Great Irish Lives
EDITED BY CHARLES LYSAGHT THE TIMES / HARPER COLLINS, £12.99
The Times had a reputation, especially during the 19th century, of being both antiIrish and anti-Catholic. It was ferociously hostile to the reinstatement of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, and, to this day, I would suggest, its editorial values occasionally strike an anti-Papist note.
The obituaries department of a newspaper, however, is usually an independent entity, and does not necessarily reflect the politics or policy of the newspaper.
The Times obituaries strive to be records of a life, as objectively told as possible, and they form a wonderful resource for historians and biographers. Yet an obituary of any kind will reflect the flavour of its time: as will the length and attention paid to the subject’s life and work.
Obviously, this compilation of Irish obituaries from the Times, collected together with meticulous fidelity to the record by Charles Lysaght, reveals the mood of the period in which they were published.
Long obituaries are devoted – rightly – to the important politicians, churchmen, and those who distinguished themselves in public life, starting with Henry Grattan in 1820, and finishing with Charles Haughey in 2006.
Artists and writers also appear, though – possibly because reputations wax and wane – they seem on the whole, to be more abridged than those tributes paid to public men.
Thus the obituary of the shortstory writer, Frank O’Connor, (died 1966) seems decidedly sketchy, and that devoted to the Limerick novelist Kate O’Brien (died 1974) also rather more brief than any assessment would be in our time – though it is a fine literary summation of her work, and, incidentally, her especially good insight into Catholic bourgeois life.
By the nature of things – obituaries being composed by different hands – the sense of appreciation (or disparagement) varies. The obit of W B Yeats (died 1939) is particularly fine, and brilliantly evokes the mystical sense of the poet: those Dawkinsites who would deny anything but the material world would certainly deprive the poetic genius of his necessary feeling for the transcendental.
And because of the variation in the authors, there is also a variation in the assessment of a subject’s life: the obituary of Charles Stewart Parnell (died 1891) is a masterpiece of political detail, although a critical, sometimes hostile, assessment of the Home Ruler’s political career, while that of Edward Carson, (died 1935) – no less a passionate politician, and when fired up, a justqu’auboutiste extremist, verges on hagiography. Perhaps the political bias of the Times did, in the past, flavour the obits.
Until about the Eighties, obituaries were generally austere about personal life and influences (unless, as with Parnell, a divorce had political implications), but from the last decades of the 20th century the obituary becomes much more involved with the family circumstances and emotional life of the subject. This, I believe, is partly, if not wholly, the influence of women, as obituary writers, and as newspaper readers.
Any seasoned journalist knows that women warm to the “human angle” in any biographical essay, and on the whole the obits are all the better for including that. (In the past, women were sometimes so invisible that the wife of the deceased – as in the case of Sean Lemass, who died in 1971 – is not even accorded a name.) The final obituary in the collection, of the writer Nuala O’Faolain, who died in 2008, spares no personal details whatsoever.
Details of a personal life can often illuminate a character, and can also soften a life one might otherwise judge rather harshly: it is impossible not to conclude that Lord Brookeborough (died 1973) was an oldfashioned bigot, and yet, reading that he lost two of his three sons in the Second World War, a sense of compassion tempers judgment.
This is a terrific record of 98 varied Irish lives – from Dan O’Connell to Micheal MacLiammoir, from Mrs Cecil Alexander to Sister Genevieve O’Farrell, from Margaret Burke Sheridan to Tommy Makem – all set within the context of their time.
Some Irish lives were either not obituarised, or not included – the dress designer Sybil Connolly (died 1998) was a significant influence on the fashion industry and she should have featured, as should have John Charles McQuaid, the all-powerful Archbishop of Dublin who died in 1973. But there will always be lacunae in any collection, and Charles Lysaght explains that he tried to “strike a balance” in his choices. There will no doubt be room for another volume.