I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Voices from the Chorus

George O’Brien


Irish Writers and the Thirties: Art, Exile and War, by Katrina Goldstone, Routledge, 220 pp, £120, ISBN: 978-0367634988

This book has its origins, the author tells us, in a deep dive into the archive of Leslie Daiken (1912-1964), a largely London-based Dublin poet, journalist and anthologist. Remembered now, if at all, for his contributions to children’s literature, notably Out Goes She: Dublin Street Rhymes, published by the Dolmen Press in the year before his death, Daiken is arguably of at least equal interest for his contributions to left-wing literary culture from the mid-Thirties onwards. With these contributions are her impetus, Goldstone has written a packed cultural history of Irish writers with this outlook, ranging from pamphlets to poems and from such personages as Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington to Charlie Donnelly.

Given the historical amnesia into which many of the individuals and their works have fallen (Goldstone draws attention a number of times to the unfortunate absence of a “standalone” history of the Thirties in Ireland), the amount of activity, the number of those involved and the energy they brought to their various causes all constitute something of a revelation. And Goldstone shows an enviable familiarity with the careers and connections of those involved as well as a seemingly unsurpassable command of relevant materials, whether they be primary print sources, secondary critical material or, most impressively, unpublished archival matter such as drafts, memoirs and correspondence. For gathering all this in one place and attempting to construct a narrative of it, despite some difficulties in organising such a welter of data and a large cast of characters, Katrina Goldstone is to be warmly congratulated.

Before looking a little more closely at these difficulties, it may be as well to make some introductions. In his pioneering book on Charlie Donnelly – Even the Olives are Bleeding (1992) ‑ Joseph O’Connor begins by describing his subject as “a ghost who haunts the pages of Irish literature”. Over time, this particular ghost has arguably become somewhat less spectral, as his poetry has edged into the canon, although it is for his untimely death in defence of the Spanish Republic that he is best known. As Goldstone’s book says in so many words, Irish writers who broadly shared Donnelly’s position on the left but who did not suffer his fate have, by and large, had a ghostly insubstantiality conferred on them, which is something of an irony since it is their spirit that, above all, commends them to further attention. This shared spirit, articulated through political action as well as progressive ideals, is what makes these writers’ works valuable cultural expressions.

In his “transnational” London standing, his internationalist outlook, his prolific contributions in prose and verse to Left Review and many other smaller outlets, Daiken is Goldstone’s representative writer-as-activist figure (at least among the males whom she features). A Dubliner from a Jewish family named Yodaiken, the Joycean echo in the title of his one volume of poems, Signature of All Things (1945), may be taken as an indication of his artistic inclinations, while on the cultural front the anthology he compiled entitled Good-bye, Twilight (1936) suggests his view of Irish literary culture – a view also reflected in the sentiment and form of his poem “Shamrocks for Mayakovsky”. His efforts in verse and prose (journalistic and creative) appeared across a wide range of venues, from Left Review to the newspaper Republican Congress, and as his appearance in the latter publication shows, being based in London did not diminish his interest in developments on the home front, where his work often appeared under the pseudonym Ned E. Kiernan. Nor did Daiken let his connections with Dublin luminaries like Harry Kernoff and Austin Clarke lapse, while – possibly through being connected with the Left Republican Gilmore brothers – he also stayed in contact with Samuel Beckett.

In all, Daiken’s advocacy of and strong identification with anti-fascist, pro-worker solidarity makes him in certain respects an embodiment of the good will and also perhaps the ideological naivete of the Popular Front. His commitment to the cause saw him through the war years and afterwards, although in such later writings as the poem “Mayday Song for Jewry (In the Year C.E. 1948)” and the radio play South Circular Road (broadcast on the BBC in 1960 and on Radio Eireann in 1962) he returned to his roots. Parallel to developing this material, he began to publish his works on children, the inner-city, working-class component of at least some of which could do with further critical attention. As indeed could Daiken’s homeward turn generally, suggesting as it does a continuing, if redeployed, ethos of solidarity. But Goldstone has so much to cover that her choice – speaking inferentially – to document works and days has meant that she had to defer extended discussion of any one particular sphere or theme.

His tireless output and range of contacts entitle Daiken to Goldstone’s characterisation of him as the centre of a “circle”, a term that should be seen as connoting an umbrella rather than a coterie, much less a specific source of power or influence. Under it, the Daiken-related writings and activities of other Irishmen in London – Donnelly, the poet Ewart Milne, and the least well-known of all Goldstone’s discoveries and rediscoveries ‑ a Dublin journalist and author with the same background as Daiken, Michael Sayers (1911-2010) – are gathered together, though they were not exactly comrades. They also possess Daiken’s internationalist, transnational, exilic and Irish credentials, which also makes them outsiders, particularly in their having, in effect, broken with nationalism, which remained the main ideological strain in Irish political debate, including on the left. As the details emerge, however, it seems more to the point to note the differences of intellectual and artistic emphasis between them. None of the other three was as engaged as Donnelly with the lineage of the Irish left from James Connolly on down, or with Marxist thought generally. The influence of such thought on his poetry is basically confined to George Gilmore’s recollection of Donnelly’s “obsession with uniting politics and poetry”. That’s not enough.

In contrast, it does not appear that Ewart Milne’s work reflects anything close to such an obsession. Rather he seems the most divided of the four between artistic attainment and political integrity, a divide which culminated in his later rather sour disavowal of his earlier commitments. This is not to belittle his verse or dismiss his politics. Of the latter, his contribution to Republican Spain’s war effort is sufficient warrant, and his “Sierran Aftermath” – a lament for members of the International Brigade who fell on the Jarama front – is one of a number of poems where his sympathies and his art speak in a harmony that his work often lacks, particularly when dealing with Irish subjects. And indeed it might be argued that Milne’s theme is his struggle with being an outsider, and that his political leanings reflect a personal sense of difficulty experienced in thinking himself a man of his time. And as with Sayers, oedipal conflict contributed to his makeup. Sayers too seems very much an outsider, so much so that it was only when he went to America and began to publish on the plight of wartime Jewry that he found his voice. The choice of this writing came perhaps from his association with Mike Gold, author of, among other works, the novel Jews Without Money (highly recommended) and, more importantly, editor of the path-breaking Popular Front periodical New Masses. After the war, Sayers had a successful career writing for the stage and for television, writing pseudonymously for the latter medium after being blacklisted, his anti-fascism being identified with being a communist, as his son Sean notes – a lot of Goldstone’s information on Sayers comes from this source. In later years he contributed to the scripts of such films as Casino Royale and Zorba the Greek.

During his time in London, however, Sayers’s range of acquaintances was rather wider than that of other members of “the Daiken circle”, and included George Orwell and TS Eliot, the latter somewhat of a surprise in view of his, let us say, not terribly progressive, much less pro-Jewish, outlook. Sayers also contributed to Eliot’s important cultural organ The Criterion, as well as to other periodicals of a less than left disposition. The point is not only that Orwell got it wrong when he told Sayers on meeting him again in 1947, “you started along the Stalin road” (according to Gordon Bowker’s obituary of Sayers in the (London) Independent; (Goldstone’s treatment of this meeting is more muted). Rather, it’s that Sayers seems to be an especially knotty instance of a general problem, namely how to assess the social and artistic dynamics brought into play by an individual’s two perfectly legitimate pursuits of writerly ambition and political orientation. Part of the reality in which “the Daiken circl” partook was that those dynamics were not as cut and dried, or as equally or as consistently weighted and valued as poster-images of the Thirties writer-activist suggest. As far as we know, Sayers didn’t write a memoir – a shame.

Although his connection with English Popular Front writing is not as close as that of the others members of “the Daiken circle”, broadly speaking Sayers’s views may be aligned with theirs, at least in principle. Together, this London-Irish quartet deserve recognition – or is the proper word rehabilitation? – as noteworthy contributors to the age-old and ever necessary radical deployment of the pen as a weapon to counteract fascist and every other variety of oppression and injustice. But this quality of engagement was also to be found in Dublin, and Goldstone provides a very well-stocked account of activism on the home front. Not that the Dublin and London scenes are identical. Far from it. Women are far more visible presence in Dublin (the only woman to enter the picture in the account of the London-Irish four is a journalist named Mairin Mitchell, no friend of the left, on whose doings she reported regularly and rather acidly to her many Dublin correspondents). Women are not merely visible: they take a strong hand in organising protests, meetings, committees and publications. To characterise this activity and its participants, Goldstone uses the idea of “the network” rather than the circle.

The expository utility of these two terms is perhaps their main significance. But they also may be taken to indicate a distinction between the London foursome’s relations with an already well-developed and ideologically evolved culture of protest and agitation based in and fuelled by established political parties, on the one hand, and a series of ad hoc initiatives undertaken in support of different issues, on the other. The terms also suggest the looser and more informal character of Dublin activity, arising out the concerns and reactions of a set of left-oriented, public-facing individuals. Which is not to privilege one manifestation of engagement over another but to draw attention to Goldstone’s appropriate claims for the validity of both. Furthermore, the Dublin form has a distinctive feminist dimension, and thus “through considering the role of their friendship networks in supporting each other professionally and in the affective realm, we can detect strategies formed and some of the ways in which they attempted to circumvent societal hindrances”. Such a gendered perception of the activities in question brings them home in a manner that is less evident from the way the London context is treated.

Not surprisingly perhaps, foremost among the women in question is Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, who brought her battle-tested experience as a suffragist to many issue-oriented organisations such as the League Against Imperialism, the Labour League Against Fascism and Spanish Medical Aid, among numerous others concerned with gender, labour, and justice and equity which show an appetite for struggle keener than Milne’s and Sayers’s, for instance. Her long-standing contact with the English novelist-suffragist-agitator Charlotte Despard gave Sheehy-Skeffington access to cross-channel English thinking and acting. Although she does not quite fit the profile of writer-activist presented by Despard, her publications – particularly when regarded as contributions to public debate in Ireland – speak out in a voice-of-conscience manner which other networkers echo. Among the most well-known of these are the novelist and short-story writer Margaret Barrington (one-time wife of Liam O’Flaherty), the author Rosamond Jacob, and the poet Blánaid Salkeld (whose Gayfield Press published Milne’s first two poetry collections). More peripheral figures include Kate O’Brien and Muriel MacSweeney.

As mention of the latter suggests, literary credentials were by no means required in order to articulate effectively one’s commitment. May Keating (wife of painter Seán) is another case in point, and one should also bear in mind the many other like-minded supporters who stood with these leading lights. Goldstone’s focus on women does not mean she overlooks their male opposite numbers, any more than the woman themselves did, or even could. It is perhaps a little strange that Peadar O’Donnell does not receive very much attention. On the other hand, the various contributions of, for instance, RM Fox do. In all, Goldstone’s “Irish witnesses to global events” are illuminating and instructive not only for their principles and actions but also for the more vivid light in which they show the country, or at least Dublin, in the Thirties. “I had to get out of that bloody place,” Charlie Donnelly is quoted as saying. “It’s hard to stand the stupidity any longer”, possibly with wrangling in the Republican Congress in mind. The good news is that it wasn’t all stupidity.

In London, the Daiken circle and particularly Daiken himself were closely allied politically with the Communist Party of Great Britain. From Goldstone, however, it would appear that this was not the case, at least for those involved in networking and the CPI. To take one case in point, whatever connections there may have been between the party and Irish Friends of Soviet Russia do not seem to be particularly influential. Under the latter’s auspices some Irish activists travelled to Russia – a 1930 delegation included Sheehy-Skeffington, Harry Kernoff and Rosamond Jacob. Public lectures followed on their return, and it is clear that these and other visits, in their glimpses of different forms of social organisation (with respect to the role of women, say), held out the promise of a future beyond that of the ongoing downward spiral of a jaded West and, in a narrowly Irish context, that of a nationalism which was beginning to be discredited, partly because of its hostility to not only the quality of the critique but the energy of commitment that those on the left supplied. Sheehy-Skeffington’s offer of reports on Russia to English periodicals was declined, leaving Liam O’Flaherty’s nugatory I Went to Russia (1931) as the, relatively speaking, most readily available account of the experience, alas. Daiken and Sayers also visited the Soviet Union, the former encountering a man called Pat Breslin who already resided there, working for the English language newspaper Moscow News. It’s arresting to learn that Breslin “had the tragic distinction of being one of the very few Irishmen to die in the gulag”. That “very few” also gives pause.

An interesting and in certain respects a clarifying element in this Russian connection arises by recalling the two most noted Irish Russophiles of the day, George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey. During his Soviet visit, Shaw was lionised to such an extent as to achieve the one would have thought impossible result of embarrassing him. And though O’Casey never visited the country, his faith in the workers’ paradise which he believed had been created there was enduring. Neither of these eminences seem to have had the slightest effect on either circle or network – Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928), a later edition adding Sovietism and Fascism, doesn’t enter the picture. As Goldstone says, in so many words, intelligent women of the day could be their own guides. O’Casey did contribute to Daiken’s wartime anthology They Go, The Irish, but otherwise seems much more of an exile, or much less of a transnational, than his juniors in the field. The story of these writers’ absence no doubt has two sides, but viewed from the point of view of Goldstone’s subjects it underlines the more popular character of their concerns and the flexibility of approach that popularity implies.

Outlining the varieties of causes, engagements, organisations and publications – “one long continuum of agitprop” to quote Daiken ‑ takes up the first part of Irish Writers and the Thirties. The apotheosis of this commitment is the Spanish Civil War, and that conflict, together with a survey of responses to World War II, extends the decade into the late Forties, when – as Michael Sayers discovered – the Anglophone left saw itself being disempowered by the victory over fascism which, arguably, had been its raison d’être. Not surprisingly, Charlie Donnelly is given pride of place among Goldstone’s writer-activists who served in Spain, although Ewart Milne, while he was not on the front line, also answered the call. As is generally acknowledged, the Spanish cause brought the best from Donnelly’s poetic talent. But Milne’s muse was also stirred to telling effect by his Spanish experience, and the resulting poems possess more generosity of spirit – or perhaps more accurately, less of his “contrarianism” ‑ than many of their predecessors. Interestingly, Milne’s besetting sense of being a misfit seems to have been relieved during his Spanish interlude. Women’s “practical participation” in the cause of anti-fascist Spain is duly noted, and is certainly not to be downplayed, though as far as their imaginative engagement with the conflict is concerned there is not very much at all to show, as is indicated by Goldstone’s confinement of her observations essentially to Kate O’Brien’s Farewell, Spain, a work that is not always contextually relevant.

The widespread “ideological confusion” brought about in the ranks of the Popular Front by defeat in Spain, followed almost immediately by the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, also affected Daiken and Milne, and in their case was aggravated by Irish neutrality, to such a degree in Milne’s case as to wring from him the assertion that the country “must be anti-Fascist or all our history is a lie”. In certain respects, however, the specific anti-fascist posture of the Thirties as expressed by the Popular Front now became folded into the Allies’ successful war of words. As Goldstone notes, in connection with the transition, “diverse types of writing and journalism could constitute a contribution to the war effort”, types whose rhetorical efficacy had been rehearsed in agit-prop venues. In the light of this seemingly inevitably co-option of the elements which went to make up Daiken’s pre-war persona, it is perhaps not surprising that in the postwar period he sought to establish another version of himself which was also redolent of the exilic and the transnational by returning in his work to his Dublin Jewish childhood. But neither he nor Milne became war poets, and it is clear that very little Irish literature of World War II was produced at the time, although the pastoral vision of Ireland seen in the context of wartime London’s dangers and tensions in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day is, alas, not discussed. Goldstone does mention Bowen’s reports as “an informal rapporteur on Irish affairs to the Dominions Office”, but these do not seem to be quite the cultural documents her study wishes to take into account.

Which points to one of the difficulties with Irish Writers and the Thirties. Katrina Goldstone’s archival and scholarly work is difficult to fault in her compilation of a narrative history of minor figures, lost causes, fugitive publications and evanescent encounters. As she says, however, hers is a cultural history, and the problem is not just the inclusion of all sorts and conditions of left-leaning texts as cultural artifacts, which to one degree or another they are, in addition to their being historical relics. The question is in determining the kinds of contribution they made to the general historical movement in which they featured. Does a documentary report have a greater impact than a polemical editorial or a short story or a print version of a speech? And given that both Daiken and Milne are leading figures in Goldstone’s narrative, poetry is inevitably a site where poetry and politics meet head on, each articulating a rhetoric of possibility though doing so from seemingly opposed perspectives grounded in differences of idiom, form and points of intellectual origin. Individual expression and collective action also complicate the relationship, as does the poem’s typical reflection of being (even while exhorting action) in contrast to the necessity of doing which gives politics its particular authority and power (even while its transactions also derive from such verbal constructs as resolutions, policies and ideologies).

Auden’s notorious claim that “poetry makes nothing happen” was a subject of much debate during the Thirties – Ewart Milne, we’re told, “recalled lively arguments in the Palace Bar … with Patrick Kavanagh and Donagh MacDonagh … about the value of political poetry”. Or to put the question another way, the political value of poetry, since this was what for Daiken, Donnelly and Milne seems to have been the point. I suppose it’s a matter of “from each according to his ability”. But when each particular effort is gathered under the broad rubric of the political the distinguishing features inherent in the nature of any given form of expression tend to be blurred. The poets in question made their poetic contributions to the flowing tide of left-wing energies. That’s a historical fact. But what and how they gave of themselves is arguably a more rewarding line of inquiry. True, the London-Irish three differ in outlook and production from MacSpaunday, the portmanteau label for the leading political voices of the day MacNeice, Spender, Auden and Day-Lewis, the first and last of whom were Irish too. Goldstone merely mentions the conglomerate in passing. But it would be worthwhile to try and use what we might call the Oxford quartet’s work and outlook as the basis for a critique of the London-Irish circle’s verse, and vice versa. But any such venture would have brought Goldstone into the realm of literary criticism, and as she says, “I leave the literary theory to others”.

Among those others, however, is the American critic Cary Nelson, author and editor of a number of influential books on American left-wing poetry in the Thirties, from whom Goldstone borrows the conceit of the “chorus”. Nelson uses this to characterise the collective identity of the large mass of popular verse typically found in regional, small circulation periodicals and slim volumes of a left-wing persuasion by basically little-known writers, an identity whose aggregate character articulates a hum of political consciousness, as it were, through accidental iterations and other more elaborate verbal patterns, echoes and rhythms. From such effects, cognate but unsought, the hum can be perceived to reverberate, leaving marks which though they may be more redolent of the Aeolian tractor than of the Aeolian harp, nevertheless do not disqualify themselves from cultural and historical interest. Their working class origins and sympathies should not render them less worthy of attention than any other markings of a past time, carrying forward as they do a felt, shared outcry and their own distinctive sensitivity to aspiration, desire and need. The chorus’s hermeneutic utility could have been tested across, for instance, an individual poet’s treatment of a given theme (Milne on Spain, for instance), or in a comparative manner, or perhaps by being applied to the uneven, though obviously well-meaning, contents of Daiken’s two anthologies.

In this and other ways, Nelson confronts the question of literary value – and, by extension, cultural distinctiveness – with respect to the expressions of the left-inclined imagination which he retrieves from their merely historical existence. As Goldstone quotes him as saying, “the choice is not between aesthetics and politics, more often it is a matter of how the poem negotiates the relationship between aesthetics and politics”. For activists who also considered themselves poets, such as Daiken and Milne, this negotiation would be well worth examining. The same reluctance to bite the aesthetic bullet is also evident in the treatment of Harry Kernoff. Reliance on archive and narrative – possibly inevitable in drawing the first widescale map of a little-known landscape – has the effect of deferring the more critical kind of discourse that Nelson advances. That type of critique would be greatly facilitated if further work, on the basis of the voices and genres Goldstone points to, became more generally available. Not that I wish to congratulate Goldstone on her efforts by having the cheek to assign her homework. But is there an Irish publisher out there who would commission such a work, I wonder?

Over and above ideas of the class basis of cultural value, the politics of the canon and related matters, much more could also be – and, one hopes, will be ‑ said to suggest the historical lineage of a leftward cast to Irish writing. Obviously Shaw and O’Casey would figure in any such genealogy, and it would all depend on how leftward was defined. If seen, however, as a framework which embraces a sense of secular reality, rights and duties within at least aspirationally democratic national – and nationalist – ambitions, “tracing a continuity, however shadowy, through the decades”, as Goldstone advocates, a complicated line of descent will emerge, reaching back to Wilde, for one, and including the Leopold Bloom who, naive or not, quixotic or otherwise, has the gumption to uphold “the opposite of hate”. And Beckett’s graffito-like expression of support for the Spanish Republic ‑ ¡UptheRepublic! – can hardly be dismissed as no more than a cry in the street. Outsiders can be guides too, being well-positioned to throw light on the still waters the mainstream glides past, just as “the way we interpret songs sung in a minor key by writers who are obscure” provides a basis for thinking anew about poetry as a social good and public resource.

Should an Irish publisher go ahead with the necessary anthology, it would almost certainly be better edited than the book in hand. Sad to say, her publisher has let Goldstone down, issuing a text pock-marked with tedious repetitions, recurrences in footnotes of points already made in the body of the work, and a bid for the howler of the year in “Keats’s Lyrical Ballads”. These aren’t just cavils. And yet, unfortunate as these entirely avoidable blemishes are, Irish Writers and the Thirties remains, thanks in large part to its untiring research, its copious bibliography and its commitment to opening and broadening awareness of the diverse world of Irish letters, a valuable study.


George O’Brien is professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University, Washington DC.



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