Little Brughas and Cosgraves, miniature Costelloes and Briscoes, sat side by side in my Jesuit prep school at Gonzaga College—here a Mulcahy, there a MacDonagh, and everywhere an impartial/pro-imperial Mathews—in the jubilee year of the 1916 Rising, where, with the help of truly revolutionary audio-visual aids (quarter-inch tape and slide-projectors), they studied a negotiated chronicle of the entire national story, from the fall of the Fianna to the rise of the Fenians, the declension of a recurrent martyrology which stopped short at precisely the point in the childhood of the twentieth century when their grandfathers and granduncles had lost the plot and started killing each other instead of their immemorial adversaries.
Not that the small and smelly posterity of the founding fathers needed formal notice, either from the settled culture or from the set curriculum, of deep family divisions and their dynastic stamina, as the fiftieth anniversary of Easter Week approached, and a fancy-dress fiesta, part-carnival and part-crusade, travestied the twenty-six counties in a carefully kettled riot of High Masses, low volleys, and a broad appropriation of the Christian Passion Narratives as the primer of Irish irredentism. (Nothing of the sort had been seen in the state since John F. Kennedy went without sex for three whole days during his triumphal tour of the truncated Republic, in what had been a 1963 dress-rehearsal of Cásca na hEireann.) The bad blood between the emerging bourgeois houses, which were otherwise identical in their liquidity, their postal codes and their cocktail cabinets, was no more novel and newsworthy in itself than the gravelled drives or the tradesmen’s entrances of the centrally-heated homes where the surviving veterans deteriorated amongst their guerrilla reliquaries, their nebulisers, and the first colony of Filipina chaperones to arrive in South Dublin.
That much was basic and binary; and, if it was ultimately bogus as well, disguising a contented mutuality behind the antagonistic masks of the men who had fought each other fifty years before, it served admirably for three generations to camouflage the economic piracy of a unitary class behind the ideological privateering of apparent partisans, the lasting alliance beneath the trivial affiliations. The Greek and Latin patina that the Jesuit Fathers put on the Christian Brother’s seed and breed in Clongowes and the Crescent in the years since the Civil War was a tactical part of the same strategy of stealthy cultural assimilation: gentrify the gun and vindicate the violence, forgive with a vengeance, but mute the demographic spectacle of the majority share-holders’ monopoly on surplus capital by parading the wealthy phantom opponents as the cultic trophies of a cunning metaphysical decoy to distract the wholly destitute, who were insensitively plentiful across the country throughout the period.
Cathal Brugha’s son, by way of example, wouldn’t ordinarily be spotted chin-wagging cheerfully with W.T. Cosgrave’s boy after outdoor Benediction on Sports Day, parents’ three-legged race or no parents’ three-legged race, for neither middle-aged, middle-class magnate could quite abdicate the mystique of his inherited victimhood, the pathos of his patrimony, or the operatic, OK Corral atrocities at the dark root of their red-brick reticence, although both parliamentary patricians were the equal beneficiaries of the same constitutional settlement that had consolidated a hundred, hugger-mugger clans as the new dominant class. Even Gonzaga’s Ignatian motto Semper Et Ubique Fidelis (the template, as it happens, for Himmler’s later Loyalty is My Honour) admonished the wavering. Only chancers chanced their arm at the feminine wiles of speak-soft reconcilement, and the hands that shook in the shaking of hands at services and sacraments were probably Parkinsonian. Equality of disdain had more dignity; that, and implacable courtesy toward the irreplaceable rival, the shadow-self, the criminal sibling, who would wait until the next millennium to be named in the OED, in a comical composite diminutive, as a frenemy.
It was perfectly natural, on the other hand (or fist), for General Mulcahy to reminisce with the ex-Taoiseach John A. Costello in the school gymnasium at the little light operas that the senior classes staged, for the latter would have known many of the principal political players, seventy-seven in all, whom the former had executed in a heated historical context, which, although early days yet, it was the eventual vocation of a new cadre of non-partisan Anglophone annalists at Peterhouse, Cambridge, to moderate and magnify; and they had so much grief and grievance in common, the two venerable silhouettes at the wooden horse in the college hall, the one as thin as Laurel and the other as fat as Hardy, that I sometimes wondered if their wives ever felt excluded from the stern joy of warriors sharing the spoils, like the tired spouses of talkative Spitfire pilots over ships’ decanters in the Royal Irish Yacht club, just as I wonder now, fifty years later, how the young scholastics from the priests’ house, where the community lived in a communist economy, so successfully predicted future homosexuals when they cast ten and eleven year olds in the female roles, rouging the right two cheeks in any class of thirty pre-pubertal boys: those freckled Os and Macs who would crawl out of a collapsed cultural rugby scrum and its dismal masculine mythology to strut and swagger at a Gay Pride pageant in the spiral streets of San Francisco twenty years later.
My own genealogy was vigorously mongrel, the majority strain in Ireland from the pre-Celtic Firbolgs to the Catholic bourgeoisie of the new Ascendancy, where I was a complicit cadet member of the aspirational arrivistes. Most of my mother’s people had been working-class Papists from Queenstown, Cobh, who enlisted in the Royal Navy as able-bodied seamen (one of them, an Archdeacon, drowned at Jutland a month after the GPO and is buried there), although her uncle Seamus, from whom I first heard the oriental term plenipotentiary in a veranda after a funeral, had sat for North Cork in the second Dáil and voted against the Treaty in a ruminative Republican homily that I had partly memorised in the hope of the handsel of a Kennedy half-dollar. It was worth seven and six at the time in our animal coinage, and could buy many cordite caps for my imitation revolver.
My poor parents were always terrified that his own eventual interment might provoke a Provo guard of honour at the graveside, all blinkers and balaclavas, like his émigré brother Michael, who was a bit of a bandit over in America, a hornet in the amber of the ex-pat’s slow-to-stop time-warp; but it was the elongated, El Greco figure of Eamon De Valera, sightless and stricken, who attended the requiem mass on the lurching arm of his aide-de- camp, and he was as ghastly an apparition in the Marian transept of the church as he had been when I first met him in the papal nuncio’s railway-carriage at Kilcoole in County Wicklow, a stalactite in spectacles amongst cruciform fretwork panelling from the Eucharistic Congress, so that all the Irish I could muster in that slow-motion moment of disembowelment was a request for his authorisation to go to the toilet.
Inevitably, my dad, whose roots were Redmondite, delighted in this detail over Beefeater’s gin and Schweppes tonic, as would my ancient uncle, a British Army chaplain at both battles of the Somme who wore a plastic poppy defiantly inside his Monkstown parish presbytery all day long at Armistice, and refused to the lethal last to celebrate the shortened, Second Council Eucharist in English; but my good godfather, who was a patrino and not a padrone, was mortified, for it was he who had spearheaded this strange commemoration, at a wind-swept shingle beach, of guns smuggled by Protestants to their social inferiors on a posh yacht in the year of the Great War between the three grandchildren of Queen Victoria, the Emperor, the Tsar, and the Kaiser.
This lovely man, who laughed like the Dalai Lama, had married, once upon a time, before breakfast in Westland Row, travelled by steam engine to Dingle town, by horse and cart to Dunquin harbour, and across out of Ireland altogether by a tipsily bucking currach into the Great Blasket, to honeymoon there, amongst rabbit-droppings and the roar of the North Atlantic ocean, for a full fortnight with Maureen McDermott, a doctoral student of Douglas Hyde’s (she called him Duggie) and a good foot taller than her husband, in the house beside the home where a pipe-smoking storyteller called Peig Sayers was entertaining a couple of clipped Cambridge Marxists who were too courteous to tell her they were anthropologists with a purpose and a publisher’s contract.
Like their Palestinian counterparts, the last of the islanders brought with them as they left for Springfield, Massachusetts, material tokens of their title deeds to the very scarcity they were forever forfeiting; and the present absentees of an era of continuous economic cleansing (half of all those born into Winterland since 1831 have fled it on foot), may also hold the replica keys to much of the real estate of Ireland, but they do not hold the locks, let alone the swipe cards or the sensor lights or the surveillance cameras.
If 60% of the properties in Corca Dhuibhne were vacant on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in December 2011, when the last census was taken, that is not because the absentee landlords of the new dispensation were reciting a Jacobite rosary in the clustered Catholic parishes of a largely priestless diocese in penal Munster, but because the owners of these holiday homes, the residual legatees of the rebels who rose up, were opening their electronic gates remotely and reluctantly in the boulevards of South Dublin to scribble under porch-light Not Applicable or Simply Spiritual in the category marked Religion on the mandatory form that some student fellow in an anorak or a hoodie, even, had produced when the beam was broken, the alarm went off, and a non-shedding Shih Tzu snarled behind the stained glass window.
The south-facing secondaires along the eroded west coast of the country prefer, of course, a more nuanced affirmation of their standing nowadays. A concrete lattice fence, incongruous Pampas grass or Doric portico, a sad attempt in a paleolithic landscape at a suburban lawn, all of these proclaim the recidivist native who has never heard of Habitat and thematised interiors, while a wilderness of fuschia and a minutely reconstructed dry stone wall with a nineteenth century scythe propped prettily against it, signal the smart oligarchy, the current courtiers of the Three Louis’s—Louis Le Brocquy, Louis Mulcahy and Louis Vuitton—whose shorthand cipher for the new republic on their double-fronted stationery is the acronym ROI, the French word for a monarch of all (s)he surveys.
The 1916 insurrectionaries (a jubilee term that replaced the use of Volunteers in much the manner that itinerants was ousting tinkers in the same euphemistic period) failed in their bid to hold the General Post Office, but their hereditary inheritors, none of whom would ever open a post-office account or stamp their own envelopes, barricaded themselves in the banks, which are redoubtable defences with ingenious loop-holes in the masonry. The artisans and civil servants had seized several symbolic strongholds (biscuit factories, a park with a duck pond, and canal bank lock-gates), but their children and their children’s children made a shrewder sortie. They took the King’s Inns and the Incorporated Law Society, the medical faculties in the university colleges, the chambers of commerce and the public utilities, the engineering contracts and the private connections, the gentlemen’s clubs, the Georgian squares, the prestige streets on the new Monopoly board that climaxed, to my mother’s misery, on the road at right angles to the one we lived on.
The inadvertent arson of the records’ office in the Custom House in the preliminary skirmishing of a final rift in the rebel ranks (five years after Easter week had morphed into Holy Week, if not into the Triduum itself) might even have endorsed a reflex sense of solemn entitlement on both fratricidal sides; for the documentation which showed that the indigent lot of us were half a hundred years from cholera and the poorhouse sank out of sight in a blizzard of sooty snow between the two canals of the capital, the Grand and the Royal, as the files went up in flames. That pillar of cloud signified, in its way, a kind of carte blanche for the new proprietors in the next cycle of an eternal recurrence of resentment and desire.
When my daughter was awarded her parchment to practice as a solicitor in a ceremony at Blackhall Place two years ago, on the far side of the river that still divides Dublin, the keynote speaker turned out to be a Sinn Féin deputy with a Donegal accent, and there was a discreet restiveness in the room (which was a deconsecrated chapel), an infinitesimal rustling as he spoke, like the low- frequency stirring of a swarm of crickets on the cusp of the chrysalis by which the little species mutates ferociously into a plague of locusts.
It brought me back, in a weird wormhole, to my own boyhood, to an afternoon spent listening to long Latin speeches at a commencement in the Examination Hall of Trinity College, where a family member of mine who would never have dared set foot in those forbidden grounds while still a Catholic undergraduate at UCD’s Earlsfort Terrace in the early thirties, was now being conferred with an honorary academic degree, alongside an odd-looking Asian called U Thant, and an important Irish pacifist who had made a strong impression on the non- aligned nations of the world, our missionary turf, at an all-night session of a UN conference.
This was Frank Aiken, whose violet autograph I wanted to add to those of Charlie Chaplin, Padraic Colum, Bunny Carr, and a British Legion P.O.W. on a walking-frame in the Stephen’s Green Club who painted seascapes by numbers and had killed a Japanese officer, but not by beheading, and kept his steel Samurai sword over a marble mantelpiece, where you would expect instead to see a concave mirror that made hobbits of the household. I had seen this laureate in blurred black-and-white, standing at the rostrum in the General Assembly, mouthing inaudibly under his moustache, because the TV footage was a silent film with soft commentary from an unseen anchor in the studios of Telefís Éireann. I couldn’t tell if he was a potentiary or a plenipotentiary, but he was surely a personage, in his red professorial robes, with the pump-action Latin accolade from the long-haired college rhetor in the pulpit beside the podium. After all, during the War of Independence, he had invented putting petrol into potato sprayers, and using them then, with a penny box of Maguire and Peterson safety-matches, to crack the windowpanes and incinerate policemen in their sand-bagged dormitory barracks.
Applause rose up around him, like a flock of startled doves, as he passed between the indignant portraits of loyalist provosts who would have quartered him at Tyburn between an Augustan satire and a Horatian ode, and out into the cobblestoned chic of Front Square for the press-corps’ photographs under wheeling seagulls and the tang of breweries; and the sound of that tentative ovation—more truce than treaty, more ceasefire than surrender—was the very same twitching of rock pigeons, half a century later, as the strange Sinn Féin intruder with the Donegal accent began the conclusion of his oration on the lawful and the legal to the junior notaries in the chapel of the Law Society.
Neither the listeners’ wariness, nor the welcome which disguised it, had faltered for a moment on either occasion. There was simply too much at stake for that sort of sentimentality. Because the instant of reciprocity, the recognition of one party by the other, of the incoming by the outgoing, of the have-not by the have-been, which concealed itself in the protocols of civil etiquette, meant more than the honest enmity of hostile forces bent on straightforward, manly annihilation of the Other. It signified instead the intricate, self-harming hospitality of conflicting factions in a mimetic monoculture which cannot ultimately hide the fundamental lack of a difference that makes the difference, at source, between their otherwise dissimilar twin identities; because, behind the perfume and the pedigree of all politics, high-church or low-church, left- wing or right-wing, military or mufti, there is always the ancestral slipstream of Caesar’s wife: a residual odour of aboriginal violence, a whiff of the morgue. For the victor, of course, the morgue will be rapidly refurbished as a mortuary chapel, if not as a cenotaph, the very whitest of sepulchres, with flowers to fumigate foulness, a glittering Egyptian needle at the nexus of all homelands, and all holy lands too. For the victim, there’s a wooden spoon, it seems, but a wooden spoon with the potential to alchemise as silver, since the supernatural grace of a grudge ensures that its sediments harden, like a form of fossil fuel, through endurance and duration, compression and gravity, into igneous elements, flammable and explosive, when the victim will reconvene, in the next copycat cycle of secular history, more march than progress, as the sanctified victimiser.
When I went to university, I was taught by some of the tenured radicals to call this process positivist and/or dialectical, the latter term a mantra for poor Hegel, who worshipped the Antichrist in Napoleon Bonaparte; and they had a point, my mentors, even if the point was, from a forensic-pathologist’s perspective, a blunt instrument. More moderate members of the Arts Faculty liked to encourage what they styled a Whig version of modernity, an incremental, rather than a combative, chronicle of our inevitable perfectibility; and they had a point as well, one with its own cruel cutting edge, as it turned out. The mild-mannered Jesuit priest who tried to teach those small-scale, second-generation, grandsons of the founding fathers in the octave of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966, preferred to speak of history as His Story, the male Lord’s gradual and unfolding eschaton, a serial human narrative which the Trinity devours as an unputdownable page-turn, three persons thirsting for the next instalment at each cliff-hanging close of chapter. If this be the case, the Triune God has a weakness for penny dreadfuls and pulp fiction, or, in the French vernacular sense of the word histoire, for adulterous affairs and the tradition of betrayal.
What is good enough for God is surely good enough for me, and I too celebrate the precarious ordeal of the opulent world. Truly, it is very precious. Being well is wonderful, and well-being even more so; and I am, after all, a senescent baby-boomer, a member of the most sated (but still, of course, dissatisfied) generation in the entirety of human history. But, if I’m a knave, I’m not as much a fool as I had hoped to be. I see the blood-red threads of a collective psychosis in the split stitch of the polity in which I’m a privileged elder, who is not known to the police. I may have difficulties with Trinitarian thinking of all sorts, whether it be the Athanasian or the Marxist or the Freudian variety of this odd ternary mania, those necessary and ingenious theoretical makeshifts; but I can discern the transcultural universality of the pink triangle, the sign of the scapegoat, the body bag in the fluttering flag, the successful violence we call peace and quiet in the community; and, although I failed general mathematics in the Matriculation forty years ago (I was, of course, compensated), when it comes to the pink triangle, the person who wrote this paper is as accomplished a geometer as the person who is reading it now.