The starting point for my stage play ‘Berlin Hanover Express’ was my arrival in Dublin in 1954 and learning that thirteen years before Prime Minister De Valera had offered his condolences on Hitler’s death to the German Minister in Ireland. The play then turned out to be about the nature of neutrality, that if a country is neutral between two warring parties then it follows that it’s tacitly on the side of an enemy. But writing from this starting point over 40 years later and nothing to do with the play, I did begin to recall memories of Ireland as I lived there for some years in the late ‘Fifties.
I moved there because it was the cheapest town in Europe for a university education. Cheap then, expensive now. So a move to Dublin where the rent for a mews home was three pounds a week, often unaffordable. Thank god there was a wonderful landlord – Mr King, Anglo Irish, a gentleman. It was quite improper to complain to him when any of the services broke down - as a prisoner of the Japs he had built the Burma railway. No services offered on that gig. (I have been very lucky with landlords. In over a decade living in Hampstead a good part of that was in the house of actors Denis and Stella Quilley. They were very gentle about money owed)
Arriving in Dublin I was not quite ‘as poor as the Widows Fardels’. Great grandfather had owned land and pawn shops in Glasgow and had left a trust. The journey of my Irish years could be said to be moving from one side of the counter to the other. The trust’s Trustee was an uncle who trousered most of its income. But as I was about to boat across the Irish sea, he died. Small sums started to arrive at greatly irregular intervals.
I was in and out of Trinity College very quickly but couldn’t tear myself away from Dublin. It rocked.
There were the Yankee Bill of Rights people like J. P. Donleavy, who had served with the US Military and were entitled by right to ongoing education. They had checked the overseas unis to see which of them ticked the two boxes, cheap digs and cheap booze. There was the parallel society of the pubs, where a dustman who’d produced a slim book of poetry might be in the company of a Lord Longford. There was Behan, our mews was behind his house in Waterloo Road. And other poets and writers like Paddy Kavanagh, and Flann O'Brien. There were the theatres, the Gate, the Abbey, and others, plus the impresarios, Ilsley and McCabe and Macliammor and Edwards. Captain Alan Simpson’s ‘The Pike’, with or without his permission, seemed to be a nightly shebeen for Vintara, a Dublin manufactured red wine from grape concentrate with huge alcoholic content.
For the artists there were events like the Academy’s Summer Exhibition where Earl Beit would sweep in with his advisors and buy all the Louis le Broqueys. There was also 51 Frankfurt Avenue, where Harry Bewick reigned – a remarkable woman with a brilliant artist daughter, Pauline. Also roaring up to that door in his Porsche, Philip Castle and Barry (Finbar) Laverty, both fine artists.
Although a Scot by nationality and a Londoner by birth, I went to some trouble to track through an Irish grandparent the route to Irish citizenship. I hope always to stay a good citizen of a fine country.
I moved into rooms above the pub, ‘The Brazen Head’, Lower Bridge Street. I still retained an interest in Trinity College Players and its small perfect theatre, but my heart was in Herbert Lane, the Pike Theatre and the courage with which Irish Army Captain Simpson confronted the failing, flailing powers of the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. I was there on the first night of the Tennessee Williams ‘The Rose Tattoo’ transfer to, I think it was the Gaity Theatre, when McQuaid’s stormtroopers, the Legion of Mary, block booked a section of the stalls, to throw bags of flour at the performers on the clue of the actor dropping a contraceptive on the stage. Uproar from the rest of the audience as they shouted at the Legion – the play proceeding onstage with two groups of rioters in the audience - that was live theatre.
Among the nightly habitués of the Brazen Head, young IRA men. They had Rick of Casablanca style raincoats and hat brims pulled down over their eyes. I would try to come to some conclusion about them as they plotted quietly in corners. Why were they what they were? I thought the truthful answer was that they were basically unemployed lads with no prospects in what was then a poor country, but somewhere in their genes the distorted construct of the romance of it, where in fact ‘the call to go North’ often meant ugly murders and mayhem. At that time they seemed the more innocent children of the brutalists who later attacked Omagh.
Also in the pub regularly sitting no distance from these unemployed were two ex-servicemen proudly declaiming their war stories to anyone who would listen, true Irishmen who fought for the British against Germany as tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen had done. They and their comrades-in-arms had made their own conclusions about the Nazis, clearly at odds with their neutral political and church leaders. Their comment on Irish politicians of whatever party, ‘All corrupt’. The corruption of these politicians lasted well after the war – Prime Minister Haughey may have been one of the last of the long appalling line.
The Roman Catholic church leaders of Ireland had known as early as 1942 about the reality of the Holocaust, and had not spoken out. Their massed ranks of surplices had a real joker in the pack with John Charles McQuaid. The church had ignored the Holocaust but was messianically active in dictating a spiritual monopoly for the nation. A municipal statue of a semi-naked female was erected, if I remember correctly, in a park in Donnybrook. John Charles objected to her dishabille. The municipality dug its heals in. A lorry arrived on a midnight and the statue was stolen away.
I wouldn’t feel so aggressively about the leaders of the Irish Church then except for their deep aggression against their Irish people. No contraception, no abortion, their cretinous lists of banned books, and dispensation needed from the Church to study at Ireland’s best known university. The Brazen Head was a refuge from all that. The clock over the bar was permanently halted at ten pm, but it could have been am for all many of its habituees could in their cups comprehend. I moved in and joined a couple of other semi-permanent students. Walter Payne, an immaculate Englishman who lived off the income of the patents of a great grandfather who had invented a rotary printing press. Walter started every morning with massive pink gins. And there was Dickon, English, and also vaguely studying something. We would breakfast, buy a pan loaf, and then a short walk down to the banks of the Liffey where we would feed the swans already waiting for us. We decided to do something about the Brazen Head’s plague of bed bugs lining up along our veins at rest. DDT was purchased and we surreptitiously sprayed the entire place. It made no difference except I reacted and became seriously ill with Quinzy. Don’t ask.
Images of that time retain an unexpected clarity. The ancient landlady of the Brazen Head advising her custom around dawn, ‘now best put something between it’, meaning a food interval before drinking resumed. And off she’d go to the kitchen to produce greasy plates of burnt sausages. Her helper, Michael, sitting drunk in the rear yard, almost buried in a heavy snow storm as he bottled stout from a keg, hands blue as he struggled with bottle and corking machine. An open tract of land not far from the Pro Cathedral, and two dozen old men and young unemployed spread over the place on stools, splitting logs into matchwood to be paid pennies per bundle. I wanted to buy a second hand toilet – a large field just outside town with the very same peppered all over it like bizarre plants. The miraculous wayside singer Margaret Barry and her fiddle player, Michael Gorman, stunning the pub to silence with her songs, usually close by an earnest American collector of real folk adjusting a tape recorder. Brendan Behan in most bars in Dublin being feted with the endless rounds of drinks that eventually killed him. Brendan getting his typewriter out of hock as I walked into the shop to pawn mine. Following poet Patrick Kavanagh up Lower Leeson Street. He sees a mother engrossed in a dairy’s window display. She’s oblivious to her child behind her as Kavanagh passes and hits the kid hard on the head, sending him reeling, and walks on. He did not like children.
I bought a cottage in Inchicore for ninety-five pounds, four hundred and forty-four year lease. It was within staggering distance of the St James’ Gate Guinness brewery – thus the purchase. It was meant to be my centre for free love and Guinness parties. After the first party, large men arrived at the door – ‘you won’t be giving any more of your jamborees. Is that clear understood?’. I sold the cottage at a slight loss.
I left Dublin in 1961. I’d been doing some artwork and back in London I got some contacts to publishers. They were not encouraging. My elder brother meanwhile had written two TV plays for the BBC. I thought I’d try that.
Ian Kennedy-Martin went on write over a hundred and fifty hours of television and created the series’ ‘The Sweeney’, ‘Juliet Bravo’, ‘The Chinese Detective’, and others.