Friday, March 24, 2017


Ruairí Quinn
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"The Irish State is facing its biggest challenge since 1939"
So said Ruairí Quinn at an IIEA function marking the retirement of the Institute's current Director General, Tom Arnold.

Ruairí emphasised that the response to the earlier challenge had the advantage of a strong Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, and an equally strong Minister for Supplies, Seán Lemass. Today the political situation is more diffuse.

The starkness of his example struck me forcibly: Dev kept us neutral in the face of serious imperial pressure to join the war, and Lemass kept us fed and alive in the face of extremely adverse circumstances.

And in case anyone jumps down my throat and says that's not how it was, I should point out that Ruairí's comment came at the end of the speeches and not at the beginning. But they made a big impression on me and it is something I took away with me from the evening.

Tom Arnold

Tom Arnold held the key position of Director General in the Institute during the recent restructuring of the board and he was much praised for how he handled that whole process. What he brought to the Institute was a set of diplomatic skills, a wealth of revelant experience and a vast network of contacts which have been of huge benefit to the Institute.

He made a gracious speech in the course of which he thanked everyone who helped him during his period of office, not forgetting the office and hospitality staff.

He is handing over at a time when the Institute was never more needed. Its research staff, analysts and writers will be expected to make a significant input into the Brexit process, in terms of critical analysis, policy advice and informing the public through firmly evidence-based events and publications. This is the sort of thing it has been doing since its foundation but current developments are seriously upping the ante.

Barry Andrews

Barry Andrews, who is taking over from Tom, made a short "acceptance" speech indicating that he had already been sussing out the territory and was ready to hit the ground running. His own excellent qualifications apart, he comes from a family with a long tradition of public service to the State.

I didn't get a chance to talk to him, but if I had I would have mentioned a minor, but significant, action by his father in procuring for me from the then Justice Minister, Brian Lenihan Snr, a certificate to import four banned books. I have referred to this elsewhere online.

Brendan Halligan

Brendan Halligan was the founder of the Institute in 1991 and has been its Chairman ever since up to the beginning of 2017 when he handed over to Ruairí Quinn. So with the recent revamping of the Board and change in the positions of Chairman and Director General, a re-envigorated Institute is ready to face what may be its biggest challenge yet.

Brendan made one particular comment which stayed with me. He was musing on how people are chosen for a position like DG in the institute. He had been searching for a word to describe the process and had finally come up with "emerged".

I was very taken with this as it implies a wide consensus on a tried and trusted candidate who will be up to the job. You wouldn't get away with that sort of a process in many areas of the public service which are now stitched into competitive interviews as a safeguard against jobbery, but you can see the benefits of the "emergence" approach in a job like this.

To mark the occasion Tom Arnold was presented with a copy of Carla King's biography of Michael Davitt, a book I will have to read myself at some stage.

Davitt was an amazing individual, founder of the Land League, courageous investigative journalist, hero of Jews as well as nationalists, a Mayo man who lived for a while in Ballybrack, and I could go on.

Below are a few of those in attendance. You can play your own guessing game. I only know who half of them are myself.

If you want to follow up on the Institute and its publications, including a very concise mini-briefing note on Brexit, you can go to the official website and wander round it.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


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The above was the classic Catholic view, both north and south, of the Northern Ireland régime when I was growing up. Community relations up there broke out in sporadic violence from time to time, customs posts were regularly blown up and there was an overwhelming sense of grievance, particularly on the part of the Catholic population.

This was also the case in the first ten years of the Free State, 1922-32, the period covered by the wonderful collection of cartoons by Gordon Brewster hosted by the National Library of Ireland. Although the cartoons are specific to that period many of them have uncanny resonances right up to this day.

I am taking a brief romp below through most of his Northern Ireland cartoons as part of a series of thematic reviews of the overall collection. In each case I give a link to the original online version in the National Library. Some of those are accompanied by notes which further elaborate the circumstances surrounding the originals.

The cartoon above is pretty savage, showing Northern Prime Minister Craig holding a girl, representing the Catholic community, in bondgage. Bad enough you might think, but it gets worse. Brewster's signature acknowledges this as a homage cartoon which he has modeled on one by the Dutch cartoonist Raemaekers. The latter was famous for his savage cartoons of German atrocities in Belgium during WWI.

Raemaeker's own cartoon shows that Brewster has made very little change to the original. The poses are exactly the same, with the vicious looking leering German soldier replaced by Craig. The only other change is an acknowledgement by Brewster of the sensitivities of his own readers by covering up the original girl's naked breast.

You can see all this more clearly with the two cartoons side by side. Clicking on the image will give you a larger version.

There is no doubt that the Northern régime were running a police state. While they were subject overall to Westminister and the Monarch, security and policing was a devolved function and they made full use of their powers in this area. The odious Special Powers Act was well known throughout the island.

There was a devolved parliament, which was supposed to govern in the interest of the whole community. However, Craig's view of it as a "Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People" made it quite clear that Catholics/Nationalists were not going to have any say. The mountain might roar but all the Catholics got out of it was a ridiculous wee mouse.

Any gestures towards them were only empty gestures for consumption by a wider public.

While Brewster here seems to be implying a shaky passage through the icebergs for the Northern Government, there was no effective opposition and this was particularly true any time the "constitutional question" (ie the status of Northern Ireland) came to the fore. There was, admittedly some doubt about the precise geographical extent of a permanent Northern Ireland up to 1925 when the Boundary Commission was wound up.

There was a brief moment of anxiety for the régime when the Liberal party issued its manifesto, depicted here as a brick punching a hole in the orange drum.

But the drum was soon mended and things carried on as before.

This one is titled "A dustman's surprise" and I'm not sure whether the drum has been beaten to death and a new one purchased or whether the orangemen might have been thought to be giving up their oul sins. In any event, and despite the dustman's surprise, matters continued as before.

While Belfast had been a booming industrial city in the past, there was always a question hanging over the economic viability of Northern Ireland as then constituted. Even into my own time Charlie Haughey used to relish referring to it as a "failed entity".

But virtually throughout its whole existence public income was never sufficient to finance the required (or entitled) level of public expenditure.

This expenditure was, in any event, skewed towards maintaining the régime itself.

The resultant pressure showed up in high rates of unemployment mainly among Catholics.

This in turn put enormous pressure on the Northern Ireland Unemployment Insurance Fund.

The régime eventually had to turn to Westminster for help in shoring up the fund. Over the years this fund was then used to channel the bulk of what became known as the "British Subsidy" into Northern Ireland.

But apart from supporting them financially, the UK administration effectively ignored Northern Ireland. There was a rule in the UK parliament that Northern Ireland matters could not be raised as the area had a devolved administration and they should be left to get on with it (whatever it turned out to be).

But as they were effectively completely dependent on Westminster's for funding, the UK government did feel entitled to interfere in any matter which might have a bearing on the UK exchequer. And to add insult to injury, during the period to which this cartoon applies, this was a UK Labour government.

In 1931 the Northern régime did not take to kindly to being more or less ordered by the UK treasury to undertake a complete revaluation of the Province. This was done every five years in Britain but Northern Ireland was still operating on the basis of a valuation carried out for Belfast in 1900-1906 and for the rest of the province in 1852.

The UK Treasury had in fact been trying to get them to do this since 1923 but finally lost patience in 1931. It appears that the business community, in particular, were most unhappy with the Northern Ireland Valuation Bill of 1931 but they were not calling the shots.

They had to swallow a bit more than their pride at this stage.

Gordon was continually taking pots at local authority jobbery and wasteful spending north and south, but it probably irked the Northerners particularly when criticism of their side was coming from down south.

It is no exaggeration to say that Gordon abhorred the Northern régime. that much is sort of obvious from his cartoons. But what may not be so well known is that he was absolutely persona non grata north of the border and was, on one occasion, escorted by the RUC from Belfast back to the border and thrown out of Northern Ireland.

There were occasions when the government needed to project an image of everything being rosy in the garden and I am always tickled by this image of an angelic Craig gamboling with the lamb. Your image wouldn't long survive a cartoon like that.

This image of all-island peace and harmony also tickles my fancy. Note that the two heads of government are wearing masks, and do the shadows remind you of anything?

I'm sure this one drove Craig apoplectic as it was no doubt designed to do. Brewster is comparing the North to communist Russia on the basis that these were the only two administrations in the world which discriminated against their own citizens on the basis of religion. An exaggeration perhaps, but there's no mitigating the sting.

Finally, with a hard Brexit on the horizon, I leave the final thought with Gordon.

Friday, March 17, 2017


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I am often told that I compress stuff too much, so much so that it becomes unintelligible to everyone bar myself. I am also told that I indulge in unnecessary and longwinded explanations, and when the addressee is female I end up being accused of mansplaining.

So just to be on the safe [?] side, I thought I'd better give some background to two images I tweeted today. The first relies on a perception of irony and the second on some local geographical knowledge along with no little scepticism regarding the achievements of our current Repulblic.

So to picture No.1 (above). I was reading Miriam Lord's account of yesterday's press scramble in the Oval Office when I came across her remark that, during the attempted ejection of the press corps, one journalist, Senan Molony, went for broke and uttered the R word. The President apparently then asked the Taoiseach in a whisper "Is he one of yours?".

It was a Carole Coleman moment which no doubt will have Senan join her in the list of White House martyrs.

I'm sure Senan will get due exposure in the Mail for his brave act. At least on this occasion the object of the remark was alive and in the room and could have answered the challenge. Unlike Albert Folens who had gone to meet his maker by the time Senan succeeded in broadcasting his flimsily supported and damaging Nazi accusation on the national media.

This is the resultant tweet. So go figure.

And so to picture No.2. We are a priceless country when it comes to street name signage. This is usually at its most acute where the Irish language is involved and I have referred to this on many previous occasions. On this occasion I'll leave the Irish alone, there's nothing wrong with it. Today I have a wider agenda.

In the course of my reading of our national history I have been very taken by how the English were blamed for virtually all of our ills, from the famine to the profusion of prostitutes in the area of Dublin then known as Monto.

Now there was probably some justification for those two observations. The English administration could certainly have responded better to the threat and fact of famine, but it clearly didn't suit their agenda or ideology at the time. That there should have been a profusion of prostitutes in a town boasting a number of barracks with a large military presence would not be unusual.

What really got me about all this though was the prevailing nationalist wisdom that once we got rid of the English the latent purity of the Irish race would blossom and we'd live happily ever after. Well we don't. We're no more moral than the next crowd and we have sections of our dearly loved people starving or homeless or both.

The street nameplates here encapsulate all of this for me. We sent the English back home so the Queen Square West plate was redundant. We replaced it with glorious bilingualism honouring one of the foremost heroes of the Rising. But it was a cheap plate, and the paint pealed, and that's how it looks today.

I posted the tweet with the text "No comment. Go figure.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Family History Day 2017

Máire Kennedy, Our Host
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This was an absolutely great day. The contributors were erudite, entertaining and illuminating. The day was full of interesting material, serious as well as humorous.

I am so glad for Máire's sake as this has been her last "history day". She has hosted two a year, one for family history and one for local history, and the quality has always been terrific (I have to declare an interest here as I contributed to five of them since 2008, so you can take my remark as applying to the rest of the programme.)

So it's down to business.

Hilary McDonagh

Hilary McDonagh kicked off with an interesting and tight presentation about where to find records relating to children in the system. She covered a myriad of sources and I would love to see the presentation, or at least the list of the sources, published online.

Some people may remember my reference to post death photography in the context of the recently published book "Grave Matters". The idea being, whatever about the adults in a family, there may not have been any photos of the younger people in the period up to their death. In that case, some families had photos taken of the recently deceased child, sometimes posed to look as near alive as possible.

Hilary took this one step further, so to speak. A family of children lined up like steps of stairs (or for my older audience a poster of growing up on Fry's cocoa) where the youngest child was actually dead but propped up in place. Really weird.

Well, you never really know what to expect at these sessions and talking to Hilary it emerged that she is currently living in Orwell Gardens where I lived in 1950-54. We were able to swop names of families, some of whose descendants are still living there.

I think she was a bit put out when I said the Gardens had become gentrified since my granny's day but she did volunteer that some house there was valued at €800k at the height of the boom. The granny would be turning in her grave up in St. Paul's, of which more later.

Pádraig Yeates

Pádraig Yeates is well known as a historian of the social and labour aspects of the revolutionary period. And he didn't disappoint.

His subject on this occasion was the widows of the revolution. Not so much their political contributions in the post revolutionary period but the parsimonious and bureaucratic way they were treated when it came to awarding them a pension.

One poor lady was seventy before the matter was resolved to her satisfaction. She was offered a pittance on the grounds that her late husband had not been an officer in the revolutionary forces and her lawyer advised her to refuse all offers until she was finally vindicated. In the interim she was not able to support herself and had to decamp to England to live with a relative.

While stories like this are shameful, it is great that original sources are now being released and digitised so that we can appreciate the real story of what happened then.

This process has been gaining momentum in recent years with the release and digitisation of the 1901 and 1911 censuses, the Bureau of Military History witness statements and now the papers on pension claimants.

Frank Whearity

Frank Whearity took us off on a different tack entirely, regaling us with the story of the firm of George Watt Ltd, known as Soho Engineers and located in Bridgefoot St.

Frank would know all about that as he worked for the firm in the later period of its existence.

He started with an extensive genealogy of the Watt family, relating the branch which came to Dublin to that of James Watt, improver of the Newcomen steam engine. It was James Watt who patented a new process, bypassing the crankshaft, to turn the piston movement into rotary motion, enabling the dissemination of his modified steam engine which made an enormous contribution to the the powering of the industrial revolution. Well George was a sort of a cousin a few times removed.

The firm prospered up to 1979 when it underwent a significant expansion, but a mere two years later it went bust.

Frank worked a monster lathe on the premises and was also sent all over the country to fix and install machinery. He had some hilarious stories of his times with the firm and I hope he writes them up somewhere.

James Robinson

James Robinson then took us off on another tack entirely. He has been following up his own family history for decades and has written a book on it - 300 years of Robinsons. But he has also written a monograph a year on some related aspects or background.

He got an MPhil from Bolton St. DIT for a thesis based on much of the material in his book and all this stuff is on his nicely laid out website.

Lynn Brady

Lynn Brady is the resident genealogist in Glasnevin cemetery and she took us on an extensive tour on how to chase up your relatives there. She took us through developments in the cemetery's record keeping and showed us the limits of what's available and how best to access it.

Given current events, there was a lot of interest in the Angels Plot and she clarified that it was not confined to full term or premature babies but also accepted miscarriages later than 24 weeks.

John Gibney

John Gibney is Glasnevin Trust Assistant Professor in Public History and Cultural Heritage. He took us through some of the history of the cemetery and also illustrated recent efforts to restore the original garden cemetery concept where much of the area had become unruly and overgrown.

He is particularly interested in historical outreach, involving schools and the public at large.

There was a conundrum at the end which wasn't quite solved. The cemetery is non denominational and accepts people of all faiths or none. It has also accepted suicides down the years.

At the Q&A it was queried whether or not it was consecrated ground and it appears that it is. I think there is something of a contradiction there and no doubt it can be pursued on another occasion.

My direct interest is my grandfather who was fished out of the Liffey in 1918 and is buried in St. Paul's (I told you I'd come back to it). I had been taking consolation in his presence in St. Paul's on the assumption that it was consecrated ground and that he would not have been accepted there if there had been any question of suicide. But in the light of what John says I'm now not sure where I stand.

Meanwhile a great time was had by all. Thanks Máire and all the best in your retirement. Keep up the researching and the writing and remember, in the words of Voltaire, il faut cultiver son jardin.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017


Dr Máire Kennedy
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This is how the general public most often sees Máire Kennedy, introducing speakers at the local or family history days, or at the many other seminars and talks, in the Dublin City Library and Archive conference room in Pearse Street. And that's her office on the screen, by the way.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the day job out of the public gaze keeps her more than busy. You only have to check out how often she pops up in the acknowledgement pages of most of the books dealing with the history of the city published over the years.

She always has a welcome for researchers be they professionals or amateur dabblers like myself. And she is an entrepreneur in her own right; she takes risks. I am the living proof of that.

Máire doing the techie stuff

My first contact with Máire was when I walked in off the street and offered to do a talk on the history of Ballybrack. Four hundred years in forty five minutes.

I cconfidently explained that I had done a series of talks on this subject more than twenty years previously with slides and panels. "We don't do slides and there is nowhere to put panels" she replied. So what was I expected to do? Powerpoint! And what is that exactly?

So that was my abrupt and unwelcome introduction to Powerpoint.

But Máire took me up on my offer and I ended up using Powerpoint slides, interactive online maps and a blast of sound, and all was well.

Since then I have offered her four more talks and she took them all. To be fair to myself, I put a lot of work into them and I think I had a good product when it came time to deliver them.

Unshockable, almost

But I didn't have to offer my last and sixth talk, I was invited to do it. I had finally arrived, and that talk turned out to be the most significant and the most emotional to date.

It was on the artist and cartoonist Gordon Brewster who had died in my mother's shop in 1946. Following his death, his already estranged wife took his children back to England with her.

Now, nearly seventy years later, his four grandchildren and spouses, descendants and partners, numbering twenty in all, came over from England for the talk. Their ages ranged from the mature down to a five year old who ended up being the only contributor to the Q&A. You couldn't make it up.

Máire even once deputised me, as they say in the cowboy films, to front for the Library and Archive in an interview on Raidió na Life.

Máire is leaving at the end of the month and with her departure I feel I'm losing a mentor and co-conspirator, but I hope I can keep her as a friend.

Go maire tú do scor.