Back in Connemara for Christmas, which she insisted on calling Christ Mass, Ethel Mannin opens the door of her little cottage, located between Roundstone and Clifden, close to Mannin Bay. She has been away for some time. She lights fires in all three rooms, to drive away the musty smell and damp, and soon she is comfortable sitting by the window looking out at the sea, the mountains beyond. She was back to stay until restlessness, or some political challenge, calls her away again.
It was 1945, the Second World War had officially ended the previous September; leaving Germany and great swathes of Eastern Europe in rubble. It is hard to remember now, that Germany, one of the richest countries in the world, actually starved on two occasions in the last century. Ms Mannin, although a socialist and admirer of Stalin’s Russia, was concerned about the plight of Germany’s children.
She had come from London where she was part of a 70,000 people movement who volunteered to give up part of their rations to feed starving German children. The Government would have none it, and the move was blocked by the Minister of Food, who said that it was not feasibly possible. Furthermore he would not tolerate people knocking at other people’s doors asking them to give up part of ‘their merge rations’ to feed German children.
‘As I write’, wrote Ms Mannin in her diary, ‘many people in both England and Ireland are willing to take German children into their homes, but the weeks go by, and the bitter weather is on us now - and so much more bitter in landlocked central Europe - and still the scheme is only talk…’ *
‘But it is not only in Germany. Tragic and terrible stories come from ravaged Poland. Revenge from all sides stalks through Europe, with massacres and evictions, starvation and homelessness, plunder and disease, and everywhere man’s savage inhumanity to man…the terrible aftermath of war that is in some ways more terrible than war itself…
‘Those who sanction war, sanction with it the unspeakable after-war.’
Ethel Mannin’s diary was later published as her ‘Connemara Journal’, which with her novel ‘Late have I loved thee’ (which is partly set in Connemara ), are her two most memorable books out of an amazing one hundred and two published works under her name.**
She was born in London 1900, and traced her family roots back to the O’Mainnin clan located in Galway; which, after a restless life, she was anxious to reconnect with her roots, hence the cottage in Connemara. She inherited from her father, Robert, a member of the Socialist League, his politics, fair-hair and Celtic imagination, because he knew ‘all the lore and legends of the little people’.
She was left-wing and drawn to causes. As a successful novelist she was in demand to speak at meetings, and became involved in the World League for Sexual Reform, which promoted greater openness around sex. She spoke publicly against partition in Ireland, and was elected chairman of the West-London Anti-Partition Committee. But the big surprise was her brief, and extraordinary, sexual relationship with WB Yeats.
Biographer Brenda Maddox tells us that she met Yeats having just returned starry-eyed from the Soviet Union. Politically they were far apart ‘ but that hardly mattered, when, as a companion, she was brilliant, fun, and full of the salty talk that Yeats adored. She was not worried about his cultural baggage’, and as Ms Mannin herself declared with some spirit: “ Yeats full of Burgundy and racy reminiscence was Yeats released from the Celtic Twilight and treading the antic hay with abundant zest”.***
Married twice, she also had a well publicised affair with Bertrand Russell. Bertrand apparently, was always willing.
In that year, however, keenly aware of a suffering Europe, Ms Mannin wrote that she had no heart for Christmas in the traditional sense. According to the papers that despite victory for Britain it was to be a ‘lean festive occasion.’ But just as everyone was prepared for a pretty miserable time, the Government changed its mind, and doubled the rations that people were normally allowed. There were rows of turkeys hanging in the shops. It turned out that there was going to be plenty of food and festivity to go around, so much so ‘that it was generally acknowledged, even by people who had no care for Europe, that extra rations were not needed.’
Ms Mannin decided to come to Galway and to Connemara, to celebrate Christ Mass in what she expected it to be, a simpler and spiritual way.
Next week: A day’s shopping in Galway; a long bus-ride home, and Roundstone at Christmas.
NOTES: * In fact from the following year, July 27 1946, Ireland provided £12 million for the relief of suffering in Germany, and also accepted 500 traumatised children to stay in Irish homes. Most returned after two or three years, but 50 stayed on. Children from Poland and France were also accepted. Almost all were Catholic.
** Connemara Journal (1947 ) is dedicated to Maud Gonne MacBride. Late Have I loved Thee (1948 ) is dedicated to her friend, the late Isabel Foyle, of Foyle’s Hotel, Clifden.
*** Yeat’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of WB Yeats, published 1999 by Harper Collins, New York. Roy Foster, the author of the magisterial two-volume biography of Yeats, comments wryly that Ms Manning was ‘a determined collector of interesting people.’