(from Family Legends, unpublished)
‘Capable Girl’ from Kinsale
My mother had a way with fires. In five minutes, she could have the hearth in the front-room ablaze with blocks of wood, and the chimney too. That called for salt and a newspaper screen to prevent smoking the house. Afterwards she threw on slack, wet crushed coal. While the chimney was on fire, we went out into the garden to watch the sparks fly. Sometimes there were flames like from the Dunlop’s chimney on the way into town. Once, on a picnic, she set fire to a hillside in Roberts Cove with a primus stove and appeased the enraged farmer by helping to put it out. We watched from a safe distance.
I inherited her Promethean touch. In the national school I was tasked to lay and light the fire, and it burnt bright. I had been sent there to toughen me up after the nuns spoiled me as the only boy in the convent school. But since the headmaster, an ex-student of my father, spared me the rod, I was taken away and left to the tender mercies of the Christian Brothers. As a college student, I ‘shared’ my father’s pipes and tobacco, and when the waste paper basket in my room caught fire I was banned from smoking in the house. I took to the wood with my books. In winter I lit a fire and studied a-puffing, sometimes cooking potatoes in the ashes.
My mother dealt with people on my father’s behalf. On holiday in Ballymacus something happened with Jackie Ryan which annoyed him. I think she did not respond to his hallo, or maybe it was about hogging the communal boat. When my mother had a word with Mrs Ryan, she responded with the immortal line, ‘The professor does not enter into my scheme of things’. Bad feeling lingered, and within the family too as my mother blamed my father for making her fall out with a neighbor.
Her people had been living in the Kinsale area for four generation and felt outsiders as they didn’t own land. The O’Neill’s were artisans. In the early 19th century a tanner migrated from the North West of Spain to work in a Huguenot leather factory, married a local girl, and took her name. My mother’s father was a roof-thatcher by trade. But when slating came in, he rented a farmyard to breed turkeys. He died in his forties of heart disease, leaving eight children. The only childhood memory my mother divulged was of coaxing the birds down from the trees with a bean-pole.
While growing up we did not speak of her family. She married without their consent, as my father did not come with land. The only sign that she was in contact with her mother was a live turkey arriving at Christmas. Her family was an absence that was mythologized by hearsay, and chance encounters with people who knew them. Not least Bob O Donoghue of the Cork Examiner, who claimed that the famous romance between the bachelor professor and an eighteen-year old girl ended the Great Depression. On holidays, driving from Minane Bridge to Summer Cove, her silence passing through Nohoval was respected as mourning for her mother, whose funeral she wasn’t allowed to attend.
In the late fifties, Ballymacus was a veritable Hollywood. Jackie Ryan was a child star in The Adventures of Jacqueline. Then there was the Murphy family. One daughter, Moonyeen, had been Virginia Mayo’s secretary. The other, Fidelma, left the Abbey Theatre training school to star in Pat Boone’s film Never Put It in Writing. (1964). The eldest son had been Bulganin and Malenkov’s Russian interpreter on their visit to London. I was half in love with Fidelma but was hopelessly superior when talking to her, not unlike Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot (1959). Two years later my father was dead. And yet I recall how godlike he looked breasting the waves making sure his mane of hair did not get wet. There was ancient oakwood on one side of the creek, and a heather and furze hill in purple and yellow flower on the other. Pheasant would rise up from it unexpectedly.
Bob remarked my mother’s resemblance to Charlie Chaplin’s younger wife, Oona, the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, the playwright: dark, lightly-built beauties with olive skin and crinkly Spanish hair. The Chaplins holidayed near Kinsale, he said. Bob liked to think these two ‘capable girls with complicated, older husbands’ were half-sisters’.
My mother was a doer. When anything electrical had to be fixed she did it herself. I remember the fear of seeing her hanging from the ceiling, changing a light bulb. One dreadful night she fell downstairs over the top landing. She used to climb on the stove to put clothes on the kitchen washing line. It gave rise to an infant chorus, ‘Mammy on the stove!’ (sung to the tune of ‘Brennan on the Moor’). She, though, was not above histrionics when reproved by my father when I broke a violin bow. It rebounded on him, but not me.
Our father in his sad gentle way explained, more as a fact than a judgement, ‘Your mother is a wicked woman’, and she could be. Nobody enjoyed more telling bitterly funny stories about the folly of others. In my middle years, I came to appreciate that letting off homeopathic doses of malice was the antidote to her unfailing courtesy outside the family. It made her such a pleasure to meet that people would tell her things they shouldn’t.
She drove and cooked merely out of necessity. Returning from the country after buying apples for the winter from a farm, she swung in the gate and took a short-cut across the lawn, skidding. Next day mushrooms sprouted on the skid-marks. We had omelets for dinner. And once driving down the steep hill at the far side of Kinsale the brakes snapped and she negotiated the descent by handbrake, using reverse when it got out of control. My mother was a disaster waiting to happen so she could show to advantage.
Getting lecturers to produce questions for exams, and to correct papers, obliged her to track them down. She didn’t mind pestering Denis Gwynn. He lived with an elderly lady novelist called Mrs Rickard in Sunday’s Well. Sometimes he was to be found with the Sackville-Wests in West Cork. That household was something of a witch’s coven, and her good looks did not go unnoticed by the ladies. She told me this with amusement. My mother was not naive, or a prude. As grandchildren began to live their lives differently from what we were brought up to, she was more accepting than our generation.
In later years, her dramatic sense expressed itself in the timing of surprise visits. Once in the early hours of the morning her knock on our door in my Belsize Park Gardens flat in London was a theatrical coup. On impulse she had taken Slattery’s bus and the ferry from Cork. We went to a Brian Friel’s, ‘Philadelphia Here I Come’ in the West End and after the interval sat out the remaining acts in the lobby, talking. My mother said ‘it was better than a play’, and it was. In many ways her life was a play within a play and we children were her best audience.