Young Hogan in His Own Words

Guests in Our Father’s House

For My Siblings

Guests were a necessary evil and our father put up with them, in his fashion. The house continued to be ‘run around him’ – his nocturnal studies and daytime sleeping were not to be disturbed. Dons from Oxbridge were the most regular, external examiners at the end of June, male to a man. Amongst them eminent intellectuals like Herbert Butterfield, Brian Wormald, Michael Oakeshott. On and off, writers and politicians giving lectures in the college stayed overnight. For example, Hilaire Belloc, Sean O’Faolain, Lord Pakenham (later Longford) and Ernest Blythe. l can’t remember wives accompanying any of our guests. In the fifties their place was still in the home. The guests were mostly busy people with a need for their own peace and quiet, and so the absence of our father did not cause offence. But some must have wondered if he went to a hotel while they were staying. Observant ones would have noticed the light on all night in the front room, and the blinds drawn during the day on the floor above.

To us children, guests were like gods descending. They came and went, trailing clouds of glory, or ridicule. We were alert to every moment of their stay, the Greek chorus to our mother’s heroic struggle to protect our father’s work. Our commentary was sotto voce, we were to be seen rather than heard. Due to her vigilance, the gods never got to know the turbulence they were causing down below. Though they might possibly have heard our father’s voice accompanied by the tapping of a typewriter. The only person who could read his handwriting was his wife, and so she was effectively his typist as well as a mother of six. When he moved on to a Dictaphone, the drone of his voice could be heard night and day, recording in the small hours and replayed for our mother while Kitty the maid was tasked with controlling us. When this failed our father would appear in his dressing gown and mournfully say to our mother, ‘Can’t you keep those children of yours quiet?’ Needless to say, she was not best pleased, but she kept her council, until he returned to bed.

The odd visiting cousin, or French schoolchild on exchange with one of my sisters, was incorporated into the children’s kasbah. Noise, these visitors soon learned, was the unforgivable sin, and collectively punished. A fit of giggles, or subdued fighting, brought a hiss in the dark. Our mother appeared like Belshazzar, and the writing on the wall read, ‘I’ll beat you to within an inch of your life tomorrow.’ I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times anyone got the wooden spoon, and then only half-heartedly. But the muted clap of her hands made the eyes smart. Mercifully, father mainly slept by day when he was working on something important. Children from outside were not allowed in the house. But rules are made for breaking.

The dons usually stayed three days. They were left to themselves until the third day, when our father gave them his undivided attention. First to go over papers or theses that had been marked down – he knew the students who had qualities other than passing exams, and sometimes he even invited a particular recalcitrant round to the house to defend his answers. On the last day our father hosted a lunch for the don. Our mother prepared the meal herself. The study became the dining room, because it was light and airy. A French window opened on to the back garden, which sloped south so that the noonday sun shone above the encroaching trees. The best cutlery and silver were brought out, and claret from Woodford Burns. My elder sisters served so that our mother could sit at table, as did all the children, except the baby, who remained in the kitchen with Kitty the Maid. It was to be part of our education.

I watched our father more than the guests, or rather his reflection in their eyes. That he was a superior being, I did not doubt. His comportment at the lunch confirmed it. He created around him an aura of benign authority: old-world manners and no small talk, even when addressing children. Nothing flashy. Being clever was infra dig.

I observed the lunches as the low-achieving boy whose main role in the family was to go with our father for swims in the estuary at high tide, or play tennis with him. I had no idea what went on in our father’s mind, but I admired his baseline game, a forehand that invariably hit the line and lobs that gauged the wind to perfection. His swimming, though, embarrassed me. The white mane of hair he cultivated in his later years was not to get wet. So, he crested the waves with his head up. That, with a measured overarm stroke, gave him the aspect of Manannán Mac Lir, the Celtic Sea god, or a flapping duck, depending on your perspective. If boys I knew were watching, I kept my head down. There was an ancient oakwood on one side of the creek, and a heather and furze hill in purple and yellow flower on the other. Pheasants would rise up from it unexpectedly.

Likewise, at table during the don’s lunch, I was worried about how his understated performance was perceived. The blind faith of a loving son was not enough. But, after initial hesitations, I relaxed and listened. The initial topics of conversation were chosen to draw out the guest on his pet subject. I remember a handful as diverse as theodicy and Leibniz, Pope Pius XI and mountain climbing, and an exchange of favourite lines from Shelley (‘Another Athens will arise’ was our father’s). The dons were made to feel at home, basking in esoterica beyond me, though I retained some key words like ‘dialectical materialism’. When I read Voltaire’s Candide years later, I recalled Dr Pangloss’s dumbing down of evil in the world (‘All is for the best in this the best of all possible world’) being wryly floated at awkward moments. Our father had his fallbacks when the don was not forthcoming: Zeno’s paradoxes, and George Boole, whose mathematical logic is said to have led to computer science. In the mid-nineteenth century, Boole taught at the university, and lived down the road in Ballintemple village in the tall house next to one that was haunted. Boole neve failed to launch a response.

But current affairs were our father’s desired topic. On Fridays he regularly held afternoon seminars for his students on historically significant news items. They were open to anybody and were invariably packed. He did not drive, so Brown’s taxis brought him to and from college. For some reason he always kept his soft hat on riding in a car, a relic of steam car days. And when we eventually got a car, he resumed driving after thirty-odd years, always going too slow for the traffic flow, and wearing the hat. We were embarrassed in case friends noticed. My sister Ita was our first driver, and I recall guiding her when she got stuck in the garden gateway. Unsurprisingly. The car was a large bulbous Austin-Somerset.

But it was less easy to broach world historical events with his academic guests than with his students. I once heard him say to our mother that drawing the opinions of scholarly men on the issues of the day was like sucking blood from a stone. But he knew how to gently tempt the stony silence into an opinion. He presented himself as an enquiring mind and asked questions. Sometimes blood was drawn (supping with the ex-enemy has its risks). But he spoke quietly, in the simplest of terms, and it soon clotted. His enquiring mind came to the fore.

I now know it was the Socratic method: asking questions for which he undoubtably had a provisional answer in the hope of being surprised into thinking again. Socrates was more confrontational in teasing out a response. Our father sounded as though he was musing quizzically to himself. I noted the dons didn’t have that haggard look of the interrogated familiar to me from Cold War movies. No doubt they had cottoned on, knowing their Plato, and their answers at first were too measured to mean much. But with polite persistence they could be tempted to say what they thought.

He was more direct with the local people he met on his evening walk by the river, speaking to fishermen and dredger workers about fish stocks and land reclamation. The conversation deepened as he sought to establish the principles behind their professions. Our mother was known to become impatient, wanting to get home to put the children to bed. She claimed he was trying out his ideas on them, but it was the other way round. He was trying out theirs on himself. I picked this up when my mother was unwell or in the last days of a pregnancy, and I was asked to accompany him in her place. I too, like the fishermen, was asked questions. But a pause before answering was expected.  If I managed a coherent reply, he gave me a Cadbury’s chocolate cream bar. The questions were not difficult. Once he asked me how high could I jump, and after some thought I answered that I didn’t know but could long-jump three times my height. He smiled and said, ‘At your age I could only jump my own height.’ The long jump would have been more useful, but I still tried the high jump and could only manage five feet.

At lunch with the dons, the news of the day, be it the ‘thaw’ in Russia or the Suez Crisis, was introduced indirectly by quoting ‘special correspondents’ in the London Times. Our mother called it ‘reading between the lines’, as father reckoned the reports were coded (as they often proved to be in subsequent articles). He received the London Times a day late. It was specially shipped in but delivered erratically. Sometimes I had to cycle into town to collect it from the depot, which somehow doubled as a cold storage. My reward was the price of a plain ice (it was pre-cream). When eventually the guest expressed weighty views suggesting that only politics was on offer, our mother left the table for the kitchen. If the subject had not changed when she came back, she said coffee will be served in the garden – ‘it’s nice out’. The historians were relieved and happy to sit on the grass. The subject changed. There was the privet hedge, the rose bower, the holly tree and surrounding fir trees to consider. Children playing in the distance.

Our father knew how to lighten the atmosphere to good purpose, steering the conversation with disarming earnestness to topics which guests would regard as not quite serious, and encouraging amused, and even patronising, responses to what could have been rhetorical questions. For example, getting an atheist to concede that Thomas Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God might be right for the wrong reason, or persuading a Leavis adherent that Marcel Proust could be more important than Tolstoy from a socio-political point of view. On the other hand, our father could countenance unresolved arguments by invoking Hegel’s theory of coterminous positions (‘There are two sides to every question, and it’s possible to entertain both at the same time, but not forever’). Of course, I only came to understand these exchanges retrospectively. But words and phrases stuck in my memory, so I can guess at their thrust. In sum, I think that our father encouraged his guests to be brilliant in order to simplify their viewpoint, not critically but with a certain appreciation. In Modern Democracy (1941) he wrote, ‘If we wish to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side there is usually an element of truth.’

While in general intellectuals were less responsive than the river workers, often enough our father’s patience paid off with a don. Faced by his self-questioning approach, entrenched positions withered away like the State in Marx’s unrealised vision. The horse of history was to the fore, rather than the cart of current politics. Not least because he had a way with summing up the anthesis and thesis simply enough for me to understand the prevailing synthesis (he would have made a superb judge, one who judged both sides). Then, more often than not, the conversation moved into stiller waters, which I had to assume ran deep. On one memorable occasion, the don of honour, Brian Wormald, lingered on while our father sliced a cigarette in two with scissors. It was his idea of cutting down. Wormald asked for the other half, and as they quietly smoked, our father remarked, ‘Where would we be when we died were we to find out that we had been fooled all along?’ I broke in, ‘In hell.’ They hadn’t noticed me until then, and both laughed.

There were lunches, of course, when the guests didn’t rise to our father’s bait. I remember a certain professor we called Studley Headwards, a genial Englishman who held a history Chair at an Irish university. He made to entertain the company with witty anecdotes, but their stage Irishry fell flat – Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island came to mind. Our father sought to move him into conversation on Studley’s own specialty, Tudor Ireland (I think), and I saw his guest’s boredom threshold hit bottom while he contemplated the shadows lurking in his empty glass of claret – no doubt wondering why Hogan’s sole glass remained full. After the lunch he asked our mother if there was a pub in the village, and I was given the task to guide him to the Temple Inn. He was a social drinker, and went down a treat with the locals. I enjoyed myself too (granted a Cidona). It was almost midnight when we returned.

Our father and mother did not forego their evening walk when guests were due or in residence. Arrivals in their absence had to be negotiated to avoid clashing at the front gate. The guest was lured by a child into the back garden, blocked off from the road by thick hedges and the fir trees, so our parents could pass by unnoticed. We entertained him (always a man) with a tour of the orchard, which, though rudimentary, yielded buckets of raspberries, gooseberries and apples. There was a giant pear tree with a swing attached. When it was in full bloom, falling blossom added to the pleasure. The fruit was hard and bitter and curled like a sneer. In the early 1960s one night we founded it uprooted after a storm. It had blossomed gloriously as usual that spring. Our mother said it was an ill omen. This was reinforced as some of the palm trees that surrounded the garden began to wilt. They had been a wedding gift from the college gardener (Mick Barry the great road-bowls player). As our father lay dying, Edmund and me began cutting down the rotten branches. ‘The trees have grown too big for their own good’, a neighbour remarked. Our father did not know his beloved palms were being cut down. He had been moved downstairs to the drawing room which was shaded by the laburnum tree. I wrote one of my first poems about it, ‘Passing in the Living Room’. I changed the name of the room for poetical effect. Would-be poets are shameless.

I once taught a visiting don how to play hurling. Michael Oakeshott must have been in his forties, but looked old before his time. In a long grey raincoat and heavy tweeds, he could have been an amateur fisherman expecting the worst of the Irish weather. While in Cork, even when it was warm and sunny, he kept his raincoat on. Cadaverous, with a lank fly-like figure, he was an unlikely athlete. Hurling is a swift and brutal game of awkward elbows and light steps, but he took to it like a dancer, executing his every move with precision and panache. His mastery of the stick after a brief demonstration suggested to me a childhood memory of cricket or hockey. In no time he was hitting the leather ball, the sliothar, into the raspberries and retrieving it himself.

When we were exhausted, he sent me down to the village for ice-creams, and I ran all the way like a rabbit or Ronnie Delany, bringing them back tow water-ices before they melted. We sat in the hollow of an ancient oak called the Goblin Tree eating them and not talking (it was before cones – wafers dripped). Our parents came in the gate and saw us crouching there, licking our chops. Oakeshott was not embarrassed. Raincoat open and sleeves tucked back, he waved to our father with the hurley and didn’t get up. ‘Gone native,’ our mother said, laughing. Then our father reminded him of another of his sporting exploits. Oakeshott had written a popular book in the thirties called How to Pick the Derby Winner. Their talk of various betting systems was above my head. But our father’s interest surprised me. I’d forgotten his family had horses, and one even finished the Grand National.

On several occasions during his stay, Oakeshott asked me to play. His buttoned-up inner self was released in a stick-dance of joy, a game of Irish cricket, escaping no doubt the tedium of reading a thesis on the Mercy Nuns and the Crimean War, and refusing to accept that Mother Mary Akenhead was a worthy rival to Florence Nightingale (I now know that Oakeshott was a celebrated ‘conservative thinker’, who nevertheless refused a knighthood from Mrs. Thatcher).

The front garden had a spacious lawn, so we moved the game there, sidling our way through the undergrowth of the hedge at the side of the new wing of the house. I would have much preferred to be showing off my tennis skills. Hurling, though I loved the bend and whip of the ash, could be regarded as an insular-peasant sport. His enthusiasm made me forget my parochial snobbery. I was awed by this stooped crow of a man with a funny accent – as though a milk bottle had damaged his upper lip when he was a baby – buck-leaping boyishly around the lawn, avoiding the flowerbeds with deft pivots.

When I told this memory to my brother Edmund, the historian, he was not best pleased and said that it was he who gave Oakeshott lessons in hurling. I don’t know what to think. The memory is graphic, and the details convincing (the ices, particularly. And Ronnie Delany, the surprise Olympic champion, in 1956, makes me thirteen). Maybe Edmund was there too? Recently I read an article about the exclusion of siblings as a novelist’s trick, so that the narrator has the field to him/herself. The examples are numerous. Perhaps I have fallen for it. It is also possible he played hurley with Oakeshott when I wasn’t there.

In the middle of the Suez crisis in 1956, when Herbert Butterfield, the Tory historian, was staying with us, our father could have been forgiven for some courteous crowing at their lunch, but sought instead to disembarrass his dejected guest with a diversion to Laurence of Arabia. He was unsuccessful, until our mother said, as she was wont, ‘It will be all the same in a hundred years.’ The historians laughed, and it called for the claret to be replenished. But I was old enough to think Nasser’s name was like a cutthroat razor, and there was blood on the tablecloth.

The dons showed our mother to advantage. Her protection of our father’s routine did not prevent the hospitality from being as the guests would wish. She let them sleep on, knowing their visit to Cork was essentially a welcome rest from fraught academic lives, and catching up on sleep was something this low-lying town had to offer, enhanced by the trees darkening the windows in the new wing. One guest, Hilaire Belloc, only left his room to give his lecture, it was said. Our father was related to him through his American wife, Elodie Hogan (his cousin). She died young and was the reason Belloc always wore black. I was the baby in a pram on that visit, and reportedly howled when this gloomy giant approached, expecting a smile. As Belloc was the author of my favourite light verse (The Cautionary Tales), I regret that my smile was procrastinated.

Our mother was twenty years younger than our father, and ‘very personable’ – a euphemism for charming, when she wanted to be. Her dark Hispanic looks could be admired or feared, there was no in between. She entertained guests with talk about Cork, local information that they did not know they wanted to know. And she was a chameleon. It was said you could tell with whom she was talking on the phone by her intonation. Her voice was different with the dons too. The accent did not change, but it was clearer, as though she were modulating it for strangers who didn’t quite know the language. Despite a reputation within the family for not being musical, her voice had a ring about it that you could always pick out in a crowd. Crystal clear, without embellishments or trills. The opposite to the mumble that our father deplored in us children (‘If you don’t stop swallowing your words, I’ll get a sergeant major to teach you’). Our mother arranged elocution lessons with Miss Daly (‘with tears so bright and bitter, falling pitter-pitter-patter, something something, caterpillar crawled along the leaf’). We attempted to imitate her enunciation with guests, every word clear as a bell. They must have thought they were in a land of tinkling symbols, echoing from hillock to hillock.

Breakfast in bed was the custom for guests. I delivered it like a bellhop. Our mother did not consider it proper for a female to enter the bedroom before the curtains were drawn, and carried the Irish breakfast only to the door. Tea, milk, soda bread, curls of butter, marmalade, bacon and eggs, freshly squeezed orange juice, and prunes. The light in the landing illuminated the inner sanctum while I transferred the components to the bedside table in stages. I got so good at it that our mother no longer lingered at the door. A gentle awakening was my aim. As a curtain raiser, I refined the rattling of the crockery to a tintinnabulation. When the guest sat up, I drew the blinds. It was service with a smile, but not a word, no pleasantries. But I became blasé, and on one famous occasion when our mother came to collect the tray, she found the teapot on the mat, cold and full. I’d forgotten to transfer it. I heard her tell our father, ‘Professor Wormald never said a word, and drank the jug of milk.’

After our mother’s death, I found in the bureau a drawer of thank-you letters. The dons’ were all, more or less, the same. A ‘Dear Hogan’, a mention of matters arising from the visit, and ending with salutations to ‘your dear wife’. A lifetime of making scholarly annotations showed in their minuscule but eminently readable hand. Brian Wormald’s was the only one jointly addressed.

As I sifted through them, I recognised names frequently mentioned but that I had not remembered as guests. Nicholas Monsarrat, the renowned naval historian and novelist (The Cruel Sea), Eddie Conway, the foremost Irish scientist of his generation, and to my amazement Ernest Blythe, who as the Minister of Finance in an election year in the late 1920s took a shilling off the Old Age Pension and was said inadvertently to have put de Valera in power. He retired from politics to run the Abbey Theatre as a rustic backwash of kitchen-sink plays. There was Terence de Vere White, too, the writer-journalist who was to publish my early poems in The Irish Times (out of sentiment for our father, I think). Guests came and went without me noticing. Or maybe when I was sick or at a holiday camp. Or I simply took them for granted unless I was called on to be the breakfast boy.

I only once recall our mother showing resentment at having to juggle guests with our father’s need for peace and quiet. On one occasion, when he blamed her for child noise, she lost her temper and called him ‘an inconsiderate stone’. He didn’t appear to take it personally, being more interested in where the phrase came from. ‘Shakespeare? And which play?’ I have, in her honour, no intention of looking it up myself. Her revenge, or rather reward, came when a don said, ‘Hogan, you are not worthy of your wonderful Mary.’ I missed it, as I was on a camping holiday. But one of my siblings told me he was a priest with a collar and tie. I had hoped it was Brian Wormald, who had the aspect of a priest unfrocked for an excess of virtue, and who was my favourite don since the milk incident. But it proved to be a Jesuit, Father Frederick  Copleston, the historian of philosophy. Our father, who went to Clongowes, a Jesuit school, said Copleston must have got a special dispensation from wearing the clerical collar. In 2005 I saw his obituary in The Times. He had been Butterfield’s star student but dissented to become a Tawney Tractarian Socialist. Copleston wasn’t far wrong about our mother. But she wouldn’t have agreed.

Writers and politicians as regular guests were fewer. They came with agendas: for help with a book, or to participate in a public debate with our father. Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor were before my time. Terence de Vere White stayed while working on a book about Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister of Justice in the First Free State government. In 1924 O’Higgins was assassinated on his way to Mass by associates of Sean McBride, who many years later won the Nobel Peace and Lenin Peace Prizes (1974, 1975), for what I can’t recall. All I remember is he had lived in France and become more French than the French themselves.

When he published a poem of mine, Terence de Vere White told me how much he had benefitted from our father’s scholarly exactitude and fairness even to his enemies when writing his book: ‘For example, when O’Higgins was assassinated, his brother Patrick, the Minister of Agriculture, was first on the scene, but he didn’t find the body “in a pool of blood”, as I had written. Patrick had followed Kevin, having realised he had slipped security to go to Mass. It was only when he took his friend in his arms that the blood flowed.’ McBride, he said, “came to the funeral to show he wasn’t responsible for former friends.”’

Other writers, and writers manqué, came and went, but rarely stayed overnight. ‘The Pope’ O’Mahoney, for instance, who found a niche for himself as a genealogical historian on radio (‘Meet the Clans’), and Seamus Murphy, a stonemason, for whom a fund was set up to study in Paris with Aristide Maillol. Murphy returned after a few weeks to become the foremost monumental sculpturer in Ireland, the equivalent of Maillol in France, though unlike Aristide his models kept their clothes on, his statues being mainly busts of saints and heroes. His book Stone Mad, an account of his apprenticeship as a stone mason, is his masterpiece. Years later when I got to know Seamus, he told me he preferred to be considered an artisan rather than an artist. Cork down-to-earthiness, though, can be deceptive – he left an indelible mark in public places.

Pakenham’s haughtiness dissipated when our father flattered him. Then an exaggeratedly politeness would take over, which was more embarrassing to behold than his rude indifference. I was ten years of age and fascinated by this Chester-Belloc caricature. Our father once said to him, ‘I understand you know Bulganin. I expect you’ll have a moderating influence on the new regime’. Pakenham preened. Our father was humouring him (and himself) to a purpose, knowing that by keeping politicians in self-esteem they could be more easily surprised. I went with our father to the lecture, so he would have an excuse not to linger afterwards. Our mother was aware his mood (and work) would suffer if that happened.

Pakenham, a towering, handsomely ugly man, praised de Valera for ‘dominating Irish democracy for three decades’, describing him as a hero of 1916 and now ‘the hero of the Irish consensus’. The audience would have been divided. One third of the population were said to benefit from the jobbery of Dev’s regime and were fanatical supporters. Others regarded him as the Devil of Ireland, whose economic conservatism and folksy religiosity damned the country to poverty (both cultural and economic) and above all to massive emigration. There were slums in Cork at the time and real hardship. Our mother did charity work for the Vincent de Paul Society, and I saw the shame of that through her eyes when I accompanied her on a visit to a fatherless family. (In later years, when the country was reviving, she was prone to be less charitable to Vincent de Paul clients. She considered them work-shy when seeing them playing golf afternoons, free for the unemployed, on the Blackrock links. But she dutifully served them.)

In his deceptively ponderous style, our father summing up the debate, acknowledged de Valera’s contribution to Advanced Institutes of Irish Study, and his protection of native innocence from the British Yellow Press and other indecent literature, though he did point out that the Censorship Appeals Board (of which he was a sometime member) rarely upheld the original decision on appeal. And he wondered whether history would agree with Lord Pakenham, adding: ‘Like Eamon De Valera, Josef Stalin ruled Soviet Russia for thirty years, and now, I’m glad to say, he’s gone to his reward.’ Two thirds of the audience laughed their heads off.

As the Cork Examiner took photos, Pakenham perked up and, like a good politician, lifted me up as he posed beside our father. I was teased at home that he had kissed me. But the record shows otherwise. The dangled me scowls at the leering lord. Our father’s expression is impassive.

During the Pakenham visit we watched the complicity between our parents like a Punch and Judy show – Daddy and Mammy and the Wicked Lord. We hissed and cheered, and nobody minded, as our father slept by night and apparently well. Not so Pakenham. Regular thumping noises were heard from his floor when he retired for the night. I climbed the laburnum outside and looked in. He was doing pushups.

Michael Collins

Our father was one of the last Free State officers to see Michael Collins alive.  They met in Limerick the day before he was shot dead. Collins told him he had a job for him to do back in Dublin. Some say the Big Fellow walked into the ambush at Béal na mBlath because he was depressed by the Civil War. But father said that Collins was in poor form because of a bad cold. He had merely got out of the armoured car to clear his head.

Our father’s reluctance to talk or write about the Civil War period was given a forbidding context by his former batman at his funeral in 1963. He told me that, ‘As the commanding officer, he felt obliged to execute deserters (to spare his men). He, the gentlest of men, never recovered from it. They were only boys wanting to join their friends. The day before meeting Michael Collins he shot two young men from the area, and the ambush that killed Collins was a response to this.’

This has never been investigated, let alone confirmed. But it has the ring of truth. According to Scott Atran, my anthropologist friend, ‘Terrorists or freedom fighters do not risk their lives for a cause but for one another.’ My father understood that.

It was joked that Hogan was made a Major General in the Free State Army because he had been a crack shot hunting game in the boglands behind the family farm. He saw action in West Clare against the Black and Tans, once hiding behind a door while they searched the home of Henry Kennedy, his future brother-in-law. He sometimes spoke about this period, but never of the Civil War. He apparently suffered deep depressions in later years, something we children hardly noticed because he treated us with sporting activities (swimming, tennis and long walks). He continued his work on political science and the philosophy of history without pause. However, his premature death from bone cancer seemed to me almost welcomed by him.

Our father’s brother Michael, who robbed guns from Chelsea Barracks and stood trial during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in 1921, was sentenced to life in prison. Released when the treaty was signed, Michael rented a car with father and made a pilgrimage around the cathedral towns of England. Father said they did they did it so that lingering bad feelings could be lessened. But my mother said that though he loved English culture, he never trusted the English.

During the part of the Treaty negotiations that led to the setting up of the Boundary Commission, our father was a member of the Irish delegation, and was tasked with finding out what Lloyd George was saying to his private secretary, Tom Jones, in Welsh – father spoke the language. It was at this time that father overheard Churchill joking with Lord Birkenhead that, ‘The Ulster Unionists needn’t worry. What Collins has signed will divide his own side. And what David [Lloyd George] has signed will divide Ireland.’ The Commission was set up in 1924 but in the event no major changes were made to the territories of the Free State and Northern Ireland.

Looking back on our father’s life, I am astonished how much he achieved in the early years. Before the Civil War, he had been appointed professor of history at UCC, aged just twenty-three. He had already completed seminal work on Celtic Studies and published Ireland in the European System, which anticipated Ireland’s emergence from economic and cultural stagnation by joining the European Common Market in the early seventies.  After the Civil War, and before taking up the UCC post, he decided to spend a semester at the Sorbonne. He lived in a hotel in Montparnasse. At the time his cousin Lily Huban was studying music in Paris, and she took him to see the Russian Ballet. Subsequently he would call the fuchsia flower a ‘flying Pavlova’. After a few months he was summoned back to Ireland to report on risks to democracy as result of unrest in the army and the police – he included his brother Michael as a risk in a potential military coup. But his elder brother Patrick, as Minister for Agriculture, arranged for Michael to become the non-riding captain of the Irish Army show-jumping team – its signal success created a market for Irish-bred horses. In 1936 Michael shook hands with Hitler at the Berlin Olympics – horses were big with the Third Reich because of their selective breeding. As a result my father didn’t speak to Michael again until I was born in 1943, when he became my godfather. The only meeting we had was at my baptism.

Michael got frostbite in the heart from flying one of the first Aer Lingus planes too high without proper protection. One morning during breakfast, when I was six and a half, a knock came at the door. A policeman told my mother that Michael had died suddenly. My mother burst into tears and so did the garda.

A Guest Revisited

In the late nineteen-eighties, on a beautiful summer’s day, I was walking with our mother on the Vico Road in Dalkey, in County Dublin. A choice Mediterranean prospect with gardens adjoining rather grand villas, the Vico Road spirals upwards like an idea from the Italian philosopher it’s said to be named after. Dalkey had been the scene of happy childhood holidays around Dublin Bay and in the Wicklow mountains. Mother reminded me of the time ‘your daddy gestured towards the craggy peaks and declared “Behold the Three Hags” and a trio of old biddies below overheard and glared up at him.’

As she said this our mother suddenly pulled me across the road saying, ‘That’s Sean O’Faolain. I don’t want to meet him.’

I saw a tall, rather frail man on the arm of a middle-aged woman, who could have been his daughter, or a minder. He was dressed in a Marcello Mastroianni white suit with a boater and was gazing out to sea. I pressed her to return and talk to him. She hesitated. ‘He’d never recognise me.’

Sean O’Faolain had been close to our father in his bachelor days in Cork. In the year I was born, O’Faolain stayed to pick his brains for a biography of the Great O’Neill. Our father may not have been generous with social obligations, but where scholarship in his field was concerned everything else was dropped and full attention given. O’Faolain acknowledged this, rather grudgingly I think, in his preface. During the visit, an unfavourable review of our father’s Modern Democracy appeared in The Bell, which O’Faolain edited. He must have been grateful it wasn’t mentioned. His thank you letter concluded, ‘Merci for putting up with me, and your dark-haired beauty for putting me up.’

Our father’s friendship with O’Faolain was strained to the limit in the 1940s. They had been young men together, and the years brought the inevitable disappointments with one another. O’Faolain, the son of a Catholic RUC officer, was policing with mockery De Valera’s reactionary Church State in The Bell. Our father didn’t feel satire was useful, and his anarcho-syndicalism had moderated to a preoccupation with unexciting electoral reform (Election and Representation, 1945). In The Backward Look (1967), Frank O’Connor recalled James Hogan as ‘an atheist and blasphemer of the rowdy kind, who had just seen the light’, and that marriage and children had ‘reined in his free spirit’. Indeed, there was more than an element of truth to that. Our father feared for his children’s future in a country now ruled by his former enemies. But he never shirked unpopular polemics. His outspokenness on the ‘conspiracy of silence’ on emigration in the Dáil got him ostracised by the establishment. But the company he shared was surprising: both the anti-clerical poet Austin Clarke and the ultra-conservative Catholic Bishop Lucy of Cork strongly supported him. All three rightly knew that the draining of the country of its young people was a tragedy in motion and turning one’s back on it was criminal denial.

Despite these strains in their relationship, a letter shows that O’Faolain returned to stay in 1949 to work on The Great O’Neill. It was then that he signed off with thanks to ‘your dark-haired beauty’. At the time he was a dandy and lady’s man in his late forties. I would have been six and a half and thought her good-looks were my secret. Now on our Vico Road walk, her hair was crimpled grey, but she still was a stylish presence in a suit that matched her olive complexion. I was proud of her. She made up her mind, crossed the road, and said to O’Faolain: ‘You won’t remember me.’ He said, ‘Mary’. Their exchange of courtesies touched off a confluence of mutually agreeable memories. But our mother did not linger. As she bustled me away, he waved. A little regretfully, I thought.

Maths, the Brehon Law, and politics

University politics was the bane of father’s latter life. He had endless problems getting academics to agree to developments that assured autonomy from political pressures. The phone was the only way he could communicate with them, as they were many. This gave our mother an abiding hatred of the phone. When she heard it ringing, she sensed it was some recalcitrant on the other end and that our father would be a long time on the line persuading him or her to vote for academic independence. Support was usually achieved verbally by a process of exhaustion, but only after exhausting himself. Then afterwards he would say mournfully to our mother, Can I trust P or Q, or whoever it was, to keep his or her word? Mostly he could, but college politics is the mixing of a poisoned bowl. Sometimes anger must have been felt, but I never saw our father in a temper. Our mother? Yes, often, but only in short bursts.

Our father’s approach to history was a far cry from storytelling. A modern historian readily moves into political theory, but philosophers of history were rare enough during the 1950s to know one another personally. He was, for instance, in deep correspondence with Herbert Butterfield at Cambridge. But in a provincial university like Cork, it was a lonely path.

In his early sixties he took a crash-course in mathematics with an emeritus professor. Had he some Leibnizian grand synthesis in mind? I picked up from listening at table that Plato thought God’s existence could be proved through numbers. Aquinas had looked into it and gave up. But Leibniz planned an alphabet of human thought based on core ideas. He envisaged a language machine not unlike a word processor which, if tapped for basic concepts, would automatically calculate and produce an ‘indubitable truth’. At the time I mistook a serious discourse for playfulness and thought it was all nonsense, like 666, the Number of The Beast. But, although his automatic-thinking-alphabet didn’t get beyond the letter ‘A’,  it was a dream that centuries later set computer science in motion. One lecturer in the college conjectured after our father’s death that his need for advanced mathematics may have been the application of statistics to the demography of history. I’m not so sure. Descriptive statistics was already a well-established line of historical study. The philosophy of history was what interested him and, like science, philosophy’s relation to mathematical concepts can defy logic, as Descartes and Marx anticipated and Einstein and Heidegger have shown.

But the mathematics gave me a brief moment to shine. I explained the binominal theorem to him, and he remarked to our mother that maybe there was more to me than was generally thought. As the designated fool of the family, only our mother and my sister Ita were dissenters.

Curiously, it was our mother overhearing our father explaining an algebra problem to the son of his then landlady that led to their first contact. Mary O’Neill, aged sixteen, was learning domestic skills in rooms with service. Changing the linen one day, she overheard our father’s tortuous attempt and told him, ‘You stupid man, you’re confusing the boy.’ She then took over and soon the boy was no longer confused. Not at all offended but seriously impressed, our father arranged for her to have further education with the nuns in Fermoy. The family agreed, reluctantly, as the parish priest approved it.

Mathematics was his last specialist study but it came to nothing as two years before his death he was asked to contribute to a report on the future of higher education. He dropped everything and worked day and night on producing a comprehensive report. He was dying when the report was finally handed to the university president by our mother, and according to his secretary, as it was too late to submit, it was committed to the waste-paper basket. I wonder if this true? The president was a family friend. And our father was the longest serving professor in the college and the president’s king maker. Our mother believed the secretary. Harry had become lazy and couldn’t be bothered even reading the report. This episode gives me deep pain even to think about it.

I was twenty-one in the summer of father’s death, and enraged by all that accumulated knowledge being buried. He was sixty-five and in his intellectual prime. One of his former students wrote an obituary in the college magazine, saying that Hogan covered too much ground for his own good, arguing he was a hedgehog rather than a fox by nature – knowing many things but essentially on the scent of the One Big Idea. He added that had Hogan stuck to his first love, Celtic Studies, he might have found it, and been a happier man. The presumption distressed me, not least because it contained an element of truth. I spoke as calmly as I could to the writer. He claimed our father’s studies of Early Ireland’s Brehon Law (the oldest written legislation in Europe) offered him a model for building up a social theory for the developing nation. The ex-student believed, influenced by Brehon Law, that anarchism was the One Big Idea and the expansion of the cooperative movement that AE espoused. The idea of self-regulating community agreements is central to the Law ( if you steal my cattle, your neighbour and me will combine to punish you – and so, you resist the temptation).

In the 1930s, our father aligned himself with the cooperative movement and a moderate form of anarcho-syndicalism, but got side-tracked due to the Blue Shirt movement within the main opposition party, of which he was then the Chairman. He resigned with a public warning of the dangers of fascism, and withdrew from political life to concentrate on political theory. His monographs ‘Could Ireland become Communist: the facts of the case’ (1935), and ‘Modern Democracy’ (1938) were, respectively, an investigative project naming organisations and persons with Soviet funding, and a critique of the conflicting ideologies that were to produce the Second World War and the Cold War.

Our father’s first book, written in his early twenties, was Ireland in the European System (1920). His last publication was a monograph on nuclear war, ‘The New Dimensions of War and Peace’ (1960). In between there were few subject areas his mind did not engage with. He was sceptical about getting to the truth of history. For example, his study of Brehon Law was saddled with the afterthought that there is no proof it was ever implemented. In a paper read to the Fourth Conference of Irish Historians, effectively his last word on the subject, he said, ‘The analogy from the constancies of human nature (as defined by Thucydides) is one with which no historian can dispense, but he must take into account the wide variations in human nature – so much so that man is in some sense an unknown being – as well as the fact that conditions are never the same, so that men’s reactions to different situations differ accordingly’ (Historical Studies, 1961). He was making up his mind the hard way, and ploughed his philosophic furrow more or less alone, apart from his students, some of whom profited, as can be seen in James Hogan, Revolutionary, Historian, Political Scientist (2003). Wrongly stigmatised as a reactionary, he was not displeased when his lectures on Marx converted one or two Honours students to communism every other year.

In the 1950s, Irish schoolchildren were taught history with a pro-nationalist emphasis. Events were distorted to promote prejudices (Queen Victoria didn’t treat the Great Famine as a charity event, etc.). But our father held back from engaging in much-needed revisionism, even regarding the fight for independence and the Civil War. His own private papers from the Troubles disappeared mysteriously from a safe in the care of his sister, a solicitor working for Arthur Cox. The loss of historical records in the Four Courts fire during the Civil War was his stated reason for holding back. However, he made it his life’s work as a historian and patriot to search for copies, and through the Manuscript Commission (he was the youngest and most active founding member), he recovered a remarkable amount from public libraries and British sources. Yet he published virtually nothing on recent Irish history, despite being an active participant, so maybe a deeper reason than lack of documentation held him back. Having been a military commander during a Civil War against friends and comrades in arms in the fight for independence, his heart was not in it. He never talked about those years.

 The Kinsale Connection

Our mother’s people had been living in the Kinsale area for four generation but felt outsiders because they didn’t own land. The O’Neills were artisans. In the early 19th  century, a tanner migrated from the Celtic north west of Spain (Galicia) to work in a Huguenot leather factory in Kinsale where he married a local girl and took her name. The factory closed and he became a roof-thatcher. Our mother’s father inherited the trade. But when slating made thatching obsolete, he rented a farmyard to breed turkeys and sidelined as a farm labourer. He died in his forties of heart disease, leaving eight children. The only childhood memory our mother divulged was of coaxing the turkeys down from the trees with a bean-pole.

Another village near Kinsale, Ballymacus, was a veritable Hollywood in the late 1950s. Jacqueline Ryan, for instance, known to us as Jackie, was a child star in the eponymous film  Jacqueline (1956). Then there was the Murphy family: one daughter, Moonyeen, had been Virginia Mayo’s secretary; the other, Fidelma, left the Abbey Theatre training school to star in Pat Boone’s film Never Put It In Writing (1964). The eldest son had been Bulganin and Malenkov’s Russian interpreter on their visit to London. I was half in love with Fidelma, but was hopelessly superior when talking to her, not unlike Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot (1959).

It was Bob who remarked on our mother’s resemblance to Charlie Chaplin’s young wife, Oona, the daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Both were dark, lightly-built beauties with olive skin and crinkly Spanish hair. Because the Chaplins holidayed near Kinsale, Bob liked to think that these two ‘capable girls with complicated, older husbands’ were half-sisters.

Our mother was a doer. When anything electrical had to be fixed, she did it herself. I remember the fear when seeing her hanging from the ceiling, changing a light bulb. One dreadful night she fell downstairs over the top landing, but was not seriously jurt. Her repair ventures were to some extent an angry reaction to our father’s suggestion that she should bring in ‘a professional man’. She also used to climb on the stove to put clothes on the kitchen washing line. This gave rise to an infant chorus, ‘Mammy on the stove!’, sung to the tune of ‘Brennan on the Moor’.

She was, though, not above histrionics when reproved by our father after I had broken a violin bow. It rebounded on him, but not me, which made it worse. In his sad, gentle way, our father explained, more as a fact than a judgement, ‘Your mother is a wicked woman.’ And she could be. Nobody enjoyed telling bitterly funny stories about the folly of others more than her. In my middle years, I came to appreciate that letting off homeopathic doses of malice was the antidote to her unfailing courtesy outside the family. It made her such a pleasure to meet that people would tell her things they shouldn’t have.

She drove the family car and cooked merely out of necessity. Returning from the country after buying apples for the winter from a farm, she swung in through the gate and took a short-cut across the lawn, skidding. Next day mushrooms sprouted on the skid-marks. We had omelettes for dinner. And once, driving down the steep hill at the far side of Kinsale, the brakes snapped and she negotiated the descent by handbrake, using reverse when the car got out of control. Our mother was a disaster waiting to happen in order that she could show to advantage.

Getting lecturers to produce questions for exams and to correct their papers obliged her to track them down. She didn’t mind pestering the perennial guest lecturer, Denis Gwynn. He lived with an elderly lady novelist called Mrs. Rickard in Sunday’s Well.  Sometimes he was to be found with the Sackville-Wests in West Cork. That household was something of a witch’s coven, and her good looks did not go unnoticed by the ladies. She told me this with amusement. Our mother was not naive, or a prude. As her grandchildren began to live their lives differently from the way we were brought up to, she was more accepting than our generation was.

Following our father’s death, after a period of intense mourning in which she was not her strong self – she was only in her early forties – life resumed and she made her mark as an assistant in the college library. It was indeed a blessing, and students still remember her advice on reading and her generosity in lending out books which were confined.

In later years her dramatic sense expressed itself in the timing of surprise visits. Once, in the early hours of the morning, her knock on the door of my Belsize Park Gardens flat in London was a theatrical coup. On impulse she had taken Slattery’s bus and the ferry from Cork. We went to Brian Friel’s play Philadelphia Here I Come in the West End, and after the interval sat out the remaining acts in the lobby, talking. Our mother said it was ‘better than a play’, and it was. In many ways her life was a play within a play, and we children were her best audience.


This poem was published in Lighting in Low Places (Cranagh Press, University of Ulster) in 1999, but I had written it when I left home in 1967 – and signed it ‘Ulysses O’Neill’.

Handkerchief for a Personal Ithaca

I come from an island
so small, my father
the chronicler, made
the history, and
my mother, the only
true goddess in the place,
the indigenous dance.

No wonder, being
the offspring
of legend and movement,
I have a penchant for
and an aversion
to the confinement
of mystery.

the isle’s extinction
is at hand,
as I pick a grain
of sand from my eye,
clearing the vision
to blue nothingness,
and all now is plain sailing.

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The Duras Press

The Duras Press