An historian comments – Sarah Campbell
Memoirs of an Irish childhood in the years after independence have become a popular genre in Irish writing in the last decade. These memoirs can offer us some extraordinary glimpses into the Irish experience in the twentieth century.
Against the Wind follows in a similar vein to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, reciting a Irish Catholic childhood with bullying schoolteachers and priests, cultural restrictions due to the Catholic church and the intimacy between Church and State, particularly in relation to birth control – a development which ultimately convinces O’Brien to emigrate to Australia in 1968 – ‘I would not have “Mother Church” in our bedroom’. Also similar to Angela’s Ashes and Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark, O’Brien’s mother looms large in the narrative. She appears to influence his ideas on socialism and equality, as well as his eventual disillusionment with republicanism.
This book is also timely, for two reasons. Its discussion on ideas of working-class development and of independence will resonate with many as we commemorate the 1913 Lockout and Irish revolution, questioning, perhaps, what was achieved with independence, particularly as the country goes through another heart-breaking recession which sees many citizens leave its shores, as O’Brien did throughout the 1950s to England and more permanently in 1968, to Australia. The book will also appeal to the Irish Diaspora, as O’Brien’s memories of migration to and from England for work in the lean years of 1950s Ireland will resonate with many. As thousands continue to emigrate every week for places like Australia, O’Brien reminds us in his closing lines, ‘There are Irishmen and there are men from Ireland… I am as Ireland made me. Intentionally or not’.
Dr Sarah Campbell
Modern Irish History
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Journalist & media/communications adviser – Robin Osborne
As author James (Seamus) O’Brien notes early in Against The Wind, his fascinating memoir of growing up in Ireland in the 1950s and beyond, politics was a dish served regularly at the family dinner table. Like his father, a dedicated unionist (brick and stone layer) he took to it with relish, fuelled by a constant struggle to make ends meet.
In common with many Irish, he sought work in England when the economy slumped, and his tales of London’s building sites are marked by racism as much as camaraderie and good humour. The money was good – post-WW2 London couldn’t have rebuilt without the “Paddy” workers – but his heart remained in Ireland, and inevitably this meant solidarity with the north’s struggle against British rule.
The section on his weapons training, and for a while instructing, with the IRA may be more reminiscent of Dad’s Army than fervent assassins, but it hints of the road that the hardline republicans would eventually follow. How this could have happened is explained through the author’s knowledge of his country’s political history and the inside story of why a generation of young Irish were so committed to the cause.
Capturing the cadences and frequent humour of Irish speech, set amidst widespread, often heart-breaking, hardship and superbly illustrated with archival documents, including his own union cards – somehow kept over the years – this is a wonderful grab-bag of recollections.
It provides many insights into ordinary Irish life at a time when the republic itself was battling to survive, its northern cousin was increasingly rocked by violence, and the wider post-war world was emerging from colonialism.
O’Brien weaves together the many threads of history and his own life to produce an informed, often bizarre tale – was smuggling condoms once an imprisonable offence? – that will interest many readers well beyond the globe’s enormous Irish diaspora.
The diary of an emigrant and dissenter – Michael Halpenny
The full title of this book is Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner. However, this is not the diary of someone strenuously opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, but rather the thoughts of a working class writer, bricklayer and one time member of an earlier Republican movement, who grew up in the Dublin of the 1940s and 50s and left to work outside Ireland.
As such it is different from many books of its type which reflect the experience of those from a more rural or “provincial” setting. Donal MacAmhlaigh’s Dialann Deorai (Diary of an Exile) or the earlier Rotha Mor an tSaol (The Hard Road to Klondike) by Donegal’s Michael MacGowan stand out as examples of such tales of the lives of migrant workers in England and North America, respectively.
Born in 1936, the author, James O’Brien, grew up in the South inner-city and went to St. Louis National School in Rathmines in the period quaintly referred to by the then “Free State” as the “Emergency”.
His father was a bricklayer and his mother worked in domestic service and he tells a colourful and sometimes heart-rending tale of the difficulties faced by working class families just trying to survive.
He also tells of the casual brutality of school life and the all-pervading oppression of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, in the South Circular Road area of the city, he was also exposed to different views and experiences, those of Protestant and Jewish neighbours which helped to broaden his mind.
In particular, he was lucky enough to be raised by strong, loving, but above all, independent and class-conscious parents who were not afraid to think for themselves or stand up for their rights if required.
Leaving school he became an apprentice bricklayer and there is a wonderful chapter on his initiation into the trade and the union, called Before the Green Cloth. He writes tenderly of first love and of his political awakening. This partly derives from his experience as an immigrant worker with Yorkshire miners.
The other impulse came from the IRA Border Campaign of the 1950s at a time when it was said that young men with ambition joined Fianna Fail and young men with principles joined the Republican Movement. James O’Brien joined the Movement. Young men like Charlie Haughey joined the party of Dev.
The book covers the period up to the 1960s, including his subsequent involvement with the Connolly Association and its work with the organised labour movement in England on the injustices in the North.
While his later life took him to Australia, this memoir stands out among those which tell a wider tale than interesting anecdotes about growing up in Dublin or other places in “the Rare Oul’ Times”.
It looks into the developing mind of a young person who is not only intensely observant of the world but conscious of their class and the challenges before it, and most critically, can convey it to the reader.