Trouble on the Mountain

Brian O’Doherty is an art historian and critic who has taken to writing fiction during the past decade. As if this uncommon versatility were not enough he is reported on the jacket of this beautifully printed book to have graduated as a medical doctor from University College, Dublin. His novel of 1992, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P., is based on an actual and strange episode involving a blind young pianist who is treated by Anton Mesmer, the creator of the theory of animal magnetism. The then-fashionable Viennese doctor effects a temporary cure, and Mlle. P. regains her vision. But she loses her musical ear, and under the spell of her autocratic father, turns against the restorer of her sight.

The Deposition of Father McGreevy involves a strange case, too, set in the recent period in Irish history to which the Irish give the somewhat enigmatic name “The Emergency.” Emergencies do not usually last six years but this one did, from September 1939 to August 1945—that is, for the entire extent of World War II. What was peculiar to the Irish war situation was that the Twenty-Six Counties (Eire), under Eamon De Valera as prime minister and foreign minister, chose to remain neutral. The Allies, meaning mainly the Americans and the British, were not pleased. Churchill, for one, had expected to take back for the war’s duration certain of Eire’s deep-water harbors and sea lochs, places from which Allied naval craft could sally out to escort American and Canadian merchant convoys for the final part of their perilous voyaging through U-boat-haunted waters. The North, of course, had followed Britain into the war but the North, to Churchill’s way of thinking, wasn’t enough. He needed the South.

One consequence of Allied displeasure was that Ireland suffered until war’s end under a number of embargos. The British restricted Irish shipping in its scheme to influence Eire into supporting the Allies. Gasoline supplies were 20 percent of normal, there was no coal, and the tea ration was cut by stages to the measly allowance of one half-ounce per person per week. Many of the ordinary amenities of life were missing, from razor blades to garter belts, though there was a thriving cross-border smuggling trade even in such items. The Emergency is remembered as a time when everyone, including people of means and some with titles of nobility, made forays into the countryside to cut their own turf (peat) for fuel, and Dublin taxicabs were being replaced by horse-drawn vehicles of eccentric character. A few good things happened, as when Southern fire brigades rushed north to help Belfast during the devastating bombing raid of Easter 1941. And a few not so good, as when De Valera made a call on the German ambassador, Dr. Edouard Hempel, to offer his condolences upon the death of Adolf Hitler.

It could have been worse. The Allies realized that Ireland showed a definite tilt in their favor, with 150,000 Irish …

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