Reading, writing, rambling...

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Picking up Brian Girvan's The Emergency in the public library the other day, I was reminded of the early days of my stay in Cork, when I began to learn how different Ireland is. This was the late 1980s, and somewhere under the campus of University College Cork - location known only to a few trusties - there lurked a statue of Queen Victoria, then being pursued by the British Army for disinterment and relocation to one of its German bases. Politically though it proved too much of a hot potato, so Her Majesty remained underground. Indeed quite a lot of things remained underground as far as I was concerned, and I lived rather a charmed life among the College minefields after arriving to find that the Chief Librarian had gone off indefinitely with ill health, so that from day 1 and for the next 3 years I was "it".

Since the work circumstances which led to my predecessor's ill health, a severe depression, seemed to be still present much in the way that the jaws of a steel trap are, my real delight - in the job, the colleagues, the College and Ireland itself - was sometimes overtaken by an anxiety that I might unwittingly spring the trap myself. So I tried to pay attention. Even so, it took me a little while to twig that The Emergency older colleagues referred to was actually World War II. It still seemed to be a slightly charged topic, much less so than the Civil War or the Troubles in the North, but still with a little noise of crunching eggshells about it. Since I had just moved from Liverpool, most Irish of English cities but still inclined to be bitter about the blazing lights of Dublin showing bombers the way to Merseyside (allegedly), I was aware of the eggshells underfoot when I Mentioned The War too.

Girvan's book begins with Taoiseach Eamon de Valera's visit to the Third Reich's man in Ireland, Dr Hempel, to offer his condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler, one of Dev's more uncompromising and notorious moments. It continues (I haven't finished it yet) to examine the nature of Irish neutrality - was Ireland also neutral, i.e. indifferent, as to the outcome of the war? One area examined is the degree of participation by individual Irishmen in the British forces, and their lukewarm or unwelcoming reception on returning home afterwards.

Which reminds me of one of the Library secretaries during my time there, who had taken an interest in her family history. A great-grandfather (I think) had fought in World War I and received an British army pension, which he used to collect by walking into Cork from his home in nearby Passage West. One day he didn't reappear, and he was never seen or heard of again. Until, that is, my friend, reading through a history of Passage West not too long published, read that in a particular field lay the body of X (the name of her great-grandfather), executed and buried by the IRA as a British sympathiser (or maybe spy). So the case seemed to have gone from the event through the channels of memory and word-of-mouth into (after decades) a work of local history, without any great police perturbations en route. Not surprisingly, she decided to let that strand of family history lie where it was for the time being. I wonder whether she ever took it up again and whether this body was ever disinterred - it's a very different country now, more than twenty years later.

No comments:

Post a Comment