11. Farewell Spain, Kate O’Brien
This is Kate O’Brien’s love poem to Spain. Her novel Mary Lavelle grew from a year spent as a ‘Miss’ with a bourgeois family in Bilbao in 1922 . Her most successful novel, That Lady, was set in the Spain of Philip II. Published in 1937, Farewell Spain is an account of pre-civil war travels in the northern half of the peninsula with friends which included the painter Mary O’Neill. Middle class British tourists, making their first forays into Spain, favoured the resorts of the northern coast at this time . O’Brien doubts that the two week break is sufficient for the tourist to get to know the country and is a witty observer of their irritations when the ‘away from it all’ promised by the posters fails to materialise. ‘Let them go therefore – they were becoming bores. Let us be ourselves.’
She takes us from Irun, at the French border, to Coruña, Santander, Santillana del Mar, Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca, Avila, Madrid, Segovia and finally Bilbao. Transport and accommodation was more spartan than what we are used to today but O’Brien delights in the convent-like simplicities of the family hotels, the unfailing good manners of the Spaniards and the relaxed cafés during the evening paseo. This book comes into its own on the subjects of Spanish art, architecture and history. The tomb of Sir John Moore at Coruňa is an ugly one we are told. The complex character of Philip II is examined during a pause at El Escorial. We discover that Burgos was the native city of El Cid. After an unpromising start she warms to the architecture and literary traditions of Salamanca and spots the seminarians from the Irish College, nowadays long departed. O’Brien is averse to the Moorish influence in architecture so it is as well she does not venture further south.
Avila occasions a long digression on Saint Teresa, one of her heroines, of whom she wrote a mongograph in 1951. O’Brien thought her a feminist, a communist, ‘spirited and exceptional’, ‘the last great mediaevalist’. Teresa comes across as infinitely more interesting than her namesakes of Calcutta and Lisieux. In Madrid there is an unsurpassable tour of the Prado and a discourse on bullfights of which she was a somewhat apologetic aficionada, admitting to being seduced by its artistry.
Spain was in flames as O’Brien was writing and Madrid itself under threat. Farewell Spain was banned by Franco and the author denied admittance to the country until 1957. O’Brien nails her colours to the mast early on. While fearful of the country ending up as a dull federation of soviets, she is eloquent on the rights of the Republic, its constitution and the ‘Army in Overalls’ then fighting for its existence. She is adamant that Teresa herself would have sided with the Republic. The final chapter is an emotional adíos.
‘Spain seems to me to be the femme fatale among countries. Though many would claim that for lovely France. For me, however, it has been Spain. So true is this that I have hardly seen any other countries. Always I go back over the Pyrenees. My love has been long and slow – lazy and selfish too, but I know that wherever I go henceforward and whatever I see I shall never again be able to love an earthly scene as I have loved the Spanish. Except some bits of Ireland, bits of home. But that is different. Though Ireland is as beautiful as any country on earth, I am native to her, and therefore cannot feel the novel thrill of her attraction. One does not mix up the love one feels for a parent with the infatuations of adult life. And with Spain I am once and for all infatuated. With curious fidelity – for I am fickle’.
Abandon your guide books. This is the book for the traveller in Spain.
12. Home Before Night, Hugh Leonard.
My mother was a fan of Hugh Leonard’s column in the Sunday Independent so I bought this book for her as a Christmas present when it was first published in 1979. By chapter one she was in the grip of one of those paroxysms of laughter which makes speech impossible. She handed me the book. I proceeded to read aloud until I too had to halt. So we continued, taking turns reading aloud, until we had finished the book. What a Christmas of fireside mirth that was.
I heard Hugh Leonard/Jack Keyes Byrne once speak of his foster family in a radio interview. He marvelled that while his parents were fine people, he had nothing in common with them. Perhaps it was this sense of detachment that enabled him to describe the family and their neighbours with such keenly observed and bemused objectivity. He was brought up in Dalkey which was, in the 1930s, a more socially mixed village than it is today. We recognized in the characters and their behaviour exactly the same pattern observable in any Irish village including our own. There was the begrudgery, the pettiness, the rivalries and what journalist Brenda Power calls ‘the hair trigger wrath of the enthusiastically offended’. All this is described in a slightly high flown language which serves to inflate the portraits to something approaching caricature. The account of his Uncle Sonny and his betrothed is a delight,
‘Sonny, who lived at home, courted a laundress named Kate Fortune for more than thirty years and finally married her when the will of God at last prevailed over that of my grandmother. By then the lovers were in their mid-fifties. Kate Fortune was sheep-faced, bony and as tall – above six feet – as Sonny was short. She exuded a perpetual dampness, which I always ascribed to her labours in the Dargle Laundry, and was permitted to cross my grandmother’s threshold only at Christmas. She would sit, dumbly miserable, the heiress presumptive to the cottage and on that account hated, trying to find a hiding place for the marzipan from the home-baked Christmas cake.’
Out after Dark is the second volume of Leonard’s autobiography.
13. Woodbrook, David Thomson.
A few years ago I bumped into a bookish West of Ireland neighbour on the bus. Somehow, in conversation, we discovered we both loved David Thomson’s Woodbrook, published in 1974. A great discussion ensued about that wonderful book the whole way into Abbey Street. Thomson, Scottish d’origine, arrived in Ireland in 1932 to be tutor to young Phoebe Kirkwood, daughter of Major and Mrs Kirkwood of Woodbrook House, Co. Roscommon. Then an Oxford History undergraduate, he eventually took up residence with the Kirkwoods and did not finally leave for another ten years when the estate was up for sale and the family living in Dublin.
Thomson fell in love at once with Phoebe and that pocket of Ireland between Roscommon and Leitrim. His is a voyage of discovery about the family, their origins and the part they played in the history of the region. ‘Everything startled my interest’ he says. Would that all his countrymen could have had his perception. It would have saved us a lot of bother. Enlightenment comes initially through Lecky’s History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century and in an even bigger way through his friendship with the neighbouring Maxwell family who work on the estate. Being a visitor, Thomson gains an entrée into the lives of the locals which deference forbade to the Kirkwoods. The Maxwells too came to Ireland in the seventeenth century but intermarriage and religion meant that only the surname remained to testify to this. ‘…they secretly cherished hatred for the Major, their present landlord and employer whom in day to day relationships they loved – cherished this hatred because of his ancestors and theirs, and because it might help their advancement’. Thomsons research enables him to place the Kirkwoods in not altogether creditable roles during Land War, Famine and back as far as the French landing at Kilala. The Maxwells still possessed a French sword from that era.
Charlie and Ivy Kirkwood are charming people, polite, hopeless with money, artistic. Major Kirkwood enjoys painting. The locals believe this is a result of shell shock during the war. He is given to exclamations such as ‘Dash my buttons’ . They live wildly beyond their means, maintaining a house in London where they spend part of the year until the outbreak of war. They are minor gentry wearing their brave state out of memory. They visit other great houses of the district, the King –Harmons at Rockingham and the Frenchs of French Park.
‘Burke’s Landed Irish Gentry stood next to The Racing Calendar at Woodbrook.’ A Kirkwood horse called ‘Woodbrook’ won the Grand National in 1881. Another, ‘The White Knight’, won the Ascot Gold Cup in 1907 and 1908. This feat saved Woodbrook for another generation. The family live in the vain hope that there will be a repeat of this good fortune.
Thomson records the atmosphere of the fairs in Boyle and Ballyfarnon and the Ballinasloe Horse Fair. However, the most marvellous descriptions in the book are of the idyllic summers with Phoebe, working in the hayfields, riding and boating on the lake and her annual birthday dance. There are many moments reminiscent of Cider With Rosie. Aged sixty Thomson is writing ‘If ever I am in grass country now at haytime, especially when there is an evening mist, I remember my love for Phoebe with intensity’.
David Thomson 1914 – 1988
14. Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens.
In this bi-centenary year and following on Clare Tomalin’s great biography it is fitting to include a Dickens novel on this list.
It is difficult when dipping into anything in the line of Victorian art and letters to avoid the character of Samuel Carter Hall. He it was who, along with his wife, wrote Hall’s Ireland, an account of their travels throughout the country. Born in Geneva Barracks, Co Waterford, of Croppy Boy fame, Hall became a reporter in London and editor of The Art Union, later The Art Journal. He was ubiquitous in art circles and was not backward in putting himself forward. Having read Hall’s Ireland years ago it came as a surprise to discover that Hall was the model for Mr. Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit, the character described by Dickens as ‘soft and oily’. By this circuitous route I arrived at the novel.
There are many memorable characters in Martin Chuzzlewit not least of which is Sarah Gamp, the slatternly nurse. My favourite though is Mark Tapley, the sidekick of our young hero Martin Chuzzlewit. Mark believes in being ‘jolly’ at all times. His is the voice of good cheer. For this reason I do believe he is my favourite character in the whole of literature. No matter what adversity they encounter he buoys Martin up with his exhortation to jollity. During an ill-fated American adventure both Martin and Mark succumb to fever. ” ‘Floored for the present ,sir,’ he said one morning, sinking back upon his bed: ‘but jolly!’ “.
There is an optimistic soul in many of Dickens novels. There is the unputdownable Micawber in David Copperfield. The cheerful chorus in Barnaby Rudge is given to Gyp, Barnaby’s pet raven. There is Sleary, the circus man in Hard Times who tells Mr. Gradgrind ‘People mutht be amuthed, Thquire’. Here is an echo of Shakespeare’s equally cheerful Sit Toby Belch. It may be unfair to say that good cheer is a duty. Not everyone can rise to that but we must spread what cheer we can. The word ‘Dickensian’ suggests all sorts of gloom and we sometimes overlook the resilience of these minor characters. Fittingly, at the end, Mark finds himself proprietor of a tavern called the Jolly Tapley.
15. Vive Moi!, Sean O’Faolain
Sean O’Faolain 1900 – 1991
My copy of Vive Moi! is the 1993 edition, revised at the behest of the author’s daughter, the writer Julia O’Faolain . In an affectionate but frank afterword she addresses him directly. She accuses him of being ‘evasive and a touch untrustworthy’ in the 1963 edition mainly on the subject of his marital infidelities, recognising at the same time that this was to protect her mother Eileen. Some of her own memories of his mistresses are added. Honor Tracy was ‘fat and had no ankles’. Elizabeth Bowen, ‘la Bowen’ to Eileen, is described as someone ‘whose mad father and declining family fortunes drove her to snobbery and fiction’.
O’Faolain brings to life the city of Cork where he was born in 1900. His father was an RIC constable, unflinchingly loyal to King and Union. His mother kept lodgers, artistes performing at the adjacent Opera House. Familiarity with the world of these colourful thespians ignited the life of the imagination for the young Sean. His parents were parsimonious, directing every penny towards the education of their three sons and it is his account of this education which makes this book special for me. His parents saw education as a means to rise in the world and get good jobs. O’Faolain tells us that ‘..in the process of being educated for a purpose [I] began to discover the infinitely superior joys of being educated for no purpose at all’
This early section should be compulsory reading for all Irish media types under the age of fifty who, in the wake of recent church scandals, see the past in terms of black and white. Neither do they seem to have any knowledge of the history of Irish education prior to 1970. O’Faolain’s education was not privileged. His classmates were the poor of Cork and later, in secondary school, the sons of ambitious working and lower middle class parents like his own. His primary school was the Lancasterian School run by the Presentation Brothers and known in Cork as ‘The Lancs’. Conditions were what we would consider unacceptably harsh. There were a few isolated incidents of great cruelty perpetrated on boys by the headmaster ‘Sloppy Dan’. Incredibly, O’Faolain’s memories of the Lancs were those of a childhood idyll. The young brothers who taught there were, in the main, innocent country boys.
‘…in spite of the cold, the dirt, the smells, the poverty and the vermin, we managed to create inside this crumbling old building a lovely happy faery world. And when I say ‘we’ I mean the brothers and ourselves, because those brothers were brothers to us, and I think we sincerely loved them.’
O’Faolain’s secondary school was the brothers’ senior school, ‘The Pres’, still a flourishing Cork institution. The account of life in the Pres assures us that there is nothing new in the world of education. His teachers were as constrained by a rigid curriculum and the demand for results as any teacher today struggling with the consumer student and the points system. Three teachers stand out in this regard. An elderly brother, a classicist known as ‘The Man’, ‘gave us our first glimpse of the world’s possibilities’. Many years later O’Faolain remembered the Man when he found himself beside Lake Pergusa in Sicily ‘where Pluto abducted that air flower Prosperina…..As I stood by the lake I suddenly heard his old, soft voice murmuring in my ear: Terra tribus scopulis vastum procurrit in aequor Trinacris.’
His English teacher ‘Doggy’ Sheehan, recognising O’Faolain as a reader, would invite him to his house which was overflowing with books.
‘Dey’re Congreve’s plays. Some of ‘em are dirty. Read ‘em.’
‘What’s dat you have? Marie Corelli? Very romantic. Don’t let your mudder see you readin’ it.’
There is more than a touch of pathos in his recollection of his French teacher also battling with the pressure of time in order to get things done,
‘He would pause in a French lesson at, say, the word bois to recall with a few fond words Le Bois de Boulogne, or at the word invalides to wave a hand across Ireland towards the Seine and Les Invalides. That was true education.’
Struggling teachers should take heart and remember that bankers and dentists are unlikely to be given such posthumous tributes by their clientèle.
It was his Irish Teacher Padraig O Domhnaill who had the greatest influence on O’Faolain. He it was who introduced him to nationalism of the extreme kind, anathema to both his father and the Man. Sean later joined the Volunteers where he cast himself repeatedly as a romantic Stendhalian hero during both War of Independence and Civil War. There are moments of bemusement on this subject later.
I felt some passing nostalgia when O’Faolain described cycling from Cork to the Gaeltacht of Beal-atha- an Ghaorthaidh where he was to spend the Summer of 1918 learning Irish,
‘I pedalled on past the village, on beside its lake, now appearing, now disappearing past small white cottages, through the village of Beal-atha- an Ghaorthaidh, after which I came on the Lee again, now a mere rocky stream, until I came to the farm and farmhouse, called Tuirín Dubh, where I was to stay.’
He goes on to describe being greeted by Bean Ui Tuama. I realised this must have been the mother-in-law or grand mother-in-law of the Bean Ui Tuama who greeted me in the same house, Tuirín Dubh, in the Summer of 1965.