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Angel of the North

Éamon Ó Cléirigh

The Empress of Ireland: Chronicle of an Unusual Friendship, by Christopher Robbins, Scribner, 400 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 0743220722

One weekday morning sometime in the 1970s, the distinguished filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst made his way shortly after opening time into the Turk’s Head in Belgravia. The pub, which was his regular, was empty save for three labourers from a nearby building site, who were seated over pints of Guinness. The drinkers observed the newcomer, a tall distinguished man in his early eighties, with pale blue, ageless eyes and a shock of white flowing hair. He was dressed in a Savile Row jacket of antique cut, grey flannels, chocolate brown suede shoes and with an emerald green tie set against a white shirt.

The three men were in no doubt what to make of this apparition. “Fucking old queen,” one of them commented. The elderly party affected not to hear and proceeded to the bar, where he placed his usual breakfast order of half a glass of fresh orange juice topped up with champagne. He then turned to his fellow drinkers, instructing the barman: “Please ask those three gentlemen if they would like a drink.” The labourers accepted and, when fresh pints had been drawn, each in turn raised his glass to his lips, murmuring somewhat shamefacedly: “Cheers mate!” “Your very good health,” Hurst replied, raising his glass in their direction. “And by the way, gentlemen,” he added, pausing long enough to oblige them to look at him, “I am not an old queen. I am the Empress of Ireland.”

Apart from the barman, and the homophobic trio, this scene was witnessed by Christopher Robbins, who more than two decades later was to become Hurst’s biographer. The author, then a young journalist and apprentice writer, had been drawn into Hurst’s orbit as a potential scriptwriter for a film based on events leading up to the birth of Christ. The film, which was to be called Darkness Before Dawn, reflected the concerns of its intending director who, although of Belfast Protestant background, had become, apparently as early as the 1920s, a devout if eccentric Catholic.

Over an extended period Robbins worked with Hurst on the script, provided an audience for his musings on its theological implications and visited potential locations as far away as Malta, before realising that the old man had no intention of ever making the film. This proved to be the case; there was nothing to be gained professionally from the relationship, and, as Hurst was broke, the handsome scriptwriter’s fees Robbins had been promised proved as illusory as the film. By this stage it was too late, as he was already bewitched by Hurst’s endless stories and by his admission into the strangely magical world his new friend inhabited. For a young heterosexual this proved to be an unusual place, made up of eccentric neighbours, theatre folk, young men of religious convictions, aristocrats, policemen, blackmailers, sly procurers, feral rent boys and assorted waifs and strays.

Robbins proved to be a good listener and careful observer, who provides an amusing and informative portrait of a corner of late bohemian London. The milieu in question, presided over by the aging BDH, might be characterised as gay-artistic with occasional visitors – such as Siobhan McKenna – from more normal places. Although lower in creative vitality, it recalls the Soho world of Francis Bacon as described in Daniel Farson’s Never a Normal Man or Anthony Cronin’s evocation in Dead as Doornails of the doomed lives of the two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, also acted out against a Soho background. Apart from an undoubted eccentricity, inevitable perhaps in milieus from which women are absent, all three settings were linked by the shared centrality of alcohol.

In gay terms the world which Christopher Robbins entered was utterly out of date, indeed by the 1970s almost archaic. Gay liberation had arrived and the young were elsewhere, in bars in Earl’s Court, discos in Islington and Notting Hill and holidays in Mykonos. This was not for Robbins’s host who, by the time the author met him, was an old man and not about to change the habits and associates of a lifetime. Hurst’s Belgravia can best be seen as a fragment of earlier blendings of bohemia and sexual heterodoxy, dating back to the 1930s if not earlier. Nowhere is this line of descent more evident than in its deeply English linkage of homosexual desire and social class. At an early stage in their friendship, when he may have felt some signposting was required, Hurst remarked to his biographer: “Some people have asked me over the years whether I’m bisexual. In fact I’m trisexual. The Army, the Navy and the Household Cavalry.”

This might be seen as a translation into commercial terms of the world of longing which animates AE Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad, EM Forster’s Maurice and JR Ackerly’s My Father and Myself. What resulted may in part have been opportunism, as working class young men were more available than those of other classes. Nonetheless for these late Victorians and Edwardians, as for their successors until as late as the 1950s, it seems to have been part of the yin and yang of desire that lover and beloved should come from different social backgrounds. One consequence of the availability of mass travel in the 1960s was that the gay need for differentiation could assume forms other than social class. This, however, was too late for BDH, who well into old age continued to be sexually active with traditional partners. Something of the flavour of these transactions, and of their immense quaintness, is suggested at one point by Hurst’s request to the author: “Run out and buy a half-dozen bottles of Newcastle Brown, will you Christopher? Terry’s coming round and the corporal gets most upset if there’s only champagne to drink.”

In common with Boswell, who met Doctor Johnson when the great man was in late middle age, it was Robbins’s fate to meet his subject when much of his life was already over. One result is that parts of the life which are of immense interest can only be glimpsed through the medium of BDH’s fragmentary and at times unreliable reminiscences. One of the most surprising aspects of that life was how central, in the strangest of ways, Ireland proved to be. One suspects that Christopher Robbins found this aspect of Hurst’s biography a little puzzling, yet the Republican Catholic persona constructed by this scion of the Protestant Belfast working class was clearly of immense, if uncertain, importance to him. A variety of factors seem to have gone into the young Hurst’s reimagining of himself in terms that those among whom he grew up would certainly have found puzzling and possibly offensive. Of these the most obvious was a family history of immense emotional bleakness, set against a background of sectarian rancour and grizzly shipyard violence. The young BDH was clearly in flight from a world that he later found little pleasure in recalling and about which he lied, or at least constructed consoling fictions, but on the face of it there would seem little reason the flight should have ended up emotionally south of the border.

As a young man BDH served with the Royal Irish Rifles in Gallipoli, where he witnessed the horrors of that terrible campaign and came near to death from dysentery. My reading of The Empress of Ireland is that in some obscure way whose ultimate dynamics remain elusive, the groundwork for Hurst’s Irish identification was laid amid the squalor and suffering of the Gallipoli trenches. The experience seems to have been profound, almost sacramental, as, in a landscape peopled by the ghosts of former comrades, he came to experience Ireland as a hope and consolation. This benign vision was mediated by fellow soldiers, one of whom used to sing the old ballads of Ulster such as My Lagan Love, in a “beautiful tenor voice with all of Ulster in it”. The singer was also a narrator, who “knew all the old Irish legends and told us about the children of Lir, the Irish prince and princesses, who were changed by enchantment into black and white swans and doomed to fly forever over stormy Lough Foyle”. Ireland was present in the intimacies of death, as when a dysentery-stricken Australian soldier, seeing the harp on his badge, addressed Hurst as “Pat”. DBH did what he could to clean the young man and then, carrying him through the dead and dying, placed him in the shade, where he too died. The narrative continues.

A group of some twenty Turkish prisoners stood nearby under guard, and as he helped the stretcher-bearers cover the dead Australian with a ground sheet, one of them gestured for permission to cross over to them. A guard nodded. The prisoner broke off a piece of wild thyme and laid it in the hands of the dead man. “Then the Welshman said ‘Let us pray for him.’ The three of us knelt down. The Welshman said the Lord’s Prayer in Welsh, and the Connaught Ranger in Irish. I had no Irish, so I said it in English. They carried him away to Australian headquarters for burial at night. As I watched him go I thought of the lines by Yeats: ‘And he had known at last some tenderness /Before earth took him to her stony care.’”

A strong pan-Irish identification seems to have been in place by the time BDH was evacuated from Gallipoli to hospital in Cairo. It was there he learned of the 1916 Rising when “an Irish nurse, Sister McNulty, came rushing up to me and said: ‘Oh Brian, they’re shooting us down in Dublin’”. It seems plain that both BDH and Sister McNulty regarded him as included in that “us”. It was from this perspective that he witnessed English troops stationed in Cairo, who themselves had not seen combat, turning on Irish veterans of Gallipoli when news of the Rising came through. His own sympathies were with the insurgents; among the stories he told Christopher Robbins was how before his execution James Connolly was asked to forgive the members of the firing squad. In Hurst’s retelling Connolly replied: “I forgive all brave men everywhere who do their duty.” There is a certain ecumenicism in the remark he attributes to Connolly, suggesting that his own Irish patriotism was to be a fairly broad church.

WB Yeats is an unexpected presence at the edge of Hurst’s memories of Gallipoli. His account of the singing of Irish ballads in the trenches included later being told by Yeats, almost as if the poet was providing a retrospective validation of Hurst’s own emotions, that My Lagan Love was the oldest song in Ireland. Yeats reappears at the death of the young Australian, when Hurst’s quotation from The Man Who Dreamed of Fairyland is clearly experienced as an implied equivalent to reciting the Our Father in Irish. I infer that, like the young Londoner Alfred Willmore, who at about the same time was embarking on an ambitious self-transformation into Micheál Mac Liammóir, DBH had been drawn into the powerful gravitational field of WB Yeats.

For Hurst, as an art student immediately after the war, there seems to have been some cross-fertilisation or mutual reinforcement between the prestige of modernism, conversion to Catholicism and an imaginative commitment to Ireland. This found its embodiment in a portrait of Saint Bridget in the style of Modigliani, which BDH painted during those years and which remained with him until his death. In conventional account, as evidenced in George Orwell’s rancorous comment that in the twenties one heard endlessly that so-and-so had been received into the Churchbefore the fashion shifted in the thirties to membership of the Communist Party, conversion to Catholicism (or Anglo-Catholicism) was fashionable in post-war artistic circles. One suspects that Orwell would have found Hurst’s combination of Catholicism with New Statesman orthodoxy on political issues particularly unbearable. Hurst was not, however, over-serious about his commitments, and when asked by Vanessa Redgrave what cause he felt strongly enough to march for, replied: “That would depend on the weather.” It is an answer which nicely suggests the role of camp as dissolvent of solemnity and as goy equivalent of Jewish irony. Orwell might even have approved.

Other factors may have influenced Hurst’s Irish and Catholic identifications. A generation earlier Forrest Reid had withdrawn from what he took to be the narrowness of Belfast’s commercial middle class into a world of lightly coded homosexual pastoral. Where DBH was concerned Southern Ireland might be seen as his version of pastoral. Certainly, where homosexuality was concerned, differences between post-independence Ireland and residually Protestant England were not to the discredit of the former. No doubt the Ireland of those years was an uncomfortable enough place to be gay but, out of some combination of charity, dislike of calling things by their proper name and the desire to avoid causing pain to others a qualified and euphemistic tolerance was extended. There was no equivalent on this side of the Irish Sea of the ferocious assault on the gay community during the years when David Maxwell Fyfe was British Home Secretary, which resulted in the suicide of the mathematician Alan Turing and sent such diverse spirits as Rupert Croft-Cooke and Peter Wildeblood to jail.

A unionist friend whom I asked if he had come across The Empress of Ireland replied that he had glanced into it but that its subject seemed to dislike his own people so much he hadn’t bothered to proceed further. This seems a bit hard. Certainly the shape which Hurst gave to his life involved a rejection in all kinds of ways of Protestant working class Belfast. This, however, did not extend to his family nor, when the chips were down, was there any question of not rallying to the flag. Following the pattern established during the First World War, during World War II he once again put his talents at Britain’s service. The documentary films he made for the Ministry of Information during those years are described as “concerned not with action and derring-do but with the cold courage of men in hopeless situations, and the tenderness that soldiers have for one another amidst brutality and death”. Among his wartime films was Letter from Ulster, designed to counter rumours that US troops in Northern Ireland were behaving like an army of occupation. Contemplating all of this Christopher Robbins puzzles over, without resolving, the problem of how BDH could fight for Britain, while supporting Irish independence and sympathising in his films with those condemned for misplaced loyalties. It may well be that the question is misdirected and that Hurst’s contradictions are not resolvable as he allowed himself the luxury of inconsistency. He certainly permitted himself a degree of flexibility and was fond of quoting a remark of his father’s that the Orange marchers on July 12th were the Irish celebrating “the defeat of themselves by themselves”.

The Ireland Hurst embraced was not the poor, narrow-minded and self-engrossed state which conducted its business south of the border, but an imaginary, almost Platonic realm, constructed out of literature, music and the resources of language. He does not seem to have risked his dream by frequent visits to the place. The only occasion on which the author accompanied BDH to Ireland was passed among the eccentric inhabitants of a big house near Kinsale. Otherwise his Irishness flourished at a distance, most notably in Hollywood, where it formed the basis of his friendship with John Ford. The latter, we learn, “was delighted to meet somebody from Ireland who wasn’t either a policeman or a domestic servant”, while something of the social insecurity and longing for refinement of the emigrant Irish can be glimpsed in Ford’s announcement, when introducing Hurst to Sam Goldwyn, “Brian speaks French”.

Hurst learned his trade working as an assistant to Ford, his screen debut being as an extra in his last silent film, an Irish story called Hangman’s House. (Other Irish echoes, sometimes of an unexpected kind, were at hand. While in Hawaii with Ford, BDH met the immensely wealthy Lesbian heiress Betty ‘Joe’ Carstairs. When aged sixteen Joe had an affair with Dolly Wilde, who claimed to be possessed by the spirit of her uncle, Oscar.) Whatever the chemistry between the two men, the relationship seems to have been profound, with Ford addressing Hurst as “cousin” while Hurst described Ford as “my most valued and loved friend on this planet”. Late in life he traveled to Los Angeles to bid farewell to the director, who had six months to live. He found Ford in bed drinking Guinness and with a big box of cigars on his lap. The dying man asked his visitor to sing The Rose of Tralee and, although Brian’s voice was a poor one, he croaked out the song. Ford’s death some months later hit Hurst hard. He told his biographer: “It is impossible for me to accept that this great genius is ended by dissolution. I am certain that angels watch over him in other dimensions.”

For Irish readers, apart from sharing in the universal pleasure of laughter, Christopher Robbins’s account of BDH’s career is likely to elicit responses of a somewhere more piquant kind. Over several decades he was an extremely active filmmaker, with over thirty films to his credit. His Irish obsessions were reflected both in his repertoire and in unachieved projects; one of his late films was The Playboy of the Western World, starring Siobhan McKenna as Pegeen Mike and with music by Seán Ó Riada, while it had always been his ambition to make a film of The Shadow of a Gunman. Where filmmaking was concerned, Hurst’s good will towards Ireland was, potentially at least, of a practical kind. It was in this context that his only recorded encounter with official Ireland took place. This occurred when he flew to Dublin to seek support from Sean Lemass, then Minister for Industry and Commerce, for his ambitious plans to launch an Irish film industry. Hurst was prepared to break his contract with Rank, accept the resulting loss of income, and come to live in Ireland if the necessary, comparatively modest, funding could be put in place. The interview got off to a bad start:

‘Which part of Ireland do you come from, Mr Desmond Hurst?’ the minister asked.
‘Northern Ireland.’
The minister looked at the aide sitting beside him. ‘Mr Desmond Hurst means, of course, the Six Counties.’
‘No, Mr Lemass, I do not mean the Six Counties. I mean what is now and has always been the dominating province in Irish affairs – Ulster.’

Not surprisingly Irish government support was not forthcoming and Hurst’s plans came to nothing. The anecdote is a depressing one, which almost seems designed as yet another piece of confirmatory evidence for the thesis advanced in Tom Garvin’s Postponing the Future. Independent Ireland seems to have had an almost active desire not to possess a film industry. Brian Hurst’s desire to help was neither a caprice nor a piece of self-interest. Christopher Robbins’s account of his life is marked by regular connections between its subject’s commitment to Ireland and his career as a filmmaker. Given his track record, ability to raise funds and immense good will, any industry minister with his wits about him would have seen Hurst as a resource to be used in the creation of a local film industry.

As we have seen, like others of a homoerotic bent, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Oscar Wilde, BDH converted to Catholicism. One suspects that there was some connection between his sexual disposition and his religious convictions and that, like his Irish identification, conversion was a way of creating space. He certainly seems to have taken his Catholicism seriously. He had a confessor from Brompton Oratory, a special devotion to Saint Thérèse, whom he had seen in a vision and to whose home in Lisieux he made regular pilgrimages, and favourite churches all over London. He was also fond of the church of Saint Multose in Kinsale.

His religious commitments are most delightfully on display at a meeting, which took place some time in the 1970s, with a well-known Norwegian avant-garde theatre director, who had read the screenplay of Darkness Before Dawn and agreed to comment. As the visitor, who was in London to put on a piece of revolutionary gay theatre, was a man of drearily puritan disposition and hostile to form on ideological grounds, and as BDH’s aesthetic was both traditional and gorgeous, the meeting was ill-omened. The breaking point came when Sven objected, with “a nasal fart of contempt”, to the relevance of the subject and the presence of angels in the script. As Brian believed in the historicity of the Bible and the reality of angels, this was not the best approach. The meeting ended with a tirade from the outraged old man defending his angels (“Magnificent angels on high, seen from a great distance against a heavenly cloud formation”) and his own non-combative homosexuality (“And, I might add, when it comes to homosexual politics, homosexual nomenclature, or good old-fashioned homosexual screwing, I do not need any lectures from you.”).

Hurst’s Catholicism does not appear to have had any impact on his sexual life, which remained enthusiastic until well into old age. When questioned regarding this apparent anomaly, his apologia ranged from the routine to the profound. In the former mode he commented: “The pronouncements of God’s minions are subject to fashion and politics – Jesus preached love and forgiveness, and never condemns or comments on sexual love between men … And even if this natural state were a sin – which I have never believed to be the case, and have therefore never felt any guilt – Jesus had a soft spot for sinners.” To this he added the more sober thought that “a soul finds Hell through acts of unkindness and cruelty, not sexual peccadilloes”. He was also capable of a strain of wildly heterodox biblical commentary, as when he told his biographer:

The French say, Croquez le pomme! Bite the apple! Not Grignottez le pomme, or Pas de pomme pour moi, merci. Adam was not the first sinner, but the first man to take up the challenge of life. The first hero. And it was what God wanted. Adam took Great Big Smacking Bites from the apple of the tree of life, and it tasted so good he ate the core as well.

It seems plain that, like other Catholics of his generation who, as a result of disposition or circumstances, led lives which were incompatible with areas of the Church’s moral teaching, BDH found some way of reconciling an irregular sexuality with participation in the sacramental life of the Church. One suspects that in negotiating this difficult terrain, like other Catholic men and women, he relied on a combination of homemade theology and a sympathetic confessor. This finding of sufficient space to allow the unorthodox, both straight and gay, room to breathe depended on the presence inside the Church of a minority of priests who combined charity with a concern for souls and realism regarding the varieties of human nature. Above all it required that both parties refrain from pushing things to their logical limits and that the seeker for absolution give some kind of acknowledgment, however nominal, of the grand architecture of Church doctrine.

Although he did not know it, Hurst belonged to the last generation of gay Catholics to be allowed this luxury. The grim Norwegian proved to be a visitor from the future, as the anomalous wriggle room BDH enjoyed no longer proved possible once the Catholic natural law-based understanding of sexuality was challenged not at the periphery but at the core. One doubts whether Hurst, for all his inventiveness, could have managed to stay inside the contemporary Church. Nonetheless his extravagantly baroque sensibility represents a strain which can be traced in Church history over the centuries. At the very least, the pushing of such individuals to the edge, if not outside, the Church represents the loss of a traditional resource and of a distinctive kind of creativity.

As is clear from many accounts of the first and second world wars, mass armies, which are conscription-based and replicate within themselves the varieties and divisions of the societies upon which they draw, find a place for homosexuals. It is only in peacetime volunteer armies, when nothing serious is at stake, that the luxury of homophobia may flourish. In the case of the Catholic church, when it was the church of an entire community, it found a place, however nuanced and uncomfortable, for its homosexual members. The more recent exclusions of baptised gay Catholics from the life of the church, other than on terms which would entail a denial of their essential natures, is surely another sad but unmistakable sign of that institution’s retreat from the centre of society. As the densely historical analysis of Alan Bray’s recent The Friend suggests, the quarrel between the church and homosexual people may not only be unnecessary but also a repudiation of traditions of great antiquity within the Western and Orthodox Catholic traditions. Against this background, in his reconciliation of sexual deviancy and religious observance, BDH emerges as a more traditional figure than he may have realised.

At bottom Brian Hurst conceived of Ireland as a form of verbal magic and a means of transforming the world through the licence of storytelling. Its role was as a leaven to British ponderousness for, “without the Celts and the Jews, the island’s culture would be heavy, unseasoned stodge”. He responded to a story attributed to Gorky who had seen an Orthodox priest collapse by the side of the road, take off his boots and address them “There you are, you’ve been hurting me the whole morning, causing me great pain, but can you go a step without me?” with the comment “That could be an Irish story. Russian and Irish stories are virtually interchangeable. But it could never be an English story.” BDH should have known, for he was himself an accomplished anecdotalist. At first Christopher Robbins seems to have been a little disquieted by his subject’s meanderings before realising:

It was not that Brian went off at a tangent, or tended to digress, or was unable to keep to the subject when at work – tangential rambling and digression was how he worked. What resulted was an unceasing cascade of stories. Tall stories, war stories, funny stories, sad stories, Irish stories, gay stories … stories accumulated over a long and original lifetime. I knew even then that together they pictured a vanished and more elegant world, but saw them at the time as little more than well-spun yarns. Now I realise their true worth. Brian told stories as a way to process life, to parcel up the pain, order the chaos and confusion, and endow meaning to the pointless. Experience was held on to and made valuable by transmutation into anecdote, preferably amusing. Brian put at least as much effort into the story of his life as he did life’s work of film.

Brian Hurst died in 1986 at the age of ninety-one. Years later his biographer took some of his ashes from the graveyard in Dundonald near Belfast and brought them in a champagne glass to Dublin to scatter on Howth Head. In so doing he was following in his subject’s footsteps, as years previously BDH had travelled to Howth, equipped with champagne and roses, to scatter the ashes of his sister Patricia. This strange journey provided the occasion for a final display of Hurst’s attentiveness to the music of Ireland.

The epiphany began on the evening of Christopher Robbins’s arrival in Dublin when, having wandered around the city thinking of his old friend, he dropped into a pub. While waiting for his Guinness to settle he happened to remark to a fellow drinker that he was off to Howth in the morning to scatter a friend’s ashes. His companion, a skinny fellow with high rosy cheeks, formless suit and a shirt with a dazzling pattern of tiny blue arrows, responded: “ When a frond was a friend inneed to carry, as earwigs do their dead, their soil to earthball where indeeth we shall calm decline, our legacy unknown.” Robbins had fallen into the company of a compulsive reciter of Finnegans Wake, who needed little encouragement to perform. As he listened, Robbins recalled a conversation with BDH of thirty years previously. This had begun when he provocatively suggested that Finnegans Wake “is a load of bollocks”. Noting Hurst’s displeasure he backtracked slightly arguing: “The book doesn’t make any sense. You can’t read it. It is a formless loop of puns and wordplay – language without rules, words spewed out for their sound.” This was greeted by a long silence, followed by Hurst’s dissent from this “brute assessment of Finnegans Wake –a difficult but sublime work”. BDH then took a deep breath, adding:

“You are wrong. Ignorantly, unimaginatively, Anglo-Saxonly wrong! Finnegans Wake is music. It is song and laughter. It is enormously witty and madly clever. It is a great Irish writer’s ecstatic expression of joy in the use of language. It is an endless dream of Ireland and all her history. A book for angels.”

Robbins was not convinced but, assuming it must be “an Irish thing, some sort of Gaelic code”, let the matter drop. Now many years later, guided by Brian’s ghost to this particular pub, as he listened to the unstoppable riverrun of words of a half-tight man in a cheap suit, for the first time he heard the poetry of “this high falutin’ Gaelic literary rap”. This was not the worst of closures. Brian Hurst was lucky in his biographer, who has saved a most unusual life from time’s oblivion and written a very funny book about a man who was both amusing and strangely wise.

This review was first published in the winter/spring of 2006/2007.

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