“woefully unstable and vain”: Darrell Figgis, forgotten and despised man of the Irish Revolution

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(edit 30th August 2018 – for further extracts from Arnold Bax’s “Farewell My Youth”, see here on a strange experience in Dunfanaghy and here on a literary bus conductor. And I feature a seasonal Bax piece here.)

 

As I mentioned earlier, Arnold Bax’s “Farewell My Youth” (which was brought out in an edition edited by Lewis Foreman in 1993, though my copy came from my Dad’s library) features many acute pen pictures of pre-WW1 Irish artistic and nationalist circles (especially their overlap). For instance, Bax’s encounter with Patrick Pearse has become quite well known. One figure Bax discusses who I had never heard of before was Darrell Figgis:

One day in midwinter [Padraic] Colum returned from Achill, eager and enthusiastic as ever. “I’ve been staying with Darrell Figgis,” he cried breathlessly, “and had a great time. He’s tremendously keen on your ChChildren of the Hills, Arnold. ‘Who is this Dermot O’Byrne’ says he, and when I told him I knew you well, ‘I must meet that man,’ says Darrell. ‘Tell him to come over here any time he likes and stay a week.'”

“Do you think he meant it?” said I.

“He did surely. Send him a wire-today to say you’re coming.”

This I did, and next evening found myself in Keel above the amethyst caves and the green Atlantic.

Little did I dream then that within a few years both host and hostess would be dead by their own hands.

Darrell was a an attracive -looking fellow (” a mixtures of Synge and a renaissance prince” was Colum’s flattering portrait) but he was woefully unstable and vain. He showed a handsome façade, but there was little behind it and he was never really in favour with, or in the confidence of, his fellow-rebles, who nicknamed him “the man from Golders Green” (he had lived in England for years before he took up with the Irish republican movement). His literary work was negligible, both as a novelist and poet, and he published a short book (a kind of oblation) upon “Æ” and his art which was a source of some embarrassment to its subject.

His tragic wife had a far deeper nature and a more reliable character.

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The tone of this passage suggests the the contemporary readers of 1943 would no of the tragic fate of both Figgis and his wife. I had to look up Figgis (wondering if he was anything to Hodges Figgis) The second line of Figgis’ Wikipedia bio is : ” The little that has been written about him has attempted to highlight how thoroughly his memory and works have been excised from Irish popular culture.” While no expert, I have read reasonably widely on the cultural and political nationalist movements of a century ago in Ireland, and the mention in Bax’s memoir was the first I recall of him (although I recall reading a book on the two Gola fishermen on the Asgard and presumably Figgis featured somewhere there, given his role in proceedings)

Figgis seems to have been an extraordinarily unpopular figure among those who were his erstwhile comrades. The wikipedia bio discusses a search for renumeration, but notes that this was not unusual. Bax’s line “woefully unstable and vain” perhaps hints at a personality that did not endear itself as the main source of this deep unpopularity, which manifested itself in no little vindictiveness
as noted in this interesting article:

Scion of a prominent Dublin Protestant business family, he stood out from the rough country boys who were taking over high and low office in the early days of the new Free State. But that made him a target for former comrades, who despised not just his stylish elegance and air of cultured indifference, but also his independent-minded attacks on his old friends Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera. The result was one of the most bizarre and tragic events of the period.

On June 13, 1922, on the orders of Harry Boland, four men — including Bob Briscoe, who later became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin — burst into the Figgis house in Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin. Fearing they had come to shoot her troublesome husband, his wife Millie attempted to block their way and was roughly treated by the gang, who then smashed down the door to the study, held down Figgis and cut off one half of his lush red beard.

“Poor Darrell Figgis lost his nice red beard,” mocked Kitty Kiernan in a letter to Michael Collins the day the story appeared in the Evening Herald. “When I read about it I could imagine you laughing and enjoying it very much. But it was a mean thing for Harry’s cronies to do . . . he was lucky it was only his beard.”

This incident seems to have contributed at least to the breakdown of Figgis’ wife and her subsequent suicide with a gun given the couple by Michael Collins.

 

This 2008 Letter to the Irish Times by Breandán Ó Corráin disputes one of the oft-repeated claims about Figgis, that his fiancé’s death was due to a backstreet abortion:

A chara, – When the death of Darrell Figgis is referred to, the phrase “backstreet abortion” is often brought up in relation to his fiancé’s death. Yet the verdict of a London coroner’s court at the time was that Rita North died from peritonitis, cause unknown.

As Sandra McAvoy (April 25th) avers, Miss North’s doctor certainly claimed she had admitted to a self-administered abortion. But the case files also show that a (legal) operation by her doctor and a surgeon to remove her already deceased child was severely botched on two accounts, the details of which make horrific reading. A resultant b-coli infection may have equally been the true cause of her tragic death, and abnormalities in Miss North’s womb (a bi-corneal uterus) may point to a natural miscarriage.

Ó Corráin writes on the rather queasy treatment Figgis received at the hands of Free State notables:

Darrell Figgis himself had already been persona non grata in the new Free State: Cosgrave, O’Higgins and Blythe repeatedly used him as a butt of their jokes and a target for their venom in Leinster House, and Figgis’s views tended to subvert the legitimacy that Cosgrave’s government attempted to forge for its rule. However distasteful the manner of Figgis’s suicide, it was matched by the manner in which the members of Free State Dáil did not see fit to vote any condolences on the death of their fellow deputy.

This ill-treatment persisted unto death:

Until I travelled to London four weeks ago to find Figgis’s grave in West Hampstead Cemetery, his headstone lay under half a foot of soil. When I eventually uncovered the small, flat headstone, its simple and ironic inscription was revealed: “In Loving Memory of Darrell Figgis/ died October 25th 1925/ Not gone from memory or from love, but to our Father’s home above”.

Given the importance of “the graves of patriot men and women” in the Irish nationalist tradition, it is particularly telling that, for all his achievements, Figgis is remembered only by a monument which had become completely subsumed by the earth until this month.

Ó Corráin concludes:

Figgis was far from being a saint or model patriot, but in spite of several genuinely questionable public and private decisions, he should at least be remembered for dedicating the best part of his life to the cause of Ireland and her freedom.

This blog has a series of posts on Figgis’ last days, including copies of contemporary news coverage – herem here and here.

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