Burning Heresies: A Memoir of a Life in Conflict, 1979-2020 by Kevin Myers, Merrion Press, 320 pp, €19.95, ISBN: 978-1785372612
The secondary title rather than the primary is usually the best indicator of a book’s content. In this case a vital clue to the author’s view of his career is contained in the formulation “a Life in Conflict”. Kevin Myers was deeply burned by the controversial manner in which his newspaper career came to an ignominious end. The pain is evident in the step-by-step detail he devotes to evoking the fateful choices he made in selecting the topic and typing the words for his Sunday Times column on the last Tuesday of July 2017. One suspects he has tortured himself with “what if” scenarios over and over again. In consequence, this, his second volume of autobiography, is not so much a memoir as an apologia.
For over thirty years, Myers was one of Ireland’s best-known journalists, thanks to his regular “Irishman’s diary” slot in The Irish Times. The diary had a prime location above the fold with the leaders and letters in the most famous page in Irish journalism. Always driven, or in search of a driver, Myers did not confine himself to gossip and name-dropping, addressing instead a variety of themes with his trademark insight and wry wit. As the years progressed and his reputation consolidated, he used the diary increasingly as an outlet for his pet interests, notably the remembrance of the Irish in the British army in the First World War, historical revisionism, and his dislike of political correctness on topics like feminism, race and immigration. As a leftist in his student days at University College, Dublin, he carried a certain experience across the barricades to his increasingly conservative politics. For some, he was a breath of fresh air; others found his opinions infuriating, and most, one suspects, grew tired of the endless hyperbole and the same old hobby-horses.
Myers’s first volume of autobiography, Watching the Door: A Memoir, 1971-1978 (2006) covered his time as an RTÉ journalist and freelancer in Northern Ireland. In 1979 he was at a loose end, low on cash, and chasing a job in The Irish Times. He also says he was “probably suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after my years in Belfast … perhaps [I] still am.” That’s quite an admission, which should be taken seriously. Indeed it might explain his frenetic, obsessive character and persecution complex. The bulk of Burning Heresies’ thirty-four chapters, set out chronologically, deals with Myers’s life in The Irish Times. Again and again he returns to the “forgotten” Irish of the First World War. It was of course a well-worn subject in his “Irishman’s Diary”. Here he goes further to recount his efforts at mobilising persons of influence behind what became a crusade.
“Forgotten” must be the most misused term in Irish historiography. All history is forgotten, unless we choose to remember. And we cannot remember everything. Annual state commemorations all over the world normally focus on one or two big events, chosen not for their historical weight, but because they are deemed emblematic of how the regime would like to see itself. Service in the British army did not fit into the narrative of Irish state formation. It is no surprise that governments did not celebrate it, and it was open to anyone to make a case that it should or go ahead with their own remembrance. That wasn’t good enough for Myers. The victim complex kicked in, and he set about laying a major guilt trip on the plain people of Ireland. A public perception emerged that the veterans were deliberately forgotten, and shamefully abused on their return home. Then, bizarrely, the militarism of the British Legion and Poppy Day became plugged into the Northern Ireland “peace process”. President Mary McAleese joined in, saying that the old soldiers “had to keep their memories in shoe-boxes”. That recent scholarship has refuted accusations such as these is of no interest to Myers. Repeatedly, we are confronted with disingenuousness as he poses as an innocent stumbling across a shocking secret. Did he really assume in 1979 that only Northern Protestants were capable of sectarian atrocities and that “there were no Irish Catholic officers in the British army”? It’s not believable. The great lie of course is that all he wanted was remembrance of the fine fellows – as they all seem to be in his book – who fought so selflessly in Flanders. In practice, state commemoration is impossible to divorce from celebration, which is why Myers was so insistent on state involvement.
Why did Myers, with his PTSD and aversion to violence, bother with the World War at all? Burning Heresies reveals his affinity with the huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ blighters who provided, in the popular mind at least, the British officer corps of 1914 vintage. He has written that he’s happiest with his gundogs. At times, his sentimentality for the Irish dead of the Queen’s Own this or the King’s Own that leaks onto the page, and one feels like shouting “Pull yourself together man!”. With his Leicestershire birth and upbringing and his affected cut-glass English middle class accent, it is easy to depict him as a “West Brit”. But Myers is a contrarian who likes to dconstruct all national mythology, British or Irish. He has no qualms about describing the First World War as senseless slaughter, or condemning the British army for Bloody Sunday or the British judiciary for its treatment of the Birmingham Six. As a fundamental counter-narrative, a counterfactual on how Ireland might have evolved under Home Rule had 1916-21 never happened, Redmondism is a perfect platform from which to criticise all the mistakes that followed independence. Possibly it is the key to Myers’s identity – Irish yes, separatist no. Does that take us back to western Britain? Whatever. If Myers were British, he would be just as contrary. The book is very good at slicing and dicing the pieties and hypocrisies of Irish elites, and reminds us of what a dysfunctional place, politically and economically, the Republic was in the 1980s. The narrative is never dull and spiced with some hilarious, jaw-dropping examples of his encounters with divers pillars of society. A few indeed are particularly juicy, in the manner of Watching the Door.
And yet he will insist on over-reaching himself, notably when he purports to be a historian. Any objective assessment of historiography and commemoration in the 1970s and 1980s would conclude that these decades were a time when revisionism –that is the hostile interrogation of the nationalist version of history – held the upper hand in the academy and in public discourse. People were terrified of the Northern violence spilling across the border. When the Irish government abandoned the Easter Week ceremonies – which was like the United States cancelling the Fourth of July – the protests were feeble and few. Incredibly, Myers writes as if republicans continued to dominate the practice of both history and politics, and presents himself not so much as one of an embattled minority as a lone voice in the green fog.
Not wanting to seem elitist, or too demoralised by the utilitarian assault on education, academics are easy on these handymen historians. Though it does depend on the politics. Counter-revisionism has its handymen too and some, especially Tim Pat Coogan, have got a fair measure of stick from the ivory towers. Now one must concede that historiography isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. It’s more like acting or house-painting. Anyone can do it. But that doesn’t mean that anyone can do it well. Practising history is a craft, which needs to be learned. Above all, it requires a mentality in which respect for objectivity and evidence are central. That sounds old-fashioned enough to appeal to Myers. However, for him it seems to be more the case that the past is a treasure chest to be rifled for selective political argument. One downside of the otherwise heartening surge in the popularity of public history has been the acceptance of the handymen as historians rather than polemicists or entertainers. If there are plenty of entertaining polemics on history in Burning Heresies, there is no history.
The persecution complex is evident too in Myers’s description of working for The Irish Times. Douglas Gageby is represented as a nasty, mean-spirited, anglophobic nationalist who did his best to make poor Kevin’s life a misery. At one point he likens Gageby to Stalin, leaving the reader to wonder how our hero carried on in the face of such animosity from his boss. The Times reporters lived up to the Dublin hacks’ reputation for muddling along in a haze of alcohol-fuelled eccentric ineptitude, redeemed by their colour and the odd flash of brilliance. No surprises there perhaps, except that Myers is inordinately conscious of the religious dimension to the ex-unionist paper of record, and seems disappointed in southern Protestants generally ‑ for not being Protestant enough, or for not being unionist, or neo-Redmondite at least? By the 1980s the paper was changing fundamentally with the recruitment of a new breed of journalists, many of them women. Myers’s thumb-nail sketches of the newcomers are witty and sharp – in both senses of that term.
In the mid 1980s Myers was posted to the Middle East and covered hair-raising events from Israel, Lebanon, and Cyprus. After his years in Belfast, he had no desire to return to the hotspots and one can well believe it aggravated his PTSD. He’s at his best in high-octane war zones, which demand the most of his greatest talents, his power of description and capacity for empathy, and offer little scope for his least attractive tendencies, his wilfully blind partisanship and compulsion to ridicule. These foreign war correspondent chapters – more follow from Prague and the Balkans – read like a thriller, enhanced by the author’s self-deprecation. It says much about Myers that he rarely identifies with other journalists. He is always a man apart. And always referring back to some incident in military history, usually to do with, yes, the First World War.
The later chapters deal more and more with its author’s views on the modern world and all that is wrong with it, views for which he will be remembered, and not with approval for the most part. Maybe he was just out of synch with our “woke” times; maybe he was getting tired of flogging the same old horses; maybe he was getting old and turning into a caricature of himself, as many of us do in senior moments. Whatever the reason, he became inclined, increasingly, to throw caution to the wind. Three columns in particular changed his life. In 2005 he devoted “An Irishman’s Diary” to an attack on teenage single mothers, or “MOBS” (Mothers of Bastards) as he called them. There were howls of outrage and Myers made a grovelling apology, saying he had not intended to offend. That was both surprising and mendacious. The diary in question made it clear that offence was precisely his intent. Before long, he had left the liberal Times for the conservative Irish Independent, where he was expected to write blimpish opinion pieces. He duly obliged, with denunciations of everything from Big Jim Larkin to global warming. While his usual fare was too ill-informed and selective to be of any value, he was brave in highlighting the insidious self-censorship creeping in on the coat-tails of political correctness. One article, with the appalling headline “Africa is giving nothing to anyone – apart from AIDS”, led to complaints to the Garda and the Press Council from the NGOs in the race relations field. Myers has frequently derided the NGOs and warned of the supposed dangers posed by mass immigration. He may be wrong in this; certainly he aims to provoke and he can be offensive, and even when he’s trying to be nice about Africans, as in a few chapters in Burning Heresies, he can’t avoid a patronising tone But he’s not a racist and deserves the points he makes to be treated tolerantly in debate.
In 2017, Myers would find that the British media are not as slow to act as their Irish counterparts. He tops and tails Burning Heresies with the Sunday Times disaster. The offending article, “Sorry, ladies ‑ equal pay has to be earned”, addressed a controversy about the gender pay gap in the eye-watering salaries paid by BBC to its stars. After wondering if men were paid more because they “work harder, get sick less frequently and seldom get pregnant”, he rambled on to say that Claudia Winkleman and Vanessa Feltz were paid more than other female presenters because they are Jewish, and that “Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price”. In Myers’s convoluted, Darwinian mind, that was probably intended as a compliment. The Sunday Times didn’t think so. Once the social media got going, Myers was toast and damned as an antisemite. Given the prevailing hair-trigger sensitivities about race and the power of the internet and its social justice warriors, his career as a journalist was over. More than that, his reputation was shredded. The want of support from friends and colleagues and the stupidity of getting himself hanged for the wrong crime rankled deeply. He might have relished the martyrdom had he been sacked for his views on feminism, multiculturalism or the European Union. But antisemitism …
Myers has so often been ruthless and prejudiced that many felt he was due his comeuppance. No one complains that they got Al Capone on a tax charge. Still, what happened was both unfair and a frightening example of contemporary high-tech mob rule. Those familiar with Myers know that he is philosemitic and a fan of Israel for its right-wing virtues. Although shock-jock columns are no addition to journalism, he ought to have been defended because his dismissal was based on a lie.
In concluding, Myers wonders if he has achieved anything in journalism other than persuading official Ireland to commemorate the First World War. Probably not, which is a pity. He has frequently punctured the fictions of the zeitgeist with valid thrusts and could have been effective as a voice of intelligent conservatism if only he had been able to control his inner adolescent. God knows, conservatism needs an intelligent voice. Perhaps his truly impressive success with the “poppyganda” went to his head and ripped away the restraints. From being the darling of the conventional wisdom of Dublin 4 he ultimately came to be destroyed by a more powerful global thought police. One would almost feel sorry for him.
Emmet O’Connor lectures at Ulster University and has published widely on Irish labour history.