Friday, December 24, 2010
Myles na gCopaleen, Díoghruagach Ó Maol Blagaide, Sabhatarianism and Other Matters
Sitting in the National Library the other day and wondering what lessons from Ireland’s political past might usefully be applied to my nation’s current predicament, I found myself reading some election literature from the 1940s. My reading tended in this direction for Myles na gCopaleen-related reasons, which will emerge in due time, but I’ve always been a sucker, I must say, for the culs-de-sac of history and the odd detritus they leave behind. The last time I was in the National Library I turned up an Irish-language memoir by an unrepentant holocaust denier, and this time too the library did not fail to vomit forth some wisdom of the kind too often marginalized by the panjandrums of the liberal media, in thrall as they are to the stooges and running-dogs of the international freemasonic conspiracy. I refer to Ireland’s Twentieth Century Destiny, published in 1942 by one Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin, leader of the short-lived fringe party Ailtirí na h-Aiséirighe, roughly ‘votaries of the reawakening’. I’d been nudged in that direction on learning that Seán South, leading light of the 1950s IRA campaign against artificial manure and foreign bacon, or whatever it was, had been affiliated with this organisation (he lives forever in our hearts). (The Irish form of ‘South’ is ‘Sabhat’, by the way, which leads me to assume that, good Catholic that he was, Seán South was a ‘Sabhatarian’, an Aryan on the Lord’s day but condemned to being a Mongolian or Mozambican for the rest of the week.)
As I was saying then, this noble band of doughty Christian soldiers pledged itself to the criminalisation of all religious faiths but Roman Catholicism, something suitably vague but horrible for any Jews around the place, the outlawing of the Saxon tongue, race-preservation through the outlawing of emigration too, ‘national reafforestation on vigorous lines’ (if only to have somewhere to bury the various hecatombs of Methodists, Parsees, Zoroastrians and other cosmopolitan scum), and sundry other worthy causes. However, I am failing to convey the tone of the pamphlet I was reading, so let me quote verbatim. We aim, our author claims, ‘to make Ireland mistress of the Atlantic as it is the wish of Japan to become mistress of the Pacific. With the difference that we shall be masters in the Pacific Ocean also’ (Emperor Hirohito’s copies of An Claidheamh Solais are in the post). A certain amount of backsliding has come to our overlord’s attention: ‘it is apparent that the elan and espirt of youth is lacking (...) bereft of the Irish-Ireland mentality we cannot but lose our national morale, our racial consciousness, confidence, convictions.’ Mention is made of an attractive female accomplice: ‘The hesitant and indecisive are seldom the recipients of the favours of Dark Rosaleen’.
What has all this got to do with Myles na gCopaleen, well you may ask. Next year is Myles’ centenary, and I had been reading Breandán Ó Conaire’s study Myles na Gaeilge and Carol Taaffe’s recent (and excellent) Ireland Through the Looking-Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate, reconsidering the cultural politics of that most hilarious novel, An Béal Bocht. This is such a many-layered novel, not all of which most of its readers ever really plumb, I fear. First off, it is a hilarious piss-take of Peig Sayers, Muiris Ó Suilleabháin and Tomás Ó Criomhthain, granted, and the whole ideology of Irish-Irelandism. But it is also a satire born of incomparable insidery familiarity with this culture, not to mention enormous respect for Ó Criomhthain at least, whatever about the other two (cf. his deliberately literal renderings of passages from An t-Oileánach in The Best of Myles). But then another level opens up, namely the disjunction between the actual culture of remote west-coast Gaeltachtaí and the Irish-Ireland ideology of the Irish Free State. The attitude of the latter towards the former is full of misunderstandings and Gael-on-Gael cultural imperialism, as fáinne-wearing do-gooders descend from the capital to applaud the inhabitants of Corcha Dorcha for the Gaelically pure destitution in which they live, free of the corrupting taint of the washing machine, toothpaste and vitamin C (it was Myles, I believe, who first proposed the origins of the word ‘phoney’ in the Irish ‘fáinne’).
But here’s another level: the knowledge, on Myles’s part, of how uncomfortably close he was to the whole merry band of Gaeilgeoir Catholic fascists. One of his brothers was a member of Craobh na h-Aiséiríghe, a precursor organisation of the Ailtirí, and sounds like exactly the kind of demented crank who might adorn the feis in An Béal Bocht. It should not be necessary, if one takes an interest in the Irish language, to begin the day by clearing one’s throat to remind the world at large that one is not, ahem, a raving fascist, but in a Cruiskeen Lawn column of the 1940s Myles describes the unpleasant experience of hearing a member of yet another fringe organisation, Glún na Buaidhe, rant on a soap box about the ‘dirty nigger culture of America’. The first item on the agenda of any Irish political organisation, as any fule kno, is the split, and internecine feuding between Glún na Buaidhe and Ailtirí na h-Aiséiríghe crucially split the fringe Catholic fascist vote in the 1940s (allowing a clear run to that even more obscure Catholic fascist organisation, Fianna Fáil); but therein lies yet another Mylesian level.
One of Myles’s best-loved forms of mischief-making was writing letters to The Irish Times complaining about himself, complaining about the complaints about himself, and so on ad infinitum. Cf. the internecine wars among De Selby’s commentators, as played out in the footnotes of The Third Policeman, and their fine Irish satirical pedigree in the footnotes of A Tale of a Tub. But consider too the sheer awfulness of the life in Ireland to which Myles had condemned himself by not following Joyce and Beckett into exile. More so than any Irish writer of the twentieth century, his was a modernist sensibility trapped in the body of an inward-looking, insecure, small western European nation. Trapped there as he was, what could he do but wallow in it, in the whole insane parade of Irish and Irish-language identity politics, splitting himself into smaller and smaller sub-atomic particles of the personae who adorned his Cruiskeen Lawn columns, and consumed by an ever more fatal and morbid interest in the pathological debates and controversies of the day. Taaffe reminds us of some of Myles’s personae, such as Taidhgín Slánabhaile, the humourless pedant who corrects Myles’s pidgin Irish; Pangur Bán: Seán a’Díomais, the scribe’s pig, a member of Muintir na Tíre and a would-be TD; and my personal favourite, the immortally named Díoghruagach Ó Maol Blagaide, an eighteenth-century bard. Out of such local rows (not that he could ever be imagined quoting from the works of Patrick Kavanagh) Myles created an art that was both a true, and truly horrifying portrait of Irish cultural politics in the mid-century, but also the quicksand that year by year closed over his head until escape became impossible, the writing of The Third Policeman a long-repressed memory, and nothing remained but the alcoholic dregs of what had once been an artist. His work is thus the humorous cure for all these various ideological poisons – except for the unfortunate artist himself. What a sad and instructive tale. I’ll see you at the conference then. And in the meantime, in the words of the Myles column reproduced in today’s Irish Times, ‘I see where the Christmas is on. Things is in full swing’, which means it’s time for my last-minute flight to Yemen, North Korea or anywhere this awful festival remains unknown. ‘Here’s my bus. Happy Christmas now and mind yerself! Cheers now.’
Reference section: excellent article on Ailtirí na h-Aiséirighe here, and pdfs of their newspaper here (click for big).