Ethel Mannin, Brief Voices: A Writer’s Story (London: Hutchinson 1959) - Extracts

On Two Studies in Integrity (viz., Mahony and Griffin)

[...] as soon as it was finished it [Lover Under Another Name (1953)] I began the research for Two Studies in Integrity. I worked on the book all that spring and summer. It was my first essay in original research and in straight biography, and I found the task completely fascinating. I had had no idea that research could be so exciting. And I alighted upon the arduous task by the sheerest chance. Reginald and I had been in Connemara together in the summer of 1952 and had decided to travel back from Cork as a change from the usual Dublin-Liverpool route. It is a pleasant journey along the Lee estuary from the ‘fair city’. Aboard the steamer I overheard an Irishman point out to his two young children a tall church with a golden fish fora weathervane. ‘There’s Shandon church,’ he told them, ‘where they [88] ring the famous bells.’ I caught his eye and asked, ‘Why are they famous?’

“’Tis from the old song,” he said:

The bells of Shandon
They sound so grand on
The pleasant waters
Of the river Lee.

The song was new to me and I asked him who wrote it. He replied, “Tom Moore, if I remember rightly.”

But he remembered wrongly, for when I got back I investigated the matter for myself and found that it was not Tom Moore but the Reverend Francis Sylvester Mahony, who was buried in Shandon church and who made a literary name for himself as “Father Prout” - he detested Moore and amused himself by translating the poet’s Melodies into Latin, old French, Greek, Italian, claiming them as original and charging Moore with plagiarism. Looking up Mahony I alighted by chance on Gerald Griffin, contemporary with Mahony, and also buried in Cork - in the graveyard of the Christian Brothers on a bill above the city, the spire of Shandon church reaching, as it seemed to Griffin, to the feet of the monastery. Griffin wrote plays, and a novel which is still read in the schools, The Collegians - a highly melodramatic piece of work - but is remembered chiefly by his song, “Aileen Aroon”.

But there all similarity between the two Munster men ends; after that they become a study in contrasts. For at the peak of his literary career, for which he had struggled and suffered, Gerald Griffin threw everything up and entered the religious life as a Christian Brother, dying in the Cork monastery at the age of thirty-six two years after his reception. Francis Mahony, on the other hand, abandoned the religious life to join the racy literary set of Fraser’s Magazine in London, becoming less and less the priest and more and more the man-of-letters, far better known as the character he had himself created, “Father Prout”, than as the Reverend Francis Mahony.

They were the exact opposite of each other in temperament, too - Griffin shy, gentle, romantic, very much the early nineteenth-century Irish poet, and adoring Tom Moore; Mahony [89] abrupt, irascible, all wit and scholarship, and detesting Moore. The contrast fascinated me, and nothing of any importance appeared to have been written about either of them. I had an exciting time examining the files of the Daily News for 1847, and the Pall Mall Gazette for 1866, when Mahony was writing for them - for the former from Rome - —and getting Griffin’s notebooks, written in a variety of shorthand not now in use, transcribed by an Irish government shorthand expert. The book was published early in 1954, whilst I was in Burma. (pp.88-90.)

§

On karma

According to Buddhism, in which a third of the world believes, it is bound to, all that happens being an endless sequence of cause-and-effect. We alone, by our actions, shape our own destinies, past, present and future. All is subject to causality.

The law of karma injects meaning into the chaos of human existence; nothing else does.

It is a rational explanation; nothing else is. But to what extent is it valid in the shaping ofhuman destiny? The law of cause-and-effect is acknowledged by Christians in the Pauline declaration, “Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap”; but the Buddhist conception of karma goes beyond that, for it is concerned with actions and their consequences in countless former lives, demanding of us belief in rebirth, and once that idea is countenanced we are off the material plane.
Part of my mind accepts the idea; part of it rejects it. Sometimes it is easy to believe that there are more things in heaven and earth; at other times reason insists ruthlessly that what we call personality, spirit, “soul”, all that we think and feel, all that is incorporeal [112] in us is nevertheless a matter of cells and tissues composing the brain; put the brain out of action with anaesthetic and we cease to think or feel; in such terms death is the final anaesthetic, from which the patient does not recover. When the body is dead, the heart no longer pumping blood to the brain, what reason is there to suppose that anything that emanated from that once living grey matter - thought, feeling - can continue in any form?

But the Buddhists are not concerned with “soul“ - though they believe in spirits inhabiting other realms of existence, other levels of consciousness. Can karma, the consequences of conduct, be carried over from one life to another in endless accountancy? Can the aggregate of one incarnation find expression in another? Buddhism says so, but first it is necessary to believe in life as a series of rebirths. Millions do believe, and for thousands of years, long before Christ, long before Buddha, people have believed; but the belief of millions even for a million years would not prove anything except the human necessity to believe in something beyond the material, born of the human longing to inject meaning into the vast, chaotic, meaninglessness of life.

Sometimes there is the sense of coming to the threshold of understanding; one step more and all will be revealed. It is like a continual reaching up to something which always eludes the grasp. There is a door, beyond which, in fields of light, lies all understanding; but the door is locked and there is no key.

“Veil after veil will lift - but there must be
Veil upon veil behind.”

§

On Pity the Innocent and Mrs. Ellis

[...] a beautiful and tragic young married woman, the mother of two children, was hanged for the shooting of the lover who had discarded her and I was of the minority who were shocked and distressed by the refusal of the Home Secretary, Major Gwilym Lloyd George, to grant a reprieve. I am of those who believe that capital punishment is absolutely indefensible ’in any circumstance whatsoever, that judicial murder is a barbarism out of which civilized people should have grown long ago - and in some thirty countries civilized people have, without any increase in the murder rate - not only because it precludes all possibility of righting a judicial error, but because it is degrading to those who carry out the sentence and who are required by law to witness the execution, and because of the inexpressible suffering caused to those close to the executed person - parents, husband or wife, brothers and sisters, children.

In its editorial for Friday, July i5th, 1955, two days after the hanging, the Spectator said: “Not even the thickest head could have remained unmoved as the monstrous drama moved to its ending in the still summer heat of Wednesday morning. There is not the slightest doubt that Mrs. Ellis should have been reprieved.” Speaking of the hanging producing a revulsion amongst the thinking population the editorial went on to suggest that the whole practice of hanging would surely have been brought into disrepute, and by its abolition “the only sufferers will be the Sunday newspapers”. But two, at least, of the Sunday newspapers, the Observer and Reynolds’s News, came out strongly against the hanging and in favour of abolition. The Observer said in an editorial that the wrong done to the young son the wretched girl left was “unimaginable”. I did not find it difficult to imagine the wrong done to that child - who must one day know, however carefully his childhood and boyhood might be guarded against [134] the dreadful knowledge - and I felt, strongly, that I wanted to write a novel on this theme, as my contribution to the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment. The volume of autobiography could wait; this novel seemed to me urgent and important and it clamoured to be written. I decided to call it Pity the Innocent, because it was the story of a boy whose mother was hanged in circumstances similar to that of Mrs. Ellis. I began work on it in August and did not finish it until the following March. On the title page I quoted those words of John Donne, which can never be quoted enough:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peeve of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

I set the scene of the novel in London, Connemara, Grasse, and Paris. I told the story in the first person through the boy, then a young man, recounting the tragedy of his mother, and of his own childhood and boyhood and young manhood, to the Irish Catholic priest who was with his mother at the end. Some French friends lent me an old hilltop house inland from Nice for the Christmas of 1955, and whilst there I visited Grasse to get background material for the south-of-France part of the book - I had the boy taken there by his father after his mother’s arrest and put to live with just such a warm-hearted, liberal family as my French friends. In the novel I had the boy’s father killed whilst skiing in Switzerland a few years after the hanging, leaving it open as to whether his death was suicide or accident. In 1958, three years after the hanging of his wife, Ruth Ellis’s ex-husband committed suicide. It may be recalled that though they were divorced at the time of the tragedy he stood by her throughout her trial and to the end. For him no less than her the bell tolled. (pp.134-35.)

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