24 JANUARY 1987, Page 28

Keeping the Anglo-Irish alive

Derek Mahon

TWILIGHT OF THE ASCENDANCY by Mark Bence-Jones Constable, L14.95 Everyone loves the Anglo-Irish, espe! ially the Irish, who take an indulgent. If slightly patronising pride in their erstwhile oppressors, treating them with the solici- tude due to an endangered species; but no one can quite decide who they are or were. The late Brendan Behan defined an Anglo- Irishman as `a Protestant on a horse, which is about half right. Perhaps Yeats's phrase, `hard-riding country gentlemen', would be a more accurate, if less tren- chant, definition; for the caste was and remains essentially equestrian. But the Anglo-Irish have included many Catholic families: some of them, in the nature of things, 'older' than the oldest Protestant families; and there has been much inter- marrying over the centuries. The 'Old English', the FitzGeralds and the Butlers, the Powers and the de Burghs, became `more Irish than the Irish themselves', and autochthonous dynasties allied themselves with the breezy blow-ins: the Lords Inch!' quin were descended from the O'Brien High Kings, and various branches of the original O'Neills flourish to this day; while the Leslies, Lysaghts, Mahons and Moores who throng the Ascendancy roster might, and did, in the words of W. R. Rodgers, have 'a foot in both graves'. As for the term 'Ascendancy', no one seems quite certain of its origin, though a scholarly consensus (that is to say, virtually the entire adult population of Ireland) ascribes it to the last decade of the 18th, or perhaps the first decade of the 19th century coincidental, and indeed conterminous, with the Act of Union (1800) which abcd; ished the Dublin parliament and obliged Irish members to sit instead at Westmin- ster. The Ascendancy may be said to have enjoyed its heyday under this dispensation, until the land war of 1879-81 dented its hitherto impregnable armour; and it is at this point that Mr Bence-Jones takes uP the story. He sets it down again a hundred years later, which makes for a long to- light; but evenings are long out here in the gardens of the west, and not everyone has a 'phone. A landless peer of my acquaint- ance speaks whimsically of the Toescen" dancy'; but the extraordinary thing is that, though in the descendant for so long, the Anglo-Irish continue to exist and even, curiously, to thrive, thanks in part to the nostalgia industry. Thanks also to litera- ture, which has done so much to keep the Anglo-Irish idea alive. It was Yeats who started this, with his notorious 'no petty People' speech on the floor of Seanad Eireann in 1925. Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September appeared in 1929, since when Big House novels have been legion: think of Molly Keane, William Trevor, J.G. Farrell, Jennifer Johnston. The melody lingers on. Nor, despite a history of incendiarism and neglect, is the country quite without big houses even today. Some, like Garech Browne's Luggala, have hosted traditional music; Kilkenny Castle houses a famous design centre; Bantry House and Westport House are °Pen to the public, one boasting a health- food shop, the other video games in the dungeon.

At a function in Dublin Castle last year I found myself sitting beside a flame-haired Gaelic poet from Dingle, who gazed around her delightedly. 'My great- grandparents were evicted,' she said; 'can You imagine what this does to me?' There are many photographs in this book, but one strikes me particularly. There is no- !lung obviously Irish about it: we might be iii Sussex, and it might have been taken Yesterday. It shows three children on a beach, their clothes and expressions oddly modern. They are the children of Major Robert Gregory, the 'Irish Airman' cele- brated by Yeats, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they are still living. Everything is so recent. Ascendancy Ire- land seems as remote in time, and as curi.►ous in character, as Czarist Russia, so quickly does quantitative become qualita- tive change; and of course the two came to an end within a few years of each other. But that Ireland is with us still in a way that Czarist Russia is not; and I don't mean in Ulster, which has been exceptional since the Jacobean Plantation, if not before.

Southern makes it quite clear what aouthern Unionists thought of their bi- goted northern counterparts. Indeed, a consistently likeable feature of this book is its even-handedness. In a study of this sort, concentrating on the fortunes of a self- Perpetuating elite, it would have been so easy to belittle those who sought, for their , wn good reasons, to change the name of the game. There is no sneering at such t!gures as Griffith, Collins, Cosgrave and be Valera. The last inspired particular fear and loathing among the Ascendancy, who ca_ lied. him Valera, refusing him the aris- tocratic `de'; yet they grew to admire him, he grudgingly, as it became clear that _be was a man of vision and principle. Also, like them, he knew how to crack the whip. The book is fair, too, in the matter of incendiarism. The number of big houses Put to the torch for `revolutionary' pur- poses did not exceed 200, and there were over 2,000 such houses in Ireland. Bence- Jones recounts these incidents not as hor- ror stories but as the complex human events they were: how it was usually outsiders who did the job, 'the locals being unwilling to help burn the house of some- one with whom they were probably on perfectly good terms'; how care was taken to save life. When the unpopular Lord Leitrim was gunned down in 1878, Maria la Touche, the wife of a prominent Kildare landowner, wrote to an English friend that she was 'very sorry we (sic!) shot Lord Leitrim'; and in The Last September, when an English subaltern announces the cap- ture of a local IRA man, Sir Richard Naylor, whose house will eventually be burnt, flushes severely: 'I am sorry to hear that, his mother is dying; however, I sup- pose you must do your duty.' A strange and often touching symbiosis existed be- tween the Irish and the Anglo-Irish, who were not, in any case, always clearly distinguishable. (Naylor is an indigenous name, though Bowen is not.) To compli- cate matters further there were eccentric figures like Lord Ashboume, a Gaelic League enthusiast who wore a saffron kilt: `He refused to speak English, so that those who knew no Irish had to speak to him in French.'

My one reservation about Bence-Jones's account concerns its gravity; for this is a very straight-faced piece of work. No doubt it is to his credit that he has resisted the temptation to set us on a roar at the comical `Irishness' of it all; but I feel he might have let himself go a little more in this respect. I chuckled once, and laughed aloud immediately afterwards, at two anec- dotes set in the 1930s:

Many people still had butlers, though they tended to be old or eccentric or addicted to the bottle. There was an occasion when the butler at Caledon, fortified by his diligence as a wine-taster, leant over Lady Caledon's shoulder during a dinner party and proposed marriage. She afterwards told a friend: 'Of course I accepted and told him to continue serving; next day it was all forgotten.' And during a tea party at Blarney Castle the butler entered the drawing-room stark naked. Lady Colthurst went up to him: 'I think we need a little more sugar.' And he immediately left the room.

It is not the ladies' presence of mind that amuses me, funny though it is, so much as the extravagant irony of the Gogolian butlers, and the fact that they felt, and were, free to behave as they did.

A headline in this morning's Irish Times reads, 'Anglo-Irish have a past to be proud of, and a cursory glance reveals the customary roll-call of famous names: Swift, Berkeley, Burke, Sheridan, Wilde etc. Professor J. C. Beckett of Belfast has been speaking on BBC Radio Ulster. He quotes the author Stephen Gwynn: 'I was brought up to think myself Irish without question or qualification, but the new nationalism (this was around 1920) prefers to describe me, and the likes of me, as Anglo-Irish.' Bence-Jones makes the same point when he remarks that no one would think of calling a Scottish laird 'Anglo-Scots'. But, like it or not, the term is here to stay. It describes fewer and fewer people, and it is a term they would not use themselves; but there is nothing polite with which to replace it. As for 'Ascendancy', it is no longer a question of twilight but of obli- vion, despite the pockets of nostalgia persisting here and there. The author belongs to a Cork family himself and knows his stuff, though his 'select bib- liography' is so select as to be downright perfunctory. Necessarily so, perhaps: a greater inclusiveness and there would have been no end to it. Still, I would have liked to see Brian Inglis's West Briton listed. West Briton, now: wasn't Gwynn lucky we didn't call him that?