More than bricks and mortar - seven decades of family fun and love
Packing away the faded coffee tins, forgotten photographs and dog-eared books that litter my grandparents’ old house, something doesn’t feel right. The rooms seem unrecognisably empty, silent and small. For once, my mother and I are the only ones at 146 Seafield Road.
This redbrick house in Clontarf, 120m from Dublin Bay, is where my grandparents raised eight children, in turn yielding another 18 offspring, who have all spent their lives gathering here for wakes, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries.
To probe its back-stories is to hear of Brendan Behan’s father decorating the place, Neil Jordan jamming in the kitchen, singer Clifford T Ward dropping in for some Irish stew, and my grandmother rejecting a Jack B Yeats painting because she wouldn’t have a donkey on the wall.
But those are just anecdotes. The real story is of two teenagers who met in 1936: Moya Henry, a 19-year-old Sligo woman studying maths in UCD, and Séamus O’Brien, a 17-year-old schoolboy from Blackrock
Moya refused to date any man who drank, so a smitten Séamus pledged himself as a Pioneer and vowed never to touch a drop again. He shelved plans for college so he could save up to marry her, working as a travelling salesman for the family’s leather business.
After six years of courtship, Moya looked at every available house from Foxrock to Drumcondra, eventually falling in love with Seafield Road for its view of the sea and the bridge to Bull Island.
They became the first tenants after their honeymoon and remained here through 63 years of marriage (Séamus died in 2005, Moya in 2007).
The house has now been sold after some years on the market and, since memories perish more quickly than buildings, I sought to capture some by speaking to all eight O’Brien children: Anne, Barry, Ken, Derry, Orlaith (my mum), Keelin, Feena and Moya.
They are remarkably different people, so tapping into their collective memory has meant wading into family politics, revelations and regrets.
There have been conflicting tales and dates, welling eyes and catching voices, but enough conferring to ensure any attempt at rewriting the past is quickly exposed.
“Do they admit I kept the family alive?”
“I’m still getting blamed for that?”
“Turn that thing off and I’ll tell you the whole story.”
From the beginning, my grandmother cultivated a social hub where the key was permanently left in the front door.
There was a constant influx of friends, schoolmates, neighbours, churchgoers, pub-crawlers and, in later years, students my grandmother tutored as well as patients from the psychiatric centre she volunteered at.
Then there were the animals: rabbits, a tortoise, hedgehogs, dogs, guinea pigs, a budgie, fish and the odd sick horse.
Privacy was non-existent but the lack of protocol proved disarming. If the person you were after wasn’t in, you could make a cup of tea and root through the fridge.
It was a home where the only rule was that you never told a lie; a home where the only punishment was knowing you’d let your parents down.