Thomas Xavier Doodle and the 1951 General Election in Ireland
Renowned Irish historian, Tom Garvin, cast a cold eye on life in Ireland in the 1950’s. He deplored the backwardness of many facets of the culture, writing that the country was “marooned in insular seclusion, pauperized, pre-industrial and riddled with superstition.”
Polio and Tuberculosis ravaged many households with minimal help from the rudimentary hospital system. Babies, many of them home births and part of big families, were reared in an atmosphere where children were encouraged to be seen but not heard. Manliness was defined by stressing the Spartan virtues: robust physical strength combined with an acceptance that suffering and hardship must be endured as part of Christian living.
Timothy Corcoran, a well-known Jesuit educator and theologian, had a major influence on the Irish school system. He espoused a dark understanding of church teaching about the results of original sin. According to his insights, children were deemed to be tainted by corruption generated by whatever went on in the Garden of Eden and thus had to be strictly disciplined.
Spare the stick and spoil the child was the awful child-rearing mantra of the time. Shakespeare’s words about the importance of “the milk of human kindness” only resonated with a minority of parents and teachers.
Ireland – or at least the southern part of the island – remained neutral during the Second World War, and indeed stayed largely disengaged from the continent in the 1950’s. During that decade an estimated 400,000 young people emigrated from Ireland to find work in rebuilding the infrastructure in English cities or to join the burgeoning construction unions in New York and Chicago.
Successive governments promised policies that would stem the tide of emigration and end the stagnant economy. There were some important successes in, for example, the expansion of afforestation and the construction of some better housing to replace the deplorable tenements in the cities.
However, a pervasive cynicism dominated Irish people’s reaction to all the parties because of repeated broken promises leading to a widespread belief that any of the political groupings would not – or perhaps could not – improve their lot.
In this bleak political milieu, a national election was announced for May 30th, 1951.The outgoing coalition government, led by John A Costello as prime minister, sought a mandate for its work over the previous three years. In opposition, Fianna Fail, with Eamon De Valera at the helm, dismissed coalition arrangements as inherently unstable and laid out its policies for one-party rule.
Politics in Kerry was probably more divisive than anywhere else in Ireland. The Civil War, which ended a mere 28 years earlier, still permeated political discourse. The Ballyseedy massacre haunted people in all parts of the county, leading to a widespread sense of alienation and bitterness.
On March 7th, 1923, at the height of the Civil War, Irish Government soldiers removed nine Republican prisoners from the jail in Tralee and drove them to an area close to Ballyseedy Cross, a few miles south east of the town on the road to Castleisland. There they tied the nine men in tandem to an active mine which they detonated. Amazingly, one man, Bill Fuller, was blown free of his shackles to safety.
This awful massacre was judged by most people to be worse than any atrocity committed by the hated Black and Tans during the War of Independence. Ballyseedy combined with other appalling actions by both sides during the Civil War left a history of deep distrust in communities all over the county.
Back to the election in 1951. In the town of Listowel a few local luminaries led by the distinguished playwright and publican John B Keane met in Curly Connor’s Bar and talked about their disgust at having to listen to the usual policy inanities from the competing political parties.
They agreed to respond by planning an event that would spoof the whole election process. Thus was born the Independent Coulogeous Party and its historic candidate, the indomitable Thomas Xavier Doodle.
Posters appeared around the town and in the surrounding areas urging people to USE YOUR NOODLE - VOTE FOR DOODLE and announcing a monster rally in the town in support of the Doodle candidacy.
Like many aspirants for high office Thomas Xavier had an interesting personal story. According to his creators, he started out in a little whitewashed cottage in the Kerry Hills. He developed into a strong silent type who, similar to many Hollywood heroes, only appeared in public as a savior when his country faced a crisis.
John B and his cronies promised to bring their candidate into the Square at the center of the town on a particular evening, and indeed Mr. Doodle was greeted by a huge crowd when he arrived wearing a patriarchal beard, a stylish swallow-tail suit and a bowler hat. Certainly, a worthy and very presentable candidate!
The crowd size was estimated at 3000 people, three times the number that attended a rally welcoming the prime minister, John A Costello, to the town the previous night.
One young man from Listowel, William O’Neill, later captured the magic of Mr. Doodle’s parade around the town: “A grand tour of the town took place, from Pound Lane to Charles St., to Courthouse Rd. and on to Church St. I cannot forget the faces of the crowd lining the street; most were of joy and happiness. Some were in awe, an old lady with rosary beads in hand, went on her knees thinking that a man so elegantly dressed must be a church dignitary while another man, who was domiciled in his attic for a long period before the parade, was convinced that that Mr Doodle was a reincarnation of Parnell who travelled that route fifty years before.”
His main policies were clearly outlined and, in today’s parlance, he would certainly qualify as a populist. He advocated for ploughing the rocks of Bawn, extending the vote to all eligible leprechauns, providing free treatment for sick heads and relieving the unemployment problem by setting up a factory locally to shave the hairs of gooseberries.
He also declared in favor of developing a periwinkle industry, and finally he announced that he would salvage the skins of black puddings after the contents were eaten. He did not explain the techniques that would be used for this process!
And then, according to plan, after completing his speech, he was whisked away to parts unknown in Willie O’Connor’s motor car. There is at least a half dozen theories about his identity, but the secret was never revealed to anyone outside of the original conspirators. A strict omerta rule prevailed about the identity of the chimerical candidate.
John B Keane was asked about the Doodle episode years later. Did it have a real function? His answer started with a bit of philosophy: “Before answering, I would question whether any of us has a precise function in life, but Tom Doodle’s function was to chase bitterness out of local politics.” Keane claimed that the whole spectacle had a really positive impact in lessening tensions between political enemies throughout North Kerry.
In his outstanding book Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love, Fergal Keane, a nephew of John B’s, captured in fine prose the depth of bravery and bitterness in the North Kerry area during the War of Independence and the Civil War. The Keanes and the Brosnans and the Purtills all feature prominently in his book as Fergal traces back and analyses the momentous happenings in Listowel and its hinterland villages in those historic times.
For many years after 1951, the initial planners, now known as the Doodle Executive, held an annual commemorative banquet on the last Monday in January. These get-togethers, known as the Doodle Frolics, only welcomed invited guests.
In 1956 the patrons of the event were named as Frank the Barber and His Lordship Rev Cornelius O’Sullivan, Bishop of Gurtenard and the Quarry. Grace for the meal was recited not by the bishop but by His Excellency Gulliver Stack, a distinguished local character.
Clearly, the spoofery did not end with Candidate Doodle’s oratory in the Square.
The Frolics always finished with the Doodle Anthem.
Our Song is Sung for Doodle Tom because he set us free
He is no Gom our Doodle Tom, the Champion of Love and Liberty
Three Cheers for Tom, Three Beers for Tom,
Three Cheers and Beers for Tom and Victory.
Is there an enterprising film producer who sees possibilities in this wonderful story about Thomas Xavier Doodle and the Independent Coulogeous Party that blossomed in Listowel in 1951?
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com