I was excited though not surprised when President Éamon de Valera walked down the aisle towards my grandfather’s coffin. Grandfathers can be hugely important and mysterious figures to kids so why wouldn’t the President of our country be showing his respect to my grandfather? The bar had been set quite high the week before with the TV coverage for Winston Churchill’s funeral. I had no other model for my first funeral, so to speak.
I was only ten and knew nothing much of the world beyond my family. Indeed, I wasn’t completely sure of that much within my family. Family gatherings, particularly those agnate, were generally fuelled by drink and thrived on stories of death by various mis-adventures. An oral tradition, the drinking and the storytelling both. The rituals often involved stormy nights under the flickering light of the damnable smokey coal fires of the era. The elaborations depended on the storyteller. ‘It was a late summer evening’ might become ‘One spring morning’ and we accepted such ambiguity because the outcome was assured.
There was a great-grandfather who died down the road from our home on his return from lunching on a ptomaine of oysters in London in 1894. So many cautionary tales of sea drownings within sight of home that I’m not sure exactly how many antecedents died this way. The Great War added two more to the dark pantheon, one a flier crashed, burned and buried somewhere in Italy. There was a truly gruesome story of beheading in a traffic accident in the crash of ’29. The universally loved cousin Bobby, shot dead on a doorstep in 1948 by an insane rival in love, in a house I passed a gazillion times on my way to Dalkey railway station. That death especially rankled with the family elders because the insane killer was alive and married. One of Bobby’s first cousins told me, bitterly, that the killer was breeding more like him under an assumed name in New Zealand. Very sadly, Bobby wan’t the only one killed that night. We came to see the whole business from a different angle much later when I first met my wife’s godfather who had been a close friend to Bobby.
There were a lot of sexagenarian and older elders as I grew up and death was their great tease for us kids. Particularly sad ends could in turn be teased out of some of the spinster babysitters. I suppose I only remember my first wedding invitation because I’d been to twenty funerals before it came.
Inconsistencies typical of a Catholic upbringing and contradictions in education were already evident by age ten. The mantra in the extended family was ‘do as I say’, a ‘do as I do’ might require too much confessional Saturday forgiveness. School was even more rigid and unfortunately, corporal punishment was attracted to disaffected kids like me.
I wasn’t surprised when de Valera sat down next to me in Blackrock College a couple of years later. I had a brief, official role in my school’s Sports Day commentating and announcements box, and there he was, again sitting in the best seats. There were a lot of Americans pupils in Blackrock and they saw Dev as one of them. I think we thought him suspiciously foreign too. The school was proud to have the President on the past-pupil list and hugely smug that he graced them with regular visits. I think we all marvelled at his gleaming, be-flagged state Rolls Royce Silver Wraith with its three big headlamps. To be honest, I was underwhelmed on the day because he was very frail, doddery and dozed off once or twice. I had the bizarre notion that the President of a country should be sharp, vigorous and enthusiastic, to say the very least. Then again, so many of the people for whom I was supposed to hold the utmost respect were markedly more feeble than I expected.
I’m thinking about these times because it’s one hundred years since the Imperial Prime Minister allowed his Imperial Secretary of State for War and Air to use reprisals to terrorise what was at the time his own nation. I’m remembering sitting beside Dev, a man they branded a terrorist after the Rebellion and during The War of Independence. Yet Imperial PM Lloyd-George and Imperial Secretary Churchill overlooked a terror of illegal torchings, evictions, beatings, murders and rapes by their forces who were supposedly helping to restore order. Imagine that Kent or Berkshire had tried to secede as independent nations. Would those home counties have been brutalised in such manner?
Churchill was of course simultaneously preoccupied with British Somaliland and the uprising of Kurds and Arabs in British-occupied Mesopotamia. Like Ireland today, a legacy of Imperialism is that they remain scarred and divided following their Imperial experiences.
Perhaps none of these things would have been on my mind if I hadn’t been reading Colum McCann’s Apeirogon at a time when brutalities and irrational justifications are still being used to maintain order in Palestine and Israel. Order is relative and doesn’t always incorporate justice for the ordered. The Mandatory Palestine maps of 1922 were about divisions too – Palestine and the Emirate of Transjordan separated by the Jordan River. Britain chose division to suppress, relying on local power squabbles and internecine rivalries to prevent coordinated rejection of unwanted Imperial rule. Meanwhile the Imperial lackeys could have relaxed while toasting the dominions with Holy Moses cocktails in the Sodom and Gomorrah Golfing Society clubhouse in Kallia, on the northern shores of the Dead Sea, 416 metres below sea-level. McCann even provides the cocktail recipes should you feel the need.
History wasn’t a big interest in my youth and I came to it late. So much of what I was educated to believe has turned out to be tainted by victory. The dead tell no tales so the living reshape them. I’m increasingly glad I chose to be a scientist. In my world, information becomes accepted after sight of the verifications or a thorough understanding of the risk profiles. I’ve learned that history is about opinion and opinion is as fickle as our family myths.
I’m becoming increasingly jaded by sovereignty and the petty fiefdoms that result. Look at Hungary (10 million) to see a new fiefdom ruled in a petty manner for the benefit of a small cadre. Or Poland (40 million). Britain (67 million). Russia (145 million). Brasil (210 million). And of course, Turkey is special. 80 million people whose leader is preparing them for the restoration of the Ottoman Empire after the Treaty of Lausanne expires in 2023. Or so it seems.
We should, must be able to think bigger. Read the vision statement of The Elders and perhaps ask yourself why aren’t they achieving more?
My expectation is that if I choose to walk to Rome I will, most likely, not be robbed, not starved nor enslaved. That wasn’t always the case; pilgrims have been especially easy targets for millennia. Things have improved through the adoption of consistent rules, regulations and expectations. Those improvements need to be propagated to everyone, everywhere. (How I’ll avoid Covid is another question entirely.)
My grandfather and his father before him were architects. I’m lucky that I don’t have to visit cemeteries to see their memorials. Growing up, I had no other experience and so, I did not appreciate what a privilege it is to see the buildings designed by your ancestors.
I pass by a building designed by my oyster-poisoned great-grandfather most days. The Town Hall in what was then Kingstown is one of them. The People’s Park in what’s now called Dun Laoghaire is another.
I may not like the look of the Church Of The Holy Child in Whitehall but it reminds me of his son, my grandfather. I went to school for a year just down the road and I’d see the Italianate church he designed when we had a lunchtime pint and a toasted cheese sandwich in The Viscount pub. This was a time when the Whitehall crossroads was on the main approach to Dublin Airport from Dublin city. We would see the church often from slowed and stalled traffic. There are still quite a few other buildings designed by this grandfather dotted around the country.
A wry family joke was that he was paid twice to rebuild parts of the city centre in Dublin. Once after the bombardments of the 1916 Rebellion and a second time, when he got to reuse the plans after the destructions of the civil war six years later.
It bothered me that it was Dev who had pride of place in the Dalkey church, that he was closer to the casket than most of the family. Another of life’s inconsistencies.