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All About Helena

Emmet O’Connor

Navigating the Zeitgeist: A Story of the Cold War, the New Left, Irish Republicanism, and International Communism, by Helena Sheehan, Monthly Review Press, 308 pp, $25, ISBN: 978-1583677278

Autobiographies are tricky things. The memoir can ground the writer in external events or situations and provide an objective rationale. The autobiography places oneself at the centre of the narrative and is an act of whopping self-regard that demands a weighty justification. The primary challenge is to get the balance right between the internal and the external. Too much of the self, or inordinate self-defence, will leave the author open to accusations of egocentrism; too little and the author will look weak. Even Caesar wrote of his Gallic wars in the third person. In this first half of a proposed two-volume study, Professor Helena Sheehan addresses these problems at the outset. Her aim is to tell the story of the left from the heady days of the 1960s to the “fall of the wall”, but to go beyond memoir “for a work of intellectual, social, and political history within the narrative framework of autobiography”. There is a cursory acknowledgment of the pitfalls of “first-person writing”, and a sweeping dismissal of much of the genre: “I have read many memoirs and autobiographies and found many lacking in critical self-reflection, proportion, socio-historical consciousness. Few represent the relation between self and world satisfactorily.” Why Sheehan thought she could do better soon becomes apparent to the reader.

The book is divided into an introduction and seven chronological chapters, each dealing with a major phase of the author’s intellectual life. The first chapter, covering her upbringing in a conservative, Irish-American family in the late 1940s and 1950s, is the least satisfactory, or the least amenable to Sheehan’s cerebral method. We learn enough about her family to understand her background. Her great-great-grandfather emigrated from Co Waterford to Philadelphia in the revolutionary year of 1848 and his descendants carved out a living for themselves in a variety of working class occupations. Her mother’s people were better connected but not much wealthier and followed much the same path. Sheehan seeks to make their story illustrative of the evolution of white, east coast, working class America. It works up to a point. She paints a textured picture of a happy childhood in 1950s America, a confident land of plenty, still haunted by communism and the Cold War. It’s vivid and the narrative cracks along at a steady pace, but we’re not being told anything new about America, and where Sheehan might be original, in regard to her family, she’s too superficial. In one instance she tells us of how her mother would chastise her siblings with a horsewhip taken by her father from a Nazi he had killed. One day her brother decided he had had enough and broke the whip in his mother’s face. One imagines it was a dramatic moment, a coming of age in family history. What happened next? We don’t know. It doesn’t occur to Sheehan to tell us. Similarly, the author is coy about her sexual development and first encounters, leaving the reader not so much at the bedroom door as at the front door.

On graduating from high school, Sheehan joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph (SSJ). In some ways it was an odd decision. She was gravitating towards the left of the Democratic Party and threw herself totally into JFK’s campaign for the White House and his “New Frontier” programme. It helped of course, that he was a Catholic. Precocious and remarkably self-assertive, she sought out discussions with “politicians, judges, assistant district attorneys, and public defenders” in Philadelphia’s City Hall. The appeal of the SSJs can be traced to the young Helena’s absolute belief in Catholic theology. Before John XXIII, the church had all the answers. Tellingly Helena wanted to be a Jesuit. So why join such a traditional order when she preferred the highbrow rigour of the Counter-Reformation’s elite action men to the soppy “female spirituality” of rosaries, apparitions, and “sugary sentimental prayers”? “I had little respect for women,” she adds, “including nuns.” Could it be that her subconscious harboured a Freudian connection between the SSJs and the SJs? There follows a fascinating account of life as a nun in the pre-Vatican II era. Sheehan’s matter-of-fact honesty is at its best here, and for one who became so anti-clerical she recalls her faith plainly with no attempt to be wise after the event. Earlier, distraught at deceiving her family, she vowed that she would never lie again, “a vow I’ve kept ever since”. Is that possible? Her own “nun’s story” is fairly persuasive. The unvarnished recollection extends to humour, which intrudes into the narrative occasionally, despite, one suspects, the author’s best efforts. Some of the SSJ’s rules had rich comic possibilities. Others, like “the discipline”, were shocking, even for their time. The SSJ’s biggest problem with Sister Helen Eugenie was her “intellectual pride”. Spot on there, sisters. As Sheehan admits, even when she succeeded in being humble she took pride in her humility. It couldn’t last. After increasing, and stealthy, contact with the secular world, and another of her beloved long heart-to-heart chats with one of her several male clerical friends, she decided to leave the religious life. Congregations were not good at departures in those days, and the leave-taking was surreptitious and grubby, without even the awkward dignity afforded Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, a film which had a disturbing effect when it gave Irish television audiences a glimpse over the convent wall in the 1960s. Some chapters include a postscript, offering an epilogue and a reflection. Sheehan notes the aggiornamento of the SSJs after Vatican II, which saw the nuns swap the habit and wimple for shorts and sneakers and the order (which had ninety postulants in Sheehan’s cohort) lose its novices and face extinction. Sheehan’s exodus was emblematic, not just of the church’s inability to cope with modernity but of religion’s implosion in the face of rationality.

Though she was still a Catholic, it was just a matter of time before secularisation created a crisis of faith. What is surprising is that the crisis was provoked not by philosophic doubt but by the rather material reason that her opinions and status cost her her teaching job in a Catholic school. Also surprising is that from Catholicism she retained a conviction that a belief system should be universal and demand total commitment. Alone, impoverished and alienated, she turned to the academic life, to philosophy and to feminism. In 1967 she graduated and married John Malinowski, who was then completing a PhD in religion at Temple University. Sheehan doesn’t say much on her serial partners other than how they affected her ideological progression. Malinowski introduced her to a more radical Catholic world and without changing her views on religion, she devoured new perspectives on theology, which refined her cosmology. Theology, she decided, was really anthropology. In best academic tradition she offers some acerbic comments on campus colleagues, as well as a few encomiums. Sometimes she simply namechecks.

The next five years were a time of intellectual fervent and academic advance in the wider context of what amounted to a cultural revolution in the Western world. Motivated primarily by the urgency of protest on Vietnam, Sheehan was drawn into febrile work for Students for a Democratic Society and a variety of other campaign groups on race, gender, equality and state surveillance. It speaks volumes for her integrity and commitment that she abandoned her PhD midway through to become a more or less full-time activist in the New Left’s multifarious strands, again with that ability to cultivate men at the top. To European eyes the American left was marginal, unstructured, and self-indulgent. Even in the early twentieth century it had a reputation for being notoriously fractious, as James Connolly and Jim Larkin would discover. Sheehan’s writing is always clear and concise, but she might have devoted more space to contextual explanation or given illustrative accounts of some sample campaigns. The book appears to be written for an American audience, using American spelling, and outsiders will be bemused at the endless ultra-leftism. On one occasion she debated the meaning of liberation with a gay guy in drag, he defending his right to subvert the patriarchy in heels and knickers, she pleading that emancipated women were abandoning make-up. It echoes the current debate on Terfs (Trans exclusionary radical feminists, who object to transsexual men using exaggerated feminine behaviour and, among other things, ladies’ toilets). As ABBA put it, the history book on the shelf is always repeating itself. Astutely, she notes the ever-growing emphasis on race and gender. Otherwise, by the early 1970s, the New Left was disappearing into, uh, its own interiority. For one who had become so convinced of the need to see the big picture and embrace a universal ethic, Sheehan is surprisingly positive about it all. “So what did we accomplish? Not what we intended [but] we defined the era.” So did Richard Nixon, the increasing sclerosis of socialism, and the failure of the ’68 generation. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the New Left was a resurgent feminism, partly because it became appropriated by the emergent female professional class. The greater emphasis on race consciousness took another generation to mature. The hectic lifestyle also took a toll on Sheehan’s marriage. She and Malinowski drifted into an “open relationship” and eventually separated, on good terms.

The outbreak of the Northern conflict kindled an interest in the land of her forebears. The New Left was already turning to international liberation struggles. Sheehan saw parallels between Ireland, Cuba and Vietnam, and did some (selective, obviously) reading on Irish history and politics. After the split in the republican movement, she sided with the Officials. It was an easy choice, given the straightlaced conservatism of the contemporary Provisionals. Nonetheless, what’s missing here, as in earlier chapters, is an explanation of why she thought Ireland was ready for revolution, or why it was worth devoting one’s life to a small Marxist party. Typically, in April 1972, Sheehan took a Route 1 approach and bought a one-way ticket to Shannon. She was soon swanning about Dublin with leading “Stickies”. Her commitment extended to joining the Official IRA, which may have been stupid but was unquestionably brave. In some quarters the IRA was still regarded as the ideological inner sanctum of the party, and the book is frank on who was in “the army”.

The three Irish chapters, one on the Officials and the others on the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) and the Labour Party, are more coherent in their political analyses than those on the American left. There are no major revelations for students of the Irish left, but some surprises, such as the fact that comrades in Sinn Féin cheerfully described themselves as “Stalinists” – usually a Trotskyist term of abuse – and most regarded The History of the Party of Labour of Albania as essential reading. Sheehan’s experiences and portraits of cadres are intriguing. Her account of the Officials confirms the image of a party driven by dedicated, serious-minded and manipulative people, some of them transparently devoted to the cause, others with little agendas or personality quirks of their own. A feature of the organisation in the 1970s was its appeal for technocrats who reckoned they had discovered the formula for the scientific transformation of Ireland. Far from finding kindred spirts among these more theoretical comrades, Sheehan reserves her greatest contempt for them. Eoghan Harris is depicted as a self-serving fantasist; Éamonn Smullen as an over-rated dullard; Roy Johnston as an intellectual bully; and Derry Kelleher as a delusional egomaniac with a persecution complex. One can only conclude that her romantic nationalism had led her to misread the nature of the party. One might also dispute her observation that the state regarded the Officials as a bigger threat than the Provisionals. It was virtually an article of faith in the Officials that Fianna Fáil colluded in the formation of the Provos to stymie the revolution. Yet if the “red republicans” had been a bigger threat than the “green republicans”, the government would hardly have allowed them to control the current affairs division of RTÉ.

More understandably, Sheehan was disconcerted by the gossip and innuendo about covert sexual liaisons, inevitable perhaps in any rock pool of men and women who are both intensely active and see themselves as socially liberated. On Our Knees, a book of interviews with the movement’s leaders, was “often referred to” by female members as Between Our Knees. Sheehan is curiously reticent about her own relationship with Eoin Ó Murchú, supplying a minimum of sometimes opaque or cryptic explanations. One can appreciate that she doesn’t want to be seen as “Mrs So-and-so” but the man hardly deserves to be treated as an embarrassment.

Sheehan left the Officials in 1975 for reasons which are vague. Her explanation that “the movement was floundering, without proper discipline or clear ideology, and that serious Marxists were being isolated or undermined” sounds disingenuous. Smullen and Harris were then preparing the party’s “bible”, The Irish Industrial Revolution. Clearly she was rattled by the lethal divisions with the “Erps” and felt her “political education” had gone about as far it could go. The day after her resignation she applied to join the CPI. International communism offered fresh woods and pastures east. Michael O’Riordan assessed her credentials. She gushed nervously and wondered what he was thinking, unaware that (like my own father) O’Riordan had stopped thinking during the Spanish Civil War, which fixed his world view in saecula saeculorum. The grind of party work, of committee meetings and pushing the paper on hated pub runs eventually earned her admission to the International Lenin School in Moscow and invitations to lecture throughout the Soviet bloc. She developed an ambivalence on the realities of Soviet Russia. There were the delights of mingling with top communist intellectuals, the pleasures of life for privileged foreigners, and the joys of being in a soi-disant Marxist state. She also observed the mindless bureaucratic impositions on the lives of ordinary people, the shortages of consumer goods, the queues, the bad service and the petty corruption. Back in Ireland her mixed feelings led to mounting criticism from party loyalists, the “inebriated” Betty Sinclair in particular, and she broke with the CPI over its opposition to her freedom of expression.

Another year, another party. In 1981 Sheehan joined Labour and helped the mobilisation against coalition, working with Michael D Higgins among others. The Thatcherite eighties were depressing times for the left, but by 1988 she felt “the pendulum had swung as far to the right as possible, and would soon swing back to the left again”. Could a professor be so wrong? The “fall of the wall” was upon us. Sheehan’s response says a lot: “More than ever, I needed to be so strong.”

Navigating the Zeitgeist is an easy and enjoyable read, and will be of interest to all radicals and political gossips. However, there are some pages that are about as entertaining as your in-laws’ holiday snaps. One hopes that a less egocentric volume two is more critically engaged with the external world.


Emmet O’Connor lectures in Ulster University and has published widely on Irish labour history.



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