Category Archives: Trinity College Dublin

The Wit and Wisdom of Malcolm Redfellow, MA (TCD) #92

I wouldn’t want this one to go missing.

I was accused by a poster on (roc_: patently no relation to the more famed Ross O’Carroll-Kelly) of misusing the word ‘an-historical’:

I’m assuming you mean ahistorical not an-historical which isn’t even a word.

So here’s the response:

Both variants are well-attested, by the Oxford English Dictionary, no less. Both are twentieth-century formulations. WH Auden (later in his career, Nones in 1952), has:

Their a-historic​
Antipathy forever gripes​
All ages and somatic types.​

As always, with Auden, I find myself muttering, “Yer wot, Gov?” Instructive — isn’t it? — that Auden felt it an awkward word which needed hyphenation.

So which of the two variants trips easier off the tongue? Auden’s hyphen is an awful warning. Which is more understandable, when there lurks the possible miscue of ‘a historical account’ and ‘ahistorical account’?

The version I prefer is that of The Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian. Neither of which felt the need to hyphenate, I admit.

So approach it logically.

‘History’ is from Greek, ἱστορία, via Late Latin and French. There was a perfectly good Old English term, gerećednis, so blame the Romance word on those pesky ecclesiastics. But notice the aspirated initial ἱ (iota). So when we stick on the prefix ἀν- we have regard to that aspirated iota. As the OED also says:

Etymology: < ancient Greek ἀν- (privative) not, without, wanting (only occurring before a vowel, including aspirated vowels; before a consonant as ἀ- …).​

And the moral of this instructive tale is, if one seeks to teach this Grandad to suck eggs, be aware he has a classical TCD education, and he prefers his eggs, like his detective fiction, ‘hard-boiled’.

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Who are such people?

Trinity reunion: 50 years on —


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The ScienceTake feature in the New York Times has an item on how peacocks use twerking and rustling to attract a mate’s attention. Ah, but ScienceTake had been this way before, and only a few months ago:

That’s the second time in a couple of days I’ve had peacocks drawn to my notice. This was the other:

I am thereby reminded of two further incidents.

The first was a TCD legend.

The graduates’ association felt that the Fellows’ Garden needed to be brightened by the addition of peacocks. One by one the daft birds escaped into College Green or Nassau Street; and met an untimely and messy end under Dublin Corporation buses. Some unkind souls suggested they were helped on their way by undergraduates who, like the protesting folk of Ushaw Moor, found the creatures disturbing their sleep.

The other came from an afternoon at Lisbon’s Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon. Here, too, we find peacocks. They have enough wit to frequent the area around the café:


So far, so good. The café is shaded by trees: itself a good idea when the sun beats down. However, the peacocks roost in these trees. And peacocks, especially when fed on the scraps from tourists tables, tend to be incontinent.

I watched for a few minutes, but the inevitable didn’t happen. Well, it didn’t happen just then …

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A personal ideological history

In my perfect world:

  • all London taxis would be black, and not advertising hoardings,
  • all London buses would be red (and hydrogen powered),
  • and we would have a properly-integrated transport system (where Virgin Trains and Arriva were nowhere to be seen).

As a non-optional extra:

  • the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press would be classed as pornography, confined to newsagent’s top shelves (or, better still, under the counter with a perverts’ permit required).

However, to be positive …

I came into politics via the National Progressive Democrats.

Who? I hear you ask. That needs a bit of explanation.

Once upon a time — actually 1946, Seán MacBride (son of Maud Gonne, Yeats’s inanoramata,  and John MacBride, executed 1916) formed Clann na Poblachta, an awkward and disputatious  conflation of old IRA men and urban social democrats, with — this being Ireland — a heavy dusting of catholicism. Even so, it was a popular — not to say populist — mix. For a while it looked as if it could sweep the country, so De Valera beat MacBride & Co. to the punch and called a General Election. The combined opposition parties then found themselves a majority of Dáil Éireann: a mish-mash of no fewer than five “recognised” parties and the usual slew of independents.

MacBride found himself able to nominate two Cabinet posts. He snaffled Foreign Affairs for himself, and appointed 32-year-old new TD Noël Browne as Minister of Health.

Browne set about building on the Fianna Fáil government’s 1947 Health Act. One radical proposal (this, let me remind you, was Ireland) was a scheme to provide free health care for mothers and children up to the age of sixteen.The medics went ape: their guaranteed fees income was threatened. Most hospitals had a religious foundation. Browne was a Catholic who had attended Trinity College. He had attended the funeral of Douglas Hyde, a protestant and first President of Ireland — he was unique among government ministers for infringing the denominational demarkation. He was a marked man.

The Catholic hierarchy, led by that most political of prelates, John Charles McQuaid, took the hump. Looking after the health and welfare of the young and their mothers went against the Church’s teaching on “faith and morals”. Better believe it.

In short order, Browne was out of the cabinet, and MacBride made sure he was out of the Clann. The coalition were out of government. For a while Browne sat as an independent, and (when he was back in the Dáil at the end of the 1950s), he came to a working relationship with another ex-Clann (social conscience wing) T.D., Jack McQuillan, as the “National Progressive Democrats”. In any other country they could have settled for “Social Democrats”. That gave the two of them a dusty committee-room/office in Leinster House, to which — on occasion — I was welcome.

That was “as Left as you could get” in “proper” Irish politicking in the early ’60s. Further into the howling wilderness were what would later be the “stickies” of Sinn Féin, and their “Wolfe Tone Bureau”. They had their offices at the back of Mountjoy Square — a singularly joyless place at the best of times. From the “stickies” (as opposed to the “provos”, now in Kevin Street) would emerge the Workers Party of Ireland, which I reckon were not —are not — entirely a bad thing.

The point of all this (and I suppose there ought to be one) is to highlight my downfall at the hands of Jeremy Corbyn’s groupule in Hornsey Labour Party, 1982.

When I sought re-selection as a councillor I had to “go before the panel”. I knew it was a pretty hopeless business — I had already been told, fist in my face, that “We’ll fucking get you!”, but I felt obliged to go through the ritual of being got.

It’s worth inserting here that we are going into 1982. The IRA hunger-strike campaign had folded late in the previous October. The Kincora enquiry was being subverted by “official” organised neglect. In February, De Lorean folded. Three days later Harland and Woolff was laying off one-in seven of its workforce. All immaterial: ideological purity must be maintained!

Knowing that I arrived in the (British) Labour Party from Páirtí an Lucht Oibre, with Northern Irish connections, the test question, the shibboleth, was: “Which party would you vote for in Northern Ireland?” The proper, decent, mainstream answer, in a proper, decent, mainstream Labour Party context, of course, is the Labour Party’s fellow in the Socialist International — the SDLP.

That — as I knew, in this heavily-entryist gathering — was the wrong’un.

So, afterwards I checked. I cornered the interrogator: “What was the approved answer there?”. Interestingly enough, there was no hesitation. This was the indicator the charade had been fore-planned. “Oh, Sinn Féin—the Workers’ Party”. A few weeks later, the first two words of the appellation there had been conveniently dropped.

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“Bad” King John ?

I feel provoked into this by Martin Rowson:


51hN3TGP63L._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_That is his rendering of King John as an utter prick. And, yes — since you didn’t ask — I have the book on order.

The Ott v. Lydon, c.1962

There was, in my days at TCD, a cleavage of opinion over John. Two of our academics held violently opposing views on him and his reign. Examinees learned to check which one was setting the examination paper, and tailored answers accordingly.

The dispute goes back to Stubbs versus Green. Stubbs in 1873 held:

What marks out John personally from the long list of our sovereigns, good and bad, is this — that there is nothing in him which for a single moment calls out for our better sentiments; in his prosperity there is nothing we can admire, and in his adversity there is nothing we can pity … John has neither grace nor splendour, strength nor patriotism. His history stamps him as a worse man than many who have done much more harm, and that — for his reign was not a period of unparalleled or unmitigated misery to his subjects — chiefly on account of his own personal share in the producing of his own deep and desperate humiliation.

Phew! But did you notice the small caveat: his reign was not a period of unparalleled or unmitigated misery to his subjects? It almost makes one muse what, from the view down below, a medieval monarch was useful for.

Almost at the same moment, publishing in 1874, along came J.R.Green:

the ablest and most ruthless of the Angevins … In the rapidity and breadth of his political combinations he far surpassed the statesmen of his time.

Green’s was the view that predominated for much of the twentieth century. So we find A.L.Poole, for the fourth (originally third) volume of the Oxford History of England:

He was cruel and ruthless, violent and passionate, greedy and self-indulgent, arbitrary and judicious, clever and capable, original and inquisitive. He was made up of inconsistencies.

We’d also need to remember that almost all the contemporary opinions of John come through churchmen and the chroniclers — if one likes, a synthetic view.  Doris Stenton wrote (page 46) of that:

No chronicler should be believed who is not strictly contemporary, and is not supported by record evidence when he makes extravagant claims about the King’s evil deeds.

And John was no dutiful, obedient follower of the church. The records, though, suggest a different creature — and, should one like to characterise it, an analytic approach. The second shows us a king who knew the law, and applied it (arbitrarily, but that is the mark of the times).

The great script writer

William Goldman did more for my appreciation of “Bad’ King John than all the lectures and books.

This from The Lion in Winter:

Henry II: Power is the only fact. (indicating Richard) How could I keep him from the throne? He’d only take it if I didn’t give it to him.

Richard: No, you’d make me fight for it. I know you. You’d never give me anything

Henry II: True, and I haven’t. You get Alais and the kingdom, but I get the thing I want most. If you’re king, England stays intact. I get that. It’s all yours now… the crown, the girl, the whole black business. Isn’t that enough? (He exits) 

Alais: I don’t know who’s to be congratulated. Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look, and I’m the only pawn. I haven’t got a thing to lose. That makes me dangerous. (She exits)

Eleanor: Poor child.

John: Poor John. Who says, “poor John”? Don’t everybody sob at once! My God, if I went up in flames, there’s not a living soul who’d pee on me to put the fire out.

Richard: Let’s strike a flint and see.

John: You’re everything a little brother dreams of. You know that? I used to dream about you all the time.

Eleanor: Ah, Johnny.

John: I’ll show you, Eleanor. I’ve not lost yet.

Goldman wasn’t finished with John there.

I have here his 1979 novel (now badly decayed), Myself as Witness. It covers the period of 1212 to 1219. The first-person narrator is a version of Giraldus Cambrensis (who, in reality, was already retired to Lincoln). It remains one of my favourite historical confections. Goldman is unashamedly positive about John. Here, from the introductory A Note to the Reader is Goldman’s near-apologia:

I have written about King John before; he makes appearances in both The Lion in Winter and Robin and Marian. Following the mainstream, I conceived him as a violent, unstable person with no principles at all. Not so this time around. Several years ago, this completely villainous King John began to seem increasingly improbable to me. He was too black, too terrible. And so I went back to the history books, and the more I read the more it seemed apparent that tradition had it wrong: a very different John must have existed. What had begun as an emotional conviction gradually seemed to be substantiated by the facts.

What are the facts? Remarkably little survives that was written while John was alive, and the picture of him that emerges from these scattered sources is surprisingly complimentary. The evil monarch we have come to know begins to appear in chronicles written a generation or more after his death. On top of which , the writing of history was a curious procedure in those days, and the chroniclers on whom we have relied give us reports of devils and dragons with the same conviction and seriousness that they accord verifiable political events.

Why these chroniclers made John into a monster is an unanswerable question. Possibly because England had had enough of Henry and his children, possibly because John’s reign saw more defeats than victories, possibly in response to political pressures of the moment.

 I think that’s where I came in here.

Those chronicles on which much history has been based are:

  • Roger of Wendover, about 1225;
  • Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall, who cannot be writing before 1221;
  • the Barnswell chronicler, again writing in the 1220s and adding to the record until 1232 or so;
  • the biography of William Marshal was started in 1221 and not finished until 1225-6;
  • the Histoire des Ducs de Normandie ends in 1220, and was probably written at or after that date;
  • the Margam annals must be even later in the thirteenth century;
  • the annals of Burton are found only in late-thirteenth century copies.

All good sons of Mother Church (which John was not). All good retainers of the baronial class (which John tried to contain). Let us now conceive — for an analogy — that any future account of the Labour government of 1997-2010 will derive from the Murdoch press of and after the second half of the present decade (2015-20+).

I see here [page 290]:

Three aspects of John particularly appeal to a modern sensibility. First, his love of books. He had a small library which he carried round with him on his restless travels and often swapped titles with the abbot of Reading; we hear of John’s interest in Pliny and in the history of England — not something we can ever imagine Richard bothering with. In an age when personal hygiene did not rank as one of the human priorities, John was positively oriental in his liking for baths and cleanliness; the records show that between 29 January and 17 June 1209 he took eight baths at different places on his itinerary and even possessed a dressing gown. Yet what most intrigues the historian of the early twenty-first century is John’s alleged atheism.

What’s not to like?


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Filed under Andrew Gimson, History, MArtin Rowson, Trinity College Dublin

The “not-so-good and not-so-great” revisited

Well, to be honest, I’ve lost count on this irregular series. Yet, today I need a peg to hang a hat on:


I see, on the shelf behind me, three of Anne Leonard’s oeuvres, in grander company than they deserve:


In either incarnation, as myself or as pseudonym, I do not appear in any. My circle at TCD in the early 1960s was as active, as interesting, as complex, as talented (if not more so) as that exclusive world of ex-pat, West Brit jeunesse dorée she celebrates. Where she, and her set, mentally resided (mainly in Kensington and the English Home Counties, with the odd baronial pad), we were merely the spear-carriers, the walk-on parts, who flitted across the screen to add texture.

No, Ms Leonard, MBE; no, Colin Smythe (writing that Irish Times puff-piece), yours is not the Trinity I remember:

Trinity was more like an Oxbridge college than a university: you could know “everyone”. And this is what Anne Leonard has shown us in her three volumes, the most recent, Portrait of an Era, a superb visual record of what Trinity was like in the 1960s, with essays and photos by students of students, of scholars, of staff, of President de Valera, of events, cars, fashion, Players, Trinity Week, Dublin pubs, sport, porters in their archaic uniforms, a time when all male students dressed in jacket and tie, and women only wore dresses, men living in college having to attend Commons in their black gowns every weeknight, and when roll calls preceded each lecture and all students had to attend six sevenths of those given in each seven-week term.

The reason for that is my Trinity was definitively in Dublin, in Ireland, and not semi-adjacent to the Kings’s Road. We were not wholly taken by cars, fashion, Players, Trinity Week. Actually, one year we had our own anti-Ball party, which (as I recall) involved drinking bottled beer in the Dublin mountains and watching the sun-rise over Dun Laoghaire. I admit I had a tie, and wore it occasionally — though my “jacket” may have been a donkey-jacket.

Far more TCD students at that time were Irish and Northern Irish than Ms Leonard, MBE, cares to recognise. Our concerns and interests were not exclusively English.

Most of us could not afford the rents of rooms in College: mine was a cold-water flat in a Ballsbridge basement (sanitary arrangements irregular, but hat-tip to the Edwardian bath-house off Botany Bay). We used bars which were not the Bailey or the International: mine was the corner bar of O’Neill’s in Suffolk Street. We ate at joints like the Universal Chinese restaurant in Wicklow Street, when we could afford to — and bread-and-processed cheese when we couldn’t. We travelled by Dublin Corporation bus. We swilled endless quantities of Maxwell House instant coffee. We argued incessantly about things that mattered: Cuba, Irish membership of the EEC, CND, the Black North under the Brookelborough mal-administration.

While Ms Leonard, MBE, and her associates and supporting Players, everyone der biedere Mann, reckoned Max Frisch and The Fire Raisers were the last word on world politics, the TCD Fabians were involved in the Universities Branch of the (Irish) Labour Party, and even reaching out to the assorted odd-balls of Queen’s Labour Group.

Ms Leonard, MBE, writes about her little self-anointed élite: they were, and as these books show, more effete.

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Another day …

Yesterday, with Archbishop Ussher’s chronology and the sainted expatriate Donagh, the blog may have pleased one or two passing strangers. The Pert Young Piece, however, reckons her Canadian beaver has gone AWOL (which probably means it’s in a plastic crate in my loft).

What today, Malcolm?

Well, the Lady in My Life and I cruised across to Scarborough and  for Northern Broadsides’  She Stoops to Conquer. Note, again, the TCD connection: these things are not all three-star delights, you know — sometimes there ‘s a duty to be honoured.

All credit to the excellent Stephen Joseph Theatre: they do a good show on an open stage. O.K. the restaurant needs to be sharpened up, but beyond that, what not to be liked? I mean, what looked like a sell-out performance to the grey-hairs of the Yorkshire coast on a Thursday afternoon …

Meanwhile, I have to admit I’d need a lot of persuasion to fall into mild affection for Scarborough itself. It is very much the end of the line (and that’s the choice between Trans-Pennine Express — which, most definitely, is no express, and today ran well late — or Northern Rail irregularly poddling down to Hull. The really bad news there is you may see-saw down to Hull in a Pacer, which must qualify as one of the least successful locomotive experiments on record — an experiment 35 years on.

And then there are the pubs. There must be good pubs in Scarborough. There are several, mainly on the outskirts (see, but late October is obviously out-of-season. So one effort had Timothy Taylor Landlord on a pump (yeah!) but no proper draught actually available. Another had nothing but fizz. Shocking!

And what of today?

The main event has to be the scheduled departure of the swallows from Capistrano. The little buggers cleared off from North Yorkshire about the start of September. Still, let’s wallow in 1940s nostalgia with the Ink Spots:

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