Monday 21 January 2019

Feeding a great hatred with fervour

Emer O'Kelly

All in the Blood: a Memoir by Geraldine Plunkett Dillon

Ed. Honor O Brolchain

A and A Farmar, ?25.00

GERALDINE Plunkett Dillon seems to have been a great hater, as Nancy Mitford wrote of her sister Unity, an intimate of Hitler's.

Geraldine decided as a small child that she was going to hate her mother forever more - and she did. She writes that Countess Plunkett, the extremely rich and avaricious wife of the republican George Noble Count Plunkett was "in her mind and her language at the same time prudish and coarse".

She also describes behaviour from her mother that would lead any objective observer to conclude that the countess was borderline psychotic. It must have been hell to have been a child of hers; their childhood certainly seems to have damaged all of her seven children, including Geraldine and her best-loved brother - Joseph Mary Plunkett, the 1916 Proclamation signatory.

But Geraldine was her mother's daughter, and inherited the old woman's lack of objectivity; her judgements, in what is in many ways a fascinating memoir, are not exactly objective, balanced or fair. And she exempts "Pa" from all blame for the family's hideous childhood misery, accepting his one-time excuse that "Mammy is in many ways a little girl."

At that time, "Mammy" was mountainously fat and nearing 50. The count had broken up a catfight between her and the adult Geraldine in the family's Fitzwilliam Street residence, and had assumed that Geraldine was attacking her mother.

Geraldine claims it was the reverse, but one wonders why the count should have assumed what he did: either he knew his children were violent savages, or he was indifferent to their suffering at the hands of their mother.

Certainly, the family seems to have been notoriously socially unacceptable: one Dublin family refused to have Joe as a guest in their house without being assured in advance that he would know how to behave himself at table.

In the early years of the 20th century, everything about the Plunketts was new. Both the count's and countess's (her maiden name was Cranny) parents had made their money out of building much of Dublin's south suburbs in Rathmines, Ballsbridge and Donnybrook, and keeping ownership of them.

The count and countess were married from the Cranny family home, the "central gem" of the property portfolio - Muckross Park on Marlborough Road, Donnybrook, now a Dominican convent school. The count had been ennobled by the Pope, grateful for the devout young businessman's gift of a house in Italy to a group of nuns. Clearly, titles came cheaper then than they do now.

But money and spurious nobility seem not to have run very deep as civilising influences. As was usual in middle-class households, the countess played no part in caring for her children. She seems to have been entirely indifferent to their welfare, leaving them to be terrorised and beaten by illiterate, untrained and violent servants, and refusing to budget for their food, so the children were fed on scraps.

Nor were they sent to school, except briefly as a preparation for receiving First Communion. In later years, when Geraldine's older sister Moya decided to enter a convent to escape from her mother, it was found that she was illiterate and could not become a teacher. Even Geraldine, who considered herself an intellectual, had an eccentrically intermittent education after she began to devote her time to working with Joseph as his aide-de-camp between 1912 and 1916.

A tutor (sympathetic to the Volunteers' cause) at the new National University came to her rescue. He promised to pass her no matter how bad her results - as he admired her political involvement.

Geraldine married fellow republican activist Tommy Dillon (who later set up the Chemistry department at UCG) on Easter Sunday, 1916, and their "honeymoon" consisted of watching the Rising in O'Connell Street as it played out beneath their window in the Imperial Hotel.

They were to have had a double wedding with Joe, who was dying of TB but still determined to marry Grace Gifford, whose sister was married to Thomas MacDonagh, his political mentor. Under Joe's influence, Grace had become a Catholic, and Geraldine gives this as the reason why they were married in Kilmainham Jail the night before his execution. Joe feared, she says, that Grace's mother would "make her give up her religion" if she did not have the protection of the Plunkett name. And there were rumours that Grace was pregnant.

More to the point, there were rumours that the child was not Joe's. Certainly Geraldine makes frequent references to former boyfriends and fiances of Grace, and also indulgently records people's reaction to Joe's increasingly dandified and flamboyant dress, his turning up for the Rising "gorgeously apparelled", and his habit of wearing rings and bracelets.

But as though to contradict these hints, Geraldine also sets down without equivocation her own journey to Larkfield in Kimmage, the Plunkett house which had been the Volunteer training camp and field depot, several weeks after the Rising, to discover Grace in bed, an aborted foetus floating in a blood-filled chamber pot beside her.

Be that as it may, Grace's relationship with the Plunketts was antagonistic; she sued them years later for the inheritance she believed herself entitled to as Joe's widow.

Geraldine's siblings all loathed "Ma" as much as she did, and resented her refusal to make over property to them as adults - though none of them seems to have expected their father to stand up for their rights. Pa continued to bury himself in books and antiquity with their goodwill.

They also continued to live in the family houses - even after marriage - and continued to resent their mother's refusal to give them the money to run the houses and cater for their own increasing families.

In the years immediately prior to and after the Rising, Geraldine herself acted as her mother's agent on the properties, although Michael Collins ("a rough diamond") was employed officially in that capacity. Geraldine had the more neglected houses decorated before letting, but despite her republican principles, and the vividly remembered suffering of the 1913 strikers, she deliberately employed non-union labour because "Ma would have been raging" otherwise.

Her accounts of both the War of Independence and the Civil War, when she lived in Galway with her three small children, with her husband on the run for much of the time, are vivid and horrifying, her capacity for contemptuous hatred unredeemed. The atrocities by Black and Tans and Free State sympathisers are gruesomely described - but those on the IRB and IRA side are indulgently glossed over or defiantly justified.

Geraldine Plunkett Dillon died in 1986 and much of this memoir comes from her later years, though age never mellowed her partisan fervour.

The style is also not so much bad as non-existent; edited by Geraldine's granddaughter Honor O Brolchain, it is rambling and repetitive, the chronology drifting back and forward, the language inelegant and careless. But as a picture of the fire that consumed and continues to consume our country, it is sobering, and had it been published years ago might have given pause to appeasement of self-styled republicanism.

Sadly, its lesson now is that today's IRA - unappeased and unappeasable - are, as they claim, the inheritors of the banner of 1916. Geraldine Plunkett Dillon's words and aspirations would fit comfortably in Gerry Adams's mouth and echo approvingly in the dark shadows inhabited by "dissident" republicans.

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