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The Greatest of These

George O’Brien

Down by the Liffeyside, by Colbert Kearney, Somerville Press, 263 pp, €17, ISBN 978-1999997069

“Con and Maisie ensured that none of their children would ever be in a position to write a misery memoir,” writes Colbert Kearney of his parents. And reading Down by the Liffeyside as a memorial to those parents is certainly one way – the one that reflects most fully the author’s intentions – to read his attractively plain-spoken work, which is not to say that somebody from outside the family circle will not also find here much that is socially valuable, culturally revealing and psychologically intriguing. But even if the author did not include material of those latter kinds, and had confined his narrative exclusively to an insider account of his family, he still would have produced something worthwhile for the simple reason that unembellished, sober and straightforward (or as straightforward as the artifices of language and narration allow) treatments of Dublin working class life are, for whatever reason, few and far between, despite the fact that Irish literature continues to enjoy a golden age of memoir. Yet it’s the ostensibly unexceptional character of the Kearney family – Con (christened Colbert), Maisie, Colbert and his three younger sisters, Maura, Eileen and Eva – that makes them in certain respects representative citizens not only of their native city but illustrative instances of certain class and cultural developments in the country at large. And, of course, once the reader gets to know Con and Maisie (the three girls do not feature very prominently), the veneer of ordinariness falls away to reveal their distinctiveness.

The class component of the family’s social presence is told in part by their housing history. Indeed, the story begins in housing, as the author takes his slightly incredulous daughters to see the tiny and otherwise unsuitable house in Inchicore where the family spent its early years. In a work notable for its celebration of attachments, this visit generates little sentimentality regarding “the rare oul times” or anything of the kind. On the contrary, the Kearneys always seem to have been moving forward, as their heavy emotional investment in the author’s future attests. This investment becomes more explicit when they secure a Corporation house in Finglas, a step up that coincides with Colbert’s starting school. Later on, two other house moves in the Finglas area provide rough parallels with other kinds of social advances, and are also in step with Colbert’s increasing academic success. Their class profile, and the economic realities underlying it, remain more or less the same throughout, however. Maisie continues to perform prodigious feats of budget-balancing. Con’s work, whether as a house-painter or a cinema projectionist, takes a certain toll. Family life becomes more and more nuclear, partly owing to the lack of a venue or a forum in the fledgling community where people map out common ground for themselves. The only such structure is the church, which all concerned dutifully attend, although Con and the clergy do not necessarily see eye to eye. One of the former’s more vivid moments is when he refuses to allow the priest who is about to baptise his son to reject the name Colbert. “Cuthbert” is what the priest proposes instead, arguing that Colbert is not a saint’s name and is verboten in the eyes of God. Con has an answer to that.

The author tells this story, or “vignette”, as he likes to call the various illustrative memories which dot the narrative, early on. In doing so he introduces a motif that recurs throughout, namely, the interplay within the family of attachment and independence. For Con and Maisie, to disavow their origins would be as unthinkable as any other act of social pretension. They may have felt at a remove from those origins in the green-field sites of Finglas, but that only ensured that they retained a tighter hold on them, as is evident from the songs, stories and the cultural and political leanings that they brought with them. At the same time, however, it is made very clear that they are all the more prized in their son’s eyes for not being captives of their heritage or of the institutions that presumed to enshrine it. Rather, they are shown as well able to maintain a critical distance from the aspects of it that they found to be an affront to their own sense of proper order and the decent thing. Their pride “was central to their inherited sense of themselves as Kearneys and, at its core, was a moral imperative to stand up for their dignity, irrespective of the cost.” These are no petty people – belonging to no mean city either one might add were it not for the wrenching couple of pages on the death of their first-born.

Con is the one who most clearly embodies the dynamic of closeness and distance on which the narrative is based. It’s not that the author overlooks his mother, and indeed his account of her widowed years is premised on his long-standing appreciation of and admiration for all her work on the home front. But it’s Con, however, who is given pride of place. As with the family as a whole, there is nothing ostentatious or extravagant about Con, either in manner or personality. To the world at large he seems to be like any other working man. There is a certain restlessness in him perhaps as he moves between different kinds of work. House-painting is not his career, exactly. On the contrary he seems more at home behind a lens in the Ritz, Ballsbridge or the Pavilion, Dún Laoghaire, two of Dublin’s numerous suburban cinemas back in the day. Con also worked the spotlight at the Abbey (then in residence at the Queen’s Theatre). No symbols where none intended, agreed. But having the spotlight turned on somebody else, and illuminating actions that were not his own, find a certain resonance in the relationship between father and son. And the anonymity and darkness in which that kind of work is carried out also is suggestive in added depth to what might otherwise seem a hagiographical portrait of the head of the household. During one show that he’s lighting, a performer identifies him from the stage by calling him “Chilli [sic] Con Kearney”, resulting in Con plunging the whole place into darkness, reacting not only to the nickname but to the violation of his space behind the scenes. 

In a sense, this was where Con operated also in the family, working to provide, making improvements in the home, cultivating his garden, and most importantly, supporting and encouraging his son’s development, especially when it came to schoolwork. He spent most nights at home playing with the children, helping them with their homework, gently guiding them towards being the best versions of themselves. For Colbert, this love and attention paid off handsomely, and his praise and gratitude for having such a stalwart in his corner shines out from virtually every page. Surrendering himself, as it seems, to his son’s progress, also meant that Con was silent about a number of things which Colbert now wonders about and interrogates. Somewhat oddly, the questions are generally confined to parentheses which are added after the relevant information has been provided. This conveys a sense of afterthought, I suppose, but it’s as if such thoughts have only occurred to the author in the course of writing the book, and are conveyed with a certain amount of academic dispassion, the effect of which is emotional blandness. Attachment and distance are at work here too perhaps.

To a considerable degree, our parents constituted a silent generation, as hardly needs repeating at this point. No doubt Con, like many parents, chose silence in order not to burden or distress their ancient family history. “I would be amazed if either Con or Maisie knew where baby Peader was buried”, we’re told, referring to the death of their first-born. At the same time, the silence in this case does seem strikingly comprehensive, a form of self-discipline almost, ensuring that, as far as possible, a linear path towards a future of promise fulfilled. Con did all that could be possibly expected of him in order to clear the way for Colbert. But he couldn’t do everything. School also had to play its part, and Colbert comes across as somebody who from an early age read all around him, worked diligently at his ecker, savoured Shakespeare’s irony at first sight, learned the Greek alphabet “instantly”, and as a teenager became “an intellectual follower of James Joyce”, to list some of his more noteworthy accomplishments. A more enthusiastic young delighter in knowledge it would be hard to meet, and he delighted also in the self-affirmation that was the reward for having the right answer (and the right attitude). And this reward also affirmed the father whose commitment and support helped his son hit the high spots of learning. What might be seen as vicariousness is here called glory reflected, with the son’s success the just and even necessary reward for the father’s faith.

Colbert also managed to excel without a word of ridicule or any other expression of hostility on the part of his peers for being a “swot”, “brainbox” or whatever the local term of abuse was. Fortunate in this regard, he was also very lucky to have at his primary school a brilliant and innovative pedagogue who could also provide practical assistance in furthering the scholastic career of a bright youngster without resources. This person was Eugene Watters, a poet and novelist better known as Eoghan Ó Tuarisc. He put Colbert on the high road to academic attainment, first by a summer of Irish in Spiddal and then by helping the boy attend boarding school at Galbally Park, Ballinasloe (“I was among the minority who actually enjoyed boarding school”). Success there eventually led to UCD, a doctorate from Cambridge and ultimately a successful academic career at University College, Cork. Graduation to the middle class, again marked most explicitly by housing, followed, as did marriage and a family. But these personal gains are basically mentioned in passing, and we learn more about trips back to Finglas than details of his life away from home, the main feature of which is the sheen of success it emits. Colbert reports seeing his new home in Finglas “as Hockney saw California”. And there’s a sense that the capacity for picturing uncluttered sunniness remained with him. The upshot is a work which is less the author’s own story, replete with recollections of struggle and self-fashioning, than the story of the perfect relationship he enjoyed with, especially, his father. The book is, to a considerable extent, a hymn of praise and thanks that both recollects and, in its fealty, endorses the everyday.

But I wouldn’t like to give the impression that what I’m suggesting is that happy people shouldn’t write books. That’s obviously absurd. Nor would I wish to come across as if, somehow, I’m begrudging Colbert Kearney the security, love and kindness which he celebrates and indeed which borders on the unique given the recollections that already exist of what is rightly called “that age of tough love” (the author was born in 1945). On the contrary, the emotional and intellectual differences between this book and the attempt to come to terms with x or y which provides the pretext for and content of the typical memoir gives Down by the Liffeyside a distinctive place in the form’s canon. If, as Tolstoy famously asserted, all happy families are alike, it may partly be because nothing very much happens to them. As this narrative is largely set in the 1950s and ’60s – “those pre-EEC days”, as we’re told a couple of times – little enough of note happens for long periods, especially given that Colbert was no student radical. The focus, therefore, is on the author’s experience of a commonplace world which is irradiated with an exceptional degree of loving kindness, the intensiveness and consistency of which is conveyed essentially through repetition. There’s a certain problem with working up what might be termed this somewhat flat material – or rather, with writing about it, bearing in mind that one of writing’s fundamental claims to value derives from an appreciation of material being inherently the problematical in nature, such that transmission of the material prompts the reader to think again, or perhaps introduces in the reader a certain discomfort or a challenge to think twice. As somebody who found in Dubliners “my world in print”, the author might have presented some lines needing to be read between rather than the unremittingly fair weather in which he flourished. There is no particular requirement for young Colbert to have had an Oedipal bone in his body, but the fact that he doesn’t seem to have had is arguably of more interest to us (and to him?) than is allowed here, as well as also raising the question of the nature of his professed kinship with that well-known rebel Stephen Dedalus. 

To speak of rebels is very much apropos, nevertheless, and one has only to think of the Kearney family name to understand why. Con’s father was Peadar Kearney, author of the words to “The Soldier’s Song” and many other songs of a like kind. One of the best of these gives the book its title, and the verse from it containing the line about “letting off big guns against the Saxon Huns” provides the epigraph). As the final chapter of Down by the Liffeyside shows, Peadar Kearney is a complex case, a ghost to feel sorry for and at the same time to be proud of. As a senior member of the IRB, he did his bit in Jacob’s factory and subsequently, including imprisonment in Ballykinlar Camp. In the immediate post-1916 years, much of his work was clandestine, procuring arms and such, though that does not explain why Kearney never held a rank, an omission which seriously got in his way when applying for an IRA pension, a saga that makes sorry reading, as do the tortuous efforts required to receive royalties for “A Soldier’s Song” (it wasn’t until 1934 that a settlement was reached, with government making a one-time payment for the anthem’s copyright). He was a Collins man out-and-out. The position he held as chief military censor in Maryborough jail was merely stop-gap, but on Collins’s assassination hopes of further advancement were thwarted, and Kearney fell into a long decline, leading Colbert to conclude that he must have been suffering from PTSD. His attachment was to Collins, it appears, not to the Free State: “Long after ‘the organisation’ had ceased to exist he remained an IRB man, faithful to the oath he had taken in 1903 committing himself to the achievement of a 32-county republic by whatever means necessary, not excluding armed violence.”

Such commitment came at a cost, obviously – poverty, neglect, depression, drink and an unconducive family atmosphere (to put it mildly). No wonder Con habitually referred to him as “my poor father”, and that, while saying little about his own childhood, went to such lengths to ensure his son was never in material or emotional want and that he should never lack the means to move forward in life. Yet, progress does not entail amnesia. Neither Con nor Colbert wrote off the fidelity and sense of purpose that the founding father, so to speak, embodied. His songs were sung at family gatherings, his nationalist principles were adhered to, the cost of his dedication was fully conceded, if not explicitly articulated until this detailing of them by his grandson. Con “never saw Peadar as a failure, rather as a victim of history”; indeed, if the occasion warranted, Con was proud to proclaim: “My father fought for this city.” Such a legacy can only be upheld by its inheritors, and Con’s domestication and privatisation of what was bequeathed him could hardly be thought of by him or his family as a diminishment.

The force of this militant legacy comes across most plainly in the treatment of Colbert’s cousins, the Behans, Brendan especially, whose mother was Peadar Kearney’s sister. (A nit-picking note in passing. I wonder why Brendan’s father is referred to throughout as Frank. Maybe he was christened Francis – but wasn’t he always known as Stephen? Some inside-the-family practice is probably being referred to, though it’s a bit confusing not to use the more familiar name.) Obviously, the young Brendan espoused his uncle’s political outlook, in contrast to Colbert’s admitted preference for “the wordsmith”, though this side of Peader Kearney was hardly lost on Behan. Age difference makes it difficult to know what influence Brendan may have had on Colbert, and it’s pretty plain that the two were, if anything, temperamental opposites, and the motif of distance and intimacy suggests itself again in the statement that acquaintance with Brendan was to the teenage Colbert “like having a Rabelais for an uncle”. The older man treated his cousin kindly, and Colbert’s scholarly studies of Brendan’s works may be seen as forms of reciprocation. It’s tempting to suggest that the explosive and playful Brendan and the academic and considered Colbert together constitute Peadar Kearney’s endowment. But there’s more distance than closeness between them. The loyalties that each possess are to different versions of their ancestor. The sense of an historical imperative that seems to have driven Peadar Kearney’s nationalist engagement still exerts itself on his nephew. It might even be said that his career illustrates his struggle to imagine a way past that imperative. In Colbert’s case, the force of his grandfather’s commitment has been dissipated, or takes different, more private forms of adherence arising out of his formative family influences. Colbert can acknowledge history without having to grapple with it; it’s a kind of absence that makes the heart grow fonder. And distance from history means closeness to more emotionally rewarding attachments. His is an outlook presided over by what Joyce has said is the word known to all men – love. And though this transition to reflection on the persons from a preoccupation with the people has been, arguably, the major theme of Irish writing in the generation to which Colbert Kearney belongs – the ways in which Down by the Liffeyside addresses such a change is, in addition its many other worthwhile features, a useful contribution to broader considerations of tradition and the individual talent in Irish cultural commentary.


George O’Brien is emeritus professor of English at Georgetown University, Washington DC.