Books: A terrible beauty comes of age
History: 1916: The Mornings After, Tim Pat Coogan, Head of Zeus, pbk, 329 pages, €22.50
Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30
Our reviewer on Tim Pat Coogan's moral history of modern Ireland.
Tim Pat Coogan has been writing books about Ireland for half a century. His latest, 1916: The Mornings After, has the subtitle From the Courts Martial to the Tribunals and gives the author's highly personal and idiosyncratic view of the period from the 1916 Rising to the present day.
In 1966 Coogan, now 80, published his first book, Ireland Since the Rising. As he notes in the current work, it was "suffused with optimism" as Ireland celebrated the golden jubilee of the Rising and the emergence of a new generation of decision-makers. Two decades later he wrote Disillusioned Decades, commenting that the title said it all. His new book, The Mornings After, he describes as chronicling "what can validly be termed the age of scandal and betrayal".
Coogan sets out to tackle some of "the uncomfortable realities of what has happened in this country" as 2016 approaches. The tone is very much sorrow mixed with anger. He contrasts the ideals of 1916 as expressed in the Proclamation and the sacrifice of the leaders, with events thereafter, culminating in the catalogue of scandals, cover-ups and corruption recently revealed. He is particularly seized with the failure to cherish "all of the children of the nation equally."
The book is entertaining and easy to read, with some good quotes and stories as well as reminders of events overlooked or forgotten. Any 300-page book covering the period must necessarily be selective, and the author combines a focus on certain issues with a broad-brush approach that is anecdotal rather than analytical.
The first sections take the story from the Rising to 1932. These are followed by events since and developments in the North from the Troubles to the Good Friday Agreement. The last chapters are taken up with the failings and scandals enveloping the Catholic Church - Coogan's major bête noire - together with the revelations in recent decades of political and business corruption and financial mismanagement. One anecdote from 1916 recounts how Tom Clarke, the night before his execution, was humiliated and stripped naked on the orders of a British captain; several years later Michael Collins had the officer shot. Coogan notes that as acts of historical reprisal go, "the Irish executions were comparatively mild" but decisively transformative.
And he quotes Kevin O'Higgins during the Civil War, when the government began shooting republican prisoners, that: "This is not going to be a draw, with a replay in the autumn." De Valera, long one of Coogan's targets, is characterised as "supremely lucky", though given praise for the feat of keeping Ireland neutral in World War Two.
The Northern section focuses on the Blanket Protest (on which Coogan wrote a book) and the Hunger Strikes, including Bobby Sands' comment that "our revenge will be the laughter of our children". Paisley's malign influence is acknowledged, as is his 2007 volte-face. But the biggest plaudits are for Albert Reynolds, who was "absolutely instrumental" in securing a peace deal, achieving more than all his predecessors combined.
The major recurring theme throughout the book is the Catholic Church. Coogan makes positive reference to its role in Irish society at times since the Famine. He cites examples of decent and dedicated churchmen, from Bishop O'Dwyer of Limerick in 1916 to Bishop Birch of Ossory and to the continued current activities of Brother Crowley and Peter McVerry as well as the important role of Fr Alex Reid in the Northern Peace process. But these and others pale against the prevailing Church culture - controlling and manipulative, particularly where the sexual morals of the nation were concerned. This Church was typified by dominant figures such as Archbishop McQuaid, Bishop Browne of Galway, Lucey of Cork and others reflecting the "self-satisfied" attitude of a church leadership which ran hospitals, schools and institutions later shown to be rife with abuse. The Vatican is censured for its sustained support for the Irish hierarchy.
"Paedophilia is unfortunately one of the areas in which the Irish demonstrably punch above their weight," he writes.
Coogan is not, of course, referring to the Irish as a whole, but rather to the incidence of paedophilia among "priests who are either Irish or of Irish descent", quoting additionally Pope Francis's estimate that two per cent of all priests could be paedophiles. The usual cases are cited, Seán Fortune and Brendan Smyth, who indirectly brought down a government and a Cardinal, all protected by a culture of secrecy and cover-up.
That culture applied also to the horrific saga of institutional sexual and physical abuse in places such as Daingean, Glencree, Clonmel and Artane as well as the notorious Magdalene Laundries. Moreover, when the extent of the scandals was publicised, what Coogan describes as a "deplorable compensation deal" was negotiated in 2002 between the then Minister for Education Michael Woods and 18 religious congregations which effectively indemnified the orders against legal liabilities, at a cost to date in excess of €1bn. Far from cherishing all children equally, he observes: "In these institution, it seems rather that children were all victimised equally."
The concluding chapters feature "a never-ending conveyor belt of scandals" - including Ansbacher, DIRT, the Galway Tent, right down to the present - in some of which Charlie Haughey (another recurring "player") features. Haughey's well-known misdeeds are detailed again here as is the charge by Judge Moriarty that he devalued democracy; also mentioned is his avoidance of prosecution after it was ruled that he could not get a fair trial. Separately, Coogan claims that when diagnosed with cancer in 1996, Haughey refused to have his prostate removed lest it make him impotent.
The Stardust Disaster Inquiry is covered and comparisons made with the Cavan orphanage fire of 1943. Coogan also reminds us of the Hepatitis C scandal and the tragic case of Brigid McCole.
He packs in some of the findings of political and business corruption from the McCracken, Moriarty, Mahon and Beef Tribunals, together with the post-2008 revelations about the antics of banks, bankers and speculators which brought the Troika down on the country. The Anglo Tapes and the curious ongoing Cerberus affair are also mentioned. The author calls for increased powers for the Public Accounts Committee and greater transparency under the FOI legislation.
Yet Coogan somehow manages to end on a cautiously positive note, describing the economic situation today as improving after the Government took "the dreadful but, overall, necessary decisions needed to get through the worst crisis since independence".
Ireland Since the Rising was largely an account of the political and economic development of the country in the 50 years that followed the 1916 Rising. This new book brings that story up to date - but it's more an assessment of the moral integrity of our country than mere economics or politics.
A thought-provoking read.
Sean Farrell is a former Irish Ambassador