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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

Memoir Of A Civil Servant

(From Ration-books to Government Ministers)

If you look up “George Rowley” on the net or at your friendly reference library you will probably find that he was Vice Chancellor of Oxford University from 1832 to 1836. He no doubt, left his footprints on the sands of time but George Rowley, the complex character, who has recorded his fears, ambitions, hardships and redemption between the covers of this memoir, was born in Dublin, to Leitrim parents, on Wednesday 22nd September 1943.

He takes the reader through Ration-books and his early schooldays, at Stanhope Street Convent- where if a boy misbehaved he was threatened with the mortifying punishment of sitting with the girls. At First Communion time his mother was told that he was too immature to comprehend the meaning of the Sacrament. His mother negotiated and when the day came George made his First Holy Communion, and twenty-five shillings.

As an Altar boy, in Saint Peter’s Church, he used to serve seven-o-clock Mass. He felt “proud, Saintly and at peace” and the processions made him feel important. He was in fear of his father but judges him justly. Even as a boy of nine, in 1952, he was proud of his father when he paid £1,750 cash for 75, Cabra Road. (George Snr. was not, at any stage, in the IRA but Rowley’s was a “safe house” during the forties and fifties and the names of many subversives crop up in these pages) Young George wasn’t sure if he had a happy childhood but a Psychiatrist told him in later years that, “it would be a mistake to believe that they were not happy”. He was once expelled (temporary) from the altar boys for smoking and his first experience of being passed over for promotion came when he wasn’t made head Altar boy on the basis of seniority- a more junior boy, Bernard O’Gornman, got the position.

George served Mass until he was seventeen. When I read that I was reminded of lines from a monologue in

“Around The Boree Log”,
McEvoy was Altar boy

As long as I remember.
He was, bedad, a crabbed lad

And sixty come December.
Faith no one dared to “interfare”

In things the which concernin’
‘Twas right and just to him to trust
Who had the bit o’ learnin’
To serve the priest; and here at least
He never proved defaulter:

So wet and dry you could rely
To find him on the Altar.

He entered O’Connell Schools in 1951. One of his teachers was Micheál O’Muircheartaigh, who once caught him looking up a book on “Mountmellick Lace” during a geography test. The Dingle man “sent him to the sideline” but gave him 40% and didn’t tell his parents. (I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to hear that incident mentioned, during a lull in play, in an All-Ireland final commentary).

In his Inter, in 1960, he, “ . . . did well beyond my own and everybody else’s expectations . . . getting 2,157 out of a possible 2,400 marks “. He got 97% in Latin.

If you get a back-number of any daily newspaper for Friday 13th April 1962 you will find a death notice for one James J.Carey with an address in Rathfarnham. Mr.Carey, a Latin scholar, was a teacher in O’Connell Schools and that particular report of his death was greatly exaggerated because of a prank in which George played a leading role. He was expelled from O’Connell Schools and was not allowed to sit his Leaving Cert exam there.

He studied at home and, always the negotiator, arranged with the Department of Education to sit the exam in the O’ Lehane Hall, Parnell Square. He got five honours.

In 1963 he entered the Civil Service where he was to spend 41 years. Those four decades are presented to the reader with clarity and precision. Be it a detailed account of a panic attack, a flawless report on the 1973 Leitrim County final, between Ballinamore and Allen Gaels or nights spent in Listowel or Dunquin the reader is gripped by the atmosphere. He doesn’t shy away from describing a couple of court appearances and time spent in the locked ward of Dublin’s most Dickensean mental institution. It was during one of his “black periods” that “. . . fear of my father evaporated and I wanted him to be proud of me”.

He acquaints the reader with subjects as diverse as the effect of such drugs as Largactyl or Melleril, his time a Secretary (and later Chairman) of the Gaelic League and his opinions of certain politicians. Of Enda Kenny (When Minister of State) he says, “He never took himself seriously enough except when it came to minding his own patch in Mayo”.

He was reminded of his altar-boy days in 1979 when Pat Connelly, who was junior to him, was promoted to Assistant Principal Officer. George wasn’t promoted to that grade for another 10 years.

He describes his memoir as, “a testament. . . to my upbringing, my career and my life generally”.

I’d call that a very modest appraisal. I see it as instruction for the naive, humour for those who don’t take themselves too seriously, statistics for anybody who is that way inclined, gossip for the inquisitive and hope for the depressed.

Most people fail to realise all their ambitions and George Rowley is no exception. He didn’t fulfil his aim to wear the Dublin jersey but wrote a ballad to commemorate a Dubs win. His account of family matters also makes amusing and interesting reading. The Rowley ancestral home, in Leitrim, was put on the market, by a local auctioneer acting for the family, in 1986. Auction day was a sit-com in itself (too complicated to go into here. Suffice to say the Rowley homestead is still in the family).

He wrote ten short stories in a space of three months in 1992. And his one-act play, ”Christmas At Home” was performed at Listowel Writers week (the most prestigious literary event in Europe) in 1993. It won a prize at the South Kilkenny Writer’s Festival the same year

George has been a key-figure at Writers Week for more than twenty years. He did his own one-man show for years and, now, “Poets Corner” where patrons recite their own work is George’s brainchild. With George as Master-of-Ceremonies it is going from strength.

George retired, as a Principal Officer, in 2004. Among his legion of well-wishers was Mary O ‘Rourke who sent him a fax headed, ”A Tribute to George Rowley”. He has left his career behind him, along with his demons. He divides his time between Dublin, Kerry and Dro in Italy. He has fulfilled a lifelong ambition to be a writer. He can now say, in the words of Charles Lamb, “I have worked task-work, and have the rest of the day to myself”.

This warts and all memoir is proof that George Rowley didn’t take the advice of that senior Civil Servant, all those years ago, who told him to, “put an escape clause in every sentence”.

“A Memoir” (see cover pictured at bottom of page) was launched at Dishtowel Writer’s Week 2007 (where else?). It is available from all good bookshops or from

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