On a lovely spring morning in 2011, I hiked the cliff path from Ballyconnell to Cloonagh in northwest Sligo to visit Leland Bardwell. The sea pounded the storm-frayed foot of the cliffs on the Atlantic side, while inland Ben Bulben mountain dominated the skyline.
In its sheltered cutting, Leland’s cottage stood so close to the water’s edge the waves barely stopped at her front door. A traditional, three-room fisherfolk’s cottage with a little porch at the front and a scullery at the back, Leland bought the place outright in 1992 for £12,000. “It’s usually the other way around,” she told me at the time. “I borrowed £300 from my children, and the rest was an arts award.”
The seller lived in America. When Leland sent the money, a large, rusted, old-style metal key arrived in the post. No deed of title changed hands. If Leland occupied the house for 14 years, she could apply to have new deeds drawn up in her name. It was the first property she’d ever truly owned. Even at that, she had to live to be 84 before she could rightfully call the cottage her home.
Passing her blue front door, I went around by the gable and ducked under the clothesline, past her book-lined outer office with her piano, the bags of turf for her solid fuel cooker, and her garden next the sea with the caravan for guests and trampoline for grandchildren. The brimming dish of scraps left out for her beloved cat, Joseph, and the back door unlatched, partly open.
”Are you up and about?”
”Up, anyhow,” Leland called back.
Inside, I heard her moving around her bedroom just off the kitchen. I waited by the dresser with its upright plates and row of mismatched cups on hooks. Beside her laptop and the printer that replaced the typewriter on the kitchen table, was a loose pile of poems and bills and foreign correspondence.
Leland’s 2002 published novel, Mother to a Stranger, was to her amazement selling well in translation, especially in Germany. And like her German correspondents, I loved Mother to a Stranger for the way it pulled the reader straight into the action when a solicitor’s letter arrives to inform its central character, Nan, that a young man claiming to be the son she gave up for adoption is anxious to meet her.
Then, in a case of life imitating fiction, Leland herself had heard from the son she gave up for adoption in wartime Britain. Shortly before the two could meet, however, she suffered a blinding headache. When she eventually surrendered to medical treatment the scans revealed she had suffered a stroke.
Discharged from the hospital, Leland made a personal inventory and found she could still speak French, play the piano and drive. But she could no longer read nor decipher her own words moments after committing them to paper. The Greek name for this bizarre condition was alexia sine agrafia: the ability to write but not read.
To regain the comprehension she’d lost, Leland spent hours at her kitchen table where she’d written her poems and novels, retracing the letters of the alphabet with a pencil in a school child’s exercise copybook. Then a medical report was issued to say her eyesight was impaired, which meant she could no longer renew her driving licence. She raged against the doctor who put her off the road, a man of course, whose report she called, “Six pages of pure spite”. I found a single paragraph saying the stroke had damaged her optic nerve.
It was not just being unable to drive to the shops that frustrated Leland; in truth she couldn’t give a damn how the groceries got to her table. What she missed was the freedom to sit into her metallic gold Renault Clio and go for a drive alone at a time of her own choosing.
Sturdy genes, her combative nature, and pure determination helped her reassert her independence and regain her forthrightness. When I took her for a drive along the rebranded Wild Atlantic Way while she convalesced, we stopped to give some Spanish tourists directions. One of their number remarked, “Ireland is a beautiful country”.
“So we’re told,” said Leland.
In the kitchen now, I looked at my feet and spotted a tiny blue tablet – her warfarin? – in a gap between the floorboards. Her radio sounded slightly out of tune. It was a cause of consternation and confoundment, I knew, when Leland meant to adjust the volume and changed the tuning by mistake. I turned the knob a fraction before she appeared; my intentions were good, but she wouldn’t appreciate me meddling.
At the edge of her table a big adjustable spanner rested on a sheaf of newspaper. I turned around and lifted the lid of a large stockpot on the stove and found a hulking boiled-red lobster. The spanner on the table presumably intended to bash open the luckless crustacean.
“Where did you get the lobster?”
“Somebody left it on my doorstep,” Leland said from the depths of her bedroom.
I transferred the lobster onto a plate to bring it to the fridge in the scullery that held a mini-yogurt carton and the last crumbs of Madeira cake.
“Did your home help come this morning?”
“The one who calls to see if I’m dead?”
“The one meant to see you’ve had breakfast.”
“It’s all rather awkward, actually,” Leland said, her steady gaze on me when she entered the kitchen. “She kept moving things around on me, and got into a terrible tizz when I told her stop.”
Leland would’ve been the one in the terrible tizz if her belongings got moved for dusting, but I passed no remarks. She was big on kindness, but short on tolerance. Only people who knew her understood that Leland’s apparent ferocity masked her profound, lifelong shyness. The unencouraged child who’d buried her head in books to escape the belief, heartlessly engrained in her by her mother, that she was ungainly, unbeautiful, unloved.
And yet Leland kept a painting by her mother on her kitchen wall, a pleasant pastoral scene in that palate of taupe and grey typical of the period. Her mother’s people, the Collises, had worked for generations as stolidly respectable doctors, lawyers and Church of Ireland Ministers. And the artists were really on her father Pat Hone’s side, who grew up in Leeson Street in Dublin, and whose lineage included the painters Nathaniel Hone the elder and the younger, the stained-glass artist Evie Hone and Joseph Hone, an early biographer of WB Yeats.
After serving in the first World War, and working as an engineer on the railroads in India, Pat Hone had returned to Ireland and bought the big Georgian house on Captain’s Hill in Leixlip in Co Kildare where Leland grew up. A Big Irish House of the leaky roof kind. Rainwater running down the inside walls. Leland was at pains to point out she never considered herself Anglo-Irish, even though she had the accent, the turn of phrase, the love of horses, and always invited her friends round for what she called “supper”. She also wrote at length about being a woman and Protestant in Ireland after independence.
With the kettle on, we pulled our chairs up to Leland’s kitchen table. Her 1987 short story collection, Different Kinds of Love, had been reissued. And I’d had a call from her the night before to tell me she’d won the Turkish PEN organisation’s Dede Korkut Short Story Award. Could I help her write an acceptance speech on the blasted new computer?
Having battled marginalisation the whole of her life Leland was, at the age of 89, garnering the attention of the literary gate-keepers who’d consistently excluded her work over decades from the canonical anthologies of Irish writing. True, her work had always been hard to pigeonhole. Feminist without the manifesto, Leland’s writing relied on intuitive leaps, and she identified most closely with the Russians; her beloved Russians: the feverish and digressive Dostoyevsky, the incomparable Chekhov, the sufferings of Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva and their gulag credentials. At her most self-dramatic, the Russians spoke to Leland’s soul.
We worked until we had a serviceable draft; the gist of which said there was a general feeling that all Celtic peoples were the same, but we Irish were in fact proud of our individuality and didn’t want to be “Of the one tribe”. As Leland saw it, we had ended up living on the edges of society “as though we had invited the stronger, more practical and therefore more powerful to brush us away”. Which made us quick thinkers, she said, “drawn to the quicker art-form of the short story”. In this we were like children at the circus, “pushing our way to the front” through a crowd that wanted rid of us.
When a news bulletin replaced the classical music on her radio, I suggested we take a break. I opened the knapsack I’d brought and produced a packed lunch. Leland clapped her hands delightedly, and treated my forward thinking – that we might need to eat – as an act of genius.
At the end of the day I found it hard to say farewell. Before I left I made certain her fire was banked up with fuel from the shed, and the boiled lobster’s hard protective shell peeled away, its sweet and tender innards plated for supper. The speech got a further polish, and I read back the results. Leland listened attentively, paused and said, “I’m losing words – and I’ve always loved words.”
Brian Leyden is a Sligo-based writer and director of Lepus Print. My Name Suspended in the Air: Leland Bardwell at 100, ed. Libby Hart (Lepus Print), will be launched in the Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo at 2pm on Sunday , February 27th at a live event to mark the centenary of the birth of the poet, novelist and playwright, who died on June 28th, 2016.