Tuesday 17 September 2019

Mary Kenny: 'In our summertime revisiting of writers of yesteryear: Honor Tracy, who once convulsed Ireland in controversy'

 

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Honor Tracy wasn't Irish, but she resided in Ireland for long periods, and once played a controversial role in Irish life and letters, which brought her renown, notoriety and sometimes loathing.

Born in Suffolk, she came to Dublin after the Second World War, where she worked for Sean O'Faolain on a literary magazine, the Irish Digest. Honor was, in O'Faolain's own description, "plain of feature, buxom… eyes small but very bright". His daughter Julia O'Faolain wrote that Honor was "fat and had no ankles, but… had a thrilling laugh and a candour which astounded me". Honor and Sean embarked on an affair which was to last a decade and, in Julia's account, cause much hurt and depression to Sean's wife, Eileen.

Honor Tracy had published a book about Japan (where she had worked for the British Ministry of Information) but it was her first book about Ireland that thrust her into the limelight.

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Mind You, I've Said Nothing!, described as "Forays in the Irish Republic", published in 1953, was a witty, caustic and - some thought - scurrilous view of Irish life at the high point of Irish conservatism. Tracy described the Irish as being furious at being criticised, livid at being ridiculed, but even more vexed at being ignored.

The Irish had scant respect for the law, she wrote, but loved litigation - because it brought "easy money". They saw themselves as spiritual, but were cunning and materialistic, as well as "oriental" in their deviousness. They were publicly obsessed by the grievance of "the Border", which was called "Occupied Ireland" by Republican zealots, yet there was always a "gulf between public attitudes and private opinion". The Irish "talk high principles, but mostly they do what's wise and convenient".

The Irish language was seldom used, she reported, save by the odd Christian Brother. She described IRA veterans of the conflicts against Britain as men who often did "nothing more glorious than shooting a Tommy on a dark night or burning down an ancient country house".

She had great sport making fun of religion - how droll it was that the Irish had their houses blessed - and the status of the clergy. Although priests in Ireland had the same status as film stars in America, "the gentlemen in black are highly sensitive to criticism and do all in their powers to ensure that it never sees the light of day".

She hit out at the bishops big time: "Their arrogance, their pride, their vindictiveness, their greed did not square with what I took to be the mission of a Christian priesthood." But then she concluded that their mission wasn't Christianity at all: their project was "running a country".

All this created a great sensation and made Tracy's name as a writer: she had stumbled on the formula for success - be controversial, and court publicity. Her second book about Ireland was a satirical novel, The Straight and Narrow Path, which was possibly even more disputatious. It charted her own litigious clash with a Cork cleric, Canon O'Connell of Doneraile, who objected to the way she had reported his attempts to raise funds for the parish house.

He sued The Sunday Times and won damages. Honor then sued her own newspaper for impugning her professional reputation and won greater damages. The novel is a satirical account of this imbroglio, written with ludicrous exaggeration, and yet, genuinely funny in parts. It centres on an Oxford anthropologist who writes an innocent account comparing old Irish pagan rites with tribal rituals in the Congo - and gets himself into a heap of trouble. The avaricious canon sues - spurred on by a mendacious Irish lawyer - and the story spirals into wild farce.

Tracy makes merciless fun, again, of the familiar targets of Irish life, including the "claws" of the Holy Church and the "arrogance" of the Angelus bell. Yet she takes the mickey out of everyone. The Anglo-Irish ascendency are depicted as hopelessly ineffectual - no match for property-grabbing nuns - as well as dim and bigoted. The politicians are hypocritical poltroons, the journalists drunken cynics, the lawyers sleazy opportunists, the British blockheaded and silly. The only hero is a local scarlet woman", Lizzie O'Rourke, who "knew men too well to be afraid of them", be they priest or magistrate.

She left Ireland thereafter and moved to Spain. She wrote other novels - 21 books in all - including a more benign picture of Irish life, The Prospects Are Pleasing (where satisfaction is defined as a "fat salary and the use of a motor-car"). She died in 1989, aged 75.

Her contribution to Irish life is formally marked in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. And she probably did have an influence in changing Ireland: once her hosts got over feeling insulted, it was generally agreed there was a grain of truth in her barbs.

Honor Tracy's books caused fury, but they were never censored. She would be much more liable to be censored today, on grounds of "hate speech", or racism - she repeats phrases about "devious, orientalist" cunning. She might even be open to charges of misogyny: she depicts Irishmen as being "terrified" of women, and under the thumb of their "repressive" wives. She'd be torn apart on Twitter nowadays!

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