Friday 27 April 2018

Review: News From A New Republic: Ireland in the 1950s by Tom Garvin

Gill & Macmillan €24.99
Fascinating study of a decade of charging windmills
This exploration of Ireland during the reign of Eamon 'Don Quixote' de Valera often surprises, says Dermot Bolger

Dernit Bolger

As a boy, one of my favourite television programmes was the BBC series Tomorrow's World, where -- through studio experiments and off-beat film reports on the half-baked hunches of various inventors -- enthusiastic presenters tried to guess what the future might look like.

Television was viewed with suspicion in the Fifties. Telefis Eireann did not start broadcasting until 1961 (starting with a speech by Eamon de Valera about the "irreparable harm" it might do) and the store owner Harry Moore was threatened for selling televisions to Dubliners keen to witness the British queen's coronation in 1953.

Therefore, in 1950, the Irish Christian Brothers were never likely to embrace that particular medium when attempting their own version of Tomorrow's World. Instead, as Tom Garvin recounts in this fascinating and often surprising study of Fifties Ireland, the Brothers opted for an Irish language comic strip book for children, where they attempted their own excursion into prophecy.

In panel drawings, it meandered through Irish history from Neolithic times to St Patrick's arrival and a golden age of monasteries and piety disrupted by savage Vikings and 700 years of foreign invasion ended by the heroic Easter Rising. The disastrous Civil War got erased from the narrative, but the comic book was only getting into its stride, with panels confidently predicting the future of Ireland: a 32-county, Irish speaking, united land led by priests and nuns, with foreign investors in snap-brim hats swarming into Dublin airport (presumably with Irish language phrase books) to get a piece of the economic prosperity that was bound to be the hallmark of the second half of our 20th Century.

De Valera received hero status in the comic strip -- a first copy was presented to him while leader of the Opposition, and, within a year, "The Chief" was back in power as Taoiseach in 1951 and -- after the brief inconvenience of the Second Interparty government -- regained power again in 1957, before being eventually prevailed upon to reluctantly step aside in 1959.

The Fifties are viewed very much as de Valera's decade, a lost period of stagnation and emigration, characterised by the failure of imagination that comes from an elderly politburo clinging to a failed economic ideology. However, Garvin depicts de Valera not so much as "The Chief" but as Don Quixote who, as the decade advanced, gradually lost the whip hand to his long-suffering Sancho Panza, who wound up inheriting and reinventing the island.

It might have been 1959 before this particular Sancho Panza could implement his ideas as Taoiseach, but Garvin explores how, beneath the pessimism of the Fifties, with moribund industries tied up in red-tape and fierce suspicion of better educational opportunities for the masses, the forces of change were already gathering. They gathered in the emergence of ambitious young politicians such as Charles Haughey and Donogh O'Malley and the advent of organisations such as Tuairim -- a forum where young middle-class professionals (you resigned on your 40th birthday) debated reform. Although viewed as radical, Tuairim was still cautious, in its pamphlets and public meetings, to avoid taboo subjects such as contraception or political corruption.

Tuairim was willing to listen to the abuse victim Peter Tyrell who first broke the omerta surrounding Letterfrack, where he was tortured as a child. But despite generally believing him, it still lacked the courage to totally believe him or allow his testimony to enter the public domain in pamphlet form, with Tyrell eventually feeling that his only means of protest against what was still happening to children in Ireland was to torch himself to death in a London park.

In a decade in which radio was no medium for discourse, Garvin makes extensive use of the national newspapers to explore why certain changes happened and, just as importantly, what forces prevented other changes from happening. But he is cognisant of what could not be spoken about in any medium, often even in ordinary conversation, and how things could occur in public view and yet never be mentioned by anyone.

Most ageing political leaders had cut their teeth in secretive organisations such as the IRB, while the Catholic Church was a secret organisation that operated in public. Yet despite official rhetoric about cherishing a Catholic, rural Ireland, most country schoolchildren and their parents (except those who wanted to exploit cheap farm labour) saw the future very differently from the Christian Brothers comic strip. They wanted to escape, or see their children escape, into cities and away from the grind of the land.

This needed a fierce battle to be waged for educational reform at a time when calls to raise the school leaving age from 14 were fiercely resisted and for a new orientation that started to emerge with TK Whitaker's Economic Development plan.

Garvin's book is a fascinating account at how, behind the seeming paralysis, a rural and urban working-class was gradually demanding that their aspirations be addressed, that rhetorical excuses be put to one side and that a gruff Sancho Panza should eventually take the reins from his blind master and commence battle to let a new order begin.

Sunday Independent

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