Being Michael McDowell

Being Michael McDowell

Graham Greene’s memoir Ways of Escape contains a final chapter called The Other. This title, from a poem by Edward Thomas, heads an epilogue that deals with the writer’s long and unfulfilled search for at least one conman who had passed himself off as Greene on several continents.

Michael McDowell was first elected to the Irish parliament in 1987. Some years still had to pass, though, before people began to mistake a harmless nobody called John Flynn for him. That can be put down to the lookalike spending more time in Dublin and less time combing receding hair. It all began late in 1993 with a tap on the back from an old lady on a bus. She was echoed one night on Dorset Street during the noisy nearby convergence of an ambulance and some squad cars. It was then that another old dear approached him on a street corner.

Sorry, love, I thought you were Michael McDowell and you’d know what was going on.”

By 1999, McDowell was Attorney General. That August, a pal and I were in a pub on Camden Street that is known to be popular with the police. A new barman went out of his way to be nice. He even brought the pints down, unbidden, to where we were sitting. He then set them down with an attitude of reverence. Later another barman did a background check, while I was in the toilet.

Eh, what does your mate work at?

McDowell had an even better result in 2002. During the election campaign a homeless man approached me at a bus stop but I didn’t have any spare change. As he walked away he looked back for a moment. You look like Michael McDowell. Following the election the great man was appointed to the Cabinet. This extra power was soon reflected in the same bar when another chap asked the lookalike to settle a bet.

Are you the Minister for Justice?

When people ask such questions often enough, you can get into character.

Do you want to be thrown into prison?

The man hung his head and said sorry. He was shrinking away when granted an exasperated reprieve.

No, I’m not him. Would you ever cop on?

Shortly before Christmas 2007, it was a dark morning when I rose in a Waterford city hotel. There was no bottled water at reception (“But you can have all the drink you want”). The night porter then suggested asking at the nearby McDonald’s.

Two deaf guys in t-shirts had got to the locked door of the outlet first. They seemed to have had a long night and were indifferent to the frost. It then turned out that one of them could speak because he translated some giggles and sign language going on behind my back.

I’m sorry, my friend thought you were Michael McDowell.”

As for Greene’s quest, he never came closer than a couple of photographs and a letter from an impostor who had got himself into some trouble in India. Greene himself was later accused of being the fraud by a newspaper during a visit to Chile. It was then that he was assailed by metaphysical doubt as to whom was the real impostor all along. All he was left with was the Edward Thomas poem’s ending.

Even though McDowell had seemingly left the political scene, back in late 2007, these lines could ever only sound a bit sinister, given that I always knew he was out there, waiting.

He goes: I follow: no release
Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.

JF at Jack wedding 2009

Mauthausen concentration camp

Mauthausen concentration camp

Austria, 28 December, 2015

The train from Linz to Mauthausen took only about twenty minutes. There were no taxis at the station and I did the 5k winding hike uphill to the camp. “This is some hike, man,” I said to myself before I realized that the phrase rhymed with Eichmann. When I got high enough away from the wet Danube fog, the sun lightened the soup but I still could see f*ck all except some of the road in front. I was even wondering was it just the murk or was it the effort of the climb too. I started wiping (steam?) off my glasses.

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Higher again, the sun was just beginning to burn off some of the fog in the afternoon. The Lager loomed, finally, as a long stone fort of no great height on top of the hill. A woman at the visitors’ centre – a concrete maze – told me it was closed and she unlocked a door to get me a brochure – so I wasn’t going to see the gas chamber – but she added I could walk around the exterior.

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Past the monuments, now the highest fog had cleared, there was a piece or two of metal building site fencing across the top of the path down to the Todesstiege (death stairs) and the quarry but it was possible to get around that with no trouble. This was the place I most wanted to see.

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I was the only one down there, where the fog was brightly waxing and waning. At the time it didn’t feel eerie. Oddly peaceful and even beautiful, by the black pond below the cliff, the site proved the birds did sing. I’d even heard a distant cock but the suffering that was inflicted there was and is just unimaginable.

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Forty nationalities were consigned to hell in that place. It was like the UN of concentration camps. There is even a monument to the Albanians. Of the 23,000 Spaniards who had fled to France in 1939 to escape from Franco only to end up at Mauthausen or one of its satellite camps, 16,000 were killed. All the first consignment of Dutch Jews sent here in 1942 were thrown off the quarry cliff that the SS nicknamed die Fallschirmspringer Wand, the Parachutists’ Wall. Many other prisoners saved the SS the trouble and just jumped.

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On the way back up the leafy Todesstiege I counted the 186 steps, stopping to straighten my legs on nos. 75, 100 & 130, though I wasn’t carrying any granite block. I took a look then around the back of the camp. Though the entrance is on the left-hand side, where I got a photo of the gravelly yard via the gap under the wooden gates of the entrance arch, the front is really the long side wall facing the road. Anyway, around the back there was no wall but a fence topped with barbed wire. The remaining huts could be seen across a wide open space drenched in sunshine. From there the descent into the fog gloomily took me back to Mauthausen village where I bought a shirt and some t-shirts in a C&A, thinking I hadn’t brought enough with me on the trip.

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Austria, a notebook #8

Hella Pick’s Guilty Victim (2000) states that the spin that Austria was the first victim of the Nazis was a product of Cold War collusion between the state and the western powers after the Russians had agreed to pull back to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The book adds that, in a state where the citizens provided half a million Nazi party members, an proportionally excessive contribution to the SS and an extraordinarily high presence among the ‘staff’ at concentration camps, the principle of denazification was even less a priority than in Germany. It should nevertheless also be noted that the proportion of Austrians later deemed Righteous Among the Nations was double what it might have been, going on the comparable figure for Germans and on Austria’s share of the population of the Reich.

In a post-war climate of stability, prosperity and considerable diplomatic leeway, Austria’s long-time chancellor Bruno Kreisky (1970-83) claimed that Austria had withdrawn from history and was quite happy about that. Nevertheless, though the country had become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly from the Eastern Bloc, this harmless image didn’t last and Austria took a lot of international stick over Haider and Waldheim in the Nineties.

The posturing abroad overlooked the strong likelihood that at least 20% of any population is more or less fascist anyway, if that means containing those inclined to worship the strong, despise the weak and inform on the neighbours. After a few minutes’ reflection on what we hear in bars and radio phone-ins and what we see in comment sections, it is hard to argue otherwise. Do we really think if Britain retook the whole island and told the Irish, who have never been imperial, that they could freely kill certain unpopular neighbours slash fellow citizens, that there wouldn’t be many takers? The hypocrisy of some of Austria’s critics, such as the French, who were responsible for huge colonial wars after 1945, was highlighted by Tony Judt in 2000.

Until Jacques Chirac put out a… statement about Vichy in 1995, French governments had resolutely refused any such responsibility for past crimes… Mitterrand… a former Vichy official, made a particular point of denying it again and again. It was the same Mitterrand who manipulated the French electoral system to engineer the parliamentary success… of [the] National Front… Thus when François Hollande… expresses the “très vive émotion” of his party at the rise of Jörg Haider, it is hard to take his distress very seriously. And as French and other commentators fall over one another to castigate Austria as a nasty little amnesiac Alpine redoubt full of unreconstructed neo-Nazi xenophobes, they sometimes forget that… Austria has had a better record of welcoming… refugees… Moreover, it wasn’t an Austrian chancellor who conducted an American president on a tour of SS graves in May 1985.

From an Irish perspective, of course, the hypocrisy of the French about mass murder is much less interesting than that of the British. The 1841 census showed a population of just over eight million in Ireland. Catholics made up eighty per cent, the bulk of which lived in poor or very poor conditions on rented scraps of land. At the top of society stood the Ascendancy class, made up of landowning families either of British descent or descended from Irish converts to Protestantism, which enabled advancement in the colonial context. Only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity to maintain the system of monoculture that supported this class of parasites.

The potato blight first appeared in 1845. In 1846, the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel moved to repeal the Corn Laws, which maintained tariffs on grain imports and kept the price of bread artificially high. The measure split the landowners in the Conservative Party, leading to the fall of Peel’s government on 25 June. Ten days later, Lord John Russell of the Whig Party assumed office. The Whigs opposed state interference in the economy and believed in letting ‘nature’ take its course. Peel’s relief programmes in Ireland were shut down on 21 July 1846 on the orders of Charles Trevelyan, the new Treasury Secretary.

The Irish temperance preacher Father Theobald Mathew soon wrote to Trevelyan, saying that on 27 July he had passed from Cork to Dublin and “this doomed plant bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest”. He compared the return journey on 3 August when he saw “one wide waste of putrefying vegetation”. The priest saw that “in one week the chief support of the masses was utterly lost”. Russell’s government introduced short-lived and useless public works projects in the winter of 1846-47, the period of highest Famine mortality, when weak, severely malnourished people were forced to do hard labour to prove their destitution. Then it turned to a mixture of indoor and outdoor direct relief. The former was administered in workhouses; the latter through soup kitchens. The cost of this relief was nonetheless landed mainly on the landlords, who in turn often attempted to reduce their liability by evicting their tenants, like dead souls.

On 16 February 1940, Odilo Globocnik declared in Lublin that the evacuated Jews should feed themselves and be supported by their countrymen, as these Jews have enough. If this does not succeed, one should let them starve. Half a million people were evicted in Ireland between 1845 and 1851. The Great Hunger clearances in just one county out of thirty-two, Clare, began at the end of 1847 and centrally involved a landlord and land agent named Marcus Keane, who quickly became known as the Exterminator General.

Of Clare’s 153 landowners, 63 were absentees and Keane controlled nearly a quarter of the county. A fanatical Protestant, though Keane is not a colonist’s surname, he promoted forced conversions and even sometimes grotesquely offered a fiver to his tenants to level their own cabins. Keane also maintained an Einsatzgruppe of forty thugs to carry out his massive eviction programme. By early 1849, 90,000 people in Clare were dependent on inadequate rations at workhouses or soup kitchens for any hope at all of survival. In 1851, the census showed a population drop of 74,000 in the county in just ten years. Globocnik killed himself after his capture by the British in 1945. Totally unpunished, the pillar of society Marcus Keane died of natural causes in 1883. His lead coffin was soon stolen from its crypt at night but it was so heavy that the funny thieves decided to hide it in a newly used grave nearby, where it lay undiscovered for many years.

In the absence of any humane state intervention, large sums of money were donated by charitable sources. The British Relief Association was formed in January 1847 by Lionel de Rothschild, a Jewish banker in London. Its international fundraising activities raised almost £400,000. Even the poor Choctaw Indians famously sent a few dollars to help. The Ottoman Sultan declared his intention to send £10,000 but then the British consul quietly requested that he give less than Queen Victoria had (£2,000). Victoria did publish two letters appealing for public donations. Her letters were widely criticised at the time, notably by the London Times, namely for encouraging people to throw money into an Irish bog. In 1847 the American government fitted out two ships and loaded them with food supplies. The Jamestown was commanded by a Captain Forbes who accompanied Father Mathew on a tour of the terrible sights in the city of Cork.

I saw enough in five minutes to horrify me: houses crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture, and with patches of dirty straw covered with still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity; some called for water to Father Mathew, and others for a dying blessing. Forbes also described a soup kitchen where hundreds of spectres stood… begging for some of the soup which I can readily conceive would be refused by well-bred pigs in America.

There was a stark choice for the poorest people: flight to America on the coffin ships or certain death. It is true that much opinion at the time was sharply critical of the Russell government’s response to the crisis. This condemnation was not confined to outside critics. From Dublin, officially the second city of the United Kingdom, even their own Lord Lieutenant, Lord Clarendon, wrote to Russell on 26 April 1849, urging that the British government introduce additional relief measures. I do not think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination.

The British government spent just seven million pounds on Famine relief between 1845 and 1850. Contemporaries noted the sharp contrast with the figure of over twenty million pounds given to compensate British slave-owners in the Caribbean in the 1830s. When Ireland had experienced crop failure in 1782-83, the ports were closed and local food prices promptly dropped. That, of course, was before the Anschluss of the Act of Union in 1800, when the semi-independent Irish parliament, composed entirely of Protestant landowners, voted itself out of existence with the assistance of massive bribery. There was no export ban in the 1840s thanks to the Whigs and their avowed devotion to free trade. Ireland thus remained a net exporter of food through most of the Famine.

In response to the biological weapon, Phytophtora infestans, that had fallen in his lap in the form of the blight, Trevelyan described the Famine in 1848 as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” and he was soon knighted for his Irish services. He died in his bed aged 79. As recently as 2014, the BBC felt able to publish this nauseating biographical sketch. He has come to represent the British government’s controversial policies of minimal intervention and attempting to encourage self-reliance, and he remains a contentious figure in Ireland. His most lasting contribution, however, began in the 1850s with the publication of his and Sir Stafford Northcote’s report on ‘The Organization of the Permanent Civil Service’.

To put this snow-job in some context, a BBC viewers poll in 2002 ranked another keen exterminator of Irish civilians and prisoners, Oliver Cromwell, as the tenth greatest Briton of all time. Then again, to give just one crude example of how the spirit of collaboration is endemic in Ireland too, as in France and Austria, it was only a year earlier that a book by an Irish printer – Cromwell, An Honourable Enemy – received respectful, serious reviews in several Irish broadsheets. The same crank had another go at his theme in 2014, which at least then gave occasion to a funny demolition in the Irish Times by Pádraig Lenihan. I am not sure why Reilly includes a report that Cromwell had his penis shot off at Drogheda. But I am glad he did.

The academic “revisionists”, those West Brits bent on whitewashing the Famine as something that just happened – es ist passiert, to borrow the words of Robert Musil – and sneering at folk memory as ‘myth’, had a much longer free run of media propaganda but that too has had its day, not least because (i) the Troubles in the North are over and (ii) the mainstream media are in steady decline. These characters are now often reduced to figures of fun, like the Trinity College Dublin professor hired in 2013 by a private TV station to dig up a 1920s IRA ‘killing field’ in Co. Laois. To the professor’s bewildered disappointment, they found nothing but at least they left the field nicely ploughed for the owner. The same professor subsequently opened Department of Justice files in Dublin to discover the skeletons he’d been looking for had been of men who hadn’t been killed at all.

In contrast to those Irish campus quislings who invented a version of Irish history that most British scholars would greatly hesitate to endorse, it was the English historian Robert Kee who more honestly observed that the Famine could be seen as comparable in its force on “national consciousness to that of the Final Solution on the Jews”. The round figures themselves are uncontested. A million people died. Another two million had left the country by 1860.