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In Quest of Uncle Tom

Dublin: A Portrait

by V.S. Pritchett, Photographs by Evelyn Hofer
Harper & Row, 99 pp., $15.00

Irish Journal

by Heinrich Böll
McGraw-Hill, 127 pp., $4.95

Travel books are never about the places and people they are supposed to be about, but about the differences between these and the places and people the writer knows best, and about what these differences mean to the writer. For the native of the place, however, the things that he and his relations have in common with neighboring peoples and with other men generally are not less important than the things that separate them. The traveler’s account, based on a catalogue of differences and ignoring the common, must therefore seem wrong to the native. This will always be so, unless the native is already rapt in the vision of himself as the foreigner sees him, a fascinating, inimitable, inscrutable concentration of qualities unique even if sometimes repulsive. Romanticism, egoism, and masochism aiding, some Irishmen, like some Jews, have attained that sinister condition described by Claudel: la quiétude incestueuse de l’âme assise sur sa différence essentielle.

The stage Irishman, as Mr. Pritchett correctly observes, does exist. He might have added that the “house” for the stage Irishman has always consisted largely, though not entirely, of foreigners, and that this is why off-stage Irishmen have often so hotly resented the stage variety, as a combination of traitor and ambulant forgery, self-framed to corroborate the vision of the foreigner and to answer his need. For the stage-Irishman this is part of the fun. He baits his respectable fellow-country-men by playing on their secret fear that, deep down, this is how they really are. He baits the foreigner, both by overacting the part prescribed for him, and by direct and crude insult, made admissible by the mask. And above all, he baits himself, even to death, as did Brendan Behan, the greatest of his kind.

FOR A MINORITY PEOPLE, the question of what and how they seem to others is often of more pressing importance than the more difficult question of what and how they actually are. A hostile stereotype can be literally lethal, under certain conditions. Even a mildly unfavorable account can be a form of isolation, a sort of trap. On the other hand a favorable account can seem to be a kind of freedom: the connotations of the label have become that much more favorable. One can breathe that much more easily.

An Irish reader of these two books will be interested not so much in what they may reveal about the Irish as in what they reveal about the English and about the Germans: What qualities, in the life of a small, peripheral, and largely pre-industrial people, at present seem significant to intelligent middle-class observers from populous and heavily industrialized countries? Today—to judge from these books and the general tone of much recent press comment by journalists—the central significant quality is that of gentleness. The excellent photographs by Evelyn Hofer—which will make anyone who loves the city want to acquire Dublin: A Portrait—are rich in this quality: so rich that after a while the cumulative effect becomes a little cloying. The serenity of an eighteenth-century facade; the wistful faces of two children; the Chamber of the Dáil, without its denizens and with its prayer; a pub lounge at a quiet hour, with few and placid customers; a Veteran of the Rising, musing on the past, black homburg on his head, dog at his feet, umbrella by his side; an evening landscape; a touching, trusting seamstress; an affable brewer on a soft rug; a pensive lawyer and—the last picture in the book—a sad and serene portrait of two pale sisters, clad in some dark material, in a vesperal light. There is even a portrait of Mr. Patrick Kavanagh, the poet, wearing, at least over the upper part of his rugged features, a gentle expression, which is not the one most familiar to his fellow citizens.

As for Herr Heinrich Böll, an understandable revulsion from the manners and customs of his fellow-countrymen has led him to idealize everything that is most wishy-washy in the Ireland he thinks he has seen: “we floated”—this is “in a no-man’s-land, between dream and memory” through which Herr Böll in his Irish Journal all too frequently drifts—“through the gate to Trinity College, but this great grey place was uninhabited save for a pale young girl who sat weeping on the library steps, her bright green hat in her hand, waiting for her sweetheart or mourning his loss.” (If this was really memory, and not dream, it is more probable, given the apparent time of year, that the young woman had been unable to keep up with her guided tour because the cobbles hurt her feet.)

Mr. Pritchett, of course, is another matter. He knows Ireland much better than most outsiders do and as a critic, both penetrating and sympathetic, he usually knows how much credit to place in various “let’s pretend” Irelands engendered by the expectation of foreigners upon the chronic tendency of exslaves to “play up.” (The answer is always, of course, “some credit” since the “let’s pretend” Irelands have by now also become a part of the reality.) Mr. Pritchett’s account can be recommended, though with some reservations, to any visitor to Ireland. He is a wise and urbane guide, and his account is rather better balanced, and certainly more pertinent to the visitor’s needs, than the jagged commentaries of the local inhabitants are likely to be. The local inhabitants will, of course, pick holes and, perhaps in order to appease their spirits, Mr. Pritchett has made a considerable number of small errors. He has Finnegan’s Wake for the ballad, which is right, but keeps the apostrophe for the book, which is wrong—and to the Joycean a scandal; Merriman and not “Berryman” is the author of The Midnight Court and Arland, not “Aarland” Ussher the author of The Face and Mind of Ireland; the list could be extended.

What is more important, and what is likely to escape most readers of the book, is that Mr. Pritchett, ecumenical though he sounds and no doubt is, does on the whole share the outlook, on recent Irish history and politics, of a particular section of the Irish people: those middle-class Dubliners who favored the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921. This was a world in which Protestant ex-Unionists, ex-“Castle” Catholics, former pillars of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and moderate Sinn Feiners made up Dublin “society” in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War. Mr. Pritchett first visited Dublin under their auspices, and his quite legitimate sympathy with them sometimes leads him into an unwary confidence in them as sources of information. Their ideas and Mr. Pritchett’s own can mingle, in the narrative of an eminent literary critic who disdains historiography, in a way which disguises important aspects of Irish history:

In the first flush of political power the Catholic majority created a Catholic Peasant state which was well on the way to becoming as exclusive as the Spanish. A sweeping censorship of books was soon established; the Senate, in which many distinguished Protestants had a voice, was abolished; and replaced eventually by a body far less distinguished; there is no divorce and birth control is legally non-existent.

This lacks chronology and precision. The specifically “Catholic” legislation—on divorce, censorship, and contraception—was passed by the first Government of the State, a Government which Mr. Pritchett elsewhere eulogizes. The old Senate was abolished by the second Government—that of Eamon de Valera, for reasons which had nothing to do with the voices of distinguished Protestants, and had a great deal to do with Fascism, a subject which Mr. Pritchett here overlooks. After the De Valera Government came to power, a section of the “intelligence and property of the country” adopted in 1933-34 the style and symbols of Fascism. “They have the Blackshirts in Italy,” said one of their advocates, “they have Brownshirts in Germany and now we have the Blueshirts in Ireland.” The De Valera Government, determined not to go the way of other democratic governments in Europe, introduced a measure to make the Blueshirts illegal: the Wearing of Uniforms Bill. The old Senate, which had “House of Lords” powers and was designed to serve similar purposes, threw out the Wearing of Uniforms Bill. Several of the Senators were actually wearing the Blue Shirt. On the following day, Mr. de Valera introduced in the Dáil (House of Commons) his measure for the abolition of the Senate. Mr. Pritchett’s account here folds out of sight a significant chapter of modern Irish history. His index does not mention the Blue shirts or their leader, General O’Duffy, nor do the photographs include a portrait of the most interesting Irish face extant: that of Eamon de Valera. There is however a fine definition of the source of Mr. de Valera’s appeal:

It is (I think) the dour and passionate grammarian of unchanging mind who has captivated a people within whose lively voices one instantly recognizes the pervading tone of the melancholy pedant.

Since Irish history is part of Mr. Pritchett’s theme, and since Irish history is no more gentle than that of any other conquered people, his text fortunately cannot be as oppressively gentle as the accompanying photographs or as the Teuto-Celtic Twilight of Herr Böll. Yet he too, as in the case of the Blueshirts, tends to obfuscate contention; he was captivated as he tells us, by the “purity and languor” of the Dublin air, and this spell still lingers in his pages, reinforced by all those creepily beautiful photographs.

THE WESTERN MIND, craving a respite from social strife, finds something congenial in contemplating the prospect of Ireland today, and in contemplating it mentally transforms the prospect into something more congenial still. Irish people, in their contacts with their neighbors, will find the new image more helpful than the old “brawling” image—still dear to the New Yorker—but both images are extrapolations and exaggerations of observed fact. Irish resignation and gentleness—like the Irish brawling which is an attempt to escape from them—are among the facts of Irish life. The gentleness of the people does give a pleasant quality to life in Ireland, especially for the middle class, who as elsewhere are much less gentle than the common people; hence, possibly, the expression “gentleman,” like “Eumenides” for the Furies. The gentle resignation of many Irish people, especially women, and especially people who stay in Ireland, is largely due to the Faith—that is to say to the instruction, tone, and social policy of the Church. But the Church is changing, and attitudes to the Church are changing too. The combination of the aggiornamento with more secular forces of modernization has already brought about, within the past year or so, major and liberal changes in the structure of Irish education. Will gentle resignation, as a marked characteristic of the Irish, survive such changes? A visitor like Herr Böll—who puffs and snorts with ecstasy while he wallows in this Irish characteristic—naturally laments any signs of progress. In the most abominable passage in his ghastly little book, this man actually deplores the introduction of “the Pill” to Ireland. The untold misery that the Church’s teaching on contraception, combined with an unquestioning faith and the poverty of the land, have meant to so many thousands of Irish homes, means nothing to this literary tourist, in comparison with the faintest threat to the proper lukewarm temperature of his bath in other people’s resignation.

Uncle Tom has become hard to find of late, and I fear that people have started coming to Ireland to look for him. I think they will eventually be disappointed. The Irish people, despite their numerous historical, social, educational, and dogmatic misfortunes, are still alive and, with any luck, will yet be kicking. The amateurs of the submissive will then have to seek their quarry elsewhere. I should add that I don’t really include among these Mr. Pritchett, upon whom, I am afraid, some of my indignation with Herr Böll has splashed over.

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