Harboured Fugitive: On wartime, Patrick Campbell and ‘lapidary crap’

An Irishman’s Diary

Among the audience at a play in Dublin Port recently, or so I imagined, was the ghost of a former Irishman's Diarist, Patrick Campbell.

Between two spells with this newspaper in the 1930s and 40s, Campbell spent his war years working in the port as part of the marine service. He would have been intrigued by The Book of Names, a joint production by ANU and Landmark theatre companies, which dramatised the actions of republicans in and around Dublin’s docks during an earlier time of trouble.

But whereas the immersive drama had audience members rubbing shoulders, and even exchanging dialogue, with 1920s IRA men, Campbell’s job had been to defend the port against their successors. Officially, the threat was German U-boats. Unofficially, the barbed wire and sandbags erected around the patrol’s North Wall headquarters told a different tale.

When Campbell asked an officer how barbed wire would stop the German navy, the officer snapped: “To hell with the German navy. It’s the IRA I’m worried about. I’ve got 33 rifles and 3,000 rounds of ammo in there.”


In the meantime, and in keeping with De Valera's policy of neutrality-in-favour-of-the-Allies, the port defenders were under orders to ignore "certain British and Irish boats from Liverpool, which arrived at the North Wall in the middle of the night with what was called 'special cargo'".

As Campbell explained in his memoir, My Life and Easy Times, “The Special cargo was Bren gun carriers, anti-aircraft guns and similar items, provided by the hard-pressed British government. They were shrouded in tarpaulins and quickly whipped away in army lorries before anyone could have a look, despite the fact that the B & I boats came up the Liffey with a red light at their mastheads, indicating [...] explosives on board.”

Campbell’s port defence years were in part atonement for a bad conscience. Aside from being a pun on James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times, his memoir’s title was not ironic. He was a spoiled son of Ireland’s old ascendancy, his father being the 2nd Baron Glenavy (referred to throughout the memoir as “the Lord”), who had smoothed his path through life, often with help from contacts in England.

He was 26 when war broke out. Having attended English public school and briefly Oxford, before the Lord provided an introduction to The Irish Times (where he slummed it briefly as editorial and political sketch writer), he had then benefited from more string-pulling to abandon Bertie Smyllie’s eccentric newspaper for the greater glamour and money of London’s Fleet Street.

When war came, by his own lights, he should have stayed in England and enlisted. Instead, he caught the first boat home. In later years, back in London, he would sometimes joke to survivors: "You don't know what suffering is until you've been the one Protestant among 32 Roman Catholics in the Dublin Bay Port Control." But the humour was hollow, he knew.

Still, he did suffer in Dublin, if only from boredom. So much so that in 1944, after D-Day ended any prospects of a port invasion, he braved the barbed wire and sandbags Smyllie had erected against him to beg for his old Irish Times job back.

First, he approached through a friend, sports editor Paul McWeeney, who relayed Smyllie’s response: “Tell the shudderer to go back to England, where he came from.” Then Campbell braved a visit to the editor’s office, where Smyllie softened and offered a new position: “You better do something about the Diary. It’s a shower of lapidary crap.”

The Irishman’s Diary was still then a miscellany of short items, submitted by various contributors inside and outside the paper at rates between 10s 6d and a guinea each. One of the first things Campbell had to do as its editor was look up the word “lapidary”.

The dictionary did not offer complete enlightenment, but one of the definitions (“engraved on stone”) suggested Smyllie might have meant that existing material was dull and heavy. Thus Campbell started adding witty anecdotes and observations from his own rarefied life, while squeezing out the traditional contributors.

Smyllie then complained that he was under siege from bankrupted freelancers and guinea-deprived staff reporters. So Campbell replied: “It’s a shower of lapidary crap, sir”. Unable to disagree, Smyllie issued new orders: “Do the shuddering Diary yourself.”

This Campbell did for a time. But to borrow a metaphor from his wartime enemies, it was a flying column. By 1946, he was back in London, with a doubly-troubled conscience. He and Smyllie never met again. On the other hand, there was one major consolation. As Campbell summed up of his Dublin-Port-in-a-storm strategy: “I hadn’t had a ‘good’ war, but I was alive.”