Brabazon of Tara

Brabazon – that’s an unusual Irish family name that’s been around for very many generations. In fact, Finola’s maternal grandmother was one. A  Jacques le Brabazon was in the service of William the Conqueror in 1066 and the name is said to mean an inhabitant of the former province of Brabant, in Belgium. The current – 15th – Earl of Meath (of Killruddery, County Wicklow), John Anthony Brabazon, claims descent from Jacques. In 1534, Henry VIII sent Sir William Brabazon of Leicester to Ireland to serve as Vice-Treasurer – he founded the Wicklow dynasty. In the troubled Cromwellian times, another branch of the family settled firstly in Ballinasloe and then in Swinford, County Mayo. Earlier this year, Finola and I went up to Swinford for a family gathering and, for the occasion, I had to learn to play the two Planxty George Brabazon pieces by Turlough O’Carolan on my bosca ceol: here they are played – more appropriately – by a harp ensemble.

When I first learnt that the name had Irish connections I was fascinated, as I had known the word Brabazon from my early years in England and it’s one of those that is so striking, you just don’t forget it. I knew it in connection with an aeroplane – the Bristol Brabazon: it was the largest airliner ever built in Britain, something that impressed this four-year-old boy who saw it flying at the Farnborough Air Display in 1950. Not only was it large – it was elegant: my memory is of a gigantic all-silver bird, rising in a stately fashion over the crowds and disappearing into a blue sunlit sky. I demanded – and received – a model of it for a birthday or Christmas, sadly now gone the way of all such treasures. So, why the name? I didn’t know then – but I do now – that it was named after the grandly-styled Lieutenant-Colonel John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara GBE MC PC, who in 1943 chaired the Brabazon Committee which planned to develop the post-war British aircraft industry – one product of which was the factory in Bristol which produced and housed the behemoth.

Header – The Bristol Brabazon landing at the 1950 Farnborough Air Display: I was in the watching crowd! Upper – an excellent short documentary on the life and death of the Brabazon Aeroplane project. Above –the enormous Assembly Hangar at Bristol which was constructed to allow the Brabazon aircraft to be built. Outside stands the incomplete fuselage.

Brabazon’s Committee correctly anticipated that there would be a major development of civil aviation following the war, particularly for trans-Atlantic crossings. The plane was designed with two decks and luxurious accommodation: each passenger was to have a space equivalent to the inside of a modern car! Consequently the Brabazon had room for only 100 passengers, even though it compares in size to a present day Airbus A380, which can accommodate from 600 to 800 passengers, depending on the configuration. This shows up the fact – which the Committee didn’t seem to anticipate – that air travel would become accessible to all, and not just to those who could afford luxury. Another innovation of the Brabazon was the use of eight engines buried in the wings, coupled in pairs driving four sets of contra-rotating propellers to give a very low noise level in the passenger cabins, again to achieve maximum comfort.

Passenger accommodation in the Bristol Brabazon: comforts also included a dining room, sleeping berths and a cinema

That’s probably enough of my obsession with beautiful but impractical aeroplanes. This one ‘didn’t take off’ in that the post-war world wasn’t ready for it: there weren’t long enough runways, service facilities etc. Having been airborne only for publicity events between Bristol, Farnborough, London and Paris, the whole project – and the plane – was scrapped in 1953.

Let’s go back to the man himself – John Moore-Brabazon. Although he spent most of his life in the UK he was a descendant through a female line of Edward Brabazon, 7th Earl of Meath. He wasn’t shy of publicity: here he is in 1909 in Kent making porcine aviation a reality. He fixed a wicker basket to a wing strut of his Voisin biplane and carefully strapped a pig into it. The basket had a hand written sign . . . I am the first pig to fly . . . Then he took the bemused animal for a journey of about 3.7 miles from Shellbeach, the Short Brothers airfield at Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey. Brabazon’s family wealth had enabled him to learn to fly and to posses his own gliders and planes. He is noted as the first Briton to fly in Britain and, also in 1909, won the £1,000 prize offered by the Daily Mail for the first closed circuit of a mile in a British aeroplane. He was also the owner of the first pilot’s licence issued in the UK by the Royal Aero Club. In the First World War he was a pioneer of the Royal Flying Corps and had a leading role in the development of aerial photography. He also raced cars, together with Charles Rolls (of Rolls Royce fame) and was an unconventional yachtsman.

Apologies for the quality of this image, but it’s the only one available of Brabazon in 1930 with his gyro sail boat. Fiona Sinclair of the Amateur Yacht Research Society gives us the following information:

. . . this boat was adapted by John Brabazon in 1933. It is an autogyro, which means that the blades are not driving a propeller – the wind turbine is being used the same way as a sail. This is the earliest autogyro boat that I have found, and I think that we can safely credit Brabazon with the original concept of using the turbine force to drive a boat directly, since all the other people before him had only thought of using the turbine to drive a propellor. After all, the aircraft autogyro was only invented a couple of years earlier in 1930. This boat is called KESTREL, and the hull is an1896 Bembridge Redwing. This class has an unlimited sail plan – you can do whatever you like as long as the area is less that 200 sq ft. So Brabazon tried a whole lot of different sail rigs, including this one, which had a blade area of only 30 sq ft. King George V, who knew a lot about yachts, said “I have never seen a yacht sail so close to the wind”. . . Unfortunately, there was an accident in Cowes Harbour – Lord Brabazon shouted out “Let her go”, and his crew let go of the rotor instead of the boat, and then it could not be stopped, because the brake wasn’t strong enough. It was eventually stopped, after demolishing the next boat along. The moral of this tale is that you should be a bit more specific when giving instructions to your crew . . .

The boat was, and remains, dangerous but, as suggested above it was probably the first ever auto-gyro boat. The boat is currently in the collection of the Classic Boat Museum at East Cowes, Isle of Wight, and still ‘sails’.

A rather unexpected publicity item for Lord Brabazon of Tara – a fridge magnet base on a cigarette card image

Brabazon had a career in Parliament – both Commons and Lords, however he rather blotted his copybook when in 1942 he publicly expressed the hope that Germany and the Soviet Union, then engaged in the battle of Stalingrad, would destroy each other. Since the Soviet Union was fighting the war on the same side as Britain, the hope that it should be destroyed (though common in the Conservative Party) was unacceptable to the war effort, and Brabazon was forced to resign. His political affiliations were somewhat doubtful in any case as he had been associated with Oswald Mosley before the outbreak of war. Readers might remember my reporting on an Irish dimension to Oswald Mosley in an earlier post.

Left – Lord Brabazon wrote an autobiography in 1956; right – a portrait of Brabazon in his role of President of St Andrew’s Golf Club (Alfred Egerton Cooper – courtesy Royal Air Force Museum)

I haven’t mentioned other aspects of Brabazon’s sporting life: he excelled at golf and bobsledding. I found a curiosity in that he narrated the background track of an EP about British history in 1960. A reviewer has remarked:

. . . George Formby & Adolf Hitler on the same record, with Mussolini on backing harmonies apparently . . . A soundscape of the last century starting with the clip clop of a horse drawn cab and ending with the bleep bleep of Sputnik. In between the voices of Churchill, Hitler, Marie Lloyd, Caruso, Gracie Fields and Formby to name but a few. Commentary by Rt Hon Lord Brabazon of Tara whose fruity tones link one voice and sound effect to the next in a weird yet strangely comforting way . . .

An entertaining little taster – hopefully – about somebody who had Irish antecedents, but was essentially an English eccentric.

The Best of Five

It’s been five years! That’s a long time to have kept up a journal, with original pieces appearing every week – usually two, each of us writing a post. It keeps us busy: 464 posts to date. We thought we should do a review of the posts which have been most popular: viewed by the most people. These are not necessarily the ones we would consider to be our own favourites: we’ll let you know what we feel our ‘finest hour’ has been next week – while you are all preparing the Christmas lunch!

We never quite understood the all-time popularity of Beyond Leap, Beyond the Law, my post which was simply a collection of photos taken at the West Cork village’s 2015 Scarecrow Festival – with a little bit of history about the place added in. It was certainly a wonderful display of the imagination of the people of Leap. Have a look at the post: just one or two photographs don’t do it justice.

Up next is Finola’s piece from 2016 – Outposts of Empire. This was a much more scholarly article, and involved a lot of research. As you must know, we never pass a church or a burial ground without a full investigation: they provide a wealth of local history. Finola became fascinated by the memorials – mainly military – which appear in Protestant churches around the country. This led her down the path of her own ancestors, many of whom served in the Irish regiments of the British forces. She found this wonderful photo from around 1900 of her Brabazon forebears. Her grandmother Marie is in the centre of the back row, while her great grandfather John Edward Brabazon, who had served in India and Afghanistan, wears a military medal. The two younger men are Finola’s great uncles Michael and James, and they are wearing the uniform of the Royal Hibernian Military School.

Finola’s series on ‘how to speak like a West Cork person’ was a winner, the most popular being her fifth episode: How Are You Keeping? Here is a link to all of them. They make amusing reading, but at the same time they give a lot of insights as to how the Irish language has coloured the way English is spoken here. And here is Finola’s great picture from that post: two Skibbereen gentlemen who might well be asking how are you keeping?

Archaeology comes next, with my account of a most eccentric decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex: Fourknocks – the Little Giant. I was particularly taken with the adventure of visiting this tomb, from the first moment of having to collect the key from a farm a mile away in order to let ourselves in, to the experience of being inside with the door shut behind us: total darkness at first, but gradually becoming aware of the remarkable 5,000 year-old zigzag carvings on the rock surfaces within.

I’m pleased that the fifth most popular post of all time is also the one I most enjoyed writing: Aweigh in Kerry. This was all about a very unusual piece of architecture which we found while travelling in Kerry – a house shaped like a ship, sitting in the sand dunes on the shoreline of Ballycarnahan townland, facing a most spectacular view across to Derrynane, the home of ‘Ireland’s Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell. I was an architect in a former life, and I would have welcomed a commission such as this. It was built in the early 1950s.

Sixth and last in this little review is a post from Finola (happily, we had three each in this list of the top most popular posts!): Castle Haven. Such an account of a place in magical West Cork – which typically offers everything anyone could want in beautiful landscape, village architecture, archaeology, history, literary heritage, art and the omnipresent Atlantic coastline – is exactly what we aspired to for the foundation stone of Roaringwater Journal when we set out, in 2012 on this happy, continuing journey.

 

Outposts of Empire

St Patrick's Cathedral

There’s a class of monument in Ireland that I am only discovering as an adult. There is a reason for this – as a young person growing up in a conservative Catholic culture, it was verboten for us to enter (yes, even just enter) Protestant churches. I was used to a certain iconography – stations of the cross, statues, stained glass of saintly subjects – and very rarely did it include memorials to deceased individuals. That was confined to the graveyards.

St Fin Barre's

No modern Irish reader of this memorial at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork could fail to be aware of its incongruities

As our readers will know by now, Robert and I never pass an open church without poking around inside. Last year, in The Love Which He Bare Her, I wrote about the wonderful memorials I have discovered to women, cataloguing their many virtues. That was for St Valentine’s Day so since it’s still February I thought I would do a similar post for men. There are lots – poets, priests and philosophers, benevolent and erudite – but the ones I have been most taken by are the military memorials* we have discovered in Protestant churches.

St Barrahanes 2

Irish men served in the British army all through our long and complex history together. My father served in the Second World War although he saw no combat. My maternal grandfather was a Sergeant in the Welsh Fusiliers stationed in Dublin where he met my grandmother, whose own father had served in India and Afghanistan.

Left: My father, Hugh Finlay, during his time in the British Army, stationed in Belfast during the Second World War. Right: The grave of my Welsh grandfather, William Owen Roberts, in The Hague, Holland. He saw action as a young man in the Boer War. He died of the Spanish Flu on his way home from the First World War.

Although this was part of family lore, it received no attention in our history lessons. Once again – there’s a reason for this. It’s been succinctly expressed by Turtle Bunbury in his book The Glorious Madness:

The Glorious MadnessFor those who returned to Ireland after the war, the horror of their experience was magnified by the realisation that everything they fought for amounted to nought and that anyone who thought otherwise was no longer welcome. Although many of those who won independence for the Irish Free State had formerly served in His Majesty’s forces, there were powerful elements within the new order that would obligate the country at large to throw an unforgiving eye upon ex-servicemen of the British Empire. In time the hostility became amnesia and the Ireland of my youth in the late 20th century seemed to have a history in which the only war the Irish ever fought was for freedom from Britannia’s rule.

Turtle’s book opens our eyes to the vast numbers of Irish men and women who fought in WWI and their reasons for doing so – reasons as diverse as their backgrounds. Read the chapter on Tom Kettle and Emmet Dalton, for example, or the piece on Liam O’Flaherty (author of The Informer) or that on Cork’s famous son, Tom Barry, as well as those on members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy such as Lord Desmond FitzGerald, or famine-survival emigrants such as Knox D’Arcy who helped found BP Oil. Thankfully, the collective amnesia is being faced now and memorials to WWI dead are springing up in country graveyards around Ireland.

First World War Grave

A new slab at Abbeymahon church near Courtmacsherry remembers Denis Driscoll, a local man who fought in WWI

Besides the first and second World Wars, though, the military memorials that have caught my eye have celebrated the courage and sacrifice of Irish men who devoted their lives to a career in the British army and navy even before the 20th century. But why are these memorials inevitably found in Protestant churches and not Catholic? Besides the conventions of iconography and the collective amnesia referred to above, there is, yes you guessed it, a reason for this.

St Fin Barre's 2

As part of a minority but ruling class in Ireland, Church of Ireland members often saw themselves as standard bearers of Empire. As a community they were on the whole (with many notable exceptions) conservative and unionist and looked to Britain for education for their children. Many families had generations-long traditions of sending their sons to serve in the army or navy. (While Irish Catholics also served, it was predominantly in the ranks of foot-soldiers and to escape unemployment at home, rather than as career officers.) British military valour and sacrifice, therefore, loomed far larger in the consciousness of Protestant families than in Catholic ones.

St Barrahanes

According to Martin Maguire in his paper “our People”;  the Church of Ireland in Dublin and the culture of community since Disestablishment, The most powerful and emotional bond with Great Britain, and within the Church of Ireland community in Dublin, were memories of the first World War… After the war Remembrance Day became one of the most solemn occasions in the year, one which strengthened the sense of being a special community and, despite national independence, maintained the close identity between the Church of Ireland and the community of the British Empire… The loss of a great many young men to a population which was already unstable was traumatic.

St Patricks 2

But this is also true of all the preceding wars, and this is reflected in the church memorials we see in the Protestant churches. Battles and engagements in places we never learned to think about about in school as being part of our collective heritage (the Burma War? the Siege of Lucknow?) are eulogised in these tablets and plaques. Soldiers are honoured by their companions, and lamented by their families. Their bravery and accomplishments are lauded and potent symbols such as crossed spears and empty helmets represent their sacrifice.

St Fin Barre's 4

Being an ‘Outpost of Empire’ doesn’t sit well with our ideas of what Ireland is now and this year in particular we will be celebrating our independence from all that that phrase invokes. But these memorials serve to remind us of the complexity and plurality of our history, and in many case of our own family history.

Brabazon Family c.1898-1900 (1)

The Brabazons, about 1900. Great-grandfather John Edward had served in India and Afghanistan and wears a military medal. Great-Uncles Michael and James wear the uniforms of army cadets**. Marie, my grandmother, who married William Owen Roberts, is in the middle at the back

*The Memorials in this post come from three churches: St Fin Barre’s in Cork City, St Barrahane’s in Castletownshend (Co Cork) and St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

** More information from my cousin, Shauna: The two boys are wearing the uniform of the Royal Hibernian Military School. More information about that establishment here.