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Neither West Brit nor Little Irelander

Gerald Dawe

Smyllie’s Ireland: Protestants, Independence and the Man who Ran The Irish Times, by Caleb Wood Richardson, Indiana University Press, 185 pp, £27.99, ISBN: 978-0253041241

From the off, this fine cultural study of RM Smyllie, editor of The Irish Times, and “his” Ireland from WWI to the late 1950s, is full of present-day reverberations as according to Richardson’s reading Smyllie believed that “Ireland must look beyond its borders in order to see itself clearly”. Richardson also – thankfully – knocks on the head the rather self-serving notion that Protestantism in Ireland equalled the Anglo-Ireland of the aristocracy and that when they were brutalised, burned out and finally left, those who remained (as if they were all one) lived in terminal decline. As a “master narrative” this always seemed to be contradicted by experiences of my own of the varied Protestant communities throughout the island but also, specifically, by that of living and working in the Republic since the early 1970s.

As Richardson remarks: “One of the great flaws of the ‘alienation and decline’ model of southern Protestantism is how it flattens the way life is actually lived. Focusing on the local can correct this.” That said, the misunderstandings of what, who and how “Prods” saw themselves is neatly unwound in this valuable portrait of a Sligo Protestant, from his upbringing in the western city (once known as “Little Belfast”) to his internment in a German camp for foreign nationals during WWI: “for internees as well as for southern Protestants, ‘British’ came to mean something other than political allegiance: it had more to do with an approach to life than a loyalty to a union, monarchy, or empire”. As Richardson goes on to say:

As such, it could exist with all sorts of other attachments. In the case of southern Irish Protestants, it could continue to play an important role in their identity even when they had, passively or actively, chosen to remain in Ireland and become “Irish”.

In quoting two sociologists, Joseph Ruane and David Butler, who point out that in examining “culturally distinct historical communities” it is important to “explore the ethnographic reality behind the labels and be alert to other meanings”. This has certainly presented challenges to the dominant national narratives of Irish political self-consciousness and how it had progressed in the latter half of the twentieth century. What is troubling, though, that during the current post-peace process “Decade of Commemoration”, as it encounters the thorny issue of Brexit-bound UK and the local fall-out within Northern Ireland, the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, sounded somewhat cloth-eared when addressing the Northern unionist communities with an ill-conceived “They will still have their queen, and sterling” comment.  It wasn’t only the ever-ready insult-slight-grievance radar detector of the DUP which registered an own goal; the wider Northern Protestant communities would have wondered too just how much the Irish government knows (or cares) about their varied and fluctuating sense of cultural identity at this particular stressful time.

Lessons to be learnt, hopefully, but when one looks at where the Irish state has come from to where it now is, there is confidence that such a mistake will be rectified. Richardson’s charting of the issue of censorship in his fine chapter on “Liberals” is a case in point as he unpicks the (at times) ludicrous position of some senators in regard to the controversy surrounding the publication in the early 1940s of The Tailor and Ansty: “the deliberate elision”, Richardson writes, “of blasphemy and anti-Irish propaganda” saw any attack on censorship as an attack on Catholicism:

The Tailor and Ansty debates comprise the most colourful example of how Southern Protestants found themselves thrust into the position of defending liberal ideals. The book’s attackers treated the Tailor and Ansty as unwitting fifth columnists, used by the English (and their fellow travellers on this side of the Irish Sea) to undermine Ireland. Southern Irish Protestants made the case that this quirky, original, occasionally unseemly, and almost always unorthodox couple represented all those aspects of Ireland that need defending.

It took more than a generation for that view to become much more widely held in Irish society, brokered in significant part by those playwrights and novelists who had become detached from the dominant cultural and ideological role of the Catholic church, Edna O’Brien, Tom Murphy and Thomas Kilroy among them.

But it is hard to bear the simplicities of the once dominant view knowing what we now know of the shockingly arrogant and destructive power of the same church. Richardson quotes the infamous St Patrick’s Day speech of Éamon de Valera in 1943 when he produced the following idyll, as the author reminds us, “at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic”:

Acutely conscious though we all are of the misery and desolation in which the greater part of the world is plunged, let us turn aside for a moment to that ideal Ireland that we would have. That Ireland which we dreamed of …

As de Valera then proceeds to eulogise a way of life in stark and unremitting defiance of the reality of most of his listening audience, notwithstanding his manipulative subjunctive caveats: an “ideal Ireland that we would have”; an “Ireland which we dreamed of”. Richardson rightly zones in on Smyllie’s response: he vowed that “he, for one, would never ‘see our country sacrificed for the idols of a dead doctrine”’. It is in this manner of clear-eyed tracking of the ins and outs of cultural debate that Richardson’s book is so useful.

The concision, judgement and contextualising of each of the chapters makes for a light touch and there is, thankfully, little pondering of what might have been. This is how cultural history should be written, even with wry and ironic touches such as when the “proper name of Dun Laoghaire/Kingstown” is debated in the Dáil “as a matter of national security”.

In his conclusion, which strikes this reader as perfectly judged and just, Richardson makes the point that Smyllie’s story “reveals commonalities among southern Protestants; in others, his life points up areas of difference. Like Smyllie, many postindependence Protestants found strength in older traditions”:

From the very beginning of his journalistic career, for instance, he insisted on placing Ireland in a wider European context. Many of his critiques of independent Ireland – from Irish-language education to neutrality to social welfare policy – were rooted in his study of and travel in Europe. This set him apart from West Brits and Small Islanders alike, but in today’s Ireland he would fit right in.

Let us hope that is the case when the fundamental challenge of Northern Protestantism and political unionism need to be considered by this state, both politically and culturally, with the kind of intelligence, good will and energy which Smyllie exhibited in his life as editor of The Irish Times during the mid-twentieth century and at a time when huge strains were placed on this country’s relationships with its near neighbour.

1/3/2020

Gerald Dawe recently published his ninth poetry collection, The Last Peacock, with The Gallery Press. His new book, The Sound of the Shuttle: Cultural Belonging & Protestantism in Northern Ireland, will be reviewed in the April issue of the drb. He lives in Dún Laoghaire.

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