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1953 The Battle of Baltinglass by Lawrence Earl

Lesson 7

How the basics of politics never change

The drama, the character, and the humour make The Battle of Baltinglass an entertaining story. But I keep my copy of the book handy, not as a compelling narrative, but as a manual and technical reference on the people part of politics.

          Set in rural Ireland in the early 1950s, the story might not, at first, appear relevant to twenty-first-century Realpolitik powered by Twitter, tipping points, robocalls, and the viral Internet. Yet it covers all the bases in the true story of a local campaign that eventually toppled a national government.

          A mountain village in County Wiklow, Baltinglass remains bucolic and quiet as a community where people tend to mind their own business--until 1950. The appointment of a new sub-postmaster that year shakes things up and launches the story told by the seventh winner of the Leacock Medal.

          The government grants the post office position to Mick Farrell, a young local with political connections but no post office experience. Villagers might have turned a blind eye to Mick’s failings had they not seen his appointment as an injustice to two innocent others: Helen Cooke and her elderly Aunt Katie. The job had been in the Cooke family for eighty years. Katie had held it officially, but Helen had done the work on her behalf. The people of Baltinglass see Helen, a “tiny, shy-seeming” and unmarried woman of fifty-five, as dependent and vulnerable and as someone who has done the job to perfection.

          Sympathy for Helen induces a movement to get her reinstated. The crusade runs well over a year before culminating in Mick’s resignation and Helen’s return to the post office. Meanwhile, a broader debate over political favoritism takes hold around the Baltinglass hubbub. It ultimately forces out the responsible politician (the Labour Party Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, James Everett) and then the whole government (the Inter-Party Coalition).

          The author Larry Earl,[1] a New Brunswick-born photographer and reporter, was working in Britain at the time. Baltinglass appealed to his sense of humour as well as his journalist side. Against the Tolstoy standard for dispassionate narrators, Earl’s style sounds a little shaky and over the top at times, but his words always seem aimed at reporting the facts of the story. He had lots of material to draw on. Newspapers filled their pages with the battle of Baltinglass and its aftermath; the controversy generated letters to the editor, fiery hearings, debates in Parliament, and even a popular song about the battle. Earl not only choreographs all these facts into a story, but also provides a snapshot of the Irish politics of Catholics and Protestants, the village poor and city rich, and the Republicans and those who would deign to associate with the British Royal family. The combination makes for a lively read, and like an earlier book written by Larry Earl, it would, in the right hands, make for a good movie.[2]

          But for a one-time political hack like me, the book serves as something else. It acts like a happy souvenir of the politics of Legion halls, door-knocking, letters, and draught beer. It records, as a readable reference, all the elements of an election campaign: (1) a core team as well as committees for collective decisions; (2) rapid-response media relations; (3) a demand for justice; (4) titillating David-and-Goliath narratives; and (5) a determination to focus, focus, focus. All will sound familiar to anyone at a party headquarters or in a well-run local campaign. The book embraces principles that seem as valid now as they were in that Irish mountain town.

          Today political events move so fast, they’re hard to understand. But Baltinglass provides me with a reference and a way to study the chain reaction in slow motion when real people interacted in what was once real time.


Writing Exercise

Write a short story that tells how a pothole brought down the government of New Brunswick.


[1] Lawrence Earl was born Lawrence Wiezel in Saint John, New Brunswick. He died in 2005 at the age of ninety. He covered the invasion of Normandy first hand. His photos were used on the cover of Time magazine and in National Geographic, Maclean’s, and the Saturday Evening Post. In 1943, he married Jane Armstrong, one of only two female foreign correspondents during WWII. New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia, s.v. “Lawrence Earl” (by Matt Belyea), (accessed October 15, 2013).
[2] Earl’s book Yangtse Incident (1950) tells another true story, that of HMS Amethyst and its attack and escape during the revolution in China in 1949. The movie based on it was a British box office success in 1957 and starred Richard Todd and Donald Houston. Earl wrote five other books: Crocodile Fever (1954), The Frozen Jungle (1955), She Loved a Wicked City (1962), The Riddle of a Haunted River (1962), and Risk (1969). New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia, s.v. “Lawrence Earl,” (accessed Oct. 15, 2013).