In ‘My Dublin’, a 1977 paper in the Dublin Historical Record detailing memories of her childhood sixty years previous, Moira Lysaght writes about, among others
“Mr Little of Rathmines, who took a public stand against what he considered to be indecency. Over his portly and well clothed form he wore a sack and his arrival caused a minor stampede among nearby ladies. He waged war against silk stockings and uncovered necklines. Wall drawings by him depicted a suspended silk stocking with a demon pulling it (and no doubt its wearer) down to the nether regions.”
Nor was Mr Little’s concern confined to ladies’ ankles:-
“On the top of a tram on which I was travelling one day he presented a handerchief to a lady with a request that she would cover her neck with it. On her refusal he appealed to the men present to join with him in leaving as there was a ‘female present indecently clad’. Several times irate women had him charged in court, on which occasions his brother had to stand down if he happened to be presiding justice.”
All this sounded a bit too good to be true, but further investigation discloses that there were indeed a number of appearances made by a Mr Philip Francis Little, of Rathmines, son and namesake of Philip Francis Little, first premier of Newfoundland, and brother of Patrick Little, solicitor and TD, in the Dublin District Court round 1925 or so.
Like this one:-
Obscene and profane females! Oh dear. But there was a lot more to Philip Francis Little than his mendicant appearance and unavowed disapproval of skimpy 1920s attire might indicate. The portly friar was a poet as well as a prude, and his now largely forgotten poems were gorgeous. Here’s a lovely bit from one of them, about the finding, by the poet, of the body of a dead youth on a mountainside, a youth, perhaps, not all that different from his younger self:-
“Poor vagrant of piety, neither monk nor layman,
had been to a college; had had no vocation, he
(God pardon them who had pronounced on him!),
thread-bare and barefoot, went by preference,
at length by his own kindred quite discarded,
begging his bread from one shrine to another;
he wended away, sometimes singing psalms,
or kneeling by some wayside calvary,
or preaching to the birds . . .
Perhaps he was mad.
Provoked, even wise men will turn imbecile.”
Wonderful piece and I love the flight of fancy brought down to earth in the last two lines…
Philip Francis didn’t survive long the 1925 court case above (and two other similar court cases, around the same time), dying in the autumn of the following year. There is a report of him seeking a reconciliation with his family prior to his death, by hiring a man with a crowbar to break into their house, but I’m not sure if that really ever happened, or, if it did, achieved the intended aim.
After Little’s death, Yeats wanted to write a play about his life, a ‘poetic tragedy’ – this was never written, and possibly just as well; no one, no matter how poetic, really wants their life to be a tragedy, and indeed I’m not sure Little’s was. He had a small but adequate private income, and in the last years of his life, some nice landladies. And he street-preached a lot and had what I expect was tremendous fun escaping from irate soldiers whose girls he had berated as hussies for showing too much clavicle or shinbone. So I hope that was some consolation for his poems being largely ignored and neglected, as might have been the fact that Kavanagh, Clarke and Gogarty later wrote about him in glowing terms…
If Philip Francis Little were to walk down Rathmines Road today, or take the Luas, the modern equivalent of the tramcar, from Stephen’s Green, I wonder how he’d feel about the way women’s dress has become even more scanty since the daring days of the 1920s; no stockings at all, and far more than neck on display. It’s possible he might spontaneously combust in fury, or hang his head in despair, but one hopes that, maybe, just maybe, he could put his disapproval aside and luxuriate, for a moment, just for a moment, in the voluptuous joy of cankles and cleavage uncovered and bare to the world as the nature he writes so beautifully about in his poems intended him to …
For those who are interested in knowing more about Philip Francis Little, a comprehensive account of his life and work is to be found in an article by George O’Neill in the Dublin Historical Record here. Moira Lysaght’s article, also in the Record, can be found here. Bios of Little’s dad and brother here and here.