. It should be said, of course, that Romanticism was, in many ways, a retreat from 18th century rationalism and the rise in elevation of the importance of science during that era. Romantics such as Keats built their founding philosophy on the notion that it was more important to write of the feeling generated by encountering nature in all its wonder rather than by simply setting out to measure it by “rule and line”. However, the Romantics, by raising our experience of nature to the level of pure emotion, robbed it, in turn, of its necessary ambiguity and sometimes harsh modalities.

John Keats

Perhaps it is most surprising then, that it was that pillar of Victorian taste, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who first recognized that such an ecstatic view of nature (or ‘the pathetic fallacy’ as the critic John Ruskin also spoke of) didn’t quite coincide with the reality that presented itself to our discerning eye. He was right to be disturbed in what he saw as “nature red in tooth and claw.” We could no longer view the natural world as being there to serve us: it is indifferent to what we think of it and functions by its own laws. Clearly, this shift in perspective caused great shock, as well as the intellectual necessity to engage with an awareness of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as it grew ever more prominent.

With the rise of modernism in the early 20th century artists made a clear and abrupt fracture with the past and some of the quaint notion discussed above, striving instead for an accuracy of perception, which the American poet Wallace Stevens described as an “accuracy with respect to the structure of reality”. While all modernists were preoccupied with this notion, the interpretation of what this meant was often quite varied and even divergent. For Ezra Pound, the unit of such a reality was the Image, a truer basis he believed for art to build itself upon over the neat rhetorical devices and tidiness of old current (Edwardian) forms. T.S. Eliot took this further with explorations of fractured psychological states, recorded in works (such as The Wasteland) that shift from one fragmentary experience to another, searching for some form of order in the confusion of experience. And for others, like Stevens (again), reality was the product of the imagination as it encounters and, in turn, shapes the world. Only with this form of imaginative and constant engagement, he argued, could the dynamic order of the universe be revealed. These are hardly notions of accuracy that a scientist would recognise, even those faced by the New Physics of General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics in the opening decades of the 20th century. The “rule and line” of art was still a somewhat different enterprise than that of the caliper and telescope.

Wallace Stevens

 But we may come to the question as artists: What are we being accurate toward in the end: the objective facts of the world, or our experience of being in that world? In recent times, we have come increasingly to think of accuracy as being synonymous with the precise, reproducible certainties of scientific truth, with Stephen Hawking stating lately that “science has made philosophy redundant”. One wonders what he thinks of the contribution of the arts to human knowledge. The great search, now, in science is  for what is popularly called a Theory of Everything. It is a deeply important undertaking and, should it ever be achieved, would be of unimaginable significance, both for science and society.

Having said that, should we not challenge such a grand – if not grandiose – term, the Theory of Everything. It seems to take a limited view of what we mean by that all encompassing word. Such an explanation would, in the end, simply be one of the material universe and the aspects of that universe described by physics alone. It wouldn’t help us decipher the genome, for example, or indeed, untangle the nature of consciousness. As such, it would ultimately have very little to say about the experience of living; that deeply subjective narrative in which we live out each of our lives.

For me, science is not just a steady procession of unassailable facts, produced dispassionately by purely rational means. It is also a process of trial and error, instinct and hunches, driven often by profound curiosity. The story of the history of our understanding of light itself, demonstrates this point well. Perception is so crucial to living everyday life as we all know yet, when used more precisely, it can become also an instrument of scientific inquiry as well as artistic scrutiny, as the three artists in this exhibit demonstrate in very different ways. But we cannot have perception without light and our ideas about light has had a long and interesting history.

Ibn Al-Haytham

The standard version tells us that in antiquity, Plato among others, proposed what is called the ‘Emission Theory’, arguing that light travelled from the eye to the object it perceived in a direct line. We clearly now know this to be wrong. What may come as a surprise was how long Emission Theory persisted, but also that it wasn’t, in fact, that giant Newton (again) who first overthrew it, though this is taken as the standard narrative in the history of science. No, this notion of light was proposed six centuries earlier by the Persian scholar Ibn Al-Haytham (popularly known as Alhazen) who conducted a series of experiments on light while under house arrest, proving irrefutably that light travels in straight lines from the object of observation to the eye, demonstrating this fact by creating (most probably the first) camera obscura in his small room by placing a heavy black curtain across it and making a small aperture at its centre, the rooftops and spiking minarets of Cairo projected upside down onto the wall opposite. It is this last detail - upside-down - that proves the assertion. Alhazen also first explained refraction, reflection, spherical aberration and the magnifying power of lenses, though sadly little of his work and findings were disseminated in Europe, and Newton certainly wasn’t aware of his forerunner. This is not to reduce Newton’s claim also on these ideas and he was, indeed, the first to explain the spectrum of light that Keats found so anathema to his sensibility and feeling for the natural world. For me, this history alone becomes a fascination in itself. It reminds us that science doesn’t always proceed linearly and is, in the end, also a very human undertaking. In short, there is a story to science that goes beyond a mere ledger of facts and falsities.

And where then does art stand in such a schema? It’s hard to know what possible direct function it may provide to science, at least within the realms of its own methodology. Some would say, I’m sure, it has nothing to offer at all. And for art’s part, does science unweave the rainbow as Keats’ suggested and rob nature of its direct power over our imaginations? Can artists exploit the insights of science and yet bestow on it to the quality of imaginative encounter?

Cassandra Eustace 'What Lies Between Repeated Differences'

I think it is fair to argue that while science offers no criticism of the arts, it also offers no real meaningful place for it in its own enterprise and perhaps this is at the peril of potential hubris. It is certain in recent years, that there is a kind of slippage going on in  science towards an attitude of all-knowingness – or, at least a quest and belief to reach such a point in the future. However, it does sometimes seem that this quest is pursued at the expense of (and respect for) other modes of knowledge such as art, myth and experience itself, furtively moving  towards a general disenchantment through explanation, both in terms of the natural world and our place within it.

This then, inevitably leads to the question: what is arts relationship to science and can it have a meaningful discourse with it? I think we have to be clear here and say that the arts and the sciences serve different, though no less important, functions. Science’s job is to examine disparate phenomena and find a law or theory that shows how they are connected. This hypothesis is then tested and if proven true gives us an ‘objective’ truth. Art also tries to find patterns of connections and draw unexpected material together to form a coherent work, but it can never aspire to the empiricism of science, nor should it. In the end, a poem or any art-work can only persuade rather than prove. It captures something of the ‘subjective’ experience of living (even as it wrestles, at times, with abstraction), though by means that make such an experience recognisable or comprehensible to another person. We might borrow an important concept from science and call this a form of ‘resonance’.

Richard Forrest 'Truncated Tetrahedron'

I would suggest that art that engages with scientific ideas helps us to explore and see (in a sense) both the wonder and insight that science has provided us with and in the process we may humanise such ‘objective’ knowledge as we try weave it into the fabric of lived experience. Art is uniquely placed to help us to make sense of our relationship to it, as well as asking the question: how do you live in such a world with such knowledge? A poem, for example, can be said to exist in a fictional space. Yet, it is accurate of something. The truth of imagination is just as important as the bare nature of the facts. The places we create in the imagination feel just as real as the concrete places we inhabit in our lives, yet imaginative accuracy is judged, as such, by a different set of criteria than the scientific connotation of that word. It deals with the contradictory nature of our inner lives, not just the outer one.

Roseanne Lynch from 'Exposures 1-7'

And perhaps by creating work that draws on science, as in this exhibit, we – as artists in different forms – are attempting, through such an engagement, to bring these seemingly abstract and even distant ideas into some form of imaginative resonance, so that they too may form part of the fabric of our reality in the process; that such ‘ideas’ may also be experienced as well as understood. Science brings us new and deep knowledge of how the universe functions through theory and law, but as human beings we have a  deep desire and need to feel connected to both place and our place within it. It seems to me that science does not unweave the rainbow as Keats suggested all those years ago, but offers us both new knowledge and perspectives regarding nature that artists can examine and engage with at the level of the imagination as well as the cerebral cortex; and that in doing so, the two disciplines can create a meaningful exchange of perspectives and a balanced view of life, one that is accurate to the facts but also, crucially, felt.

The Infinite Line [A Search for the Unknown]

Maeve Lynch     
Sophie Behal      

Cassandra Eustace 
Richard Forrest
Roseanne Lynch

Art Photo Credit:    Roseanne Lynch

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

'Reykjavik' - video-poem

Here is a short film based on my poem 'Reykjavik' from my new collection On Light & Carbon.

A very special thanks to film-maker Bill Bulmer for all his hard work and creative insight in putting it together. I've always thought that putting poetry to images is an interesting, but worthwhile, challenge and I'm really delighted with the results.

So here it is then. Hope you enjoy it.

You can also find a higher quality, large screen format, version of the piece on Vimeo at the following link: Reykjavik.