My maternal grandfather.


Daniel Frederick Prendergast was born in 1906 in Limerick. He was born into a lower middle class Catholic family. His father worked for the gas board and owned a pub.

Daniel was the oldest. Up to 16 children were born. I have hear 16 but I wonder if that is wrong. It seems like an exaggeration. I heard of one little boy named Finnbarr dying. Auntie Eileen used to mention him. I did not hear tell of any other children passing away. Six children made it to adulthood so the claim of 16 babies seems much exaggerated. Surely a family with an above average income in Ireland would not have suffered such morbidity.

When Daniel was born his parents were both in their mid 20s. His mother was an irate  Kerrywoman. Nora, my great grandmother, had republican beliefs. Daniel’s father had been born in the city. Daniel’s paternal grandfather had come from Dunmanway, Co Cork. The family had lived in Toe Head before that since 1601. They had been lavishly rewarded with some rocky bog fields in return for fighting on the side of Queen Elizabeth of Ireland against the Spanish invaders at the Battle of Kinsale. As people of a republican mindset it was an embarrassment that they had been on the same side as the English. To be Irish was to be anti-English – so it seemed. Prior to that they had dwelt in Galway. They were of Anglo-Norman stock in the Middle Ages. In the 18th century they had a German ancestor named Wagner. That was a century before the composer made his debut.

Daniel’s paternal grandfather had been a jarvey. He had driven butter to and from the butter exchange.

Daniel’s maternal grandfather had a firey temper like his daughter. He was so furious sometimes that he would be put on the train in Rathmore and sent to Cork to calm down with his daughter for a few days. Some in the family are wrathful still.

Daniel seems to have been placid as a child. Only one photo of him as a child exists. What can one divine from a single image? There are no tales of rascality.

Daniel went to a Christian Brothers School. He claimed to have done all his schooling through Irish. This seems improbable since he was never known to speak it as an adult. In his early teens the republican movement got going. I found a document in my uncle’s attic when I was a teenager. In it Daniel applied for a job in America. It asked if he had any military experience. he said yes, he had been in the IRA 1917-21. So he joined at the age of 11. This seems highly unlikely. He was surely a member of Fianna Eireann. What he did age 11 has no significance. He will have done as his parents ordered him. In the Troubled times after the First World War there was much fighting between the Irish Republican Army. Many Catholics supported the IRA. Some were neutral and a few supported the Crown Forces. My great grandmother was ardently republican. My grandfather would wake up in the morning to find a strange man sharing his bed. It would be an IRA man on the run whom his mother had sheltered. In those days it would not have crossed anyone’s mind that there was anything improper about this. He will have been steeped in tales of English iniquity and how Irishness and Catholicism were intertwined. Ireland must be separate from England. He claimed to have had all his schooling in Irish  but as an adult he seldom spoke the language.

Being in Fianna Eireann would appeal to a child’s ebulience. It was exhilarating and must have made boys feel valiant. They were part of a triumphant movement. They were told their were super Irish and that they were freeing their country. They were praised to the moon by their peers and parents. It would have taken extraordinary independent mindedness for an 11 year old to resist such blandishments. The conflict galvanised many people despite its woeful affects. The ongoing fiasco arising from independence he seems to have blamed squarely on Fianna Fail.

He skipped off school. He was larking about with his schoolfellows. He saw his hard working father supervising men digging holes in the road. He was being roguish. That made him realise that it was wrong to bunk off when his father was working to pay his school fees. He also realised the consequences of not succeeding in his education. His father had told him to get a job that did not require him to take his coat off to work. Daniel did well.  His ingenuity paid off in terms of excellent exam results. He decided to read Medicine. He wished to attend university. The nearest one was University College Cork. Who would pay his fees, his parents asked. No one in the family had been in higher education. His auntie Maia had agreed to pay. I do not know how she had the money. His parents reluctantly agreed. He attended university and his parents paid.

Perhaps oddly he avoided pubs. Pubs with their ribaldry and drunkenness did not appeal to him. He was a sophisticate yet unpretentious. One of his most edifying qualities was his total lack of snobbery. He was be friends with a bus conductor. This was an era of class stratification. Medical men (and they were men in 19/20 cases) seldom concealed their disdain for the lower orders.

He qualified in Medicine. It was the culmination of the family’s rise from rustic poverty a few decades before. He passed his exams aged 23. His mother gave him a watch with ill-grace ”I suppose I had better give you this.”. It is a measure of his single mindedness that he succeeded despite coming a family in difficult financial circumstances.

He was a man of average height. He had a low hairline. He was always clean shaven and that was not as common then as it is now. This was the era of the moustache.

In the early 1920s fascism was on the rise. Italy had been wracked by instability, mass unemployment, poverty and strikes. The fascists were responsible for some of the disorder and so were the communists. The fascists rose to power partly through violence – a foretaste of things to come. In 1922 the Fascist Party was appointed to office by King Victor Emanuel. Benito Mussolini became President of the Council. The Fascists gradually established a dictatorship. Italy was very stable. There were no strikes. Poverty was alleviated. The threat of communism was smashed. Many infrastructure projects were begun. The press was muzzled and opposition parties were dissolved. The Fascist Government signed the Lateran Pact with the Catholic Church. There was then no contradiction between being a patriotic Italian and a fervent Catholic. Many Catholics believed that Mussolini was the best Catholic leader. He had the imprimatur of the Church. Was this not a model for Holy Ireland to follow? My grandfather was concerned about poverty and the excesses of capitalism. He joined the fascist movement in Ireland. This was before fascist atrocities in other countries were known about. Every ideology has had its massacres. For some reason fascism alone seems to seen solely as being about these crimes – which undoubtedly occurred – and not about anything positive. The Irish fascists were known as the Blueshirts. In fact they changed their names a few times but this soubriquet stuck. His brothers were both members of it. He was unrepentant about his one time membership of this tendentious organisation.

His brothers also became doctors. I shall name one of them the Badger since he was known by that soubriquet. The Badger was a man of gargantuan girth. He gave a lecture on badgers and thus acquired this not entirely flattering handle. The badger was also in the Blueshirts.  He and Commandant E J Cronin went to Spain in 1936 to assist the Christians fighting against Communism. Ned Cronin seems to have been the mastermind of this escapade. He had split with the Bluehsirts under Eoin O’Duffy and formed his own Catholic nationalist outfit.  The Spanish Nationalists refused to take them. Ned Cronin and the Badger were sent back to Ireland. In time he became an army doctor.

The Badger married an Englishwoman – and a Protestant at that. My great grandmother denounced this English nurse as ”Annie Bullin” – as in Anne Boleyn. The Badger was a teller of tall tales. He indulged the whimsy that they had an ancestor called Randolph who buckled much swash in the 18th century. Randolph was a suitably fanciful and aristocratic name. This probably fictional Randolph had travelled as far as Constantinople – as we then called it – for an audience with the Grand Turk. Was this not a flight of fantasy? There was also a tale about our German ancestress – a Wagner. She was very lanky and her coachman was very diminutive. They fell in love and eloped to wed. I have heard tell that this is an 18th century trope. It might just have happened though! He even contrived to add a pseudi Gallic ”de” to the front of his name. His house gave no impression of opulence though. My grandfather seems to have been a sounding board for the Badger’s unlikely stories. My grandfather would listen patiently but without credulity. Hovering in the background was the Badger’s acute sense of inadequacy which impelled him to invent such implausible histories of the family. This lore was certainly colourful!

His other brother Francis was also a doctor. He was similarly obese and served as a military doctor for a few years. Then he went into private practice in South Tipp. He was a snappy dresser with shirts from Saville Row and suits tailor made on Bond Street. He also affected brocade waistcoats. This will have done something to relieve the drabness of 1950s Ireland. This mode of dress must have meant there was not much money left for anything else. My grandfather did not follow such a flamboyant train de vie.

My grandfather practised Medicine in the 1930s. Because he identified with Fine Gael there were no dispensary jobs for him. Jobbery was the mainstay of Irish politics in those days – South as well as North before nationalists get too sanctimonious about this. A dispensary job guaranteed a certain income and were much sought after. However, these doctors were political appointees and got the job on the basis of their affiliation more than their professional virtuousity.

He bought a car and after one lesson from the salesman was allowed to drive. He briefly worked in London and Wales. He disliked it and ran home.

In the 1930s he was in Limerick with his pal Vin. Vin greeted a young lady on the street. My grandfather took note of her. Vin later said she was his sister. Daniel wanted to meet her. In time a romance blossomed between him and Gela. In 1943 the wed. They honeymooned in the Glengariff Golf Links Hotel.

Dan was not a supporter of the Fianna Fail Party. This governed Southern Ireland from 1932-48. In fact he detested de Valera. Dan was a devout admirer of the late Michael Collins. His stridency about Collins was for that man and not his party. He inclined towards Fine Gael but did not strongly identify with them. As the Big Fellow was long dead his party was no longer so splendid. He would attend Bail na mBleath religiously on 22 August. He would meet old timers. He was not overawed by many of them being government ministers who had fought in the 1916-23 conflict. Tears would be rolling down his cheeks as he lamented the lost leader. As he saw it Collins had been martyred by a self-righteous guttersnipe called de Valera. The death of Collins was a setback from which Ireland had not recovered in his mind. She had not yet extricated herself from Fianna Fail rule. That mephistophelean de Valera was always able to trick most dolts into voting for his gang of spivs. At times Fine Gael must have appeared moribund. Economic stagnation did not disaffect the many dupes who still voted for de Valera. Daniel was not scornful of Dev outside the family since it would have repercussions on his practice.

He used to go to dances. I have seen photos of him in his 40s and he is already decidedly overweight. It is hard to imagine him having a spin on the dance floor. Can he have done so with panache? He sired six children in 8 years. Then he moved out of the bedroom.

He was not that religious. He attended mass. It was unthinkable not to for a respectable man. He will have understood the Latin incantation better than most of the laity. After mass he would chat to the priest. Their always seemed to be a politely sceptical tinge to his conversation with the priest. The priest was laying down the Vatican line. Daniel was probably singing to himself ”It ain’t necessarily so.” Was there a freethinker dormant within him?

He had no time for the Irish Army. At least the British Army fought. He harboured no acrimony towards  Ireland’s neighbour. This was a time when there was some antagonism in Ireland towards Great Britain. That was a hangover from the 1919-21 conflict more than a corollary of Partition. When relatives living in Great Britain came over he was willing to sing God Save the Queen with them. For him this was something of a drollery. After all those children he moved out of the bedroom. Read into that what you will. The ostensible reason was that his smoking was injurious to his wife’s health. She shared a room with her youngest.

In the late 1940s his irascible mother passed away.

In 1954 his father fell very ill. My great grandfather lay on his bed with his three sons there. All three of them were doctors. There were ways of extending the old man’s life but the trio concurred sagely, ”we’ll let him go.” Several grandchildren were gathered for the final farewell. My mother was told softly, ”If he opens his eyes now he will think he is seeing the angels.”

Daniel was very attached to his fourth daughter. Perhaps it was because she was an exceptionally sweet natured child and also in frail health.  Polio left her leg a little misshapen.

Some of his children were dim. This seems not to have bothered him. Most of them cannot be called overambitious. At least one showed a keen intellect and another demonstrated a certain quickness of mind for the Arts.

There was a maid of all work to assist his wife. This proletarian woman will have had to have done much drudgery. The maid changed every year or so. These working class women were invariably married with children themselves. I heard of one luckless woman who was married to a roaring dypsomaniac. He dead beat of a husband was incapable of holding down a job. So she had to provide for their brood of have a dozen children. This woman had to clean my grandparents’ house all day before returning to care for her own children in the evening. Once she was left to cook for my mother and her siblings. This was unique – because my grandmother normally did the cooking. Dinner was served. A huge cauldron was placed on the table and each child was given a spoon and told to eat. They sat there catatonic. They could not believe it. There were no individual bowls. Evidently this is how she served her own offspring.

The house was well furnished and garnished with a little artwork. Most curious was a skull he had from a cadaver set. This hints at some Etruscan interest. His children used to brandish it to frighten their playmates.

What can we tell from his penchant for smoking? Anti-smoking was not championed by the great and the good back then.

He was a member of a sodality called the Third Order of Saint Francis. This strikes me as odd since he did not revel in religion. He was more inquisitive than most. Deep down he probably did not believe absolutely everything that the Church drummed into him. He would wear his robe in the garden sometimes and tell his children that he would wear in when he was dead. Indeed he did.

He was raised a Catholic and remained a weekly communicant. He seemed to be only averagely religious. There was family prayer each evening – with everyone kneeling in the drawing room before the youngest child went to bed. His spouse was the driving force behind this. Religion was usually a female-led phenomenon in families despite all the priests being male. He met Cecil Hurwitz’s mother on the day her son converted. I was brought up to believe that my grandfather was instrumental in converting this chap to the Christian Faith. In fact family lore had blown his role out of proportion.

He was a very erduite man and almost owlish. He was on a library committee. I sometimes saw books with the Public Library’s name stamped in them. Was he a bibloklept like me? No people on the committee were sometimes given books that were very seldom borrowed. He used to go out of an evening to learned societies. he would meet with a coterie of similarly academic people. He was nimble witted and he was fascinated by Theology, History and many other subjects. He was professorial and perhaps would have been better off doing that. That would have been lotus land for him. He was a bookish type so of an evening if he was not attending a meeting of like-minded people he would be reading in his study.

He seems to have been an example of the old style father. He was a provider but he was a distant and authoritarian figure. He was a good man and he was behaving as men of his era were conditioned to behave. He showed affection to his children but in a more understated way than is now common.

In the late 1950s he considered moving out of the city. They looked at rookeries a few miles into the countryside. Was it a yearning for gentility? Property was so cheap in Ireland at the time that a professional man could easily purchase a seven bedroom house in the country. However, these places would require a lot of work. A view of rolling fields it was not to be. He opted to stay put.

He was a kindly soul. He treated the poor for free around the coal quay. Cork abounded with ne’er do wells. Not a farthing would be offered by a single grubby paw of those whom he tended out of sheer benevolence. He rented a room in a falling down building and on Wednesday afternoon he did this charitable work. Many of the winoes and homeless men had syphilis. Other doctors would devote their time to lucrative practices and lived much better than him.  Candid consultations with these impoverished patients may have caused him to question the Catholic catechism. People have to open up to doctors – to admit their alcoholism, their drug abuse and sexual behaviour. Was contraception really worse than a poor family having 14 children?

He was good  humoured at Christmas and other festive occasions. At such times he was not brusque. He enjoyed others japes but did not crack jokes much himself.

He had a mentally ill sister Mary. He financially supported her all his life. He was a psychiatrist. Maybe this was to figure out some of the problems in his own family. It is often said this is what draws doctors to this branch of the profession. He was an accomplished diagnostician. He scarcely perambulated. He played the very occasional round of golf. Now and again he went fishing.  He does not appear to have shown exuberance for any hobby. He had  a marked disinclination towards sport. When his son was caught skiving school he was indulgent of that escapade. He was not rapacious. He took a genuine interest in the wellbeing of his patients. He had one mentally ill man do his gardening. This was partly to keep and eye on him. This unfortunate man once ran down to the river. It was assumed that he was going to throw himself in. My grandfather was not at home on that occasion but my granny was. My grandmother climbed onto a bicycle for the first time in years and cycled after the man to persuade the poor chap not to fling himself into the torrent.

He bought an enormous brain scanner – the first of its kind in the city. It had to be winched in the window. This gigantic contraption came complete with a technician from a hospital in Scotland. This Scot was a man for whom the word dour could have been invented. He was laconic and morose. He was invited around at Christmas though since he had nowhere else to go.

He was a patriarch. He was tempermental. He was known to upbraid his children in vinegary language – even calling his daughters ”ghouls” – he pronounced it ”gow – ul” . He was hot tempered and known to chide his wife. When his youngest child imitated his mother’s accent and referred to her parents by their Christian names he was incensed by her brazen impudence. he slapped her and rebuked his wife, ”And you are a fool for tolerating it.” He comes across as having been unfeeling towards his children but that is unfair.. He was not a wicked man. He was a man of his era and he was not expressive towards them. He had a growly voice said to be inimitable.  It seems to have been apt for his grouchy persona. There is no sound recording nor any video footage. He was obese and became diabetic. He smoked heavily but did not drink. His jaw clicked as he ate. One must not be too unkind. Though he had a fearful temper this was partly owing to his discomfort arising from his medical condition. He was not all splenetic and could be cheery and munificent. He was not always a maelstrom.

He had a beehive in the garden. The bees sensed this peevish character and grew agitated. It took his more even tempered son to manage them.

He liked to watch the Fugitive and Sergeant Bilko. He went to hhis club to watch this. It was part of the reason he bought a telly.

Perhaps he was angry owing to his illness. He took the family on long drives on weekends. He would be relating them tales of Irish History. They would meet distant relatives all over the countryside.. He was scintillated by history. He discussed politics but apart from loathing Fianna Fail was not partisan. Had he been English he would have been a Conservative – so it was speculated by his daughter.

He was usually formally attired but was not fastiduous about his dress. He came from an era before the cool dad was invented. Many men of his age were admirably fat. His respectable girth had braces attached to the trousers. This was an unaffected fashion back then.

He seems to have been an intriguing character. I sincerely wished I could have met him. He had a teeming brain and a forbidding manner. Had he lived he would have been a different man with his grandchildren – so one of his children speculated. He was not one to tolerate petulance among his children. The late 60s were marred by illness in his case. His chain smoking cannot have helped. He fell ill in 1969 and predicted the Northern Ireland situation would explode. He had not managed his diabetes well. He had been collapsing and some people had assumed it was due to inebriation. They were mistaken and in fact he was a very moderate drinker.

He was in hospital and appeared to recuperate. Whilst he was laid up his daughter was stepping out with a Protestant. He came home but complained ”I am a sick man”. Then he suffered a relapse and had to return to hospital. There was talk of his legs having to be amputated. He went to the Bons Hospital. His family were gathered around his bedside. The did not accept that it was the end until the final hours. They were in his immediate presence and they heard the death rattle. He had breathed his last. He died in August 1969. He is  buried under the family motto. His decease left my grandmother in sharply reduced circumstances.

As an adolescent I was fascinated by him. I asked ceaseless questions and wanted to know everything about him. I felt I got to know him through the accounts of others.


About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

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