04 February 2012

An antidote to Irish poisons

Louis MacNeice’s father – solid and sober, pious yet tolerant – is a key to the poet’s work, and to keeping level heads ourselves

Cold climate: Frederick MacNeice, father of Louis, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in July 1928


BIOGRAPHY: ‘Solitary and Wild’: Frederick MacNeice and the Salvation of Ireland

By David Fitzpatrick

The Lilliput Press, 427pp. €40

“Fitzpatrick paints a portrait of a complex, astute and remartkable bishop who had a major impact on literary Ireland”

LOUIS MacNEICE is one of the seminal poets, dramatists and classicists of the last century on these islands. He was part of the Thirties Poets group, which included WH Auden, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, his circle of friends included John Betjeman and Anthony Blunt, and he went to school at Sherborne and Marlborough before going on to Merton College, Oxford. Thus he is seen by many as essentially an English poet, detached from Irish literary circles and with a flawed relationship with his home island. But like TS Eliot, and WB Yeats, he remained an outsider, and his poems constantly reflect his love of Ireland and Irish people – and our literature.

MacNeice’s work reveals an abiding pride in his Irish roots. But though he was born in Belfast, his father, a Protestant minister, was originally from Co Galway, born on Omey Island, on the western edges of Connemara. Prof David Fitzpatrick of Trinity College Dublin has diverted his attention from writing a history of the Orange Order to write this biography of John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942), a reassuring presence in his son’s poetry.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Bishop MacNeice was a towering figure in the Church of Ireland, north and south. He had been archdeacon of Connor before becoming bishop of Cashel and Waterford (1931-1934) and then bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore, making him the most powerful and influential church figure in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland until his death. Although a life-long member of the Orange Order, he had refused to sign the Ulster Covenant and was later accused of desecrating Carson’s memory by refusing to allow the Union flag to be placed on his grave in the Cathedral Church of St Anne, Belfast, in 1935.

In the 1940s, Louis MacNeice claimed, “My father was one of the very few Church of Ireland clergymen to be a Home Ruler.” But Fitzpatrick paints a portrait of a man who, throughout his life, was more nuanced and finely tuned in his political and religious thinking, and in many ways he remains an enigma.

This gripping biography tells the story of a man who is, in his complexity, often difficult to understand. He was an Orangeman but opposed the Ulster Covenant in 1912; he was a unionist by instinct but believed home rule was better than partition and the unity of Ireland more important than the link with Britain; during the first World War he moved from pacifism to patriotism yet was close to pacifism once again in the 1930s; he risked speaking out against sectarianism and intolerance in the 1930s yet retained an instinctive hostility to many aspects of Roman Catholic life.

He constantly changed the first name he used. He began life as John McNeice, and changed the spelling of his surname only in 1914. At significant stages in his life, he alternated between John, Frederick, Fred, Derrick, John F and Frederick J, while his first wife, Eliza, would become Elizabeth or Lily. His son the poet was also known as Freddie until his teens, when he adopted his middle name, leaving behind his birth name, his Irish accent and his father’s faith.

The bishop published little, yet David Fitzpatrick shows how he is central to understanding his son’s writings, remaining solid and sober, pious yet tolerant. He uses the archives of the Irish Church Missions, the Orange Order and the Church of Ireland, along with local newspapers and the writings of both father and son, to reconstruct the disparate worlds in which the bishop lived, with searing accounts of the snobbery that existed in Ireland, even within church circles, north and south.

Fitzpatrick paints a portrait of a complex, guarded, astute and remarkable bishop who had a major, if often hidden, impact on literary Ireland. He also shows the world of difference between Cappoquin, where MacNeice served his first curacy, and Carrickfergus, which became the family’s home town, and the world of difference between being a bishop in Waterford and a bishop in Belfast.

Father and son would later collude in reinterpreting the bishop’s earlier career, as part of a process of reconciliation that profoundly affects Louis MacNeice’s later poetry and writing.

The bishop’s understanding of the Russian and Spanish revolutions, where “the masses of people had been kept in ignorance for generations”, and his early condemnation of fascism and its treatment of Jews as “the revival of Paganism”, must have influenced his son. In two beautiful closing chapters, the relationship between father and son is discussed, and eight well-known poems are reinterpreted in the light of fresh evidence.

At MacNeice’s consecration as bishop of Cashel and Waterford, at Christ Church in Dublin in 1931, the preacher hailed his election “as a sign from Heaven, as something tending to bind together the whole Church of Ireland”. As we face a decade of centenaries and commemorations that are likely to confuse myth and history, this biography of a bishop who rose above the simple judgments and false tensions of his day is a useful antidote to the poisons of passion and polarisation that may be served up over the next 10 years.

Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism and liturgy at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church, Dublin

This half-page book review was published in The Irish Times Weekend Review on Saturday 4 February 2012 (p. 13)

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