H V Morton’s Ireland – Part 2

Morton’s book – dating from December 1930 – deserves a further look as a view of Ireland from an English perspective back in the early part of the last century (here’s the first part of this review). What was going on, historically, in the young Free State at that time? Firstly, I was surprised to learn that there was a Governor-General (Seanascal Shaorstát Éireann) whose role was to be ‘the British monarch’s representative in Ireland’. While this was largely a ceremonial role (and was paralleled in Canada and Australia at the time), this continuing official link with a King was understandably unpopular. The first holder of the post was former Irish Parliamentary Party MP Timothy Healy, a Bantry man. Healy held the role between 1922 and 1928, and it was taken over by James McNeill, who retained it until 1932 – there’s a British Pathé newsreel on McNeill’s inauguration (below). The last holder of the office was Domhnall Ua Buachalla: In December 1936, when King Edward VIII abdicated, the Irish cabinet took the decision to abolish the governorship-general and emphasise the separation of the country from any sense of British heritage.

Through the 1930s, Ireland projected its image as a newly created modern state, but also consciously presented itself romantically as a pastorally idyllic country with a rich history and esoteric folk culture. This, of course, cast an eye on the potential for attracting tourism, and Morton’s book concentrates on this heritage, particularly in the choice of photographs. He writes on this relationship:

. . . It is one of Ireland’s many misfortunes that the common people of England have never been taught anything about her, have never shown any interest in her and, apart from a small section of well-to-do people, have never travelled in this beautiful island. I would like to hope that this book of mine may help, in no matter how small a way, to encourage English people to spend their holidays in Ireland and make friends with its irresistible inhabitants. Friendship and sympathy between two such warm-hearted and kindly people would be a fitting end to centuries of political misunderstanding . . .

H V Morton – In search of Ireland 1930

From ‘In Search of Ireland’ – above: Two Connemara Girls. Below: Glendalough.

Today, the British obsession with its nationalist roots – which we are calling ‘Brexit’ – threatens all the compromise and hard work which has been expended on positively and peacefully resolving the ‘Irish Question’ over the past few decades. Interestingly, in 1930, H V Morton had something to say about Northern Ireland, which has some uncanny resonances with today’s imminent problems:

. . . It happens that when you are in Donegal you can look south into Northern Ireland, and when you are in either Londonderry, Tyrone or Fermanagh you can look north into Southern Ireland! This is no doubt an excellent joke except to those who have to live in it! It must be exasperating to find yourself barred by a customs barrier from the country town in which you have always enjoyed free trading. But as long as it profits the Free State to build up her enterprise behind a tariff wall, or as long as Northern Ireland remains outside the Free State (which, I am told, will be for ever), this inconvenient and costly boundary with its double line of officials will remain, the only frontier in the British Isles . . .

H V Morton – In search of Ireland 1930

From ‘In Search of Ireland’ – above: Plain of Tipperary. Below: Middle Lake, Killarney.

Having read my way through Morton’s book on Ireland (which I picked up on a stall in Skibbereen market), I am left with very mixed feelings about its author. I am partly influenced, I think, by what I have noted elsewhere about the man and his life. In particular, picking up on his apparent sympathy with the Nazis during the Hitler years, but also becoming aware that he and his second wife, Violet Mary (they married in 1934) emigrated to South Africa after the Second World War, became citizens, and apparently endorsed Apartheid.

Above: the cloth cover of the sixth edition of Morton’s Ireland book, dating to 1934. Below: H V Morton is still a much collected writer.

Ultimately, I feel that Morton doesn’t have the depth I’m looking for in any respected scribe on Irish matters. He is, foremost, a journalist – and crafts his words for maximum effect. Perhaps this is unkind, but his views seem to me almost theatrical: taking a romantic stance that will appeal to tourists, he sets a tone that is slightly imbued with a sense of superiority, although he does not hesitate to be critical of the British position as he saw it at the time of writing. I am quoting his last paragraph – ‘saying good-bye to Ireland’ to try to defend my stance, which I fully accept is just a personal viewpoint.

. . . When my feet first trod Irish soil I felt that I had come to a magic country and now, as I said good-bye, I knew it truly as an enchanted island. That minor note which is like a vibration in the air, something that lives in the light and in the water and in the soil, runs through every Irish thing, but, like the cry of a bat, it is too high to be heard. But a man is conscious of it everywhere. Ireland of the Sorrows is no more. The sun sets, and the hill grows dark. I know that in the West at this moment men are raking the ashes of the turf fires. In thousands of little white cabins they are kneeling before the wide hearth, piling up the ashes around the red glow, and in the morning there will be new light. The shadows have fallen over the fields of Meath. The air is grey with night. St Patrick rises up over the mounds of Tara, his hands uplifted. And in the silence and the darkness I listen again for that hidden music. It is not for my ears. I hear nothing but the night wind in the grass; and I say good-bye to Ireland . . .

H V Morton – In search of Ireland 1930

From ‘In Search of Ireland’ – above: Cork South Bridge. Endpiece: Ardmore Round Tower, County Waterford – 12th century.

Don’t be put off by my own standpoint. This book is an important Irish travelogue and sets a scene of a particular time in Irish history (ninety years ago) viewed from a close neighbour’s perspective.

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