News Declan Lynch

Saturday 20 September 2014

Before we moan about 'British' Joyce...

The President In Britain (RTE1) Gay Byrne – My Father's War (RTE1)

Published 21/04/2014 | 02:30

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Near the end of Tommie Gorman's reflective film The President In Britain, it was rightly pointed out by Eoghan Harris that perhaps the most important thing said by Michael D, the line that challenged his own side, was the one about supporting England by default in the World Cup.

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This was also rightly pointed out here last week, by me, and as a sign of just how right I was, I now have to deal with a new crisis which has erupted in Anglo-Irish relations with The Telegraph claiming James Joyce, Flann O'Brien and John Banville as "British" authors in their selection of the 20 greatest British novels.

When Paddy heard this one, he went berserk. In fact, he got so angry he seemed to forget completely that recent Failte Ireland video which claimed proudly, and wrongly, that Daniel Day-Lewis was one of several Oscar winners born in Ireland.

Just remind me again, because I can't quite recall... did we feel a great sense of shame that we had falsely claimed the great English-born actor? And did the British go berserk, or what did they do?

You can get back to me on that one, but as it happens anyway, the British claim on Joyce's Ulysses is not entirely without foundation. I think you'll find that when Joyce was born, there was this thing called the British Empire which all people in Ireland inhabited, whether they liked it or not. Moreover, Joyce had grown up under that yoke, and a few other yokes.

Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, of course, had a British publisher. I say "of course" because it was more or less against the law in Ireland at that time to publish good books – a fact which in itself should morally disallow any of Ireland's claims on her celebrated authors until about 1967.

As for John Banville, they got that one wrong – though it must be said that he is from Wexford, which is nearer to Britain than it is to, say, Donegal.

These things are a bit complicated, you see. After the "British Authors" outrage, we heard the voices of some who are still bitter the Brits claimed Katie Taylor – well, her father is English, and I think you'll find that we have a few lads playing for the Republic who, pound for pound, probably aren't as "Irish" as she is "British".

It is only when we drop that old nationalist guard that the real truth comes out purely of its own accord, as with an excellent headline last week in the Irish Times: "Damien Duff To Go Abroad Before Returning to Ireland."

The Duffer has lived in England for most of his adult life, and "abroad" here means America. Which implies that the "home" country, for this Irish footballer, is England.

Which is perfectly true, in spirit, and in every other way that matters. It would only stop being true if it appeared in the Telegraph.

***

But I guess these things take time, for all peoples, not just for Paddy.

One of the many remarkable things about Gay Byrne – My Father's War, was simply the fact that Gay was indeed talking about the experiences of his father in the First World War, not his great-grandfather, or even his grandfather, but his father, Edward Byrne.

Gay, a maker of modern Ireland, grew up in the same house as a man who used to have the most horrendous nightmares of that war, and who would then go about his daily business in Guinness's brewery as if nothing much had happened back there at Ypres, or The Somme. Indeed, he seemed to have decided that after what he had seen in such places, he would never complain about anything in this world, ever again.

So profound was that silence, imposed from without and within, we are still surprised to learn of the enormity of the Irish involvement in the First World War.

And always there is some poignant new perspective, like the scene in which Gaybo stood opposite the GPO remembering how his father regarded 1916 as some sort of a skirmish down at the post office compared to the catastrophes that he had witnessed. Or the suggestion by an academic that 1916 killed any chance of a United Ireland, roughly the opposite of what many had intended.

Paddy would take that as his guide, all the way.

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