Against the Wind
By J. A. O’Brien
Reviewer: Michael Halpenny
The full title of this book is Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner. However, this is not the diary of someone strenuously opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, but rather the thoughts of a working class writer, bricklayer and one time member of an earlier Republican movement, who grew up in the Dublin of the 1940s and 50s and left to work outside Ireland.
As such it is different from many books of its type which reflect the experience of those from a more rural or “provincial” setting. Donal MacAmhlaigh’s Dialann Deorai (Diary of an Exile) or the earlier Rotha Mor an tSaol (The Hard Road to Klondike) by Donegal’s Michael MacGowan stand out as examples of such tales of the lives of migrant workers in England and North America, respectively.
Born in 1936, the author, James O’Brien, grew up in the South inner-city and went to St. Louis National School in Rathmines in the period quaintly referred to by the then “Free State” as the “Emergency”.
His father was a bricklayer and his mother worked in domestic service and he tells a colourful and sometimes heart-rending tale of the difficulties faced by working class families just trying to survive.
He also tells of the casual brutality of school life and the all-pervading oppression of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, in the South Circular Road area of the city, he was also exposed to different views and experiences, those of Protestant and Jewish neighbours which helped to broaden his mind.
In particular, he was lucky enough to be raised by strong, loving, but above all, independent and class-conscious parents who were not afraid to think for themselves or stand up for their rights if required.
Leaving school he became an apprentice bricklayer and there is a wonderful chapter on his initiation into the trade and the union, called Before the Green Cloth. He writes tenderly of first love and of his political awakening. This partly derives from his experience as an immigrant worker with Yorkshire miners.
The other impulse came from the IRA Border Campaign of the 1950s at a time when it was said that young men with ambition joined Fianna Fail and young men with principles joined the Republican Movement. James O’Brien joined the Movement. Young men like Charlie Haughey joined the party of Dev.
The book covers the period up to the 1960s, including his subsequent involvement with the Connolly Association and its work with the organised labour movement in England on the injustices in the North.
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.
Nov/ Dec 2014 issue.