Update to Being Bookish website

Views of my blog at www.beingbookish.com have now reached a total of 3545, with visitors from 89 countries.

In Australia, there are no more copies of Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner available from the distributor Dennis Jones and Associates. But a limited number of signed copies are available from the author; see details on the website.

In Ireland, there are still copies of the book available by contacting the Dublin agents Liam O’Briain or Alan O’Brien at jamesaobrien@hotmail.com who will be happy to meet your order.

Proceeds from sales will go to support an oral history project on one of Ireland’s oldest building unions the Ancient Guild of Incorporated Brick and Stonelayers; established in 1670.

As well as this site other articles and stories I have written may be viewed by those who are interested on http://www.thewildgeese.irish.

Thanks to all who continue to visit and to share the site.

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Diary of a Dissenter

Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner

By J. A. O’Brien

Reviewed by Fergus Whelan

This is a memoir of a working-class writer, bricklayer, and member of the republican movement.  O’Brien grew up in the Dublin of the 1940s and 50s and worked intermittently in Britain before finally emigrating to Australia in 1968.

The book opens in 1941 with the author as a small child, his face pressed into his mother’s skirt, as a group of families stand on the steps of their south side Dublin tenement listening to the thud of Luftwaffe bombs dropping on the North Strand.  As the bombs fall, his father and uncle discuss what must have been a most controversial question for Irish democrats, socialists, and republicans of the era.  Should they support Ireland’s neutrality or should they join in the fight to defeat fascism?

The author was too young to understand it all.

O’Brien grew up in the south inner-city and went to St. Louis’ School in Rathmines in the period quaintly referred to as the “Emergency”.  His father was a bricklayer his mother worked in domestic service and he tells a colourful and sometimes heartrending tale of the difficulties faced by working class families just to survive.

He also tells of the bullying brutality of teachers.  The sadistic Mr Rafferty who would ‘crash his cane down on the desk’ to ‘hammer religion into them for their own good’ is a familiar figure to any Irish male born before 1972.  (Corporal punishment was abolished in 1982).

However, O’Brien was fortunate in his home life.  In particular, he was a lucky enough to be raised by strong, loving but, above all, independent and left-wing parents who were not afraid to think for themselves or stand up for their rights.

Leaving school, he became an apprentice bricklayer and there is a wonderful chapter on his initiation into the trade and into the union, called “Before the Green Cloth”. Like the author, this reviewer went before the ‘Green Cloth’ of the Ancient Guild of Incorporated Brick and Stone layers in 1970, two years after O’Brien left for Australia. O’Brien’s account certainly resonated with this once-proud apprentice of the Ancient Guild.

O’Brien gives a vivid portrayal of the lot of skilled Dublin tradesmen in the 1950s as they crossed the Irish Sea seeking employment.  In England, he rubbed shoulders with socialists and Spanish Civil War veterans and he greatly admired the class consciousness of the English working class. After a visit to a Yorkshire coal mine, he pithily observed ‘I will never waste the smallest bit of coal again’.

Unlike most Southern Irish Republicans of his era, or perhaps any era, O’Brien took the time to visit Northern Ireland, going to see conditions there for himself in August 1954. His sympathy for the oppressed nationalist population in what he described as a ‘closed society’ is palpable.  However, he has an interesting exchange with his ‘Da’. “They are surrounded by hostile forces, where it is well known and asserted that it is ‘A Protestant government for a Protestant people.”

The elder O’Brien replied, “If they feel oppressed they should try living in a Catholic-dominated system like we have down here. The Prods were right about Home Rule being Rome Rule, that’s for sure.”

O’Brien joined Sinn Fein and the IRA in the late 1950s, towards the end of ‘Operation Harvest’ otherwise known as the Border campaign. At a time when the Irish Labour Party was afraid to describe itself as socialist for fear of the wrath of the Catholic Church, he tried to influence his comrades to move to the left. He found that most IRA members were good potential soldiers but not political animals. It is clear that O’Brien greatly admired Sean Garland, Tomas MacGiolla and Cathal Goulding who, would succeed in moving the Republican Movement in a direction O’Brien would have applauded.

O’Brien left Ireland in 1968 and moved to Australia to find regular employment. It appears his main reason for leaving was his rejection of a narrow-minded and bigoted society, writing that he ’found life in the stifling social and cultural conditions of Ireland hard to tolerate’.

The most pleasing thing about this readable, amusing and perceptive memoir is that O’Brien, who is clearly a scholar of literature, drama and history weaves his erudition seamlessly into his life-affirming tale of working class life.  In particular, his use of poetry and song is moving, never more so than when gathered with his fellow Dublin bricklayer republicans at the funeral of Sean South, he quotes Dominic Behan:

They told me how Connolly was shot in a chair

His wounds from the battle all bleeding and bare

His fine body twisted all battered and lame

That soon made me part of the Patriot game.

Fergus Whelan

LookLeft

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Award-winning Radio Play

One of the many events held during 2016 to honour those who took part in the Easter Rising one hundred years before, was a stage play From the Backbone Out which told the story of Richard O’Carroll a labour leader and a member of the Irish Volunteers

O’Carroll who commanded an outpost in Camden Street was fatally shot after he was captured by the infamous Captain Bowen-Colthurst who would murder the pacifist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and two journalists on the same day.

When he came face to face with Bowen-Colthurst he asked O’Carroll if he was a “Shinner’? O’Carroll’s response was unequivocal, he replied… “From the backbone out”. Hence the title of the play which premiered in Dublin’s Liberty Hall to a packed audience of 400 people in April last year. The play is the work of two young Dublin men, Alan O’Brien and Patrick Ferris and marks their debut into playwriting.

Alan is a poet, writer and part-time actor and has won a Slam Sunday event as well as being shortlisted for the Maeve Binchey Travel Award in 2015. Co-writer Patrick Ferris has a degree in History and Classics and has written ‘as far back as he can recall’.

Now this dynamic duo has written (Alan) and directed (Patrick) an award-winning radio play Snow Falls and So Do We. Winner of the P J O’Connor Award 2016 (RTE) the play has been independently produced for the internet. It has received wide acclaim described by one listener as “Very Beckett. Kept me totally enthralled”. Other comments can be viewed on the link below.

Link to the play on soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/greenember/snow-falls-and-so-do-we

 

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Extracts from reviews of ‘Against the Wind’

The most pleasing thing about this readable, amusing and perceptive memoir is that O’Brien, who is clearly a scholar of literature, drama and history, weaves his erudition seamlessly into his life-affirming tale of working class life.

 Fergus Whelan,

LookLeft

  Ah, yes, the Irish sure do have a way with words – a very entertaining, humorous, intelligent, loving and proud memoir. More literary gold from the “Emerald Isle”.

 

                                                                                                                                Wendy O’Hanlon,

                                                                Acres Australia

  I loved this little bit of history about a big period of sadness that happened in a proud country where people stood solid for what they believed to be right and just. A powerful story written from a heart that witnessed the country he loved torn in two.

 

                                                                            John Morrow,

Pick of the Week

 

 O’Brien weaves together the many threads of history and his own life to produce an informed tale that will interest many readers well beyond the globe’s enormous Irish Diaspora.

 

                                                                             Robin Osborne,

Media Adviser

 

 The book will also appeal to the Irish Diaspora, as O’Brien’s memories of migration to and from England for work in the lean years of 1950s Ireland will resonate with many. As thousands continue to emigrate every week for places like Australia, O’Brien reminds us in his closing lines, ‘There are Irishmen and there are men from Ireland… I am as Ireland made me. Intentionally or not’.

 

Dr Sarah Campbell, 

Modern Irish History  


 While his later life took him to Australia, this memoir stands out among those which tell a wider tale than interesting anecdotes about growing up in Dublin or other places in the “Rare Oul’ Times”. It looks into the developing mind of a young person who is not only intensely observant of the world but conscious of their class and the challenges before it, and most critically, can convey it to the reader.

 

Michael Halpenny,

Liberty

 O’Brien’s long held view is that it was necessary to remove the gun from Irish politics. Some years later the IRA came to the same conclusion. An erudite and entertaining read.

                                                                              Bendigo Weekly

 

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Two little “Aussies”

A short extract from Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner

At the end of the war Da was home once again from England. He had got a job with a small builder doing mainly repair and maintenance work on some older houses in New Street.

Ma was very happy to have him home once more and sang as she went about her housework. She could even laugh when the clothesline broke and the clean washing fell to the ground. “Blast it, the bloody nuisance of a thing,” she said under her breath. “Ah sure Pat will fix up a new line when he gets in.”

Nothing was a worry to her then. “And it’s great to be living a natural married life again,” she confided in Mrs Foley across the fence as they both hung out the Monday wash. Mrs Foley laughed and said, “Now Kath, just remember what they say, ‘If you can’t be good, be careful.”’ And they both laughed together as women do in each others company when there are no men to overhear.

But though Da was happy enough to be working steadily he was thinking of the uncertainty of the ups and downs of the building industry and wondered if it would always be so in Ireland. He read the newspapers avidly to keep informed of the trends that were possible indicators to the economy and the foreseeable future for tradesmen like him.

“How would you like to go out to Australia, Kath,” he asked my mother one Sunday, as he looked up from reading one of the English Sunday papers. For the next few days the talk was all about Australia and we kids got in on the discussions and dragged out our school atlases to look at where Australia was in the world.

On the way to school as we walked up the Rathmines Road my younger sisters Mae and Doris and I chatted about “being Australians” and were overheard by a young woman walking with her newly commissioned soldier fiancé. “Oh are you little Australians?” she stopped to ask the girls.

“No. Not yet anyway. But we might be someday. If our Da can stay home from England and save enough money for us to go there,” Mae said innocently.

“So your Daddy can save more money here than he can when he works in England?” she asked. “I thought there was great money to be made in England the way everybody goes there.” She looked at her officer and smiled smugly. “So the streets are not paved with gold in London after all, darling,” she smirked.

Even at our childhood stage we had an understanding of the economic conditions that prevailed in the Ireland of the forties and fifties. We had heard Ma talk of how when men were away they had to keep “two homes” on one wage. I wanted to tell this smug bitch some of the realities of life and how the country could never survive without the emigrants remittances that came back delivered by the telegram boys each week.
I had heard the discussions in our house and in the homes of our relatives many times and over the years had come to understand more of the “grown-ups” talk. I looked up words like “emigrants” and “remittances” in the big dictionary that had been in our family “for generations” Ma had said when I asked where the “big book” came from.

But instead of confronting this woman who was after all only a few years younger than my parents I took my sister’s hands and walked away. When I told Ma what had happened and what I had wanted to say to the couple she just smiled and said, “One half of the country doesn’t know how the other half lives. Probably her officer fella is just back from Sandhurst”. This made my Da laugh and he explained that even those that managed to stay at home and did not have to “take the boat” would have relatives in England or America or Australia. That emigration was “a curse for some and a safety valve for others.”

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Milestones for this site

An overdue update for all followers of this site:-

Visitors from 89 countries as at 22 May 2017.

Views – 3545

Book Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner. ISBN: 1-922086-53-3. The book is available at  many public libraries in Australia, but is no longer distributed by Dennis Jones & Associates. However, a limited number of signed copies are available direct from the author and are also available on Amazon POD or as an ebook.

In Ireland the book may be purchased through visiting the Facebook pages of Liam and Alan O’Brien who are the agents for the book in Dublin.

Apart from this site many of my articles may be viewed on http://www.thewildgeese.irish

Thanks to all fans and followers of Being Bookish.

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Jeremy Corbyn’s win is relevant to Anglo-Irish relations

In Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner, I postulated on the commonality that exists between the plain people of Britain and Ireland. Below are some extracts to ponder as we witness a dramatic change in British politics.

“Often throughout history it has not been the people themselves but the arrogant and superior attitudes foisted upon them by monarchy, religion and class that has led to an unfortunate enmity between the plain people of both countries who otherwise have much in common and could, if allowed, get on quite well together. I believe that both countries have dissidents who recognise there has always been as much connection as separation between the ordinary people of Ireland and England”.

Page 4.

“In England, there was a crop of younger writers and playwrights who were challenging the established order of things. John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delaney were making names for themselves in the theatre. As were John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and later Lynn Reid Banks in literature; all writing stories with working-class heroes as in turn the Beatles would recognise in a song ‘A working class hero is something to be’. The media dubbed them ‘The Angry Young Men’. When I had told Fred I was pleasantly surprised to find so many dissidents in his country, ‘Not nearly enough,’ was his caustic reply”.

Pages 148-149.

“It amused me to hear a Ganger man yell, ‘Tear it out of it, lads. Sure, it’s not our country,’ to a gang of Irish navvies wielding picks and shovels in a trench. But I did not appreciate that they knew nothing of the Irish Chartists and their struggle to better working class lives in this very city. This separatism and lack of integration worked against not only the Irish but also the other immigrant communities from all parts of the Commonwealth. West Indians did not sit with Pakistanis or Indians in the site canteens, nor did their communities mix well in the rundown areas where they could afford to live. And though there was no organised policy of discrimination like there existed in Northern Ireland, the lack of assimilation was not an evident concern of those that ran the major cities of Britain at the time”.

Page 171.

Now a dissident English republican will surely find common ground with those who in George Bernard Shaw’s phrase live on John Bull’s Other Island to the west. And hopefully those that live on that island will find common cause with him.

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