Welcome everyone. My name’s Nick Larter. What follows in the next 45 minutes will be a personal survey of the topic it’s not intended to be an exhaustive one. I’m going to focus on some of the books and people who have interested me.
This talk is in three parts. Firstly I’ll look at some fiction that was written in the mid-to-late 19th century: the Fenian period one might say, then I’ll discuss the very different fates of four of the nationalists who were caught up in the turbulent period between 1916 and 1923. In part two I’ll look briefly at three of them: Darrell Figgis, Ella Young and James Stephens. In part three, I’ll look in more detail at Francis Stuart, one of my favourite writers and one of the most complex characters from the period.
I’m not making a full PowerPoint presentation. I’ll talk from my script, and I’ll read you a few excerpts from some of the works I’ll mention and from some of the biographies that have been written about the people in question. But I do have a few pictures of the people I’m going to talk about, as it’s nice to be able to put face to name.
The script of this talk is now available on my blog.
I don’t have time to tell a detailed history of Ireland from the late 19th to early 20th century, but for anyone unfamiliar with it, I’ll give you a few quick pointers to hang on to:-
In the mid-19th century, various Fenian (Fianna – soldiers of Irish legend) organisations sought to restore Irish independence from the UK, through revolution. By the 1880’s their influence was waning, partly due to the good prospects at Westminster for an Irish home rule bill. But though passed in the Commons, this bill was scotched by the House of Lords.
In the decades that followed, the nationalist politicking was underpinned by a vibrant rediscovery of Irish culture – a loose association of movements in literature, theatre and so forth, collectively known as the Celtic Revival. The political importance was that by bringing to the fore and celebrating Irish cultural difference, one strengthened the arguments for breaking from the UK. For a period, any would-be nationalist politician who wanted to get on, had to have a volume of folktales or something similar on his or her resumé as a calling card.
In 1916 the Easter Rising occurred. It was not much supported by the Irish people at the time, but that soon changed on foot of the witless and heavy handed way the aftermath was handled by the British.
As a result, the War of Independence occurred from 1919-21 and following the treaty, in December 1921, partition occurred. A Civil War then ran on between pro and anti treaty forces until 1923, when the anti-treaty forces surrendered. Under the terms of partition, Ireland became a free state, still technically under British legislation until the statue of Westminster in 1931. Ireland remained a free state until 1937, at which point the constitution was ratified, Douglas Hyde becoming the first president of the new Republic, in 1938.
So let’s go back to 1875 and some engineering history. John Holland, born in Liscannor Co. Clare in 1840 submitted his first submarine plans to the US Navy in 1875. They were rejected. Holland continued to work on his submarines under the funding of the Fenian movement. In 1881, the Fenian Ram was completed. To this day, the submarine remains the only major weapons system to have been initially developed outside of a state’s military industrial machinery.
Shortly after delivering the Ram, Holland fell out with the Fenians in a dispute over money, but the US was finally taking notice. As a result, The Electric Boat Company was founded by Isaac Rice in 1899 to build Holland’s designs for the US Navy. The company still exists today as General Dynamics Electric Boat.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way to Tom Greer, an Irish surgeon, living in England, who in 1885 wrote his science fiction novel, A Modern Daedalus.
Greer’s opening words are as follows:-
In the book, Greer’s protagonist Jack O’Halloran, like a steampunk Tony Stark, builds a flying suit. After flirtations with selling out to the British military, nationalism takes over, flying suited republicans defeat the British, and Ireland is freed.
There’s no direct evidence that Greer knew of Holland’s endeavours, but they are implied by his opening words and the circumstantial evidence, the novel appearing four years after the Fenian Ram, is compelling. For a long time I wondered if I was the only person to have made the connection, but I was very pleased to see that Jack Fennell independently made the same leap in his book on Irish SF.
In this excerpt, Jack O’Halloran is in negotiations with the British Home Secretary:-
OK, so let’s move on to the period 1916 – 23.
Darrell Figgis was typical of the young Irish idealists of the early 20th century. A dandy from the well-to-do Dublin suburb of Rathmines, he moved west, learnt Irish and produced his calling card: in his case, not a volume of Celtic folklore, but rather, a biography of George Russell.
Russell, often known by his occult name of AE, was one of the titans of the Celtic Revival. He was well known for going out and communing with the fairy folk in the hills of Connacht, a habit that was immortalised in the tone poem In the Faery Hills by Anglo-Irish composer Sir Arnold Bax, who once took up Russell’s invitation to accompany him.
So writing that work unlocked all the right doors for Darrell and come 1914, we find him running guns. As a result he’s in jail during the Easter Rising itself, but in the years after, he’s a prominent figure interpreting Pearse’s manifesto for the masses, paving the way for the War of Independence.
At some point however, he falls out with the IRA and in response pens a satirical fantasy novel The Return of the Hero set in classical times, lampooning the IRA leadership.
Humiliated in public when his enemies send a gang after him to shave off half his beard, he moves to London in the early nineteen-twenties. Disillusioned, he commits suicide there, in 1924.
Ella Young was a protégé of George Russell – she was one of his ‘singing birds.’ Through this relationship she became friends with Padraig Pearse and the darling of nationalism and muse of W.B. Yeats, Maud Gonne.
Both impacted Young’s life in the decades ahead. Gonne illustrated Young’s two volumes of ‘Celtic Wonder Tales’ for children, published in 1909 and 1910. In the case of Pearse, the friendship led to Young playing an active role smuggling guns and ammunition to nationalist forces over a period of nearly 20 years.
Her Biographer, Rose Murphy writes:-
In the late 1920’s Ella Young emigrated to the United States. There, she wrote more volumes of Celtic legend retold for children and an original Celtic fantasy novel, The Unicorn with Silver Shoes, illus. Robert Lawson (1932)
She held a chair in Irish Myth and Lore at the University of California, Berkeley for seven years and died in retirement at Oceano in California in 1956.
By the time of the Easter Rising James Stephens, a protestant and staunch nationalist had, as his contribution to the literary revival, produced a volume of Irish fairytales and two fairy-related novels: The Crock of Gold (1912) and The Demi-Gods (1914). He was not directly involved in the Easter Rising, but kept a diary of it. Here’s an excerpt.
What that excerpt demonstrates is how high up in the nationalist circles Stephens moved at the time. By the time of the Rising, Stephens had become acknowledged as perhaps the greatest ever scholar of Irish Legend. So It’s no surprise that he conceived a plan to retell all of the main story cycles, in novel form. But history overtook him, and managed to produced just two volumes, Deirdre (1923) and In the Land of Youth (1924).
Here’s an excerpt from Deirdre (the culmination of her fateful encounter with Naoise), which showcases his breathtaking skill as a writer:-
To my mind, Stephens’ Deirdre is the greatest Irish fantasy novel of all time. James Joyce was so taken by it, that he engaged Stephens to finish Finnegan’s Wake for him, if he – Joyce – should die before completing it.
Today, Stephens is almost forgotten, outside of our airports, where copies of The Crock of Gold lurk, waiting to be snapped up a certain kind of tourist, on their way home. Crock encapsulates part of the reason for his fall; the perceived cod-Oirishery of it, came to be seen, a la Darby O’Gill, as an insult to a would-be modern, forward-looking independent state.
In reality of course, The Crock of Gold is nothing of the sort; it’s a magnificent attempt to write the ultimate fantasy tale of the passing of the old order to the new; of the magic going away. Ultimately it fails, just as the faerie instauration fails, because even today people still cannot see beyond the leprechauns. But it is an heroic failure of the highest order.
As for the rest of the reason for Stephens’ fall, like so many other protestants, he came to feel marginalised and ultimately excluded by the profoundly Catholic character in which Pearse and his supporters clothed the Rising and its aftermath. In questionable health and with a young family to support, Stephens decamped to England in 1925, eventually compounding his ‘treachery’ by going to work for the BBC, at a time when it was still seen as the mouthpiece of the ‘enemy.’
Francis Stuart was born in Townsville, Australia, in 1902, of Irish stock. The family returned to Ireland while he was still a little boy. A teenager at boarding school in England during the rising, his biographer Kevin Kiely writes:-
Stuart spectacularly claimed his place within the Celtic Revival when, aged 17, he eloped to Paris with Maud Gonne’s daughter Iseult, who was eight years his senior. A few years earlier Iseult had herself, famously rejected W.B. Yeats who was then in his 50’s.
Stuart’s place in the speculative fiction canon is principally cemented by four novels he wrote for Gollancz in the early 1930’s Pigeon Irish, The Coloured Dome, Try the Sky and Glory. I’ll discuss the first two, beginning with the more straightforward of the two, The Coloured Dome.
The book assumes an ongoing War of Independence and the story opens in a 1930’s Dublin under British occupation. There’s been a republican air attack on the occupying forces, and the British are going to execute dozens of hostages unless the IRA leaders turn themselves into Mountjoy by midnight.
We’re introduced to Talloolagh Macoolagh “The greatest leader the IRA ever had.” In this passage, dressed incognito as a man she walks the quays of Dublin for one last time, before going to turn herself in. She expects to be shot at dawn.
What I love about this passage is the mention of the trams crossing O’Connell bridge, which of course are not the same ones as we see today. Stuart’s trams were ripped out in the name of modernity, and after a gap of many decades had to be reinstated at enormous cost to meet today’s urban transport needs.
In the novel, the British gain the upper hand by declining to execute Taloolagh and releasing her. What Stuart seems to be saying is, “you bloody fools, why didn’t you do that in 1916.” The book itself is a meditation on the nature of heroism – At the beginning of the book, Talloolagh seems superhuman – moving at will though the occupied city, a semi-mythical presence seemingly capable of anything, but once captured and released her aura is extinguished and she falls back to earth.
Stuart’s Pigeon Irish is a more complex novel. It foresees united British, Irish and American forces fighting an unnamed superior army coming out of mainland Europe, from their base in Dublin. Just putting the British and Irish on the same side is an extraordinary construct from a post-partition republican writer and is what, in my view, sets Stuart apart from the tired, black-and-white predictability of many of his peers. If the book is explicitly about the rise of Nazism, it is prescient, for it was written in 1930, before many of the establishing events of Nazi Germany had taken place.
The book is also a groundbreaker in that it is, in part, an anthropomorphic animal tale, focussing on three carrier pigeons, going about their work in the theatre of war, as in this passage:-
In the end of the book, the allied forces have to cede Dublin to the enemy and retreat to the countryside – from where they plan to prosecute a guerrilla war. The longer the book goes on, the more the pigeons vanish – it’s as if Stuart, having created them, did not know what to do with them. The definitive carrier pigeon fantasy novel has yet to be written.
The great conundrum of Francis Stuart is what happened in the decade or so following his four great works of speculative fiction.
Come the outbreak of the Second World War he was estranged from Iseult and found himself in Germany on an academic exchange programme. And he had met Madeleine, his second wife to be. For the next four years Stuart broadcast propaganda for the Nazis on their Irland Redaktion service, only quitting in 1944, when he objected to some of its anti Soviet content. After the war he was arrested by the allied forces and interned, which formed the basis for his autobiographical novel, his best known work Black List Section H. Finally returning to Ireland in 1953, and marrying Madeleine in 1956, after Iseult’s death, he was dogged for the rest of his life with accusations of anti-Semitism. He died in 2000, aged 97.
For the writer who had produced Pigeon Irish, with all of its subtext, warning of the rise of fascism, it’s a very odd life’s journey to have gone on.
Lastly, I want to briefly mention a novel by John Francis Maguire, a politician and newspaper proprietor from Cork. He wrote, The Next Generation, a political fantasy in 1871. I haven’t read it myself and I’m indebted to Nicholas Whyte’s blog for these few notes:-
It’s nice to see a fantasist of the time looking to solve the Irish question through the efforts of female parliamentarians rather than by armed struggle. On that note, I’ll conclude my talk. Hopefully we have time for a few questions.