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The Essential Library for Irish-Americans
By Morgan Llywelyn, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1999 Morgan Llywelyn
All rights reserved.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY, BIOGRAPHY, AND MEMOIRS
Before the Dawn
Brandon Press in association with William Heinemann, London, 1996; William Morrow, New York, 1997
The life and times of the leader of Sinn Féin told in his own words.
Describing the making of an Irish republican and the activities of today's Irish Republican Army (IRA), Before the Dawn is essential reading for anyone with an interest in contemporary Ireland.
Gerry Adams is a classic product of the Catholic working class of Northern Ireland. His father was a building laborer, his mother a "doffing mistress" in a linen mill. When Gerry Adams was born in West Belfast in 1948, his parents were living with his mother's mother. Harsh poverty and chronic overcrowding were a way of life. Eventually Gerry would have nine siblings, but things never got any easier for the family. Yet their lives were little different from those around them.
Both sides of the family had strong backgrounds in republican and working-class politics. The year before Gerry Adams was born, his father had been released from prison after serving five years for republican activities — a sentence that began when the senior Adams was only sixteen years old. The dream of a united Ireland that had fueled the Easter Rising in 1916 was still alive, and nowhere more ardently supported than among the Irish Catholics in West Belfast. Since the six northern counties were partitioned off from the rest of Ireland by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, northern Catholics had known the pain of being an oppressed minority in their own land.
The late forties were a time of great change internationally as the postwar boom got underway; but Belfast was the exception — at least for Catholics. Former center of a thriving linen industry, Belfast was also home to Harland & Wolff, the shipbuilders who had once built the Titanic and supplied many ships to the war effort. But Protestants controlled the management positions; the best Catholics could hope for was menial labor. The province was sustained on the principle of inequality. Those in power, who profited from it, did not want to see that principle threatened.
Gerry Adams was a shy, scrawny child, who took his Catholicism seriously. But in other ways he was the usual fun-loving boy, full of mischief without malice. His autobiography paints a graphic, often engaging picture of a young man's rites of passage. Girls, sports, clowning around with his friends, peering anxiously into the mirror and counting his pimples — these were the staples of his boyhood.
The book is not without Irish humor, even in dark situations. The mothers of West Belfast often had to pawn items of their husbands' clothing to feed their families, and Adams recounts overhearing two women talking during a spell of changeable weather: "The weather can't make its mind up," one says. "One minute it's teeming with rain, the next the sun is splitting the trees."
"I know," replies the other. "You wouldn't know what to pawn, would you?"
But though his childhood seemed relatively normal, Adams was not growing up in a normal world. He tells us that for a long time he remained naive about sectarianism, partly because he did not encounter it in his everyday life, partly because he didn't recognize it when he did meet it. People from Catholic West Belfast shopped for bargains in the Protestant Shankill Road, where, as he says, "They didn't care what religion you were so long as you had the cash."
Then, in 1959, a man Adams describes as "a sectarian anti-Catholic demagogue named Ian Paisley" bellowed such a message of virulent religious hatred that a Protestant mob attacked a Catholic-owned fish-and-chip shop on the Shankill Road. Paisley's Ulster Protestant Association won control of the Shankill Unionist Association and vowed to keep Protestant and loyal workers in employment in preference to Catholic workers.
Again and again, Adams would witness the tragedy engendered by a society divided. As his body grew, so did his mind — and his sense of injustice. In school he found it strange that he and other students were taught only English history, as if Ireland did not exist. He asked questions but was denied answers, so his curious mind led him to attend educational classes conducted by Sinn Féin, the Irish republican political party whose name translates as "We Ourselves." There Gerry Adams read many books that had never been featured in his school curriculum. He began to feel an intense pride in the fact that he was Irish.
By the time he was seventeen the young man was restless in school, bored by an education that did not seem relevant to the life working-class Catholic men were destined to lead. Leaving school, he took a job as a barman in a public house, where he received a different form of education. In those pre-Troubles days, Protestant and Catholic sometimes met on equal footing in the bonhomie of the pub. Adams tells of singing a loyalist anthem one night with as much gusto as anyone else. In the pubs of Belfast he heard politics endlessly argued from all sides of the political spectrum.
Then Ian Paisley vowed to lead a march to tear down the Irish flag atop the Sinn Féin office, on the grounds that the flying of a "foreign" flag was illegal in the province. Fifty members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary burst into the office with sledgehammers and ripped down the flag. The largely Catholic Falls Road area was soon embroiled in a riot.
Within weeks, Gerry Adams officially joined the Sinn Féin party.
The year 1966 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising and was commemorated all over Ireland, north and south. Ian Paisley retaliated by launching the Protestant Telegraph, a weekly paper devoted to anti-Catholic tirades. Within a short time Paisley had so stirred up sectarian feelings that violence erupted, to which the government of Northern Ireland reacted with alarm. Arrests, beatings, internment ... the British authorities had a large arsenal of weapons to use against any people so foolish as to demand their civil rights.
Adams describes the Orange Parade in Derry which set off what was called "The Battle of the Bogside." Orange parades through Catholic areas were blatantly triumphalist, celebrating the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic James Stuart three hundred years earlier. At the edge of the area known as the Bogside, young Catholic nationalists clashed with loyalists in an effort to prevent the Orangemen from marching through their streets. The event turned into a siege. On the second day, seven hundred members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, backed by loyalist mobs, undertook to force their way into the Bogside behind a cloud of poison gas. People were clubbed with batons; petrol bombs were thrown; the innocent suffered along with the guilty. The Troubles had begun.
From the moment Adams joined Sinn Féin, his life has been in almost constant danger. He describes himself as being gripped by contradictory feelings in the early years. He had the youthful, exciting conviction that a revolution was happening and he was going to be a part of it. But he speaks now with chagrin of the sense of naivete, of innocence almost, of his peers, who thought that the demands they were making were so reasonable, the other side must surely understand and give in.
They were wrong, of course; tragically so. The dead and dying were adding up on both sides, victims of a hatred that fed upon itself like cancer.
Before the Dawn is primarily an examination of the tragedy that is Northern Ireland, and the lengths to which that tragedy drives people on both sides of the divide. Adams is disarmingly frank about his own thoughts, while being careful to shield his wife and children from the dangerous glare of the spotlight. His courtship and marriage to Colette McArdle, "with a war raging all around us," is touchingly told, however.
A strong sense of duty permeates the writing, yet there is none of the fanaticism one might expect. Depending upon their own political bias, reviewers have variously described Adams's book as courageous and incisive — or as manipulative and mawkish. But no one fails to have an opinion. Gerry Adams is someone about whom it is impossible to be neutral. He is a major presence on the current Irish scene, and whatever happens in the future, his influence will be felt for a long time to come.
Hutchinson, London, 1958; David R. Godine, New York, 1991
In Ireland, the late Brendan Behan is described as "rebel, rogue, and writer" — in that order. This may say something very revealing about what the Irish prize in a man's character.
Born in Dublin in 1923 in Holles Street Hospital (the name on his birth certificate is Francis, not Brendan), Brendan Behan spent his childhood under the stern eye of a tough, domineering grandmother. Known to one and all as "Granny English," she not only spoiled him dreadfully but also plied him with drink from an early age. Later he would claim he did not remember a time he had not been drinking.
He left school at the age of fourteen to follow his father's trade as a housepainter, but continued to receive an education at home through the traditional Irish medium of hearing ballads and stories from Irish history. Following the family's strongly republican tradition, young Behan joined the IRA in 1939. He was arrested in Liverpool for possessing explosives when he was only sixteen years old. Borstal Boy opens with that arrest.
The landlady shouted up the stairs: "Oh God, oh Jesus, oh Sacred Heart. Boy, there's two gentlemen to see you."
I knew by the screeches of her that these gentlemen were not calling to enquire after my health. I grabbed my suitcase, containing potassium chloride, sulphuric acid, gelignite and detonators ... and the rest of my Sinn Féin conjuror's outfit....
But before Behan could escape, they seized him. He was arrested and thrown into jail, an experience that he describes with almost clinical detail. At first the contempt of his captors evoked a measured response. He was articulate and polite, but they would have none of it. He began to fear for his life, and imagined a republican martyr's death: "Drums muffled, pipes draped, slow march. When but a lad of sixteen years a felon's cap he wore."
Romantic imaginings were soon replaced by harsh reality. At his trial, Behan asserted his Irish patriotism. The juvenile court magistrate was not amused; he sentenced the boy to three years of detention in Walton Borstal. A borstal is the roughest sort of reform school. Behan's descriptions of the brutality to which he was subjected there make one wonder how anything decent could ever be produced by such "reforming." The world of the borstal was indifferent to simple humanity. On the day Behan arrived, the warders welcomed him by shouting abuse deriding both his name and his nationality. Behan tells us that he tried to distract himself by imagining the mythic Irish hero Cuchulain with all his enemies around him, standing with his back against a tree, calling on "the gods of death and grandeur to hold him up till his last blood flowed."
A warder struck young Behan again and again. Then he was thrown, shivering, into a cubicle he describes as not even the size of a dwarf's coffin, and ordered to strip. He soon learned that humiliation, pain, and fear were calculated elements of the punishment meted out to juvenile offenders — particularly if they were Irish.
Conditions in the borstal were primitive, violence always seething just below the surface. Later, Behan would describe one of his captors as saying, "I have him bitched, balloxed and bewildered, for there's a system and a science in taking the piss out of a screw and I'm a well-trained man at it." The other boys in the borstal were a mixed lot, mostly from an impoverished background and many already hardened to a life of crime. One was a Dubliner called Jerry Gildea, whom Brendan Behan knew well. Behan describes adventures the boys had once shared. His writing perfectly captures the bawdy, cocksure conversation of teenage boys together, and those moments of carefree youth provide a stark counterpoint to the horrors the two subsequently endured in the borstal.
To his credit, amid all the hatred to which he was exposed, Brendan Behan found something positive: friendship, solidarity, and healing moments of kindness. He was a complex man, who spun gold out of the dross of his life. The story he tells in these pages is not self-pitying. One can read it with horror but not contempt. And sometimes one is seized with sheer admiration for Brehan's turn of phrase. Consider this: "The morning is always a good time. Till about eleven o'clock when it begins to feel its age."
Borstal Boy is not a complete autobiography but a memoir of one segment of a man's youth. Those years were enormously influential, however, and the rest of Behan's life must be considered in the light of his reform school experiences. The book ends with his release from the borstal. He was immediately sent back to Ireland, where he describes his first glimpse of the Dublin Mountains with unconcealed joy: "There they were, as if I'd never left them, in their sweet and stately order around the Bay."
Brendan Behan would live and die loving Ireland, but his was not an easy life. As the result of a shooting incident in which a policeman was wounded, he was later rearrested and imprisoned for fourteen years. During this he learned the Irish language, read omnivorously, and began to write. His books and plays brought him both success and money, but his life was marred by sexual ambivalence, a dysfunctional marriage to Beatrice ffrench-Salkeld, and above all by alcoholism. Perhaps he had been doomed from the day he entered the borstal ... or that earlier day when Granny English bought him his first pint.
Brendan Behan is special to Americans partly because of the time he spent in New York in the 1950s, when his play The Quare Fellow was a hot ticket. Many people still remember his theatrical tantrums, his affair with Valerie Danby-Smith, Ernest Hemingway's assistant, and his gargantuan binges. Yet for all that, the New York Times wrote, "He has more than charm, he has instinctive kindness and charity, a verbal grace, an unforced assertion of a strong personality."
Behan died in 1964 of alcoholism and diabetes; he is buried in Dublin. His life was almost a textbook example of how not to foster and develop a talent, but his writing endures as the legacy of a tragic yet enormously gifted Irishman.
BULGER, WILLIAM M.
While the Music Lasts: My Life in Politics
Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1996
Irish Americans have made a deep impact on politics in the United States. Everyone is familiar with John F. Kennedy and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, both of whose lives have been the subject of excellent biographies. But other stories are equally interesting and perhaps more typical. William Bulger, for example, is the embodiment of the "Irish-American boy makes good." The Irish qualities of affability, quick wit, and a deep sense of loyalty have contributed in no small measure to his success.
From beginning to end, While the Music Lasts is the memoir of a dedicated politician, reminiscent of Edwin O'Connor's great novel, The Last Hurrah. The same smoke-filled rooms provide background atmosphere for both books, although they are set in different eras. O'Connor's novel is ultimately tragic, however, while Bulger's life so far has been something of a triumph. For seventeen years he served as president of the Massachusetts Senate, and is currently president of the University of Massachusetts.
Born in 1943, Bulger was very much a product of the working-class Irish enclave of South Boston — "Southies." At the time of the Great Famine, the influx of Irish immigrants into Boston far exceeded the population of the city itself, leaving a legacy that remains to this day.
Bulger opens his story with a revealing view of Boston as he knew it in his boyhood: "In the distance soared the pale towers of Yankee Babylon, their alien frigidity made bearable by what we perceived as the warmth and color of the hanging garden of South Boston, where we lived. ... Our roots ran deep. They kept us from being merely part of the whole. We valued our mélange of cultural traditions, and we had a shared sense of security. We were a Neighborhood."
Irish Americans frequently have turned to politics as the road to the power and status their ancestors were denied. Bulger tells us that he was fascinated by politics from an early age. He trained as an attorney, but that profession was always subordinate to a larger dream. In many ways a traditional Boston "pol," an avowed admirer of James Curley, Bulger entered the political arena to advance the interests of ordinary people. "It was not a sense of power I felt, but a joyful exhilaration at being able to make things better. One learns in time that standing up for such values ... can trigger savage attacks. But you don't think about that for long, nor very seriously. Not while you still hunger to make a difference. Not while you still think it's all possible. Not while you can still hear the music."
Excerpted from The Essential Library for Irish-Americans by Morgan Llywelyn, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 1999 Morgan Llywelyn. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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