AMERICA HIBERNICA: Symbolism, Pathos, and a Pint of Plain

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Lordmayor Butler and JFK

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Today sees the start of a series of events to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland. There has been a flurry of media interest as eye witnesses relive their memories of the visit in rosy tones, ignoring the faults and extolling the virtues of a veritable giant of popular culture. It brought to mind the above photograph which has remained in a family album in the attic for many years and which I now present. The smiling gentleman seated on the left, whose hand the young senator is warmly shaking, happens to be a relation of mine. I never met him as he died well before my time yet his name crops up once in a while in fireside conversations about the old days. He was Alderman Bernard Butler, an elected member of Dáil Éireann and once Lord Mayor of Dublin. It is in this latter role that he appears in the photo above, on an official trip to America, in 1954, to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in the New World, among the Irish-American elite. JFK is a new buck, the recently-elected Massachusetts senator, and the moment captured is a necessary part of political protocol – the paying of respect towards a representative of the ‘old country’. Jackie Kennedy was also present and appears in a few photos, exuding, along with her husband, a vibrant glamour unmatched by the august assembly. Except perhaps for Uncle Bernard who seems an avuncular prototype for JFK in charisma. A different charisma: the one is wisdom and experience, the other is confidence and youth.

When I first saw this photo as a child I took a certain satisfaction in the closeness of history, as though for an instant JFK had stepped down from the pedestal of myth and walked in the door of a familiar reality. For, you see, in Ireland – poor, slighted, hopelessly aspiring Ireland – JFK became something of a secular saint, even before his secular martyrdom. Catholics prayed novenas of gratitude to the God of political opportunity for placing ‘one of our own’ upon the throne of the empire of democracy. JFK’s privilege and many sins were overlooked to concentrate on the prodigal son returned to pay homage to his emigrant roots. The fiftieth anniversary of his 1963 visit to Ireland is proof of the undying attraction of reflected power. The colourful pageantry and national pride, once experienced, set the tone for future presidential visits. When Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama set foot in Ireland, a personalized ancestral tour, replete with symbolism, pathos, and a pint of plain, if not a little irony, became de rigeur. Smart, questioning, educated pillars of the community and morally robust men of faith checked their suspicions at the door, and voted instead for the populism and glamour of the stars and stripes.

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QUIS SEPARABIT?

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1920s St Patrick’s Day Greeting Card (Click on image to enlarge)

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I found this old greeting card in the attic recently. It comes from post-partition (1922) Ireland and bewails the ‘dismemberment of St Patrick’s Island.’ As we all know St Patrick is the national saint of Ireland. Even if nowadays we might be tempted to associate the old snake banisher with stout and whiskey and raucous parades, he is usually accredited as an early proselytiser of Christianity on the rain-soaked, windswept ‘pagan’ isle of  Hibernia. Of course, he was neither a Catholic nor a Protestant, being active some time in the fifth century. However he is fundamental to the traditions of both sects. Armagh, in present-day Northern Ireland, is today the primary seat of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Ireland and both cathedrals in the town are named after Patrick. He has been claimed, invoked, his image brandished, and his myth massaged by various religious and political factions from soon after his death right up to recent times. Control of the symbols and tradition of St Patrick and his legacy became a cornerstone of those who wished to claim ownership over the island of Ireland. So much so that it became difficult to separate the historical and the mythic Patricks. And yet, as a symbol of post-pagan, ecclesiastical, God-fearing Ireland, the manner in which his identity has been requisitionned for political kudos reveals some of the irony and tragedy of a history of tribal conflicts on a sod of land on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Most modern scholars support the concept that there were in fact two Patricks, whose personalities and activities have been melted mythologically into one super Patrick. Neither Patrick was born in Ireland. The first was Palladius, a Roman deacon, apparantly sent to Ireland by Celestine I to curb the spread of the doctrine of Pelagianism (which contended that there was no original sin – his success in that matter, at least in certain areas, perhaps best indicated by the later notion of Catholic guilt). The second Patrick was born in Banwen, in  South Wales. According to legend, he was captured by Irish pirates when he was sixteen and served as a slave for several years. He managed to escape but was called through divine intervention to return to the land of his pagan captors and convert the poor devils to Christianity (or perhaps he suffered from Stockholm Syndrome).

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According to the Annals of the Four Masters, an early-modern compendium of Irish history, after Patrick’s death, there was a fight over ownership of his sacred corpse – the Battle for the Body of St. Patrick. It is tempting to see a mythic symmetry with more contemporary events on the island of Ireland. In the legend, the Uí Néill and the Oirghialla clans wanted to bring the body to Armagh while the Ulaid wanted to keep it on their territory. God intervened halting the progress of the corpse-movers by swelling the waters of a river and blocking their path. Peace terms were reached and then, as if by a miracle, both parties perceived that they had possession of the body and continued upon their ways. The Good Friday (or  Belfast) Agreement and the ensuing pageantry and politics which have thankfully contributed to a more peaceful island might find no better mythic representation than the Battle for the Body of St. Patrick.

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St. Patrick thus is an integral part of both Catholic and Protestant traditions in Ireland, and each sect has used the saintly mythico-historical character to support their claims to represent the Ur-spirit of the island.  While the Republican tradition bemoaned the separation of St. Patrick’s island expressed in terms manifest in the political postcard above, the British or Protestant tradition’s emblematic use of Ireland’s saint may be seen in the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick, a chivalric honour which ceased to exist de facto since soon after the independence of the southern portion of the island.  The order was instituted by George III in 1783, and while never officially disbanded, has not been conferred since 1936. The last surviving knight of the order, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, died in 1974. There is surely a very Irish poetry in historical irony, and the motto of an order which was tacitly and politically ‘dis-honoured’ following the above mentioned ‘dismemberment of St. Patrick’s island’ is “Quis Separabit?” or “Who Shall Separate Us?” While the motto is a reference to Romans 8:35, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”, in the Irish context, the underlying sentiment might better be expressed:  “Who Shall Separate Us from Ourselves?”.  The answer, of course,  is one which holds true for much of the period of our internecine strife: Ourselves (or as we might say in Irish: Sinn Féin’).

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And, by the way, St. Patrick’s colour is not green but blue, and there were never any snakes in Ireland to banish.

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QUIS SEPARABIT?

QUIS SEPARABIT?

SWASTIKAS AND BEDLINEN

Swastika Laundries

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This rather striking advertisement comes from a 1953 guidebook to the capital of the new Irish Republic. This was the year in which the government instigated what it envisaged would be an annual celebration of all things Hibernian, Celtic, and, by extension, non-British. Called ‘An Tóstal, which can variously be translated as “Pageant”, “Display”, “Muster” and “Array”, its full meaning is rather grandiosely expressed as ‘the welcome which a great motherland extends to her children, and her friends from overseas, inviting them to her shores, and offering them, while they are with her, a round of festivities for their entertainment and delight… This year, for three weeks, Ireland will be “AT HOME”, not only to her exiled sons and daughters, but to her friends from all over the world. In April, when the countryside, awakened from its winter slumbers, is alive with all the magic of an Irish Spring, the people of Ireland, remembering that they, too, have just emerged from the long slumber of captivity, plan to hold “open house,” and to entertain their friends and visitors with a carnival of spectacle and gaiety.” For those who remember An Tostal, a public relations exposition of a new, economically-challenged republic, the recently established and all too similar ‘The Gathering is a symbolic milestone, the proof of the dire financial straits of post Celtic Tiger Ireland.

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What is the significance of the advertisement of a once successful and now defunct Dublin laundry company? Let’s be clear, in 1912, when John W Brittain decided to use that ancient Indic symbol of auspiciousness as his laundry’s company logo, he could have had no idea that the Nazi Party would later imbue it with so much inauspiciousness.[1] Nowadays however, for the casual Dubliner of a certain age, who recalls the large white swastika on the laundry chimney in Ballsbridge , the irony of hindsight will doubtless reveal a semiotic triangle linking Irish independence, which achieved fruition only in the 1949 republic, Irish neutrality in World War II, the culminating act of which came when An Taoiseach Eamon DeValera and An tUachtarain Douglas Hyde diplomatically and dramatically expressed the Irish Free State’s condolences to the German Embassy on the death of Hitler, and the revelations of the state-sanctioned Magdalene laundries in the social exclusion and punishment of those unfortunate women whose moral behaviour failed to meet the exacting standards of Celtic nation-building. The ancient bards and poets who are often invoked by governments old and new as the cradle of the Celtic spirit would find ample inspiration in the spectacle of the nation’s female unclean, under the pious watch of a patriarchal Church, washing the dirty linen of the establishment’s righteous as expiation for their sins.

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The Dantean contrapasso whose jurisdiction lay beyond the banks of the Irish Styx would extend to many facets of life, moral, political, and economic. Only last month, those who deserted from the Irish Army following the outbreak of World War II in order to fight in the British Army against Fascist Germany, were afforded a long-denied pardon. It was in effect a public renunciation of Order 362, introduced under the terms of Ireland’s Emergency powers on August 8th 1945. Oscar Traynor, Minister of Defence, in introducing what became known as the Starvation Orderreferred to those who had fought against Hitler in British employ when that avenue was barred by Irish neutrality, as being ‘worthy of very little consideration.’ As David Blake Knox comments:

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“It was, in some ways, a characteristically Irish solution to an Irish problem – its political pragmatism buried under layers of sanctimonious rhetoric. However, the penalties that were imposed on Army deserters were real, harsh, and long-lasting: they were to forfeit all pay and allowances they had gained while in the defence forces; they were to lose their rights to any pensions earned through that service; they were to lose their entitlement to any future unemployment benefits; and, for seven years, they could not be considered for any form of employment that received public funding.”

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As the revelations of 2009’s Ryan Report led to considerable soul-searching (if not judicial sanctions) about the role of the Church in Irish life, the pardon of the World War II deserters, has allowed a more open debate about the role of neutrality in the formation of Irish independence. Unfortunately, while there was little sympathy for the goals of German National Socialism in Ireland, it was both from official bodies, of the political and religious persuasion, and from the IRA, that symbolic and real acts of anti-Britishness strayed into the realm of supping with the devil on the Rhine. Even if we discount as ‘bad apples’ or political opportunists, people such as the far from commendable Charles Bewley, Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary in Berlin, his successor William Warnock, IRA leaders such as Sean Russell and James O’Donovan, or the Fine Gael TD Oliver J Flanagan (whose first utterances as a newly-elected member of parliament in 1943 included a diatribe against the Jews, ‘who crucified Our Saviour nineteen hundred years ago, and who are crucifying us every day in the week’), there is a clear indication in statements and policy from members of the Church and political establishment, that Ireland’s independence was isolationist, God-fearing, often unsympathetic towards persecuted minorities, anti-Bolshevik, and anti-modern. And I don’t need to mention the prominent Nazis who found carefree sanctuary in Ireland after the war.

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Whatever sovereign bounty was gained from riling the incandescent Churchill would always have to pay a price in the history books later. This is even alluded to in the Swastika Laundry’s advertisement. “Visitors to Dublin will doubtless be surprised to see this symbol on our smart Laundry Vans…” Indeed they were. My Polish father, who arrived in Dublin in 1948 after fighting in the Second World War and losing his homeland, was more than a little surprised when Dubliners asked him, ‘as a neutral observer’, if the atrocities of the Germans were real, or if they had been part-invented or exaggerated by the Brits for propaganda purposes.

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[1] Swastikas or swastika-like symbols have been found across a wide global area, in some instances in forms which may pre-date the Indus Valley examples e.g. the neolithic Vinča culture. The term ‘swastika’ though is Sanskrit, composed of su- meaning “good, well” and asti “to be” and the suffix -ka (“soul”). It refers to any auspicious mark or object. A Leprechaun’s lucky charms thus might constitute an Irish swastika.

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This Is Dublin, Official Guide, issued by authority of the CORPORATION OF THE CITY OF DUBLIN, The Irish and Overseas Publishing Co. Ltd., 1953.

Blake Knox, David, Suddenly While Abroad, Hitler’s Irish Slaves, New Island, 2012

Leach, Daniel, “Fugitive Ireland: European Minority Nationalists and Irish Political Asylum, 1937-2008”, Four Courts Press, 2009.

O’Shannon, Cathal, Hidden History: Ireland’s Nazis”, first broadcast by RTE1, 09/01/2007