Like the optimistic white rectangle in the Irish tricolour, with its promise of conciliation between the Orange and the Green, the hyphen in ‘Anglo-Irish’ serves to obscure a dangerously intractable anomaly; and the career of Roger Casement, loyal servant of empire turned nationalist rebel, readily epitomises that contradiction. In the last of three tributes to the martyr of 1916, WB Yeats famously imagined ‘the ghost of Roger Casement … beating on the door’. This is the ‘sudden noise’ that startles the speaker in the poem’s opening line; and Casement’s importunate ghost serves as a reminder of how Yeats himself remained haunted by the events of Easter 1916. But it soon becomes clear that the ‘threshold’ on which this revenant stands is not merely that of the speaker’s own consciousness: written just two years before the catastrophic outbreak of war in 1939, the poem imagines a world on the brink of another violent political transformation – one heralded by the ‘roar of mockery’ that the speaker hears in ‘the sea’s roar’. This is no longer ‘the old sea’ whose waves Britannia once ruled, nor even the Irish Sea that now properly separates England from the country that Bernard Shaw had sarcastically dubbed John Bull’s Other Island, but an ocean whose sound mocks the imminent disintegration of the very empire that Casement once so faithfully served. In the penultimate stanza a triumphalist John Bull ‘has gone to India’ where ‘all must pay him heed / For histories are there to prove / That none of another breed / Has had a like inheritance’, only to be warned that ‘there’s no luck about a house / If it lack honesty.’ But then, just as the poem seems about to expose the lies on which those histories are built, it makes a sudden, unexpected swerve back to the personal:
I poked about a village church
And found his family tomb
And copied out what I could read
In that religious gloom.
Ghosts and tombs may seem to belong together; but there is, in fact, no actual village church with a Casement family tomb – not in Antrim, the home of the Casements, nor, it seems even in Cork, from where Casement’s maternal line supposedly came. So this relic of Ascendancy grandeur must be a figment of the poet’s haunted imagination: deciphering the tomb’s fading inscriptions, the antiquarian visitor finds ‘many a famous man there’, only to be reminded (in the ambiguous way of funereal inscriptions) that ‘fame and virtue rot’. But then, in place of the nostalgic pieties usually invited by such monuments, there comes an unexpected summons to ‘Draw round and raise a shout’ – a shout that at last answers to the insistent noise of Casement’s knocking: it is not, after all, the gentleman who liked to trace his mother’s ancestry to the aristocratic Jephsons of Mallow Castle, but the anti-imperial rebel whose ghost remains beating so insistently at the door.
For the poet of Coole Park and Lissadell, however, the emotional pull of ‘fame and virtue’ remain; and, as so often, Yeats finds himself torn between regret for the lost splendours of Anglo-Ireland and recognition of their necessary destruction – just as in ‘The Curse of Cromwell’, with its insistence upon things that ‘both can and cannot be’, he comes upon ‘a great house in the middle of the night, / Its open lighted doorway and its windows all alight,’ only to wake ‘in an old ruin that the winds howled through’. In ‘Under Ben Bulben’, where Yeats conjures his own carefully engraved tomb into existence, he blurs the history of Norman, ‘New English’ and Cromwellian invasion into ‘seven heroic centuries’, promising a future in which Irish ‘peasantry’ and ‘country gentlemen’ come together to form an ‘indomitable Irishry’, whose triumph will put an end to the awkwardly hyphenated identity of his Anglo-Irish caste with its fading claim to dominion.
The great paradox of the so-called Protestant Ascendancy, of course, is that, far from belonging to any history of triumphant ascent, it seems always – in the chronicles of literature, at least – to have been in decline. Its heyday, following the wars of religion that culminated in the defeat of James II’s Catholic forces, was the eighteenth century; but the first great novel to document that era, Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, traces four generations of decay, culminating in the destruction of the Rackrent family’s fortunes at the hands of the conniving Irish attorney Jason M’Quirk, son of the novel’s ostensibly loyal but dangerously unreliable narrator, the steward Thady Quirk. Castle Rackrent, as its wry afterword reminds us, appeared in 1800, the year in which the Irish and British parliaments (in reaction to Wolfe Tone’s 1798 rebellion) passed the Act of Union that, by abolishing the Irish parliament, created the so-called United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – only for that proclamation of unity to be challenged by a further rising of the United Irishmen in 1803. Ironically enough, the leaders of these revolts – Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and Robert Emmett – all belonged to well-established Ascendancy families, while Fitzgerald had even enjoyed a period of distinguished service in the imperial forces opposing American independence – his divided loyalties, like those of Casement, exposing the self-destructive dichotomy concealed in ‘Anglo-Irish’ identity.
Such are the contradictions that underlie the succession of novels that chronicle the long, slow death of Anglo-Ireland, from Castle Rackrent to Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929) and on to William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault (2002). Bowen’s novel stands as a reminder that this saga of decline should have come to an abrupt end with the triumph of Irish nationalism in 1921: in its final moments, the door of Sir Richard Naylor’s Danielstown “[stands] open hospitably upon a furnace” promising the annihilation of the world for which it stands. But history has never been good at such decisive endings, and later novelists such as Molly Keane, Annabel Davis-Goff, JG Farrell, and, most insistently, William Trevor explore a more attenuated process of decay. In Farrell’s Troubles (1970), set during the War of Independence, it is not Irish rebels but the mere passage of time that is destroying its relic of Ascendancy Ireland: here the Big House has become a mere hotel, a place of faded grandeur whose residents do their best to ignore the fact that it is slowly falling into the sea. Keane’s aptly named Time after Time (1983) presents a more mundane version of the same process as ‘the whole structure’ of the Swifts’ decaying mansion, Durraghglass, fatally ‘depleted’ by death duties, now crumbles away in ‘a miasma of overdraft and mismanagement’; while Trevor’s Lucy Gault grows up as a kind of living ghost in her parents’ abandoned Big House, Lahardane.
So the 1950s Ireland in which I grew up was haunted by the Ascendancy’s sorry aftermath – less obviously in the North, where we lived, but conspicuously in the South, where, at the age of eight, I was sent to boarding school. My own family were a hybrid lot: my mother’s Ingham family were English, but boasted a wealth of Anglo-Irish cousins – Fitzgeralds, Penroses, Somervilles and Coopers – whose access to foxhounds ensured that the South was where she spent much of her youth. The Neills, by contrast, were Ulster people from Co Down; but my great-grandfather, son of a Belfast merchant, had emigrated to Australia and then New Zealand in the 1860s, intending, like so many colonisers, to turn himself into a gentleman: marrying the daughter of an Anglo-Irish officer from Dublin, and earning a small fortune from the sale of wines and spirits to thirsty goldminers, he went on to acquire the nearest thing to a Big House that Dunedin could offer: a wooden mansion just beyond the city to which he added the magnificent stone stables suited to a man of rank. In due course my grandfather and then my father were sent to Harrow, to be turned (as far as possible) into simulacra of upper-class Englishmen. Showing no great inclination to return to New Zealand at the end of his transformation, my father went to Sandhurst, before joining a regiment with a long-standing family connection: the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Although they belonged to the British army’s North Irish Brigade, the Faughs, as they were known (from their Gaelic motto Faugh a Ballagh: ‘Clear the Way!’), were rather different from their two more locally attached brother regiments, the Inniskillings and the Ulster Rifles: the latter, in particular, maintained a hard Protestant Northern allegiance, while the Irish Fusiliers (as their name suggested) pursued a pan-Irish recruitment policy, so that many members of the regiment came from the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic. As he drove me across the border to school, my father took particular pleasure in scattering recruitment pamphlets as he went, while indulging (only half-ironically) in his fondness for rebel songs like ‘Kevin Barry’.
As a creature of this regimental enclave with numerous Catholic friends, I had little sense of the religious divide that would soon tear the North apart. The Unionist slogan ‘No Surrender’, scrawled on every available wall, could only, I supposed, be a reference to the war against Hitler. On the bus to Downpatrick High School, Catholic boys would enthral the rest of us with accounts of how the nuns would routinely beat them upon their arrival at the convent school: ‘just because it’s good for our souls, they say.’ But such tales were merely astonishing curiosities; they did not inform our view of the world. So it was only when I was sent off to boarding school that I became aware of the island’s great divisions – including the continuing class divide between the overwhelmingly Catholic native population and what remained of the Protestant Ascendancy.
Situated in the seaside resort of Bray, Co Wicklow, 30 km south of Dublin, Aravon belonged to a small group of schools that sought to preserve the values and beliefs of that half-vanished world. Whether connected to the landed gentry or to the more urban upper middle class, its pupils were uniformly Anglo-Irish; the maids and cooks, on the other hand – all, it seemed, called Mary – came from the Catholic working class. Our own daily worship depended on the Anglican Prayerbook, and on Sundays we would be marched to matins at Christchurch, local bastion of the Church of Ireland; outside the school walls, by contrast, we could witness the chanting processional displays of Catholic piety – pagan rituals as it seemed to us. It was not just Aravon’s pupils, but its masters and matrons who belonged to the Ascendancy world. It is true that, on Queen Elizabeth’s coronation day, the little Union Jack that I eagerly waved had been seized and plunged into the classroom’s coal stove by a furious master, his aquiline countenance flushed with republican indignation. But even he rejoiced in the wonderfully Anglo-Norman name of de Montfort; his politics were an aberration.
Aravon’s social and political allegiance was perfectly represented by the location of the annual school picnic amid the tall rhododendrons of Powerscourt, an eighteenth century mansion still the property of the ninth Viscount Powerscourt; but it was even more defiantly registered by the headmaster’s decision, in the late summer of 1953, to show us the film of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. There was great anticipation: here we were in the Republic, but for most boys there was little doubt as to where our real loyalties lay. Crowded into the gym, we settled on the improvised seating, eager for the soul-stirring entertainment to begin. Who knew: I might even catch a glimpse of my father, whose troops had helped to line her majesty’s route to Westminster Abbey. We could hardly be unaware, however, of the substantial police presence surrounding the gym – especially in the light of events just north of the border a few weeks earlier: there the IRA had blown up the Savoy cinema in Newry for its impertinence in daring to screen that same film. If they could do that in the North, why not down here in Bray? Would the gardaí be enough to protect us? Would they really want to? The screening passed off peacefully, of course; but in my ten-year old mind it had raised confusing questions about belonging.
Founded in 1862 as a gateway to the prestigious public schools across the water, Aravon was the oldest prep school in Ireland, long pre-dating the thirty-year-old republic in which it now found itself. The school hall was hung will rolls of honour, listing all those former pupils who had died for King and Empire – among them our headmaster’s twin brother, whose name we could see on the list of glorious dead. An entire dormitory was arranged as a memorial to old boys who had offered their lives in the Second World War, each of its wooden panels engraved with the hero’s name, rank and military badge, cast in bronze. Among the masters whom we knew to have served in that war was a retired naval officer named Commander Bowlby, a man we all admired; and then there was Sergeant Hastings, the diminutive but ferocious Scotsman who taught us gym and swimming. Adorned with a small, pointed moustache that he methodically waxed out of his own ears, this brisk little figure would boast repeatedly of his military prowess: ‘“Serrgeant Hastings,” my commanding officer said to me, “Serrgeant Hastings, you’rre a crredit to the Brritish Arrmy!”’ Our headmaster, AB Craig, was himself a survivor of the First War, with a livid facial scar, one strangely crossed eye, and a propensity for inexplicably ungovernable rages to prove it.
The Republic itself, steered by its leader, Éamon de Valera, might have remained determinedly neutral in the Second War, but for Aravon boys the taoiseach’s stance only confirmed his status as an object of mockery: ‘Whistle while you work,’ / we used to sing, ‘De Valera lost his shirt: / Goering wore it, / Hitler tore it; / De Valera lost his shirt.’ Dulce et decorum est, we were taught in Horace’s words, pro patria mori: it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country; and one’s country, clearly enough, was not Ireland but the Empire to which we still somehow belonged. More than 200,000 Irishmen had joined the British army in the First War, 35,000 of whom were killed; another 80,000 citizens of the Republic had followed their fathers’ example in the Second War, when 10,000 more lost their lives. Regarded as traitors by many of their fellow countrymen, these men were, until very recently, written out of Irish history. But at Aravon Irish history was itself erased, forming no part of the school’s curriculum. Real history – as I would learn once again at my faux public school in New Zealand – was simply British history: and its values were epitomised by the first two books I received at the annual Aravon prizegiving: HE Marshall’s Our Island Story and its sequel, Our Empire Story. ‘Our island’ was not the one on which I lived, but that other, larger country across the Irish Sea, whose magnificent empire was embraced by the same stirringly possessive pronoun. In Our Empire Story, I could read of how British troops overcame indigenous resistance in New Zealand, the country to which my father’s Ulster family had migrated a century earlier; yet the conquest of Ireland – England’s first true colony – did not even figure among its tales of imperial triumph.
Nevertheless, as I have since learned, Aravon did have important connections to the national history that it chose to ignore. Indeed its two most distinguished old boys – while there was no place for them on the rolls of honour – had already become iconic representatives of the nationalist cause. In English classes we learned to read Shakespeare, but were told nothing of the great nationalist playwright John Millington Synge, who had enrolled at Aravon in 1884; and we were even less likely to hear of Roger Casement, who had preceded him a decade earlier. Both men came from the same declining caste for which the school still catered; but, seen through the lens of politics, they now belonged to the Free State established in 1922, while their old school somehow lingered in the colonised island of its foundation sixty years earlier. Yet Casement in particular – no matter how carefully he had been erased from institutional memory – had more in common with those on the rolls of honour than the school would have wanted to recognise. For at the core of the caste values for which the school stood was a particular notion of honour – one proclaimed by the motto scrolled beneath its coat of arms: Fama Vita Nostra (Reputation/honour is our life). Honour, we were constantly reminded, should govern every aspect of behaviour – a lesson brought home to me by events on my very first morning at Aravon. The school seemed to have only one lavatory for its sixty-odd boarders, so the dormitories were equipped with tin chamber pots, known as ‘jimmies’. There were never quite enough of these either. Now some careless boy had kicked over a full jimmy: the floor was awash with urine. Enter Matron: ‘Which one of you horrible boys has done this filthy thing? … Very well, if no one owns up, I shall have to fetch the Headmaster!’ Enter ABC: ‘Look at this disgusting mess: who is responsible?’ Silence. ‘If the coward who did this doesn’t own up, I shall have no alternative but to beat the whole dorm! I’ll give you five minutes!’ Exit ABC. ‘Alright, Neill,’ came a chorus from seven other beds, ‘you’re new here: you can own up!’ ‘But I didn’t do it!’ ‘That doesn’t matter,’ snarled a red-faced bully named Reeves, ‘new boys take the blame. That’s the rule. If you don’t own up, we’ll all beat you up!’ Re-enter ABC: ‘It was me, sir.’ ‘Very well, Neill, come with me!’ Then came a stern moral lecture: ‘Your father fought in the last war, boy: would he have deserted his men in their hour of need? When you do something wrong, take your punishment like a man: own up! Own up! Own up!’ Down came his slipper on my behind. ‘Own up! Own up! Own Up! It’s matter of honour!’
The school’s insistence upon the vital significance of honour, then, extended to every facet of our existence, no matter how trivial; and that notion of honour as the lodestar of existence was one that remained as crucial to Casement as to any loyal servant of the crown. Indeed it was precisely as an agent of empire, enrolled in the consular service of the British foreign office, that he spent the greater part of his life, and for which he was twice honoured by the crown: made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1905 for his work in exposing the brutal mistreatment of indigenous people in the Belgian Congo, he was elevated to a knighthood six years later for his equally damning investigation of slavery in the Putumayo region of the Amazon. Writing to his long-time master, foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, the loyal official expressed his gratitude to the king: ‘I would beg that my humble duty might be presented to His Majesty, when you may do me the honour to convey to him my deep appreciation of the honour he has been so graciously pleased to confer on me.’ Yet as a supporter of Sinn Féin and Irish independence since at least 1907, Casement also worried that his acceptance of such an honour might itself be dishonourable: ‘there are many in Ireland who will think of me as a traitor – and when I think of that country, and of them, I feel that I am.’ A traitor he would indeed soon be judged, but to England not to Ireland; and a mere five years after receiving his knighthood, the former British consul would be formally stripped of his honours, as he faced execution for treason.
Although raised as a Protestant in Co Antrim, Roger Casement had, from his youth, felt a strong emotional attachment to his native country; and his experience of colonialist oppression in Africa and South America had gradually hardened this sentimental nationalism into serious political commitment; so that, once the outbreak of war had snuffed out any immediate hope of Home Rule, he felt honour-bound to repudiate his allegiance to the British crown. The German government having declared its support for Irish independence, Casement travelled to Berlin, where he spent time vainly persuading Irish prisoners-of-war to join the nationalist cause. He remained uncertain, however, about the realistic prospects of independence: rebellion could only succeed, he told Joseph Plunkett in 1915, if it received full German support: otherwise it would be an ‘act of idiocy’. Should it happen, however, ‘while I strongly disapprove of it, if these boys break out, I could not, in honour, refuse to stand beside them.’ A year later, once he became aware that revolt was imminent, Casement felt bound to return to Ireland. The Easter Rising would be, he was certain, ‘the most desperate piece of folly ever committed’; but one that he nevertheless felt compelled to join: ‘if those poor lads at home are to be in the fire, then my place is with them.’ Sentenced as a traitor, the sometime model of consular duty would join Plunkett and the other martyrs of the Easter Rising when he was hanged at Pentonville Prison in August 1916. From the perspective of his former employers, his rebellious actions represented a betrayal of the very ideals for which he had once been honoured; yet in his own mind these were precisely the values by which he had felt himself driven to act. In his great final speech from the dock, Casement denounced the court’s death sentence as an injustice meant to deprive him of ‘life and honour’ by punishing him for what was nothing less than an essential ‘exercise of conscience’.
While we Aravon boys knew nothing of Casement, among those who taught us was a master whose willingness to defy one of the school’s most tyrannous impositions seemed to epitomise our own notion of honourable behaviour. This involved the laws of the dining hall. Even by the revolting standards of most boarding schools, Aravon food – from the grey ‘Irish stew’ almost entirely composed of mutton fat, to the baked suet pudding, sinisterly known as ‘boiled baby’ – was exceptionally repugnant. On one occasion, the stench of remorselessly overcooked cabbage had even led to the evacuation of a classroom in the belief that a dangerous gas-leak had occurred. But any boy ungrateful enough to refuse what was put before him would be caned. Then, at a long-celebrated lunch in 1951, an angry-looking master got to his feet and, before an astonished audience, challenged his overlord: ‘Headmaster, I do not understand why the boys should be compelled to eat this rubbish!’ ‘Very well, Bowlby, if that is your view, you may leave.’ Whereupon the culinary rebel marched out of the dining room, never to be seen again.
It was none other than the man we knew as ‘Commander Bowlby’, the hero who had once captained a Royal Navy submarine – another brave servant of empire, then, and one who would later seem to take an even more significant stand against the bigotry of his caste. Ordered to leave Aravon, Bowlby soon came to head its local rival, Brook House, against which we were subsequently pitched in a boxing competition. ‘Right now, boys’ urged Battling Brannigan, the Dublin bruiser who coached us in the sport, ‘I want yez to get into the ring and beat the little Jew-boys to a pulp.’ It was many years before I understood what this must have meant: Aravon would not accept Jewish children, while at Bowlby’s school they were welcomed. There is, after all, a long history of Irish antisemitism – not much discussed, but readily traceable through Irish literature from Maria Edgeworth to James Joyce – and at Aravon boys ignorantly amused themselves with a chant mocking the elderly refugee who was brought in to give us our fortnightly haircuts: “Old Mr Finkelstein was a German Jew, / He did piddle in the heel of his shoe.” Such mindless prejudice was something against which the Commander had apparently been willing to take an honourable stand.
I have since discovered, however, that it was financial need, not principle, which had opened the gates of that new school; and the real Bowlby – his story first brought to light by Charles Lysaght in a 2009 ‘Irishman’s Diary’ for The Irish Times – turns out to have been very different from the martial paragon of our schoolboy imaginations. He was, moreover, someone whose life can seem to ironically travesty that of the nationalist hero and alleged traitor Roger Casement. But where Casement’s behaviour had been entirely consistent, his change of allegiance guided by the same unshakeable principles that had once governed his imperial service, Bowlby’s genius was for fraudulent self-reinvention.
Like Roger David Casement, Charles Edward Bowlby came from an Anglo-Irish family: his mother’s people, like Casement’s Jephson kin, were landed gentry from Co Cork; and both men had military fathers. Casement’s became a captain in the King’s Own Dragoons, while Adelbert Charles Edward Salvin Bowlby served in both World Wars, rising (like his own father before him) to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in an Irish regiment. Bowlby himself seemed destined to follow in the family’s imperial traditions. Born in 1911, he grew up in Coomhola Lodge, near Bantry in West Cork – now a B&B but then a rather elegant country house; as a teenager, he was sent to Pangbourne Nautical College in England, where as the popular ‘Ted’ Bowlby, he captained both cricket and hockey. But that school was as close as ‘the Commander’ ever got to the navy. Leaving Pangbourne, he decided instead to enter the growing cinema business: only, alas, to bankrupt himself – a disaster for which he immediately blamed the Jews, supposed masters of the cinematic world. Dreaming of revenge, he joined Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Things only got worse for Ted Bowlby, however. A brief, unhappy marriage failed to rescue the young entrepreneur from his business difficulties, and as a result he became involved in a number of dubious enterprises, several of which led to minor criminal convictions. Anxious to escape the consequences of his blackened reputation – especially the indignation of his family – Ted left England in 1938, having somehow secured a job as an English teacher in Hungary. There he seems to have enjoyed some brief success, until driven to leave the country by the outbreak of war. Attempting to make his way to Turkey, the anxious young man was apprehended by invading Germans and sent to a prison camp. He got on well with its captured British officers – most of them, of course, former public schoolboys like himself; but, eventually tiring of prison life, he sought to persuade his captors that, as a citizen of Ireland (and a follower of Mosley), he was no enemy of Germany and ought consequently to be released. With help from the Republic’s embassy, he was finally set free in 1943.
Like Casement before him, Bowlby was now ready to make common cause with Germany. In his case, however, this had less to do with love of Ireland than with his long-standing fascist sympathies. Agreeing to become an agent of Nazi propaganda, he began to make regular broadcasts to Britain and the United States on the programme Germany Calling, where he joined his notorious fellow Irishman William Joyce, known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ – another former member of Mosley’s fascists. Their broadcasts continued until the end of the war, when, following the fall of Berlin, both went on the run. Soon arrested, they found themselves, as British citizens, accused of treason and facing the prospect of capital punishment.
Joyce’s fate was determined, ironically enough, when it emerged that his citizenship had been fraudulently obtained: American by birth, he had won British nationality through falsely claiming to have been born in pre-independence Ireland. This lie was enough to see him convicted and hanged. At first it seemed likely that Bowlby – denounced even by his own parents as financially dishonest and dangerously ‘unreliable’ in his relations with the opposite sex – would suffer the same consequences. But the fact that he was indeed Irish-born helped to tip the scales in his favour, and he strengthened his case by somehow persuading his captors that his broadcasts had never been anti-British, but merely anti-Russian and antisemitic – acceptable prejudices, it would seem. After some months, the traitor was duly discharged by the Director of Public Prosecutions, on condition that he return to Ireland and never enter Britain again.
Having successfully reinvented himself as a true Irishman, Ted Bowlby arrived in Dublin in 1946, where he quickly sought to resume his pre-war career as a schoolteacher, masking his disgrace behind a freshly concocted identity as ‘Charles Salvin Bowlby’, a wartime submarine commander. This fiction was evidently inspired by the story of his English cousin Vivian Russell Salvin Bowlby, who had indeed captained a submarine in the 1930s before rising to the rank of commander on his retirement from the navy at the end of the Second War; but Ted’s new self seems to have been taken at face value by potential employers, and ‘Commander Bowlby’ was soon recruited by Aravon’s headmaster who (apparently without requesting any independent references) invited him to join his staff as a teacher and sports coach in 1946. In this new role he seems to have enjoyed considerable success: remembered by the Princeton scholar Peter Brown as ‘handsome and ferociously athletic’, Bowlby was also an ‘inspired teacher’ who converted the young Aravonian to the study of history, even while appearing ‘strangely unmoved’ by the certitudes for which Brown’s anglophile parents had stood in the wartime years; and within a short time, the newly invented ‘Charles Bowlby’ seems to have cemented his popularity in Anglo-Irish circles by founding the Leprechauns Cricket Club in Dublin. Yet his acceptance had been a little touch-and-go: AB Craig appears to have heard rumours of a Daily Mail article exposing the fake commander’s wartime treachery, prompting him to seek further information from an MI6 representative in Dublin – only to be told that since no conviction had been entered against the suspect’s name, nothing substantive could be revealed. Craig was no doubt relieved: his appointee – favoured as a loyal member of the Anglo-Irish gentry – could now be retained. Nothing need be said. Yet lingering doubts about ‘the Commander’ persisted; and Craig must have been happy enough to take the opportunity presented by his employee’s unexpected lunchtime protest. The man remained a risk, and now the school could be rid of him.
On leaving Aravon, Bowlby adjusted his identity once again, discarding his naval rank in favour of more appropriate academic credentials: claiming to have graduated from Clare College, Cambridge, and then to have studied at the University of Budapest, he would henceforth call himself Dr Bowlby. These new qualifications were clearly very useful, but a persistent worry that the truth might, sooner or later, come out may account for the extraordinary mobility of the schoolmaster’s subsequent career: leaving Brook House, he went on to found Glenart Preparatory in Rathgar, later overseeing that school’s move northwards to Howth, where it would eventually be amalgamated with Sutton Park School. Bowlby’s precise relationships with these establishments – let alone his reasons for leaving any one them – are difficult to reconstruct with any certainty, especially since no school admits to having any record of his time there. Perhaps, given what his parents had said about the ‘unreliable’ nature of his relations with women, some sort of sexual scandal may have been involved: Charles Lysaght encountered rumours of a ‘lady friend’ in Dublin, while an English connection spoke darkly of things she was ‘duty-bound not to reveal’. Whatever the case, Bowlby left Ireland for good in 1956, returning (seemingly unnoticed) to the forbidden shores of England. Here he was at first content to take up a temporary position at Sedbergh School in Cumbria, where he briefly served as third form master and junior cricket coach in 1957, before securing a more permanent (but still surprisingly junior) post, teaching French, history and maths at Dean Close Preparatory School in the picturesque spa town of Cheltenham. There he remained until December 1958, when illness sems to have forced his resignation. Succumbing to Hodgkin’s lymphoma – ironically enough the same cancer that had killed Synge half a century earlier – the disinherited forty-eight-year-old was, fittingly enough, left on his deathbed abandoned and alone.
In Bowlby’s slippery history, a few things seem certain: like the naval rank that helped to secure him a job at Aravon, the university degrees that served to build his later teaching career were entirely fictitious: the staff records from Sedbergh list him as ‘C.S. Bowlby, M.A. (Cantab.) Ph.D (Budapest)’, while Dean Close credited him with a D.Phil from some unspecified establishment. He can never have been asked to provide proper evidence for any of his professed qualifications. As far as Cambridge is concerned, neither the university itself nor Clare College has any record of an Edward Charles Bowlby, although Trinity admitted two of his English cousins, Francis Edwin Salvin Bowlby in 1926 and David Arthur Salvin Bowlby in 1929. From them he probably learned enough about college life to make his claim seem at least casually plausible. The Hungarian degree must have been equally bogus, since he did not live in Budapest long enough to complete any course of study, let alone a doctorate – even supposing he had learned the language well enough to work at such a level.
Aravon’s imagined hero, then, was an habitual chancer and conman. But, looked at from the perspective suggested by his engagement with fascism and the wartime antics that ensued, he emerges as a much darker figure – and one whose life seems oddly symptomatic of the larger social and political history to which it belongs. As a disgraced member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, a former public schoolboy who – at least to his German captors – presented himself as a patriotic Irishman, Bowlby can indeed be seen as a degraded, latter-day Casement. Both men (though for very different reasons) threw in their lot with Britain’s German enemy, and both sought to justify the apparent betrayal by appealing to their Irish nationality. If Casement’s life experience made a nationalist rebel of him, Bowlby’s incompetent business endeavours turned him into him a vindictive fascist; yet right-wing extremism, after all, has had a long relation with nationalism; and even so beloved an Irish patriot as WB Yeats was for some years a fascist sympathiser. Bowlby’s politics, however, seem never to have been infused with the ‘passionate intensity’ that Yeats once reluctantly admired in the ‘worst’ of his day. He may have been a follower of Mosley, but even his expressed hatred of Jews can seem a little opportunistic in the light of the admissions policy he favoured after leaving Aravon, especially since a Jewish pupil at Glenart remembered him as being more anti-Catholic than antisemitic.
If the fate of Roger Casement has much to reveal about the contradictions of hyphenated identity and the inevitable end of the Ascendancy, the sorry end of Charles Bowlby is equally revealing about a caste in terminal decay. For the latter, its hyphenated ambiguity became an invitation to shape-shifting, a handily duplicitous instrument of survival. In a number of ways, Bowlby’s sordid career is less a parodic version of Casement’s progress to martyrdom, than an exemplum of the same process of decline and fall undergone by the school that rescued him after the war. Facing bankruptcy in 1993, Aravon was bailed out by a loyal old boy, Chris de Burgh. Described in his Wikipedia entry as ‘a British-Irish singer-songwriter’, the public school-educated de Burgh is himself (as his name might suggest) the scion of an Anglo-Irish family – one, like the Bowlbys, with a long history of imperial service. In the video made to accompany one of his more successful hits, ‘Don’t Pay the Ferryman’, De Burgh even glances ironically at his family history by playing the role of an aristocratic eighteenth century highwayman. Anxious to secure Aravon’s proper place in Anglo-Irish culture, the pop singer moved his old school to a new and grander location. Survival came at a price, however; the revived institution would now accept girls (among them de Burgh’s own daughter, a future Miss World): a concession unimaginable in the 1950s, when even little Clare Craig, the headmaster’s daughter, could join only as an honorary boy. But, no matter how transformatory, de Burgh’s intervention was not, in the end, enough to preserve the school. In 2013 Aravon again faced bankruptcy, and four years later it was sold to the self-consciously ‘alternative’ John Scottus School that now occupies its premises. At the end of Bowen’s Last September, the burning of Danielstown and other Big Houses is described as an ‘execution’, matching that of Casement and the martyrs of 1916. But Ascendancy Ireland would stumble on with its Bowlbys and its de Burghs, finishing not with a bang but a whimper – its passing symbolised less by the brutal hanging of a nationalist martyr than by the protracted misery of a confidence man’s death from Hodgkin’s disease.
In 1953 Aravon’s screening of Elizabeth’s coronation passed off without incident; and I was happy. The film might not have featured my father, as I had hoped; but he had, after all, commanded that regimental Guard of Honour that welcomed the Queen to the North. I still have the photograph: there he is, dress sword drawn, accompanying Her Majesty as she inspects the line of Fusiliers in their dress uniforms and hackled caubeens. Only the presence of one of her ADCs, Princess Margaret’s inconvenient admirer, Group Captain Peter Townsend, adds a slightly discordant note. Within a year of the royal visit, however, the meaning of these events would be spectacularly challenged by the IRA raid on my father’s regimental depot, Gough Barracks in Armagh. He was down at Aravon that day, playing in the Fathers Cricket Match, once again inspiring my boyish pride as he hit two sixes into the pavilion. But before the day was out, the Republican raiders would be heading south for the border, with 340 rifles, fifty sten guns and twelve bren guns loaded into their truck. This was no longer the Ireland my father thought he knew: and within another year we would be back in the place of his childhood — New Zealand, that other former colony where I have lived most of my life, never quite able to think of it as home.
I did not return to the country of my childhood until 1981. It was an odd kind of homecoming to find myself in a place whose landscapes felt almost painfully familiar, but where I knew no one. I felt like a ghost; and perhaps that was why, in spite of so many ugly memories, I felt compelled to visit Aravon. I was, however, given short shrift by the new headmaster – the son, it emerged, of AB Craig’s successor, the sadistic ‘Maisie’ Mansfield. Travelling west, I received a much warmer welcome at Markree Castle, the home of my mother’s Sligo cousins, Francis and Elizabeth Cooper.
In many ways the Coopers of Markree epitomised the contradictions of the Anglo-Irish hyphen: the family traced its origins not just to the Cromwellian officer Cornet Edward Cooper, but to Maire Rua (Red Mary) O’Brien, widow of the region’s last clan chieftain. Following her husband’s defeat and death, Red Mary had supposedly begged Cromwell’s general to maintain possession of the family lands: she finally gained his assent, but only one condition that she marry one of his officers. So the Coopers were not merely people of invader stock: indeed one version of the story claimed that the lucky young officer had adopted Maire Rua’s children, who had simply taken their stepfather’s name, making their descendants O’Briens all along. The lands granted to Cornet Cooper were already generous; and by the middle of the eighteenth century, the family had expanded his estate to make it, at 40,000 acres, one the largest in the West of Ireland. Given (like Edgeworth’s Rackrents and so many Anglo-Irish dynasties) to marrying English heiresses, the Coopers became wealthy enough to convert their seventeenth century manor house into the magnificent battlemented mansion known as Markree Castle, designed for Joshua Cooper by the prominent Dublin architect Francis Johnston in 1802. A year earlier Joshua, although a privy counsellor, had felt Irish enough to oppose the Act of Union with its abolition of the Dublin parliament; yet he seems to have had little sympathy for the notion of independence, let alone the for the risings of 1798 and 1803 led by his fellow Anglo-Irishmen Tone and Emmet. The Coopers remained servants of empire, contributing successive sons to the Brtish and Indian armies. Joshua’s great-grandson Colonel Edward Cooper, who inherited the estate in 1837, does not even appear to have been much affected by the horrors of the Famine years, remaining preoccupied with the richly furnished private observatory he had established at Markree. In 1902, the estate passed to his grandson, Bryan Ricco Cooper, a former military officer, who in his turn became Unionist MP for South Dublin at Westminster before rejoining the military in the First World War, fighting at Gallipoli and elsewhere. But in the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising, things began to change. Inspired by John Redmond’s wartime support for Britain, Bryan became increasingly sympathetic to the nationalist cause. The Coopers were, after all, cousins of the Synge family; and Bryan, a man of strong literary interests, had become a close friend of WB Yeats and other writers in his circle. The political implications of this alliance became apparent in 1919 with Bryan’s unpublished treatise ‘Ireland under Sinn Féin’; and in the wake of the War of Independence, he would go on to become a prominent member of the Dáil in the newly established Free State, where from 1923 to 1930 he again served as member for South Dublin, first as an independent, and then, in 1927 after the dissolution of the fifth Dáil, joining William Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal party
But the political transformation to which Bryan Cooper was now committed had difficult consequences for the caste to which his family belonged. By the turn of the century, land reform had already shrunk the Markree property to a mere 5,000 acres; and even Bryan could no longer maintain the castle in its full splendour. Sigificantly run down, it remained largely uninhabited after his death in 1930, until taken over by his son in 1947: Francis Cooper’s efforts to restore the building failed, so that most of its contents had to be sold off in the 1950s. By the time I visited in 1981 he and his wife Elizabeth had been reduced to living in a single turret: ‘You’d be very welcome to visit the rest of the house,’ Francis generously declared, ‘but the floors have become a little unreliable.’ Invited to have drinks with a couple from a nearby big house, I then found myself listening to the visitors’ litany of complaint about the Republic’s mistreatment of Anglo-Irish landlords, until old Francis, who appeared to be stone deaf, suddenly interjected: ‘Dermot, you don’t appear to have understood: they don’t want us here any more. They just don’t want us any more!’
Following the old man’s death a year later, Markree would again be left empty, until it underwent repairs as a set for the television adaptation of JG Farrell’s Troubles (1988): the castle transformed, in a sadly fitting allegory, to become that once grand hotel, slowly crumbling into the sea. This cinematic appropriation turned out to be prophetic; for a hotel, is precisely what, only a few years later, the old Cooper home would become: sold to the wealthy Corscadden family in 2015, Markree was subjected to the five-million-euro redecoration that produced the gilt-encrusted parody of Ascendancy grandeur that ornaments Sligo today. Bowlby, with his fondness for lucrative pretence, would probably have loved it.
Michael Neill is emeritus professor of English at the University of Auckland, where he specialised in early modern drama and postcolonial fiction.