SEAN O’FAOLAIN AND MY PARENTS
From Guests In My Father’s House
In the late nineteen eigthies, on a beautiful summer’s day, I was walking with my mother on the
Sean O’Faolain had been close to my father in his bachelor days in
His friendship with O’Faolain did not survive the forties. They had been young men together, and the years brought the inevitable disappointments with one another. My father’s anarcho-syndicalism had moderated to preoccupation with electoral reform (Election and Representation, 1945). In The Backward Look (1967), Frank O’Connor recalled him as ‘an atheist and blasphemer of the rowdy kind, who had just seen the light’. That marriage and children had reined in his free spirit has more than an element of truth. He feared for his children’s future in a country now ruled by his former enemies. But he never shirked unpopular polemics. His outspokenness on the ‘conspiracy of silence’ on emigration in the fifties was supported by the facts, but not by the Dail.
At the time Sean O’Faolain called my mother a ‘dark-haired beauty’ he would have been a dandy lady’s man in his late forties. I would have been six and a half and thought her beauty was my secret. Now her hair was crimpled gray, but she still was a stylish presence in a suit that matched her olive complexion. I was proud of her. She made up her mind and crossed back and said to O’Faolain, ‘You won’t remember me’. And he said ‘Mary’. Their exchange of courtesies touched on a confluence of memories. Mutually agreeable, but my mother did not linger. As she bustled me away, he waved. A little regretfully, I thought.
I have a photograph on the wall before me taken in the late forties on Patrick’s Street. My parents and me outside Woolworths. Behind us two men in felt hats and three-piece suits are standing together, talking sagely. Each has an umbrella. One of them is open and the taller man is spinning it. I am looking back. You can see it’s a fine day because there are two young woman in summer frocks cycling on the far side of the road. There are five parked cars, boxed Fords. And another driving adjacent to the women. I am looking back at these details, but I don’t remember them. Only the wedding guests coming out of the
I’m holding the hand of my younger brother Michael, a pretty, forward-looking boy with curly hair and a buttoned-up white shirt. I’m wearing the trousers of my first communion suit, though the jacket has been replaced by a pullover. My shirt collar is sticking out and the crooked tie looks as though I knotted it myself. On the eve of my first communion I slept in the new room. Normally I shared with Michael. I suppose it was to prepare myself for the big day. I recall putting on the suit before bed and looking at myself in the vanity mirror – we didn’t have one in the boys’ room – and thinking, I’ll never be the same again.
My father is fifty years of age, the great mane of whitening hair brushed back to reveal the high forehead. He is not acknowledging the camera. The camera is acknowledging him. His indifference to it tempers high seriousness with humour, knowing he is every inch the thoughtful professor walking out with his young wife and two boys, hands resolutely in his pockets. Her arm brushes his elbow.
My mother is slender in a dark suit of the period, a cravated white blouse, and summer hat tilted so her dark hair, tied back, shows through. She looks directly at the camera, defying it. I recall how she hated being photographed. But today she is submitting to the intrusion. It is the only picture I have of my parents side by side.
I have another photo in which Michael and me are between them. It was taken on the Grand Parade across from Woodford Burns. It must have been the same day, as the clothes have not changed. I’m facing the camera this time and I look a little like my mother. Not something I would have thought for a moment. Michael’s expression is sulky, as though he wanted to be on her side. My father seems dissociated, and might even be about to take off in another direction. Her expression is more relaxed than in the other photo. She is swinging her arm and her regard is confident, knowing for certain that she has got her appearance right. My father’s abstraction may be an awareness that he got it right the first time and that should have been enough.
I like the first picture best. The happy family group walking together, to my father’s mild satisfaction, and my mother’s well-disguised apprehension, Michael’s sure step and me looking back. For a moment we are the guests of the street photographer, and one another. Welcome enough, but in the background there are arrangements to be made. My mother is making them. The camera does not lie.