Maurice Harmon is Professor Emeritus of Anglo-Irish Literature at University College Dublin and has held professorships in a number of universities abroad, including the University of Notre Dame, Ohio State University, and Kobe College, Japan. An internationally known scholar-critic, his publications include Seán O’Faoláin: A Life (1994), Selected Essays (2006), and Thomas Kinsella: Designing for the Exact Needs (2008). The Dialogue of the Ancients of Ireland his translation of Accalam na Senόrach appeared in 2009. He is also a poet. Recent collections are The Last Regatta (2000), The Doll with Two Backs (2004), and The Mischievous Boy and other poems (2008). When Love Is Not Enough: New and Selected Poems will be published by Salmon Poetry in 2010.
The Last Geraldine Officer
(Anvil Press 2009)
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The poems in the first part of Thomas McCarthy’s The Last Geraldine Officer, some of which deal with the Southern Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, are spoken through the first-person, often ironic, voice of a friendly, relaxed, and disarming persona. But while his manner seems both casual and ‘droll’, to use his own term, the impression of ease should not be mistaken for indifference. In Part Two McCarthy imagines the life, career, and voice of an Anglo-Irish officer in the British army, Sir Gerald Fitzgerald (‘Geraldine’), to shape a substantial portrait of life in the Big House. The attachment to place is dominant. Captain Fitzgerald writes poems in Irish, keeps a journal, and records recipes he has known so that we witness one man’s changing relationships with the Ascendancy world he came from and his shifting response to Irish language and culture. He fails to become the poet he wanted to be, but the poems that he writes about his experiences in World War Two are unique in Irish literary tradition. With insight, intelligence, and sensitivity McCarthy creates a credible and sympathetic portrait of a defining period in Irish and European history and of a man who learned to adjust to his fracturing world.
The poem ‘Kestrel and Stoat’ in Part One imagines the poet-narrator in a relaxed posture – ‘minding my own business’ – his business being a leisurely scratching ‘In the spinsterish manner of a European poet’. But the quiet occasion is shattered by a deadly encounter. ‘The kestrel tore out of the screeching sky’ and a twisting killer ‘severed its flying jugular.’ ‘Their deathly cloudburst/Tumbled to earth. Thump!’ The incident is powerfully enacted and transforms the occasion: ‘the fertile hour blue as ink’. The poet may be doodling, as he is ‘wont to do’, but the abstract pose is a mask. He pretends to be idling but is alert and in control, able to register what he observes in exact detail. When the event happens, he is ready for it, as Wordsworth was when he reclined under a dark sycamore, near Tintern Abbey.
‘Molly Keane’s Peach Champagne’ mingles humour and affection in its account of what happened on another ‘ordinary Irish evening’. The ordinariness accommodates the old phone’s grumble and weight, the postman’s cine-camera, which he used to record Corpus Christi processions ‘before Ireland went to/The dogs - ’, the bench sent by Fred Astaire, and Molly Keane’s trust in ‘Lobster and peach Champagne’ to keep her going.
The ordinary and the absurd also meet in ‘On Becoming a Person’ in which the dog chews the last library copy of Carol Roger’s On Becoming a Person. The country, we are told again, has gone to the dogs and manners have gone the way of the Latin Mass. ‘God be good’, the speaker says, ‘to those who spoke words we couldn’t understand;/They were a blessing and consolation.’ That generalisation suffers ironic deflation in the remark that they ‘kept the wet trousers of Ireland from falling down’.
The ludicrous and the homely go hand-in-hand but the relaxed, conversational style can switch from emphatic narration to literary observation, as when the poet quotes Henry James’s remark, ‘As the picture is reality so the novel is history/And not as the poem is: a metaphor and closed thing.’ That reminds us that within digression, ‘droll pathos’, and various ironies, McCarthy deals with serious matters, both social and personal. You can, he says, ‘figure/And pick among things’ like a novelist, but as you do so the tide ‘advances and recedes’. The sea, he tells his Beloved, ‘is your fable/Spinner, giving us knowledge abundant and vicarious’.
The poems shape a specific world in a particular way. The poet’s eye is selective. As he writes, Molly Keane and Elizabeth Bowen, novelists of the Ascendancy, are both dead, and William Trevor writes of faded gentility. The sadness of their disappearance falls across Thomas McCarthy’s pages, but he commemorates the gentry with affection and respect. His tribute in ‘The Protestant South’ intimates values of civility, taste, and tradition. While the ladies and gentlemen in ‘An Anglo-Irish Luncheon Party’ have Turquoise-stones, a Glauvina pin, and a velvet Bolivar hat, he and his father, as McCarthy cheekily affirms, carry as ornaments ‘Two Party cards, two ash hurling-sticks, two copies of The Nation’.
McCarthy’s persona is optimistic. In ‘September Refugees’ when he sees people queuing for a few coins he can ‘only see the wound of the world bleeding into me’. It is not, he declares, Cuchulain’s wound, but in Ireland now, not a place for big gestures. But, he says, life will improve in ‘the first morning of a wind-borne homecoming,/Shuffle of survivors, voyagers, mothers with the strongest will—
As when the Willow Warbler, in late September,
Begins to sing again in a sudden, irrepressible outburst of hope.
In the companion poem, ‘Full Moon over the Refugee Centre’, the last lines carry the possibility of a more attractive future: ‘An inexhaustible moon it is/ That scatters across the sky its silver, untranslatable dust.’
In Part Two McCarthy's narrator, Sir Gerald Fitzgerald, an Irish language poet from Templemaurice House, County Waterford, enlists in the British army. During the Second World War he writes poems about warfare and poems about his home place – the rivers Bride, Blackwater, and Finnisk, the woods of Glenshelane – and in his journal he remembers and records recipes prepared by their cook, Mrs. Norah Foley. The Anglo-Irish world includes Fitzgeralds, Usshers, Chearnleys, the Protestant families who live on the good land along the rivers. The poorer families, Griffins, O’Donnells, Foleys, and McGraths, live on the hillsides above Glenshelane Woods.
These divisions of class, religion, and education do not disturb the Captain’s imaginative reflections. As he describes it, the balance between big house and cottage is part of a stable world, the relationship between the aristocracy and their workers one of mutual, unquestioning respect. Society, as he remembers it, is settled and peaceful, a continuity that is manifested not only in his memories of place and people but in his appreciation of the many recipes which he records in full and with full delight. He always associated cooking with reading and writing; Mrs. Foley, virtually a goddess of plenty, dispenses nourishment. As he affirms at the beginning, ‘the grandeur of the world/ Enfoldeth me still’. He loves where he came from and expresses that love openly. ‘Templemaurice seemed to dream through me, as Uncle Walter/ Did, thrilled by my love of words, of verbs and conjugations.’ Tutored by that Uncle, a Décies scholar, he is deeply drawn to Irish literature and mythology. Kuno Meyer’s translations from Old Irish become part of his imaginative life.
I could hear a deer’s cry
And the blackbird in the wood, the monk snoring loudly
And the cock’s persistent crow. Each translated image was
A subject I could see, a deer or a blackbird breaking free.
As in a work of historical fiction McCarthy includes the larger history of the new Irish Republic as it impinges on the young Fitzgerald's mind when he returns from Eton in 1932 and when he converses with Uncle Walter whose library of Irish books he explores. The Catholic State's celebrating the Eucharistic Congress to him seems to connect with the work of Protestant scholars like his uncle and Douglas Hyde. Fitzgerald’s attachment to place is tested in the cauldron of war and the devastation on the European continent. After the war, emigration takes its toll and he notes ‘Ireland’s slow decline/Into a lesser version of Irish life’. Mrs. Foley's recipes give the impression of permanence but their stodginess evokes a bygone era.
Nevertheless, they function in a variety of ways, not only as homely reassurances, not only as part of that society – ‘Cappoquin never forgotten’ – but as comforting certainties: ‘Mr. Redmond's Fingers’, ‘Mount Melleray Colcannon and Champagne’, ‘Lismore Castle Cumberland Sauce’, and ‘Mrs. Foley’s Brown Soda Bread’. Their reliable, cleanly executed and pleasure-giving qualities for Fitzgerald are powerful antidotes to the terrors of battle and to human loneliness. How to cook a brace of Glenshelane pheasant is an agreeable example:
Pluck the bird, singe the skin to get rid of downy feathers. Draw. Wipe
inside and out with a wet cloth and then truss firmly. Rub the flour on
the bird and lay the bacon slices across the breasts. Heat the dripping
in a large roasting tin, or two smaller ones. Place the birds on a grid
tray in each tin and cook for an hour. Check after fifty minutes and see
if brown and not over-cooking. Reduce the heat if too browned. Place
the birds on a dish, having removed the trussing. Pheasant can be
served with gravy, watercress, bread sauce or roasted breadcrumbs.
Two pheasant should do for six people.
Recording that brings normality and a sense of balance to a world where chaos is come again.
His accounts of home are warmly positive as he identifies a place, Templemaurice House, a household, Uncle Walter, his mother, sister Nesta, Mrs. Foley, and a time of innocence, focusing on three specific events: the death of his father in the Great War, the love-making of his man-servant Paax Foley and his bride, and their departure for war.
He connects the death of his father ‘with every trained and deliberate gesture of life’, and with Mrs. Foley’s recipes, ‘Grief and barley-water’. His attachments include the dead poets of the First World War and his father’s wardrobe. When he chooses to wear a British uniform he does so voluntarily. Nobody has influenced him and nobody, then, mentions the incongruity. That division has to work itself out in the story of his life.
The love scene between Paax Foley and his new wife is part of Fitzgerald’s evocation of boyhood. He comes upon ‘A love scene as perfect as the most perfect lyric poem’:
There Paax and his beloved Siobhan were half naked
As husband poured a full bucket of breakfast milk
Over his beloved’s glistening breasts, Siobhan’s head
Thrown back in joy, such intimacy beyond talk
Or recitations; or any kind of love-song. Naked joy.
Earth seemed to enfold them with the warmth of cows.
His own first love-affair with Lady Enid ffrench-McGrath is passionate but less innocent: ‘voracious as pigs let loose in a yard’, they ‘feast on food talk’.
So that by the time I reach the Regimental Barracks
To offer my signature I have a kingdom of love
To draw upon, and dreams beyond a boy's imagination.
When he hears anxious talk about Hitler in Northern Ireland in 1938, his political education is extended. The South, he thinks, has that ‘Celtic thing, that fringe, that ability to stand apart – ’ but neutrality becomes an issue in the troubled mind of this Southern Protestant and cultural nationalist. When W.B. Yeats dies in 1939, Fitzgerald says that he intends to be ‘his kind of Irish poet,’ although he sees that some anti-nationalist Northerners dislike Yeats. He remembers what he likes—the Gaelic language, Irish poems, Silva Gadelica, Irish texts in the Royal Irish Academy and Maynooth College, the pioneering work of Eugene O’Curry, and Uncle Walter ‘among scholar friends’. He justifies those interests with the claim ‘who should love us if we cannot love ourselves/In the purest forms: memory, manuscript, poem—’ but literature and war, he knows, are different values. In effect he lives in the conflict between them and in the give and take of that theatre has to work out his destiny.
These considerations now affect his view of the South where he recognises a ‘sense of nation and that nation’s little State’ and feels ‘least at home’. Ulster, he thinks, has taken on a greater task, ‘a truly honourable war’, the South ‘seemed an idle place’. Nevertheless, he goes to war carrying five Irish books, both in English and Irish. By the time he returns on leave the Allies have experienced many military set-backs. In ‘Smaointe Mheadhon Oίdhche’, when he describes the decline of his people and of the Irish language, he declares that he must address that life:
Bheadh lucht psychanailise ag déunamh spόirt le m’όige,
M’athair caillte, lucht na nGearaltach ag fágháil bháis, teanga nach
Caithfidh mé fáithim a chur faoin saoghal san, mo smaointe
Mar ruithleaca na trágha, nό glasόg sa ngiorr-thrághadh.
When he goes back to war in November 1942 he carries in his mind the burden of irish history, the evictions, the wars of independence, and the fragile neutrality. McCarthy imagines the Captain's various experiences: the London blitz, his saving love-affair with an American agent – 'a Lauren Bacall with Irish instincts' – or life with Paax Foley in a Sherman tank.
...Target at two
o’clock, ourselves moving, a lump of crushed metal all yellow and white.
O’Shea peers through his direct telescope and roars Fire! Boom and
recoil, a flash, a blast in the distance, a hit. / And turn, quickly turn,
advance, turn, reload at speed, again fire, let loose as well the coaxial
machine-guns. Fire, fumes, exhilaration.
Fitzgerald’s complicated awareness permeates his writings: his accounts of his activities as an officer, heightened descriptions of military engagements, memories of rural Waterford – ‘the golden syrup of daffodils’ – poems from ‘the lost Gaelic world far away from this war’, his love-affair, and reflections on what has happened to the Irish language. He quotes Seán O’Faoláin’s disillusioned observations in the February 1943 issue of The Bell, ‘The Gaeltacht, the language, the Revival, everything connected with what was once so honoured and so nourishing is now a bitter taste in the mouth, sometimes positively nauseating.’ Both poems and journal reflect his own educational journey from unquestioning devotion to increasing disenchantment with the lost Gaelic world. That autobiographical narrative is the central issue of Part Two.
From Uncle Walter comes the gift of the ‘bright candle of Máirtίn Ó Direáin’. When he discovers the poetry of Ó Direáin, he recognizes its truthfulness to ordinary Irish life, the poetry, ‘a kind of consecrated Host’, a world without war. In this summer of 1944 he writes several poems in Irish, some about the remembered world ‘a timeless and immortal image of all Irish childhoods’. Within a few pages they are replaced by poems about battle, such as ‘Ar an mBόthar go Nijmegen, 1944’ in which he counters the worsening turmoil of war with the cool-headed (‘fuairaigeanta’) control of poetry. That the language is pre-Standard (caighdeánach) is appropriate for someone born during the Anglo-Irish War.
Beirim greim ar lámha fuaraigeanta na filidheachta.
Anois thá bhuamáil ag dul in olcas,
Scréach an Typhoon idir an bhόthar is an spéir;
An droichead nimhneach fé phleancadh.
Thá ár bpίolόta fé gheasaibh ag na ribίnί buί,
Muid go léir ag feitheamh fén gcomh-aontas geal.
When the Allies gain the upper hand and drive towards Germany, any sense of victory is quashed when he sees Holocaust victims in a concentration camp—‘Isteach linn sa gcliabhán nimhneach Sandbostel’. He comprehends the evil of the conflict, the devastation of Europe, the immense human suffering. It is, he thinks, ‘the most poisonous springtime ever’. His reflections deepen:
...The screech-owl questions us: what happened here in this lonely
place? Nothing here but the naked body of the night, the trees stretched
on a hillock like dead soldiers. / ‘What happened here, Oh, Geraldine?’
/ Poetry of desperation in my heart, sadness of this earth in my mind. I
hear prisoners screaming / the gun-powder of history red with blood. I
think of the grief around me instead of liberation. Every wretched
mother of Europe, like a hen pheasant in the woods at Glenshelane,
stealing away with her own personal Christ; her last possible Christ in
this ruin / this ruin of Europe’s soul.
The interaction between the journal notes and the poetry deserves more extensive comment but here, for example, achieves a powerful combination:
‘Cad a tharla anso, a Ghearalaigh?’
Éigse na ndraoithe, dréacht-ghlan, im chroί,
Dόlás an domhain im’ intinn.
Cloisim fuar-chaoineadh coscrach na bprίosúnach.
Smaoinighim ar fhaisistίoch na neodrachta, lucht an tίr-ghrádha
’gus an tonn-taoscacht tagtha orthu i dtithe tábhairne i nÉirinn;
Púdar-gunna na staire ag deargadh ina gcomhluadar;
Is follasach nár dhein an Cogadh mόrán imnidhe dόibh
Smaoinighim ar an gcroich athá im thaobh
I n-áit mo dhoilghis dίomhaoin: agus, sa lá ag diúltughadh dá sholas
Gach máthair Eorpach, ainniseach mar chearc fhraoich, ag tόnacáil
Lena Crίost pearsannta; a chuid éadaigh millte ’ge luairtheán a’
These sections of the work are deeply imagined and a cause of tears.
The death of his Uncle Walter adds to his growing despair. The insulated state of Irish Ascendancy life as he has known it has been exposed by his encounters with the evil of Fascism. Neutrality, he concludes, is not an option, he is ‘At war in a neutral place’. Now he feels the anomaly of his position as a Gaelic poet in a British uniform. Now he feels alien in Templemaurice, seeing ‘a discreet people who keep to themselves’. Furthermore, no London publisher will accept his book of Irish poems. He uses English to describe the final years of the war, including its aftermath, and to record his response to ‘a poetry like nothing else in a war-torn world’, the poetry of Máirtίn Ó Direáin:
Nations fall, cities are consumed by fire, refugees stalk
The whole of Europe, yet life is distilled into an Irish poem.
What is a nation for but to cultivate a nation’s private talk?
His soul, he concludes, has been 'ruined' by all that has left him 'a Stranger on Déise roads'. In Germany he and his Irish-American beloved share a 'poetry that comes from uncommunicated private grief'; they dream of the 'unaltered still-life of neutrality', but that dream has been tested and found wanting by Ireland's slow decline. Among the olives and flowers of San Remo they 'come to terms'.
The Last Geraldine Officer is a major achievement, varying from playful and sophisticated lyrics to a serious account of the progress of a son of the Big House as he engages with and is changed by the disruptions of the Second World War and its aftermath. W.B. Yeats could commemorate the Protestant Ascendancy, Thomas McCarthy can enter more intimately into the individual life of Sir Gerald Fitzgerald, who tries in vain to fuse his legacy as a member of a privileged aristocracy with that heritage in Irish language and literature that had inspired Dr Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League, collector and translator of seminal anthologies of folk poetry, and first President of Ireland. Fitzgerald’s encounters with events outside of Ireland loosen his attachment to the settled Ascendancy life of Templemaurice. His reading of Máirtίn Ó Direáin confronts him with a poetry of quotidian realities. His own poems of love and war describe an alternative truth. In the long run it is his love-affair that endures. Together he and his beloved ‘come to terms’ with disruption and dislocation.
©2009 Maurice Harmon
Maurice Harmon at Irish Writers Online
Maurice Harmon at Salmon Poetry
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