Authors: Julia O'Faolain
‘Tell her it’s your favourite book,’ my mother whispered
. I guessed that it was hers, for she had read it to me twice.
Miss Travers’s face is masked in my memory by one of those mist blobs which disguise witnesses in police documentaries, but her visit proved influential, for when the war came and cash in our house grew increasingly scanty, Eileen, as I mentioned earlier, took a leaf from Miss Travers’s book and began writing childrens’ stories herself.
By then we had moved to County Dublin, where a more troubling encounter was triggered when I heard someone talking about how Seán in his youth had made bombs. Bombs? Daddy? Amazed, I consulted my mother, who said, coldly, ‘Ask him.’
She and he were not getting on just then, but I would not learn why until their tiff had been patched up and could be disguised as political sparring over de Valera’s decision to intern a number of his own hard-line followers, including some of our family friends. Yes, Seán told me, he had made bombs for the IRA. ‘More than twenty years ago. Someone had to. We were fighting a war.’
In this memory I am about ten, and the new war known to
us as the Emergency is in full spate. We, however, are neutral – most of us anyway. From what you hear, some people aren’t. Some people are spies.
‘Your mother’, Seán tells me, ‘needs her mind taken off things. You should try to cheer her up.’ And skipping into his study, he closes the door.
So she and I go trespassing, as we used to do in Wicklow, where in the hungry Thirties there were a number of
estates whose owners, unable to keep them up, had locked the gates and left for London. A year or so after they did this, neglected greenery would explode, wildlife go on the rampage, and my mother and I climb in past signs telling us not to, so as to enjoy the anarchic spectacle of tilting gazebos, overgrown yew walks and untramelled flowers. As half the pleasure to be had from these incursions lay in testing our nerve, we murmured tales to each other about man-traps which could break a poacher’s leg – or our own! In the old days, Eileen warned, gamekeepers used to hide these in undergrowth where, for all we knew, one might still lie. There was nothing like this where we now lived in orderly South County Dublin.
What there was, though, was a boarded-up, Disneyesque, turreted Victorian Gothic castle into which we had not ventured until now, because a caretaker was known to live in its gate lodge. Thick trees hid it and abutted on woods belonging to a section of what might or might not be Killiney Park. Boundaries were becoming increasingly unclear and perimeter walls were crumbling. So we climbed one, then dropped into an orchard where leaf mould muffled sound and cidery fruit rotted pungently. Eileen was starting on a fresh tale of brutal, old-time gamekeepers, when, seeing a movement among the apple trees, I grabbed her elbow.
‘Mummy, a gamekeeper!’
She was looking in the wrong direction. ‘In those days,’ she mused, ‘they …’
‘No! Now! Here. There’s one. Look.’
Sure enough, a man emerging from the trees had hailed us. He had a gun. Not a gangster’s gun but the sort my father used for shooting rabbits. He wasn’t pointing it, but he was definitely advancing towards us. He wore a tweed coat so prickly it brought to mind the withered nettles goose girls spun and wove in some of Eileen’s stories. His eyebrows were a yellow stubble and his face was lumpy, as though it had indeed been stung by nettles.
‘Hullo there!’ By now he was close, and Eileen must have seen him. So why didn’t she move?
‘Let’s run!’ I urged her, then bolted in panic and neither paused nor turned until I reached the damaged wall where we had come in. Still no Eileen. Where
she? Cautiously, I retraced my steps, then hid behind a clump of bushes to see what was happening.
He had a hand on her arm. Could he be taking her into custody? That was a word I knew from the wireless. No. He was handing her a notebook, then screwing the top back on a fountain pen. Moving from tree to tree, I edged close enough to hear my father’s name and that of a magazine he had recently started up.
! Could they be? They
! Catching sight of me, they laughed, then, as though pitying me, shook their heads. Nervously, turning away, I noticed that I had got a run in my black school stocking. A long worm of pale flesh showed through. Sheepishly, I sidled forward to hear the man say that he was one of those whom Dev had led and then let down. ‘He’s a splitter,’ he told Eileen. ‘He split the movement.’ Next he told us that he had read Seán’s recent attack on Dev for doing this and wanted Eileen to take him a message of support. As for our trespassing, well, no harm done if this was the end of it.
‘The old people used to say,’ he quoted, ‘“Every dog is allowed one bite”.’
Perhaps to apologise for the comparison, he presented her
with a bag of apples which he must have filled earlier, for it had been lying on a bench. Next, looking her in the eye, he warned gravely that we should not come back, then, leading us through a shrubbery and down an avenue to the gate lodge, opened a gate and let us out on the road.
On our way home my mother was unusually quiet. When I asked if the man was a gamekeeper, she said no, a caretaker, and that we mustn’t breathe a word about what had happened. ‘I’ll tell your father,’ she said, ‘later.’
‘Did the caretaker give you a message for him?’
‘Which side is he on? The caretaker? Daddy’s or Dev’s?’
‘No side,’ my mother told me. ‘He has no side. Now remember you’re not to tell a soul. Have I your promise?’
I was confused though. She had handled the caretaker with impressive coolness, so why didn’t she want anyone to know? How indeed had she known that he would be friendly if she introduced herself to him? Had he known who she was already? Maybe they had seen each other in the pub or the village shop? Maybe they had talked?
I didn’t want to think so.
Then rumours started. The milkman, it seemed, had told the Gardaí that something queer was going on in the castle. The caretaker, a lone man living in the gate lodge, was taking too much milk. A crate? Two? I forget. But the place was raided and – shades of my father’s bomb-making days! – it came out that bombs were being fabricated there by members of a rump IRA which was in opposition to the government.
‘Fifteen men they found!’ Great-aunt Kate, who had been talking to Bridie the maid, revelled in shock. Bridie was on a network. She talked to other maids, some of whom had come from the same orphanage as herself.
‘I heard six.’ My mother, drawing on my father’s experience in
war, thought six quite enough for a bomb factory. But nobody knew for sure. It was a great time for hugger-mugger.
Great-aunt Kate, who was now ninety, said bomb-making must have got a sight more complex since my Daddy’s day, and seemed pleased rather than frightened by this. Perhaps she thought of bombs as lightning-conductors for the random evil that threatened us all, but especially people her age. Some of that had now been averted or at least stalled.
‘A whole crate of milk!’ She began to count on her fingers. ‘They’d only use it in their tea or porridge. A whole crate! Sure that would be enough for thirty men! Half could have got away.’
‘Maybe one had an ulcer? Ulcer victims are great milk-drinkers.’
Did the bomb-makers belong to the pro-German or the Communist wing of the outlawed movement? Perhaps the wings combined? Nobody knew, but passengers on our bus liked to speculate. It wasn’t true that they cut my mother dead. Gossips were too keen to probe to do that. As for the war itself, the ‘Emergency’ whose name somehow denied what it signalled, reality and illusion had begun to blend.
I began to wonder if they had ever been separate.
Here is a quote from one of de Valera’s more remarkable radio broadcasts delivered in 1933:
The Irish genius has always stressed spiritual values … That is the characteristic that fits the Irish people in a special manner for the task of helping to save western civilization.
Being a year old when that claim was made, I knew nothing of the risk that saving the West might become part of a Fascist agenda – as it might have that same year, when Irish citizens, enticed by the Blueshirt movement, were flirting with Fascist plans. Luckily, these foundered when General O’Duffy, the potential Führer, lost his nerve.
A more tenacious spectre, however, was haunting our young Free State. When hopes of achieving a pious, all-Ireland Republic also foundered, hypocrisy – ‘the tribute vice pays to virtue’ – grew exponentially. Coercion ensured that our population would at least seem to be amassing enough prayer-power to help save the West – and that my age group would grow up in an age of pretence.
So how trust anyone’s memories?
I have been rereading Seán’s defiantly named memoir,
, which he rewrote towards the end of his life. To spare my mother’s feelings, an edition published in the Sixties had made no mention of his love affairs.
Later, though, when he sensed love and identity slip away, he wrote an expanded version for publication after his death. This one too, though, missed completeness, not just through the
paradox of that planned, posthumous gasconade, but also because, while wistfully reliving old loves, it failed to consider how they had affected my mother, or how best he and she might, in the time left to them, manage their mutual unhappiness. Instead, as his narrative advanced, her image receded – rather like those of the old comrades who vanished from group portraits in Stalin’s Russia. She was stoical, as women of her generation often had to be. Her health, perhaps because of this, broke down, and Seán, who, it now turned out, both needed and was exasperated by her, lived with her until 1988, when she died. Then
fell apart, got dementia, lusted impotently after a youngish woman who encouraged him so rashly that he lost his bearings, fought with his housekeeper, ran into the street inadequately clad – some said not clad at all – to rage like Lear at the human condition and shock the neighbours who wrote to tell me this.
When I flew back from California where I had been living, they invited me to tea so that I might be warned against the dangerous woman and hear how effectively they had concealed Seán’s sad antics from the editor of a national newspaper who lived in the same street. They were proud of having preserved decorum by keeping the incident out of the press. Virtue’s tribute had yet again been paid, and I, for once, was glad of this because, although Seán had fought hard against the wretched Censorship of Publications Act and other petty curbs, he also, when in his right mind, cared as much as anyone about privacy.
Which is why, when I was growing up, I knew none of his secrets. These emerged piecemeal, sometimes indecorously and, as often as not, confusingly, as secrets tend to do.
Confusing moments, as it happens, can be the ones which stay with you.
The rue Montpensier in Paris runs along the side of the Palais Royal garden, a place pulsing with memories of intriguing ghosts. It belonged to Philippe Égalité, the revolutionary duke who was guillotined by fellow revolutionaries in 1793, and whose illegitimate daughter, Pamela, married Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a blue-blooded Irish rebel whose story has striking echoes of her father’s. Lord Edward too plotted against his own class, and was then betrayed and apprehended with such violence that he died of his wounds in a Dublin jail. Just as compelling is the memory of Desmoulins, the firebrand whose speech delivered from a café table top outside the same Palais Royal sparked off the French Revolution. And so is that of the looting and arson which later revolutions unleashed there in 1848 and 1871. The memory which comes to me, however, when I find myself in the rue Montpensier, focuses on Seán. It is of a baffled moment when he and I came out of one of its restaurants, and having lunched too well and probably drunk a little too much, and being dazzled by sudden sunlight, I took a while to notice that he was weeping. This must have been in the autumn of 1953, so Seán, who shared the century’s age, was also fifty-three. He was embarrassed and apologetic, so I refrained from asking what was wrong.
I was shaken, though, for, being socially backward like most of my compatriots, I had always relied on him to be worldly and in control. He had been my mentor when it came to affairs of the heart, and thinking back I see that I must have known more about his than I let myself know I knew, though I remember guessing that his tears had to do with a woman.
With hindsight, his marriage to my mother strikes me as providing a small but telling illustration of how people in de Valera’s Ireland felt obliged to live.
As was true of large parts of that society itself, disappointed idealism and a soured personal experience of its quarrelsome and rebelly past contributed to the glue which held them together. When Eileen died, it was seventy years since she and Seán had first met as eighteen-year-old enthusiasts in a Gaelic class in Cork City. Ironically, in those days, de Valera was soon to become one of their heroes.
Did Seán ever let himself see how badly and often he hurt her? I’m not sure. Did I? Of course I did, but when their estrangement was at its worst, I was living abroad and trying to stretch the postgraduate scholarships which were enabling me to spend as many years as I could at the universities of Rome and Paris. So I limited my trips home and, when I did make one, I felt unable to help, except once, about two years after the scene in the rue Montpensier. By then I was entangled in my first serious love affair, which Seán manoeuvred me into ending by claiming that Eileen had threatened to leave
unless he got me to leave my lover – a French, North African, Jewish, Communist activist, scandalously unsuitable in the eyes of the Ireland of the day.
‘Your mother’, said Seán grandly, ‘is punching above her weight. She doesn’t realise that she couldn’t survive without me. And what’s worse, having issued her threat, she’ll be too proud to climb down. So it’s up to you to get us out of this mess. You’re the only one who can.’
This struck me as a mean passing of the buck.
‘Why should I believe him?’ I asked myself, and felt outrage both on her behalf and my own. But though his appeal might be a bluff, it seemed dangerous to call. Between us, I feared that he and I could indeed back Eileen into a corner and provoke her into some sort of craziness.
Could we though? Truly?
What made me think we could was a small secret of my own, a shy memory of how, when I was six, I had been in love with
her. There is no other term for my feelings at the time. Shortly before my brother’s birth, I became excessively attached to her, and something – I forget quite what – tipped this state of mind towards recklessness. Perhaps she had been talking too happily about the new baby she planned to bring home from the Hatch Street Nursing Home or had shown off her preparations with too much pride. There was, I remember, a softly draped and canopied cot in which I would have enjoyed sleeping myself, if it had been big enough, with next to it a Moses basket heaped with crocheted coatees, bonnets and tiny shoes. All new! The sight made me so jealous that I went straight into her garden, where I picked and ate a selection of brightly coloured berries which I had been warned were poisonous. ‘Attention-seeking’ I suppose this would now be called or, more charitably, a ‘cry for help’. In the end it failed as both, when the berries turned out not to be poisonous after all. Nobody knew I’d eaten them, and I don’t even remember being sick.
In 1955, though, what the embarrassing, old memory brought home to me was the danger of making people jealous.
At the same time, I began to wonder whether, despite what Seán thought, Eileen might do very well without him. Better perhaps. She could still go beagling in Wicklow with her friend Lily and to point-to-point races and country-house auctions. Couldn’t she? For all I knew she might be happier? Maybe. But I couldn’t risk being wrong, even though she was still an attractive woman who, I knew, had in their early years as a couple been its live wire.
But now he was a successful writer and public figure, while she was a middle-aged housewife, and I wasn’t worldly enough to judge her chances of – well, what? – didn’t people speak of ‘Making a new life’? In Ireland, that didn’t happen often. Not then. Not for women.
And Seán back then was still dangerously good-looking.
Someone might snap him up. They would certainly try. Quite recently I had noticed women brighten in his presence. He was burning with energy, long-legged and lean, with good cheekbones and an amused smile.
There are photographs to prove it.
For all I knew, however, he might have invented the story about her threatening to leave him. He was a fiction-writer, after all. Impish and a bit of a tease! When bored at a party, he was quite capable of opening a woman’s handbag, if he found one left on a chair, and shamelessly examining the contents. I had seen him do this more than once. If caught rifling through it, he would laugh easily, claim that this was research, then chaff the bag’s owner about secrets he would pretend to have found. Next, he might argue that writing and living needed to feed off each other. A good way to write a short story, he sometimes told young writers who came to tea, was to bring two narrative ideas together, make them interact and see what would happen. How could I be sure that he wasn’t doing this very thing with Eileen’s life and mine? ‘Leave him, or she’ll leave me,’ was how he had started our conversation. ‘I’m appealing to you for her sake.’
Was this true though? He could be manipulating me, just as Irish governments manipulated voters when they appealed to national pride, then forestalled further argument by banning abortion, divorce and contraceptives, and stepping up the censorship of films, newspapers and books.
All this to show that the Irish genius stressed spiritual values!
The notion that we were peculiarly virtuous was related to a view of history which held that not only the Reformation but also the Enlightenment had been disasters from which Catholic Ireland had been happily preserved. In return for this grace, we owed it to God, ourselves and the world to try to deserve it.
Citizens who failed to live up to the required image were rumoured to find ways of hiding their failures. And reportedly
some of the ways found were so ruthless that when wind of them leaked out, the exposed cover-up risked generating a scandal greater than the one concealed.
For what if it came to be known – for example – that records had been tampered with to hide the fact that someone was a sibling’s child by their joint father? Things like that did happen. In villages near ours, they were rumoured to happen often, and gossips claimed that it was common for official records to piously misrecord incestuous births by ascribing parentage to an unmarried mother’s own mother or married sister. Today, Irish newspapers do report cases of incest, but back then the priority was to keep the Irish name untarnished. As a result, our only knowledge of that practice came from the Old Testament. But, as Catholics rarely read that, few learned of the misbehaviour of either God’s chosen people or our own neighbours, and I only did so because I had Protestant friends.
So de Valera was able to go on hoping that our piety might yet re-Christianise Western civilisation, as Irish monks had done in the sixth century.
Did we swallow that? Not quite. Did we disbelieve it? Not quite either. One can live in a blur.
Yet Seán and a handful of friends tried, when they could, to draw attention to the undemocratic connivance of elected politicians who, even up to the late Fifties, took orders in secret from unelected bishops. They had no pipeline to this conspiracy. As investigative journalists must, they pieced together the few facts which were known and with the support of groups like the Irish Association of Civil Liberties – which Seán, Christo
, and Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, among others, had founded in 1948 – managed to pierce some of the veils and scrims behind which laymen and clerics lurked, while running a country in which cant had become a necessary product, and humbug a civic duty.
To survive in such a place, and report unwelcome truths, you needed to develop guile. Seán did, and the one time he used it on me was when he persuaded me to test myself and my French lover by staying apart for a year to see if we would keep faith with each other.
We didn’t, of course. Each of us blamed the other. And my parents’ marriage staggered on for another three decades. Then they died within three years of each other.
So how – to come back to my question – when looking back on a delusive and deluded country, can I trust my own memory, or tell whether I saw anything clearly in the first place?
Wondering about this, I try to remember my young self.
‘She’s easily flustered and highly strung!’
That was what my mother warned my husband to expect when she met him first, which was two years after I and my Frenchman broke up, and four years after I began to doubt Seán’s omniscience and savvy.
I had had doubts about these earlier, when he gave me a golden rule to help me decide whether or not to go to bed with a man. If I was to avoid self-dislike and moral squalor, I should, he advised, do so only when I was at least starting to fall in love. Properly, truly in love, he specified. This, in the Ireland of the day seemed benignly permissive, but it paralysed me.
I in love, I would ask myself when the moment arose, then take my emotional temperature and freeze. Young men, taken aback by this, could be scathing. A handsome, charming but, to my mind, too matter-of-fact young Frenchman called Robert took me to dinner and then to the Bois de Boulogne, where he hired a boat and attempted to make love to me as we drifted into the dark. When given the frozen treatment, he said sourly, ‘So, you’re holding on to your little capital, is that it?’