12 AUGUST 1972, Page 9

Death of a civilisation

F. S. L. Lyons

The Anglo-Irish Terence de Vere White (Gollancz £4.00) During the truce — the real truce of 1921, not the sad parody of 1972 — Lloyd George remarked that negotiating with Mr de Valera was like trying to pick up quicksilver with a fork. Upon which Mr de Valera, with unaccustomed levity, allegedly commented, "Why doesn't he use a spoon?" He would have done better to ask, "Why doesn't he change his metaphor?" Quicksilver was never the mot juste for Mr de Valera, but it does exactly fit the type of Irishman he was just then displacing, the type whose wit and elegance and audacity had glittered in the Dublin salons during the only two phases of high civilisation in the modern history of Ireland — the closing decades of the eighteenth century and the first dozen years of the twentieth.

Terence de Vere White is one of the last survivors of the breed. Incomparably the best talker in Dublin, effortlessly cdruscating like a Christopher Fry hero, he has preserved for posterity something of the dolce vita of those distant days in his novels and in his dazzling autobiography, A Fretful Midge. Now, on this larger canvas, he has attempted a panoramic view of the Anglo-Irish men and women who, until their dethronement half a century ago, had dominated Irish society for three hundred years. The subject is vast, too vast for a single book, and Mr de Vere White wisely makes it clear that he has not tried to write the history of a class, a race, or a regime. This is just as well, because, where history does obtrude, it is decidedly sketchy. As always, he is interested in people,. not events, and his book consists essentially of vignettes of those he regards as key figures.

The result is a fascinating, though eighteenth century and the first dozen Every Irishman, whether ' Anglo ' or not, will immediately see something of himself reflected in Mr de Vere White's steely mirror. The honest English reader, on the other hand, may have a more difficult time. To him one can only suggest that he try to follow the kingfisher flight of Mr de Vere White's epigrams without worrying too deeply about the underlying realities they seek to express. But if he does want to worry about the underlying realities — if, like many people nowadays, he has at last realised that the Irish are by no means the lovable playboys of the western world which sentiment would have them be — then he should still read this book even if at first it bewilders more than it enlightens him, For if he Is ever to think straight about Ireland he must understand how complex and baffling a place it is. And Mr de Vere White, who has heroically resisted the temptation to make it neat and tidy, is an excellent guide to at least one part of the forest precisely because he offers no easy way out of it.

The worst difficulty in writing about the Anglo-Irish lies in deciding just who they were. Mr de Vere White hovers constantly on the verge of a lapidary definition, but in the end he doesn't much improve on Brendan Behan's terse description of the Anglo-Irishman as "a Protestant with a horse." This is good as far as it goes, and it has the great merit of deflecting us from racial generalisations which are unhelpful in a society where cross-breeding is centuries old, but it does not go far enough. The horse identifies the gentry yet overlooks the middle-class; this is clearly absurd if we number among the latter, as we must, not merely Berkeley, Burke and Goldsmith, but also, and despite those Carefully furbished Butler ancestors, the great high-priest of the 'indomitable Irishry,' Yeats himself.

'Protestant' takes us nearer to the truth, though this too is inadequate since it includes the Presbyterians of the north east who have never fitted easily into the Anglo-Irish (or any other) mould. More Important, it inexcusably omits the Catholics. To omit a Catholic strain even from a predominantly Protestant group is to do violence to history. It is to leave a question-mark against Burke; it is to exclude some of the leading Anglo-Irish families; it is to ignore the Catholicism of Edward Martyn and the no less typical anti-Catholicism of George Moore; worst of all, it is to place Mr de Vere White himself beyond the pale. True, he leaves us uncertain as to whether or not he would welcome this, but for myself I have no doubts. Chastise them how he may, at the last trump he will stand up with the horseProtestants rather than with the Mercedes.. Catholics who have succeeded them.

But these religious preoccupations — central though they are to the subject — are only part of a larger theme. For Mr de Vere White that theme is the death of a civilisation which reached its apogee towards the end of the eighteenth century, slowly decayed during the nineteenth, and vanished abruptly when the vital link with Britain was broken fifty years ago. At bottom it is a sad story and Mr de Vere White does not conceal its tragic undertones. But along the way, besides the callousness, the arrogance and the recklessness, there was gaiety, elegance and an endowment of genius quite disproportionate to so tiny a minority. All this he captures in a seemingly casual blend of anecdote and characterisation; but it is the art which conceals art and by the end there are no important facets of the Anglo-Irish mind and heart on which his insight and compassion have not enlightened us. Except one, perhaps. He does not warn us that the long-term effect of hyphenation, of indefinite suspension between different countries and diverse cultures, has been to breed in the Anglo-Irishman a quality of ironic detachment which, while it can produce superb literature, also makes for unhappy human beings. Perhaps, after all, the literal situation of some Anglo-Irish survivors is the truest definition of the caste as a whole — people with a claim to two passports but belonging to no country.

Professor Lyons is Master of Eliot College at the University of Kent and co-chairman of the Anglo-Irish society.