25 April 2016

How Irish do I have to be before I
answer ‘Irish’ on the census form?

How Irish do I have to be before I complete last night’s census forms? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Did you answer all the questions on the census form last night?

Did you continue through to the bitter end?

Did you get stuck in the middle and find you needed a cup of coffee before you continued?

I stumbled when I came to Question 11:

What is your ethnic or cultural background?

The form says: “Chose one section from A to D, then the appropriate – box.”

The options given are:

A White

1 Irish
2 Irish Traveller.
3 Any other White background.

B Black or Black Irish

4 African
5 Any other Black background

C Asian or Asian Irish

6 Chinese
7 Any other Asian background

D Other, including mixed background

8, Other, write in description.

I have problems with what appears to be an inherent presumption – that to be purely Irish one is white, and with no added ingredients.

How could there possibly be such a concept as pure Irish?

Who are the pure Irish?

Do you have to have a surname that begins with “O” or “Mac”?

How far back does one have to go?

Are you not purely Irish if your family arrived here with the Vikings? The Anglo-Normans? The English and Scots? The Huguenots? The Palatines? The 19th and 20th century Italian plasterers and the next waves that opened fish and chip shops?

When does Cassoni, Caffola, Macari, Fusco, Cinelli, Librero, Cervi or Borza become an Irish surname?

Why do some people have to be hyphenated?

Why do some families have to wait for generations when, for example, Pearse and de Valera never had to? Yet Pearse had an English father and de Valera, who was born in New York, had a Spanish or Cuban father – how would they have described themselves last night?

How could Constance Markievicz describe and qualify herself? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

As I walked through Saint Stephen’s Green yesterday afternoon, and looked at the monument to Countess Markievicz, I wondered how she would have answered: Polish or Ukrainian because of her husband? English because she was born in London?

She was already double-barrelled when she was born Constance Gore-Booth, and some of her detractors might have liked to compound that by labelling her Anglo-Irish.

Some years ago, during the 2011 presidential election campaign, Martin McGuinness tried to blame “West Brit elements” in the Dublin media for daring to ask questions about his past.

McGuinness later took the opportunity to try to explain his “West Brit” media conspiracy faux pas, saying: “No, no, I think there is a very tiny number of people who fit into that category, but there are undoubtedly a number of people out there who are very determined to try and undermine my campaign, but I’m not going to get fixated about any of that.”

Speaking to Newstalk’s Chris Donoghue he said “there are West Brit elements, in and around Dublin – some of them are attached to some sections of the media, others are attached to political parties and were formerly involved in political parties,” he said.

Note how he blamed “West Brit elements” in the media and in political parties for the past, and not the IRA.

However, as Miriam Lord asked in The Irish Times afterwards, how could McGuinness reconcile his statements about wanting to be a President for all the people of Ireland when he also used a derogatory term like “West Brit”?

Wikipedia defines the term this way: “West Brit, an abbreviation of West British, is a pejorative term for an Irish person, usually from Dublin, who is perceived by his or her countrymen as being too anglophilic in matters of culture or politics.”

Daniel O’Connell used the term positively in a debate in the House of Commons in 1832 when he said: “The people of Ireland are ready to become a portion of the Empire, provided they be made so in reality and not in name alone; they are ready to become a kind of West Briton if made so in benefits and justice; but if not, we are Irishmen again.”

The term “West Brit” gained prominent usage in the land struggle of the 1880s. By the 1900s, DP Moran, founder of The Leader was using the term frequently to describe people he did not consider to be sufficiently Irish. It was synonymous with those he described as “Sourfaces,” those who mourned the death of Queen Victoria, and It included virtually all members of the Church of Ireland and those Roman Catholics who did not measure up to his definition of “Irish Irelanders.”

A sense of how the term came to be used can be grasped from a reading of James Joyce’s Dubliners, published in 1914: “Perhaps he ought not to have answered her like that. But she had no right to call him a West Briton before people, even in joke.”

In the early years of the Irish Free State in the 1920s, the term “West Brit” was used to discriminate against those who had a friendly attitude towards the United Kingdom and who were loath to cut ties with the neighbouring island. It seems, though, that by then the term was applied mainly to Roman Catholics because Protestants were presumed to be Unionists by nature – despite the fact that Irish nationalists and republicans had included Charles Stewart Parnell, Sean O Casey, Bulmer Hobson, Douglas Hyde and Ernest Childers.

Similarly pejorative terms include “Castle Catholic” and – in this day and age – “Anglo-Irish.”

Someone I know has tried on more than one occasion to use the term “Anglo-Irish” when he has asked me about my background. But it implies that someone is only half Irish, or half English.

The Comerford family has lived in Ireland for many generations, for many centuries, but I am keenly aware, like many generations before me, of our family roots in Staffordshire and Wiltshire. Why not? It is as sensible as someone with the name O’Neill or O’Donnell being proud of ancient Irish roots – perhaps even more so, in that the link is closer and can be verified.

But I am hardly going to use the term “Anglo-Irish” or “West Brit” on the census form. I have no problem with English friends who think I may be English, but let no-one in Ireland imagine I am less Irish than they are – certainly not less Irish than Pearse or de Valera.

Those who have been keen on rewriting the history of 1916 during the present commemorations, appear to be keen to dismiss the authenticity of the Irish identity of one section of Irish society who disagree with them politically.

But they know they would be stooping to racism if they took the same attitude to “Black or Black Irish” or “Asian or Asian Irish” respondents to the census forms last night.

Perhaps since the failure of his presidential campaign, Martin McGuinness has decided to accept that Ireland is an authentic home for “West Brits,” the “Anglo-Irish,” those who speak Received Pronunciation English, those who enjoy cricket and rugby, those whose parents were born in Rathmines and Rathgar, those whose father or grandfather fought in the British Army in World War I or World War II, those who wear a poppy, those who received part of our education in England or worked there for a while, those who are proud of that part of our ancestry that is English (even if generations ago), or those who opposed 40 years of murderous violence on this island.

But no-one should have to qualify how Irish they are when it comes to filling out the census forms.

Finding a secluded and secret
garden in a former monastery

In Ranelagh Gardens … a secluded and secret garden in Dublin 6 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

On my way from Dundrum to the Greek Film Festival in the City Centre on Sunday morning, after preaching in Christ Church, Taney, and Saint Nahi’s Church, Dundrum, I found myself for the first time in the Ranelagh Gardens.

These secluded gardens are like a secret garden in the middle of the south-side Dublin suburb to which they gave their name. And, although I have often passed them by on foot or travelled by them on the Luas, I had never visited them.

I have known this part of Dublin for decades, and both a grandfather and great-grandfather lived nearby in Beechwood Avenue and Old Mountpleasant. But in my late teens and early 20s this secret garden was a secluded and private place, part of the grounds of a monastery of enclosed Carmelite nuns, and closed to the public for over a century.

The main entrance to the Ranelagh Gardens is through a stone arch beneath the Luas line (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The main entrance to the Ranelagh Gardens is through a spectacular stone and carved arch beneath the Luas or light rail line, but there are less well-known gates from the side streets and laneways around Ranelagh.

The gardens now cover about one hectare (almost 2.5 acres), but were originally part of five hectares of pleasure gardens developed in 1775 by a businessman who called them after the Ranelagh Gardens beside the River Thames in London, beside the site that hosts the Chelsea Flower Show each year.

A statue in the Ranelagh Gardens recalls Richard Crosbie’s pioneering hot-air balloon flight in 1785 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The first manned hot air balloon flight in Ireland was launched from the Ranelagh Gardens in 1785 by Richard Crosbie, two years after the first such flight in Versailles. Crosbie successfully flew his hot air balloon from Ranelagh Gardens to Clontarf.

In 1788, the Ranelagh Gardens were sold to a community of Carmelite nuns who moved into Willsbrook House, set up a new monastery and opened a school. But when the Carmelite convent became totally enclosed in 1840.

The gardens gave their name to the surrounding area, which was originally a small village on the edges of Dublin, surrounded by landed estates. Ranelagh was incorporated into the expanding city in the 19th century. But by then the Ranelagh Gardens were closed to the public, local people no longer had access to boating pond, and the Ranelagh Gardens were virtually forgotten for over a century.

The Carmelite nuns moved out of Ranelagh in 1975, and found a new home in Malahide. A lot of the land was sold off for housing developments in the mid-1980s.

Today, the Dublin 6 district has many open parks and green spaces, including Dartmouth Square, Mount Pleasant Square, Belgrave Square, Kenilworth Square and the park in Harold’s Cross. But none is as curious or as secluded as the Ranelagh Gardens.

But all was not lost. The present small park was designed, including an ornamental pool thereby that recalls the 200-year historical connection with the original Ranelagh Gardens.

A large, gated and carved stone arch beneath the Luas or light rail line leads into this “secret garden.” But in reality this is no secret garden – it is overlooked by surrounding apartment blocks, so that, like any city parks, this place feels both open and enclosed all at once.

Inside there is an ornamental pond with swans, ducks and large fish, benches to snatch some moments of tranquillity, weeping willows, a family of herons who are unperturbed by the human visitors, and a statue commemorating Richard Crosbie and his pioneering hot-air balloon flight.

A heron in the Ranelagh Gardens … undisturbed by human attention (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

But who was Lord Ranelagh who gave his name to the Ranelagh Gardens in Dublin and to the original Ranelagh Gardens in London?

The Ranelagh Gardens in London were named after Ranelagh House. The title of Viscount Ranelagh in the Irish Peerage was first given in 1628 for Sir Roger Jones, son of Archbishop Thomas Jones of Dublin. His grandson, Richard Jones (1641-1712), the 3rd Viscount, became Earl of Ranelagh in 1677.

While he was the Treasurer of Chelsea Hospital in London (1685-1702), this Lord Ranelagh built Ranelagh House in 1688-1689 immediately beside the Chelsea Hospital. The builder, Solomon Rieti, was an Italian Jewish immigrant whose niece, Rebecca Rieti, was the grandmother of Benjamin Disraeli.

The Earl of Ranelagh’s mother was Lady Katherine Boyle, a daughter of the Earl of Cork and a sister of the chemist Robert Boyle. But she became estranged from her husband, who appears to have been a drunkard, and Richard was brought up in his mother’s household in London.

After the Restoration of Charles II, Richard became MP in the Irish Parliament for Roscommon, and at first he was identified with the group that opposed the land settlement being proposed by Ormond. But, when he became the Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer he became one of Ormonde’s strongest supporters. For his role in clearing Crown debts, he also became the Earl of Ranelagh.

In England, he was also the MP for Plymouth and later for Newtown (Isle of Wight), Chichester, Marlborough and West Looe. He became Paymaster of the Forces. He remained in royal favour during the reign of James II, but he switched his loyalties when William and Mary came to the throne and became a senior figure in the new government.

Ranelagh was well known for enjoying life and for being a rake. Fall seemed inevitable, and he was expelled from the House of Commons in 1703 when discrepancies were found in his accounts and he was fund to have misappropriated more than £900,000 of public finds.

When he died in 1712 without a legitimate male heir, the title of Earl of Ranelagh became extinct and the title of Viscount Ranelagh became dormant. Eventually, Ranelagh House and the Ranelagh Gardens were sold in 1741 to a syndicate led by the proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and Sir Thomas Robinson MP, and the Gardens opened to the public the following year.

Ranelegh became more fashionable than the older Vauxhall Gardens. The entrance charge was 2/6 (half a crown), compared to a shilling at Vauxhall. Soon after the gardens opened, Horace Walpole wrote: “It has totally beat Vauxhall... You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince, or Duke of Cumberland.”

The name Ranelagh Gardens inspired the Dublin counterpart and soon gave name to the new suburb in Dubin. But the success was short-lived, Ranelagh House was demolished in 1805, 35 years before the Ranelagh Gardens in Dublin were closed off to the general public.

Today, the original site in London is now a green pleasure ground with shaded walks, part of the grounds of Chelsea Hospital and the site of the annual Chelsea Flower Show.