Shades of green
or how handling Michael Collins’s inamorata fuelled Malcolm’s drink habit
There are many enjoyable ways of irritating Malcolm, but two came together this week. One was a particular song; the other was a lapse of memory.
The link between the two was Four Green Fields.
The late Tommy Makem did a lot of good work, but his 1967 song, of which he was inordinately proud, grates on Malcolm. Makem in performance made it just a trifle too saccharine sweet and maudlin for Malcolm’s palate. The New York Times’s Neil Strauss implied something less than boundless enthusiasm, too, in his review of the 1999 New York Fleadh:
… backed only by an acoustic guitar, Tommy Makem bellowed a stentorian ”Four Green Fields,” the hallowed Irish leave-us-alone-with-our-beauty ballad he wrote in 1967, as the audience members pumped their hands in the air and sang in spellbound unison.
Perhaps Malcolm is being over-pernicketty here, but over the years he has fallen out of love for the whole Clancy and Makem Oirish soft-soap, which owes more to the White Horse, Greenwich Village, than Malcolm feels comfortable with.
He totally sympathises with Dominic Behan for what Liam Clancy did to The Patriot Game. Cutting the references to Connolly and de Valera changed the whole tone, making an apology for blood-sacrifice out of a much more bitter, darker, socialist text (here with both versions):
This Ireland of mine has for long been half free,
Six counties are under John Bull’s tyranny.
And still de Valera is greatly to blame/So I gave up my Bible, to drill and to train
For shirking his part in the patriot game/To play my own part in the patriot game.
Hardly a game
If anyone is not aware of the background to Behan’s song, it relates to the shambles that was an IRA attack on the RUC Brookeborough Barracks on New Year’s Eve, 1956.
Seán Garland’s dozen Volunteers rode a commandeered dumper truck into town, and parked too close to their target, thus warning the RUC men within (who would have been alert after previous IRA activity in “Operation Harvest”). Under covering fire, the Volunteers tried unsuccessfully to plant a mine, but were driven off by return fire from the RUC sergeant. The IRA men retreated to the mountains, recovering the badly-wounded Seán South and Fergal O’Hanlon, both of whom died, in Dublin’s Mater hospital, within hours, of “motor accident” injuries.
The main consequence of these events, apart from the ballads adding two more heroes to the pantheon, was Seán MacBride wrapping the green flag tightly round him, and causing the downfall of the Dublin coalition government and of his own political career.
The most beautiful woman in Ireland
MacBride’s mother, Maud Gonne, is the link back to what Malcolm expects is the origin of the “Four Green Fields” metaphor for the four Provinces of Ireland. She appeared in the title-rôle of a one-act play, Cathleen ni Houlihan, on April 2, 1902 at St. Teresa’s Hall in Dublin. WB Yeats (who would hardly have been neutral) later said of the performance:
Miss Maud Gonne played very finely, and her great height made Cathleen seem a divine being fallen into our mortal infirmity.
The setting is the 1798 Rising, near Killala, at the moment of the French landing. The climatic moment, and mathematical centre of the play is:
BRIDGET: What was it put the trouble on you?
OLD WOMAN: My land that was taken from me.
PETER: Was it much land they took from you?
OLD WOMAN: My four beautiful green fields.
Immediately after that:
PETER: [to Old Woman] Did you hear a noise of cheering, and you coming up the hill?
OLD WOMAN: I thought I heard the noise I used to hear when my friends came to visit me.
We then are given the notion of the blood-sacrifice:
OLD WOMAN: … there were others that died for love of me a long time ago. MICHAEL: Were they neighbours of your own, ma’am?
OLD WOMAN: … There was a red man of the O’Donnells from the north, and a man of the O’Sullivans from the south, and there was one Brian that lost his life at Clontarf by the sea, and there were a great many in the west, some that died hundreds of years ago, and there are some that will die to-morrow.
Having thus name-checked the national martyrs, from Aodh Rua Ó Domhnaill to Donal Cam O’Sullivan Bere, not omitting Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig, she identifies herself:
BRIDGET: You did not tell us your name yet, ma’am.
OLD WOMAN: Some call me the Poor Old Woman, and there are some that call me Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.
Many that are red-cheeked now will be pale-cheeked; many that have been free to
walk the hills and the bogs and the rushes will be sent to walk hard streets in far countries; many a good plan will be broken; many that have gathered money will not stay to spend it; many a child will be born and there will be no father at its christening to give it a name. They that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake, and for all that, they will think they are well paid.
A terrible beauty
A powerful myth, but not one that Yeats created. Indeed, there is some doubt to what extent the play is his. Lady Augusta Gregory claimed the the opening scene, and that the rest was her and Yeats. Yeats himself would later wonder:
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
Did words of mine put too great strain
On that woman’s reeling brain?
There is, indeed, a direct link from Cathleen ni Houlihan to Easter Monday, 1916. Malcolm will return to that in a later posting, and try to ascertain where the notion began.
In this respect, one is either with Yeats or with Joyce. Yeats (who had briefly flirted with the IRB) knew the effect his play would have, and deliberately willed it. Joyce, according to Stanislaus in My Brother’s Keeper, “was indignant that Yeats should write such political and dramatic claptrap.”
So, with one bound, we are into the psychology of Pádraig Anraí Mac Piarais. Malcolm has long been exercised by this, and fortunately even the most extreme of Pearse’s apologists now have problems with it:
Many revisionists point to extracts from Pearse’s writings to support the blood sacrifice thesis. Yes, without doubt, Pearse’s use of language was often extreme, but also – and this should not be overlooked – typical of the age.
“Typical of the age”, perhaps, and frequently blamed on Sigmund Freud, though, as far as Malcolm can see, Freud’s key text did not become available until after 1918.
Pearse is … only too conscious of the image of Christ in the arms of his mother, the mother being Ireland, the ‘pierced’ Christ Pearse himself … That the coming battle should be joined at Easter, when Pearse/Christ might be expected to triumph over death by welcoming it, was a brilliant piece of timing, one that assured the longevity of the term “Easter Rising”, and gave Pearse an emblematic status as the main rhetorician of Irish nationalism. I’m referring, of course, to Yeats’s distinction between rhetoric and poetry, one stemming from a quarrel with others, the other from the quarrel with oneself.
The truth is that it the blood-sacrifice seems particularly and sadly persistent in Irish myth and iconography (and, as promised above, a topic Malcolm will return to). In the context of Cathleen ni Houlihan, though, a more promising and immediate route is through Lady Gregory’s youthful reading of Sheridan LeFanu.
As we said at the outset of this entry, Malcolm was annoyed with himself because he could not immediately relate to the source of the “Four Green Fields” metaphor. He got stuck on Evie Hone’s 1939 stained-glass window (illustrated). Hone made this for the Irish pavilion at the 1939 New York World Fair. It then came back to Ireland, and, years later, was displayed in O’Connell Street, in the CIE head office. Then it went back into storage, before finally being accorded a place in the Government Offices at Upper Merrion Street.
There’s obviously a story behind Hone’s design: there is an earlier 1938 design showing Saints and Scholars with St. Colmcille, more typical of Hone’s religiously-inspired work. Who made the change to the more political motifs for the finished work?
Before Malcolm leaves Cathleen ni Houlihan and her small-holding problems, there are two other thoughts he appends.
Beauty and the beast
The first is a curious political inversion. Her image was conscripted by the British Government for recruiting posters, during the First World War, as these examples show:
The most beautiful girl in the Mid-West
Then came the stunning magnificence of the Irish maiden who featured on the Irish banknotes between 1928 and 1975. They went out of circulation in 1982, but the £100 design was used until 1996. She was derived from a portrait by Sir John Lavery.
The Notes Committee of the Central Bank of Ireland approached Lavery, an Ulsterman who had sided with the Nationalists, and whose house had been Michael Collins’s (of whom more in a moment) London base in the Treaty negotiations.
Here’s an account of the intention:
In preparing the portrait for the note, it was Lavery’s intention to produce a painting of Cathleen ni Houlihan, the legendary heroine who had been made popular by William Butler Yeats. Interestingly, Lavery was known to have in his possession at his death a portrait by Sean Keating, a young Irish artist, which was titled ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’. It is possible that ownership of this painting predated his commission by the Note Committee and this work may have influenced his portrait.
Lavery worked on his portrait over Christmas 1927 and evidently sent a photograph of the painting to the Note Committee …
The final portrait shows ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ leaning on a Cláirseach (Irish harp), supporting her chin in her hand. She is dressed in simple Irish clothing, with the lakes and mountains of Ireland in the background.
The result was one of the most attractive (in all senses) currencies around: the high value notes (the “Persian carpets”) were exquisite.
In this case Cathleen ni Houlihan spoke with a distinct Mid-West twang, all the way from Chicago. When she married Lavery it was a second marriage for both of them. What causes much speculation is her relationship with Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins: was it more than flirtation? Collins certainly had a letter to “Hazel, dearest” in his pocket when he was shot. She went into mourning for his death. The current mode is that the relationship went unconsummated: this is, apparently, based on the assumption that, if had been been, the IRA would have shot her as a possible double-agent.
That ignores the obvious rider that Collins ran the gun-men and IRA intelligence.
And if you must have Four Green Fields on your iPod, do as Malcolm does, and make sure it is Dick Gaughan giving it an authentic angry edge.