Entertainment Books

Sunday 16 June 2019

So much to argue with in Tim Pat's glorious memoir

A Memoir By Tim Pat Coogan
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €26.40

Tim Pat Coogan
Tim Pat Coogan
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Tim Pat Coogan was kind and encouraging to me when I was a young journalist -- he has a magnanimous nature and the disposition to be encouraging to the young -- and I am aware that I owe him a lot.

I also admire him as a biographer and historian. He taught the academics a thing or two (as he points out in this memoir) by showing them how to employ journalistic techniques in the furtherance of historical research: that is, where there are living veterans of turbulent times, don't just confine your research to the archives -- go out and interview them. The living interviews become, in themselves, an archive.

Yet I can't always agree with TP's underlying values, and as with a lot of strong personalities, one sometimes cries out "No, Tim Pat, no! You've got that wrong!" For example, his approach to the North of Ireland is that it should simply have been incorporated into a Home Rule -- later independence -- arrangement for the whole island, and if it hadn't been for English Conservatives like Randolph Churchill stirring up the Orangemen in 1886, there might never have been partition. But I have read through all of King George V's correspondence about Ireland in the 1912-1914 period and it is alarmingly clear there was no other option in Ireland, at this period, but partition: the only other solution to the north-east of Ireland's deep and dogged attachment to the Union Jack would have been to kill or expel all the Protestants and Unionists in the land. And I don't think there was ever a mandate for that (except from the likes of Dan Breen, who was quite willing to carry out the ethnic cleansing of every Prod and Unionist in the country.)

Tim Pat is a world authority on Northern Ireland, and greatly respected for his intimate knowledge of, and involvement with, the Peace Process: more power to his elbow. But we have got to go forward respecting the tradition of the two cultures -- even Gerry Adams admits that -- and not dwell in this fairytale version of history that all would have been well if the Brits hadn't egged on the Orangemen.

It is also a repeated theory in Tim Pat's opus -- in this one, and in several other works -- that Ireland was subjected to two colonialisms: "Mother England and Mother Church". Colonisation by Mother England? Maybe, at least in the popular imagination (although one-third of people involved in running the British Empire overseas were Irish, and at least another third were Scots). But viewing the Catholic Church as a form of "colonialism" is certainly putting the boot on the wrong foot: the Catholic Church wasn't "imposed" on the Irish people -- it was the Irish people doing the "imposing"! In popular devotional literature throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Catholic Church was constantly described as "Ireland's Spiritual Empire". Why do 800 church bells ring out across the world on St Patrick's Day? Because Irish Catholics have "imposed" their saint everywhere from Buenos Aires to Shanghai!

Indeed, there occurs an interesting cognitive dissonance when Tim Pat discusses "Catholics". When they are individuals killed by the security forces in the North of Ireland, they are just "Catholics". When they are bishops or Archbishops, they are "Roman Catholics". Dr John Charles McQuaid is repeatedly introduced as "the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin", lest we might mistake him for an Anglican, or an Armenian, or a representative of the Coptic Rite.

Yet, it is surely a stimulating book that makes you want to argue with it, and TP's memoir is highly stimulating, packed with good stories, funny anecdotes, interesting characters, poignant moments of autobiography, and his characteristically strong opinions: he regards Garret Fitzgerald and Conor Cruise O'Brien as Irish liberals who ran the most repressive administration "of the century" (in 1974-7).

He has a witty line in invective: CJ Haughey, he writes, "never allowed his wife to interfere with his marriage". In the 1930s, Eamon de Valera exercised "the Robert Mugabe school of agricultural economics". That wit can also be turned to tenderness, as when he sweetly counts his blessings referring to his "six children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and there is always the possibility that negotiations through the proper channels may increase the total."

He is bravely open about his personal life -- the breakdown of his marriage, his late and passionate love affair with another woman who tragically died -- while writing gracefully and appreciatively about his wife, Cherry. Her immense kindness to those down on their luck filled their home in Dalkey with a succession of waifs and strays, from single mothers to bewildered adolescents emerging from what Americans call institutions of correction: Tim Pat is not, by his own admission, a man of faith but there was a real element of practical Christianity in the Coogans' hospitality to the poor.

He is funny about the rough talk of journalists in newsrooms of yore -- political correctness certainly wouldn't allow it now -- and still angry about the demise of the Irish Press, which he chronicles in detail. He is touching about the early death of his father and his mother's pathetic (and disgracefully neglected) struggles as an impoverished widow of a very senior Garda official.

The whole ensemble is a rich and glorious pot-pourri of Irish life and experiences over the 20th century, with which you can identify, empathise, and argue in equal measure, evocatively illustrated by photographs -- of which the most exquisite and compelling is the adorable author himself, aged four, as a smiling and confident Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Mary Kenny's new book Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy will be published by New Island early in 2009.

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