Death in a Sweetshop
by Pól Ó Duibhir, retired and family history researcher
The Connection – The day was 16 June 1946. The man in the sweetshop collapsed and died on the spot. There would be no cartoon of this event. But it was not easily forgotten in the sweetshop owner's family. The man was Gordon Brewster, artist and cartoonist for Independent Newspapers, and the sweetshop owner was my mother. And that is how, when I started off on my family history research in recent years, I determined to check out a few things about Gordon Brewster. Did he actually die in The Gem in Howth village or was he just taken ill there? What sort of an artist was he, and what were his cartoons all about? Who was this man, at all?
First the death cert. I now knew where to find this sort of stuff, and sure enough he died in the shop, just as I had been told (I was just under 2 at the time).
Then the cartoons. A former colleague, Felix M. Larkin, had just written a book on the Shemus cartoons, a collection of which are in the National Library of Ireland. Felix introduced me to Honora Faul, who has charge of the collection of Brewster cartoons in the library. Yes, there is such a collection of his cartoons, the bulk of which span the period 1922-32. We are fortunate that Brewster insisted that the newspapers, mainly the Evening Herald, return his cartoons to him after publication, so there was such a collection in his personal effects.
The Collection – It took me a while to get around to checking out the collection. It wasn't at the top of my to do list and I only got in to the library just before Christmas. Honora was great. She just let me at it. There are 500 cartoons in the collection, all mounted and boxed. As I was coming at this from scratch I figured that rather than spending time mulling over individual cartoons, I should do the whole sweep at one go and try and get an initial impression of the man. I arrived just after lunchtime and had looked at the last of the 500 just as the room was about to close for the day at 5 p.m.
Insight into the period – For that whole afternoon, I was in another world. I was transported back to the foundation of the State and met the main characters who are now part of our history. I met our former British rulers, whose actions were still so important to us and through whose eyes we still saw much of the outside world. I even met Santa, who in a few weeks' time was due to again visit a very different world from Brewster's.
The selection below is a small subset of those that particularly appealed to me. I would like to have included more but there are just so many and they are all good ones. So the choice below is personal and perhaps a little quirky.
The Two Voices by Gordon Brewster. Evening Herald, 6 June 1931. NLI ref. PD 2199 TX 356
What with the Lotto and all that, I had nearly forgotten that great economic pillar of the new State, the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes. This was basically an illegal lottery, or should I say an illegally marketed lottery. While lots of the Irish at home bought tickets, the main focus of the operation was the U.K. and U.S.A., where tickets were surreptitiously sold in vast numbers. The authorities in those countries were not amused.
Relevance to today – But what really blew my mind was the relevance to today of so many of the cartoons. They could have been drawn yesterday.
The Merrion St Distorting Mirror by Gordon Brewster. Evening Herald, 8 April 1926. NLI ref. PD 2199 TX 37
Inflated public sector salaries at the taxpayer/citizen's expense is a recurring theme in the cartoons. And what could be more current today?
The Old Age Pensioner's Treatment by Gordon Brewster. Sunday Independent. NLI ref. PD 2199 TX 425
Sense of humour – This one really made me smile. I'd have laughed were it not for the hush around me as I went through the collection. It is really a beauty – the subtle way he has worked in his signature.
A Wind Fall by Gordon Brewster. Evening Herald, 11 August 1928. NLI ref. PD 2199 TX 207
And this portrayal of George Bernard Shaw out after the doctors' scalps is a hoot. It is a great take on G.B.S. and, I have to say, a theme which resonates with me to this day.
G.B.S. Out For Scalps by Gordon Brewster. Sunday Independent. NLI ref. PD 2199 TX 426
Attention to detail – The cartoons, as you will have seen by now, are beautifully and carefully drawn. So, it is no wonder he wanted them back after they were printed.
In attending to detail in this view at Dollymount Strand, Gordon Brewster hasn't missed the Sutton Martello (No. 1 Northside) which really brings the location alive for those that know it.
The Bather's Death Trap at Dollymount by Gordon Brewster. Evening Herald, 21 September 1929. NLI ref. PD 2199 TX 232
Overview – It was a real privilege to get to go through this collection of cartoons. As I've already said, I charged through them to get an overall impression of the man. To do them justice you would need to linger over each one. Don't forget that they appeared individually in the paper of the day and dealt with issues with which the reader would have been familiar at the time. So they probably were lingered over and deservedly so.
Gordon Brewster's cartoons have been made available online by the National Library of Ireland so that they can be seen and appreciated worldwide. Maybe someday a book will result? And it is well to remember that this collection is probably only a part of Brewster's output both as a cartoonist and an artist. There may be a lot more to come. From somewhere...
March Many Weather by Gordon Brewster. Evening Herald, 2 April 1931. NLI ref. PD 2199 TX 339
My thanks to Honora Faul for access to the cartoons and for suggesting this post which Carol Maddock, who runs the blog and tweets the National Library's path through the undergrowth, acceded to with blessed alacrity.