To David Gottlieb.
I am towards the conclusion of a marathon case in Manchester but I’m not oblivious of the outside world or my complex Irishness. In recent weeks, thus has commenced the commemoration of the signing of the Treaty and, thus, the inception of the Irish Free State. The Treaty signed 100 years ago in December, but not fully in until July.
Thus, it occurred to me to take Sunday off to visit the birthplace of the man most responsible for the treaty with Michael Collins. FE Smith, otherwise known as Lord Birkenhead, the legendary advocate, the most in equal measures feared, despised, and loved man in Britain; Attorney General when he prosecuted Roger Casement for treason and subsequently Lord Chancellor. Dead at 58 from a sybaritic lifestyle.
His prosecution of Casement meant, of course, that he saw the Black Diaries. Whether they dictated vengefulness or not is unclear but his comment at the end about Casement was hung most brutal, and many thought him an often brutal and uncouth man. I walked past his reddened face for 16 years as Lavery’s portraits hangs in the King’s Inns and students should note how stress can get to anyone in this profession, and an excessive lifestyle and the pressures of the trade. He was only 36 at the time of the trial. He looks older then than me now.
FE Smith was a consistent unionist known as “Orange Smith”, but he agreed with partition based on his democratic views of each choosing. So, he and Michael Collins were, in many ways, in agreement and liked each other. When he signed the treaty, he famously noted that he had signed his political death warrant and Collins quipped, equally famously, ‘I have signed my actual death warrant’ which he had.
Now for many of the above reasons, one would have thought Liverpool would have commemorated him. But not that I could see.
Visiting his house is an eerie experience and a Sunset Boulevard trip; a frisson of unease at a distant age. Passing by the flyovers and industrial nature of Birkenhead, after a ferry across the Mersey, from the oddly named, form an Irish perspective, Clifton Road is his birth and childhood residence, and that dictated his soft spot for Collins.
He was brought up in conditions of art deco luxury and doted on by his mother which led to uneasy and often chauvinistic dealings with women.
Clifton Road is now an active cultural conservation site, not unlike a burial site in an Indian reservation. In fact, the whole street is an architectural anomaly and a mausoleum, one of the most incredible places I have ever seen. A bygone age. Opposite the house, not I doubt by coincidence, is a freemason building. The chosen.
A set of buildings, now residential, where the Liverpudlian rich on the back of a historical boom-built Rockefeller and Carnegie-like structures often in the most kitsch art deco style to their own immortality. A different form of kingdom to heaven or should that be stairway to heaven compared to the modern-day protestant cathedral built in the mock gothic style and with the largest gothic, or mock gothic, nave in the world. ‘Biggest is best’ is always the incantations of capitalism and temporary prosperity.
No. 42 Clifton Road is one of the least gaudy configurations and would certainly not be a match for Oscar Wilde’s grave in Pere Lachaise though, as mentioned, there is no obvious commemoration and total ignorance by the local taxi drivers initially as to where it was and, for that matter, who we he was.
But there are many signs outside indicating the business.
‘Unique paving’s (sic) and landscapes.”
Well, FE Smith’s family was new money and his grandfather, a real estate agent to so perhaps no change. That is also why he liked Collins. Self-made men. Alpha males. Men among women but not very softened by same.
A final thought occurs both were dead quite soon after the negotiation. Smith outlived Collins, true, but was dead in 1930 and what state did they produce? Well, not a state in the last 100 years of leadership governed by men of vision or compromise or, as was said, of Smith genius.
Yeats saw it coming then and now and they could do very little about it but facilitated it.
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone.
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It is with O’Leary in the grave.
And skipping a stanza and concluding.
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they are dead and gone,
They are with O’Leary in the grave.
Well, no. Treaty year. Liverpool should erect an appropriate plaque and commemoration on 42 Clifton Road.
David Langwallner is a barrister, specialising in public law, immigration, housing and criminal defence including miscarriages of justice. He is emeritus director of the Irish Innocence project and was Irish lawyer of the year at the 2015 Irish law awards. Follow David on Twitter @DLangwallner