March 2017        

Books

An imagined history

Dan Taraghan

■ Allison Murphy, Winnie and George: An Unlikely Union, Dublin: Mercier Press, 2017.

Last year Socialist Voice published a brief outline of a lecture by Dr Helga Woggon on Winnie Carney, aide-de-camp to James Connolly during the 1916 Rising. In January 1917 Allison Murphy, a former Belfast teacher, produced a book, Winnie and George: An Unlikely Union. The blurb on the back of the book states: “It is a powerful lesson in how love, once discovered, can be greater than the sum of all our divisions.”
     Winnie Carney was a soldier in the Irish Citizen Army, a republican, and a socialist. Her husband, George McBride, was a unionist and also a socialist. Winnie was a Roman Catholic and George a member of the Church of Ireland.
     One objective of this book seems to be to show that two people from different backgrounds can overcome sectarianism, accept their differences, and live happily together. However, there is nothing unique to Northern Ireland about this. Throughout the world people of different backgrounds and faiths enter into loving relationships, despite family and social objections. In fact it has happened throughout history.
     The other objective of the book was to fulfil the wish of the author’s mother-in-law that the story of George and Winnie be told in a readable manner.
     On a first view the book seems like a conventional history book, with index, appendixes, bibliography, and references. However, on pages 12 and 13 the author makes it clear that, although the major events happened and the people referred to in the book were real, “it has been necessary to create some scenes and dialogue.” Dialogue that is not referenced was “imagined.” It soon becomes obvious that a substantial amount of the book, if not most of it, has been imagined.
     In the real world, Winnie Carney was ten years older than George McBride. They first met when both were adults and members of the Labour Party. She was thirty-seven and he was in his twenties. Winnie died at the age of 55, after fifteen years of marriage. George was a widower at the age of 45, and did not remarry. He died at the age of 90.
     The meeting of Winnie and George is in chapter 21, which begins on page 233 (out of a 28-chapter book of 290 pages before appendixes). The author cleverly overcomes this detail by using her imagination. In chapter 2, as the Titanic is being launched, James Connolly turns up, accompanied by Winnie. He delivers a speech to the workers watching the launch. The teenage George sees Winnie, and the implication is that he was smitten at least twelve years before actually meeting her. There is no evidence for this, but it links the two.
     This romantic link is then reinforced by nearly every chapter on Winnie, being followed by a chapter on George, until we finally arrive at their actual meeting in chapter 21. In other words, an impression is given that they had a connection from 1912, which is pure fiction.
     As well as this, the text is riddled with scenes where Winnie’s or George’s feelings and reactions are described, despite the fact that the author never seems to have met either of them and does not give any basis for her imaginings.
     The other story behind the main story is that Allison Murphy is married to the son of Rita Murphy. Rita was a nurse in the nursing home where George lived for the final years of his life. The nursing home was for former Ulster Volunteers, and the accommodation seems to have been of barrack-room standard. Rita had been born and reared as a Roman Catholic but eloped as a young woman to marry a soldier just back from Burma. She was disowned by her father. She had her daughter baptised in the Church of Ireland, and presumably her son also, and attended the Church of Ireland herself. It is therefore highly probable that she would have had a bond with George in his later years. The author does not seem to have formally interviewed her mother-in-law for the book, and Rita is now deceased.
     The book does not add anything new to the Winnie Carney story. The factual parts are based on other people’s research or on records that are available to the public. Winnie Carney continued her political activity after the Rising, including aiding Republican prisoners and their families and participating in the Labour Party, the Republican Congress, and the Socialist Party. She was regarded as a threat by the British state and was subject to harassment. The fact that she met a companion from a unionist background and lived happily with him for fifteen years was incidental to most of her life. Both herself and George may have had more in common than separated them. To try to portray her life as a romantic love story trivialises her in many ways.

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