About Being Normal: My Life in Abnormal Circumstances, by Desmond Fennell, Somerville Press, 337 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-0995523920
Normal means (OED) “conforming to, not deviating or differing from, the common type or standard; regular, usual”. The numerous essays, books, newspaper columns and papers which Desmond Fennell has written across seven decades together form a search for the law, the aurea mediocritas (golden mean), the standard. If the circumstances had been favourable ‑ had they expressed the standard ‑ there would have been no need for the search.
A Fennell-style prescript is offered on the fly-leaf: “my central preoccupations have been man and the instance of mankind that is called Ireland”. This has a heroic flavour, like Samuel Johnson’s “Let Observation, with extensive view / Survey mankind, from China to Peru” (The Vanity Of Human Wishes) or Alexander Pope’s “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan / The proper study of mankind is Man” (An Essay on Man). Are we then to get the makers of the Ceide fields, Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, the complex at Rathcroghan, Dun Aengus? Not quite. Mankind plays out as Fennell’s contemporaries and immediate antecedents. And we are by no means confined to Ireland. A bibliography lists no fewer than eighteen books in the name of Desmond Fennell, starting with Mainly in Wonder (1959). He was born in 1929 and therefore becomes eighty-eight this year. Recently, a chance visit to a second-hand bookshop turned up a Studies issue of 1954 with a Fennell essay entitled “Spaniards on Spain”. It proved to be classic Fennell: the role of the intellectual in post-civil war Spain, both as historians and as practical thinkers. They gather in the welcoming shade of a magazine named Arbor. They incur the wrath of the authorities …
The book opens with a piece entitled “Childhood Christmas” (from The Leader, Dublin 1950) It juxtaposes accounts of his life at various stages with a series of essays which relate to various topics which engaged him at different times. If Fennell were a poet, this would be his Selected Poems. Tom, Desmond’s father, was from Sligo. His mother, Julia, was from Belfast, of a Tyrone family. In Dublin he went to O’Connell Schools, where he learned Irish, then Belvedere, where he learned Latin, Greek, French and German. A scholarship took him to UCD, where he studied history and economics. He joined Opus Dei. At twenty-one he moved into the Opus Dei house. His sisters Rosemary and Geraldine followed him to UCD, where they too enjoyed success. There’s a birthday poem he wrote for Geraldine atseventeen.
In 1950, with the assistance of his beloved Professor Desmond Williams, he got a scholarship to Bonn University. A long relationship with Germany and German culture begins. His fellow students include veterans of the Eastern Front. He spends St Martin’s Day with Aedan O’Byrne, Ireland’s representative in Bonn; the feast of Saint Nicholas with a beer-drinking student fraternity. A visit to Hamburg finds him in recoil from the red-light district the Reeperbahn and he writes an article about this for Comhar, the Irish language journal. Because his thesis has a working-class flavour ‑ The Catholic Workers’ Movement in The Rhineland ‑ a trade union sponsors his second term in Bonn.
Next Opus Dei invites him to teach in a school they manage in Bilbao. Within three years he is fluent in Spanish. But returns anyway to his beloved Rhineland …
The sun on the meadow is summery warm
The Rhine gives his gold to the sea
But gather together to greet the dawn
Tomorrow belongs to me
(From the film Cabaret, translated from the German of Heinrich Heine)
In a moment of self-evaluation, Fennell reckons he is unusual if not unique among his fellow Irish Catholics for exploring and writing about non-Catholic countries. He claims that the legions of Irish missionaries have produced no writing about the peoples they encountered in Africa. Even if this claim is not 100 per cent accurate, the point is valid. The sentiment is not exclusive to Desmond Fennell. It is of ancient vintage and was famously expressed by the Roman playwright Terence: Homo sum nihil humani a me alienum puto. (I am a man and think nothing human alien to me.)
He moves on, to Sweden, considered by many to be the most enlightened country in Europe. From there to the Soviet Union, the ideal state for some others. All the time he is concerned with his identity, his Irishness. He writes an essay about something he calls “The British Problem” ‑ normally referred to as “The Irish Problem”. He goes to Cologne and writes articles for The Irish Times and works for German radio. From there he proceeds to Asia, to Burma, where an insurgency is in progress.
In Daitokuyi temple, Kyoto, he meets the Zen master and priest Kobari Solaku. It is, he says, a memorable interview. But he not disposed to tell us why. “The things which made it memorable are such as one feels ought not to be spoken about. They are perceived and felt and appreciated. They make you feel that life is very much worth an effort, that its secrets can really be learned and lived. But such perceptions become ungainly when put into words, and the attempt to do so is unseemly.”
In Germany again he writes theatre criticism for The Times. Tennesee Williams in Düsseldorf. Brecht in East Berlin. He becomes the first Aer Lingus sales manager for Germany, and uses the free-travel entitlement to visit Israel. He persuades the publishers Hutchinson to commission him to write a book on Sweden ‑ “an affluent and pagan country that had broken free from European norms”. While there he skips to Moscow for a fortnight and posts fifteen articles about life there to The Irish Times.
In 1961 he returns to Dublin to be exhibitions officer with the Arts council. He is fired, apparently for offending Sir Basil Goulding. He writes on art for the Evening Press and Hibernia. He marries twenty-one-year-old Mary Troy, a TCD student of Hebrew, Arabic and German. Dermot Ryan, archbishop of Dublin to be, gets him a job in Freiburg with the German Catholic political magazine Herder Korrespondenz. In 1966 he moves back to Dublin as editor of the magazine; and with two sons, Oisin and Cilian.
1966 was a year of commemoration. Fennell’s contribution ‑ The Humanism of 1916 ‑ leads to a consideration of the position of the Irish language. Much writing follows upon that subject. And action. He, Mary, Oisin, Cilian (and now Natasha too) move to Maoinis an island off the Connamara coast to play their part in The Gaeltacht Revolution. While there he writes Beyond Nationalism.
In 1970 he is invited to join the department of philosophy at UCG to “lecture about the kinds of subjects he wrote about in his Sunday Press Column: Wolfe Tone, decentralization, the Dublin liberal agenda, the depression of the West and the like”. He accepts the offer, but the job falls through. It seems some people do not want him in the university. He looks up his Tyrone ancestors in the Sperrin mountains. A column in the Sunday Press follows. Which in turn leads to a consideration of the problem of Northern Ireland and how to solve it, Towards Peace in The North. The essential thing was to recognise that Northern Ireland contained two distinct peoples. The solution? A four-province federation. This was advocated by Sinn Féin but not by the Dublin government. It did not form part of the Good Friday Agreement.
The politicisation of their home in Maoinis undermines Desmond and Mary’s relationship. They move to Galway, where he lectures in politics at UCG. He attends the Croatian writers’ congress. Finally, the couple separates. He goes to Dublin to lecture in the College of Commerce, Rathmines, in 1982. There’s an essay on post-colonial denationalisation in Ireland.
He complains that Aosdana does not support thinker-writers like him. He writes about women’s interests, divorce, abortion and The Massacre Mentality, James Joyce’s Strange Non-Encounter with The Adriatic. He follows Leopold Bloom’s path through the city of Dublin “Bloomsday a day”. He founds the Constitution Club with fellow thinkers to discuss various aspects of and possible reforms of government. He does lunch at The Unicorn on Merrion Row on Saturdays with, among others, Adrian Hardiman and Michael McDowell, lunches which wind up in Doheny and Nesbitts. From a flat on Palmerston Road, he moves to another, in Portobello. A critique of London and Helen Vendler’s influence on Seamus Heaney’s career does not meet with universal approval.
He’s at a strategy meeting of the Potsdam branch of the German social democrats during an election campaign which centres on German reunification. A new expression of the species homo hibernicus is discovered in Dublin 4 in the early nineties ‑ the Donnybrook set. This inspires one of Fennell’s classics, Nice People and Rednecks.
In 1993 he retires from the college in Rathmines. He travels to the US and writes The View From New York. The essence of it is that the Americans hate European humanism. For the atom bombs dropped upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they had tendered no apology. Nor had they accepted any responsibility for the consequences which flowed from those actions ‑ unlike the Germans, who had accepted responsibility for their actions in the second-world war. In the following year he goes to Seattle to reflect upon the meaning of the bombs. The mark the end of European civilisation. He writes Uncertain Dawn: Hiroshima and the beginning of Post-Western Civilisation.
Ireland has had ‑and has ‑ writers of various kinds whose merits are variously celebrated or ignored. But there is only one Desmond Fennell. In his passion, his patriotism, his moral vision, his breadth of knowledge, he is more like an orator from the heyday of the Roman republic than a columnist, pundit, social commentator or parliamentarian of our day. Cicero ranked the orator above all others. He must learn what on any subject he has to say, he must place his arguments in order, and he must know how to express them. The philosophers, the historians and the poets have never risen to his level of eloquence. It scarcely matters now what debates he won or lost, in what matters he caused offence, in which he earned praise. For all his long life he has been committed to his countrymen and women through the superlative level of argument he has sustained in the debate upon a myriad issues which touched them.
In a famous ode the Latin poet Horace praises his own achievement in verse: Exegi monumentum aere perennius (I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze). For this he has earned recognition from Melpomene, the muse of lyric poetry. Delphica / lauro cinge volens Melpomene comam (Garland my forehead, Melpomene, with Apollo’s laurel).
You may tie the laurel wreath about your head, Desmond Fennell: you have served your country well.
Ronan Sheehan, a Dublin writer-solicitor, graduated from University College Dublin in English and Latin in the 1970s.