Yesterday I reviewed the autobiography of Máire MacSwiney Brugha (here). Let's call her Máire 1.
This leads me to consider the autobiography of a direct female contemporary of the first Máire, Máire Cruise O'Brien (whom I'll call Máire 2). Born in 1922, Máire 2 has entitled her autobiography, 'The same age as the State', for 1922 saw the establishment of the Irish Free State, or in Irish Saorstát Éireann.
In fact there are an amazing number of links between the two books. Firstly, the two woman were direct contemporaries, and from the same influential stratum of society, a stratum which dominated politics in the Irish Free State (later Éire). While Máire 1 was the daughter of Thomas MacSwiney, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork (who died on hunger strike), Máire 2 was the daughter of Séan MacEntee, who was De Valera's first Minister of Finance. That is, Máire 2 was born Máire MacEntee (Irish: Máire Mhac an tSaoi). Just to repeat -
Máire 1 - Máire MacSwiney Brugha, author of HISTORY'S DAUGHTER
Máire 2 - Máire Cruise O'Brien, née MacEntee, author of THE SAME AGE AS THE STATE,
The connections go even deeper. Having fled her mother and Germany, Máire 1 came to live with the MacEntees. Máire 2 writes (THE SAME AGE AS THE STATE, pp 105-6) that in or about the summer of 1933 Máire Óg ("Young Mary"-to distinguish the young girl from her aunt) MacSwiney came to stay with the MacEntee sisters in Tigh na Cille, in Drumquin, Kerry, on the west coast of Ireland (where Irish was spoken) 'to get acclimatised to Irish life and Irish children'.
Of this episode, Máire 1 writes in HISTORY'S DAUGHTER -
'Dr Paddy Browne...used to descend on us for afternoon tea, bringing with him the three MacEntee children - his neices, Máire and Barbara, and his nephew Séamus.....The MacEntee children spent the six months between Easter and September every year in his bungalow, attending Dunquin school for the summer term.... Máire, his neice, was the apple of his eye and from him had imbibed all the classics and, when I met her, could recite from plays written in classical Greek....when Dr Browne ...discovered I had learned no Irish he said..."I'll bring her up to stay with us for a week and we'll teach her."
...That was when I first got to know Máire MacEntee. She was twelve years old and I fifteen. She was a genius of a child, a true protegée of her uncle, whom they called Páblú. I had enough knowledge of the classics from my German school to appreciate the fact that she was able to recite from the original Greek. It was amazing to hear her doing so.'
In her own book Máire 1 (MacSwiney Brugha) mentions the book-launch of Máire 2 (Cruise O'Brien)'s THE SAME AGE AS THE STATE i.e in 2003. Máire 2 contests certain of Máire 1's published claims of about the life of Máire 2 and her mother, which Máire 1 repeated at second hand. The desire to correct inaccuracies may, indeed, have been a prime influence as to why Máire 2 (MacSwiney Brugha) decided to write her own autobiography in her 80s, while blind. Cathal M. Brugha writes in his Foreword to his mother's autobiography -
'A particular motivation came from her need to set the record staight about why she decided, at the age of fourteen, to return from Germany against the wishes of her mother, Muriel Murphy MacSwiney, and make her life in Ireland.'
The intellectual abilities of Máire Cruise O'Brien, née MacEntee, were evident, we see, from an early age. The girl went on to take a double First at University College Dublin in Irish and French. She qualified at the Bar, extremely unusually for a girl in those days, but did not practice. Instead she became the first female to enter the Irish Department of External Affairs (i.e. the Irish Diplomatic Service) througn open competitive examination.
The diplomatic service took Máire to France and then to Franco's Spain, where she was introduced to Franco and encountered the terrible General Millán Astray, founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion (whom I mentioned here in connection with Antony Beevor's book on the Spanish Civil War). In Spain Máire became Irish chargée d'affaires, the country's top diplomatic representative. In Franco's Spain women were not supposed to work in any profession, and Máire took delight in shocking Spanish opinion when she, a female, took the Irish seat at official functions.
From Spain to the UN General Assembly in New York as the 'token female'. The rising star at the UN was Conor Cruise O'Brien (who went on to lead UN operations in the Congo). O'Brien's first marriage had failed and he became attached Máire who became his second wife. Máire would leave the Department for fear of any conflict of personal and public interests.
Máire and Conor
Máire would then devote himself for much of the rest of her life to supporting her husband in his many-faceted interests. She did, however, become a Professor of Irish for a while and remains one of the most highly-regarded poets writing in Irish. Máire MacSwiney Brugha writes in HISTORY'S DAUGHTER (p 132) 'she is one of the foremost poets writing in the Irish language today'. I shall post one of her poems in translation soon.
I've written already (here) of my contacts with her husband, Conor Cruise O'Brien, who has a claim to be regarded as Ireland's pre-eminent man of letters of his generation. I telephoned Dr O'Brien on a few occasions at his house on Howth Summit near Dublin. Once or twice his wife would answer, so possibly Máire Cruise O'Brien did know my name.
In 2004 I attended a session of the Literary Festival in Bangor where Máire discussed her autobiography, recently published. Afterwards I asked Máire to inscribe my copy, which she did, and took a photograph.
Máire Cruise O'Brien inscribes her book
Máire wrote in Irish, a language of which I have only a basic knowledge -
Do Shéamus Ó Fiaich
le meas agus le cion
Mháire Mhac an tSaoi
Afterwards I was astounded to translate this as -
'To James O'Fee
with admiration and affection
from Máire MacEntee'
A lady of not only immense achievement, but of great charm.