30 March 2022
By Greg Denieffe
Greg Denieffe pays another visit to the watery world of political cartoonery.
Martyn Turner has been drawing cartoons for The Irish Times for more than fifty years. He was born in Essex, England, studied at Queen’s University Belfast where he started his career as a cartoonist and now lives in County Kildare, Ireland.
By his own admission, Martyn cannot ‘really’ draw, is a liberal bigot, and always has something to disagree with. In early 2020, when still one of Ireland’s favourite Englishmen, he went and became a Saoranach Éireannach – an Irish Citizen.
His five decades of cartoons at the rate of four-a-week have resulted in more than twenty books and numerous calendars. Amongst his body of work, I found three cartoons that cash in on the ‘rowing gone wrong’ meme previously covered in HTBS articles: The Brexit Olimpicks and Stamp of Approval for the Rule of Six.
The reference to Brian Lenihan relates to his sudden death on 10 June 2011 aged forty-two. He was a Fianna Fáil politician who served as Minister for Finance from 2008 to 2011, a time when the Irish Government guaranteed the borrowings of the Irish banks. It was this guarantee, rather than reckless overspending, which dragged Ireland into the fiscal crisis. Other countries fared worse, and the original acronym PIGS referred to Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain.
On 2 June 2017, Fine Gael elected Leo Varadkar as party leader, defeating Simon Coveney. Although Coveney had the support of more Fine Gael members than Varadkar, the Electoral College system more strongly weighted the votes of the party’s parliamentarians, with these strongly backing Varadkar. On 14 June 2017, Varadkar was appointed Taoiseach (translates as Chief and equates to Prime Minister) in a 57 to 50 vote with forty-seven abstentions. He became Ireland’s first openly gay Taoiseach, as well as the youngest. Coveney was appointed Tánaiste (second-in-command and equivalent to a Deputy Prime Minister).
On Thursday 29 July 2021, Ireland won rowing gold at the Tokyo Olympic Games. The following day, this cartoon poked fun at Boris Johnson for blaming the European Union for implementing the international agreement that he had negotiated in late 2019, and which he signed on behalf of the UK in January 2020.
The commonly called ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’ is the mechanism agreed in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to protect the freedom of movement of people and goods across the only land border between the EU and the UK by making some additional checks at Northern Ireland’s ports.
Plus ça change
One can define a political cartoon as:
A simple drawing showing the features of its subjects in a humorously exaggerated way, especially a satirical one in a book, a newspaper or magazine.
Rowing has been one of the favourite conduits used by cartoonists since the art form began in the 18th century. In two of the above examples, Turner uses the ‘antithetical double scull’ which is now one the most popular seating arrangements used by modern cartoonists. In the 2011 cartoon, it is an oversize load that provides the ‘humour’. It was not very funny for those of us managing our employers’ bank deposits during the debt crisis. Even today, the words ‘Anglo Irish Bank’ bring me out in a cold sweat.
Two hundred years ago, another Irish cartoon made use of the ‘oversized load’ to poke fun at the practice of the time of awarding wherries to the winners of boat races. To quote myself from a 2014 post on HTBS called ‘1014: Brian Boru Won, Vikings Two’:
Thanks to Thomas E. Weil, this engraving was brought to my attention at the first Rowing History Forum in England, which was held at the River & Rowing Museum in 2007. It appeared in the catalogue accompanying the 2005 exhibition Beauty and the Boats – art & artistry in early British rowing.
The exhibition catalogue notes read:
One of a series of caricatures of Mr. Boru, (the principal character in Pierce Egan’s ‘The Real Life in Ireland’, named after that country’s legendary first king), this image lampoons the practice of the time of awarding wherries to the winners of boat races. That wherries were big, heavy, and of little use to anyone but a waterman, may have inspired this satirist to suggest a cow as a prize of comparable bulk and higher utility.
Pierce Egan was born in 1772 in or around London to Irish parents. He established himself as a leading reporter of sporting events (mainly prize fights and horse races). He is more famous for his work Real Life in London, but surprisingly, it is in his Real Life in Ireland that you will find his ‘rowing’ cartoon.
In May 2020, I bagged myself an original copy (see picture above) of this important Crewcial Collectable, which was first published two hundred years ago today and is the oldest piece in my collection.
After purchasing the print, I looked more closely at Egan’s work and discovered that his writing and in particular, Real Life in Ireland, is shunned by educated readers and even a cursory glance at the language and misdeeds of the central characters, Brian Boru and Sir Shawn O’Doherty, easily give offence.
The book is illustrated with circa twenty plates drawn by William Heath and he certainly picked up on Egan’s descriptions to give the Irish characters wild, porcine or simian features. If Heath were challenged today, he might say that he couldn’t really draw.
Follow these links to read more about Martyn Turner’s life and career in Ireland:
Cartoon Irishman: Martyn Turner on belatedly becoming a new citizen by Marty Turner – ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ The Irish Times 2 March 2020
Fifty years of Martyn Turner cartoons: ‘I have always been a liberal bigot’ by Patrick Freyne – The Irish Times 5 June 2021