go to the home page
see what Ruth is up to links to all Ruth's non-fiction publications links to all Ruth's crime fictions titles links to most of Ruth's journalist over the last four years
Sunday 2 April 2006

My granny was one of our great green harpies

WHEN Myles Dungan asked me if I had a candidate for his Speaking Ill of the Dead conference, I immediately blurted out: "Countess Markievicz".

Why did I have it in for her particularly, I wondered afterwards. Sure, she was a bad bit of work, but were there not more obviously ghastly dead people in Irish history? Sean MacBride (whom David Norris chose), for instance? Or his teeth-clenchingly annoying mother, Maud Gonne? If I was sticking to women, was Maire MacSwiney not criminally insane? And if it was 20th-Century green harpies I was thinking about, was not my dreadful granny worse than any of them?

Well, the punters would hardly have flocked to hear me denounce the unknown Bridget McInerney - aka Bridget Dudley Edwards - so I stuck to Markievicz, but I feel it only right to acknowledge that Grandmother Edwards has a strong claim to have been the foulest among the foul harridans of fanatical republicanism. Yet I remember her with gratitude, for she made me precociously politically conscious and sceptical about violent nationalism.

I don't know which mischievous parent taught me when a toddler to lisp "Up Dev" when Grandmother hove in view, for this was calculated to make her erupt. De Valera, I soon learned, was a traitor: he had failed to fight the despised Treaty to the death, he had entered the illegitimate Dail of the illegitimate Free State and he had hanged, imprisoned and interned men whose only crime was to fight - or "pight", as Grandmother's slight speech defect rendered it - for Irish freedom.

She never forgave Dev: in her 80s she would still write Sinn Fein across her ballot paper. Nor, until her deathbed, did she forgive the Roman Catholic church for its failure to back revolution. Then - after almost 40 years of boycotting the church - she agreed to have the last rites on condition they were administered by a Capuchin from the friary that had provided confessors for those executed in 1916.

I was fascinated by the huge picture above Grandmother's mantelpiece of a scene in the GPO in Easter Week that included Patrick Pearse striking a heroic pose and James Connolly barking orders from his stretcher.

The droopily-moustached Tom Clarke was of great interest too, for periodically Grandmother would have an audience with republican royalty in the shape of Kathleen Clarke.

"I have come from tea with Mrs Tom Clarke," she would announce portentously, before favouring us with the usual report about their anti-Dev hatefest or Mrs Clarke's fury that the Pearses thought they owned 1916. (Kathleen Clarke understandably never forgave Pearse, a mere blow-in, for having beaten Clarke - the Rising's main begetter - to the title of President of the Provisional Republic.)

It would be many years before I was ready to question the morality of the 1916 Rising, but I was only about seven when I tackled the matter of the photograph of Hitler that faced Grandmother's bed. "What about the Jews, Grandmother?" I asked. "British propaganda," she barked. This was the early Fifties.

I later learned that Mussolini had been Hitler's predecessor in Grandmother's affections and that she was eclectic enough to adore Stalin as well. A classic fascist, Grandmother loved strong, ruthless leaders whatever their ideology, which no doubt is why she made her gentle, rational husband's life hell. It didn't help him either than he was English, and therefore to blame for all Ireland's wrongs.

Like Markievicz, Grandmother had engaged first in active politics as a suffragette, but then had been seduced by the excitement of revolutionary nationalism. She was a member of Cumann na mBan and - to the distress of my pacifist grandfather - had hidden guns for the Volunteers. She did not herself pight for Irish freedom, but I don't know if that was cowardice or because she was an alcoholic. Even the bould Markievicz would have thought twice about going into battle alongside a drunken Bridget Dudley Edwards.

Still, Grandmother was prepared to make sacrifices for Ireland. She had my father and his brother join Markievicz's Fianna - where they were taught to drill and train and told they should kill and die for Ireland - and in 1922, at the outbreak of the Civil War, when they were respectively 13 and 11, she told them to join up. My father, who thought his mother both unpleasant and mad, refused. Uncle Ralph cheerfully set off to battle and was downcast at being sent home by the recruiting officer.

I owe Grandmother a great deal. Not only did she arouse my curiosity about violent republicanism, but she helped me to understand fundamentalism: these days she would be rooting for the Continuity IRA. Hate-filled, blood-thirsty, bigoted and intransigent, Grandmother represented everything that was and is worst in militant republicanism. She richly deserves to be spoken ill of.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

Ruth's critically-acclaimed Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure has just been reissued by the Irish Academic Press

© Ruth Dudley Edwards