28 October, 2013Issue 23.2Literary CriticismLiterature

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Fugitive Moments

Rosie Lavan

Beautiful StrangersGerald Dawe, Darryl Jones and Nora Pelizzari eds.
Beautiful Strangers: Ireland and the World of the 1950s
Peter Lang, 2013
197 pages
ISBN 978-3-0343-0801-4


Traditionally the 1950s in Ireland has been painted in muted colours. “It would never be spring, always autumn,” writes Patrick Kavanagh in “Memory of Brother Michael”, and something of the mood of that poem, which expresses such disappointment in Ireland, has tended to cling to accounts of the decade. It was a period of mass unemployment, mass emigration, and grinding privation before the man usually credited with bringing an end to it all took office as Taoiseach in 1959. During his seven years in power, Sean Lemass initiated a programme of modernising reforms, carrying Ireland away from De Valeran austerity towards confidence and prosperity on the promise that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. And he presided over an important generational shift, surrounding himself with young ministers as the old soldiers, veterans (like him) of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War, gradually receded from public view.

In recent years, historians have shown marked interest in the Irish 1950s. For Dermot Keogh, Finbar O’Shea, and Carmel Quinlan it is a lost decade, as the title of their 2004 essay collection asserts. Lemass’s biographer Tom Garvin, in News from a New Republic (2010), works extensively from contemporary press reports to piece together the causes of the decade’s woes, and to chart the rise of the reforming generation who came to prominence afterwards. Beautiful Strangers: Ireland and the World of the 1950s might have made a very special contribution to this field, but regrettably, in spite of its promising mission and beguiling title, its achievement is limited.

It is never altogether fair to dwell on what might have been, but when the very title of the book alludes to chance encounters perhaps a little space might be granted to a few unfulfilled wishes. Through its cultural-critical framework, this collection, edited by Gerald Dawe, Darryl Jones, and Nora Pelizzari, might have recovered the texture of the decade through the consideration of popular, peripheral, or perishable sources. The contributors might have found a way of getting at the lived experience of the Irish 50s, the moments of being and non-being, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, which can so easily slip through the fingers of historians who choose not to dwell on them. There is a touching naivety in the book’s subtitle which recalls the address Stephen Dedalus writes in his geography book when he famously locates himself early in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916):

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe

The Republic in the 1950s was barely 30 years old; Ireland is a small country; the world is a big place. What is exciting about the subtitle’s assurance is that it might take us beyond a restricted, insular scope to explore those interrelations, manifest in cultural exchanges, between Ireland and the world. Certainly the reader can be forgiven for expecting that it would—Beautiful Strangers is, after all, a title in Peter Lang’s Reimagining Ireland series.

Part of the book’s failure to do this may lie in its origins: Beautiful Strangers began life as a lecture series called ‘Reading the Fifties’ at Trinity College, Dublin (which accounts for the fact that all but two of the contributors are affiliated to Trinity). The lecture programme must have been stimulating in its diversity, and the eclecticism which survives in the essay collection is to be warmly praised. However, it would seem that little has been done to reconcile the book to its title and its series. Here are essays on Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and Elvis Presley’s life- and world-changing meeting with Colonel Tom Parker, on the English Movement poets and American sci-fi. (Incidentally, it is from the latter essay, by Bernice M. Murphy, that the title is taken, which considers a short story called “The Beautiful Stranger” by the American writer Shirley Jackson.) They are interesting subjects and well-written pieces, and many of them perform valuable acts of literary and cultural recovery. Helen Conrad O’Briain, for example, brings the poetry of the self-styled “housewife poet” Phyllis McGinley back into view, and Edwina Keown brings 1950s British youth culture out of the shadow of the 1960s in her interesting reading of Colin MacInnes’s novel Absolute Beginners (1959). But the problem with the way the book is pitched and presented raises a question about these contributions: if a reader wants to learn about Presley and Parker, as one can in Sam Slote’s essay, or the Movement, as in John Scattergood’s, are they really going to turn to a book apparently concerned with Ireland and the 1950s to do so?

Not only is this an unfortunate disservice to the writers whose work does not fulfil this titular promise, it is also a missed opportunity. The collection starts so promisingly, with the playwright Thomas Kilroy’s ‘Memoir of the 1950s’ charting the origins of the brilliantly innovative Dublin Theatre Festival, which began in 1957. Kilroy, who was born in 1934, begins with an important generational point:

One of the crucial facts about people of my generation is that we are the last generation to have experienced the War of Independence and Civil War, not as history, but as memory, through the memories of our parents, like my father’s story of his part in the burning down of Galway Gaol, as an IRA officer in 1921. My mother was a member of Cumann na mBan [the women’s republican paramilitary organisation]. Their stories were part of my childhood and this legacy, too, has coloured the experience of many others who grew up in the 1950s.

Kilroy and those others also remembered ‘The Emergency’, the name which controversially neutral Ireland gave to World War Two—”although,” Kilroy writes, “whose emergency exactly was never quite specified”. Kilroy belongs roughly to the same generation as Moran’s children in John McGahern’s novel Amongst Women (1990), which captures so well the tension between generations—when Maggie brings home her fiancé Mark, decked out in full Teddy Boy regalia, from his drainpipe trousers to his quiffed hair, her sisters wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if he had worn tweed to meet their overbearing father, a veteran, like Kilroy’s parents, of both those wars.

Kilroy notes, importantly, that as well as its economic hardships the 1950s is associated with appalling institutionalised abuse and suffering in Ireland, of which the Magdalene Laundries are the most infamous examples. Redress for such injustice, the full extent of which has only recently come to light, is still being pursued. But he also asserts that the “standard reading of the 1950s” as a period of “stifling repression […] doesn’t quite catch the complexity of the time”. What he succeeds in showing in his essay is one strand of vital, outward-facing cultural activity in Ireland during the 1950s. He does so largely through memory of his own involvement in it, but still, other essays by younger critics and commentators who weren’t there at the time might have made more use of sources that recreated the era more vividly. The reader can’t help but feel a little distant from it all, not least at those moments when essayists feel bound to make assertions like Darryl Jones’s when he writes that Thomas’s Under Milk Wood was “very much a work of the 1950s” and offers a series of contemporary examples to support this. Reflections on exactly what it means—and meant—for something to be of the 1950s are either downplayed or absent altogether, which is a great shame. It comes as little surprise when Terence Brown, a leading critic of Anglo-Irish literature, writes in his afterword that:

What was something of a shock to me […] as I read this collection, was how little I had known about any of these [things] when they were actually taking place, although when the decade ended I had reached the advanced age of 16 and was already an A-Level student of English literature […]

None of us really know in full the times in which we’re living—how could we?—and of course retrospect affords us a more complete picture. Brown’s point is a valid one, but it almost comes to sound like something of a slight to the collection when he reiterates it twice more.

Despite these problems, and alongside Kilroy’s memoir, Eoin O’Brien’s contribution is the stellar exception. It is not too much to state that “The Baggotonian Movement: Nevill Johnson (1911–1999)” is an essay to be cherished. Written with the delicate precision of an outsider who was even at the time ready to remember the things that he was seeing, the piece recalls the artists, writers, and bohemian drifters who used to gather in “Baggotonia”, the streets of Dublin linking the Grand Canal, Trinity College, and St Stephen’s Green. In spirit the place shares much in common with contemporary artists’ colonies in London—in Fitzrovia before the war, and the other side of Oxford Street, in Soho proper, during the war and throughout the 1950s. Though in the early 1950s O’Brien was a dental student, he went on to write literary books—among them The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett’s Ireland (1986)—and even during these early years his free time was spent in the bookshops and pubs of Baggotonia. In and out of these establishments wandered artists, writers, and musicians who all had ties to the district. Among the scores whom O’Brien names are Beckett, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague, Flann O’Brien, Benedict Kiely, J. P. Donleavy, Miche√°l MacLiamm√≥ir, co-founder of the Gate Theatre, and Anne Yeats, daughter of W.B.. In the evenings after songs and conversations in the pubs there was subterranean misbehaviour in the Catacombs, a sort of home-made nightclub in the basement of one of Dublin’s famous Georgian houses.

The focus of O’Brien’s essay is on Nevill Johnson, an artist born in middle-class Buxton, who moved first to Belfast in 1935, and then to Dublin in 1949, where he spent five years. Quoting from Johnson’s beautifully written autobiography The Other Side of Six (1983), O’Brien recaptures Dublin and these years as Johnson himself saw them:

Johnson’s view of Dublin did not deny the eccentricities of its people, the peculiarities of their behaviour, the hypocrisy of their beliefs, rather he saw the city for what it was and loved it all the more deeply: “Through its people [Johnson wrote], thronged as they were by dogma and in thrall to the hereafter, ran a maverick undertow; these folk laughed and winked like boys behind Godmaster’s back. Wit and a casual intelligence was the key to this society; today was fine – and tomorrow would be very welcome.”

O’Brien’s is the only illustrated essay in the collection, featuring fine colour reproductions of some of Johnson’s paintings. (Notably, too, it is the only essay to engage in any sustained sense with the visual cultures of the 1950s at all.) In 1952 Johnson began taking photographs of people and places in Dublin, some of which would later appear in The Beckett Country. They are brilliant, candid images, “more valuable,” according to O’Brien, “than any of the many notable photographic archives […] simply because in Johnson’s case the photographer’s eye is that of a painter.” They remind us, too, that it was in Ireland a decade later that the celebrated photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of finding “fugitive moments”. We could wish for more fugitive moments with Beautiful Strangers, but O’Brien’s essay is recompense enough.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is Executive Editor at the Oxonian Review.