Authors: Julia O'Faolain
‘Why do you never tell us about yourself?’ asks my husband when shown a draft of this prologue. ‘Who are you? Do you even know? If you do, why not tell us? Is the answer so awful?’
It isn’t, of course. I have had quite a good life. Maybe that’s the trouble. To write a lively story you need some darkness, even fear. Anger is good, too. It stirs things up. So when I write fiction, I put in energising elements. But this time I am meant to be telling the truth, which is – as my mother told me when I was four – that I belonged to a southern Irish generation which could expect to be unprecedentedly comfortable and safe. Or, as she put it on other occasions, I had missed the excitement, which so often comes at a cost. Since then I have seen signs of this on recognisably Irish faces glimpsed in places as disparate as Los Angeles and London, where confrontations with angry taxi drivers and the like can reveal dangerously wounded personalities. ‘Watch it,’ I am sometimes tempted to tell bystanders who might not guess at the harrowing home or school lives with which my compatriots often had to deal and which can lead to hair-trigger reactions. Some wounds can go on hurting.
‘Then tell about them,’ my husband encourages. ‘Indulge in a bit of narcissism.’
‘I suspect it only works with the help of a dash of religion,’ I argue. ‘You need that to help manage your rage.’
‘The rage of people who suffer from bruising recollections.’
‘Do we know anyone like that?’
I name two ex-Catholics and an ex-communist. We notice this
at the same moment and laugh. Excessive hopefulness, we tell each other, can be hard to handle.
One memory-bruised Irishman we knew was now a
Los Angeleno in his forties who probably rarely thought of his childhood. However, something on the day we met must have revived old angers, for he was soon stamping up and down the pleasantly spacious flat where he was entertaining us while cursing the sadistic monks who had run his Irish boarding school more than twenty years before and made his teen years a hell. Alarmingly, a resentful, possibly half unhinged, delinquent seemed to have replaced the suave man whom we had met earlier at a lunch, when our common Irishness had seemed to be a good reason for spending the next few hours together.
My young brother had gone to that same monks’ school which, though reputed to be the best in Ireland, had turned out to condone such practises as letting boys drag one of their number into the woods to be flogged. What Stevie had done to provoke such treatment we never knew, though he did have a knack for annoying people. My mother blamed my father for failing to teach him caution before sending him to school, and he blamed her for regarding the need to do so as a male concern. Then, without more ado, they took Stevie away from the monks. Maybe, she suggested on our drive home, the monks had heard that our father was an anti-clerical journalist and had made Stevie suffer for this.
All this was some time back and, since then, schools have had to change their ways. Home life, though, has, if anything, grown worse, at least in England, where social workers seem to be in constant trouble for failing to save infants from their mothers’ murderous boyfriends. About what happens in Ireland these days I am not up to date, and in California, when we lived there,
the maltreatment of children kept going in and out of fashion. I remember an evangelical bookshop in the Westwood part of Los Angeles, when we moved there in the late Sixties, whose front window was filled with copies of a book entitled
Do You Dare to Spank?
An American psychologist to whom we let our London house went to the opposite extreme when we complained about his sons having sprayed our stairwell with buckshot. ‘English people,’ he snapped defensively, ‘hate children.’
Coming back to the query about who ‘I’ am, I am a writer who has lived in London, Dublin, Rome, Florence, Paris, Los Angeles, Portland (Oregon), and, more briefly, in New York and Venice. Of these, it was the Italian cities that most influenced me. France – thanks to French having been my first foreign language – was my first love. But I was older and more capable of judging the world for myself when I lived in Florence with Lauro. Besides that, political debate when we lived there in the Sixties was a lot livelier and more heated in Italian newspapers than in French or English ones. And copies of
were regularly pasted on to walls all over Florence, so that members of the working class could keep abreast of current events. Eurocommunism, a phenomenon of the Seventies and Eighties, thrilled us by its openness to change and its promise to democratise the party. This horrified stodgy elements in the French Communist Party, and must have set Stalin spinning in his grave. It didn’t please the hard left either. They still aimed to overturn capitalism by revolutionary means.
But the discomforting variant in the new situation made it clear that some meant what they said and others didn’t. The question was: did we? Were we parlour pinks? I thought about this question more seriously than I had felt the need to do before, and decided that, though ready to be a ‘Eurocommunist’, this wasn’t my fight in the way the Irish Civil War had been my parents’ fight.
What upset me and my friends, first in LA then later on when we were back in London, were the neo-colonial wars which
people like Tony Blair promoted by their shameless mendacity. Naively believing that mass protest marches might make them think twice, we walked in them all, and were utterly disillusioned by the cynicism of the Blairite ‘Labour’ Party, with its criminal collaboration – by ‘rendition’ and so forth – in the dirty war that was being waged in places like Guantanamo and Abu Graib.
Justice and truth are what an electorate should be able to aim for, if only by voting for a small, honest party which has some hope of playing an effective role. However, Italian corruption (
) followed by the advent of the appalling Berlusconi, put an end to any such hopes, which was heartbreaking when one remembered the brilliant journalism which had supposedly taught a generation of Italians how to think politically. Meanwhile, Ireland, too, turned out to be in corrupt hands both political and ecclesiastical.
But who, Lauro nags, years later, as I struggle with this prologue, do I feel the inner Julia turned out to be?
Well, I have given no thought to the inner Julia and am more interested in observing other people’s behaviour than my own. Unlike him, who likes to quote Plato about how the unexamined life is not the life of a man, what I want to know is what other people get up to, what they do as much as what they think. That’s my examining.
Having published seven novels and four collections of stories, I look into them to sort out the themes which interested me. Politics is one of these and fairness another; bullying, too. So is Church tyranny and those who opposed it, for in any community, there is likely to be, with luck, someone who stands up to bullies, as my father used to do in the years when a repressive RC Church lorded it in Ireland.
In 1933, when my parents came home to Ireland after seven years abroad, the economy was a shambles. Jobs were scarce so, rather than waste time and spirit seeking one, the survival mode
to my father, whose first book had appeared the year before, was to write another, eke out the advance, and find a place where he and my mother could live cheaply and make their own entertainment.
Chat was a staple source for this and, by luck or design, not far from the house they found in rural County Wicklow lived other refugees from the jobless job market. A short walk off, the landscape painter Paul Henry was turning out his trademark blue mountains; in the house next to ours Michael Farrell, whose doorstopper of a novel,
Thy Tears Might Cease
, would appear thirty years later, was writing and rewriting it; while his wife, Francy, wove the tweeds which she would sell under the name
The Crock of Gold
. Michael O’Donovan, an old Cork friend best known later by his pen name ‘Frank O’Connor’, was working as a librarian in Wicklow Town. He spent frequent weekends with us, when he and Seán took walks, sang duets in eccentric Italian or recited old Gaelic poems and compared their translations. Each was said to have ‘a lovely
’, which is Gaelic for a good Gaelic accent.
At this time my parents were revelling in an Irishness which, when they had been living in Boston and London, must have seemed precarious. They could so easily have stayed on in either place and had, they told me later, even thought of going to China. But the pull of home proved strong. My father’s name, Seán Ó Faoláin, was a manifesto, for like many of his Republican comrades
he had started life with an anglicised version – John Whelan in his case – which he shed in his teens when romantic nationalism led him to join the Irish Volunteers, later renamed the IRA. My mother Eileen’s name, too, had been Gaelicised from Ellen, and it had been she who first introduced him to the West Cork hills, where they learned Gaelic from native speakers. Next came the Anglo-Irish War, in which weapons were so few that young men like Seán had to be content with unglamorous back-up work. After that followed a truce, talks with the English, a treaty, its repudiation by de Valera, civil war (in which Seán at last got a gun), defeat, disillusion and then, in 1926, a fellowship to Harvard University. Now, home again and hopeful, they were seeing things through the bifocal lens of nostalgia and anticipation.
Meanwhile I, who had been born in London, allegedly spoke my first words with English intonations and had a supercilious – i.e. English? – expression while in my pram. Perhaps they misinterpreted a look of shock. They had engaged a French au pair to look after me, so not only had the sounds around me changed twice – more often, if you count Gaelic – but also I could hardly have failed to find Seán and Eileen unnervingly fanciful. They loved folk tales which scared me rigid. Consider ‘changelings’: bogus children, whom the fairies substitute for real ones. The mother who suspects such a switch must place the interloper on a red-hot shovel over a fire, whereupon, if it is a changeling, it will fly up the chimney. A woman, said my mother, had actually done that not long ago and been had up in court. Eileen was stirred by the persistence of folk culture. However, when I began having nightmares, she denied having said such a thing. Nonsense! I distrusted her but, hooked on terror, begged for more tales. When my father forbade them, they took on the allure of the illicit, and I scrounged for them behind his back.
‘If I tell you stories, you’ll get nightmares,’ Eileen would worry. ‘And your father will blame me.’
‘I won’t. I won’t. I promise I won’t.’
But, of course, I did and I woke the house with my shrieks. Again and again Seán had to reassure me by looking under the bed, where I was convinced a family of witches hid, waiting for him to go away before attacking me. Witches, fairies, ghosts and goblins did not, he patiently repeated, exist. ‘They’re all
,’ he assured me. He lowered his candle to show me empty space. As soon as I was alone in the dark, though, I remembered that the pretend could outmanoeuvre the real. I had learned this from our maid, Kitty, who dealt with facts like a sharper with cards. Telling secrets was her passion.
‘Now, don’t tell yer Mammy I told ye. She’d crease me.’
‘Have me guts for garters. She would. Annyway, it’s all cod. I was only coddin’. Aren’t you the silly to believe me!’
Goaded, I would cheek her. ‘You’re a cod yourself! Cod! Cod!’
‘Temper! Language!’ Kitty would be all ladylike decorum. ‘I’ll tell yer Mammy!’
I took to waiting by the front gate for my parents to come home, so as to face them with a quick confession: ‘I called Kitty a cod. I spilled my milk.’ Getting my account in first took the wind from Kitty’s sails.
The narrator, I was learning, takes control.
Even our cat had Irish credentials. He was called Pangur Bán (meaning White Pangur) after the cat in a poem doodled by an eighth- or ninth-century monk down the margin of his manuscript. It must be the Gaelic poem most often rendered in English. Here are scraps of Robin Flower’s version:
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
’Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Often-times my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
’Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
’Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Bán my cat and I
On wet days when Frank O’Connor was visiting, jets of verse like this were apt to volley through the house with as much vim as when, on dry ones, his and Seán’s squash ball bounced off backyard walls. Meanwhile, with catlike diligence, Eileen would be washing small slugs off vegetables while planning to trick me into eating food which, I now think, must have been at least as bad as I thought it at the time. Maybe it was worse? The home-grown greens would have been cooked with soda, as was the habit then, making them as bright as a St Patrick’s Day rosette, bitter and usually overdone.
But this was true, too, in all the houses we visited and, when we went on holidays, it was true of the hotels. In Ireland back then only breakfast and afternoon tea could be relied on to be good.
Why else, in the Forties, when I spent a first summer with a carefully chosen Catholic family in war-harrowed France, would I be so astounded by their tasty salads and potato soup? How, I would marvel, had they, who had meat only once a week, turned simple, non-rationed raw materials into delicious gratin Savoyard, matefaim, crêpes and compotes of various fruits? Mirabelles, griottes, myrtilles …
Did the sun bring out those flavours? If it did, no wonder people had once worshipped it. I felt like doing that myself when I brought basil seeds back from France and raised the seedlings on a cold Irish window sill, only to find, when the leaves finally appeared, that they had no taste at all. In those days my mother and her friends, back from their own post-war forays abroad, were exchanging tips about buying such things as olive oil which no one at home had tasted for years. This being so, how could we trust ourselves to distinguish between rancid oil and good? We belonged to an emerging class whose emergence had been set back by the Troubles of the Twenties, the hungry Thirties and the war. During their ‘austerity’ years, the English, too, lost culinary skills, but their austerity could not be compared with ours. Theirs was a belt-tightening measure. But the true name for ours was ‘penury’, and it went back a long way. (Think of Swift’s
. And Arthur Young’s claim to have seen worse penury in eighteenth-century Ireland than in the Balkans.) In the light of such memories, de Valera’s personal austerity, when in office, compelled respect and would be sadly recalled when his successors’ greedy corruption became impossible to hide. That, though, was still far in the future.
In wartime summers, I got glimpses of that old penury when we went on holiday to Lake Gougane Barra in West Cork – by then almost a family shrine – where Seán and Eileen had done their courting while attending a Gaelic summer school, and where later he had gone on the run during the Irish Civil War of 1922–3. In an ecstasy of patriotism, they had learned the language fast, unlike myself who, though I did well in Latin and French, earned mediocre marks in Gaelic. It’s fair to say in my defence that the nuns in my Dublin schools weren’t keen on it either. In fact in my senior school a lay teacher had to be brought in to teach it, a rare event which lowered the subject’s standing.
Fearful of cutting a poor figure in Gougane, I reminded myself
annually how to say in Gaelic ‘I don’t understand Gaelic’ along with other practical phrases not supplied in our school readers. These concentrated instead on proverbs, prayers and poems about visionary maidens described in terms unlikely to be of use if I met and recognised a Gaelic speaker. Language recognition in West Cork could be tricky in those years, due to a widespread lack of teeth and a habit of gargling vowels in the throat. ‘You’, an old man whom I had annoyed by saying I didn’t understand Gaelic mocked me, ‘have neither Oirish nor English?’ Having decoded his spittly sounds as English, I worried that he might be right and I be turning into that despised hybrid, a West Briton.
Forgivingly, he shared a meal with me. Lunch? Dinner? For all I knew, it could have been his only meal of the day. It consisted of boiled potatoes unloaded in a ring onto a scrubbed table. No plate. No cutlery. Just a splash of buttermilk. Picky ten-year-old though I was, I knew enough about pride not to refuse. I had landed in his mountain cabin through some misunderstanding over catching up with a group from the local hotel who had gone snipe-shooting.
He and his potatoes were like pale, shrunken after-images of the Great Famine: ghostly escapees from someone’s memory – though, on reflection, in the blight-ridden 1840s, his wholesome spuds might have constituted a small pocket of wealth. Amused by my encounter, my parents claimed it had served me right, as I had always been finicky about food and, when small, needed a mix of blandishment and threat to help me unclench my teeth, quell my nausea and swallow. This was why, back when I was still strapped into a high chair, Eileen used to sit with me at meal times and tell stories, some of which she would eventually publish. They were suspense-driven fairy tales with titles like
The Little Black Hen, Miss Pennyfeather
the Pooka and The Shadowy Man,
all aimed at my age group, which had grown almost old enough to have pocket money to spend by the time the books
started to come out in England and the USA. At that time she must have been earning more than Seán, whose income had been hit by the war. Paper was scarce and English publishers were said to be unfriendly to writers who were not sharing the dangers of the blitz. Wartime readers, on the other hand, seemed eager for escapism, if only into the bedtime stories they could read to their children or hear Eileen read on Radio Éireann. She had woven in elements from Gaelic folk tales heard in Gougane, and may have called on knowledge of modern children’s taste for fear and horror, too, gleaned while teaching in Boston and London.
Her first book used one of my favourite legends: the one about a fairy mansion which rises from the bog after dark, aglow with light and throbbing with music. Wise travellers avoid being lured inside or, if lured, refuse to eat anything they are offered. Those who do will never escape, but be carried off to
Tír na nÓg
when the mansion sinks back into the bog at dawn. The
, a fairy horse, which tries to get tired travellers to accept a ride on his back, and the empty coach, which pauses invitingly, play the same trick. Allegorical, or lending themselves to allegory, such tales draw force from their vagueness.
Once or twice Eileen took me with her into the Radio Éireann studio while she made a live broadcast. Perhaps this was a test – I had to stay utterly quiet – or, it strikes me now, her aim may have been to show me that women like herself were as capable as men. That was something she was keen for me to know.
She confided snippets of her personal history, too, some of which went back to the Troubles, which had petered out a year or so before first Seán, then she herself, left for Boston. One related an incident from her college days in University College Cork, UCC, when, at the time of the Anglo-Irish War, she and some friends hired a barge so as to have a picnic on the River Lee. Before setting off, men from their group went into a pub where Black and Tans in civvies overheard them make rash, incendiary
remarks. That evening, when the barge returned from the picnic, the Tans were waiting and opened fire. Everyone on board dropped flat, but she, who craned her neck to look, got a bullet in it. She showed me the trace: a puckered hollow the size of a hazelnut which never disappeared. Later, during the Civil War, when Seán was Director of Publicity for the Irregulars and in hiding, she, who was his courier, was caught and jailed, and worse would have followed if an old UCC classmate on the winning side hadn’t spotted her name on a list, crossed it off, and let her go. In those days, she said, fear kept you from sleeping, but also from getting fat or bored.
‘You missed them!’ she teased, while shoving a spoonful of lumpy porridge into my open mouth. ‘All of them! The bad times and the good! And don’t dare spit that out!’
Her moods had grown capricious, and Seán said that this was because her father had recently died. I was nearly five. I know because by my fifth birthday we had left Wicklow, but on that day we were still there. I can tell this by the shadows flinching and flickering in my mental motion picture of her, as she mentions Boston and an old fear lest Seán, whom she had gone there to marry, be having second thoughts: pre-nuptial doubts to which she would not again allude for fifty years. Maybe she had brought them up now as cover for a new fret. What kind of fret? All I knew was that it was as fitful as the draughts which whistled through that old house and on windy days could flatten candle flames and make an oil lamp smoke. Though the place was too remote for connection to electricity, we did have a wireless. It ran on batteries, and Eileen would sometimes sing along with the old songs that floated from it, then turn it off, with a brisk ‘
’, which is Gaelic for ‘rubbish’. When they first met, she
and Seán had entwined their feelings for each other with those they cherished for the national cause. It was a heady bond. But bonds can chafe or fray, and back in 1922 theirs did both.