independent

Thursday 19 September 2019

Brennan Street would sit well in Wexford

Robert Brennan's second daughter Maeve, 'the greatest Irish writer you've never heard of'.
Robert Brennan's second daughter Maeve, 'the greatest Irish writer you've never heard of'.

LEAVING Gloucester in March 1919, Robert Brennan had missed the birth of another child. The Anglo-Irish War was hotting up and there was frustration in Dublin that Dáil Éireann's point of view was not getting out to the world. Brennan devised a strategy that would pull the teeth of British propaganda. He would defeat it with the truth. The result was the Irish Bulletin - an underground counter-propaganda sheet that could be produced in almost any office on ordinary office equipment.

It issued daily. It was not sold to the public, but delivered personally into the hands of selected journalists, diplomats, politicians, prelates and opinion formers. It was delivered by courier and by post. To evade Post Office security scouts it was mailed only at the last moment and never on a Friday. All Departments of the underground State mobilised to provide data for the factual descriptions and refutations: place and date of events were supplied, persons named where possible.

Careful adherence to facts gained respect and trust for the Irish Bulletin as an official news outlet of Dáil Éireann, which it was. Within a year it managed to re-cast the reportage of the Anglo-Irish War from one of marauding murder gangs on the rampage to a properly contexted perspective on a small nation's struggle for self-determination. It never missed a single day in its two-year lifespan lasting from November 11, 1919, until the day the Treaty was signed on December 6, 1921. It was Brennan's greatest contribution to the struggle.

The Bulletin was full steam ahead when Brennan was appointed by Dáil Éireann in January 1921 to set up a Foreign Office with the rank of Under Secretary. Its function would be to inform and coordinate the work of Irish Envoys abroad. Again he threw himself into the new challenge. He established an office in Harcourt Place (now Fenian Street), recruited staff and commenced operations.

It was good preparation for his major role in Washington later on. But for now his work was cut short. The treaty was ratified by Dáil Éireann on January 7, 1922, and Bob vacated the Foreign Office the same day.

The Treaty split Sinn Féin. During the Civil War he was director of publicity for the Republican side. When Fianna Fáil was founded in 1926 he was asked by de Valera to manage the establishment of the Irish Press. Its formation was announced on New Year's Eve 1927, in the Wicklow People. Philip Pierce, the Wexford industrialist, was a board member.

Bob was General Manager 1931-34, when the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, made him Secretary of the Free State's Irish Legation in Washington. In August 1938 he was promoted to Minister Plenipotentiary [Ambassador] to the United States, a post he held until 1947.

His tour of duty in Washington was fraught. Four questions dominated the agenda: Ireland's neutrality, Irish ports, German spies, and American troops in Derry. The preservation of Irish Neutrality 'at all costs' was his strategic objective. He deployed a threefold strategy: prevention of any split in Irish-American opinion, warm and actionable relationships with key members of Congress and good relationships with the influential Catholic Hierarchy in America most of whom were Irish anyway and who were, to a man, willing to help. He lectured ceaselessly all over the US to explain Ireland's position. Úna worked untiringly hosting dinners and soirees for influential friends throughout the Establishment.

His memoir of this period, Ireland Standing Firm, was launched in the Talbot Hotel, in 2002 by author Roddy Doyle, Una's grand-nephew.

The Brennan's second daughter, Maeve (1917-1993), was born in Dublin when Bob was in Lewes Prison. She grew up in Ranelagh but spent long holidays in Oylegate and Wexford town. When she was 17 the family moved to Washington. She was to make her life in the US.

She became a gifted writer, first at Harpers Bazaar and then at The New Yorker magazine, where for nearly 30 years she wrote a celebrated column on the city and its people called The Talk of the Town under the pseudonym The Longwinded Lady (1954-81). Maeve had struggles to contend with in her private life, which was not without tragedy.

She was big news in New York but almost unknown here. She was witty, generous, and caring by nature and a very beautiful and stylish woman. A colleague at the New Yorker wrote: 'To be around her was to see style being invented.'

She has been described as Ireland's greatest master of the short story after James Joyce and, luckily, her fiction is mainly concerned with her young days in Ireland, regularly about Wexford. For instance, in The Rose Garden she interpolates her childhood memories of her granny's house on the corner as the home of her fictional Bagot family: 'The house was really two corner houses that had been knocked into one. The houses had been thrown together and the staircase twisted determinedly from one house up into the other … it was a treacherous stairs, but no one had ever been known to slip on it, because it forced respect and attention, and people guarded themselves on it.'

At another point she weaves into the story a memory the little shop her granny had opened with the £20 prize her father won. She writes that shop 'had once been the parlor of one of the houses' and sold 'bread, sugar, milk, tea, cigarettes, apples, penny sweets, and flour … the milk stood in a big tin can on the counter, with a dipper hanging from the side of it, to measure out to the customers ... there was a sack of potatoes slumped open against the wall in one corner'.

Maeve Brennan's fame will one day make this the most famous little premises in the whole town of Wexford and a valuable bridge connecting New York with our town. It will be seen as a magnetic vertebra of the 'Wexford Cultural Spine' from the National Opera House, across by the Library and Arts Centre, extending to Selskar Abbey, Westgate and Redmond Park.

Ruth McGowan also reminds us that Maeve's column 'made her a New York icon but it is the poignant, deeply personal fiction set in her native Dublin that makes her contribution to literature timeless'.

Angela Bourke, whose biography 'Maeve Brennan' is a wonderful source, says: 'She dazzled everyone who met her, and wrote some of the finest and most widely read English prose of the twentieth century, yet in her lifetime, when Irish writers were celebrated as never before, she was practically unknown in her own country.' This was echoed as recently as February 25 this year when the Irish Independent ran a piece headed 'Maeve Brennan: The greatest Irish writer you've never heard of'.

However, her repute is now growing here, resting on her volumes of short stories, 'In and Out of Never-Never Land' (1969), 'Christmas Eve' (1974). 'The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin'; (1997), 'The Rose Garden: Short Stories' (2000) and her novella, 'The Visitor' (2000).

Ciara Fitzpatrick says that: 'Brennan's short stories relate in the most exacting detail the pain, fear and anxiety that can underlie middle-class life in Dublin, and her conception of the lives of her female protagonists gives the reader much to consider on Irish womanhood in the twentieth century.'

Our lives are shaped very much by the times we live in, whether peace or war or recession, Like the Brennans in their time, many people in town today are carrying on despite severe difficulties. Often short of money, they are rearing and caring, and finding the going very hard - just like Bridget Brennan did in her corner house. They are making do, getting on with it.

Like Bob going to night classes to make something better of himself, in hard times our heroes can inspire us. The more local our heroes the better. Heroes who made it on our home ground made it with what they had. Ordinary local heroes are a reference point, a local coordinate to remind us we can make it.

It is good public policy from our Borough Council to acknowledge local heroes and remember them to us. In time to come, Brennan Street, if people approve it, will become such a touchstone. It will reassure and inspire us to carry on, just as the Nickey Rackard Statue or Seamus Kelly Roundabout do now.

Wexford People

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