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.
* * *
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.
Into the sitting room, which was furnished in faded Victorian style, with pictures of lakes and vegetation on the walls and the general Irish smell of rising damp, came an elderly woman wearing a wig of black curls and with a sharp, painted face; and with her a pale little girl of twelve—I thought—one of those fey, unreal Irish children with empty blue eyes and untidy russet hair. She looked as if she had been blown down from the sky as, in her tiny skirt, she sat barelegged on the floor in front of the fire. She was not a child of twelve; she was the Quaker’s wife, and very excitable. The shooting, she said, livened up the tennis but they were afraid for the strings of their rackets, because in these times you might have to send them to Dublin to be restrung. A brother-in-law came in, a man who sat in silence breathing sociably, as Guinness after Guinness went down.
I gazed from the old lady to the girl, from the brother-in-law to the ascetic-looking young Quaker soldier, and could not see how they could be together in the same house. In how many Irish families was it to seem to me that the people had all appeared accidentally from the wheel of fortune, rather than in the course of nature. The old lady chattered about balls and parties, about Lord this and Lady that, about the stage—was she an actress? In her wig, paint, and her rings, bracelets, and necklace, and her old-fashioned dress of twenty years before, she was nimble and witchlike. Indeed, she got out a pack of cards and told my fortune. I dropped the Queen of Spades. She sprang on it with glee: “You will be surrounded by women who intend to harm you.”
I walked back to Limerick late, feeling, as I was so often to do in Ireland, that I had stepped into a chapter of a Russian novel. The smell of turf smoke curled among the river fogs and I was not sure of the way in the dark. I waited for a shot or two, for the Irregulars liked to loose off at night to keep the feeling of war alive, from behind a friendly hedge. There were no shots that night. It was an eerie and pleasant walk, like a ghost story told in the dark.
I went on to Enniskillen, the border town, all drapers, hardware stores, and useful shops, brisker in trade than the towns of the south, a place half Orange, half Catholic. The town clerk, a twentieth-century man, was the kind who enjoyed the comedies of fanaticism, but the jokes rippled over the surface of the incurable seventeenth-century bitterness. It is often said that Irish laughter is without mirth, but rather a guerrilla activity of the mind. I was struck in Enniskillen for another cold wet Sunday when the only other guest in the hotel was a glum commercial traveler from the English Midlands, a man with one of the flattest minds I had met up to then. Careful with his money, too; his father was an undertaker and the son used the motor hearse on the weekends to give his girl a ride. He was to be—from my point of view as a writer—the most important man I met in Ireland, but it took me ten years to realize this. I wrote down every word of his I could remember.
* * *
I look back upon this Irish expedition with an embarrassed but forgiving eye. I see the empty mountains, the bog and the succulent marshy valleys, the thin, awkward roads through a steam of strong tea. The sun came and went, the rain dripped and dried on my hat. I stuffed myself with fried cod, potatoes, potato cakes, scones and butter as I read my Yeats and Synge; the air, even when cold, was lazy and I couldn’t get up until eleven in the morning. I was thick in the head, with no idea of what to write about until, in despair, I was driven to write flatly everything I saw and heard. The “everything” was a torture for I discovered that places overwhelmed me. Every movement of light, every turn of leaf, every person seemed to occupy me physically, so that I had no self left. But perhaps this means I was all self. It was with a conviction of failure that I sent my first four articles to the paper and sat staring into a “jar” of Guinness. I was dumfounded to get a telegram from London saying my articles were excellent.
Alas, I have seen them since. They are very small beer. They are thin and sentimental; but here and there is a sentence that shows I was moved and had an eye. They were signed by my initials and that is why from then on people dropped my Christian name—to my relief—and I was called VSP or RSVP. My literary name developed from this. I preferred the impersonal, and to have added the “t” of Victor to a name that already had three, and was made more fidgety by a crush of consonants and two short vowels, seemed ridiculous.
In this short trip I had easily rid myself of the common English idea that Ireland was a piece of England that for some reason or other would not settle down and had run to seed. I had heard at school of “the curse of Cromwell.” I ardently identified Irish freedom with my own personal freedom which had been hard to come by. A revolutionary break? I was for it. Until you are free you do not know who you are. It was a basic belief of the Twenties, it permeated all young minds, and though we became puritanically drastic, gauche, and insensitive in our rebellions against everything we called Victorianism, we were elated.
I was appointed the Irish correspondent of the paper. This was momentous. I had a career. This was no time for living the dilapidated day to day life I had lived in Paris. And there was the religious question: I had lapsed in Paris where I had been the average sensual young man. Now I found myself employed by the paper from whose religion I had lapsed. It seemed to be my duty to reform. The shadiness of Puritans! I threw my last cigarette into the Liffey, gave up drinking wine, beer, and whisky, though my tastes there were youthfully moderate. I was really more austerely the Romantic idealist than the Puritan, for I soon found the Calvinism of Ireland—scarcely buried under Irish high spirits—distasteful and indeed dull; my nature rebelled against it.
I lived in Dublin in two periods—1923 and 1926—and I write now mostly of my first year there when, far more than in Paris, I lived in my imagination. When I reread nowadays the German court episode in Meredith’s Harry Richmond and of the ordeal through which Meredith’s young romantic passes, I recognize something close to my Irish experience and indeed to other experiences in my youth; like Stendhal, Meredith is outstanding in his observation of easily inflamed young men.
If Ireland moved me, it also instructed me. As a political education, the experience was excellent. One was observing a revolution: a country set free, a new young state, the first modern defeat of colonialism. Sitting in the press gallery of the Dail day after day, listening to the laughing, fighting voice of Cosgrave, the irony of Kevin O’Higgins, or the tirades of the defeated Redmond—the old Redmond’s son—was like being at school taking a course in the foundation of states. I realized what a social revolution was, although I was (inevitably as an Englishman and Protestant) much more in the old Anglo-Irish society, the majority of whom reluctantly accepted the new regime, than among the rising Catholic middle class. I did not really know them until many years later. I was carried away by Irish sociability and nervous scorn of England into thinking I was in the contemporary European world, I was not, but there was the beguiling insinuation that Ireland was in temperamental contact with Paris and Italy and had by-passed the complex social preoccupations of industrial England. (Joyce’s flight from Dublin to the Continent was an example of the Irish tradition.)
The snobberies of the Ascendancy were very colonial—as I now see—though not as loud as the Anglo-Indian, nor as prim as the Bostonian: they came closer to those of the American southern states. (There is a bond between Anglo-Irish writing and the literature of the American south.) In Ireland, shortage of capital and decaying estates had given these snobberies a lazy but acid quality; in many people there was a suggestion of concealed and bloodless spiritual superiority. English snobbery was based firmly on vulgar wealth, and a class system energized by contention and very mobile; the Irish was based on kinship, without wealth. The subject is perfectly displayed—though in an earlier generation—in The Real Charlotte by Somerville and Ross. Noses were kept raised by boisterous and tenuous claims to cousinage.
Ireland is really a collection of secret societies. For a rootless young man like myself, this had a strong allure. I was slow to see that I was meeting an upper class in decay and at the point when it was disappearing in boatloads from Dun Laoghaire every day; and that I was really living in a social world far more like that of Mrs. Gaskell’s novels in the prim and genteel England of, say, 1840 to 1860 (except that old ladies had been using the word “bloody” in company freely for a couple of hundred years). Genealogy, as one could tell from the libraries and the number of societies given to it, was the national passion.
The easygoing life in this Victorian lagoon was delightful to me. It is often said that in Ireland there is an excess of genius unsustained by talent; but there is talent in the tongues and Irish manners are engaging. I sat in my office in St. Stephens Green, a cheerful outsider in Irish quarrels, turning myself into the idlest of newspaper correspondents. I lodged with two Protestant spinsters in a sedate early Victorian terrace house on Waterloo Road, where they left me cold meat and pickles and a pot of strong tea for my supper; and popped up every quarter of an hour, if I had a young woman to visit me, to see that nothing was “going on.” Dublin was a city so gregariously domestic that the sexes did not care to meet without other company. The English were deplored as coarse sensualists who ate too much, were sex-mad and conventional.
The pleasant wide eighteenth-century streets of Georgian Dublin were easing to the mind, and the wild mountains over which the weather changed every hour excited the fancy. And there was Dublin Bay, so often enameled and Italianate. More and more I was idling at Blackrock or Dalkey, with a crowd of young men and girls, watching the sea or walking across the mountains as far as Glendalough or the Vale of Avoca or scooping a kettle of water out of a stream in the heather, for a picnic.
My mind fed on scenery. The sight of lakes, slatey in the rain, or like blue eyes looking out of the earth in the changing Irish light; the Atlantic wind always silvering the leaves of beech and oak and elm on the road to Galway, empty except for a turf cart or a long funeral; the Twelve Pins in Connemara now gleaming like glass in the drizzle, now bald, green and dazzling; the long sea inlets that on hot days burn their way deeply inland beyond Clifden where the sands are white and the kelp burns on them; the Atlantic coming in stormily below the white cliffs of Moher; and the curious tropic of Kerry. My brother came over from England and with two girls we borrowed a horse and cart and went slowly across to the west and back; and in Clare, which was still in a disorganized state, we attracted the “boys from the hills” who kept us up dancing half-sets, singing all the rebel songs and finishing up with Nancy Hogan’s Goose. Two young Englishmen with two unmarried girls! The scandal of it! There was a lot of talk in Dublin.
I do not think only of landscape but of the wide disheartening streets of the long villages and the ruined farms of the west; and the elaborately disguised curiosity of the impulsively kind but guarded people, looking into your eyes for a chance of capping your fantasy with one of theirs, in long ceremonies of well-mannered evasion, craving for the guesswork of acquaintance and diversion.
The darker side of this was blurred and muddied and stinking; the dramatic character of the misery. In Dublin, the tenements were shocking; the women still wore the long black shawl, the children were often barefooted. You picked up lice and fleas in the warm weather in the Dublin trams as you went to the north side to the wrecked mansions of the eighteenth century. The poor looked not simply poor, but savagely poor, though they were rich in speech and temperament. There were always ragged processions of protesters, on the general Irish ground that one must keep on screaming against life itself. There were nasty sights: a man led down a mountain road with his wrists tied behind his back, by a couple of soldiers.
I think of the story of the house close to a lonely cottage I had in my second Irish period at the sea’s edge near Clifden. It was no more than a two-roomed cabin with a loft and, with the Irish love of grand names, was called Mount Freer and had once belonged to an English painter. (A pensioned-off sailor owned it.) Near it was the manor or farm, a ruinous place of rusty gates and scarcely habitable, occupied by a bank manager from some inland town. He was very ill and was still suffering from the shock of having been badly beaten up in a raid on his bank in the civil war.
He was not alone at this time. His brother, a cropped Australian ex-soldier, had come over to look after him for a while. I used to go shooting rabbits with the Australian in a deserted graveyard. It had belonged, the Australian said, to the ferocious O’Flahertys from whom the people in Galway had in the far past called on God to protect them. He was trying to persuade his dim sick brother to go back with him. If the sick man saw anyone in the road he would climb gingerly over the stone wall and dodge away in a wide, lonely circle across the rocky fields to the house. I knew the Australian well. He was a good fisherman. We used to go out and spear plaice in the sands and catch mackerel. Many a fry we had. Often I walked, as night fell, to look at the wink of light on Slyne Head, America the next parish. He told me the brother refused to go near anyone.
“The poor bloody brother, he has the idea he stinks. He thinks he’s got a bloody smell on him. He’ll never come near you.” His house had almost no furniture—simply a couple of beds, a table, and two chairs—and if I went there, the sick man slipped away and hid in another room. Eventually the Australian had to leave and when he did the “mad feller,” as he was called, cut his throat or hanged himself. Thank God I’d left before that happened.
It has been said that the Irish live in a state of perplexity. The poet Patrick Kavanagh has written that the newborn child screams because it cannot bear the light of the real world. Yet from Shaw onward one finds the Irish saying they are not dreamers, but are realists. Not in the literary sense of the word “realism,” but in the sense of seeing with cold detachment where exact practical advantage lies. I would have said their instincts are tribal. They evade the moral worries of settled societies and there is a strain of anarchy in them: they can be charitable and cruel at the same time. It is self-indulgent to generalize like this and, anyway, the Irish do that more coolly than we English do. But one has to make something of the way they turn tragedy to farce and farce back into tragedy; and when in the Thirties I wrote a story called “Sense of Humour,” a piece of premature black comedy which was set going by the meeting with that glum commercial traveler I had met in Enniskillen, it expressed something of the effect of an Irish experience on myself.
Copyright © 1972 by V.S. Pritchett.
January 27, 1972