Sunday, November 27, 2016


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Fans of Conor Doyle, of which I am one, will be familiar with his wonderful talk on the Theatre Royal which eventually evolved into his Royal Concert. In the course of both these events Jimmy O'Dea had a significant role.

But today (23/11/2016) Conor was putting Jimmy centre stage, with a whole talk to himself.

The big surprise was that Jimmy started off life as an optician. He had wanted to go into theatre but his father wouldn't hear of it so he trained as an optician. His father had a shop in Capel St. which is how the O'Dea and Lemass families became friends. Jimmy and Seán Lemass were good friends during their lifetimes.

The great partnership was Jimmy and Harry O'Donovan, who both acted with him and wrote many of his scripts.

In showing clips from many of Jimmy's shows and appearances on film and television, Conor did not neglect the great Maureen Potter who partnered Jimmy on stage in many of his comedy shows and in the pantos. Maureen was a much talented and often underrated lady. A super trouper.

For those who were not around for Jimmy's theatre performances, he will best be remembered as the star of Walt Disney's film Darby O'Gill and the Little People in which he played Brian, King of the Leprechauns.

In retrospect it was a fairly atrocious piece of Irishry, but it was a big thing at the time with one of our own a star in a Hollywood Disney Film and Walt Disney himself welcomed to Dublin for the premier. Conor is displaying pieces of King Brian's crockery.

And this is one of his royal suits. The surprise is how small Jimmy was. His stage presence belied his height. He was all of 5'4".

Looking at a clip from the film during Conor's talk I was taken with the amount of time the fiddler lingered in the third position, though he thankfully skipped the harmonics.

Dannie O'Donnell, the Donegal fiddler, would have had kittens. He was a master of the discreet use of the third position and the occasional harmonic in his beautifully modulated Irish dance music, but that's another story.

And then there was Jimmy's last show, Finian's Rainbow. A sad occasion for all. Conor has his own copy of the programme.

Spitting Image
(ITA/131 Jimmy O’Dea Collection,
Dublin City Library and Archive)

You can read up on Jimmy here and here and listen to his evergreen Orange and Green monologue here.

Conor's talk was one of two at a seminar, in Dublin City Library and Archive (23/11/2016), on Popular Theatre in Dublin in the context of Explore Your Archives Week.


I never knew the Queens Theatre as The Queens, as my parents would have.

In 1951 the Abbey Theatre burned down and the company moved to the Queens which then became the Abbey.

And the Abbey it was as far as I was concerned.

So it was great to hear about the history of the Queens from Cecil Allen, whose grandfather, Ira Allen, was intimately involved with it both as a manager/owner and an actor.

The Queens specialised in melodrama. This to me conjures up all those Victorian drawing room comedies, but that is not at all what it was about. There was political melodrama, romantic melodrama, and whatever you're having yourself melodrama. And the sets were elaborate with from live horses to lakes appearing onstage as required.

Cecil brought the tradition direct to his audience by punctuating his talk with commendable bursts of (melodramatic ?) acting. Marvellous.

The theatre, in its later years as the Queens, was also home to the Happy Gang, a troupe of comics, singers and musicians including Danny Cummins and Cecil Nash. I was familiar with Danny Cummins from his performances in the Theatre Royal and, I think, the Gaiety. I knew Cecil Nash slightly as he lived around the corner from me in Ballybrack when we were there.

Cecil Allen mentioned the vigorous audience participation which was a feature of these melodramas and I was able to remind him that, in one aspect at least, the Abbey continued this tradition down the years.

This was the Christmas panto in the Irish language. Many Dublin schools were brought to it and some travelled up from down the country. No doubt their teachers thought it would engender a grá for the language. But what they didn't reckon on was the base cunning of the actors. Liberated from the straight jacket of actual scripts and free to adlib to their hearts' content, these wily actors researched the classes which were coming to the show and then mercilessly savaged their teachers from the stage, much to the enthusiastic approval of the pupils. At least that's how I remember it.

I also noticed in one of Cecil's slides, I think it was from Hamlet, the crowns worn by the King and Queen. It reminded me that myself and some classmates were drafted by Tomás Mac Anna to make such crowns for the panto. Sheets of golden cardboard, coloured cellophane, like from the old boiled sweet papers, and an assortment of staples, glue and paper fixers were the commonplace ingredients of these magnificent headpieces.

Cecil has written a book, The Actor, which, while a riveting novel, is attested to have a well researched background of the times (beginning of the twentieth century). You can read a review here, which I suspect is from Cecil's wife. Sounds good.

Cecil's talk was one of two at a seminar, in Dublin City Library and Archive (23/11/2016), on Popular Theatre in Dublin in the context of Explore Your Archives Week.

You can hear and read Cecil's earlier talk on the Queens, given during Heritage Week in August 2016, here.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


This book is a heap of fun. Death can be fun, or at least there can be some funny aspects to it, as long as its not your own death you're talking about.

This book has over seventy contributors, each covering a different aspect of death in about three pages. The only significantly longer contribution is the introduction by the editor, Salvador Ryan, and that runs to a whole seven pages. So it's lots of stuff but short and snappy.

Salvador Ryan, editor, Nick Maxweell MD Wordwell,
Peter Harbison, archeologist

I'll just reflect on two points from Salvador's introductory talk at the launch in the Royal Irish Academy on 10/11/2016. The talk was serious, funny and highly entertaining. Make you want to buy the book, which, incidentally I did.

The first concerns children and the presence of death. Today, for many people, death is sanitised. We are often far from the old country wake where the corpse is in a bed or open coffin while neighbours, friends and colleagues "party" around it.

I have been with many corpses, from my granny when I was a teenager, to my cousin very recently, and I have not been in the least scared in the presence of the dead. Upset maybe but not scared. It is much more scary to be in the presence of a person dying a slow death and fighting valliantly for every last breath.

The second is the caoineadh or to give it its weak Englsh translation the Lament. It is really a mourning or a keening usually by the family but also sometimes by a "professional" brought in from the outside. We had a taste of it at the launch when Salvador sang an unaccompanied caoineadh as Gaeilge in the course of his talk.

Some of the items in the book may seem a bit obscure and peripheral but I went straight to Rita Larkin's piece on death notices and Mary Ann Bolger's on Memorial Cards (or Memoriam Cards as we used to call them).

Rita's piece is a hoot where she systematically debunks and interprets the PC language used in your standard death notice. The notice is a "best foot forward" job regardless of the facts - nisi bonum and all that. People don't die any more. They "pass on" and the like, and often as not it's "after an illness bravely borne" even if they died roarin'. Then there's the mammy who used always keep an eye on the death notices in the paper - "do you know who's dead?". It's a sad day, and a wakeup call, when this duty passes down to yourself. Anyway, Rita has the ultimate way around the bullshit in the death notice - write your own, well in advance!

Mary Ann's piece also rang lots of bells. More than you might imagine. Both my Granny's and my Mammy's missals were chock-a-block with memoriam cards. And most of the subjects would be regularly prayed for in the course of the weekly, or daily, mass, as the case may be. Lost friends, colleagues and relations all vied for attention. Some had photos and some didn't.

Mary Ann recounts how holy pictures, of varying degrees of piety and suffering, but blank on the obverse, would be obtained by jobbing printers, and turned into highly personalised memorial cards. I am well aware of the process as I too was a jobbing printer once, albeit on a very small scale, and I specialised, inter alia, in the memorial card. Mary Ann mentions indulgences but I don't think she quite gets it as far as the letterpress printer is concerned. Every letter and space had to be set by hand with a tweezers so the less the work and the greater the reward the better. Taking a leaf out of the book of my betters, the older indulgence hunters, I scoured the table of indulgences to find the shortest ejaculation with the biggest bang (so to speak). Worked like a dream.

The choice and range of pieces in the book reflect the evolution of today's Irish society. We have a piece on the Jewish way of death, which while not particularly modern might not have been included in such a book way back. But we also have a piece on the Muslim way of death which certainly reflects the replacement of the kosher by the hallal in some traditionally Jewish areas in Dublin.

The contrast between the funerals of two Irish Presidents, Douglas Hyde and Erskine Childers, tells us much about the progress of human decency and the decline of the influence of the Catholic church in the intervening period.

Well, if you can't have the State Pathologist to launch your book on death you can have a former State Pathologist's brother. This incidental observation, of course, does a serious injustice to Peter Harbison, who is widely renowned in his own right, and appropriately enough to the subject, the field of archeology. I wouldn't have mentioned the brother but he brought it up himself in the course of his witty romp through the contents of the book.

He commented that he was glad he was launching and not reviewing the book where he'd have to comment on all 75 entries. At the launch he just picked out a few teasers, including two cases which called for some ingenuity in repatriating the corpse where the sailors were reluctant, to say the least, to have a dead person on board ship. One was shipped in a full barrell of gin where the gin "evaporated" during the voyage, and the other in a stand up piano, in which he was eventually buried.

I must say that the more I got to read of this book the more I liked it. It is an Aladdin's Cave, an absolute treasure trove of the most interesting of stuff.

Unlike Peter Harbison I could go on all day and night talking about this book and drawing attention to its tightly phrased informative, interesting, amusing and entertaining contributions. But you'd be better off going out and buying the book yourself and leaving it around to pick up and dip into from time to time. That is, if you can leave it down once you've picked it up.

So I'll just mention two more pieces.

David J Butler writes on the momento mori and the Freemasons. I was in the graveyard at Greyfriars in Edinburgh recently and came to the conclusion that it must be full of deceased pirates, if one is to judge by the proliferation of skull and crossbones on the tombstones. My guide explained that they were all Freemasons, a matter of no surprise to him as in them days you had to be a Freemason to get anywhere. And believe you me, these tombstones were not purchased in the local bargain basement. Massive, some of them were.

Clodagh Tait, in her piece on Graveyard Folklore tells us that the inhabitants of graveyards are usually depicted in being proactive in defending their graves from interference. This brought to mind the curse of the Guinnesses in their vault in All Saints Church just down the road from where I live. You can see it for yourself below. Click the image for a larger readable version.

Happy reading.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


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The Reek (Croagh Patrick) is not only a familiar site in the West of Ireland, it is a site of pilgrimage, on a par with Lough Derg. This is a sacred mountain, the like of which is found in many religions and cultures throughout the world.

It is from here that St. Patrick is supposed to have banished the demons from Ireland, which event heralded in the era of Saints and Scholars. Accompanying the demons on their outward passage were the snakes, for whose banishment the saint has been given even greater credit in the history books.

Alison Lindsay

Alison Lindsay introduced the subject matter of the evening. Although coming from a "long and lauded legal lineage" her principal qualification on the night was that she was from Mayo and could therefore speak with authority on the Reek. Her other qualifications tell us that she would never judge a book by its cover, fine and all as that cover might be. In the event she was unstinting in her praise of Atlantic Tabor in all its manifestations.

Pat Claffey

Pat Claffey, coming from Roscommon, has a long interest in this holy mountain. Along with two Polish photographers, Tomasz Bereska and Tomasz Szustek, he has just authored this book on the subject. It had its Dublin launch (17/11/2016) in the magnificent church of St. Mary, Haddington Road, where Pat is currently a curate.

Pat Claffey

If you are expecting dramatic scenic shots with dawnings, sunsets and moonlight, forget it. The photography is not about the mountain as geography, it is about the pilgrims themselves.

There are two strands of photographs running in parallel though the book.

One is the portraits of individual pilgrims. These are all in the same style as though you were standing in front of them talking to them. They are almost all full page colour images. Strictly speaking they should all look the same, but what distinguishes them apart are the actual people themselves.

The photos are posed in the sense that the subjects were standing in front of the camera in the full knowledge that their photo was being taken. But that is as far as it goes. There is no playing up to the camera. There is no sense of self consciousness. There is no posturing in this place. It is as though the camera were a fellow pilgrim and both defer in all humility to this holy place.

Each pilgrim is simply identified by a caption with their given name and where they are from. It is a very effective technique as it forces you to make the pilgrim's acquaintance through the photograph itself.

This was a brave editorial decision and it comes off very well.

The second strand is a series of black and white photos of various sizes and angles which set the atmosphere and introduce you to the surroundings and travails of the pilgrimage itself. These photos are of individual pilgrims or groups of pilgrims, many of them stressed out. They also pick out individual details like the rough stones beneath the pilgrims' feet or the hands fingering the rosary at St. Patrick's bed.

And yes there are some dramatic scenic shots which bring you up against the scale and intensity of the landscape and introduce you to the ebb and flow of the eternal mist.

Tomas Szustek, Tomasz Bereska, Alison Lindsay, Pat Claffey

Pat Claffey's text examines the mountain under a series of headings and fully conveys the history, mystery and dogged endurance of this shrine at the heart of its people. You can get some small flavour of it from his piece in the Irish Times.

And the title?

Mount Tabor is held to be the location of the Transfiguration of Christ in the gospels and Pat Claffey is drawing a parallel between it and the Reek with whose dimensions and shape it roughly corresponds.

Tomas Szustek, Pat Claffey, Tomasz Bereska

Friday, November 18, 2016


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There are a few things to be said about St. Mary's church, Haddington Rd.

It is a beautiful church.

It is the only Roman Catholic church in Dublin, and perhaps in the country, that has a quality plaque on the wall commemorating parishioners who died in WWI. We are used to seeing a profusion of these in Protestant churches but this is different.

The church is also host to a series of very high quality lectures, sometimes on church related topics and sometimes less so. They are part of the "Patrick Finn Lecture Series", so named after the, now sadly deceased, enlightened Parish Priest who instituted them.

Tonight (17/11/2016), it was fitting that the talk was about Tom Kettle, who was one of those parishioners who fell at the Somme on 9 September 1916.

And it was also fitting that the talk was given by Maurice Manning, who, incidentally, was one of my tutors in UCD in the 1960s. I have him to thank for giving me access to what was then a restricted access book by Paul Blanchard. Thanks Maurice.

Maurice has a deep understanding of, and empathy with, the history of this country, and in the course of his talk he also demonstrated a nuanced appreciation of this complicated man, Tom Kettle.

There is a fine bust of Kettle in St. Stephen's Green and that is where I first came across him many years ago. I didn't really know anything about him but assumed he was one of our heroes as a result of something or other. In fact, there was very little talk about him since until more recent times when the country started having to come to terms with the twin legacies of the 1916 Rising and WWI.

I am very aware of this as I was brought up on the Rising only to find, in more recent times, that I had an uncle killed on the Somme in the same year as the Rising.

It is this ambiguity that plagued Kettle in the final years of his life. He was essentially a nationalist and had been sent to Belgium to buy guns for the Volunteers. But the German atrocities he saw there convinced him that there was a wider cause to be supported if civilisation was to be preserved, and this is what motivated him to join the British army.

Initially denied the chance to go to the front, for health reasons, he embarked on an intensive campaign of recruiting for the British Army on the home front. For this he was frequently vilified and on one occasion badly beaten up.

He was jeered at for asking others to do what he himself did not, and this stung. So much so that, despite his abhorrence at the British reaction to the Rising, he contrived to get to the Western Front, and died in this, to him, greater cause.

He did his best not to be misunderstood and, as a result we have as part of his legacy, his poem explaining himself to his newly born daughter at home.

The final lines of the poem have by now become a cliché, but Maurice made the point that the earlier lines are a thing of beauty and to prove it he read the whole poem.
To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God
by Thomas Michael Kettle
dated ‘In the field, before Guillemont, Somme, Sept. 4, 1916’.

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your mother's prime,
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You'll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To dice with death. And oh! they'll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

As to the rest of his personal life and his career. He was apparently both brilliant and good company. He became professor of political economy at UCD, a component college of the newly established National University. He didn't necessarily know any much economics but had an enquiring mind and an enthusiasm that inspired his students.

He became an MP in the UK parliament but found that a bore. He mixed in London intellectual and literary circles. And then he took to the drink which sadly crucified him and his wife Mary from there on in. This flower of Irish youth was reduced to a serial promiser to quit the booze, again. So sad, and a part of his life that has been downplayed by the nationalist tradition. But it was part of him, and Maurice faced it full on. But he also reminded us that he rose above it, hence the quotation of the full poem.

So let us honour him in his full complexity and that of the times he lived in.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016


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Last night saw the publication of IRISH ARCHIVES 2016. This is the annual journal of the Irish Society for Archives (ISA) which was founded by Robin Dudley Edwards in 1970, so it's been in existence for almost half a century at this stage.

The event took place at the newly refurbished reading room at the National Archives of Ireland.

Each year's edition concentrates on a particular theme and this year it was "Hidden Pages from the 1916 Rising". This recapped on a seminar held in February 2016 on this theme in St. Thomas and St. George's church in Cathal Brugha St.

Elizabeth McEvoy, Joint Editor, Irish Archives

As far as the theme was concerned, the idea was to present research on the Rising from lesser known archives. These included the St. John's Ambulance, the Post Office (GPO & London HQ), the Monica Roberts Collection (diaries and correspondence exchanged with the troops on the Western Front), the Irish Architectural Archive (damage to buildings) and the Co. Wexford Archive (contribution of three families to the Rising).

Raymond Refaussé, Chairman, ISA

In an additional paper in IRISH ARCHIVES, which was not part of the original seminar, Church of Ireland parish documents from around the country, including newsletters, preachers books and correspondence, are drawn on.

Lia Mills, author

The volume was launched by Lia Mills, whose book "Fallen" was chosen for this year's Dublin One City One Book Festival. Except this year it was two cities one book when Dublin readers were joined by those in Belfast. The story deals with conflicting loyalties in the twin conflicts of WWI and the Rising. So Lia was an excellent choice to launch the current volume.

She didn't mince her words in criticising what is effectively a decline in popular literacy with the current widespread debasement of words. She had me thinking once again of George Orwell's Newspeak.

She was also lavish in her praise of the vital role of the archivist in preserving past and present material and in presenting it in digestible form to the wider public.

Susan Hood, Joint Editor, Irish Archives

Refurbished Reading Room, National Archives of Ireland

So it's full marks to the ISA for a highly relevant publication in this year of commmoration of the Rising and for continuing to validate the role of the archivist as a pro-active guardian, not only of our history, but of the underpinnings of our civilisation and of who we are.

Copies of IRISH ARCHIVES 2006 can be purchased from Easons bookshops or by mailing Elizabeth McEvoy

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


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There I was, walking past the GPO, on the Clery's side of the road when I saw this. "What" I wondered "is going on here?"

Were they doing a retake of the The Spy Who Came In From The Cold? It certainly had resonances of the modern Checkpoint Charlie with its fake soldiers. Except this was the GPO and not McDonald's in the background.

Then it struck me. I have been complaining for years about the flying of the national flag after dusk and boring people with the tale of the soldier who used to pass through my office in Government Buildings every day to take the flag down from the roof.

Well it's happening again, in front of my eyes. Halleluia. These are real soldiers and they are about to take the flag down from its pole at dusk.

This is something that every child in the nation should be brought to see. It should be on the tourist trail. After all, people line up to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, don't they?

The flag is carefully unclipped from its moorings. And just by the way, be thankful you can't fly the tricolour upside down, though I once saw a video of a Yank having a go at it.

The flag is ceremonially folded ...

... and draped over the NCO's arm. And off they go, to return at dawn.

Sign of a job well done and full marks to the defence forces for once again showing us all how to respect the national flag.