Circumnavigation

It’s a hop and a step from down here on the Mizen (Ireland’s most south-westerly point) up to the top of the island: people are doing it all the time, on foot, by bicycle, by boat… We thought we’d do it as a road trip – in fact, why wouldn’t we circumnavigate the whole of Ireland? We did – it took us three weeks.

Header – the Dark Hedges, Ballymoney, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century to enhance their Georgian mansion of Gracehill, it is now much visited as it features in Game of Thrones. It’s good to know that traffic can no longer go through this avenue, as it has suffered damage in recent times. Above, one of the many byroads that we sought out on our journey around the island: this one is the loop road behind Ben Bulben in County Sligo

It was a most fascinating and educational trip, particularly for me: most of the places I had never visited before. Finola was more familiar with her own country, although for her it was a voyage of rediscovery. In many cases she saw how much had changed over years of boom and bust, while elsewhere her memories were reawakened.

A voyage of rediscovery: Finola’s Great Grandparents are buried here in Killough, County Down, Northern Ireland

This is but a short summary of our travels: a taster. Many of the places we visited will feature in future posts here. As you can imagine, Archaeology, Romanesque architecture, stained glass, saintly shrines, pilgrimage sites, holy wells, stunningly beautiful land- and sea-scapes, and social history were prominent in our must-see itinerary. But we found we were also following in the footsteps of Irish poets. And British eccentrics.

Craftworks: we visited the Belleek Pottery, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland – which has been operating continuously since 1884 (upper), and (lower) Glebe Mill, Kilcar, County Donegal – where we could watch traditional handweaving on enormous looms

I prefer to stay off the more heavily trafficked tourist spots, but we made exceptions for Europe’s highest sea cliffs at Slieve League, County Donegal (three times the height of the Cliffs of Moher! Beautiful and very wet) and for the Giant’s Causeway. After all, this features strongly in the stories of Finn McCool. I thought that the inevitable crowds were catered for very well and – if you are prepared to walk away from the main site – you can have the spectacular cliff paths largely to yourselves. In Northern Ireland I was very struck by what an asset the National Trust is, for it preserves and makes accessible so many properties and areas of outstanding beauty. If only the Republic had a similar well funded body…

Top – the cliffs at Slieve League. Lower – Giant’s Causeway on a stormy day, and souvenirs in the National Trust’s Causeway Visitor Centre

It would, perhaps, be unreasonable to pick out a ‘best’ destination that we visited, but I must say that I was probably most impressed by the medieval sites: we took in many. It’s amazing that right off the beaten track you can find stunning ancient carvings and artefacts tucked away and – sometimes – not even signposted.

Upper – the superb High Cross at Durrow has been protected and conserved, but it’s not signposted from the busy road that passes nearby. Centre – the beautiful shrine that holds the relic of the True Cross in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth: the same church holds the head and remains of Saint Oliver Plunkett. Lower – 13th century font in St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, County Clare

Our travels were punctuated with a whole variety of experiences, impossible to summarise in one short post. We took in Derry – the only completely walled city in Ireland and one of the finest examples in Europe: we walked the whole length of the early seventeenth century structure. Belfast was intriguing. We undertook the Titanic Experience, and were duly impressed with the building and the exhibitions. We also toured the whole city in the hop-on-hop-off bus: a full two hour tour of everything with a thoroughly enlightening commentary – a good way to keep out of the rain!

Upper – the Peace Bridge in Derry. Lower – the Titanic Experience, Belfast: the exhibition and the building. The external shot is taken from the enormous slipway which was used to launch the ship

We’ve only just got our breath back from all the travelling (although we always went at a leisurely pace with plenty of stops for investigation and coffee). Between us we took well over 5,000 photographs! You’ll see a good few of them in due course.

Often it’s the simple things that impress the most: just little vignettes of Irish life. We would thoroughly recommend a slow exploration of this land – ambling along the byroads and keeping a weather eye open for new experiences. Have a good time!

We are not averse to the odd selfie! Here we are on Carlingford Lough with the Mountains of Mourne behind us… Today it’s an invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic: what does the future hold?

On the Passing of Poets

Ireland: ‘land of Saints and Scholars’ – and poetry, as we found on our travels. In just a few days we have discovered how three pre-eminent Irish poets – whose passing has spanned a century – are being celebrated and commemorated in their own townlands.

Bellaghy, County Londonderry, in Northern Ireland was the childhood home of Seamus Heaney  who was born at nearby Mossbawn on 13 April 1939, the eldest of nine children. Heaney passed away on 30 August 2013 and, in accordance with his own wishes, he is buried in the Cemetery of St Mary’s Church, Bellaghy. A Book of Remembrance is kept in the church, and on his headstone is a line: Walk on air against your better judgement, from one of his poems – The Gravel Walks.

Exactly a year ago – October 2016 – a new building was opened to commemorate Heaney, the Nobel Prize winner, who has been described as ‘…the most important Irish poet since Yeats…’, ‘…the greatest poet of our age…’ and ‘…probably the best-known poet in the world…’ The quality of the HomePlace centre reflects this reputation and provides excellent facilities for the sheer exploration of words as well as performance, lectures and research.

This year sees the 50th anniversary of the death of another of Ireland’s country-born poets: Patrick Kavanagh. We visited Inniskeen, County Monaghan, to search out the old St Mary’s Church, which has been transformed to a Centre – open to the public – which displays information on the poet born and raised on a nearby farm in 1904, the fourth of ten children. The Centre also carries out research into the poet’s life and work, and organises an annual event to celebrate him. I am grateful to the staff of the Centre for allowing me to photograph the interior of the former church.

Appropriately, the grave of the poet can be found in the churchyard. Strangely, an elegant memorial to the poet and his wife (below left) vanished in 1989 and was replaced with a simple wooden cross (below right), said to have been carved by his brother, Peter. I could not get to the bottom of this matter: there are various reports to be found on the internet, including this one from RTE.

Like Heaney, Kavanagh’s strong influences came from his rural background. Some of his best-loved works portray country life, but without sentimentality. He remained on the farm in Monaghan until 1931, when he walked the 80 kilometres to Dublin. At first rejected by the literary establishment, his work eventually received appreciation. Seamus Heaney acknowledged that he had been influenced by Kavanagh.

When Kavanagh died on 30 November 1967, at the age of 62, he was recognised as …Ireland’s leading poet in English…

For our third commemoration we travelled to Slane, County Meath, to find the Francis Ledwidge Museum. This poet died exactly a hundred years ago, a victim of the Great War.

The Museum has been created in the cottage where Francis was born on 19 August 1887, the eighth of nine children. Again, he came from a rural background. His father died when he was only five, and he spent much of his life as farm hand, road builder, and copper miner. He was an active campaigner for better working conditions, became an early Trade Unionist, and attempted to organise strikes.

The Ledwidge cottage in Janeville, Slane, around the end of the nineteenth century (top), and the cottage – now the Francis Ledwidge Museum – today (lower)

Francis had written poetry all his life, and some was published in local newspapers when he was 14 years old. He attracted the patronage of Lord Dunsany, who introduced him to W B Yeats. Like many other artists, writers and poets, Ledwidge’s life was tragically cut short by the war. In the Third Battle of Ypres he and five companions were hit by an exploding shell. Father Devas, a Chaplain who was a family friend, recorded ‘…Ledwidge killed, blown to bits…’ A memorial was raised to him on the place of his death in Belgium, and a replica of this memorial can be found in the garden of the Janeville cottage.

Seamus Heaney also acknowledged Ledwidge as one of his influences

During our travels we have seen that poets in Ireland have respected the work of their compatriots. Wordsmithing is a time-honoured profession: there’s a common thread running from the Bards of old, who carried traditions, myths and genealogies through generations and over centuries.

Below – a portrait of Seamus Heaney by the Welsh artist Jeffrey Morgan hangs in the HomePlace Centre, Bellaghy

West Cork Finally Gets a History Festival!

For a place that’s dripping in history and archaeology, and with several active historical societies, it’s a wonder this hasn’t happened before.

Tom Barry, bust by Seamus Murphy

The inaugural festival of the West Cork History Festival will take place just outside Skibbereen on the last weekend of July this year. Take a look at their website – it’s a great program, offering sessions from medieval to modern, from pirates and adventurers to soldiers, revolutionaries and poets.

A Letter of Marque gave an individual permission to be a privateer – a form of legalised piracy

Although it’s got West Cork in the title, this is not only West Cork History. The organisers emphasise its eclectic nature and call it a festival of intellectual delights. National dimensions are obvious in discussions on the War of Independence and international ones in sessions on the First World War. West Cork gets a good look-in, though, with a thorough re-examination of Hart’s work on the Bandon Valley Killings (see here for a good summary of the events and the controversies surrounding the scholarship), in the light of the most recent research. Several active and respected local historians will contribute in their area of expertise.

War graves such as this one have been springing up all over Cork in the last few years. For most of the 20th century we maintained a form of collective amnesia about the Irish fighting in the First World War – see my piece Outposts of Empire

National and local topics are happily juxtaposed – tower houses, for example, will be the subject of two sessions, one of which places them in an all-Ireland context and the other in a West Cork context. (For more on tower houses, follow this link.)

Kilcoe Castle – an impressive example of the Irish Tower House, now magnificently restored by Jeremy Irons

I’m very much looking forward to learning more about Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork – a tremendous figure in the history of this area. But the Festival takes it one step further with a talk on the vital roles in Irish history played by the children of the Great Earl. I’m also going to make sure I take in a presentation on the Knights Templar by Dominic Selwood, yet another of the multi-talented speakers on the schedule.

Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork (1566-1643)

The opening and closing sessions will be major highlights. Prof Roy Foster will deliver the introductory lecture. How fitting – Roy Foster is surely among the most respected historians of his generation. Author of numerous books and influential articles, including Modern Ireland (1600-19720) and a justly famed two volume Life of W B Yeats. His topic, ”A Fair People”: antagonism and conflict in Irish history, will set the tone for a weekend that will not shy away from controversial and thought-provoking sessions.

Prof Roy Foster, considered by many to be one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary historians

The closing session features the writer (and highly entertaining speaker) Michael Dobbs, creator and author of the House of Cards series of books and TV shows. Titled Life, Lust and Liquor: how House of Cards wrote itself, this should bring things to a close with a bang.

And in between, there’s a host of academics, researchers, film-makers, journalists, writers and editors – and even a couple of ambassadors! It’s an eclectic mix and sure to be provocative and engaging.

The Festival features a screening of the Film Rebel Rossa, made by the great-grandsons of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. A West Cork man, Rossa became famous and infamous for his Fenian activities. See my three-part account of him here.

The Festival is the brainchild of Simon Kingston, who, with his wife Victoria (a professional historian) has a long association with West Cork, which culminated in their settling at Rosebank, the dower house of Liss Ard Estate, just outside Skibbereen. Simon is a graduate of Trinity and of Oxford and describes himself as an historian at heart, although he makes a living in the world of executive recruitment. He’s put together an amazing program, sure to become an ongoing feature of the West Cork heritage landscape for years to come.

I’ve only managed to give you a tiny taste of what’s in store at this Festival – you will have to come and experience the terrific range on offer for yourself. Meanwhile, they’ve set up a Facebook page so you can keep up to date on all the latest news and announcements. Head on over and give it a Like and a Share. And are you a member of the Twitterati? There’s a Twitter feed just for you!

 Right so – on July 28 – see you there?

Licking the Lizard – or The World Turned Upside Down

…Nothing was more natural than the desire to have a ‘last fling’ just before the beginning of Lent. On the Continent of Europe this became a public, communal revel, the carnival, but generally in Ireland the Shrove Tuesday celebration was a household festival with the family and their friends gathered about the fire-side, when the surplus eggs, milk and butter were used up in making pancakes, and even the most thrifty housewife did not object, as otherwise these perishable foodstuffs might go to waste. Some people kept the Christmas holly for the fire which baked the pancakes…

That’s my old friend Kevin Danaher again, reporting on the seasonal customs which we will be celebrating this week, described in The Year in Ireland Mercier Press, 1972. As he points out, the ‘last fling’ in Ireland is tame by comparison with Carnival in other countries, where it really can be the case of A World Turned Upside Down – authority is despatched to the sidelines while fools, mock kings, mock abbots and ‘Lords of Misrule’ conduct the proceedings. Hence the illustrations above, where malevolent hares get their own back on human hunters – and men lay eggs! Both of these are from the marginalia of thirteenth century manuscripts which are teeming with such anarchic visions.

Above – role reversal, a popular feature of carnival customs – and contemporary political upheaval which seems carnivalesque

An 18th century chapbook carries a remarkable and wonderful series of illustrations: The World Turned Upside Down or The Folly of Man, Exemplified in Twelve Comical Relations upon Uncommon Subjects. Here we find ‘the cart before the horse’, ‘children caring for their parents’ and many other thought-provoking reversals.

Back to Danaher:

…In Skibbereen, County Cork, after the fall of darkness on Shrove Tuesday evening the boys of the town amuse themselves by discharging home-made firecrackers. These were made by wrapping gunpowder in paper with a short fuse attached and enclosing the packet in a tight covering of the lead-foil lining of tea chests. Some, even more dangerous, were made from a short length of lead pipe stuffed with powder. These miniature bombs were thrown about the streets, at groups of people, when the sight of the glowing fuse flying through the air was the signal to scatter and run. The bang from these fireworks is said to have been very loud and when thrown at a belated wedding cavalcade, usually caused the horses to bolt, much to the public danger. Towards the end of the last century this custom was finally suppressed by an active police official… (ibid)

amorous hareJohn Dunton, an English writer and bookseller, visited Ireland and described various customs he encountered, in Teague Land: or A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (1698). Here’s one he observed in Naas, Co Kildare:

…The inhabitants of this place and the neighbourhood have a custom (how begun I could not learn) on Shrove Tuesday to meet on horseback in the fields, and wherever they spy a hare in her form, they make as wide a circle as the company can and the ground will permit, and someone is sent in to start poor puss, who cannot turn herself any way but she is repulsed with loud cries and so frightened that she falls dead in the magical circle, though sometimes she breaks through and escapes; if a greyhound or any other dog be found in the field, it is a thousand to one she loses her life; and thus after they have shouted two or three hares to death they disperse…

Hardly surprising, then, that the hares in the 13th century manuscript marginalia should want to get their revenge… And, unhappily, an evolution of this same barbarous sport, now under the name of ‘hare coursing’ is still permitted in Ireland! We live in a topsy turvy world, indeed.

better hunting haresAmhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin, the schoolmaster of Callan, Co Kilkeeny reported a similarly unsavoury Shrove Tuesday custom in  1831:

…To-day is the day when cocks were pelted. It was a barbarous trick. The poor cock was tied to a post or a stone by a hard hemp cod, and sticks were thrown at it. He who killed it became owner of it. A penny was wagered on every shot. Recently this custom has receeded. I have not seen it for thirty years. It was an English custom…

Good to know that we can at least blame the English for that! Cock-throwing was also noted in the three volume Guide to Ireland published between 1841-1843 by Samuel Carter Hall (1800-1889), and his wife Anna Maria (1800-1881) …The day for this sport was Shrove Tuesday, a day which is still dedicated to games and amusements far less cruel and irrational… They went on to describe and illustrate pastimes more familiar to us.

hall's shrove tuesday

…The family group – and the “boys and girls” of the neighbours – gather round the fireside; and each in turn tries his or her skill in tossing the pancake. The tossing of the first is always alloted to the eldest unmarried daughter of the host, who performs the task not altogether without trepidation, for much of her “luck” during the year is supposed to depend on her good or ill success on the occasion. She tosses it, and usually so cleverly as to receive it back again on its surface, on its reverse, in the pan. Congratulations upon her fortune go round, and another makes the effort: perhaps this is a sad mischance; the pancake is either not turned or falls among the turf ashes; the unhappy maiden is then doomed – she can have no chance of marrying for a year at least – while the girl who has been lucky is destined to have her “pick of the boys” as soon as she likes…

We had better finish off with a pancake recipe – and who better than Monica Sheridan to provide a traditional Irish one?

Oh! Do I hear you asking where Licking the Lizard comes into all this? Here is Kevin Danaher to round things off:

…There was a common belief that to lick a lizard endowed the tongue with a cure for burns and scalds; this was especially effective if the lizard was licked on Shrove Tuesday…

hare with dog

Travel by Water 2 – A Tale from Trollope

Drumnsa Bridge

If you travel by water on the Shannon, you can still take your boat up to the bridge at Drumsna, Co Lietrim (above). Just below the bridge is a stone wharf which is the present limit of navigation on that part of the river, a great loop which was bypassed in 1848 by a 2.6km canal. The towns of Drumsna and Jamestown were once thriving river ports but went to sleep once the canal was built. When Tom and Angela Rolt arrived in Drumsna in 1946 the quay there was in ruins, and they had to anchor their boat Le Coq in the shallows and row their small dinghy into the village.

Drumsna (Trollope)

drumnsa-2016

Upper picture – Drumsna in 1946, a photograph taken by Angela Rolt. Lower picture – the same scene in 2016; 70 years have passed but there have been few changes in the fabric of the village

The Rolts were interested in Drumsna because of its associations with Anthony Trollope, who readers will remember for his introduction of post boxes into Ireland. While working as a Post Office Surveyor he was stationed in Drumsna during the 1840s, before the Great Famine, and began his writing career with the novel The Macdermots of Ballycloran (published in 1847). It was not a success but he persevered and became one of the most prolific writers of all time, publishing no less than 47 novels and many more short stories and works of non-fiction during his lifetime. He died in London in 1882, aged 67.

1795 battle Drumsna

Drumsna was historically important as one of the crossing points of the Shannon: it was the site of a ford until the stone bridge was built, probably in the 18th century. This bridge, one of the oldest on the river, once had a blind eye arch where prisoners were jailed and, reportedly, a handball alley on the side where many a  famous championship was held. The plaque on the bridge today (above) remembers an uprising from 1795

Trollope was living in Ireland at the time when the canal system was thriving. He was certainly familiar with travelling by water on the canals, as we can see through this excerpt from his second novel, The Kellys and the O’Kellys (also inspired by his experience of life in Ireland and a success – it was published in 1848 and sold 140 copies). Trollope was 33 when he wrote this book and he must have had direct personal experience of the passenger boat services running out of Dublin on the Grand Canal:

…MR MARTIN KELLY RETURNS TO DUNMORE

We will now return to Martin Kelly…. Hstarted for home, by the Ballinasloe canal-boat, and reached that famous depot of the fleecy tribe without adventure. I will not attempt to describe the tedium of that horrid voyage, for it has been often described before; and to Martin, who was in no ways fastidious, it was not so unendurable as it must always be to those who have been accustomed to more rapid movement. Nor yet will I attempt to put on record the miserable resources of those, who, doomed to a twenty hours’ sojourn in one of these floating prisons, vainly endeavour to occupy or amuse their minds. But I will advise any who from ill-contrived arrangements, or unforeseen misfortune, may find themselves on board the Ballinasloe canal-boat, to entertain no such vain dream. The ‘vis inertiae’ of patient endurance, is the only weapon of any use in attempting to overcome the lengthened ennui of this most tedious transit. Reading is out of the question. I have tried it myself, and seen others try it, but in vain. The sense of the motion, almost imperceptible, but still perceptible; the noises above you; the smells around you; the diversified crowd, of which you are a part; at one moment the heat this crowd creates; at the next, the draught which a window just opened behind your ears lets in on you; the fumes of punch; the snores of the man under the table; the noisy anger of his neighbour, who reviles the attendant sylph; the would-be witticisms of a third, who makes continual amorous overtures to the same overtasked damsel, notwithstanding the publicity of his situation; the loud complaints of the old lady near the door, who cannot obtain the gratuitous kindness of a glass of water; and the baby-soothing lullabies of the young one, who is suckling her infant under your elbow. These things alike prevent one from reading, sleeping, or thinking. All one can do is to wait till the long night gradually wears itself away, and reflect that, Time and the Hour Run through the Longest Day.

I hardly know why a journey in one of these boats should be much more intolerable than travelling either outside or inside a coach; for, either in or on the coach, one has less room for motion, and less opportunity of employment. I believe the misery of the canal-boat chiefly consists in a pre-conceived and erroneous idea of its capabilities. One prepares oneself for occupation–an attempt is made to achieve actual comfort–and both end in disappointment; the limbs become weary with endeavouring to fix themselves in a position of repose, and the mind is fatigued more by the search after, than the want of, occupation.

Martin, however, made no complaints, and felt no misery. He made great play at the eternal half-boiled leg of mutton, floating in a bloody sea of grease and gravy, which always comes on the table three hours after the departure from Porto Bello. He, and others equally gifted with the ‘dura ilia messorum’, swallowed huge collops of the raw animal, and vast heaps of yellow turnips, till the pity with which a stranger would at first be inclined to contemplate the consumer of such unsavoury food, is transferred to the victim who has to provide the meal at two shillings a head. Neither love nor drink – and Martin had, on the previous day, been much troubled with both – had affected his appetite; and he ate out his money with the true persevering prudence of a Connaught man, who firmly determines not to be done.

He was equally diligent at breakfast; and, at last, reached Ballinasloe, at ten o’clock the morning after he had left Dublin, in a flourishing condition. From thence he travelled, by Bianconi’s car, as far as Tuam, and when there he went at once to the hotel, to get a hack car to take him home to Dunmore…

Long distance travel within Ireland by inland waterways was the preferred form of transport in the first half of the 19th century. The alternative was the stage coach: this was no faster than canal travel because of the sometimes tortuous routes which roads took, and the conditions of the roads themselves, particularly in the winter. It must be significant that in the early years of stage coach travel only departure times were advertised: the journey would take as long as conditions permitted. Coaches were notoriously uncomfortable. At least the canal packet boats were relatively smooth and passengers had the opportunity to stretch their legs on deck. Everything changed, of course, with the coming of the railways as the century progressed.

Duchess Countess

The last days of the former express passenger boat Duchess Countess, photographed by Angela Rolt in the late 1940s. The Rolts initiated attempts to have the boat preserved, but these were unsuccessful

Rolt mentions passenger packet boats or ‘fly boats’ in England in his later book which was published in 1950. In The Inland Waterways of England, George Allen and Unwin, he describes:

…the miraculous preservation by sinking of the Bridgewater Canal passage boat Duchess Countess (a name recalling the titles of the Bridgewater family). This old boat was eventually raised and, still in substantially original condition even to her cabinwork, began a new lease of life as a houseboat. She was moved on to the Welsh section of the Shropshire Union Canal near Frankton Junction where she is still occupied at the time of writing although, owing to the deterioration of her hull, she has now been drawn out of the water. The Duchess Countess was the last packet boat in regular service. In the heyday of her career as a packet boat she proudly mounted a great curved knife-blade on her bow. This was of much more than symbolic significance, for it was so contrived that it would sever the towline of any boatman who failed to give way to her… …Very soon the Duchess Countess must inevitably disintegrate, and with her passing the last tangible link with these once extensive but little known canal passenger services will be irretrievably lost…

dc_on_water

dcountess_-_line_drawing_boat

Upper picture – a rare photograph of the Duchess Countess still in use  on the canals (courtesy British Waterways Archive – date unknown) and , lower picture – a modern line drawing of the boat. Both images show the blade on the prow which could slice through the towlines of any unfortunate boat which did not get out of the way in time!

Angela Rolt photographed the Duchess Countess on the canal bank and, fortunately, an early photograph of the boat in its working days is preserved. This shows the scythe-like blade on the prow and confirms that the express boat service had priority over all other traffic on the canals. I am not aware that any of the Irish passenger boats were so equipped but, using teams of horses which were frequently changed along the route, they were evidently able to keep up a continuous speed of around 10 miles per hour, which was no mean feat at the time.

trollope-irish-stamp

We will revisit passenger travel on the Irish Canals in a future post continuing this series…

Betjeman in Ireland – Poet and Spy?

1970s st enodoc

I remember well the day they buried Sir John Betjeman. The graveyard of St Enodoc’s Church (above, from a 1970s postcard), is close to the Cornish village of Trebetherick – his home for many years. On that day in May 1984 there was a downpour of torrential proportions, and all that could be seen when they laid him to rest was a sea of black umbrellas. The poet himself would have loved the very English spectacle of it.

Left – the larger than life 2007 bronze statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras Station, London: the sculpture is by Martin Jennings (photo Christoph Braun). Betjeman was a founding member of theVictorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture: his campaigning was responsible for saving the Station and the Chambers from demolition in the 1960’s. Right – the headstone of Betjeman’s grave in Cornwall

The poet is well known for his accessible and, often, highly amusing writing: perhaps less well-known are his Irish connections. During the Second World War (or ‘the Emergency’ in Ireland), John Betjeman was posted to Dublin, ostensibly as a press attache in the British embassy, tasked with planting British propaganda in newspapers and trying to counter the activities of Deutsche Nachtrichten Büro – the German Press Agency which, in 1939, appointed its own official representative in Ireland, Dr Carlheinz Petersen. As the war got under way British media were swamped with propaganda stories against Irish neutrality: for example, it was suggested that German submarine crews were being entertained in remote villages in the west of Ireland, and that wireless transmitters up in the mountains were at the heart of a vast espionage system against Britain. When Ireland refused to lease back its ports to Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic, the idea began to take hold in Britain that ‘neutralit’y was a wilful act of hostility against the allies. John Betjeman was drafted in to the Ministry of Information to help calm the situation. Betjeman’s job was to rein in these anti-Irish fantasies. Luckily for future Anglo-Irish relations, he managed to put a stop to a Ministry plan to disseminate propaganda leaflets in packets of tea, soap and toilet paper. Betjeman recommended “the stopping of anti-Irish articles and cartoons”. Instead, propaganda should concentrate on backing De Valera “and showing the tightrope he is walking”. Although De Valera was convinced Germany would win the war, the poet said: “There is no doubt that he and most of his ministers feel that the better interests of Eire will best be served by a British victory. For this reason Mr de Valera is Britain’s best friend in Ireland.”

Betjeman and family Dublin

A surviving photograph of John Betjeman (left) in Dublin during the war years – note the two pipers; the context is unknown

It’s hard to know whether Betjeman was actually a spy – even his biographer can’t clarify that. But the IRA thought so, and dispatched two men to permanently put him out of action. Diarmuid Brennan was the IRA army council’s head of civilian intelligence in 1941, and he was approached by two gunmen from the second battalion of the Dublin IRA who were looking for a photograph of …a fellow called Betjeman… These second battalion types were known to us as the Edward-Gees of the IRA, after Edward G Robinson… 26 years later Brennan wrote to John Betjeman telling him about the plot: …I got communications describing you as ‘dangerous’ and a person of menace to all of us. In short, you were depicted in the blackest of colours…

However, Brennan was interested to know more about this condemned man and began to read his poetry. The story goes that Brennan was swayed by reading Continual Dew, a 1937 volume that contains several poems about Ireland and another about Oscar Wilde, as well as Slough, in which he implored the Luftwaffe: 

…Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow…

Brennan decided that someone who was as passionate about poetry as Betjeman should be given the benefit of the doubt and aborted the assassination. There’s no doubt that Betjeman liked Ireland – and had some appreciation of the Irish outlook on life, in particular the love of literature. He was a lifelong friend of the poet Louis MacNeice and also of Patrick Cavanagh, who wrote a poem for Candida – Betjeman’s daughter – in celebration of her first birthday in 1942:NPG x78423; Candida Lycett-Green; Sir John Betjeman; Penelope (nÈe Chetwode), Lady Betjeman; Paul Betjeman by Bassano

Candida is one to-day,
What is there that one can say?
One is where the race begins
Or the sum that counts our sins;
But the mark time makes to-morrow
Shapes the cross of joy or sorrow.

Candida is one to-day,
What is there for me to say?
On the day that she was one
There were apples in the sun
And the fields long wet with rain
Crumply in dry winds again.

Candida is one and I
Wish her lots and lots of joy.
She the nursling of September
Like a war she won't remember.
Candida is one to-day
And there's nothing more to say.
The Betjeman family: John, Candida, Paul and Penelope 1948 (Bassano)

Betjeman is also particularly remembered for the part he played in bringing Laurence Olivier to Ireland to film Henry V on the Powerscourt Estate. This film, itself a piece of wartime propaganda, brought a short period of prosperity to County Wicklow in 1943. The doughty yeomen who faced the French in the Agincourt battle scenes were actually Irish farmers: these ‘extras’ each received an additional pound if they brought along their own horse!

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Battle scene – Agincourt in Ireland, Powerscourt, Co Wicklow

The small towns of Ireland by bards are neglected,
They stand there, all lonesome, on hilltop and plain.
The Protestant glebe house by beech trees protected
Sits close to the gates of his Lordship’s demesne.

But where is his Lordship, who once in a phaeton
Drove out twixt his lodges and into the town?
Oh his tragic misfortunes I will not dilate on;
His mansion’s a ruin, his woods are cut down…

(from The Small Towns of Ireland, John Betjeman)