Portrait of an Irish marriage

Marriages are complex because people are complex; even the best reflect the human condition’s stark realities

Kitty and Sean: their relationship  taught me that marriage is a far more complex phenomenon than I realised back then

Kitty and Sean: their relationship taught me that marriage is a far more complex phenomenon than I realised back then

 

I first met Kitty and Sean when I was 12 years old, and they were in their early and late sixties respectively. I was with my parents on a pilgrimage from Thurles to the Portuguese shrine of Fátima and we met over Sean’s inordinate fondness for chocolate mousses, which I would spirit away to him from the hotel tables of the less enthusiastic.

It was to be the beginning of a very close friendship which gave me an insight into what it might have been like to have a pair of loving – and very loveable – grandparents (I had never known my own). But it was even more than that; as our friendship developed, I was afforded privileged access to the living out of a marriage other than that of my parents, and this had a profound impact on me afterwards.

In many respects, what I found in Kitty and Sean was a bond forged in complementarity. Gatekeepers at the railway crossing at Bishopswood, Dundrum, Co Tipperary, both lived their lives out of a deep well of Christian faith, but in very distinctive ways. Kitty, for her part, adopted an evangelical approach, eagerly (but gently) sharing with anyone with an openness to listen what her faith meant to her and how it had transformed her life. This urge to speak openly and universally about such matters, even in chance encounters on trains or buses (neither Kitty or Sean ever learned to drive) often ended in the most compelling tales: she once told of meeting a young IRA man on a train to Belfast and leaving him in tears (and with the gift of a rosary beads) upon reaching their destination.

Sean’s faith was of the quieter, less showy, though equally if not more profound variety. Whenever the pair would return from a visit to some shrine or other in Europe, Kitty would invariably be eager to share the wonderful spiritual experiences that they had enjoyed during their stay. By contrast, when anyone would ask Sean about his recent pilgrimage, he would lean back and, in a beautifully ponderous Tipperary accent, begin “I’ll tell you now … it was a really lovely place; there’s no knowin’ the amount of lovely fresh bread rolls that was there in the mornin’, and the sweet jams, and I’d say now they had the loveliest of desserts, and ice cream …”.

“Seanie!”, Kitty would pipe up, “people don’t want to hear about the food; tell them about the lovely shrine and the churches …”, at which point Sean’s face would crease in all-too-well-knowing laughter.

Kitty was clearly the speaker in the house and Sean the more silent, yet deeply thoughtful soul; yin to Kitty’s yang. And yet, in many ways, it was Sean who often made the instant impression on people with his unassuming yet irresistibly friendly and helpful nature. I once saw him surrounded by a flock of Vietnamese nuns, very few of whom had English, nodding his head enthusiastically, smiling and participating in a friendly exchange lasting several minutes.

“I never knew you had Vietnamese, Seanie,” I quipped to him afterwards, and he just smiled, saying “I’ll tell you, they were lovely people”. Because Kitty was clearly the dominant talker in the relationship, Sean often came into his own when he was left to his own conversational devices, and he touched the hearts of many whom Kitty might never have otherwise met; including ourselves.

But, as in all relationships, there were also some small clashes: Kitty didn’t always appreciate Sean’s insistence that he cut her rose bushes right back; until she saw them bloom ever more spectacularly the following year. She also had to sometimes caution Sean against his searing honesty with people on the phone (he once took a call for Kitty while she was engaged in some light grooming in the bathroom and explained to the caller that “Kitty can’t come to the phone right now; she’s inside in the bathroom shaving” without realising why this revelation might not have been considered either necessary or appropriate).

And then there were Sean’s frequent, but hopeless efforts to get a word in edgeways, when Kitty was in full conversational flight. In one memorable incident in a hotel lobby at the end of long day of touring, Sean wanted to retire to his room, but couldn’t break free from the web of chatter. In desperation, he collapsed to the ground, his sizeable fame creating a large and ominous “thud!” “Seanie!”, Kitty exclaimed, fearing he had taken a sudden heart attack. Having returned to their room, Sean explained that he had staged the whole thing, as there seemed to him to be no other way in which he might manage to bring the protracted conversation to a close. Kitty’s anger at having gotten such a fright was only tempered by her huge relief that Sean was healthy and well.

In the close of their years, Kitty and Sean retired from their duties at the railway crossing, and moved into Bishopswood Nursing Home at the end of the country lane where they had lived all their married years. Inseparable in life, they died within a few months of each other, Sean first in October 2003, and Kitty in February 2004.

There is a line in the first letter to the Corinthians which runs: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I set aside childish ways”. The years since I first met Kitty and Sean, and experienced something of their relationship with each other, have taught me that marriage is a far more complex phenomenon than I realised back then. Marriages are complex because people are complex, and even the best and most loving of marriages are threaded through with the stark realities of the human condition. And, having recently edited Marriage and the Irish: a Miscellany, a collection of 80 articles from 75 contributors on the history of marriage in Ireland from the seventh century to the present day, I am even more firmly convinced of this.

Still, when I do think of Sean and Kitty, my mind still wanders back to a scene in our kitchen at home on a summer’s eve: Sean (as was his habit), washing up the dishes after supper, and Kitty drying. The sun is streaming through the window. Kitty, who had a voice like a linnet, spontaneously striking up “Venite all’agile barchetta mia …” to which Sean immediately chimes in chorus, “Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!”

Salvador Ryan is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. His Marriage and the Irish: a Miscellany is published by Wordwell Press.

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