Everyone has a golden era
SOMETIMES in our fantasies, we turn back the calendar and we ask ourselves in what era might we have been happy. My choice would be the second half of the 18th century in Ireland.
Constitutional democracy was taking root and it came to its culmination when an assembly came together in Leinster House. It was called Grattan's Parliament. That was in 1782. In the same year, Mulligans of Poolbeg Street threw open its doors. It was then a modest pub, as it still is, but it was to grow in fame. Eventually, it would become the best-known pub in the Northern Hemisphere. You can count in the Southern Hemisphere, too.
It was better known than Harry's Bar in Paris and a good deal better. Mulligans was at its zenith at about the end of the 20th century when Con and Tommy Cusack were on the bridge. It declined for a little while after the disaster in Burgh Quay, but it steadily came back. Grattan's Parliament didn't fair as well.
The rebellion of 1798 gave the government the excuse to close it down. How did they pass the union? By treachery and fraud. Bribery played a great part, too. Shamefully, many Catholic MPs took the money and helped to vote their own parliament out of existence. We hadn't a real parliament again until 1927 and that was for a divided country.
The 1798 rebellion was so bloody that the people became horrified of physical violence. Robert Emmet's rising was a pathetic affair. So was the rising of the Young Irelanders in 1847. The Fenians hardly rose at all except in East Cork and South Co Dublin.
By the end of the century, democracy seemed to be in place, as you would see from Canon Sheehan's The Graves at Kilmorna. This was seen most clearly when Parnell built his great success on the work of Grattan, O'Connell and Davis, thus he won the right of the farmers to own their own land. This was an achievement that couldn't be foreseen a century before. Home Rule was in the offing but Parnell's domestic troubles caused a split in the parliamentary party and this gave some people the opportunity to revert to physical force.
The Rising of 1916 was a tragedy: it led to the War of Independence and to the Civil War. This ended in theory in 1922, but is still going on. That was a generation I wouldn't like to have lived in.
It might have been good to live in Paris in the second half of the 19th century. It was the capital of the world in terms of writing, painting and all kinds of creativity. Not all the artists lived there, but they came to it for long periods. The list includes Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Flaubert and de Maupassant. It is generally believed that creative people work on their own in isolation but that isn't always true. Wine finds its own level: the artists in Paris met frequently in a congenial café.
The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 disrupted this Paris, but creative people have a highly developed sense of self-preservation and the old Paris came back again. I would like to have been there but, then again, could have been happier in Paris after the war.
It was a great time for the Americans because the exchange rate was in favour of the dollar. And though Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald spoke of hard times, they were lucky. They were in Paris in the best of times, and much of their best work was done there.
An Irishman would have been happy in London in the second half of the 18th century. There were great men there and they used to assemble fairly often in a pub in Fleet Street -- Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith. On the surface, it wasn't a very attractive London. Fleet Street was an open sewer and there were the footpads. We call them muggers now.
London was becoming the capital of an expanding empire. It would be good to have been there and feel that you were part of a growing country. My generation of journalists were lucky. We got to know London before the big newspapers moved to Docklands and changed the whole texture of life in London.
The Irish Press Group on Dublin's Burgh Quay was like the capital of a little town, where you had good pubs and good cafés and a great atmosphere. It was one of my favourite places in the city and I still miss it.
When you work in a paper, you feel you have your fingertips on what is happening in the world. The closure of those three papers was a tragedy for many people. For a lot of them, it meant that they would never work at their own professions again. Like Grattan's Parliament, they voted themselves out of their jobs. And the village, like Fleet Street, was never the same again.
You could have been happy too in the early days of the covered wagons roaring West in America. It was a very hard and dangerous life, but there was a great feeling of adventure and of being part of a growing nation.
It would have been good, too, with Christopher Columbus, as he sailed hoping to find a passage to India. In fact, he discovered America -- though, of course, it was always there. And thus he opened a new world for Europe.
Fogra: Best wishes go to my old friend, Richard Kelly, who is working diligently to achieve a higher rung in his profession