Saturday, December 09, 2017


Wellington Barracks
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I spent last evening in Wellington Barracks on Dublin's South Circular Road. You might think I was detained but I was there on the same terms as got me locked into a police cell overnight in Longford town many moons ago.

I had wangled my way into one of the monthly lectures of the Military History Society of Ireland, or as it said on the screen Société d'Histoire Militaire d'Irlande.

I did know the time of day, it was heading for eight o'clock pm, but in case I was in any doubt about the date, the screen informed me that it was 17 Frimaire 225 which made it very hard to figure out how many days were left for last Christmas posting. But I suppose if you were actually going by that calendar you wouldn't be paying any attention to Christmas in the first place.

Enough of the light stuff and down to business. The subject of the night was 1798: The French in Mayo, a case study in military occupation and the speaker was Dr Sylvie Kleinman.

Sylvie was the ideal speaker for this talk. She specialises in Irish-French interactions in this period and her command of the French language has enabled her to intensively and extensively interrogate French sources, including vast military archives, along with usual English language sources.

On the night, she was bringing the results of this research to bear on the structure and logistics of what we might broadly refer to as the civilian side of the occupation, or the occupation as it impacted on the civilian population.

General Humbert

The parameters were set by General Humbert, or rather by the orders under which he was operating. These enjoined him to give good example to the population by strictly abiding by the rules of war, such as those dealing with the taking of prisoners and their treatment, the provisioning of the army by appropriating only such food and livestock as was absolutely necessary, and avoiding uncontrolled and wanton killing of the local population. It was apparently made clear to the soldiery that anyone violating these rules would simply be shot out of hand.

You might think that all of that should go without saying, but the outcome of the French occupation was in starkly benign contrast to the subsequent retribution by British forces after the ultimate defeat of the French at Ballinamuck.

Implementation of these rules in Killala fell to Col (Capt ?) Charost, whom Humbert left in command there, and who turned out to be a decent skin, unlike his counterpart, Truck, in Ballina.

Humbert actually declared an Irish Republic and installed a civilian president, John Moore, of its Connaught Province.

French Military Archives, Vincennes

Sylvie relied heavily on the reports/memoirs of the Anglican Bishop Stock who became interpreter for the French and their liaison with the local population. The Bishop was in an invidious position, acting in some ways as a champion of the people and at the same time facilitator of the occupation. Fortunately Charost and Stock developed a mutually respectful relationship which facilitated a relatively smooth occupation, at least as far as Killala was concerned.

Bishop Stock's writings are known and published but Sylvie also accessed original manuscript sources from a range of participants some of which gave less restrained accounts than published versions where these latter existed.

It was a most interesting evening, but I must confess to not being able to assess what was new material or conclusions as most of the stuff was new to me.

My personal interest, and what bought me to the talk was twofold.

My father was from Ballyhaunis in Co. Mayo and I have relatives living in the county, including in Castlebar.

I have an interest in the period and particularly in attempted French invasions arising from my work on the defence of Killiney Bay in the Napoleonic period.

In fact, in looking at Sylvie's work generally, it struck me that she would have been the ideal person to have taken part with me in the Café Historique at the Alliance Française in 2015. I was dealing with the British government's efforts to defend the kingdom(s) and defeat the French régime with the help of disaffected royalists. Sylvie deals with French efforts to defeat the British with the help of the Irish revolutionaries. Perfect mirror images.

But it was not to be and I am still only partly along the way to understanding why.

And, finally, I should admit that Wellington Barracks is no more. It is now Griffith College.

Sunday, December 03, 2017


Mrs May playing EU roulette
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This is intended to be an organic blog post, by which I mean I will add to it and amend it as time goes by. The later segments are at the top of the post starting immediately below here.

3 December 2017

A month is a long time in this game. But it appears that the divorce bill is nearing a settlement though there is reputed to be still some way to go on citizens' mutual rights.

The Irish question, however, remains as intractable as ever. This is because there is effectively no solution which can satisfy the requirements of the three parties concerned, UK, Ireland and EU.

With the deadline approaching fast for a decision on progressing to Phase 2 of the negotiations there appears to be no conceivable progress in sight.

Boris has a plan

As far as the UK is concerned, their position on this issue appears to be hardening, if anything. The Brexiteers are fearing a fudge which will amount to less than completely leaving the EU (replicating the customs-union/single-market, accepting any significant role for the ECJ, etc.). The rhetoric is ramping up with the Brexiteers particularly blaming the EU (which is seen to be acting punitively) or the Irish (who are getting above themselves).

The EU claim they are standing foursquare behind the Irish but how far this suupport will extend if the Irish question remains a stumbling block is not clear.

Ireland appears to have two shots at a veto on the negotiations. The first of these is on progress to Phase 2, and this is where the EU is loudly proclaiming its support for the Irish position whatever that may turn out to be. Clearly Ireland is the Member State most exposed to Brexit. In terms of trade alone we are hugely dependent on the UK, not just for our trading with them but for our trading through them (transit).

It is hard to see how our trade will not be dealt a body blow unless the UK remains in the customs union or replicates it from the outside. The UK appears committed not to do either. Given this stance, the talk so far has concentrated on how border crossings can be smoothed, even to the extent of mutterings about "frictionless" borders. Granted there may be scope for arrangements expediting border crossings but they will still involve delays and more bureaucracy.

But sight appears to have been lost of the actual effect of the borders, disparity in customs duties and in standards, particularly in relation to their effects on production and on competitiveness and therefore on trade patterns. The upcoming disruption and devastation seems to me to be enormous and unavoidable unless some side caves in.

Ireland, in particular, is between a rock and a hard place. If we exercise the veto on progress to the next stage of the negotiations we only increase the chances of the UK crashing out of the EU without arrangements on trade and this would not be to our advantage. In fact, and the Brexiteers seem blind to this, Ireland's interest lies in the softest and most advantageous exit for the UK from the EU.

The EU, nevertheless, needs to maintain the integrity of the customs union and the single market if it, itself, is to survive Brexit. That's why I'm not sure how long their solidarity with us will last in the face of UK intransigence.

And finally there is the particular subset of Northern Ireland which, at the moment seems to have escalated to the status of the main, if not the only problem. Brexit will have a horrendous impact on both North and South unless the relationship between these two areas is given some sort of special status and it is difficult to see how this can happen without affecting the North's position within the UK and/or subverting the integrity of the customs-union/single-market.

So what is likely to happen in the next few days/weeks. My guess is a pious fudge which Ireland will swallow to avoid something worse (ie UK crashing out of EU or Ireland losing the support of the other 26). When push comes to shove Ireland is very exposed and we are not unmindful of the lack of EU solidarity in the financial crisis when the immediate interests of some of the big players was threatened.

And when all is said and done at the level of the European Council, there is still the European Parliament to consider and the eventual ratification process in the 27 Member States where each, including Ireland, will havee a veto, and in the UK House of Commons (& House of Lords?).

It's more than Mayo that'll need God's help here.

4 November 2017 (original post)

The most important point for me is that it is the UK that decided to leave the EU. In my view it is an act of unprecedented folly but it is something they are doing to themselves and it is no use their blaming Johnny Foreigner or anyone else. It is an act of self-harm.

But it is not just self-harm, it is detrimental to the EU itself for a variety of reasons and it puts Ireland in an impossible position.

Boris Johnson - traitor and lunatic

It is very difficult to see a rational reason for the UK decision and it is becoming clearer by the day that they had no idea of the implications of leaving the EU.

A major part of their legal and social infrastructure and practice has developed over the last forty years inextricably bound up with the EU and the act of separation has much in common with separating siamese twins.

Why have I a picture of Boris Johnson here looking like a certifiable lunatic. Well, Boris encapsulates the decades long campaign in the UK denigrating the EU. He was not alone. Much of the British popular press contributed mightily to this and the net result was that much, if not a majority, of the British population came to see the EU as the cause of most of their woes.

It didn't help that Britain was in the throes of a nervous breakdown, refusing to come to terms with its reduced status in the world. The British seem to still see themselves as an Empire, of some sort or other, and a major actor on the world stage. At the same time we have senior US administration figures telling us that the "special relationship", in which the British put so much store to guarantee their pre-eminent position in world affairs, is nothing more than a joke.

The people have been sold a pup by an ambitious clique who are either delusional or just plain greedy for power at any cost, even if it just involves promotion to captain of a sinking ship.

Chancellor Hammond to confront &
not appease "the enemy" this time round

It appears that the time-critical negotiations with the EU are going nowhere fast. It seems to me that this is because UK demands/aims are contradictory. They don't compute.

They want to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union but they want a new cherry picked single market and customs union. They want to leave the 27 to pick up the tabs on what was agreed by the 28, including walking away from all contingent liabilities such as their share of pension contributions for EU employees.

They want to deny the European Court of Justice any say in policing whatever is agreed, if anything. And they want full control over their own borders.

On top of all this, they seem to think that once they have agreed on some demand or other among themselves then Johnny Foreigner is being completely unreasonable not to give it to them.

Chancellor Hammond is now calling the EU the enemy. Next he'll be conjuring up the ghost of Bomber Harris. This is insanity of a high order.

And I haven't even mentioned Euratom.

Mrs May read off the altar

It is very hard to see why at least two of the phase 1 negotiating issues cannot be sorted to everyone's satisfaction in jig time. These are the reciprocal rights of citizens and the contribution required of the UK to honour its obligations.

The Irish question is another matter. There are actually two questions here - the north/south and the east/west elements. The north/south element particularly concerns the border and trade but also citizenship arrangements. The east/west element includes Ireland's trade with Britain/UK but also Ireland's trade within the EU, much of which transits through the UK.

It seems to me that in this intractable situation, no exit is better than a bad exit, and it is in the interest of both the UK and the EU that she remain.

It is/was reported that David Davis was flying to Brussels to kick EU ass ... what? ... oh, sorry ... kick start EU negotiations. See how confusing it gets?

And here's a little doodle poem to confuse you even more.

Friday, December 01, 2017


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Another feather in their cap for Four Courts Press. This time it's Food Rioting, no less, and James Kelly's book thereon was launched last evening (30/11/2017) in the prestigious surroundings of the Members Room in the Royal Irish Academy.

The book introduces us to a subject which has been much neglected in the Irish context and about which there had been many misconceptions, not least by the historian E P Thompson.

So James Kelly did what good historians do. He combed the sources and came up with a whole new story.

Cormac Ó Gráda

The book was launched by Cormac Ó Gráda, himself no slouch at rewriting, or I should more correctly say writing, history. Joe Lee has praised Cormac for his intensive milking of even the skimpiest of evidence to open new windows on the past.

So when Cormac is lavish in his praise of "Jimmy's" work you have to take Jimmy seriously.

James Kelly

It had been thought that Irish food riots in Ireland were few and far between. And this was put down to a lack of "political space" and, presumably, of leadership.

James has shown, on the contrary, that in the century and a half before the famine there were lots of food riots, varying in size from a few score people to thousands.

The riots posed a serious challenge to the authorities who saw them as an interference with the free market system which was their bible. Nevertheless, riots demanding more food posed less of a threat to the establishment than the agrarian agitation which was to follow.

So the food riots were met with more tolerance than their successors.

James scoured a large number of primary sources, but he stressed in paticular the wealth of material to be garnered from the newspapers of the day. These however had to be carefully and extensively mined and this called for a dedicated historian who was willing to be put through his paces.

Corrmac, James & Martin from Four Courts Press

Brendan Twomey & audience

Catríona Crowe & David Dixon

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


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In my previous post, on Local History Day 2018, I wrote the following:
We'll say nothing about the doors being a wee bit late opening on a frozen morning or the automatic doors then getting stuck. This is outside our brief, but my own view is that it is a manifestation of the recently discovered CURSE OF URBUS, a more than century old anomaly.
Well, it's finally time to speak openly about URBUS. If you look carefully at the crest above you will see that the motto is a slight variation on the one in the crest of the City of Dublin. Where this one has URBUS the city crest has URBIS.

URBUS adorns the pediment over the building that houses the Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse Street.

As far as I know, this anomaly has only come to notice in the last decade or so.

Since then it has been assumed that this was a typo by the original sculptor in 1909. It was also assumed that the error made a nonsense of the Latin motto.

Before I go on to discuss this I would like to touch on a dilemma which this error gave rise to in recent times.

When new glass sliding doors were being installed at the main entrance it was decided to incorporate the crest into the glass. But which crest? Should the typo be corrected, leading to the anomaly of two different versions of the crest appearing at the front of the building? Or, should the bespoke version, error and all, be used?

I know what I'd have done, and that is just what was done. The bespoke version is now proclaiming its individuality at ground as well as pediment level. As Sir Humphrey would say, "a brave decision, Minister". Needless to say, his remark was aimed at scaring the bejasus out of the Minister. But our crowd are made of sterner stuff and a brave decision was one to be taken and not ducked.

So is there now really a curse resulting from this multiple "folly", or is there a deeper meaning to it all?

For the avoidance of doubt, let me state quite categorically that the motto as it stands is wrong. It is supposed to be the city motto and it is not.

Nevertheless, it is no harm speculating what it might signify in its present form, and, even at the risk of stretching a point, whether the "error" might have been intentional.

These things do happen. I mean, we have a memorial to the 77 executed by the Free State Government hiding in plain sight on the wall of Rathmines Roman Catholic Church. And we have a bust of Kevin Barry taking its place among the saints in St. Catherine's church in Meath Street. These things do happen.

So let us look at URBUS. It has been known to signify a city in Latin, but I don't think it is fourth declension so in classical grammatical terms it wouldn't fit.

However there is such a thing as colloquial (or bog) Latin, and such even in written form as I know from my school Caesar. So where would this leave us. I offer a phrase from Caesar himself to show that URBUS may not always be declined:
Pompeius ex urbus profectus iter ...

If this is accepted then we must proceed to examine the sculptor's motive for deviating from the actual motto.

Having Googled my Latin head off I came up with an interesting entry in this Latin dictionary from 1711.

Apparently URBUS as an adjective means crooked or bent. .

It is clearly not used here in its pure adjectival sense as it does not accord with any of the remaining three words in the phrase.

But if we take it that the form URBUS, denoting city, is used in preference to the URBIS in the motto, and that this choice was influenced by the adjectival meaning of URBUS (crooked), then we actually have a prophetic crest whose meaning is a CAVEAT EMPTOR to gullible citizens who do not take the trouble to sufficiently enquire into the trustworthiness of some of those in charge.

And lest anyone doubt my credentials in this matter (i) I took Latin for six years at secondary school level, (ii) I took Baby Latin at University level, and (iii) I have been an altar boy.

I passed all these tests successfully and unscathed.

I rest my case.

Memo item: the true crest

Sunday, November 26, 2017


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One of the great annual outings for amateur local historians is the local history day at the Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse St. (DCLA). It has not only provided us with an outlet for our research but has stimulated us to dig deeper and longer.

In particular the link up between DCLA and Maynooth University (NUIM) has stimulated local research and has given graduates in this relatively new academic discipline an outlet for their work.

Equally, people like myself, who are not connected with any institution and have probably come late in life to this area, are not only given an outlet but they can find themselves in some very exalted company.

If you add in DCLA events outside of this one day, it is clear that this institution is a jewel in the City's crown.

We'll say nothing about the doors being a wee bit late opening on a frozen morning or the automatic doors then getting stuck. This is outside our brief, but my own view is that it is a manifestation of the recently discovered CURSE OF URBUS, a more than century old anomaly.

That, however, is a story for another day.

Enda Leaney

Regular readers of this blog will know that Máire Kennedy who ran this event for many years has retired and I was interested in who might be in charge of this year's event as I don't think Máire's post has yet been filled.

That task fell to Enda Leaney whose line up for the day and whose enthusiasm for the speakers and their subjects reassured us that Máire's baby is in good hands.

I chased up Enda on the internet and had to stop at page n+. He is a serious academic whose qualifications and interests range far and wide.

For the purpose of today's event he is Senior Librarian at DCLA but you could call him by many other academic names and you probably wouldn't go far wrong.

James Scannell

Anyway Enda introduced the day (25/11/2017) and the line-up and we got off to a great start with a puff of steam and a complicated cover-up.

James Scannell seems to be accident prone. I first heard him talk about a ship that ran aground in a storm leading to complicated rescue efforts by the Bray and Dunleary lifeboat crews. On a subsequent outing he entertained us with the story of the 1957 Dundrum Railcar Collision and the blame game that ensued.

Today he was back to Bray but this time it was on the other side of the Head.

In 1867 a train heading north towards Bray came off the rails at the approach to the tunnel and half of it fell thirty feet while the rest of it stayed on the rails more or less.

There were only two fatalities and both inquests found the event to have been an accident. They were both unaware that the "crime scene" had been tampered with immediately after the accident.

It took a later inquiry by a railroad inspector to discover the original negligence which led to the accident and reveal the cover-up which ensued. Because the inquest verdicts were already in at that stage, they could not be changed and the event remained in the State's books as an accident.

Frank Whearity

Earlier this year, at family history day, Frank Whearity recounted the history of the Soho Engineering works in Bridgefoot Street. He kept us enthralled with the history of the Watt family who owned the works. He was able to illustrate much of the history with personal anecdotes as he had spent much of his own life working there himself.

Today he was on a different tack altogether. He was giving us a centenary perspective on Thomas Ashe. Now if you're like me you'll put Ashe into a list of revolutionaries associated with the 1916 Rising. And you'd be right. But Ashe was a Commandant in the Dublin Brigade and the only one still winning the war when Pearse called the surrender. His immediate fate was to see the inside of a number of English jails before his release in 1917.

At that stage he embarked on a tour of the country making speeches. The authorities deemed at least one of these seditious and back to prison he went. He then went on hunger strike and was subjected to a botched forced feeding which landed him in the Mater where he died.

Frank then recounted the standoff with the British Army over plans for Ashe to lie in state in City Hall. At the end of the day the laying in state went ahead and the funeral was huge.

That's just the bones of it and, as usual, Frank spiced it with many anecdotes.

John Dorney

John Dorney is a historian who has been paying particular attention to the revolutionary period for the last ten years. He is the man behind The Irish Story website. He has authored a number of books, his latest and probably most ambitious being The Civil War in Dublin - The Fight for the Irish Capital 1922-1924.

Today he was bringing us the Civil War in Dublin, the bones of his book in 45 minutes. It was a fascinating talk and at the end of it we were in no doubt why nobody wanted to talk about the Civil War. It reflected no credit on anybody and the atrocities committed by both sides were beyond belief.

It is very difficult to see how this period can be commemorated in a way that is not viciously divisive. Not John's fault, to be sure. He has gone out of his way to attempt an objective or neutral account of the war but at the same time leaving nothing out. You can get a flavour from his interview with Cathal Brennan on the Irish History Show, broadcast on NearFM.

Liz Gillis

I first met Liz in Howth when, with Mícheál Ó Doibhilín, she gave a presentation to the Howth Peninsula Heritage Society on the 1921 Custom House Raid. That has since turned into a marvellous book which Enda was recommending to all present.

But that is not what she was at today. Her talk was on her beloved Liberties and her angle The Rebel Liberties. She didn't quite go back into pre-history, though God knows what those folk were up to then. Rather, she started in 1798 and stitched in a load of Liberties-connected United Irishmen.

Skip ahead a few years and we have Robert Emmet hanged, drawn and quartered outside St. Catherine's (Protestant) church in Thomas St. in 1803. There is a well known painting of the scene with the hangman holding Emmet's head aloft.

However, there was more to it than the relatively standard story depicted in the painting. In the first place the hangman didn't bring all his tools and a butcher's cleaver and saw had to be sourced locally for the decapitation.

Liz is not prepared to endorse the popular rumour that the head was dropped and rolled all the way down into the Liffey. Apparently we have a death mask and you need a head for that. However, the remainder of the body parts disappeared, whether to far flung points of the colonies or not is unknown.

Fast forward to 1916 and The Liberties is alive with the sound of gunfire - the South Dublin Union, Marrowbone Lane and so on. Then there is the John's Lane church connection with Patrick Pearse (his daddy sculpted the angels on the steeple, and, no doubt, more besides).

There is no-one more passionately committed to their subject, whatever it may happen to be at the moment, than Liz. She carries you along on a great big wave complete with gesticulations and expressions that would put Marcel Marceau to shame.

I visualise her in the photo above as a sean nós singer with not a pin dropping in the house.

Liam O'Meara

Liam's talk was entitled "Who remembers Keogh Square?" but you can't keep a good historian down and before you can blink we're back in Richmond Barracks which played a significant role in the 1916 Rising. After independence it housed some of the city's poor, and not very adequately we heard.

The Duke of Richmond ceded to Tom Keogh after whom the Barracks was named by the Free State. Tom was a member of Michael Collins's Squad and has a massive warrior's memorial for a headstone in Knockananna in Co. Wicklow. Been there, seen that.

Liam was really giving us the social history of the site with particular reference to its period as Keogh Square when the people were housed in the original barracks buildings. Apparently there was great community spirit but little else, though former inhabitants remember it fondly.

Most of the barracks buildings were eventually demolished and replaced by St. Michael's estate, but that eventually went downhill and, with the exception of a few barracks buildings. the place is now a vast green space.

Liam has written the history of Richmond Barracks and he has now published a book on Keogh Square.

My grandfather worked in the barracks prior to his untimely death by drowning in the Liffey in 1918, but that too is another story.

Taking Liberties - Liz & meself

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


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Another book launch at the Alliance Française in Dublin town. This time it's The Bonjour Effect by Julie Barlow and hubby Jean-Benôit Nadeau.

Its thesis is that conversation is an art form in France, guided by a complex set of rules, codes, conventions and taboos. In exploring these the book is a primer in the psychology of the French and it gives you pointers on how to cope with this very strange race of people.

It lets us in on the secret that talking to the French is not about communicating or being nice, its about being interesting. With this as a starting point the exalted state of "se démerder" becomes attainable to even the rankest amateur.


The evening was introduced by the Institute's new Director Thierry Lagnau who succeeds former Director Philippe Milloux, who has now returned to Paris HQ.

Jean-Philippe Imbert

The evening was structured as an interview by Jean-Philippe Imbert of one of the book's co-authors, Jean-Benoît Nadeau. Jean-Philippe is from DCU where he bears the intriguing title of Lecturer in Comparative Literature and Sexuality Studies in the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies (SALIS).

Jean-Philippe has appeared on this blog before, interviewing Olivier Litvine on the launch of his book Musique de Chambre.

Jean-Benoît Nadeau

So, let's get one thing out of the way first, the book's title. What's all this Bonjour stuff?

Well, believe it or not, this one little word is the key to the pearly gates of French conversation, and, as we learn, cooperation. Omit this simple greeting on meeting a French person and you're in the doghouse from that point on. A foreigner might just be given some latitude on a fine day but for the French it is de rigueur.

So maybe you think that's a bit thick. Well, believe you me, even in Ireland, there can be more to a simple greeting than meets the eye. Consider this little incident from the Mayo Gaeltacht early in the twentieth century.
Colm O'Gaora was a young teacher and a timire for Conradh na Gaeilge. He was new to the Irish speaking Bangor Erris disrict in Co. Mayo when he met a man along the road. "Dia dhuit" (God be with you) says he, in the traditional Irish equivalent of Bonjour. The immediate and vehement reply took him aback: "May God and Mary bless you and may bad luck strike you down you dirty old Protestant".
It really does matter how you greet people and if you want to understand Colm's faux pas check out this incident in more detail in my review of his book.

Julie Barlow

Before I go any further, do remember that the book is co-authored by Jean-Benoît and his wife Julie.

Clearly then, they are both responsible in equal measure for its content. However, when it comes to describing an incident to illustrate a particular point, it is described by whichever of them was involved in it. This is both a constant reminder throughout the book of its dual authorship and it makes for more interesting reading..

As Julie was not involved in the actual launch in the Alliance, I'm giving her a look in here.

It is important to know that the French put a lot of pass on what I'd call polish: speaking with supreme confidence, wit and loads of grammar. In fact the ideal is to speak written French. Bearing this in mind will enhance your understanding of the incident below which I have reproduced from my website.
Learning French was no less bizarre. I arrived in France, in 1963, with very good Leaving Cert written French (there were no orals in those days). The family were, sort of, nobility. There had been a general in the family on the mother/granny's side and all the adults spoke proper. The granny was very concerned with the deterioration in the quality of French spoken by the youth of the country in general and her own daughter's children in particular.

Meanwhile I was trying to converse in French, my ultimate ambition being to effortlessly speak the same colloquial brand of French spoken by the children and of which the granny was so critical. I had to think in English, translate into French in my head, mentally repeat the result three times and then deliver it before it evaporated.

Clearly in granny's view I was speaking prose, as had de Gaulle before me, and the house resounded to her loud exhortations to the children "Écoutez Paul", listen to Paul (ie speak prose). The irony of it.

And the wit bit.

Well, let's take Jacques Attali, economic cosigliere to François Mitterand and subsequently President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Now there was a frenchman of sublime refinement who had trained his wit to a fine edge. He also had an abnormally large ego, the largest I ever met in fact, and clearly could never afford to let himself be outwitted, so to speak.

This incident, from the Board of the EBRD, on which I served briefly, will give you a flavour.
On one occasion, Tony Faint, the UK Director, who was from DIFID, had a mild go at him, when he suggested that the Bank should give some consideration to what niche might be appropriate for its operations. This was red rag to a bull as far as Attali was concerned and he responded that in French a niche was a kennel where you kept a dog. Tony replied that where he came from a niche was a space that housed the statue of a saint. "Yes, but they're all dead" was Attali's quick retort and that killed that intervention stone dead, so to speak.
Clearly Attali had fully absorbed this desideratum of the French education system. However, he didn't always have it his own way.
One of the Board's concerns was a feeling that the economic analysis underpinning some of the projects was a bit thin. A result, no doubt, of the speed at which matters were being pushed along. The cudgel here was taken up by the Spanish Director, José Luis Ugarte . He was a nice man with a slightly dry sense of humour. He had a background in economics, in academia and in the OECD, so he was well qualified for this encounter. "Mr President" says he "I think we might take this project a little more slowly and deepen the economic analyis underpinning it". "Not at all." says Attali "Economics is dead. I know. I taught it for years". "Ah yes, Mr President, but that was socialist economics". The Board collapsed with laughter. A beautiful rapier of a sentence. Attali had been socialist President Mitterand's economic mentor over the previous 15 years, even before he came to power. And the Bank was set up to supplant the failed "socialist" economics of the Soviet era. Even Attali had to muster a conceding smile.
That was one of only two occasions I have seen Attali bettered in repartee, a skill in which he prided himself.

The french education system lays great stress on philosophy as a subject, even in the early stages. By this is meant teaching pupils how to think. This doesn't mean that rote learning is absent. It isn't and there is a lot of it. But it does lead to the French having respect for public intellectuals.

Attali frequently boasted that he was a member of two minorities: he was a Jew and an intellectual. But that in my view was not the whole story.

The French have a binary view of the answer to the question: "where are you from?" which makes the question problematic. We Irish have no great problem asking the question, often followed by "who are your people?". Though I have to admit I once met a man who was ashamed to be from Mayo (God help him).

Posing that question to a Frenchman, however, can be very insulting. The binary is French or not French and asking the question could be seen as questioning the respondent's frenchness.

In listing his membership of minorities, Attali was careful to avoid mention of his membership of the third minority. He was born in Algiers. Clearly the less said the better.

The book comments on Madame de Staël who was known for running top class salons of conversation. She had interesting views on various national characteristics having herself lived all over the place.

Apparently she was stunned to learn that German conversation did not tolerate interruptions. The authors point out this was probably because, in German, the verb invariably comes at the end of the sentence.

I have included this random observation because it made me smile. Sort of a German joke.

Did you know that French is not a language? Seriously. At least that is the French view. It is simply an aspect of their culture.

For example we would describe French learned by a former monoglot English speaker as their second language, Turn this around to a former monoglot French speaker learning English. The English is described as their first language.

I sort of knew about all of this from my days in Mlle Giudicelli's class in the Alliance in the sixties - Langue et Civilisation Française and all that.

I also knew that in France political leaders are allowed a certain level of gilded luxury. It also applies to very senior civil servants. This whole group are seen as leaders in cultural discernment. It is actually a part of what brought down Attali in the end - his Carrera Marble (another story).

I learned some new things from this book about what I'd call permanent French attitudes, but also about how meanings had in some cases shaded from my time.

For instance I read that Copain now has acquired sexual connotations. In my day, the newly published pop magazine, Salut les Copains, could be translated as a sort of Hi Guys among young people. God knows how you'd have to translate it now.

So lets end on a good sexist note - a book called La Femme Parfaite est une CONNASSE, The Perfect Woman is a Bitch (putting it politely - Larousse gives you Stupid Cow as an alternative!).

Gotcha there, maybe. It is actually a pro-woman book written by two women. So there.

The main man spoke French to me afterwards and I have to say the Canadian version is different and I'd have needed more time to tune in. Must brush up on my Céline Dion.

Anyway, the book is a most enjoyable, and sometimes hilarious, read.

It will firm up your prejudices and explain why you don't have to feel guilty about them any more.

It will also arm you for any future ventures into that cockpit of cultural conflict which is the French language.

Buy it

Monday, November 20, 2017


Click on any image for a larger version

Part of the Irish Theatre Archive, reposing in the Dublin City Archive, concerns the Eblana Theatre. This small (?) theatre with a capacity for an audience of about 200 was not untypical of a number of smaller theatres around Dublin city in the sixties and early seventies.

It did, however, have a number of features which distinguised it from the others. It was in the lower level of a central bus station, beside the toilets. It had originally been designed as a newsreel cinema and so lacked a backstage area so vital in a theatre. There was apparently a series of phone booths at that level in which the country people were alleged to have peed.

The Eblana put on a lot of experimental, and some daring, plays and there was an element of experiment and initiative called into play to produce a functioning stage space on the night.

Ellen Murphy

The theatre's archive is now with the Dublin City Archive and it is expected to grow as further research is undertaken into the history of this relatively neglected and now abandoned theatre.

Which brings me to the archivist.

Ellen Murphy is a Senior Archivist with the Dublin City Archive. I have met Ellen on numerous occasions. Either when she was taking custody of the gift of yet another archive donated to the institution for safekeeping, restoring, preserving, cataloguing and finally being made available to the public either in hardcopy on the premises or through the internet. Or when she was launching an exhibition of the final product. Each of these new archives is a major project in itself but, like the iceberg, the public only ever see the tip of it.

So I thought I'd mention Ellen at the outset as she is unlikely to have her name up in lights despite the sterling work she is putting into saving the city's history for the rest of us.

Cormac Moore

Cormac Moore is one of a new breed at Dublin Library and Archive. Dublin City Library has appointed a team of resident historians with the aim of developing their analytical capacity on the history side and bringing their rich store of material to the attention of an even wider public.

Gavin Murphy

And so to the content of today's (18/11/2007) session. Gavin Murphy is an artist with an interest in matters architectural. In the present project he has researched the history of the Eblana in terms of the personnel and the plays they put on. But he also has an interest in the building itself, and we'll come to this.

Des Nealon

Des Nealon is an actor who not only acted in the Eblana. In many ways he is the personification of the theatre having been involved in the running of it with Amalgamated Artists who sub-leased it from Phyllis Ryan in the 1969-71 period.

Gavin, whose Eblana exhibition in Temple Bar was on its last day, gave us a run down on the Busáras building which houses the theatre. It was originally built as a central bus station and office HQ by CIE, the national transport company. It was taken over by the Government to house the Department of Social Welfare and the ground floor and basement were leased back to CIE.

To most Dubliners it is just the central terminus for long-distance buses. In fact, is was a ground-breaking piece of architecture in its day. This was true of its design and the materials used in its construction which were at the cutting edge in the Europe of the time. Many of its engineering features, including a sealed ventilation system, were also new. This feature eventually led to the building being included in a list of Dublin's "sick buildings". Apparently even Le Corbusier, whose work strongly influenced the design of Busáras, also had a problem with his sealed buildings.

Busáras was principally the work of Irish architect, Michael Scott. Scott's career spanned both acting and architecture so it was fitting that this innovative building got to house a theatre.

The Eblana began its life as a theatre in 1959 with Phyllis Ryan's Gemini Productions and it continued into the 1980s, after which there were sporadic performances up to 1995 when it finally closed. It is currently abandoned. This is a shame. Plans to turn it into a left luggage office were fortunately shelved but bringing it back into use as a theatre would be costly. Apart from changes which were considered desirable at the time, such as a separate bespoke entrance from the outside, modern health and safety considerations would add significantly to the cost.

You can see a list of the new Irish plays put on in the Eblana during its lifetime at
Playography Ireland. Many foreign plays were also put on, such as John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

Des gave us a bucketful of reminiscences from those days, citing some of the more significant productions and throwing out a string of names that probably don't mean much to today's audiences, or to myself, not having been a theatre goer.

I don't know if I'm allowed to say this but he confided that he was the first actor to use the F word on the Irish stage. He expected a backlash, particularly given the repressively conservative tenor of the times, but it apparently went unremarked.

On another occasion, he brought his mother to see Peter Schaffer's Equus. Des was playing the father of a disturbed boy. The boy (played by Derek Chapman) and his girlfriend (played by Maria McDermottroe) appeared nude in one of the scenes and Des was worried about what his mother's reaction might be. And she did give out stink - but only about the bad language.

In the course of his contribution, Des did a marvellous take-off of Micheál MacLiammór. Had I closed my eyes I'd have expected to see Micheál sitting in Des's chair.

During the session we saw an extract from the video that Gavin had made for his exhibition. This included a look over some of the Eblana theatre programmes which were in the building upstairs. Des had done the voice-over commentary for that section of the video.

The whole session was most interesting and it reminded me of my intention to check out the Eblana archive upstairs at the next available opportunity.


I'd just like to finish with a brief reference to my own connections with the Eblana.

Bríd Ní Shúilleabháin

Bríd Ní Shúilleabháin was stage manager for Amalgamated Artists and through her I ended up doing some sound work for them which now allows me to drop some serious names. The productions I was involved in were: The Ginger Man (director Alan Simpson); The Singular Man (director Alan Simpson); Little Red Riding Would (director Chris O’Neill); Look Back in Anger (director Louis Lentin). The photo above was actually taken in the Eblana.

Dearbhla Molloy

Through Bríd I also met Dearbhla Molloy, who is a friend of hers to this day. Bríd asked me to take some photos of Dearbhla for a portfolio and the shot above is one of those.

Dearbhla also appeared in the Eblana, and in many other theatres in town. A list of plays by Irish playwrights in which she appeared is at Playography She eventually emigrated to London where she has had a very successful career.

Dearbhla appeared in one Irish play in the Eblana, The Saturday Night Women by Michael Judge. Bríd is also listed as stage manager in this Playography entry.

I see also that a play by one of my school classmates, Brian Lynch, was put on in the Eblana in 1979.