Cork Airport, early 1970s, waiting to board a plane. Also waiting is a handsome, rather stern-looking woman, who stammers slightly (like myself) when she inquires about the delay. Could this be Elizabeth Bowen, from Bowenscourt in north Cork, and should I greet her as an admirer? Or venture that her old friend Sean O'Faolain was a mentor of mine, which might have influenced my decision to teach at University College Cork? Perhaps better not (for reasons this memoir might explain), but in any case, the flight is called . . .
It is intriguing to read the autobiography of another writer nearly the same generation as oneself. Julia (or Julie) O’Faolain went to the same university as me, and then careered through France and Italy, in pursuit of life, love and literature. What will she say about old so-and-so, I am bound to wonder, and will X or Y get his (or her) comeuppance? And (with bated breath) what will she write about oneself?
Julia was born not in Ireland but in London, where her father was teaching at Strawberry Hill training college. (And she lives there now, so that while Seán O’Faolain finishes his autobiography by describing himself as impaled on one green corner of the universe, his daughter has achieved a cosmopolitan London life with easy access to Paris via the Eurostar.)
When her family returned to Ireland in 1933 they were quickly "impaled", with Seán's first book, Midsummer Night Madness , banned, as well as his mournful Cork novel, Bird Alone . The atmosphere in Ireland had darkened; while Seán's adoring first book on de Valera extols him as "tall as a spear, commanding, enigmatic", the second deplores his influence, which has led to "the inhuman treatment of unmarried mothers . . . the unimaginative control of juvenile houses of detention . . . stupid censorship . . . the fanatical ways in which such innocent amusements as dancing . . . are controlled".
No wonder the O'Faolains became pariahs, and no wonder Seán's wife, Eileen, saved the family bacon with her fairy tales, such as The Little Black Hen , which were almost as popular as Patricia Lynch's The Turfcutter's Donkey . These stories are charming, but their popularity at a time when adult books were being suppressed was a bit disturbing, as if southern Ireland wished to be lulled to sleep.
The evocation of Julia’s University College Dublin years, at Earlsfort Terrace, is lacking in drama, perhaps because she was commuting: the societies where the young strutted their stuff, such as the L&H or the Eng Lit, conducted their meetings after she had returned to her parents’ home, in beautiful Killiney. This also meant that she could not attend the hops, at 86 St Stephen’s Green in the cold months and Belfield in summer, where young members of Ireland’s Catholic middle class learned to cavort. But on the other hand she did have the landscape of Ireland’s Sorrento, about which she writes an almost prose poem: “lush, woodsy, part of the old Pale . . . redolent of empire and Mediterranean trips . . . and, in our own case, the semi-Anglicised Knockaderry, which, in the original Gaelic, meant ‘the hill of the oakwood’, in memory of an earlier house where Seán had holidayed as a boy . . . White Rock Beach, where the cliffs gleamed with mica, and the sand was finer than caster sugar.”
As an eager 21-year-old acolyte I was privileged to be invited by Seán to Knockaderry, which struck me as an ideal writer’s home, with light pouring through its many windows, and books everywhere. And with a rifle in the corner, a relic from Seán’s IRA days, which he used now to shoot rabbits.
As the daughter of the leading Irish intellectual of his time, Julia had access to even the wilder slopes of Dublin bohemia, where one had to be the fastest tongue alive and where some of that legendary sharpness survives. This volume includes an anecdote about an older contemporary and his future wife in which no one comes out well, including the author, whose first novel, Godded and Codded , was withdrawn for such acidity. And I think she is wrong about "Marmalade", the painter Patrick Swift's redheaded girlfriend and muse.
Claire MacAllister's problem was not that she was a sexpot but that she was an upper-class American girl (her father, a judge, had fought in the Lafayette Escadrilles in the first World War) who had stumbled into an impoverished and repressed Dublin. A modern-day Daisy Miller, she could not have been prepared for the onslaughts she was subjected to by the sex-and-money-hungry habitues of McDaids. (There is a beautiful letter of Patrick Kavanagh, praising the virtues of physical love and reproaching her for not responding to his advances.) She was also a fledgling poet and very earnest, but Julia has Claire shouting like a coarse-tongued bawd. I can only think that the booze-drenched confusions of the 1950s addled everyone's judgment.
The underlying theme in the middle chapters is the search for love, coming from an island where love was almost banned. So Julia sought it abroad, an unusual move despite the fact that plucky UCD girls were beginning to take positions as air hostesses and sharing flats in Paris, while, later on, Maura Boylan and Adrienne Ring would become international models. Julia's is a complementary (though more middle-class) account of the struggle for love and an independent life than that of her near-contemporary Edna O'Brien, who did not attend university but flourished through her considerable gift and determination. But of course, before Julia and Edna, there was the brave career of Kate O'Brien, who travelled as a governess to Spain. In any case, while serving tea on Aer Lingus flights or modelling at Balmain may seem retrograde occupations for university graduates nowadays, they were two of the only ways for Irish women of Julia's generation to break out of their fogbound island and explore the wider world.
As well as love, there was contemporary literature, much of which was banned in Ireland. Ignazio Silone's wife was Irish, and, through her, Julia became friendly with the famous writer and counterspy. In France, as in Italy, it was prose that interested her, especially the Catholic novelists, such as Mauriac and the darker Bernanos. (But I wish she had pursued her fascination with Antonin Artaud, whose pilgrimage to Dublin and the Arans is a mysterious story.) And perhaps the notion of memoir is a French import, with its suggestion of trespassing, like Cocteau's hint that the young Mauriac had been of ambiguous sexuality.
So, in this confessional mode, Julia discusses her father’s two main love affairs, the first with Elizabeth Bowen and the second with the tough-minded writer Honor Tracy, who cut a swathe through Ireland with her journalistic exposés, while earning the cruel immortality of Kavanagh’s description: “a female replica of Cromwell’s face”.
But is there not an element of the incestuous in a daughter discussing her father's love life? In some weird way, Seán seems to have won the day with his last novel, And Again? , published when he was 80, in which the gods of Mount Olympus offer to let the main character "grow younger instead of older, forget his past, enjoy successive erotic adventures with his daughter, his grand- then great- granddaughter". Julia acknowledges that her father's "notion of serial incest came uncomfortably close to revealing wanton impulses which, though fictional, were recognisably his".
There is admirable candour in this statement, but one might wish (especially in a book called Trespassers ) that she had written in even greater depth of how she managed, throughout her distinguished life, to overcome her father's perhaps unconscious encroachments on her autonomy.
Nevertheless, her valour in the face of paternal trespassing is often made plain, especially her compassionate account of Seán’s luridly Oedipal demand that she forsake her Parisian boyfriend and return home to save her parents’ ailing marriage. And her father writing to Harvard to investigate his future son-in-law was a bit much, but Julia handles this with typical grace.
The pages on the dotage of her father are painful to read. The subject has already been raised in Maurice Harmon’s biography, but it is particularly poignant coming from a daughter. After his wife died, “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 . . . to rage like Lear at the human condition and shock the neighbours”.
This is a brave book, full of rueful good humour and sharp insight, as when we learn that Seán, perhaps the boldest of this memoir’s “trespassers”, liked to rummage through ladies’ handbags at parties. I regret only the absence of an index and of photographs of her elders, such as Seán, her mother, her brother and son, Silone and Frank O’Connor, along with her husband, Lauro, her contemporaries and, of course, Julia herself.
John Montague's New Collected Poems (Gallery Press)appeared last year.