In Midnight Oil, in which this memoir appears, Mr. Pritchett describes his two years in Paris, where he earned his living in a photographer’s shop and by selling shellac and glue, and how he went back to London “broke.” His only asset was a few newspaper articles. On the strength of these the reckless editor of The Christian Science Monitor sent him to Ireland early in 1923 to write about the Irish civil war. The Anglo-Irish treaty had been signed, the Irish politicians split, and the two parties were killing each other. When Mr. Pritchett arrived the siege of the Four Courts in Dublin was over and the fighting was drifting away to the south and west.
On a misleadingly sunny day on the first of February, 1923, I took the train from London to Holyhead. In a heavy leather suitcase I carried a volume of Yeats’s poems, an anthology of Irish poetry, Boyd’s Irish Literary Renaissance, Synge’s Plays, and a fanatical book called Priests and People in Ireland by McCabe, lent to me by a malign Irish stationer in Streatham who told me I would get on all right in Ireland so long as I did not talk religion or politics to anyone and kept the book out of sight. Unknown to myself I was headed for the seventeenth century.
The Irish Sea was calm—thank God—and I saw at last that unearthly sight of the Dublin mountains rising with beautiful false innocence in their violets, greens, and golden rust of grasses and bracken from the sea, with heavy rain clouds leaning like a huge umbrella over the northern end of them. My breath went thin: I was feeling again the first symptoms of my liability to spells. I remember wondering, as young men do, whether somewhere in this city was walking a girl with whom I would fall in love: the harbors of Denmark gave way to Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Hills. The French had planted a little of their sense of limits and reason in me, but already I could feel these vanishing.
Once through customs I was frisked for guns by a Free State soldier with pink face and mackerel-colored eyes. I got out of the local train at Westland Row, into that smell of horse manure and stout which were the ruling Dublin odors, and was driven on an outside car with a smart little pony to (of all things, in Ireland!) a temperance hotel on Harcourt Street. It was on this first trot across the city that I had my first experience of things in Ireland not being what they seem. I have described this in a book on Dublin which I wrote a few years ago. The jarvey whipped along, talking his head off about the state of the “unfortunate country,” in a cloud of Bedads, Begobs, God-help-us-es, but turned out to be a Cockney. The Cockney and Dublin accents are united by adenoids. Cab drivers are, perhaps, the same everywhere.
It was now dark and I went out into the wet streets. Troops were patrolling them and I was soon stopped by a patrol and frisked once more. More friskings followed as I got to the Liffey. It was enjoyable. I didn’t realize that my green velour hat from the Boulevard des Italiens, with its wide, turned-down brim, was an item of the uniform of the IRA. I went straight to the Abbey Theater. In the shabby foyer, a small middle-aged woman with gray hair and looking like a cottage loaf was talking to a very tall man. He was unbelievably thin. He seemed to be even more elongated by having a very long nose with a cherry red tip to it. The woman’s voice was quiet and decided. His fell from his height as waveringly as a snowflake.
The pair were Lady Gregory and Lennox Robinson. He took me to his office for an hour and then we went into the theater. To an audience of a dozen or so people (for the civil war kept people away), the company were going through the last act of The Countess Cathleen, in sorrowing voices. They went on to the horseplay of The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet. Both plays had caused riots years before when they were first put on. Now the little audience was apathetic.
Soot came down the chimney in my room at the hotel when a bomb or two went off that night.
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The spell got a decisive hold of me in the next two days as I walked about the comfortable little Georgian and early Victorian city where the red brick and brown were fresher and less circumspect than the brick of London. The place seemed to be inhabited only by lawyers and doctors. The mists of the bog on which it is built softened the air. Complexions were delicate, eyes were alive with questions. As you passed people in the street they seemed to pause with expectation, hoping for company, and with the passing gaiety of hail and farewell, with the emphasis particularly on the latter. There was a longing for passing acquaintance; and an even stronger longing for your back to be turned, to give a bit of malice a chance.
The civil war was moving to the southwest; now de Valera’s men—called with beautiful verbal logic the “Irregulars”—had been driven out of Dublin. I had seen the sandbags and barbed wire around the government offices and the ruins of O’Connell Street. Now I took a morning train in cold wet weather to Cork from Kingsbridge, the best of Dublin’s monumental railway stations, a station that indeed looked like a fantastic château. A journey that normally takes two or three hours took close on fourteen, for at Mary-borough (now called Port Laoise) we stopped for the middle of the day, while they got an armored engine and troops to escort us. I had seen pictures of these extraordinary engines in books about the Boer War: I suppose the British had dumped a lot of them in Ireland.
One of the exquisite pleasures of the Irish (I was soon to find out) is pedantry: a few of us, including a priest, left the train and went into the town for a drink, sure of finding the train still there after a couple of hours. It was. It gave a jolt. “Are we starting?” someone asked. “Sure, we haven’t started starting yet,” the porter said.
The afternoon faded as we went across the bogland; at Mallow it was dark, and there we got into cars to join another train across the valley. The viaduct had been blown up. We eventually arrived in Cork in a racket of machine gun fire. I hesitated. But the passengers took it for granted and a barefooted urchin who took my case said: “‘Tis only the boys from the hills.” The firing went on, from time to time, into the small hours, and patrol lorries drove up and down. One stopped at the hotel and after a lot of shouting and banging of doors a posse of soldiers came into my room, got me out of bed, and searched the bedding and my luggage. They looked respectfully at my books and one of them started reading a poem of Yeats and said if I kept to that I would be all right.
Cork is a pretty city, particularly in the dappled buildings of its riverside quays and estuary. By this time my mind was singing with Irish poetry. I went out into the countryside to see how Blarney was surviving the revolution. It was surviving in the best of its tradition. I plodded around with a farmer whose chief ejaculation was a shout of “Blood and hounds,” when his narrative needed it. It often did.
Back in Cork, I went to the theater where Doran’s touring company were playing a different Shakespeare tragedy every night: my earliest experience of Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet. Doran’s company had been slogging away in England and Ireland for years. He himself was a studied ham with a huge voice. He hogged the plays, of course, and put such a stamp on his roles that it was pretty well impossible to distinguish Hamlet from Macbeth, or Macbeth from Othello. The theater was always packed. When Hamlet said his line about everyone being mad in England, the house cheered. I had gone with a commercial traveler from Kerry who came back to the hotel and then he and one or two other commercials recited Shakespeare to one another for the rest of the evening. I couldn’t understand a word the torrential Kerryman said, but Shakespeare was tempestuously Elizabethan in a Kerry accent.
I traveled across Tipperary to Limerick, arriving there in one of those long soft brown and yellow sunsets of the west, with the white mists rising from the Shannon. The Celtic twilight was working on me. I sat up drinking with a satanic engineer; and, thinking it was about time, I tried that night to write one of my articles. I found that after two or three whiskies my pen swept across the paper. When I read the thing in the morning I saw it was chaotic and I tore it up. That is the last time I ever wrote on alcohol.
Limerick was in an edgy state. It had just been relieved of a siege and there was still a crack or two of sniping at night. There was a strike on at the bacon factories; and there was an attempt to start a soviet. I went to see the committee and politely took my hat off and made a small French bow when I went into their room. The leader told me to put my hat on: they had finished, he said, with bourgeois manners. We had a wrangle about this because, although I am shy, I am touchy and argued back. We had a rapid duel of sarcasms. He was one of those “black” Irishmen one occasionally comes across; there was another, a waiter at the hotel in Limerick, who threw a plate of bacon and eggs at a customer. He was a big fellow who looked murderous every time he came into the dining room with a plate.
There occurred in Limerick one of those encounters which—looking back on it—I see as a portent. I found there a very serious young Englishman, in fact a Quaker, who took me to a house outside the town. As we climbed up on an outside car, he whispered to me not to talk on the long ride out because, he said, his situation was delicate. He had caught the Irish love of conspiracy, even the whisper. When we got to his house he told me he had been in the fighting against the Sinn Feiners, but had lately married an Irish girl. I think he had been in the Auxiliary Police. Except for having his tennis court shot up now and then, he said, when he and his wife were playing in the afternoons, there was not much trouble now. The English have stubborn natures but, I saw, could get lightheaded in Ireland.
Copyright © 1972 by V.S. Pritchett.