Transcript of interview with Cárthach Bán Breathnach


CBB: In the studio with me is Pól Ó Duibhir. Hi Pól, and how are you.

POD: I'm fine thanks.

CBB: Great. Now, Pól, tell me, you spoke recently in the National Library about the cartoonist Gordon Brewster. Tell the listeners first who was Gordon Brewster?

POD: He was an artist and a cartoonist. My connection with him goes back to 1946 when I was two years old and he died of a heart attack in my mother's shop, the Gem, in Howth, and for years I knew nothing about him except "Gordon Brewster, the artist, that died in the Mammy's shop". That was it and I knew nothing else about him. Then I started into my own family history and I started doing a bit of research on him to find out a bit more about him. Then the National Library acquired a collection of his cartoons, almost 500 of them, and I found out about them, and I got an invitation to come in and look at them. They're online now but they weren't then. So I looked through them. I was trying to make up my mind – they're in boxes and I was only there for a short afternoon – make up my mind whether to examine a few in depth or do a whiz through the whole collection to get some sense of the man. Had he a sense of humour? And that's what I did and I have to say that was some afternoon. I went back to – the cartoons deal with the period 1922 to 1932 – and this was the period in which the state was founded and consolidated. There were lots of things happening at that time both from a political and even military point of view, and I came to know people of that era but through the eyes of the cartoonist and the opinions he was putting across about these people and the things they were up to.

CBB: I've looked through some of the cartoons myself - and we'll put some up on Raidi na Life shortly - looking through them, you mentioned the state of politics and the conflicts that were around at that time, and the mentality and thoughts of that man in the cartoons are very interesting and that he was able to advance them with humour and fun as well as being serious. Did you feel that yourself?

POD: Yes I did, very much so. When I came out that afternoon I really liked the man. I was suckered. And that without any previous knowledge, just based on the cartoons themselves - a learned man; he knew a lot; he had great understanding of current affairs and he had a sense of humour. Only a wee bit of a chancer. I have been in contact with his daughter since and have found out a lot more about him but nothing contradicted the impression I had got from my first encounter with the cartoons.

CBB: Looking at the cartoons, what sort of an image of the man did you have?

POD: A learned man with an interest in politics. He could be very sharp. A gentle man as far as his own personality was concerned, a civilised man who empathised with lots of people and quite often with the underclass. But he could be very sharp/sarcastic and one of the things that brought this out in him was Northern Ireland. He despised the North and its sort of statelet and the oppression of the Catholic minority, he hated that. Craig was the Prime Minister there at the time and he has lots of cartoons of Craig, and there isn't a single gentle on. Some of them are extremely bitter/sarcastic. And I think the State up there had the same opinion of him. He was in Belfast one day and the RUC pounced on him and escorted him back to the border, and they threw him out of the North. They understood who he was and they were not at all happy. The stuff was really bitter.

CBB: You said you didn't know much about him previously, did anything else come out of your research into Gordon Brewster?

POD: One thing that came out of it was that he had been completely forgotten. Gordon Brewster, I knew the name because he died in my mother's shop. But for the population at large, who was Gordon Brewster? He was completely unknown. And that was a great pity because the cartoons are very well worked with a lot of effort put into them. They are very artistic. They are not just pen - they are pen and wash, very artistic. His daughter told me that when the news was on the radio it was a case of shush. Everyone had to be completely quiet. He would be constantly listening to the news searching for material for the next cartoon. And you can see this in the cartoons. He deals with everything. He deals a lot with Irish politics, quite a bit with English politics, because the General Strike took place in this period, in 1926, a major event. There was one cartoon of his about the Lockout here in 1913 in circulation. And, you know, Ernest Kavanagh had a cartoon about William Martin Murphy as a vulture on his gate in Rathgar. Well, Brewster had a cartoon at the same time, with Dublin business booting Larkinism and vicious strikes out of town. He was expelling them. You need to understand that he was working for the Independent which was owned at that time by William Martin Murphy. So I was interested in finding out if, in the period of the current collection of cartoons, 1922 to 1932, he had had any change of mind on this. And I think he had. Because he puts great store by negotiation as opposed to cofrontation, particularly during the General Strike in England. That is that Capital and Labour should negotiate, and this would imply that there would be some concessions on both sides. This would be different from war. I think he had a change of attitude. He was, himself, in charge of choosing what he wanted to do a cartoon on. He wasn't subject to any editor. He was his own editor.

CBB: You can see that in the cartoons.

POD: Yes, complete freedom. So you can get an impression of the man himself, and not of his employer, for example.

CBB: Tell me about the talk you gave in the National Library. I understand that some of his family came over for it. You must have been very proud of that.

POD: I was very proud of that and it would have been worth doing the talk if they were the only ones to have turned up. As it happened, he married in 1926, he had two children, a daughter and a son. The marriage failed shortly afterwards and his wife went to England. He was then bringing up the children and they had a great childhood. They were all very close and had great respect for one another. And then he died suddenly in 1946. His wife came back to sort out various arrangements in this country and then took the children back to England with her. So it was an English family from 1946 on. But through the National Library I was able to make contact with Dolores, his daughter, the son is deceased. And I have to say she is a lovely lady, gentle and civilised, and her stories about him and so on are, I wouldn't say unbelievable, rather affectionate. They were a very affectionate family. And the grandchildren, four of them came over, with spouses, and one great grandchild. I was thrilled.

CBB: Marvellous. We'll put up ... as you say the pictures can be accessed at photopol.com/gordon/ , and they're great. And it would be worth anyone's while who has an interest in history or even in the cartoons themselves, it's great to go look at them. Are you thinking of researching them any further or other collections? Has it awoken some interest in you.

POD: Well, people are trying to get me to write or publish a book. There's actually a fashion now in bringing out books on cartoons. James Curry has published a book on Ernest Kavanagh, who was a cartoonist for James Larkin's 'Worker'. Felix Larkin has published a book on the Shemus cartoons, Ernest Forbes, in the Freeman's Journal in the early 1920s, and this stuff is now around. I want to – this man was forgotten – and I want to expose him to the light of day. There is a Wikipedia page but it is very weak and I'd like to strengthen that up a bit. I'd really love to do a book.

CBB: Great. Well, Pól, thanks a million for coming in to us on 'Fios Feasa', and with the help of God, when you have the book written maybe you'll come in to us again. And, as I said, we'll put a link up on our site, and it worthwhile for people with an interest in the cartoons to go and have a look.