Books on my table this Christmas

I have often been intrigued by the stories of German spies parachuted into Ireland during World War II. It was quite an intriguing time. De Valera was anxious to steer the country in neutral waters, despite serious pressure from Britain and America to at least open our ports to the transatlantic convoys which were being hammered by German U-boats. The IRA and its sympathisers, were pro German to such an extent that Germany believed it could foster a lot of trouble in Britain’s ‘back yard’ by encouraging the IRA to make mischief.

Just before the outbreak of war the German legation in Dublin, headed by an old Nazi Eduard Hempel, had a powerful wireless transmitter installed, well capable of communication with Germany. The British urged the Irish Government to confiscate the transmitter. Dev felt he could not make demands on what was happening inside a foreign embassy. Then in February 1942, the British went ballistic claiming that weather information transmitted from the German legation in Dublin helped the battleships Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau to break through St George’s Channel. Dev still hesitated to take action. In December 1943 the arrest of two Irish nationals in Clare, John Francis O’Reilly and John Kenny, with a transmitter in their luggage, convinced Dev there were spies a-plenty. He demanded the German legation to hand over their wireless immediately. It was deposited in a Munster and Leinster Bank on December 21 1943 for safe keeping.

I read with interest the fate of another German spy, Herman Goerz, in John Quinn’s entertaining childhood memoir Goodnight Ballivor, I’ll sleep in Trim*. I have written about Goerz in a previous diary, but only about his Dublin adventures. Now I learn that Goerz was dropped into Ireland by parachute on a Sunday night in May 1940. Local man Kit Reilly came across him hiding in the bushes. “Where am I?” Goerz inquired. Kit pointed to the spire of Ballivor church in the distance. “That’s Ballivor church,” said Kit “You’re in Ballivor, Co Meath!” Kit was rewarded with a crisp 10 shilling note. But Kit, however, was suspicious of this Flann O’Brienesque situation of a German in the bushes. He reported the incident to the local guard, and Goerz went on the run. He was helped and kept in hiding by sympathisers for 10 months until his arrest and imprisonment in the Curragh. He was released on parole on September 10 1946; but committed suicide at the Aliens registration office in Dublin the following year having failed in his fight against a deportation order for his return to Germany.

This incident is only a few pages in John Quinn’s wonderful book. The well known broadcaster, and award-winning author brings his boyhood to life in a mixture of stories and songs, mushroom picking, bird nest hunting, and Michael O’Hehir’s voice on Sunday afternoons. His father, the local Garda sergeant and part-time farmer, had a picture of Eoin Duffy on the wall beside the Sacred Heart. He believed that the Mutt and Jeff cartoon contained a secret code giving a tip for the Grand National.

Tales from our lives

Two fine collection of stories are again on the bookshelves for Christmas. Razzle Dazzle is the latest from the productive Loughrea Creative Writing Group under the direction of Liam Nolan. Many of these short stories are evocative of the sights and sounds in a small county town, and I particularly enjoyed A Man Of his Word, where the town drunk promised a boy a few baby chicks, but was always too drunk at the end of market day to remember...It all works out well. It is evident that this hard working Loughrea group grow in confidence and sophistication every year.

In Final Tales of Galway (€10 in Charlie Byrnes ), the popular local historian Peadar O’Dowd has given us a third collection of vignettes to follow his Christmas Tales of Galway, and More Tales of Galway. The author describes simple incidents such as The Christmas Swim and The Holly Gatherer. But Peadar does not bemoan in a sentimental way the passing of old Galway; he merely marks the changes that are taking place in a series of well observed moments.

The Galway invasion of 1968

The Ireland of 1968 was a black-and-white place. It had remained relatively untouched by the mesmerising events that were unfolding in the wider world. Bobby Kennedy was shot that year, as was Martin Luther King. America was tearing itself apart over the Vietnam debacle, the moon landing was still a year away and the Prague Spring had taken place earlier in the year when Russian tanks invaded Czechoslovakia. And another invasion, this time of Galway happened that year as well. At the beginning of the year the city and county was gripped with excitement as it became known that a major film, Alfred The Great, starring the heartthrobs of the time including David Hemmings, Michael York, Jim Norton (from Fr Ted fame ), Prunella Ransome, Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf in Lord of the Rings ), and Sinead Cusack. Filming was to start in the early summer. Before filming could start a massive all purpose studio was built on Paddy Stewart’s farm at Kilchreest; and preparatory work was undertaken at all the main locations chosen for the film . A spectacular White Horse was etched into Knockma, which was the scene of the main battle, and other work was carried out at Roscahill and at Killinure on the Shannon. There was talk that Alfred would do for Galway as The Quiet Man had done for Cong, and the Irish Tourist Board.

Happily I was one of the many hundreds of extras who were employed to march back and forward, to die a grisly death, and hack at others with swords and shields. We were paid an incredible £7 a day (an unheard of fortune in those days ), and fed like kings. It was immense fun. Journalist and broadcaster Mary J Murphy in her book Viking Summer** has captured brilliantly (sadly much much better that the film managed to do ), the extravagant expenditure of it all, which was totally wasted. The film was a dismal failure. It was slated by the critics, and died a lingering death in the same way many of us did on the fields near Ross Lake. Alas it certainly was no Quiet Man.

Our sporting heroes

Two great sport’s books and one hardy annual. John Scally’s The Best of the West*** pays homage to great games, great heroes, and great people. “We agree,” he says, “but memories of their magic moments and beguiling brilliance do not. The annals of the GAA have a special place for the famous players who, by their genius on the field over a period of years, have claimed a permanent place in the memory of all who love the game. It is a debt that the GAA can never repay. Every county has furnished its stars!

Scally has produced a book of memories all right - great photographs and very attractively laid out. All the great names are here including Seán Purcell (The master ), Henry Kenny (The man with the magic hands ), Packy Mcgarty (lovely Leitrim ), Michéal Kerrins (King of Yeat’s county ), and Tony McManus (Supermac ), and many more.

-And if you are into GAA The Galway GAA Annual 2008 (only €8 ) will be a welcome find in any Christmas stocking. Crammed with photographs and articles, Galway’s year on the pitch is clearly described with due respect, of course, to Portumna’s great All Ireland Senior Club Championship win.

Finally James Casserly’s masterly A History of Galway Rowing 1910-2009.****The Galway Rowing Club enjoys iconic status in the city, and offers young people a challenging vocation in an exciting sport. The club celebrates an unbeaten junior eight IARU Championship in 1974, leading to the Senior Championship in 1993.

This book was a labour of love for its author which is reflected in its lavish illustrations and comments. No one who has an interest in the Corrib can afford to miss this unique story.

Learning about our past

As a child Lady Gregory, then Augusta Persse, stood on tip toes in the book and stationery shop of Thomas Kelly in Loughrea, Co Galway. She bought books on Irish legends and mythology, the Fenians and local history. It was the beginning of her education away from her Unionist family background, towards an understanding of the emerging new Ireland which was to explode in the early years of the 20th century.

Ms Bernadette Lally in her informative Print Culture in Loughrea 1850-1900*****tells the fascinating story of Thomas Kelly who produced The Loughrea Illustrated Journal from 1857- 1884 from his printing works and shop on Main Street. He also ran the only bookshop in the town, and provided a reading room for its citizens. An extraordinary record of the literary life in a small Irish town is contained within these pages. Talk about a man before his time!

In her book An ‘antiquarian craze’ Márie Lohan (nee Carroll ) has told the story of the interesting Patrick Lyons who was a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary for 34 years serving in Galway and Mayo; yet within him was an archaeologist struggling to come out. Lyons developed a keen interest in photography, recording the field-monuments he noticed while patrolling the countryside. He discovered four ogham stones near Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo. As a result he was recognised by the academic world as the ‘antiquarian policeman.’.

Lyons struck up a relationship with Hubert Knox, the renowned archaeologist, who lived near Ballinrobe. Together the two men produced a series of articles for leading academic journals including the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Journal. Lyons’ photographs, measurements, and interpretation of the field monuments described was greatly appreciated and highly regarded. Much of his work and photographs are preserved in the NUIG library today.

(Ms Lohan’s book has been published by Éamonn de Búrca 2008 and sells in Easons €19.50 ).

Michael Collins, a famous biography.

The same publishers as I mentioned above, Éamonn de Búrca, have reissued what is considered the definitive biography of Ireland’s great lost leader, who perhaps more than others typified through his personality and beliefs the violent and political measures that had to be taken to wrench Ireland free from Britain from 1916-1922. Michael Collins and the making of a New Ireland is once again available, having been out of print since 1926. This is a magnificent two-volume production by de Búrca, and comes handsomely bound in a slip case conveying the high standards of publishing that we have come to expect from the historic house of de Búrca.

The author, Piaras Béaslái, was born in Liverpool in 1881. He came to Ireland at an early age and was swept up into the coming revolution, helping Richard Mulcahy, Padraic Pearse, and other members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood to infiltrate the Gaelic League forcing out its founder and Douglas Hyde. Béaslái was a cousin of Lily Mernin, one of Michael Collins’ moles in Dublin Castle, who passed on useful information to Collins and pointed out undercover targets in the streets.

He fought in the Easter Rising of 1916, and during the War of Independence organised a mass release of IRA prisoners in Manchester. He became director of publicity for the IRA and was elected to the first Dail as Sinn Féin TD for Kerry. But Béaslái was a natural writer and a close friend of Collins and his family. Almost as soon as the truce was signed he received large cash offers to write Collins’ life story. Béaslái’s biography was first published in February 1926. It was almost immediately sold out, and was reprinted the following month.

This welcome publication is a collector’s edition, and is available direct from Edmund Burke Publishers, Cloongashel, 27 priory Drive, Blackrock, Co Dublin. Telephone: 01-2882159.

Notes: *Goodnight Ballivor, I’ll sleep in Trim, By John Quinn, published by Veritas 2008 on sale €9.95

** Viking Summer - The filming of MGM’s Alfred The Great in Galway in 1968, by Mary J Murphy, Knockma publishing, on sale €20.

*** The Best of the West - GAA Greats of Connacht, published by the Collins Press 2008. €24.95

**** A History of Galway Rowing 1910-2009, by James Casserly, now on sale €35.

*****Print Culture in Loughrea 1850-1900 - Reading, writing and printing in an Irish Provincial Town, by Bernadette Lally, published by Four Courts Press €9.99.

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