Dean Swift and I

Robert writes:

Our weather has turned grey and damp. Our 5k Covid limited walks to seek inspiration for the posts we write for you every week are less than comfortable, and our photography is suffering. But we are undaunted! Spring is just around the corner (it starts tomorrow, on the first of February – Imbolc – here in Ireland) and we will soon see the emerging wildflowers in our verges. We will notice the days getting longer. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy the stormy prospect from our eyrie:

Roaringwater Bay, January 30 2021. Between the islands the water is always calm but you can see the force of an Atlantic storm stirring things up beyond them

For my post today I’m diving into our archives, but also travelling back in time – in my own life. The topic is an Irish one – and has West Cork connections (you’ll see) – but writer and satirist Jonathan Swift appeared in my view early on, and through a somewhat odd series of events which touch on many things – historical characters, folktales, archaeology, and hauntings. Here is how I came into the company of Dean Swift before I was ten years old!

Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin in 1667: left – in 1682 (when he was fifteen years old) painted by Thomas Pooley; centre – in 1710 (aged 43) by Charles Jervas and right – in 1745 (the year of his death, aged 78) by Rupert Barber (National Portrait Gallery, London)

I was born and brought up in a small country town in southern England – Farnham. A big influence on my young life was my grandmother, Annie – we always called her Granma. But she wasn’t a relation at all: my mother had been orphaned (by the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’) at the age of four, and lived in a children’s home until the age of 16, after which she was fostered by my Granma. In my younger years my mother worked as a shorthand typist. I had no idea, then, what a ‘short hand typist’ was, but I must have formed an image of sorts in my mind. Be that as it may, the consequence was that I spent time with my Granma during my mother’s working hours in school holidays – and, quite often, at weekends.

My Granma – the one picture I have of her, above – was only ever the kindest of ladies. She helped me to learn to read well from the age of four, and embedded in me a huge love of books – and stories. Widowed, she lived alone in 2 Darvill’s Lane, Farnham. And that’s where I have the happiest of my childhood memories. Why? Because it was such a different house from my parents’. It had no electricity, a big black coal range and an outside lavatory – all thoroughly fascinating. The gaslights hissed and spluttered in a friendly way on winter evenings; there were always interesting things sizzling on the range – and blancmange for pudding, and fruit cakes for tea! And, although there wasn’t electricity, there was a large wireless set with a bakelite shell, shiny knobs and a glowing celluloid dial splendidly esconced on its very own table in a corner of the small sitting room. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, although I have no memory of what I might have heard from its gold-meshed speaker as everything seemed obscured and overlayed by intense crackling. A cable descended from the set to a large glass accumulator sitting on the floor beneath. This was similar in size and weight to a car battery today. One of my frequent duties when staying with Granma for an afternoon in the holidays was to help dismantle this accumulator, place it into a wheeled shopping basket and trundle it up into the town where it was exchanged for a freshly charged apparatus of the same design, a task which had to be done weekly (and cost how much? Sixpence…). But, I digress . . . Let’s move on to the subject of this post – Dean Swift: what is his connection with my Granma?

A particularly fine edition of Gulliver’s Travels in two volumes, dating from 1930. A similar one in good condition fetched £6,900 at auction last year. The first edition – also in two volumes – was issued on 28 October 1726, priced at 8 shilings and 6 pence

Gulliver’s Travels was one of the many books I read at my Granma’s house, probably when I was four or five. My version was nothing like the handsome one above: it was the Ladybird Books edition: I wish I still had it. Of course, I now know that practically everything of value historically had been expurgated from this and all other children’s renderings of the book (and plays, films etc) including all the (then) politically outrageous bits and the vividly scatalogical episodes. (If you don’t know these, one of the mildest is Gulliver’s success in putting out a house fire in Lilliput by publicly urinating on it, something for which he was convicted of treason and then sentenced to be blinded!). Nevertheless, at such an innocent age, who would not have been impressed simply by the illustration of a ‘giant’ man tied down to the ground with twine and surrounded by a horde of miniature people?

My world met that of Swift (I never knew him as ‘Dean Swift’ until I came to Ireland) when my Granma and I would walk together out into the countryside. We only ever walked because, in the 1950s, very few people had cars and I had not yet graduated to a bicycle: walking is still, after all, the best way to travel without missing all the details. From Darvill’s Lane we followed a path away from the town which almost immediately became deeply rural. We headed for Moor Park. I was delighted, recently, to find this old postcard of Moor Park Lane which could date from those same days:

With the benefit of Google Maps I have been able to calculate that our walks were around two miles if we only went as far as Moor Park House, but it was much more interesting to go beyond, so sometimes we would have done a round trip of seven or eight miles. ‘Beyond’ there were caves, and a holy well, and the ruins of an old abbey – all of which Granma could tell me stories about. I’m so grateful to my Granma as, today, I can’t resist searching out the likes of caves, holy wells and archaeology, wherever I travel.

An extract from a late 19th century Ordnance Survey map of the country we walked through outside Farnham town, with just a few of the places which I learned ‘stories’ about during my escapades with my Granma!

Moor Park House was always our first port of call. I now know that an early dwelling on this site – known as Compton Hall – dates from 1307, and that this was modified and added to over the generations, most notably by Sir William Temple in the late 17th century. Temple (1628 – 1699) bought the property in the 1680s and renamed it after his own family home in Hertfordshire. He had a career as a noted diplomat under Charles II including, in 1677, helping to arrange the marriage between the King’s niece, Princess Mary and William of Orange: I don’t need to go into their story now. William Temple retired to Farnham and constructed a large formal garden at Moor Park, covering five acres. From 1688 until his death he employed Jonathan Swift as his secretary. My Grandma ensured that I knew about the link between Moor Park and Gulliver’s Travels, and I was impressed! She also told me that the path along which we walked, passing through the gates of Moor Park Lodge, had once been the scene of a great battle when an owner of Moor Park (long after Temple) closed off the right-of-way along that path, or attempted to: I have since learned that it happened in 1897, and a crowd of over a hundred local people armed themselves with cudgels and crowbars and forced the locked gates open. They have been open ever since.

Upper – Moor Park House today and, lower – the gatehouse which was the scene of a battle over rights-of-way in 1897

For over a decade Moor Park house figured large in the life of Jonathan Swift. When first there he became the tutor and mentor to a local girl who lived nearby, and whose mother acted as a companion to Temple’s sister. The local girl was Esther Johnson (1681 – 1728). She was nicknamed ‘Stella’ by Swift. My Granma told me that Stella was a close friend of Jonathan Swift, and that he would visit her by following the path we always took through the estate, ending at ‘Stella’s Cottage’ at the far end. My young brain took all this information in, and I carried with me through the years a picture in my mind of Stella’s Cottage at the end of our path. A postcard I came across recently confirms that picture exactly! Stella remained ‘close’ to Swift for the rest of his life. On his death Temple left her some property in Ireland and she moved there in 1702. There were rumours – never confirmed or denied – that she and Swift had married secretly. She died in 1728, and was buried in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Swift was inconsolable at Stella’s death; when he died he was buried beside her at his own request:

Childhood associations: centre – Sir William Temple on the left (painted by John Closterman – courtesy of Beecroft Art Gallery) and Esther Johnson on the right (artist unknown – Crawford Gallery): she was Jonathan Swift’s ‘close friend’. Lower picture – an old postcard showing ‘Stella Cottage’

On the best days our walks continued beyond the Moor Park estate, and included a visit to two caves – ‘Old Mother Ludlam’s cave’ and ‘Father Foote’s’. These provided great stories, and my Granma’s recounting of those stories has been confirmed through my present day researches, although I prefer them the way she told them, rather than the precise history. Mother Ludlam was a witch, but a good one. She had a cauldron which she would lend to anyone, presumably so they could make their own magic potions. The cauldron can still be seen today, in a nearby church. She lived in her cave, which had (and still has) a stream running through it. Every time we looked into the mouth of the cave – through a locked iron gate – my Granma repeated the same story (which I have never seen written down): when she was a young girl it was decided to find out where the stream that ran out of the cave originated, so a raft of ducks (that’s the correct word for a whole lot of ducks) was taken into the cave and shooed away into the darkness up the stream. Then, presumably, the assembled crowd waited to see if and where they might emerge. They didn’t. Except that – according to my Granma – some considerable time later (days or weeks) one lone duck was found coming out of a small culvert on the River Wey in Guildford ten miles away – minus all its feathers! I could never forget such a rare story.

Here (above) is one of my prized possessions: a 1785 print of Mother Ludlam’s Hole, Surry: I found it in a second-hand bookshop in Farnham very many years ago – I think I paid a shilling for it – and I have kept it ever since, if only to remember my Granma and the stories she told. I later came across this fine print in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It shows that Mother Ludlam had some notoriety:

But you very seldom hear about ‘Father Foote’. In fact, I wondered in later life whether he was a personage which my Granma had thought up to explain a second, smaller cave nearby. But no – because if you look at this 1895 map of the area you will see that ‘Foote’s Cave’ is clearly marked (along with St Mary’s Well), but Mother Ludlam’s isn’t.

So – Granma’s tale: Mother Ludlam and Father Foote lived at the same time close to each other. The second cave is quite high up in the rock face, and rather small. They had a baby, which they kept in the smaller cave, One day the baby rolled out of the cave, down the steep hill and into the river below. That’s the story – I’ll leave you to ponder on it.

Generally, the last port of call on our walks was Waverley Abbey – the very first monastery founded in Britain by the Cistercians, constructed in a meadow beside the River Wey in 1128. That’s what remains of the refectory above (photo courtesy of English Heritage). I don’t remember my Granma telling me any ghost stories – she didn’t go in for those; yet she did always say to me I had to look out for the ‘white monks’ when we went past the old abbey ruins. I was interested to see that Waverley Abbey was used as a film set in 2014 for a Disney film about the story of Rapunzel. Here’s a still from that film:

I did promise you a ‘West Cork connection’ to the subject of this post. Well, Dean Swift visited the south west of Ireland in 1723 and stayed in Castletownshend. Finola, in her post on Belvederes in 2016, tells that he used a tower behind the castle there as his refuge, and in it he wrote a long poem in Latin – Carberiae Rupes – which translates as ‘The Crags of Carbery’. Here’s the tower beside Castletownshend Castle, and a short translated extract from the poem. At the end there’s Finola’s photo of me visiting ‘Swift’s Tower’, and closing the loop that began for me more than seventy years ago.

31st January 2021

Book of Lismore

This is a topical post, as only this week we heard the news that the Book of Lismore has been donated to University College, Cork to become the centrepiece of the library there. It will be accessible to students and will contribute to the knowledge and study of Gaelic manuscripts dating from the 15th century.

When we think of ancient Irish manuscripts we might visualise the Book of Kells, which is on display in Trinity College, Dublin. It’s remarkable to think that the Book of Lismore is over 500 years old, but that the Kells manuscript predates it by 600 years: it was created around 800AD. Here’s a scribe (from Finola’s window by George Walsh) who could be from any of those medieval periods when monks and lay brothers worked away in their scriptoriums making, copying and illuminating beautiful works which have become our most precious historical documents:

The Book of Lismore is written on vellum, and was compiled for Fínghin Mac Carthaigh, Lord of Carbery (1478–1505) and his wife Caitlín. It became known as Leabhar Mhic Cárthaigh Riabhaigh. It is entirely in Irish. What has really excited us is that, in introducing the installation of the book at Cork, UCC Professor of Modern Irish Pádraig Ó Macháin mentioned our own locality:

[The book] belongs to a period of creativity which was centred on the coastline of Cork. It is difficult to imagine those seats of learning and literature today when you look at the remote rural landscapes . . . In Rossbrin Castle – the O’Mahony stronghold – translations, treatise and journals were being made using contemporary European resources: it was a proto-university in pre-urban Ireland, paralleled by the vibrant poetic tradition of the O’Daly family in nearby Mhuintir Bháire [The Sheep’s Head] . . .

Pádraig Ó Macháin, 2020 (paraphrased)

Rossbrin (above) was only one of many castles occupied by the Gaelic nobility along the coastline here in the 15th century and beyond: this ties in with my post of last week when I explored a 1612 map and identified many centres of occupation and scholarship which surely made West Cork so vibrant and cosmopolitan in earlier times. Books are known to have originated here – including the first to be written in Ireland on paper – and some of them survive to this day.

All the page illustrations in this post come from the Book of Lismore. It has a complex history and is likely to be by many hands. One – Aonghus Ó Callanáin – is certainly identified within its pages, and another – a friar named O’Buagachain is suggested. Tradition has it originating from the lost Book of Monasterboice and associates it with Kilbrittain Castle, Cork – reportedly the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland, dating from as early as 1035 and possibly built by the O’Mahonys – but also with the Franciscan Friary at Timoleague.

Upper – Kilbrittain castle in the present day: the original building is a thousand years old. Lower – the Friary at Timoleague, a foundation attributed to the MacCarthys in 1240, and plundered in the 17th century

The book fell into the hands of Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork, during the Irish civil war in June 1642 and ‘vanished’ until its rediscovery in Lismore Castle in 1814. Apparently it was walled up together with the Lismore Crozier. By then the castle was owned by the Cavendishes, Dukes of Devonshire. It is this family that has donated the book to Cork and the nation, through the Chatsworth Settlement Trust.

Upper – Lismore Castle by TS Roberts, Aquatint and etching 1795 print by Samuel Alken. LowerThe Book of Lismore and the Lismore Crozier celebrated in this Celtic Revival stained glass window of St Carthage in Lismore Cathedral. The window is by Watsons of Youghal, and you can read more about them in Finola’s post here

One further thought: today is ‘All Saint’s’ – November 1st. The contents of the Book of Lismore include a section on the lives of the Irish Saints: these lives were translated by Whitley Stokes in 1890 and are available to read online. Finola has used this source in her post about Saint Fanahan, or Fionnchú. We look down on Rossbrin Cove and the ruins of the medieval O’Mahony castle – sometimes described as the greatest centre of learning in Europe! We feel excitement and gratitude that here in West Cork we are linked to this treasure from that age, now in the responsible hands of UCC.

Cork, Part 2: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Like Brian Lalor, the poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin*grew up in Cork in a house alive with art, scholarship and republican ideals, in a city yet to emerge into modernity. As a poet she returns often to the subject of Cork, immersed from childhood, as Brian, in its unique character. She has said . . . there is a poetry, and I include my own, which can only be written out of the sense of the absolute proximity of the real past, and the place which is home, from which history can be seen.

In a poem that begins ‘In the graveyards of the city’ she writes,

Tablets fixed on their boundary walls,
They are shouldered by tall square houses
Chimneys nodding to each other
Over the heads of gesturing
Angels, all back and no sex.

And we instantly see what she describes, although we hadn’t before.

In 2007 the poet and critic Thomas McCarthy wrote in the Irish University Review**:

The Gallery Press book, Cork, was certainly one of the most beautiful local books of 1977. Written to accompany Brian Lalor’s subtle, and sometimes very slight, drawings of Cork, the poems were full of a sunlit magic. The book itself, as an object, was one of Gallery Press’s finest hours. It marked a restoration of dignity to the world of Irish poetry publishing just at the moment when standards of production and presentation had begun to decline everywhere. I remember the display copies of the limited hardback of this book in the old Cork Craftsman’s Guild shop in Patrick Street: how fine it looked, how fitting it was that this volume of poems and drawings was displayed with the best ceramics and wood-cuts of the day. The opening poem is probably as complete an evocation of Cork as will ever get published:

The island, with its hooked
Clamps of bridges holding it down
Its internal spirals
Packed as tight as a ship
With a name in Greek or Russian on its tail
In a lingua franca of water –
And now the river, flat and luminous
At its fullest, images the defences:
Ribbed quays and stacked roofs
Plain warehouse walls as high as churches
Insolent flights of steps
Within are narrow lanes, man high
Flagged and flattened
By the prudent stonecutters, . . .

McCarthy concludes, It is a perfect description, pencil-like and deftly matched to the delicate drawings of Lalor. The latter give Ní Chuilleanáin free rein; they allow her to soar with that light method, the elusive and evocative, and even retiring, loose line.

Eiléan’s Cork of the 1970s is just as convoluted as Brian Lalor’s. In a 2008 essay***  she describes it thus:

There are gestures at consistency. But much of the city is a haphazard succession of buildings dating from a mixture of periods, still following the medieval pattern of streets and laneways, crammed on their island site, churches, markets and houses. On the hills that surrounded the town suburbs grew up: some respectable, terraces with British Army names recalling Wellington and Waterloo, inhabited by the officers from the barracks higher up again; some grim and filthy with names like Brandy Lane, Spudtown, Cat Lane. I still remember the smell of the lanes and tenements, the public houses and their truculent customers, the shadowy shawled women making off down an entry clutching drink or money with equal desperation.

One of her poems seems to translate these thoughts from prose. As McCarthy puts it, Psychologically and socially, Ní Chuilleanáin’s Cork is a complex and evasive place, made concrete only through the most intense observation

Geometry of Guilt, the windows
Broken or always empty;
Daylight sucked in and lost, a bird astray;
The knife edge of the street, blinded
Fronts of houses like a baconslicer
Dropping to infinity, down
Draughty quays and frozen bridges
And the facades are curves of seeping stone
As damp as a scullery
Or a child’s game of windows and doors arranged
Matching the caves of womb and skull

I will finish with another of McCarthy’s astute assessments of Eiléan’s work: Ni Chuilleanain maintains a psychic bridge between two cranky and petulant discourses, Dublin and Cork. Her poems have become that undelivered Golden Box, forever on its way from Cork to the good Dean, a box of poems which, when opened, reveals sunlight, cloisters, avenues, water channels, and sites of ambush.

We are soft-footed and busy as dogs
Disappearing down alleyways,
The faces I meet are warped with meaning.
We turn away from each other,
Our shoulders are smooth as the plaster veils of statues
That are turning their backs in the windows and doors.

As in the previous post, Cork, Part 1: Brian Lalor, all the drawings are by Brian Lalor and reproduced here by permission of the artist.

*Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is pronounced (approximately) Elaine Nee Quillinawn

**‘We Could Be in Any City’: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Cork Author(s): Thomas McCarthy Source: Irish University Review , Spring – Summer, 2007, Vol. 37, No. 1, Edinburgh University Press (Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/25517350

***Home and Places, in Home/Lands, A collection of essays commissioned by the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa to mark the third New Symposium held on the island of Paros, Greece, in May 2008.

Cork, Part 1: Brian Lalor

In 1973 and 1974 the artist and writer, Brian Lalor, made a series of drawings of Cork, his native city. These drawings were published by the Gallery Press in 1977, along with poems by the Cork poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, in a book simply titled Cork. Both poet and artist/writer were already established and both have gone on to forge distinguished careers in Irish art and literature.

Grand Parade

I have owned a copy of this book since 1978 – a birthday gift from my mother. Knowing of my love for the city of Cork, my home for seven years, she mailed it to me in Canada. I have cherished it ever since. The copy she posted to me was signed by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. This year, seated in our living room overlooking Rossbrin Cove, Brian Lalor signed it for me too.

Brian’s drawings of his (and my) beloved Cork capture a city on the edge of modernising. He has graciously given me permission to reproduce some of his drawings in these posts and I will use his own words (from A Note on the Drawings at the end of the book) since they capture so much better than I ever could his fascination with the city and his intentions in recording its idiosyncratic character.

The South Gate Bridge. That couple looks familiar

This collection of drawings developed as a result of a habit of many years, begun in Cork and fostered in Europe and the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, a habit of of never passing a laneway, flight of stairs, courtyard or public building without investigating what secrets it might conceal, what historical or human curiosity might be within. Coming then to Cork in the early seventies and finding it a city reeling from the cataclysm of “urban renewal,” it seemed an appropriate time to attempt a record of the inconsequential details which made up the character of the place, while the opportunity still existed.

Upper: Paradise Place. Lower: Curry’s Rock. Older women still wore the traditional shawl in the early 70s and were known as Shawlies

This is not Cork seen from its public face but from above and behind, not just observed in its principal role as the second city of the Republic but sought out in all its idiosyncrasies and individuality. The monuments of Architecture, memorials to wealth and power, religious fervour and civic pride will not be found here, except when they creep in by accident for, avoiding the European grand manner, they block no vista nor crown a Summit. Rather, they lurk in unexpected places and just spring upon one, owing their location principally to occupying the sites of earlier ecclesiastical foundations. This latter fact is the clue to understanding the city of Cork, the link with the past. For it was in the periods of its earliest habitation that the considerations of commerce, security and the political existences of the time gave rise to what held as the nucleus of the city up to the present day.

 

Cornmarket Street

Cork was never a planned city; it grew organically from the meanderings of the River Lee through the marshlands of the depression between the surrounding hills. Its streets and by-ways follow today those of the middle ages, and the water channels which gave access from the early town to the outer expenses of the river basin. The line which runs from the Episcopal seat of Shandon to that of Saint Finbarr’s was the principal artery of the ancient city of Cork, as it is today nine centuries later. It is around this thread that the drawings are gathered. This line held the centre of all life within the city from its foundation in the tenth century, to the late nineteenth, and even today what is outside this line is peripheral to the soul of the city.

St Patrick’s Quay

Next week, the poetry. . .

William Trevor’s Skibbereen – “The Back of Beyond”

Yellow furniture vans – Nat Ross of Cork – carted your possessions off, through Cork itself, westward through the town that people call “Clonakilty God Help Us”, to Skibbereen, the back of beyond . . .

William Trevor, one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers of short stories and novels, grew up in Skibbereen. His father worked for the Bank of Ireland, and the family was frequently moved to pastures new, but Trevor’s memories of our own West Cork town are amongst his earliest, encompassing his first schooldays and all the traumas of that ‘learning experience’.

Where and when did my writing life begin? I suppose it was in a small schoolroom in Skibbereen when, as an alternative to parsing and analysis, I was occasionally required to compose six sentences on such random subjects as A Wet Afternoon or A Day in the Life of a Dog. I did my best, but even at seven I believe I probably guessed that there was more to words and what you did with them than recording rainfall or reporting that our smooth-haired fox terrier was infatuated by our cat . . .

The way to school? Bridge Street, Skibbereen today. William Trevor’s family lived a mile and a half out of town, so we are not really sure what path his daily journey took

William Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in 1928, and moved to the town before he began to go to school, so he would have known what the Skibbereen of the 1930s looked like. He provides wonderfully descriptive word-pictures of his memories of the time in Excursions in the Real World, autobiographical sketches published in 1993 but now out of print. I have used some of his descriptions from this work and others from various sources – including a 2001 school exam paper – to make a narrative in his own words. I have illustrated this with some of my own present day images of the town, and some historic material. In fact I have as yet found no photographs from 1930s Skibb! But – reading between his lines (and, remember, he was renowned as a storyteller) – we can get a good feel for the place and those times.

A bit too early for William Trevor . . . This photograph of the Square with the Maid of Erin statue was taken in 1912. It has in fact changed very little even in the present day: the statue has been moved backwards but the visible buildings (that’s the Post Office in the background) are recognisable, so this is a good picture of what the writer is likely to have seen

My world at that time was not extensive. There was memory, as far back as it would go, and the modest reality of Skibbereen, which afterwards became memory also. A mile and a half it was, the journey to school, past Driscoll’s sweetshop and Murphy’s Medical Hall, and Power’s drapery, where you could buy oilcloth as well as dresses. Pots of geraniums nestled among chops and ribs in butchers’ windows. A sunburnt poster advertised the arrival of Duffy’s Circus a year ago. Horses trudged slowly, carts laden with a single churn for the creamery. On fair-days, farmers stood stoically by their animals, hoping for the best; there was a smell of whiskey and sawdust and stout . . .

This photo of Main Street was taken before the Maid of Erin statue was moved – and while Skibereen’s main streets were two-way (and also while sign-posts were still in miles)- so it must be pre-1988

In the town’s approximate centre, where four streets meet, a grey woman still stands, a statue of the Maid of Erin. E O’Donovan, undertaker, still sells ice-cream and chocolate. The brass plate of Redmond O’Regan, solicitor, once awkwardly high, is now below eye-level. In the grocers’ shops the big-jawed West Cork women buy bread and sausages and tins of plums, but no longer wear the heavy black cloaks that made them seem like figures from another century. They still speak in the same West Cork lisp, a lingering careful voice, never in a hurry. I ask one if she could tell me the way to a house I half-remember. “Ah, I could tell you grand,” she replies. “It’s dead and buried, sir.”

Extract from the 6″ Ordnance Survey map showing Skibbereen town centre during the first half of the twentieth century. The Station and railway to Baltimore can be seen on the left (it closed in 1961); the Bank of Ireland where Trevor’s father worked is outlined in blue, and Trevor went to a school that was ‘next to the Methodist Church’ – outlined in pink. Note the ‘Urinal’ usefully marked on the map!

You made the journey home again at three, the buying and selling over, the publican’s takings safely banked, the last of the dung sliding to the gutters. If you had money you spent it on liquorice pipes or stuff for making lemonade that was delicious if you ate it as it was. The daughters of Power’s drapery sometimes had money. But they were always far ahead, on bicycles because they were well-to-do. Or their mother drove them home in the Hillman car because of the dung.

Upper – the Maid of Erin statue and the Town Hall clock tower, both familiar elements in the Sklibbereen streetscape, both in William Trevor’s time, and today. Lower – the facade of the Methodist Church still stands, although the building was converted to a restaurant in 2005. Trevor’s school adjoined the church, although we are not sure on which side

The door beside the Methodist church, once green, is purple. The church, small and red-brick, stands behind high iron railings and gates, with gravel in front of it. Beyond the door that used to be green is the dank passage that leads to Miss Willoughby’s schoolroom, where first I learnt that the world is not an easy-going place. Miss Willoughby was stern and young, in love with the cashier from the Provincial Bank. Like the church beside her schoolroom, she was a Methodist and there burnt in her breast an evangelical spirit which stated that we, her pupils, except for her chosen few, must somehow be made less wicked than we were. Her chosen few were angels of a kind, their handwriting blessed, their compositions a gift from God. I was not one of them . . .

Upper – an anonymous building stands at the back of the former Methodist church – a possible site for Miss Willoughby’s school? Lower – the impressively gaunt Bank of Ireland building in Skibbereen – unchanged externally since William’s father worked there. Although we know that his father became a Bank Manager in his career, it probably wasn’t when he was in Skibbereen, otherwise William would have lived with the family in the rooms above the bank. Instead, we know that he walked a mile and a half to school in the town

On the gravel in front of the red-brick church, I vividly recall Miss Willoughby. Terribly, she appears. Severe, and beautiful, she pedals against the wind on her huge black bicycle. ‘Someone laughed during prayers,’ her stern voice accuses, and you feel at once that it was you, although you know it wasn’t. V poor she writes in your headline book when you’ve done your best to reproduce, four times, perfectly, Pride goeth before destruction. As I stand on the gravel, her evangelical eyes seem again to dart over me without pleasure. Once I took the valves out of the tyres of her bicycle. Once I looked in her answer book. ‘Typical,’ her spectre says. ‘Typical, to come prying.’ I am late. I am stupid. I cannot write twenty sentences on A Day in the Life of an Old Shoe, I cannot do simple arithmetic or geography. I am always fighting with Jasper Swanton. I move swiftly on the gravel out on to the street and into the bar of the Eldon Hotel: in spectral form or otherwise, Miss Willoughby will not be there . . .

In Shannon’s grocery there is a man who breeds smooth-haired fox-terriers. He gave us one, a strange animal, infatuated by our cat. The man was tall and thin, and behind the counter now he’s only different because he’s old. Other faces, forgotten and now remembered, are different in that way too. But Barbara, the belle of Miss Willoughby’s schoolroom, eldest daughter of Power’s drapery, is nowhere to be found. She runs a café in the main street, I’d heard, with an exotic African name, where every morning at coffee-time she presides. Perhaps I dreamed it, for the café in the main street has no name at all, and trades mundanely in lunchtime fare of stewed meat and vegetables. I peer through the window, and through the diners seated at chromium-legged tables, but the soft-haired Barbara is not there. No figure stands there as gracious as the Lady of Shallott, no face recalls the nine-year-old beauty of Class III. Can she really be one of those hurrying women with trays? A man consuming turnips wags his head at me. A message in the window says someone has found a purse . . .

William Trevor, photographed by Jerry Bauer, Bauer (1934-2010), often called “the author’s photographer,” made portraits of an endless list of writers

Biographical note – William Trevor died on 20 November 2016, aged 88. His full name was William Trevor Cox, but he always wrote under ‘William Trevor’. Although his first career was as a sculptor he is known only for his considerable literature output: he had published fifteen novels, three novellas and twelve volumes of short stories, and he won numerous awards for his work. He described the Irish family he was born into as ‘lace curtain’ middle class Protestants. He left Ireland in 1954 and spent the rest of his life in England, settling near Crediton in Devon.

With thanks to Philip O’Regan and Skibbereen Heritage Centre for alerting me to William Trevor’s local connections

Illusions fall fast in the narrow streets of Skibbereen, as elsewhere they have fallen . . .

Ethel Mannin, W B Yeats – and Wild Flights

If you read my post last week you will recognise this autumnal view of Rossbrin Castle. I took the photo in November 2017 and looked it out after I watched the magic of a skein of wild geese flying over Nead an Iolair just a few days ago – at the end of August. There’s something wistful about that spectacle – birds coming to winter on our west coasts – and Irish weather lore has to be heeded about these early advents:

It was generally believed that the early arrival of wild geese meant that a prolonged and severe winter was in store. This is a very old belief, as the ninth-century Irish work ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ states that the brent goose usually arrived at the coasts of Erris and Umhall between 15 October and 15 November, and that when it appeared earlier, it brought storms and high winds. Similarly, in Counties Donegal and Galway, when the wild geese arrived, it was a sign that cold and frosty weather was on the way. In Donegal, a sign of an approaching wind was when a goose stuck its neck up into the air and beat its wings against its stomach. Fishermen would watch out for this and if they saw it would not go out, believing that a storm was on the way . . .

(Niall Mac Coitir – Ireland’s Birds: Myths, Legends and Folklore, Collins Press 2015)

Today’s post – while inspired by my sighting of the wild geese – is more connected to swans: these large and graceful birds are a constant down on Rossbrin Cove, and plentiful along our West Cork coastlines. Niall Mac Coitir also has much to say about them:

In Ireland it was generally believed to be very unlucky to kill a swan, and many tales were told of the dire consequences for those who did so. For example, the mysterious death of one of their farm animals often occurred soon afterwards. In County Mayo the whooper swan was never interfered with, on account of a tradition that the souls of virgins, who whilst living had been remarkable for the purity of their lives, were after death enshrined in the form of these birds . . . In Donegal it was believed that swans were people under enchantment, so that bad luck would come to anyone who interfered with them . . .

(Ibid)

We know all about the tradition of people being turned into swans from the legendary Children of Lir – one of whom was Finola: you may remember the stained glass window we have in our house. A few years ago I found the above book in the wonderful Time Traveller’s Bookshop in Skibbereen (which has now transformed itself into the Antiquity Bookshop Café, the first all-vegan Cafe in West Cork: it’s well worth a visit – for books and food!). I was attracted initially by the cover and the illustrations, and then was delighted to find that the first story in the book was all about Finola and is a modern ‘take’ on the Irish legend. I had to buy the book, of course, for our Finola and I immediately thought of ‘The Wild Swans’ when I saw those wild geese. This post results from those wandering encounters.

Another of the illustrations from The Wild Swans – used on the cover: do you see the swans? The second picture above – of the four swans – is also from the book. The illustrator is Alex Jardine, about whom I have been able to find very little, other than he was British, lived from 1913 to 1987, wrote and illustrated books on angling, and designed a number of postage stamps. I was also keen to find out more about the author of this book – Ethel Mannin (shown above next to the book cover) – and initially came across scant information, until I discovered a connection with W B Yeats. Then, by dipping and diving through letters and articles specifically by and about Yeats, I was able to put together some often surprising details on her life.

Above left – Alex Jardine’s illustration for The Wild Swans showing Finola – beautifully detailed and with intriguingly distorted perspective (suitable for a ‘modern’ legend?); above right – for comparison, an illustration from the same period (1950s) of wild geese by prolific British illustrator Charles Tunnicliffe: a scene which looks uncannily like a peninsula from the west coast of Ireland

Ethel Mannin was born in 1900 in London, and died in 1984. None of her writings is in print today and she is now little regarded, yet in her lifetime she wrote and had published well over a hundred volumes, half of which were novels and others which included short stories, children’s books, travel books, autobiographies and works on literature, politics and her contemporary world. On the fly-leaf to The Wild Swans – published in 1952 – is the statement:

Her reputation as a writer is founded on her honesty and unorthodoxy. For some years past she has done most of her writing in retreat in a cottage in the remotest west of Ireland, the country of her ancestors . . .

Mannin traced her family background to the O’Mainnin owners of Melough Castle, Co Galway. In 1940 she settled close to Mannin Bay in Connemara, renting a cottage which she eventually bought in 1945. She spoke at public meetings against the Partition of Ireland – ‘the imperialist problem nearest home’ – and was elected Chairman of the West London Anti-Partition Committee. Her travels included India (where she attended a World Pacifist Conference and tore up her diary en route, throwing it overboard in the Indian Ocean, and found Hinduism repellent ‘with its lingam cult’), Burma, Morocco, Sweden, the Soviet Union, Brittany, where she befriended Cartier-Bresson.

I found more wild swans in this illustration by Charles Tunnicliffe from the 1927 best-seller and Hawthornden Prize winner Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers by nature writer Henry Williamson. Tarka captured the public imagination and has never been out of print, even though Williamson himself became unpopular following his support for Oswald Mosley and fascism

Ethel Mannin met W B Yeats in the 1930s and they became lovers. Their relationship was reported by Brenda Maddox in Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of W B Yeats, Harper Collins 1999:

Ethel Mannin was a rationalist and skeptical, he mystical and credulous. Politics divided them too. She was left-wing, just short of being a Marxist, and had recently returned starry-eyed from the Soviet Union; his leanings were firmly the other way. But that hardly mattered when, as a companion, she was brilliant, fun, and full of the salty talk that Yeats adored. She was not worried about his cultural baggage: “Yeats full of Burgundy and racy reminiscence was Yeats released from the Celtic Twilight and treading the antic hay with abundant zest.”

In 2014, to mark the 75th anniversary of Yeats’ death, Jonathan deBurca Butler wrote in the Irish Independent newspaper an article titled The Many Women of W B Yeats. This is an extract:

In 1934, Yeats, who had been suffering from both sexual and artistic impotence for three years, had a Steinach operation, a type of vasectomy, which was said by its supporters to increase energy and sexual vigour in men. According to Yeats, the procedure worked and he claimed to go through what he called “a second puberty”. Shortly after the operation, Ethel Mannin, a 34-year-old writer and member of the World League for Sexual Reform, was called on to “test the operation’s efficacy”. The test was by all accounts unsuccessful but it showed Yeats was still inclined towards trying his hand. If all else failed he could still arouse his mind . . .

This ‘swans’ illustration is almost exactly contemporary with Ethel Mannin’s The Wild Swans. Robert Gibbings wrote and beautifully illustrated Sweet Cork Of Thee, which was published by J M Dent in 1951

Ethel Mannin married twice, and had one daughter, Jean, after which ‘ . . .she espoused the idea that a masculine mind better suited women writers than motherhood . . . ‘ Apart from W B Yeats she also had an affair with Bertrand Russell. In her later years, Ethel returned to England and lived out her life in Devon – also, incidentally, the home of Henry Williamson. I have been chasing the works of Ethel Mannin, and have succeeded in recently locating some very inexpensive used copies on the internet – including some of her biographical works. Once I have these I may have more to report on her connections with Ireland. Meanwhile, I can only recommend The Wild Swans for its romanticism and imagination – and its seductive illustrations. And, of course, for its connections with Finola!

Because of the Yeats connection, it seems appropriate to quote his poem The Wild Swans at Coole (1916):

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

 

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

 

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?