Gogarty’s Liffey swans

December 17, 2011

Irish writer Oliver St. John Gogarty was kidnapped at gunpoint by the IRA on a cold winter night in 1923, during the country’s Civil War. His escape is the stuff of modern romantic legend. W. B. Yeats — who thought Gogarty “one of the great lyric poets of his age” — gives the following account of events:

Oliver Gogarty was captured by his enemies, imprisoned in a deserted house on the edge of the Liffey with every prospect of death. Pleading a natural necessity he got into the garden, plunged under a shower of revolver bullets and as he swam the ice-cold December stream promised it, should it land him in safety, two swans. I was present when he fulfilled that vow.

[from the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes]

George Moore called Gogarty “author of all the jokes that enable us to live in Dublin”. Even during the abduction his tongue was unstill: on arrival at the house, he is said to have asked his captors whether he should tip the driver. Conduct was for Gogarty “a series of larks”, in Ellmann’s phrase; little wonder there was soon a popular ballad celebrating his Liffey adventure.

But the gift of swans is what I like most about the story, the gesture showing both Gogarty’s poetic sensibility and his talent for myth-making. The Liffey was not just a means of escape but an entity to be honoured with a ceremonial offering of further life (though the swans seemingly took some persuasion to make the river their home).

Who knows, maybe they’re ancestors of the one that nibbled my hand on the other side of the Shannon some decades later.

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