"You don't consciously set out to do something gallant. You just do it because that is what you are there for."
"I don't subscribe to murder" - Liam Clancy
Two Irishmen - Actor Richard Todd and Singer/Guitarist Liam Clancy- died last week. Kevin Myers wrote an essay today on the nature of gallantry and grace.
Tuesday December 08 2009
TWO Irishmen died last week. They both seem to have been good men, their lives crossing only as vapour trails from different flight-paths might mingle. Each provided a different kind national stereotype -- one for Ireland, the other for Britain -- and the myths they helped create still live on in the imaginations of those outside their respective countries.
Richard Todd was born in 1919 in Dublin to Irish loyalists who were not about to remain in a state run by Sinn Feiners. He was raised in England and India before becoming an actor. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the British army, later becoming a paratrooper. He was among the first allied airborne soldiers to land in Normandy, before the sea-borne invasion hit the beaches. His own diffidence about this time matched his natural heroism. Later, as a film actor, he was to play in war scenes in which he had participated -- even watching other characters play the part of himself.
Two films defined him, and the mythic "Britishness" which he came to embody. The first, 'The Dam Busters', remains one of the finest British war movies ever made. It is successful partly because it conforms so totally with the requirements of myth, particularly in his portrayal of the legendary RAF Wing Commander Guy Gibson. Time has not been kind to either the dam-busting bombing raid, nor to its hero. The attack on the Ruhr dams in May 1943 could not possibly have succeeded in its stated objective in paralysing the German hydroelectric power systems. No measurable reduction in German industrial output was achieved.
The loss of aircrew -- eight out of 19 aircraft were shot down, with 56 men killed -- was quite shocking. On the receiving end, the result was even more terrible: more than 1,000 people -- more than half of them slave-workers and allied prisoners of war -- were killed.
History is only tangentially related to myth. And the legend of 'The Dam Busters' took flight with the film about the operation, with Richard Todd playing Gibson to perfection as the "typical" English officer. It is irrelevant that Gibson was, in addition to being a man of spectacular personal courage, actually a bumptious, insensitive and insufferable bully. The British people needed a hero, and Richard Todd's Guy Gibson provided it.
The second archetypal British character Todd played was Major John Howard in 'The Longest Day', the leader of the famous glider-borne assault on Pegasus Bridge in Normandy. Extraordinarily, Todd the soldier was actually a paratrooper in support of that operation. But John Howard once told me how he hated Todd's upper-class portrayal of him, which was utterly unlike the real John Howard; a working class boy, with a strong London accent, who had been commissioned from the ranks. This (to my mind) would have been a more compelling story; but to the American mind behind 'The Longest Day', and to the British also, British officers should always be toffs.
The real Guy Gibson was killed in action in 1944.
Two of the aircrew serving with the RAF at that time were the Waterford brothers, air-gunners Paddy and Tom Clancy. Only one-in-four of Bomber Command survived a tour of missions, and they both did; going on, in a second exile in the US, to form the Clancy Brothers. The youngest and last of the Clancys, Liam, died last week, just hours after Richard Todd.
The Clancys became an Irish caricature, but a wholly benign one, and only the too-sensitive worry about these things.
For those of us in the great Irish diaspora, the Clancy Brothers lit a torch of creative and cultural certainty. That it might have been largely mythic is irrelevant.
They also inspired many American folk artists, including Bob Dylan, and, of course, uncountable numbers in Ireland. But they were largely responsible, too, for the English folksong revival, the main protagonists of which -- Martin Carthy and the Watersons -- not merely followed their example, but were themselves of Irish extraction. A cliche is only tiresome to those who are too familiar with it.
The Clancys brought joy to millions, and made simplicity pleasurable. There was the darker side, of course; the fights and the booze, and so on. But they had their limits.
And whereas the Clancys revelled in 19th century ballads about the '98 Rising, they were uncomfortable with the gruesome musical lore of more recent vintage. John Boland's story on Saturday of Liam's rebuttal of an 'An Phoblacht' seller -- "I don't subscribe to murder" -- pretty much sums up the brothers' politics. Liam was the last of them to go, and I greatly regret never having met him.
NOT merely do the bawneen stereotypes of the Clancy cliche live on: so do its disciples. Children who never heard of the brothers live richer, better, happier lives today because of the music they helped save.
And another thing, equally relevant and always worth remembering: Europe is free today because of the likes of Richard Todd, and Paddy and Tom Clancy, and John Howard, and Guy Gibson. For behind all great myths are usually great truths.
The problem is that we usually don't know what they are.
- Kevin Myers