seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Mervyn Wall, Novelist & Playwright

Mervyn Wall, novelist and playwright who writes under the pseudonym of Eugene Welply, is born in Dublin on August 23, 1908. He attends Belvedere College and works as a civil servant from 1934-48. He is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters.

Wall is probably the last survivor of the remarkably gifted generation which emerged from University College Dublin (UCD) in the 1930s. It includes Brian O’Nolan, Donagh MacDonagh, Cyril Cusack, Liam Redmond, Denis Devlin, Niall Sheridan, and the shortlived poet Charles Donnelly who dies in the Spanish Civil War. Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds contains portraits of many of these people, under fictitious names, and evokes the whole ambience of intellectual student life in Dublin at the time.

Like other literary civil servants of the period, Wall often takes a satirical view of bureaucracy. Unlike Brian O’Nolan, however, he can play the bureaucrats at their own game and by most accounts he is a highly efficient public servant in his own right. His late novel Hermitage (1982) has some sharp sidelights on the world of Green Tape.

Wall makes his mark mainly as a novelist, but he begins as a playwright and has at least two works performed in the Abbey Theatre. His first real success comes in 1946 with The Unfortunate Fursey, in which he creates a mythical monk who is tormented by the Devil. The picaresque humour and fantasy of the story are enjoyed by the public as essentially good-natured farce, but it is possible that he also intends it as oblique satire on the Irish clergy in general, at a time when any open criticism of them might invite trouble. Fergus Linehan later turns it into a successful musical.

The first Fursey book has successors, and all of them are published in a single volume in 1985, entitled The Complete Fursey. During the 1950s Wall writes two “serious” novels of social criticism, Leaves for the Burning and No Trophies Raise, in which his satirical sense takes a more direct route. They are praised at the time by respected critics and are still well worth rereading.

Apart from his writing, Wall has a distinguished career in Radio Éireann, where he and his colleagues, the novelist Francis MacManus and the poet Roibeard O Farachain, make up a literary and administrative trio nicknamed “Frank, Incense and Mer” by a staff wit. He later becomes secretary of the Arts Council, a sometimes difficult job which he handles with tact and fairness.

Wall is himself a witty, observant, sometimes catty man in a generation famous for its wit. He and his wife Fanny, who is known as a leading music critic, are for decades an almost indispensable duo in Dublin cultural and social life, although Wall, in spite of his various public roles, is at heart a home loving and industrious man who never seeks publicity.

Wall dies on May 19, 1997, just eight months after his wife, in St. Michael’s Hospital, Dún Laoghaire, after a short illness.

If and when a fullscale cultural history of Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s comes to be written, Wall’s place in it should be assured. As a successful, long term civil servant, he learned how to work the system in favour of literature and the arts in an age when patronage of them was thin on the ground.


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Death of Mother Mary Martin

Mother Mary of the Incarnation Martin, foundress of the Catholic religious institute of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, dies in Drogheda, County Louth, on January 27, 1975.

Martin is born Marie Helena Martin in Glenageary, County Dublin, on April 24, 1892, the second of twelve children of Thomas Martin and Mary Moore. In 1904, while attending classes for her First Communion, she contracts rheumatic fever, which is to affect her heart permanently. Tragedy hits the family on St. Patrick’s Day 1907, as her father is killed in what is presumed to be an accidental shooting. Later her mother sends her to schools in Scotland, England and Germany, all of which she leaves as quickly as possible.

Upon the outbreak of World War I, Martin joins the Voluntary Aid Detachment, a division of the Red Cross. In October 1915, she is assigned to work in Malta. After learning that her brother had been killed in the campaign of Gallipoli, she returns to Ireland in April 1916. She is called to serve again a month later at Neufchâtel-Hardelot, France, in a field hospital near the front lines of the Battle of the Somme. This assignment lasts until December of that year, followed by a brief stint in Leeds, England. After the war, she is called upon help in nursing victims of the Spanish flu, which had begun to devastate populations around the world.

In 1917 a new curate comes to the parish which Martin attends, the Reverend Thomas Roynane, to whom she turns for guidance. Roynane inspires her with an interest in pursuing missionary work. She goes to England in January 1919 for further medical training. Her mother’s severe illness the following year interrupts her training, however, as she has to return home to care for her.

In April 1920, Roynane arranges for Martin to meet the new bishop, and she volunteers her services as a lay missionary to work in his jurisdiction in southern Nigeria. Agnes Ryan, a local schoolteacher now in her fourth year of medical training, advises her that she wishes to join her in the African mission.

In April 1921, Martin and Ryan leave Ireland for Nigeria. They set sail for Africa from Liverpool on May 25 and arrive in the port of Calabar on June 14. They arrive prepared to provide medical care, only to learn that they are expected to run a school which had been staffed by French Religious Sisters until two years prior. To give the parents and children of the school a sense of continuity, the two women are addressed as “Sisters” by the priests and treated as if they are already members of an established religious institute.

By October, Ryan contracts malaria and develops a heart condition, which require her return to Ireland. Forced to fill in as Acting Headmistress, Martin meets with the bishop in his headquarters at Onitsha and is advised that caution is needed in providing medical care to the people of her mission, so as not to provoke objections by other missionaries in the region. Upon her return to Calabar, she makes a 30-day retreat.

In April 1922 the bishop travels there and holds two weeks of consultations with Martin, Roynane and another missioner, during which the Rule and Constitutions of a new congregation are hammered out, with the understanding that Martin will be the foundress. Martin does not see the bishop again for two years. During this time she learns that the bishop is working to establish the new congregation in Ireland, a direction she feels will focus the congregation on teaching rather than the medical care. An Irish Sister of Charity, Sister Magdalen Walker, is released from her congregation to help in this new work and arrives in Calabar in October 1923.

The following January Martin is directed by the bishop to return to Ireland to make a canonical novitiate. In March she starts her time of postulancy, prior to admission to the novitiate year. After 18 months, however, upon completion of the novitiate year she leaves the community, as the training provided by the Dominican Sisters has not been oriented toward medical care.

In this formal step of forming the new congregation, Martin encounters the prohibition in the new Code of Canon Law of 1917 of the Catholic Church against members of religious orders practicing medicine. Facing this barrier, she still feels a call to consecrated life and considers following the example of the recently canonized Carmelite nun, Thérèse of Lisieux. In 1927 she applies to the community of that Order in Dublin, but her application is declined, solely on the decision of the prioress who feels that Martin is called to a different path in life. She then goes through a new period of confusion until she is requested to consider again serving the missions. She then forms a small group of women to provide the domestic service for the preparatory school run by the Benedictine monks Glenstal Abbey.

In 1933, following a long period of illness, Martin approaches the new Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Paschal Robinson. He is supportive of her goals and encourages her continually over the next years. Finally, in February 1936, the Holy See lifts prohibition against Religious Sisters serving as doctors or midwives. She then seeks a diocese which will accept a new congregation, without success. In October of that same year, Antonio Riberi is named Apostolic Delegate in Africa, based in Kenya. He gives his support to having the congregation established in Calabar.

While still negotiating to purchase a house in Ireland as a local base, complicated by the fact that they are not yet a formal congregation, the small community sails for Nigeria at the end of 1936. Upon their arrival Martin suffers a heart attack and is hospitalized at Port Harcourt. It is there that she professes religious vows on April 4, 1937. With that the Medical Missionaries of Mary become established.

Martin’s health is always a source of concern but she lives until 1975. Today the Medical Missionaries of Mary number some 400 women from 16 different nations, who serve in 14 different countries around the world.


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St. Columba Arrives on the Isle of Iona

iona-abbey-isle-of-iona

St. Columba, an Irish monk, and twelve followers arrive on the tiny isle of Iona, barely three miles long by one mile wide, on May 12, 563, establishing a monastic community and building his first Celtic church. Iona has an influence out of all proportion to its size on the establishment of Christianity in Scotland, England and throughout mainland Europe.

Once settled, Columba sets about converting most of pagan Scotland and northern England to the Christian faith. Iona’s fame as a missionary centre and outstanding place of learning eventually spreads throughout Europe, turning it into a place of pilgrimage for several centuries to come. Iona becomes a sacred isle where kings of Scotland, Ireland and Norway are buried.

Columba is born of royal blood in 521 AD in Ireland, or Scotia as it is then called. He is the grandson of the Irish King Niall. He leaves Ireland for Scotland not as a missionary but as an act of self-imposed penance for a bloody mess he had caused at home. He had upset the king of Ireland by refusing to hand over a copy of the Gospel he had illegally copied, leading to a pitched battle in which Columba’s warrior family prevailed. Full of remorse for his actions and the deaths he had ultimately caused, he flees, ultimately settling on Iona as it is the first place he finds from which he is unable to see his native Ireland. One of the features on the island is even called “The Hill with its back to Ireland.”

Columba, however, is not the shy retiring type and sets about building Iona’s original abbey from clay and wood. In this endeavour he displays some strange idiosyncrasies, including banishing women and cows from the island. The abbey builders have to leave their wives and daughters on the nearby Eilean nam Ban (Woman’s Island). Stranger still, he also banishes frogs and snakes from Iona, although how he accomplishes this feat is not well documented.

The strangest claim of all however is that Columba is prevented from completing the building of the original chapel until a living person has been buried in the foundations. His friend Oran volunteers for the job and is duly buried. It is said that Columba later requests that Oran’s face be uncovered so he can bid a final farewell to his friend. Oran’s face is uncovered and he is found to be still alive but utters such blasphemous descriptions of Heaven and Hell that Columba orders that he be covered up immediately.

Over the centuries the monks of Iona produce countless elaborate carvings, manuscripts and Celtic crosses. Perhaps their greatest work is the exquisite Book of Kells, which dates from 800 AD, currently on display in Trinity College, Dublin. Shortly after this, in 806 AD, come the first of the Viking raids and many of the monks are slaughtered and their work destroyed.

The Celtic Church, lacking central control and organisation, diminishes in size and stature over the years to be replaced by the much larger and stronger Roman Church. Even Iona is not exempt from these changes and in 1203 a nunnery for the Order of the Black Nuns is established and the present-day Benedictine abbey, Iona Abbey, is built. The abbey is a victim of the Reformation and lay in ruins until 1899 when restoration is started.

No part of Columba’s original buildings have survived, however on the left hand side of the abbey entrance can be seen a small roofed chamber which is claimed to mark the site of the Columba’s tomb.

(From: “St. Columba and the Isle of Iona” by Ben Johnson, historic-uk.com, pictured is the Iona Abbey and Nunnery)