Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

29 October 1998 Edition

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A variety of lives

Gills Irish Lives Series
By various contributors
Published by Gill and McMillan

This is a collection of seven short biographies of famous Irishmen - Connolly, Joyce, Wilde, O'Casey, Parnell, O'Connell and De Valera - which look very pretty sitting together on the bookshelf. The content however, is of more variable quality; many are reprints of material which is some twenty years old and which have been superseded by better and more recent studies. Space dictates that I discuss only the best and worst of them.

Ruth Dudley Edwards's effort on James Connolly falls into the latter category, most notably for its sheer dullness, although given her subject perhaps one should consider this something of an achievement. Making Connolly's life boring reading is not an easy task. As with Pearse, Dudley Edwards's biographical technique is to search desperately for dirt, and on failing to find any, resort to her ``OK, granted he was a good man, so he was only a republican because he was desperate/deluded/naive'' line of argument.

She has also picked up some bad habits from her new-found friends; like some of them, she seems to believe that poverty is a moral failing and, irritatingly asks us to judge moral standing according to material possession, rather than concentrating on the more obvious connections between Connolly's material circumstances and his politics. She wastes a lot of time in such a short book grubbing around in the inconsequential minutiae of Connolly's personal finances which, like Clinton's sex life, are of much less interest and importance than his political words and deeds.

In contrast, the accounts of both Oscar Wilde and James Joyce are entirely absorbing. Wilde was a man of extremes and lived his life in a similar vein. Richard Pine shows him in all his complexity and literary brilliance, explores his public and private struggles with his sexuality and religion, and reveals him as a natural and tender father. He discusses Wilde's often shocking non-literary activities with a sympathetic and non-judgmental narrative style, whilst nevertheless resisting the urge to claim him as little more than a cleverer-than-usual gay icon.

James Joyce, perhaps rather more difficult both as a man and writer, is superbly captured by Peter Costello. My memories of having to read Joyce are not pleasant; his evocation of a Catholic education in Portrait of the Artist reminded me a little too much of my own miserable convent days, and his perverse fascination with the disgusting made the achingly fashionable Ulysses an intensely difficult and uncomfortable read, as it is fully meant to be. My copy of Finnegan's Wake remains in a pristine and unopened state. Peter Costello's primary achievement is to largley mitigate these feelings and to demonstrate very precisely the development of Joyce's writing in the context of his own life - the greatest paradox of which was that, as someone who left Ireland and the church never to return and professing indifference to both, he wrote about almost nothing else.

A quick mention here also for Paul Bew's (not my favourite academic, it has to be said) life of Parnell. Bew is perhaps ideally suited for understanding that peculiar and now near-extinct species known as the Anglo-Irish and he provides a crisp and readable account of Parnell's rise and unjust fall.

Presumably the series editor does not believe that Irish history includes women and there are other curious omissions - Tone, Pearse and Collins for a start. Perhaps this series is not complete as yet, so I shall wait with interest to see who, if anybody, comes next. Still, they look nice.

By Fern Lane

Drawing conclusions

A Cartoon History of Anglo-Irish Relations 1798-1998
By Roy Douglas, Liam Harte and Jim O'Hara.
Published by The Blackstaff Press
Price £14.99

There's this guy pushing a big rock up a hill. When he reaches the summit it rolls back down and he has to begin again. His name is Sisyphus and he is carrying out his Greek mythological punishment. It's an image which any cartoonist with a deadline and a ticking clock will cheerfully use. In the index of this excellent book there are five references to Sisyphus, one to the late Rowel Friers. Robert Peel, Gladstone, Lloyd George are all robed out as Sisyphus. Even Ian Knox, one of the best of today's cartoonists, has used the Sisyphus myth to depict John Hume.

Occasionally a cartoonist will produce a piece of work that enlightens like a flashlight switched on in a darkened room. Not very often. Usually the cartoonist's own prejudices and the readiness to grasp the most convenient cliche win out. A cartoon in the Irish Times (1994) shows Gerry Adams being refused, by John Hume, a seat at the talks table until he has washed his hands which are, you've guessed it, blood-stained. The easy use of cliched imagery and a woeful misunderstanding of what is going on is not the exception. It's the rule. Perhaps it's the prevalence of this kind of image which causes the bizarre journalistic obsession with handshakes.

In a few years a cartoon can become wildly incomprehensible. The picture that once replaced a thousand words now needs a thousand words to explain it. Fortunately the words in this book are both readable and informative. The erudition (and lack of outrageous political bias) by the authors is quite impressive. The mass of cartoons through which they have had to trawl is evident from the breadth of the selection here. Unlike most cartoonists they did not grab the first image that came to hand and they have provided an interesting examination of the social history of this island. The task which they set themselves must occasionally have seemed impossible. There is only one word to describe it. Sisyphean.

By Cormac

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1