Sean O’Faolain’s other women
An extract from Julia O’Faolain’s memoir ‘Trespassers’
Sean O'Faolain photographed on his 90th Birthday in February 1990.Photograph: Peter Thursfield
Here is a quote from one of Éamon de Valera’s more remarkable radio broadcasts, delivered in 1933. “The Irish genius has always stressed spiritual values . . . That is the characteristic that fits the Irish people in a special manner for the task of helping to save western civilisation.”
Being a year old when that claim was made, I knew nothing of the risk that saving the West might become part of a fascist agenda – as it might have that same year, when Irish citizens, enticed by the Blueshirt movement, were flirting with fascist plans. Luckily, these foundered when Gen O’Duffy, the potential Führer, lost his nerve.
A more tenacious spectre, however, was haunting our young Free State. When hopes of achieving a pious, all-Ireland republic foundered, hypocrisy – “the tribute vice pays to virtue” – grew exponentially. Coercion ensured that our population would at least seem to be amassing enough prayer power to help save the West – and that my age group would grow up in an age of pretence.
So how trust anyone’s memories?
I have been rereading Sean O’Faolain’s defiantly named memoir, Vive Modi , which he rewrote towards the end of his life. To spare my mother’s feelings, an edition published in the 1960s had made no mention of his love affairs.
Later, though, when he sensed love and identity slip away, he wrote an expanded version for publication after his death. This one too, though, missed completeness, not just through the paradox of that planned posthumous gasconade but also because, while wistfully reliving old loves, it failed to consider how they had affected my mother, or how best he and she might, in the time left to them, manage their mutual unhappiness. Instead, as his narrative advanced, her image receded – rather like those of the old comrades who vanished from group portraits in Stalin’s Russia.
She was stoical, as women of her generation often had to be. Her health, perhaps because of this, broke down, and Sean, who, it now turned out, both needed and was exasperated by her, lived with her until 1988, when she died. Then he fell apart, got dementia, lusted impotently after a youngish woman who encouraged him so rashly that he lost his bearings, fought with his housekeeper, ran into the street inadequately clad – some said not clad at all – to rage like Lear at the human condition and shock the neighbours who wrote to tell me this.
When I flew back from California, where I had been living, they invited me to tea so that I might be warned against the dangerous woman and hear how effectively they had concealed Sean’s sad antics from the editor of a national newspaper who lived on the same street. They were proud of having preserved decorum by keeping the incident out of the press. Virtue’s tribute had yet again been paid, and I, for once, was glad of this, because, although Sean had fought hard against the wretched Censorship of Publications Act and other petty curbs, he also, when in his right mind, cared as much as anyone about privacy.
Which is why, when I was growing up, I knew none of his secrets. These emerged piecemeal, sometimes indecorously and, as often as not, confusingly, as secrets tend to do.
Confusing moments, as it happens, can be the ones that stay with you.
Rue de Montpensier in Paris runs along the side of the Palais Royal garden, a place pulsing with memories of intriguing ghosts. The memory that comes to me, however, when I find myself there, focuses on Sean. It is of a baffled moment when he and I came out of one of its restaurants, and, having lunched too well and probably drunk a little too much, and being dazzled by sudden sunlight, I took a while to notice that he was weeping.
This must have been in the autumn of 1953, so Sean, who shared the century’s age, was also 53. He was embarrassed and apologetic, so I refrained from asking what was wrong.
I was shaken, though, for, being socially backward like most of my compatriots, I had always relied on him to be worldly and in control. He had been my mentor when it came to affairs of the heart, and, thinking back, I see that I must have known more about his than I let myself know I knew, though I remember guessing that his tears had to do with a woman.
With hindsight, his marriage to my mother strikes me as providing a small but telling illustration of how people in de Valera’s Ireland felt obliged to live. As was true of large parts of that society itself, disappointed idealism and a soured personal experience of its quarrelsome and rebelly past contributed to the glue that held them together. When Eileen died, it was 70 years since she and Sean had first met, as 18-year-old enthusiasts in a Gaelic class in Cork city. Ironically, in those days, de Valera was soon to become one of their heroes.
Did Sean ever let himself see how badly and often he hurt her? I’m not sure. Did I? Of course I did, but when their estrangement was at its worst, I was living abroad and trying to stretch the postgraduate scholarships that were enabling me to spend as many years as I could at the universities of Rome and Paris. So I limited my trips home, and, when I did make one, I felt unable to help, except once, about two years after the scene on Rue de Montpensier. By then I was entangled in my first serious love affair, which Sean manoeuvred me into ending by claiming that Eileen had threatened to leave him unless he got me to leave my lover, a French, north African, Jewish, communist activist, scandalously unsuitable in the eyes of the Ireland of the day.