Monday, July 20, 2009

Duggan's Destiny: Irish Allegory, Curious and Dark

Daniel O'Connell, 1775-1847, was a descendant of ancient Irish kings, a member of a wealthy Catholic family that had been dispossessed of its lands by the English. A reformer and an advocate of non-violence, he was seated as the first Catholic member of Parliament in 1828 when it became clear that to deny him the seat would be to risk a major insurrection. "Emancipation," the repeal of the law restricting Parliament to members of the Anglican Church, was passed the following year. This was his greatest formal achievement, although he did also become the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin in modern times in 1841.

Listing these formal accomplishments conveys nothing of O'Connell's political stature in early 19th century European politics. Now mostly forgotten, his charismatic presence both in the House of Commons and in Ireland, at the height of British power, made him a lightening rod for pro- and anti-British sentiment across the Continent. Macaulay wrote, "Go where you will on the Continent...the moment your accent shows you to be an Englishman, the very first certain to be 'What will be done with Mr. O'Connell?'" Balzac wrote, "Napoleon and O'Connell were the only great men the 19th century had seen." William Gladstone called him "The greatest popular leader that the world has ever seen." He was counted as an influence by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In Ireland he was known simply as "The Liberator." In anti-English countries such as Catholic France and Italy he was hailed as a conquering hero, his every word covered in the press, his travels greeted by immense crowds.

His principal cause was repeal of the Act of Union of 1801, which had merged the English and Irish parliaments. To this end he held a series of huge rallies across Ireland in the early 1840s called "monster meetings," the largest of which were estimated to have drawn well over 100,000 people, unthinkable numbers for the time, until he was jailed for three months for sedition by the British. Although this only increased his popular authority, it also undermined his health and took the momentum out of the movement: the Irish Free State would not be declared until 1922.

Of course something else happened in the 1840s to take the life out of the Irish independence movement, and that was the potato famine which, through starvation and emigration, reduced Ireland's population by three quarters. Wealthy landowners took advantage of this to drive small farmers off of their lands and consolidate sheep-farming estates to profit from the burgeoning English textile industry (Marx's subject in Das Kapital). In the long sad history of Ireland the late 1840s is one of the saddest chapters of all.

O'Connell died during a trip to Rome in 1847, a trip meant both as a means of restoring his health and as a means of avoiding the embarrassment of letting hostile London see the deterioration of the old lion, who was diagnosed with "softening of the brain," perhaps Alzheimer's, greatly exacerbated by over-zealous treatment from doctors of the period. His personal valet, "Firefly" Duggan, kept a journal of this trip which was kept by the Royal Irish Academy where it was eventually read by Seamus Martin, retired correspondent and editor of the Irish Times. In 1998 Martin published the very curious novel that I have just read. A label on my Poolbeg Press paperback says "Was 7.99 pounds, Our Price 3.99 pounds, Book Bargains, 75 Mid., Abbey St., D. 1." So I bought it in Dublin, probably in a bookshop/cafe near O'Connell Street and O'Connell Bridge, along the Liffey.

Mr. Martin detects rich possibilities for allegory in Duggan's behind-the-scenes account of The Liberator's last days. And it's true; everything here is an allegory for everything else. O'Connell can represent the eternal failure of the Irish leadership to deliver freedom and prosperity to the poor majority; the frailty of the flesh behind the facade of greatness; the disappointment of a great movement cut short. Duggan has worked for O'Connell for years, and tirelessly works to keep the wreck of a man afloat, but he also sees all of the great man's faults - how can the valet not? "No man is a hero to his valet" is an epigram to the book. Most bitterly Duggan understands that he will be cast out into the street after O'Connell's death. He is in fact found another station in recognition of his service: working in the South Dublin Union, otherwise known as the poorhouse, where half-naked victims of starvation and typhus are taken to die. As he observes, the first corpse he ever washed was O'Connell's; now he cannot count the rest.

With the death of O'Connell comes the death of Ireland? Or was O'Connell's reformist pacifism part of the cause of the death of Ireland? There are chapters written by others, one by a young woman who claims that she was raped by O'Connell, who in any event was reputed to have many bastard children in addition to his legitimate seven. Another is a bitter testimonial to his political double-dealings by an ex-comrade. He was heroic but vainglorious, and his elaborate presentation of himself required endless financial machinations (in truth he had no real money of his own). He was in his essence a symbolic figure, that was his function. Titling the book "Duggan's Destiny" points to Duggan as Ireland, of course, and from the time that the thick black hair is replaced by a wig Duggan has no doubt of what will happen when the symbol is extinguished.

A popular entertainment this novel is not. Much of the book is graphic detail of the disintegration of an old man's mind and body. I would recommend it to readers with an interest in the famine years. It does have depths. I think Seamus Martin saw that the material was deep by itself and that it just needed the writing. Documenting the real-life Duggan's journal in this way was a populist act befitting an Irish newsman. (Another recent novel about this period reviewed in this blog is Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea.)

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