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How to Disappear

Katrina Goldstone writes: In January 1987, Stella Jackson, who wrote under the pen name Stella Fitzthomas Hagan, put a halt to her proposed memoir, declaring it unlikely she would ever manage to finish it. She had only reached the period of the late 1940s, in a life that would span from 1908 to 1992. Despite her ardent literary ambitions, she published only one novel in her lifetime, The Green Cravat, about Lord Edward Fitzgerald and 1798, and wrote a handful of plays which were never performed.


In her obituary in Saothar, the labour history journal, the novel was alluded to as receiving “many favourable reviews”. Yet throughout the obituary, by friends Edmund and Ruth Frow, Jackson was still defined in relation to the more famous men in her life. This was nothing new. Jackson was a woman well-used to be being cast into the shadows, or to being defined in relation to men ‑ her father, historian TA Jackson, her lover, Ewart Milne, and less frequently Cork writer Patrick Galvin, who was her husband, albeit only for a very short time.

Sometimes, though, a more brutal erasure occurred. In Ewart Milne’s timeline in the Festshrift in honour of his eightieth birthday, the chronology for the wartime years from 1939 to ’41, summarised the period in an anodyne line about staying “with friends in Wicklow and Co. Cork”. In fact Milne had returned to Ireland in 1939, in the company of Stella Jackson, just at the outbreak of war. The two had first met in the rickety offices of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, at 26 New Oxford Street, at the height of those heady days of hope that Republican Spain might strike a hammer blow to fascism. That turned out to be a mirage, but did not prevent numerous witnesses to history, both famous and obscure, from recalling the rollercoaster of literary commitment in the frenzied atmosphere of Thirties literary circles.

For many years it was Spender and Auden who hogged the Thirties literary limelight, but in the last twenty years their prominence has been challenged in lit crit circles. Accounts like Jackson’s unpublished memoir are still rare, written from a day-to-day activist viewpoint by a working class woman and idiosyncratic leftist, with a passion both for Ireland and for some of Ireland’s literary menfolk. She was also ahead of the confessional pack with her blunt attitude. Her candid depictions of messy liaisons, bouts of depression and the predatory nature of some avowedly leftist males all make for a vivid portrait of the leftist woman’s progress in the Thirties.

Jackson also became an accidental tourist in Ireland’s literary circles. Her memoir, while focusing on the Thirties and the war years, also contains a lively depiction of a forgotten milieu in Irish letters, that of a small group of artists, writers and poets who espoused antifascist causes and the principle of internationalism. The affair with Milne would be an entrée into this rambunctious interconnecting group of friends and political comrades, interlocking circles which included Sean and May Keating, Edward Sheehy (of Ireland Today), artist Harry Kernoff, Leslie Daiken, Jack and Mina Carney, Margaret Barrington and Muriel MacSwiney among others. Jackson’s sojourn in wartime Ireland would be brutally curtailed when she was unceremoniously removed by gardaí from the house she shared with Milne and deported back to England in the summer of 1941.

Jackson described her first meeting with Milne, and the circuitous course of the love affair as part of her voluminous unpublished memoir Flotsam and Jetsam: Memoirs of a Revolutionary’s Daughter. The “revolutionary” in question was TA Jackson, (always known as Tommy) one of the founder members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, a leading Marxist historian of the interwar years and an ardent supporter of the Irish independence struggle. Tommy Jackson passed on his devotion to Ireland to his daughter Stella and schooled her well in the politics and history of the country. As she put it “I was suckled, weaned, [and] reared on the Dialectic and on Irish history.”

Jackson defined herself, in typical self-deprecating manner, as “a crazy mixed up classless intellectual”. She was also was a kind of British “red diaper baby”. She was brought up with her sister Vivien in a staunch communist household where the reality of midnight flits or lack of food corresponded with the periods of her father’s intermittent employment. Vivien Morton recalled one incident when the two girls went off to school one morning and returned to discover they had neither home nor possessions, as the bailiffs had removed “every book, every childish treasure”.

Stella Jackson represents herself as a backroom figure in Thirties political circles, though Barbara Castle, the British Labour Party’s “Red Queen” for one, thought she should stand for parliament. Jackson and Castle, then Barbara Betts, shared digs in the 1930s. Jackson began the task of committing her memoir to paper in the1980s. It was not her first foray into serious writing. The novel The Green Cravat had been published in 1959, and r published in 1970. Among the flimsy pages of her manuscript, there is a letter from Lord Killanin, of Four Provinces Films, which indicates a brief flurry of interest in adapting her book for the big screen, though Killanin wryly mused that Hollywood’s interest in historical films rarely went beyond “Madame Pompadour”.

On arrival in Ireland in the autumn of 1939, Milne and Jackson were inducted into a hectic round of socialising centred in and around Co Wicklow and environs. They lodged first with Edward Sheehy, former literary editor of Ireland Today, the main left-liberal publication from 1936 till its closure in 1938. Jackson claims on her first visit she was shown a row of bushes outside and told that was what there was in the way of sanitation. The couple also became friendly with artist Sean Keating and his wife May, who drew interconnecting groups of artists, writers, poets and political activists into their circle. Jackson described packed parties and heated cultural discussions in the Keatings’ home. She was forcibly struck by the lively engagement with literature and poetry.

“It was extraordinary to me – after England, where I had never known anyone to have any knowledge of current poetry-writing – that everyone seemed to be au fait with every kind of literary activity (even people who themselves were by no means writers) and that any poem in any provincial little magazine by a new name was immediately discussed and criticized and as much as possible discovered about the writer. Seemingly Ireland was indeed a land of literary culture, and also its close-knit intellectual community had much more than a normal endowment of curiosity.” The observation might seem slightly condescending in tone, but Jackson had a genuine knowledge and appreciation for Irish history and culture.

Despite the flurry of socialising, there were also quieter moments in the Sheehy household. Through the Sheehys, the couple met Margaret Barrington, who would become quasi-landlady to the pair. Barrington was known to friends as Meta or Mita O’Flaherty. Her novel My Cousin Justin had been recently published. She could be said to be as well known for the notoriety she attracted on leaving her husband, Edmund Curtis, for Liam O’Flaherty, as she was for her novel. The three moved together to Leap, Co Cork, Barrington acting as scatty landlady. According to Jackson, they formed an amiable household, with everyone dedicated to writing in some form or another. She painted a cosy picture of domesticity despite the deprivations, Barrington writing in one room, and Milne writing in another. Although Jackson carried out tasks such as proofreading, it was during her stay in Ireland that she first hit on the idea of a book of her own, while she read up on the 1798 rebellion in the local library. She had dreamed of being a writer from childhood, but her larger than life father had monopolised the writer in the family label, and her emotionally fragile mother vehemently disparaged her literary ambitions. While in Co Cork, Jackson awaited the publication of her pamphlet on Partition, written under the pseudonym John Hawkins, and sponsored by the Fabian Society. She agreed to write under the pseudonym of “John Hawkins”, as her own name in Left circles would be well-known, and she would inevitably be associated with the “elder daughter of the notorious communist and vehement Marxist propagandist Jackson”. She had previously conducted research through Ireland, North and South, doing interviews, and also canvassed opinion from some Irish in Britain groups. When the pamphlet, entitled The Irish Question Today, was published, it garnered reviews in The Irish Times, Irish Independent, Cork Examiner, Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, New Statesman, Economist, Spectator and other periodicals.

Lulled into a false sense of security because she had received no unwarranted official attention after the pamphlet’s publication, Jackson wrote to John Parker, Labour MP, in the House of Commons, describing the scare stories and “invasion-talk” circulating at that point in 1941 in the Cork area. Two days after posting the letter, in the small hours of the morning, thunderous knocking awakened all in the household – Milne, Jackson and Meta O’Flaherty – and the two officers of the Garda Síochána who had loudly demanded entry presented Jackson with a deportation order, issued by the minister for justice, Gerry Boland, on account of “infringement of neutrality”.

 Jackson believed – naively perhaps – that it was the pamphlet, rather the information she shared in the letter, that was the reason for her arrest. She was transported to Dublin and kept in a cell in Mountjoy Prison overnight, not allowed any legal representation before being deported to England. Despite attempts by May Keating and members of the Irish Labour Party to intercede, the order was not rescinded. According to Jackson, her deportation “made front page news in the Irish newspapers”. Her time in Ireland in the late ’30s and ’40s, which she looked back on as a “genuine idyll”, had another unexpected outcome which enhanced her own rather fragile sense of self-worth. In Ireland, few people knew her father, thus she was not regarded as an “extrapolation of Tommy’s … At long long last I began having a clear sense of identity, a proper perception of myself as a separate person, and I gained greatly in confidence.”

Stella Jackson’s memoir is not an archival find that reveals the neglect or erasure of a prodigious literary talent as such. Yet what lends it heft and significance lies its record of key cultural and social details, an original and unusual account of Thirties leftist circles told by a woman on the left with a complex relationship to left-wing groups, offering a different slant or interpretation of leftist and anti-fascist politics in the period. Jackson moved in diverse leftist circles, including those connected to Labour council politics ‑  she sat on the council for St Pancras in London - and the cluster of groups that emerged in Britain in support of Republican Spain. She was always assumed to follow the same political ideology as her father. Her strenuous denials of this were greeted more often than not with knowing looks or nods. She wrote with humour about those maladroit assumptions in an opinion piece for the Spectator in the 1970s, entitled “The Wearing of the Red”.

As in her own life, where her political allegiances were constantly misinterpreted, so too the memoir. It may well have been interpreted as insufficiently in one camp or another. Her candid account of her liaisons, frontline dispatches about Thirties sexual politics, and her honesty about her abortion, might have seemed to be all of a piece with feminist reworkings of the genre of autobiography, and to guarantee interest from a feminist imprint. But then there is the at times abject expression of adoration of Milne. The revelations of shabby behaviour from some leftist men in her circles would have struck a discordant note amongst the traditional, sometimes hagiographic male-dominated narratives of Thirties left wing activism, ruling out interest from radical presses. Her timing seems to have been off too. She started writing the memoir in the Thatcherite ’80s, not an auspicious decade to pen memories of radical left-wing politics in the Thirties. Ten or fifteen years earlier her memoir might well have struck a chord with new audiences hungry for reminisces of the Thirties or narratives about the Spanish Civil War. There is a short note from Jackson within the manuscript pages, with a list of dates and incidents that need to be corrected, indicating that there may have been another editorial eye, but again this is supposition and conjecture. The truth is that it is now impossible to know the trajectory or fate of the memoir manuscript.

The title of the memoir encapsulates a lifelong dilemma for Jackson. Others often categorised her as an adjunct to a more prominent male – first her father, the Revolutionary, and then Milne in the years when he was garnering attention in literary circles in Dublin and London. The death of Milne in 1987, with whom she was reunited after his wife, Thelma, died, put an abrupt end to her attempt to set the record straight on her own behalf. Yet Jackson’s memoir offers an intimate snapshot of a vibrant countercultural scene in Ireland, and in the London of the interwar period and war years. Jackson may have set out to assert autonomy over the narrative of her life, to break out of the shadow of the men whose experiences were deemed to be more significant than hers, but she accidentally also managed to document a rich cultural episode in Irish literary history, which until now has been almost entirely forgotten. The Thirties is an orphan decade in the history of the Irish Free State, its tumult, violence and stark social change lost amidst the copious high drama accounts of the historical era of Independence struggle through to the contested territory of the Second World War and neutrality. Thanks to Jackson, and the other writers in the Daiken circle, we can begin to construct a clearer record of what Irish writers and artists were doing and thinking in the late Thirties and Forties, and how their opinions and actions chimed with a broader internationalist, antifascist moment.

Notes on Sources

This blog is adapted from the chapter on women writers in the book Irish Writers and the Thirties: Art Exile and War by Katrina Goldstone (Routledge) published on December 30th, 2020. It is a study of a number of writers and artists in the circle of Irish Jewish writer Leslie Daiken, and their political and cultural engagement at home and abroad during the Thirties.
Obituary Stella Hagan Fitzthomas, Saothar Vol 18, 1993 p 12.
Our History pamphlet, no 73 T. A. JACKSON. a centenary appreciation by Vivien Morton and Stuart MacIntyre.

Katrina Goldstone is an independent researcher and writer, who writes about cultural diversity and aspects of Jewish history and culture. Contact: [email protected]