Irish greats through the eyes of our neighbour
Non-Fiction: Great Irish Lives: Obituaries of Ireland's Finest, Edited by Charles Lysaght, Times Books, hdbk, 432 pages, €15.99
Published 06/11/2016 | 02:30
A painting of Seamus Heaney adorns the cover of this collection of obituaries, and the substantial entry on the poet calls attention to his "famously twinkling eyes" while also noting approvingly his life-long refusal "to become a poster boy for the nationalist cause".
Elsewhere, we learn that Michael Davitt was "the most resolute and implacable enemy" of Irish-British relations, that Edward Carson was a "great figure" and the "hero" of Ulster, and that Anita Leslie "represented all that was captivating" about the Anglo-Irish aristocracy.
It's always interesting to have a look at ourselves as others, perhaps especially our nearest neighbour, see us, and in these 104 obituaries, written anonymously for The Times of London on the occasion of their subjects' deaths, there are many intriguing observations on Irish lives and ways.
We learn, for instance, that Eamonn Andrews' most famous broadcasting catchphrase was "dis is your loife", that comedian Dermot Morgan was both "feared in his native Ireland" and caused "regular scandals" and that Conor Cruise O'Brien in his later years "rarely finished a day fully sober".
Some of the more serious observations are just as striking - and strikingly of their time, too. Oscar Wilde, we're told, led "what must have been a life of wretchedness and unavailing regret", and we also learn that "appreciation of the eternal and serene beauty of nature and the higher sides of human character was not granted" to James Joyce.
John McGahern receives praise "not just as a great Irish writer but also as a sociologist of 20th century Ireland", but architect Sam Stephenson is taken to task for "asserting boldly that Georgian buildings were not worth keeping", thereby voicing "a crude nationalist resentment towards Dublin's colonial heritage".
Many of the more recent entries were written by the book's editor, Charles Lysaght, who has been contributing to the paper's obituary pages since the late 1960s, but it would have been interesting to learn the identities of earlier obituarists. In his introduction, however, Lysaght does make a reasonable case for the anonymity that has always been the Times' practice - it adds, he suggests, to the authority of the obituary.
Authoritative anonymity, though, doesn't preclude occasional mischief. The Sunday Independent's Aengus Fanning was the "charismatic, fearless editor" of a paper that was "a strange mixture of the tabloid and the highbrow", while Charles Haughey, "although far from handsome, had a way with women that was legendary".
And there are stern judgments, too. John Devoy was "the most bitter and persistent" of revolutionaries, Seán MacBride was "widely regarded as a sinister ruthless extremist" who was "oblivious to positions other than his own", and Éamon de Valera was both "withering and autocratic" and "a man with an invincible sense of his own righteousness".
Indeed, the book is endlessly quotable. Joyce's Ulysses contains "many repellent or merely boring passages" but is also "intensely alive" and "fundamentally Irish"; Seán O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars caused the kind of riot "with which Dublin customarily greets its masterpieces"; and Taoiseach Jack Lynch had "the disconcerting quality of executing sympathy" with his "doleful blue eyes".
This collection will interest anyone interested in Irish lives, Irish history or simply good writing.