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Authors: Julia O'Faolain

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Muted rows dragged on, and Eileen must at some point have met Elizabeth because, later, she disparagingly described her as wearing yards of fake pearls. No doubt they met at one of the dinners hosted by the Irish Academy of Letters, for Seán had meanwhile introduced Bowen to its founder, the aged Yeats, whom she apparently charmed.

Seán himself was mesmerised. He and Bowen had so much in common: County Cork, romanticism and its opposite,
emotional
doubleness, their restless age (when they met, both, like the century itself, were thirty-seven), short stories – they both wrote them, and she drew attention in her
Faber Book of Modern Stories
, which appeared that same year, to the fact that ‘the younger Irish writers’ had all carried arms. This remark fitted Seán’s case almost too neatly as, having both made bombs and carried a gun, he had indeed ‘carried arms’, but, as far as I know, he himself never turned
them on anyone. He was proud of his marksmanship, though, and shooting was for years to be one of his hobbies. The story of his which appears in Bowen’s Faber anthology is
The Bombshop
.

It may have been their differences, though, which added spice. She belonged to the Protestant Ascendancy, but then so had Erskine Childers and
he
had run guns for the Volunteers, then become one of the hardest of hard-liners when the movement split. He was the man whom Seán replaced as ‘Director of Publicity for the First Southern Division’: an unwieldy mouthful in sore need of being compressed into a Soviet-style acronym. DIPFSOD perhaps? Such job descriptions were fated to grow glum towards the end of the struggle, when men began to be arrested so fast that more and more titles came to include the thespian word ‘Acting’. Seán himself would, as mentioned above, end up as Acting Director of Publicity for the entire, visionary Republic in whose name he kept issuing hopeless appeals until he was released by its Acting President and could honourably give up. By then de Valera too was in jail, and Childers had been caught carrying a revolver and executed – partly, I heard it surmised long afterwards, because his dash and gallantry got up some noses. As romance peeled away, it became a nasty little war.

Did it interest Bowen? Her novels, Seán noted, regularly punish romance, and
The Death of the Heart
(1938) does so icily. Judging by her surprisingly overwrought letters to Ritchie, she deployed both halves of her divided self in fictional encounters between her naïve heroines and the cads who make them suffer. So treachery was another topic which she and Seán had in common. Though Ritchie was the model for the lover in
The Heat of the Day
(1949) who proves to be a Nazi spy, it is likely that the theme had already come up in the late Thirties with Seán. He, like many old comrades, was smarting both from the treacheries arising first from the Civil War itself and later from the spectacle of de Valera sidling into his opponents’ Dáil.

De Valera lived and learned though, and Dev Mark 2 was no doubt a sharper statesman than the man whom Seán had once unreservedly admired.

*

We, meanwhile, had become pariahs – or so my mother said, meaning that we had lost friends. Soon, she warned, we might have none left at all, for not only would Dev’s followers, who had been Seán’s comrades during the Civil War, now join their old opponents in ostracising us, but Seán’s articles in the papers were making new enemies. The reason why passengers on our bus looked away when we boarded it, she claimed, was because they were conformists and afraid to say boo to a goose, let alone to be seen consorting with relatives of someone who had written controversial pieces in the morning paper or blown the gaff on a clerical intrigue. ‘Letting the country down’ in public, I learned, was a mortal sin to the men and women on the Killiney omnibus, whose hackles rose when Seán criticised the government or wrote – though this must have been later, possibly even after the war – about the brutal beatings being administered to pupils of the Irish national schools. These state-funded schools were non-
fee-paying
, so the priests who ran them were unlikely to be disturbed by letters, such as the timid ones Seán got from parents torn between a lively fear of upsetting the all-powerful clergy and anger at the violent injuries school teachers routinely inflicted on children. Violence back then was taken to mean beatings only, and the word ‘paedophilia’ was not, as far as I know, pronounced. Later, though, I heard Seán’s friend and solicitor, Christo, say that what went on behind closed doors would make a classical Greek tragedian blench, though no paper dared report it.

There was, however, no lack of handier targets, and heading the list was the Censorship Board, which would ban so many books
over the years by distinguished foreign Catholic writers that it became a laughing stock. Seán attacked it relentlessly and, among his papers when he died, I found a letter from an Irish government minister, dated in the Thirties, granting him the right to import six copies of one of his own banned books for his own use. The letter by then was brittle with age and, judging by its prick-marks and puncturings, must at some time have been pinned up for use, perhaps, as a dart board to keep his
saeva indignatio
well honed.

He wasn’t the only one lacerated by that. On the contrary, he had been unusually lucky, not only in getting away to Harvard, but earlier, too, during the fight, when thanks to his couriers’ prudence he escaped being caught and interned as hundreds were. Emboldened, perhaps, both by this and by the contagion of US optimism, he had come home, borrowed money, chosen a congenial site and built a house. This was so odd a venture in those depressed years that people used to line up outside our gate to stare over it at what they called ‘the queer new house’. Its queerness, even in retrospect, escapes me, though perhaps the asymmetry of the windows was unusual then, as were its
open-plan
interiors and uncovered joists, about which the gawkers must have been told, since they could not see them from where they stood. Maybe the builders had given them a tour?

‘Djez see the inside?’ I can imagine them marvelling. ‘Ye’d swear it was only half finished, but the builders is after tellin’ us that the owners is all set to move in.’

Curiously, the only really modern house in the neighbourhood belonged to another Corkonian, a retired music teacher called Breen. White, terraced, curvy and vaguely naval, its design made ours look positively dull. Perched on a ridge rising above and behind Captain Disney’s ponderous, whelk-grey mansion, the Breens’ house could, on bright days, look ready to levitate and take off into the clouds. Disney, from whom Seán had bought our acre of land, lived in what was said to be the dower house of ‘the
Talbot Estate’, a place whose seat had apparently disappeared.

There was nothing cloudy, though, about Breen’s response, when asked for his opinion of my musical ear. He said I hadn’t one, and that my dream of learning to play the violin should be discouraged. Indeed, there would be no point wasting money on trying to teach me any instrument more complex than a tin whistle.

Though disappointed, I continued calling on him and his wife, Daisy, when on my way to visit their neighbour, ‘old Miss Smythe’, a friendly spinster who, it strikes me now, must have been much younger than I realised. Women like her had been twice bereaved, once by the Great War and again by the drift to England of their kind. She owned a great number of cats and a garden where she grew interesting oddities, like yellow tomatoes and white raspberries: relics perhaps of a childhood spent somewhere equipped with gardeners and greenhouses. With hindsight, I can see that she was recognisably of Ascendancy stock.

During my first years in Killiney, I had nobody to play with while other children were in school, because Eileen, who wouldn’t send me there until I was eight, was teaching me the three Rs herself. Having worked as a teacher in Boston, she used a phonetic method to teach reading, which seems to have gone in and out of fashion since her day. I can’t imagine why. It worked wonderfully for me, who learned so fast that I had empty hours left to fill every afternoon, and whiled them away by dropping in on tolerant neighbours.

At first I mooched ‘up the Gut’, a lane where floors were earthen, TB was rampant and people were allegedly prone to gut each other on Fridays after closing time. When I caught lice there once too often and the Gut was banned, I began calling instead on a retirement home for old ladies run by a Mrs Gracie O’Reilly. Dotty inmates there were as lonely as myself, and maids told tales about them behind their backs. A Mrs Leahy was known
to them as ‘Leaky’ because of her incontinence, and an old lady, nicknamed ‘the Little Flower’, was said to be a saint.

Sanctity was an obsession of the time. Father Traynor, a friend of Seán’s who appears in several of his short stories, was known, seriously and gravely, in Gougane Barra as ‘the Saint’. As I was not yet at school, he gave me my first Communion, and I wore a new, brown wool dress instead of the usual mini bridal costume. Curiously, I don’t remember being disappointed about this, perhaps because Traynor was a lively and entertaining man whom Seán claimed to have frequently helped climb back over the seminary wall after dances in their Cork youth. Traynor was convinced, Eileen told us, that clerical marriage would soon be permitted and he planned to avail himself of the latitude.

‘God help him,’ she sighed and shook a wisely sceptical head.

To my secret satisfaction, her taunt about my having missed the excitements of war now looked like being disproved. A contingent of the Local Defence Force marched promisingly often past our gate. ‘Left, left!’ urchins jeered and, lifting small, plump knees, imitated the men as they stamped by: ‘I had a good job and I left!’ Petrol disappeared, and our car was put up on blocks. Fascinating black rubber gas masks with long snouts were supplied to us, then stored in the attic, never to be used, though blackout light bulbs were screwed in and blackout curtains hung lest German planes use our too brightly lit coastline to guide their bombing missions. A cupboard with a lock was filled with food, including tinned corned beef and Hershey chocolate bars, both of which we ungratefully despised, sent by friends in the US who feared we might be starving. Meanwhile, Eileen and a succession of handymen drew up a map of what now began to look like a garden, laid out paths, and strewed them with beach pebbles which we collected with a horse and cart in the small hours, lest it be illegal to take them. There was uncertainty about this. The handymen planted tough vegetables like kale, which I furtively
fed by the armful to Captain Disney’s half-dozen cows who, considering our field to be still theirs, regularly broke through our fence to get at more. I was blamed for this, and when we learned that we might be liable if a cow broke its leg, we reinforced the fence. Cleverly, the cows returned by night. Defensively, we wove thorny furze through our palings. No good. The cows were persistent and, when chased, panicked and charged across seed beds and cucumber frames. So we planted a hawthorn hedge and hammered pointed sticks into the ground to protect it.

Having grown friendly with the cows, I declared myself to be a vegetarian, but was thwarted in this.

Meanwhile, were we at war or were we not? Confused, I tuned in to adult anxieties. What was neutrality? Did I want us to be at war? I did! I did! I yearned for the excitement but concealed this, since adults, despite wistful memories of their own war, were clearly not keen on this one.

Jobs were still scarce, and a rump IRA had again split and was again plotting. It had by now been banned, unbanned, then rebanned, and one faction, no doubt feeling a need to give signs of life, declared its own war on Britain, then seized state-owned ammunition from a magazine in Phoenix Park. Mindful of English threats to take back the ports, de Valera’s government promptly rushed through an Emergency Powers Act, bringing back internment which it had abolished seven years before.

Naturally, I didn’t know any of this at the time, but gleaned wisps of fact and speculation from listening to adults’ chat.

So for what did our ‘Free’ State now stand? Side-of the-mouth comment raged as usual on the number 59 bus, whose schedule was now truncated, as was its route. Shortages became the great subject of chat, and fuel was especially scarce.

*

What leavened our family’s social life was that Killiney was a partly Protestant village and that, although Protestants had lost power, pull and, in some cases, property, few – apart from Erskine Childers’ relatives – can have been lastingly affected by the sour, emotional fall-out from the Civil War. On the whole, any grudges they might bear for having been sidelined were concealed with such dignity that my mother was puzzled years later to hear two old Protestant friends of hers refer to ‘them’ and ‘us’. Who, she was wondering, were the alien ‘them’, when it dawned on her that her friends meant people like herself. Local Protestants, unlike the ones in the North, were tolerant and liberal, but had doubts about our being so. They had a point. When it came to mixed marriages and the children thereof, the Irish RC Church was inflexible. The marriage had to be celebrated – though the word didn’t really apply – at unconvivial hours in a hole-and-corner way, and all children born of it must, the Church insisted, be brought up as Catholics. When a Protestant parent refused to go along with this, there could be social repercussions, and once, notoriously, as late as 1957, in a place called Fethard-on-Sea, there would be a priest-led, full-scale boycott of Protestants and their businesses. So it seemed that the only tyranny in the country now was that of our own Church, which from 1940 on would be incarnate in our archbishop and primate, John Charles McQuaid, a man obsessed by petty concerns, who allegedly greeted the arrival of Tampax on the Irish market in 1944 by advising the Minister of Health against permitting it, lest it sexually arouse young girls. McQuaid was said to be so opposed to mixed marriages that he did not want Catholic and Protestant schools to play hockey with each other. Such encounters, he feared, could lead to Catholic girls meeting and possibly eventually marrying Protestant opponents’ male relatives.

BOOK: Trespassers
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